Art and suburbia: A Small Test for the Planner

Employ artists in a design team, give them a design brief that requires them to work with planners, architects and urban designers to find a solution, and the result will be a better living environment. The idea that underpinned around twenty years of art in public space has now reappeared in an updated form. Artists are no longer asked to make sculptures to decorate the built environment, but instead are being asked to use their expertise to direct urban processes.

I. Grab your bags, comrades, come to suburbia!

In the plan for a Vinex (urban development) location near Utrecht, artists are being sent out as a kind of cultural advance guard to reconnoitre and temporarily occupy suburbia. Open spaces on the map have been reserved for their activities; artists’ houses are being built to supplement the planned housing estates and in other places there will be parasites (‘temporary pioneer pavilions’). In the plan for the Amsterdam South Axis, artists will also work in design teams with other specialists ‘to bring new impulses to architecture’. Amsterdam politicians want the South Axis – a location on the edge of the city which, because of the fast transportation links, is ideal for businesses – to be provided with a quality living environment. Planners have already translated this into a call for a good artistic climate. This, they say, requires the following: an exhibition centre, art in the neighbourhood, studios, an international art biennale…

In the Dutch arena, there is a recurrent image of the politician as a strict, paternal figure who takes a little boy, called fine art, by the hand and guides him step-by-step through the world. As far as content goes, the above-mentioned art plans do not deviate from this image. Their ambition is determined by a political agenda that leaves little space for individual artists because it sees their work as serving a greater process. A new aspect, and in the long term perhaps the most important, is a funding structure that relies on input from the business world. The realization of art plans comes about through a kind of public–private financial arrangement in which, for example, an artistic master plan is developed with a subsidy from a public fund, after which a building consortium employs an artist to make a work.

Herein lie opportunities for art, namely, the creation of a basis of support through an exchange with the business world. A broader base would be very welcome in the Netherlands, since the existing artistic milieu looks (too much) like a civil-servant dominated monoculture. It would be no bad thing to have to fight for free space for art in a different context for a change. It is, however, essential that the art planners, seated opposite the big-business boys, know what they are talking about. Which in my view means that they should take a firm stand on the autonomy of art.

II. Dutch art plans for Dutch suburbs

This not what is happening at the moment. The plan Beyond for the Vinex district of Leidsche Rijn and the South Axis Virtual Museum are typically Dutch. By this I mean that art is spoken about in terms of practical value and applicability – arid terms well-suited to the commercial mentality of the Dutch. Art has been assigned the role of a stimulus for the development of an Arcadian and corporate suburbia where people and businesses will settle over the next 15 to 30 years. The South Axis Virtual Museum doesn’t want ‘art and culture to be regarded as a marginal sector, but as a driving force for the market, the city, the community and society.’

Beyond has the structure of an urbanist development scenario. Where this kind of scenario makes plans for a built environment, with infrastructure, homes, business premises and so on – in short, all concrete elements – Beyond presents a plan for the production of art and culture. Locations have been selected in and around the Vinex site, where artists will go to live and work, and there are calls for an ‘artistic director’ to be added to the design teams working on the urban design brief. As a plan, the Virtual Museum South Axis is still in the initial phase and, consequently, important decisions are not yet being made. Ambitions are aimed high. The plan’s goal is to realize a local artistic climate. The planners state that the presence of artists and artworks is good and useful for the development of the character, identity and habitat of the urban climate. Art must do something in and for suburbia. No mention has been made of what suburbia as environment might do for art, neither has any reference been made to a recent period in (primarily Anglo-American) art history, which is highly relevant to any positions relating to art and suburbia. I am referring to the 1960s and ’70s, when suburbia first emerged as a theme in art.

III. Or, how the little world keeps the big world out of sight.

Current plans lack an international perspective. I miss contributions from international art discourse and their inspirational impact. One doesn’t need to be too cynical an observer to regard Beyond as a job creation scheme for (mainly Dutch) artists working within the politically-correct genre of social intervention. An observer might also think that the South Axis Virtual Museum, despite its professed ambitions, fits quite comfortably into a local political plot to transfer the old cultural heart of Amsterdam to the outskirts of the city. And who’s to say that observer is wrong? Real decisions that will benefit art, and by this I mean the autonomy of art, are being avoided. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the plans are being made by people who are, consciously or not, following the line laid down by the politicians.

Am I wrong? Perhaps. But explain to me then why Beyond makes no mention of an unrealized work by Dan Graham, Alteration to a Suburban House (1978), which would contribute massively to a better understanding of the concept of ‘suburbia’. Jeff Wall made a brilliant analysis of this work in his essay ‘Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel’. Wall quotes Lawrence Weiner who, at the beginning of the 1980s, remarked that Graham’s house didn’t need to be built because the work’s potency was inextricably linked to its manifestation as a model, a possible reality. At the time, Weiner may well have been right. In view of the issues raised by Graham in Alteration to a Suburban House and the extent of contemporary amnesia regarding the recent achievements of (conceptual) art, I would, had I been one of the planners of Beyond, have invited Dan Graham in to discuss the possibility of building this house in Leidsche Rijn. This would have demonstrated just how seriously the subject was being addressed.

The plan for the Amsterdam South Axis is equally lacking in decisiveness. I imagine the anticipated urban environment will be aimed primarily at businesses. Amazingly enough, the plan pretends that this is not the case and ‘simply’ presses for the development of an artistic climate. I would ask myself, ‘How can you ensure that people from a business environment will come to look at art?’ and my answer would be, ‘Establish an art institution with a programme that contrasts strongly with the speed of the business world, and which would thus complement its surroundings.’ Such an institution could, for example, be based on the idea that underlies the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, which holds (semi-)permanent exhibitions (shows by established, mid-career artists lasting 6 months or more), lectures and discussions on art-related subjects which go beyond the immediate issues of the day. It is strange that the planners have so far only talked about an exhibitions centre (that will probably be expected to focus on local concerns). Amsterdam would profit from an art institution that would link the city more closely to international developments in art.

No clear choices are being made in either Beyond or the South Axis Virtual Museum. There are too many different, subsidiary interests at stake. At the moment, both plans demonstrate how thinking about developing an artistic climate can be paralysed by the idea that art has a social duty to perform. Planners involved in art and suburbia should in my opinion take a more idealistic view of their work if they really want something special to emerge from their plans. With a view to improving morale and stimulating the development of future projects, here are ten questions for Dutch planners.

IV. There is another way.

A small test for the planners:
(i) Define the autonomy of fine art.
(ii) Name three major artworks that enhance suburbia.
(iii) Which artists have put suburbia on the map?
(iv) What do you really know about suburbia in the Netherlands?
(v) In what context do you see the development of art?
(vi) What is the relevance of art discourse to artistic practice?
(vii) Does art offer models for understanding reality?
(viii) Name major artworks in the Netherlands that are regarded as ‘art in public space’.
(ix) Which three artists are currently influencing the meaning of ‘art in public space’?
(x) In the light of Camiel van Winkel’s book, Moderne leegte. Kunst en openbaarheid (The Modern Void. Art and the Public), indicate what should now happen with ‘art in public space’.

V. Ammunition for future negotiations

re (i)
Autonomy: independence. To be interpreted dialectically. Contains the germ of its antithesis: heteronomy (subject to an external law, rule or authority). Example: In Greenberg’s interpretation of a pure, abstract art which stands apart from the social and the personal, painting becomes, more than ever, bound to the material nature of the paint and its support.

Through its autonomy, its independent attitude to social and personal life, fine art creates a free space, a piste on which people can encounter new experiences and ideas. On this piste the reality of art becomes linked to the reality of what is outside it. Thus art, by definition, mediates between individuals and the world in which they find themselves. This is its nature. The artwork as an aesthetic model, exposing aspects of reality which cannot be seen simply by looking, or only with difficulty. Determining the distance from the world comes down to decisiveness and subtlety. Virgina Woolf: ‘Fiction, imaginative work that is, … is like a spider’s web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’ (A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, 1929)

Art’s autonomy is also the artist’s ruse. It provides access to reality without embracing it – and it keeps prying eyes out. In an essay about the photo-conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s, Jeff Wall describes how artists who were engaged in land art, process art, body art, performance art and more analytical reflections on art, began to use photography in their work. Because this medium did not have the autonomous status of the painting and sculpture of that time, it presented the possibility of lending the work a kind of autonomy (think of the documentary nature of much work from this period, which registered events in such a way that even the most subjective of acts acquired an objective allure).

Closer to home, and more recent, AVL-Ville by Joep van Lieshout is an example of autonomous art. This enclave creates space in a literal sense. It is a polemical work which distances itself from the Dutch context where the life of the citizen is subjected to a regime of rules and regulations. The work reflects this tradition in a negative form (and this may be both its strength and its weakness).

re (ii):
– Dan Graham, Alteration to a Suburban House (1978)1
– Hreinn Fridfinnsson, House Project (1974)
– Jeff Wall, The Destroyed Room (1978)

Dan Graham’s proposal for the alteration of a suburban house brings together three twentieth-century architectural tropes: the glass skyscraper, the glass house and suburban, ‘tract’ housing. In Graham’s house, the relation between ‘public’, or visible space, and ‘private’, or invisible space is altered. The entire front elevation is replaced by an equally large sheet of transparent glass. Halfway between the front and back (parallel to the front elevation) a mirror divides the house in two over its entire width. The front section is visible from the street, while the rear section remains concealed. Graham’s house is classified by Jeff Wall as being an Expressionist work rooted in Conceptualism. The work offers perspectives on social processes and breaks with the social indifference of so much postwar American art, including Conceptualism (which according to Wall quietly recapitulated a kind of Mallarmism).

Hreinn Fridfinnsson’s House Project has been built. Taking his cue from an Icelandic story, the artist constructed an inside-out house in the hollow of a hill. In consequence, the house contains the whole world with the exception of its own interior. The central image of the work refers to the desire of Sólon Gudmundsson, an aristocrat who, having sold his old house, wanted to build a new one which would give the world something of the warmth people experience inside a house. He had already begun work when he was persuaded to give up the plan and, due to his advanced age, move into an old people’s home. Sólon died on 18 October 1931. As a conceptual artwork – it exists as photographic documentation and text – Fridfinnsson’s House Project possesses a poetic, even romantic essence which would normally be ignored in the discourse on conceptual art. Fridfinnsson’s house, of course, also raises social issues.

The Destroyed Room is the title of a Cibachrome light box made by Jeff Wall in 1978. This work is the first in a series of scenes which Wall constructed in his studio and then photographed. In these works Wall exposes wounds in the social fabric of Western society. This occurs here almost literally. The Destroyed Room, an image of an up-turned and partially destroyed bedroom, which clearly belongs to a young woman, is an allegory of assault. Wall first exhibited the piece in 1978 in the window of an art institution in Vancouver. From the street passers-by were able to look into a bedroom marked by traces of violence. This tableau of petrified destruction was lit up night and day. Amidst the shop windows, street signs and neon advertisements, here was a highly coloured image of an intimate space in which the red wallpaper has been scored in two places and completely torn from the wall in a third; where drawers have been opened with brute force; where furniture has been overturned and clothes thrown on the floor. But what really catches one’s eye is the tilted bed, wrenched out of place and topped by a ripped open mattress: a pink cut figures at the heart of this image….

re (iii):
The first to come to mind is Michelangelo Antonioni who used suburbia as a bleak decor in his film cycle L’avventura, La Notte and L’éclisse (1960-62). But in Europe, France is a more important breeding place for images of suburbia. Suburbia was put on the map by the Situationists, quite literally, in their psycho-geographical maps: aids to help the mind wander through the city and visit the outskirts. A filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard built on the ideas of the Situationists. In his film Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (1966), the suburb is personified by a woman, the subject under scrutiny, but also the subject that leads to fantasies about urbanity.

A grimmer (art) history of suburbia was written, of course, in the United States. In the 1960s, Dan Graham and Robert Smithson made studies of the suburbs. Their findings can be read in Homes for America (1966) Dan Graham’s photo-text article for an art magazine which, with lightly camouflaged sarcasm, mocks the housing options available to consumers in the suburban grid, and in Smithson’s The Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey (Artforum, 1967), an article similarly consisting of photographs and text. Smithson’s story is gloomy, but has more aspects to it. He describes a bus journey to Passaic as a ‘suburban Odyssey’. On the outskirts of Passaic, on the edge of suburbia in other words, he enjoys himself. He sees factories that are no longer in use and fantasizes about them as the monuments of the future. But then: ‘Passaic center loomed like a dull adjective. Each ‘store’ in it was an adjective unto the next, a chain of adjectives disguised as stores. I began to run out of film, and I was getting hungry. Actually, Passaic center was no center – it was instead a typical abyss or an ordinary void. What a great place for a gallery! Or maybe an ‘outdoor sculpture show’ would pep that place up.’
In the 1970s, other artists in the United States continued Dan Graham’s and Robert Smithson’s studies. Vito Acconci , for example, or Chris Burden, Martha Rosler and Douglas Heubler, all evoke the solitude of people in the suburbs. Also important in the 1970s were the Photorealists, painters (like Richard Estes, for example) who recorded the new, urban environments in an almost perversely refined style.

re (iv):
Not a lot. But the foundation of a centre for suburban studies in the Netherlands may offer a way out. A ‘light’ institute where the results of research carried out by artists, urban sociologists and other cultural researchers would be collected. More research into suburban desires – rural living near the city, urban living in the country – would seem to be worthwhile.

re (v):
The development of art is (part of) an international narrative. The development of art is, moreover, (part of) art history.
The development of art: that’s me (as planner).

re (vi):
There is a point to art discourse, or the art theory that guides artistic practice, because it stimulates clear thinking about art. I use art discourse to keep alert. It is particularly stimulating when writers look at artworks in depth, and illuminate them in such a way that surprising and yet obvious meanings crystallize.

re (vii):

re (viii):
Difficult question. I have to suppress the inclination to say: the outdoor sculptures of Hildo Krop (despite the fact that Gerard Reve characterized him as a communist confectioner). Leaving aside the more interesting environmental art of the 1970s and ’80s, I can find little ‘art in public space’ of the 1990s that creates any kind of free space. Many works that pass for ‘art in public space’ actually occupy space. Perhaps one should respect the genre on the basis of its meaning within a local context; then it is a purely Dutch phenomenon. Vito Acconci’s work Park in the Water (1997) next to Hollands Spoor railway station in The Hague, made within the framework of an art commission, is a typical work in this respect. Over the course of time I have come to appreciate this work more, but it remains an urban Arcadia on a somewhat parsimonious, Dutch scale.

re (ix):
Aernout Mik, because his images show something that would otherwise remain unexposed in the culture of the spectacle. The media presents us with images of people, alone and with others, and goes to extremes to deliver them in all their nakedness to the gaze of the viewer. The human being becomes a public and ludicrous figure. Mik’s images also seem to come from a cabinet of curiosities, but his work reflects the subconscious of the media. People also appear naked his work, but not because there is any viewer demand for him to do so. Mik reclaims something of the space that is taken from us every day.

Pierre Huyghe, in imitation of the Situationists, sees space everywhere that he proceeds to claim for art. The space of the media, the space of the built environment in the city, in other words public space, becomes in his work a space for an individual gesture that temporarily upsets the order of the day. What I especially value in his work is his treatment of traces which are already embedded in culture and which he occupies and reworks, instinctively, like a dog obliterating the scent of another dog with its urine.
Liam Gillick, because he sees reality as a trigger for parallel realities. He is a player, someone who extracts importance from reality by duplicating it in ideas and accommodating it in constellations where it becomes a possibility. One could define his works as models for describing reality as possibility. In this way he adds space to the concept of the public.

re (x):
The answer has to be formulated in an art project which takes the crisis of public space as its subject. This would mean elaborating on Camiel van Winkel’s propositions in a far more radical way than he could ever have imagined. Van Winkel describes Paul Perry’s (unrealized) work for Oosterhout as a work that exposes the crisis of ‘public art’ as such. But the history of the Dutch ‘public art’ genre also holds other examples of critical artworks. One could start by identifying them. I shall restrict myself here to a single example.

A crucial work is Jan van de Pavert’s Girls on a Table, a sculpture made from modelling wax (1993, Van Abbe Museum Collection). It refers to the Amsterdam sculptures of Hildo Krop and the earlier working title, Monument to Despair, reveals something of Van de Pavert’s despondency when he tried to imagine how a sculpture could hold its own in a city today, amidst the excess of visual information from billboards, neon advertisements and other signs. He was seized by a mild despair when he began to think about the political climate of the 1990s, the absence of ideas for good urban design, and the demise of urban space.

This explains the uncomfortable position of the girls in his sculpture: naked, vulnerable, and served up on a platter, they try to protect each other. Their appearance is far removed from the figures in Krop’s works, who are proud and cheerful. Van de Pavert’s girls stare desolately ahead. They cling to each other as if to the last straw. They have withdrawn into a hopeless vita contemplativa. Yet still this sculpture exudes strength. A second look reveals that, although the girls’ bodies are separate, the faces seem to belong to a single head. From top to bottom, the hair falls from a single crown around two faces. Thinking of the work as one person, you might read it as a girl holding onto herself, onto her own subjective world. Having landed up on a stage, delivered up to the gaze of others, her introspection also gives her the strength to withstand.

Hreinn Fridfinnsson, ‘House project’, in: Amateur/Eldsjl. Variable research initiatives 1900 and 2000. Exhibition Newsletter #2, Gothenburg Art Museum, 2000.
Simon den Hartog, Phillip van den Bossche, Paul Hefting, Arnoud Odding and Henk de Vroom, The South Axis Virtual Museum, concept vision 2001.
Dan Graham, ‘Homes for America (1966)’, in: Rock my Religion. writings and art projects 1965-90, Massachusetts, The MIT Press, 1993.
Mark Kremer, ‘Wonde plekken. Over enkele werken van Jeff Wall’, in: De Witte Raaf no. 53, 1995.
Mark Kremer, ‘On, amongst others, some very interesting and yet not realised projects. Public art in Holland in the 1990s’, appendix, Malmö, Malmö Art Academy, 1998.
Peter Kuenzli, Jan van Grunsven, Bernard Colenbrander, Tom van Gestel, Govert Grosfeld and Mariette Dölle, Beyond, 2001.
Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’, New Jersey (1967), in: The Collected Writings, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of Califormia Press, 1996.
Jeff Wall, ‘Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel (1984)’, in: Dan Graham, ex. cat., Perth: The Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1984.
Jeff Wall, ‘Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art’, in: Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-75, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge/London, The MIT Press, 1996.
Camiel van Winkel, Moderne leegte. Kunst en openbaarheid, Nijmegen, SUN, 1999.

1. For a description of Dan Graham’s Alteration to a Suburban House, visit:

The creation of a public sphere