Now that the Perth dust has settled on PUBLIC 2015, the second of a proposed three annual public art festivals instigated by not-for-profit arts advocacy body FORM, it’s a useful moment to examine the project beyond its initial buzz. FORM is built on the foundation of Craft West, Western Australia’s peak craft and design body, but it has been re-styled as an advocate for a more nebulous ‘creativity’, covering placemaking, public art consultancy, management of aboriginal culture and heritage, philanthropic development and the promotion of creativity “as a catalyst for generating public good.” PUBLIC sees artists deployed across the CBD, inner-suburbs and Fremantle to create building-sized murals, accompanied by a regional program and this year, a two day symposium “exploring the value of creativity in building dynamic places”.
The scale and ambition of the project are impressive. PUBLIC 2015 featured over 50 artists working on 42 walls and various gallery-based projects, including a salon-style exhibition that added another 100 or so ‘creatives engaged’ to FORM’s annual report. Of the core 50-ish artists, 14 were international street-art draw-cards and over two thirds were local, although the local artists mostly painted smaller, less prominent walls. Twelve artists were invited for a second year running, having contributed work to 2014’s similarly scaled pilot.
There are other, less well-funded and publicised projects in Perth working towards similar ends of placemaking and boosting creative capital. Spacemarket’s twin projects, Moana Chambers and MANY 6160, are supported by the councils of Perth and Fremantle respectively. Moana Chambers is approaching three years of operation, housing on the second floor of a long-empty CBD heritage building an artist-run initiative, a café, co-working spaces and artist studios. MANY 6160 has occupied a vacant department store in central Fremantle since October 2013, offering an epic floor of central retail space for local boutiques, designers and craftspeople and an enormous ‘production floor’ for ambitious, large-scale projects. MANY 6160 knows its time is limited, but in the meantime it stimulates commerce, propping up what would otherwise be a depressed area, and it also produces ongoing opportunity, things to do – a community. Earlier this year, PUBLIC 2015 also sought to activate this site. They painted a buffalo on it.
It is undeniable that FORM, and PUBLIC with it, is effective in raising the profile of the creative industries in Perth – an important task in a city often maligned for its lack of cultural foresight. It has produced immense curiosity and extensive Instagramming, with images of FORM’s commissions fast working their way into promotions for the city and other Western Australian products. Both editions of PUBLIC have included an admirable breadth of local arts practice, and much of the work it produces is world-class in its field. It’s worth noting, however, that although Indigenous heritage is a key part of FORM’s outlook and diversity a central PUBLIC mission, no Indigenous artists participated in the mural drive. Artworks from a selection of North West art centres were included in pop-up exhibition, Power of Place. This seems like an odd oversight at best, a division and relegation at worst.
Certain of PUBLIC’s philosophies – particularly that a city will become more liveable and creative in proportion to the density of monumental illustrations – are yet to be convincingly demonstrated, and the rhetoric of ‘creativity’ as cultural capital is as critiqued as much as it’s celebrated. FORM’s use of the word ‘creativity’ is under heavy thrall to Richard Florida’s iconic book of 2002, The rise of the creative class. Florida described a new “dominant class” producing the meaningful innovation that would drive the new economies of the 21st century. To succeed in this ‘post-industrial’ era, cities and companies would need to attract and nurture creativity. PUBLIC follows the logic that cities with a vibrant street culture producing large-scale murals are cities that people want to visit and live in, so their success should be replicable by commissioning similar murals at home. This strategy sees the product as the source of vibrancy rather than the culture that surrounds it, predicting that simple exposure to this beautification will inspire the populace to an increase in creative thinking, community building, personal wellbeing and economic stimulation.
Superficially, it works: the role of the arts in the gentrification of neighbourhoods is well documented. Traditionally, creatives move into low socio-economic areas, attracted by diversity and affordability. They are closely followed by creative industries, which capture the interest of a mainstream audience and produce economic stimulus for everybody except the original inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Perth is already an expensive city to live in sans gentrification, but what is especially interesting about PUBLIC is that it attempts to use art to leapfrog gentrification altogether, spending a considerable sum to produce a veneer of creativity pitched at a mainstream and tourist audience. Furthermore, much PUBLIC activity in Perth occurs in areas either already popular because of perceived creativity and diversity, or where creatives – particularly artists – have either been or are becoming priced out of the real-estate market.
Ironically – as FORM’s principal partner is BHP Billiton and it is sponsored by the Federal and State Governments – the key takeaway from the $684-per-ticket PUBLIC symposium seemed to be that the future of meaningful public space lies with the communities that use it, rather than intervention by government and neoliberal market forces. In FORM’s 2014 Annual Report curator Elisha Buttler’s prose essay describes PUBLIC as though it is manifest destiny: “This city. Cloudless and awash with light. Wide streets. Candescent melon sunsets… And then there’s the art. It is riotous in colour, its scale. The art here blooms like nightshade. The nature of the art growing here is partly due the nature of this city itself, this wide city.” It is not. Further on, the document describes how a run-down car park’s “heavily graffitied walls” were transformed by FORM’s collective of local, national and international artists into a “gallery of urban art”. This too-easy conflation of blue-sky corporate rhetoric, state-sanctioned social engineering and grassroots action – and an unwillingness to analyse the distinction – makes PUBLIC’s sugary medicine a little difficult to swallow.
But the lofty rhetoric is understandable in context. Investment in the arts, particularly by the State Government, has remained low throughout the decade-long mining boom and is hardly likely to increase given the impending state budget disaster, despite evidence of the economic benefit. Here, bigger and bolder works better as a demonstration model. Aggregated hashtags and gushing publicity prove immediate and measurable reach that is perhaps more useful in securing ongoing support than the less quantifiable benefits of long-term strategic investment and planning. However, if ‘activation’ is the goal, it’s worth considering how spaces are used and by who, as well as how they look. There are less glamorous means of ‘place activation’, like the relaxation of laws and red tape around licensing and the occupation of long-vacant real estate, which allow artists to participate in their cities and neighbourhoods on a more long-term and sustainable basis. Aesthetically inspirational exteriors are fine, but they also need to be grounded in the right cultural infrastructure. Surely a ‘vibrant’ city needs artists to be able to keep living and working in it. Otherwise, all we’ll have is the façade.