MAGAZINE

Notes on Art outside the White Cube

Natural and built environments as artistic materials

Around 100 years ago, when Bauhaus’ Professor László Moholy-Nagy imagined that light frescos, poly cinemas and cloud projections would be part of the future cityscape, artistic interventions became part of urban performance. 

Some milestones of this development include projects by Gyorgy Kepes and Otto Piene, envisioned in the 1960s/70s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Their ideas were centered around urban and landscape interventions in which light, air and water were omnipresent materials. In addition, weather phenomena and ecological systems in their cyclical constitution were used to choreograph the interplay of sensory, media and imaging processes. 

According to the Tate, the term ‘site-specific’ also refers to a work of art designed specifically for a particular location and that has an interdependent relationship with the location. Thus, since the 1960s, ‘site-specific’ has been used to describe artistic practices that work in connection with the place in which they are shown. 

Τhrough the years, artists developed in-situ works involving natural phenomena. Key works include Nancy Holt’s ‘Sun Tunnels’ (1973-1976) in the Great Basin Desert in Utah, which frame the sun on the horizon during the summer and winter solstices. 

Outside of the institutionalized art exhibition context, landscape-related works – referred to as ‘Land Art’ – and those artistic strategies were later adapted to urban landscapes. These works often take a critical stance on the lack of awareness of ecological habitats as well as urban development, architectural conventions, sociocultural traditions.

Nancy Holt ‘Sun Tunnels’. Taken from holtsmithsonfoundation.org

Interacting with cultural conditions

In addition to material environments, art-in-context projects refer to human interaction, social practice, collective debate, and democratic culture as possible components of artistic action. These examples of art-in-context share subsets including relational aesthetics, new public art, or socially engaged art with emphasis on audiences’ responsiveness, actions, and creativity.

Among the cornerstone antecedents of this artistic perspective are the activities of the Guerilla Girls and their feminist interventions on the art scene since the 1980s and Joseph Beuys’  ‘7000 Oaks’-project. In 1982, Beuys started, in cooperation with local volunteers, the planting of 7000 oak trees throughout the city’s center for documenta 7 in Kassel.de. The project was intended to criticize urban development as indicated in the subtitle ‘City Forestation Instead of City Administration’.

Joseph Beuys ‘7000 Oak trees’. Taken from Tate.org.uk

Emphasizing the art experience

In development, production, and display art-in-context artists and curators are powerful advocates for the experience of art. They refer to the art experience as a momentum that radiates in three directions: into the arts, into the socio-cultural system, and into the environment. Highlighting subjective experiences helps the audience dissolve barriers to engaging with contemporary art and paves the way to reaching new audiences and a wider public.

Art-in-context practices have evolved immensely and currently englobes a variety of approaches. The artists draw inspiration from all art forms and pave the way for new ones to emerge. They span from “happenings” of the 1960s, to participatory practices of the 1980, to “projection mappings” in the 1990s to immersive virtual environments in recent years. These experimental approaches include a diversity of focuses and qualities that are not represented in present debates. Art-in-context projects expand contemporary artistic practice, generate new frameworks of artistic production, are responsive to natural and cultural developments, multiply the scope of audiences and stimulate critical debate.