In the public domain

It has a mixed reputation, but public art has found favour with designers who are keen to use its interactive potential, says Emma Germain


British custom has it that even unwanted gifts are accepted with good social grace. So it is perhaps surprising that Westminster Council refused artist Sir Anthony Caro’s gift of his Millbank Steps sculpture. Though perhaps, for some, a discourtesy to the artist, the council’s refusal also raises the question: is public art a waste of space?

Such was the subject of debate at a National Gallery lecture last week chaired by University of the Arts London chairman Sir John Tusa. The panel, which included commentator Joan Bakewell, director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne, artist Mark Titchner and Courtauld Institute lecturer Giles Waterfield, unanimously answered ‘no’. Public art provides a point of discussion, they said.

But what does design have to do with public art? While designers agree with artists that public art provokes thought, for designers, it can provide an additional platform upon which to work with clients including museums, councils and travel operators calling on designers to find ever more innovative ways to entertain and amuse customers as they shop, travel and browse.

Last month Eurostar and the National Gallery unveiled an interactive digital art gallery for rail travellers (www. designweek.co.uk 22 April). The piece – Station Masters – designed by Land Design Studio in conjunction with software group Studio Simple, gives passengers in the Eurostar departure lounge access to 100 images from the gallery’s Western European collection. Eurostar creative direction manager Richard Hill says the aim of Station Masters is ‘to inspire people’ through interactivity. The public chooses which paintings to view and can discover hidden details which are impossible to see in a conventional gallery.

Project designer Ross Hopcraft says, ‘It fulfills the brief of keeping passengers who cannot access retail outlets entertained.’

Similarly, digital artist and designer Christopher Pearson, whose moving wallpaper designs adorn British Airways’ first-class lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, says transport chiefs ‘use design to keep boredom at bay’.

Pearson argues that, for public art to work, it must engage its audience. People watching his moving wallpapers become puzzled by the craft behind the designs, and are intrigued by how they work, he says.

Design can have other purposes in the realm of public art, too, unexpectedly enhancing surroundings and reinventing an experience. London’s Brompton Design District, for example, has used design in this way, allowing visitors to experience a ‘design-focused identity’. Local property agent Brompton Estates runs a ‘show window’ initiative allowing shops and buildings to be used by designers including Ron Arad, Martino Gamper and Gallery Libby Sellers.

Science Museum creative director Tim Molloy, however, is not so convinced. Molloy says that the museum commissions designers to create its displays – which could loosely be described as public art – ‘because we have to’. The role of designed public art in the context of the museum, he says, should be to help explain scientific phenomena, as exemplified by 2000’s The Dot Comment Wall and 2005’s Energy Ring,

‘Sometimes interactivity is used to excite the public but the designs go no further – it is a case of “hands on, brains off”,’ Molloy comments. This is exactly what the Science Museum wants to avoid, he says. In the modern, public world, the chasm between art and design can be bridged by new media developments, according to Molloy.

Developments such as digital installation The Listening Post by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, commissioned for the Science Museum, take new media initiatives such as the Internet and transform them into a designed project. The Listening Post explores what 100 000 people chatting on-line might sound like using live text from the Internet, flickering across a screen.

The use of design in public art can also help convey commercial business interests in a subtle yet impacting way. The Partners design director Robert Ball, who worked on last year’s The Grand Tour with the National Gallery to turn London’s West End into a gallery displaying recreations of famous paintings, explains how the project allowed sponsor Hewlett-Packard to get involved inconspicuously. ‘I think the public embraced the idea because it was seen as art on the streets, not as a sinister marketing message,’ he says. (DW 25 July 2007). Not only can design help tone down the brash aspects of commercial public installations, but ‘designed’ public art can also help raise awareness.

Health research charity the Wellcome Trust uses design in such a way. ‘We employ designers to alert the public to our presence,’ says the Wellcome Collection’s senior curator for public programmes, James Peto.

Earlier this year, Paul Cocksedge created a display depicting arms stretching across the length of the organisation’s building, intended to provoke thought, with the Wellcome Trust’s core message in mind. ‘The intention is that people walking along Euston Road will consider their own bodies and walk away with a clear association between the imagery and the Wellcome Trust,’ says Cocksedge.

‘Working alongside designers – as opposed to artists – is different, because the former are used to responding to a set of instructions,’ adds Peto.

Recent installations

• The Grand Tour by The Partners and website by Digit for the National Gallery
• Thomas Heatherwick’s Bleigiessen sculpture for the Wellcome Trust
• Paul Cocksedge’s Euston Road display for the Wellcome Trust
• Ron Arad, Martino Gamper and Gallery Libby Sellers’ involvement with the Brompton Design District
• Station Masters by Land Design Studio and Studio Simple for Eurostar
• Christopher Pearson’s Etch for British Airways’ first-class lounge at Heathrow’s Terminal 5
• The Listening Post by Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen for the Science Museum

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