On 23rd November we gathered under the boughs of Ortsofort’s tree installed in Corner College for the exhibition ‘Tearing Down, Building Up’ to debate the motion: art slows the progress of the modern metropolis. For the motion, Michael Hiltbrunner started in a manner that surprised many, including his colleague Colin Guillemet, but then found his plan of attack. Rather than seeing art as an irrelevance, he put it that high art slowed progress in a positive fashion, momentarily pausing what he called the constant “communiting” in a metropolis.
Sabine Rusterholz’s rebuttal of the motion was two pronged, seeing art and artists as instrumental in the progress and in the gentriciation of cities. There’s the officially sanctioned, top-down application of percentage for art schemes, and “as a contrast to this, as a more viral multiplication, more bottom-up, building of non-defined spaces where artists have kind of cutting edge role of defining this new area and new places”. She cited the growth of new cities in places like Dubai or China were space is increasingly privatised, and “many times there is a place for art in these areas or these bigger projects but those areas often lack space for the unplanned, so many times the space given to art is built after the whole construction is finished”. She ended with her conclusion “that art in an intelligent urban area plays a role as an avant-garde, a pioneer, and should be provided with less controlled open space, to shape ideas and alternative concepts and perspectives on city planning”.
Colin Guillemet based his defence of the motion on the idea of the modern metropolis as “a sort of promised land for the middle classes, a place where you can celebrate your achievements”. He also cited gentrification, but reduced the role of art to “a sort of trophy for all the people who have made it economically”. The effectiveness of art has been reduced by art’s irrelevance and artists’ wasteful use of space and time. Closing, he cited a character in a Jonathan Franzen novel, a musician who also works as a roofer. His employers know of his double life, and “would actually question his artistic commitment if he didn’t turn up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to build the roof. And, see, I’m left with the artist as maybe the conclusion of that progress of the modern metropolis would be the artist being some sort of pet for the rich middle class that is inhabiting the city.”
Daniel Morgenthaler’s defence of art and artists refuted what Colin said, seeing artists as a force to open up closed spaces. He noted that artists such as Vanessa Billy, Kilian Rüthemann or Sophia Hultén used a concrete aesthetic and in so doing make this acceptable or current, so that building and development become customary elements in a cityscape. He also cited museum buildings such as Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, which have an air of incompletion. “It’s a way of getting the viewer or the consumer … used to this aesthetic and used to progress, to never-ending progress, that new things are always being built.” He finished by stating that “artists tend to renovate or construct or build ideas and concepts and in this sense they are at the avant-garde, the avant-garde that brings forward progress”.
In the ensuing debate, artists came in for a lot of abuse, being variously described as useless and highly destructive, such as Lawrence Wiener’s desire not to “fuck up somebody’s day on their way to work, you want to fuck up their whole life”, thus threatening progress entirely. In their defence, they are hamstrung when involved in development projects, as all too often brought in late in the day and expected to be a cohesive and positive force despite only a cosmetic involvement. It remained unresolved whether art can unite communities in a semi-religious fashion, or whether art is ever visionary. In a damning closing, Colin suggested that today gentrification can bypass the artists, going straight to opening an American Apparel outlet.
In the final vote Michael and Colin for the motion won the debate. Many thanks to Corner College for hosting the debate and particularly to all the participants for their spirited arguments.