Public Engagement

An interview between Lab.Mimesis and the Center for Tactical Magic
For Transmission.06/Mimesis organized by ProgettoZero, Morion, Italy, 2007

Why did you decide to work in “public space” and what does “public” mean to you?

There are, of course, “many publics.” But in a general sense, the ideal public space is a truly liberated zone; a place where people can move and act freely. Yet these sorts of public spaces are difficult to find. And often we only know that a public space is truly liberated when we attempt to activate it in a manner that doesn’t involve going to work or buying something. So-called “public” space, particularly in the Untied States, has largely become an illusion, especially in urban areas. It is increasingly privatized, even by “public” institutions. All one has to do to discover this for him/herself is to perform an unproductive, non-consumptive, and preferably interesting act in a presumed public space and see how long it takes before an authority figure threatens to press charges for “trespassing” or “disturbing the peace”. Despite the fact that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees our rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, cities across the country require local citizens to purchase permits for rallies, marches, and protests, or suffer police repression. Members of the Center for tactical Magic learned this lesson first hand when we helped organize a police accountability rally with the Tactical Ice Cream Unit in Kansas City. Ironically, the park where the rally was held featured a stone monument with the first amendment engraved in it.

The Center for Tactical Magic seeks out potent spaces and also creates spaces of potential. In many instances, these spaces are both public and private, physical and psychological. But in all cases our approach is tactical rather than strategic in nature. Our projects are often temporary and repeatable in multiple contexts, either by ourselves or by others. So “public space” serves as a testing ground and demonstration site. It functions as a sort of common denominator. If the work is seen to be effective in “public space” then others can imagine how to apply the same principles in their own context.

In your opinion, what explains the increased tendency over the last thirty years, to work in public contexts?

There are several reasons. Artists produce culture, participate in culture, and reflect culture. So it should come as no surprise that artists have noticed that the institutionalization of culture (in museums, galleries, academies, and exhibition spaces) limits the range of “valid” activities. This is not to say that all museums and galleries are alike, nor that they are necessarily a negative influence. These spaces provide a unique and specific context for various cultural expressions. The “white cube” affords opportunities that the plaza does not, and vice versa. But cultural institutions are exclusive; whereas, most streets and parks are not. People do not need to be curated into an alley. And the alley offers a number of factors that simply are not available in a museum or a gallery. The people who encounter and interact with public projects represent a diverse cross-section of society that includes people who go to museums or galleries but also many who do not.

In terms of “contemporary arts” there is certainly a debt of gratitude that deserves to be paid to the Situationists, Provo, the Yippies, the Diggers, and everyone else organizing happenings, interventions, and provocations over the last 40-50 years. However, it’s a mistake to think of “public art” as only thirty years old. In many civilizations across the globe, performances and other creative endeavors have been acted out in public and shared among the members of society. Even the debates around the use of public space for artistic activities are centuries old. The Roman senate debated on what to do about troupes of subversive performers who were satirizing the ruling elite. On one side of the debate, it was argued that these artists represented a threat that could incite dissent and insurrection, and therefore should be censored. On the other side, it was felt that any persecution of the artists would show the intolerance of the government and effectively create martyrs of the artists. Consequently, the senate’s solution was to restrict access to public plazas and limit the duration of a performance, thus forcing the performers to lead a nomadic existence.

Today, laws and regulations continue to govern the uses of so-called “public” spaces. And many public artists continue to recognize that the stakes are higher than mere gallery representation or the modernist exaltation of a single unique author. On the contrary, it seems that the public-at-large is becoming less content with the limited options for social interaction in public space. And “public artist” is the name given to those who creatively reclaim this domain.

What are your needs when you work in this context?

This is a funny question. You don’t really need anything to work in public space. What’s stopping you? Permission? The decision to work in public space is really the only permission needed for working in public space. Fear? Of what? There is tremendous social pressure to “behave” in public. No one wants to step out of line… but everyone secretly wants to step out of line! And most people wish for something out-of-the-ordinary to happen so that the evening news or some other tv show isn’t the most exciting event of the day. By working in public space you help make these wishes come true. Obviously, large-scale projects benefit from funding and institutional support; however, work in public space doesn’t have to be complicated or outlandish; it can be quiet, subtle, cheap, and easy. In fact, working in public space can even be playing in public space.
Here are a few suggestions for minimizing problems while playing in public space:
1) Research & reconnaissance: Give some advance consideration to where you will be playing, the types of activities that frequently unfold there, and the kinds of audiences you can expect to encounter. What are your legal rights in this area? Who are your likely allies? Enemies?
2) Keep your cool. No matter what you are doing, act like you have a right to be there. And don’t forget to bring your sense of humor even if your play is serious.
3) Plan an exit strategy: How do you make your get-away? What do you say when the cops show up and ask you what you’re doing?
4) Expect the unexpected and be adaptable to changing conditions. Despite your best efforts you cannot predict every eventuality in public space. How do you anticipate the “public” to interact? What do you do when members of the public interact in unexpected ways? They will! They always do!

In your opinion, which are the connotations of the relation between the artist who decides to act into public space and the public space itself? What is your experience about it?

Unfortunately, most people act in public space by shopping or by commuting to and from their jobs or schools. But everyone who moves through public space acts to make it public space. Public space without the public is just space. When you are acting in public space you are part of the public. The only time it makes sense for an artist to set herself apart from the public while in public space is when the cops (or some other authority figures) show up and ask her what she’s doing (see #3 above). Then, if it will keep her from getting arrested, she can say, “I’m an artist and this is an art project.” The rest of the time artists should recognize the public for what it is: other people. Do your thing and let these other people decide for themselves what you are and what your actions mean. The key to effectively engaging with other people is to maintain one’s integrity and conviction. Believe in what you are doing and state it openly through words and/or actions.

In projects like Free Occult Services, Citizen Survey, or the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, the CTM agents are not artists pretending to be fortune-tellers, surveyors, or ice cream truck operators – they are these roles. And, in fact, we don’t think of ourselves as “artists doing an art project” unless we’re doing it in an arts venue or applying for an arts grant. Instead, we recognize that, like all people, we are essentially shape-shifters. Specialization is a temporal condition. At any given moment a person can be characterized by many different activities that s/he engages in: mechanic, musician, anarchist, gardener, cyclist, lover, etc. A person doesn’t think of him/herself as a mechanic when s/he’s in the garden, although s/he also doesn’t stop being a mechanic. Likewise, CTM agents don’t reduce all of their activities to expressions of “art” since we recognize that we are often playing multiple roles in varying contexts.

How important is camouflage in your work? How important is the dialectic between visible and invisible in your work’s strategies in the public context?

For starters, “seeing” is not the same as “perceiving”, and “perceiving “ is not the same as “cognition”. Consequently, we can think of different types of camouflage that affect one’s senses: blending in, hiding in plain sight, wearing an “official” guise, casting an illusion, or playing on dismissive tendencies. The Center for Tactical Magic relies on all of these within various contexts. For example, the goal of the Citizen Survey project was to focus people’s attention on the survey (itself disguised as an official government or marketing document); yet, every time the survey was conducted, the survey conductor would become a point of interest for the survey takers. To avoid this, we field-tested a series of outfits to help the survey conductor become “invisible”. The final uniform developed for Citizen Survey – a cross between a security guard and a Mormon missionary – was an astonishingly successful form of dismissive/official camouflage. While this uniform was the least ordinary combination of fashion elements, it was the most effective in being respected yet dismissed. The survey conductor could invite people to partake in the survey without raising their suspicions or curiosities.

For many of the public signs and posters in our Semiotic Reclamation Project, concerns about visibility differ depending on whether we want the sign to appear “official” or to look like a dissenting challenge to the market-driven aesthetics that occupy the urban landscape. In some cases, small clandestine crews install the work at night; while at other times projects are installed calmly in the middle of the day. While it may be more fun to go out on the prowl in the moonlight, it’s important to recognize that the lack of people on the streets means that any nighttime activity is immediately more suspect. Ultimately, we want the signs to be visible – either as subtle interventions or as conspicuous declarations – therefore it’s important to attract as little attention as possible during the installation.

The Smoky Hill River Outpost (a cross between a playhouse and panopticon that mixed various surveillance technologies with elements of magic) took a very different approach to the issue of “camouflage”. From the outside, visitors were attracted by a highly-visible spectacle that combined many familiar forms in an unfamiliar way. But the inside was constructed like a magic box or a compact labyrinth that rewarded people’s curiosities by revealing hidden passages, technological manipulations, and conceptual traps. Each discovery exposed people’s earlier assumptions and predilections, so the illusions tended to expose certain truths rather than conceal them.

In some ways, the Tactical Ice Cream Unit can be thought of as a mobile version of the Outpost. The uncanny façade that cloaks the TICU is fundamentally populist. Kids and adults alike can stand back, cock their heads to the side, and see ice cream truck, police van, hot rod, and activist intent all rolled into one. The smiles at the revolutionary graphics and the jokes about Homeland Security come easily. Yet, the project itself is multi-layered with nuances for the perceptive, both inside and out. The elements that are stolen from popular culture are recombined in a satirical manner that is immediately disarming, while the operational potential as an activist command center forces a social re-imagination of the terms of engagement in a theater of operations that includes both the visible landscape and the invisible realms of affect and empowerment.

How important is the spectator in the realization of your public projects?

The spectator can certainly play an important role, especially if the public project is created as a spectacle. But just as there are many “publics” there are also many roles for these publics to play. Spectator is just one of them. In some cases, public projects can be most effective when nobody notices them (i.e., plants growing beneath concrete, the disabling of surveillance cameras with paint-filled squirt guns, improving air quality through guerrilla gardening, etc.). The Cricket-Activated Defense System, for example, relies on spectators only when demonstrated in public lectures. However, only activists, lumberjacks, and the local wildlife might witness an actual installation of the system in a remote forest. In other cases, a public work can be most effective when everyone participates and no one watches. Uprising! (a community kite-making project where people made kites with various messages on them) relied equally on the fact that spectators would already be hanging out at the beach, and that lots of people flying kites would likely attract a larger audience and more participants. The fact that police helicopters were flying overhead to monitor the situation certainly helped as well.

What do you want to communicate with your work?

It’s important for us to look at many arts – contemporary fine arts, magical arts, martial arts, culinary arts, etc – as well as vast array of cultural expressions. So different projects attempt to communicate different things in different ways. But on a whole, the Center for Tactical Magic wants nothing short of the complete and irrevocable unleashing of the creative and prophetic potential of the multitude.