Published in Contempo Magazine, Museum of Contemporary Art, upon the inauguration of the museum’s new facilities.
The Puerto Rico Public Art Project originated in San Juan, when Governor Sila María Calderón was the city’s mayor. At the time the competition was announced exclusively for the municipality of San Juan. Now the scope of the project has extended to the entire island, with an investment of twenty-five million dollars for the installation of approximately 100 works of art. The goal of this project, a program of the Urbanism Directorate, is to promote the revitalization of our public spaces, transforming them into places of pleasure and leisure, social coexistence and communication. Opportunities for resignifying public spaces are created, by joining ongoing urban revitalization initiatives or by making them possible through art.
The project’s premise is that Public Art is conceived to create spaces where desire may operate at different levels. In that sense, our objective is to create spaces for social exchange, and bring new life to the urban and extra-urban fabric and attendant social relations.
Of course, many issues are involved in projects like this, particularly the implications and complications between the public and the private, which give rise to tensions and destabilizing approaches, and questions the limits of what art in Puerto Rico is and has been. Art in public spaces is an open proposition; it does not seek to be invisible. It may be discreet, as Los pasos perdidos (The Lost Steps), by Julio Suárez at the Antonia Quiñones Park in El Condado, or it may shout out loud “here I am”, like Imel Sierra’s La paloma (The Pidgeon). But as opposed to art in galleries and museums, public art does not choose its audience. It asks all of us to be its spectators, either in a children's playground, while waiting for the bus or at the urban train stations. The competition announcement for this project included a large number of aesthetic areas, ranging from murals or sculptures for the Urban Train to Urban Centers, Urban Festivals, Functional Art and Community Workshops. A plurality of subjects and sites for which artists had the opportunity of formulating proposals to address the subjects and the physical and conceptual sites.
Places could be suggested by the project or by the artist, opening multiple points of view. Considering the idiosyncrasy of Puerto Ricans, this openness promotes a dialogue that evades the traps of nostalgia and paternalism, or the urge to produce a third-world response to first- world expectations, or, worse yet, the homogenization of identity.
As a way to avoid homogeneous gazes and discourses in reference to art in Puerto Rico, this project, expanding the San Juan project, included invitation to international artists to participate in those aesthetic areas where no proposals were received. The local environment is enriched by the gaze of foreign artist moving about the city, unraveling signs that for us are evident, and hence remain unperceived. In this way, foreign artists share their subjectivities with local artists. Together they create an exquisite corpse, a hybrid corpus of pieces, turning Puerto Rico into a great art hall.
Contemporary artists who participate in projects such as this one, take on new challenges when they create art for public spaces. They face new situations that were not envisioned or at least not in the same manner as when creating or designing for controlled spaces. Public art forces the artist to go out into the street and allow him or herself to be carried by everyday experience, by the experiences of the place where the work is completed, a serious commitment and responsibility to the locus.
Moreover, the artist needs to get involved in the technical aspects of production, the preparation of a budget, the permits and endorsements, the selection of engineers, architects, and building materials. The artist must act professionally, fearlessly sharing in the demands of the medium and accepting a healthy amount of risk. The medium impels him or her to overcome the vision of the artisan artist who does not need to worry about material factors or to ensure the quality of the final product, since only the concept matters.
On the other hand, the meaning itself of “the public” is debatable. What do we mean by public art? Is it art for the public? Art made by the public? Or none of the above? That is precisely where the problem lies, in wanting to define a unique form of making art.Art in general is problematic, specially when it invades the terrain of Taste, where full agreements are not possible. We are not going to like all of the pieces; everyone will have his or her favorites, and time will ensure that we come to terms with some of them or turn into enemies of others. One thing is sure: projects such as this one aspire to debunk the notion of art set upon a pedestal, with a sign that says “look but don’t touch, but please look at me”, but rather places it at the level of interaction, provocation, dialogue and identification. Public art is a little bit of each: an art for the public, from the public and by the public, a hermeneutic that bites its own tail. With public art we may never be sure; we are only left with the possibility of convening and betting on fantasy, recalling our own desire, which mirrors the desire of the other.