How might we begin to count the ways to be public? How do we categorize the different experiences and encounters of the dynamic connections between individual subjectivity and transitory collectivity that characterize the shifting dimensions of the public realm? To be public is to exist within flexible, frequently concurrent skeins of scales and conventions that are often intimate and detailed, on the one hand, and vast and swarm-like, on the other. Each one of us lives—and continually interprets and reinterprets our roles—within these shifting configurations and scales of public. In the essay “Practices of Space,” Michel de Certeau explores the totalizing view and more granular impressions of human activity, the “above” and the “down,” of urban scopic experiences. He begins his text at the top of the World Trade Center and beholds the oceanic expanse of New York City. It is an empowering, panoramic view—at once comprehensive yet devoid of details, textures, or vagaries to arrest one’s vision. If not entirely featureless, its awesome scope is largely characterless: “One’s body is no longer criss-crossed by the streets that bind and re-bind it…” If the World Trade Center now only exists as a phantom of loss and trauma, the idea of a panoptic observation deck, with its prospect of sweeping oversight, remains a captivating seduction.
de Certeau also descends into the city’s streets, where his text becomes as dynamic and textured, wavering and surging, as the people whom he passes and observes. At this more intimate, immediate, and intensive scale, people negotiate the city with their bodies, planned routes, and spontaneous digressions to create a strikingly different textuality of the city—and its publics and spaces. If the panoramic overlook offers epic descriptive moments, the activity on the streets, with its optimistic, ungovernable tactical potential, offers vivid, embodied inscriptive representations of the city. The walking and writing of the city is endlessly unpredictable and predictably endless. The experiences of scales and scopic conventions of public life that de Certeau describes, and we routinely participate in and witness, are just as urgent today; and artists, who work in the public sphere, are compelled to embrace or acknowledge these contrasting realities.
Her secret is patience, 2009.
Painted galvanized steel and cables, recyclable high-tenacity polyester braided twine netting, and colored lighting with computerized programming, 145 x 100 ft. Work installed in Phoenix, AZ.
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