In the Place of the Public Sphere
Simon Sheikh


In opposition to high modernism's ideals of a singular, autonomous and formally complete art work, we may now consider art works as placed in a heterogeneous field, where the significations and communications of the work shift in relation to space, contexts and publics. Just as there is no complete, ideal work there is no ideal, generalised spectator. We cannot talk of art's spaces as a common, shared space we enter with equal experiences - on the contrary, the idea of the neutral spectator has been dissolved and criticised, and the identity of the viewer have been specified and differentiated by both art practices and theories since the 1960s. This shift also entails, naturally, different notions of communicative possibilities and methods for the art work, where neither its form, context nor spectator is fixed or stable; such relations must be constantly (re) negotiated and conceived in notions of publics or public spheres. This means, on the one hand, that the art work itself (in an expanded sense), is unhinged from its traditional forms (as material) and contexts (galleries, museums etc), and on the other hand, is made contingent on a(nother) set of parameters, that can be described as spaces of experience, that is, on notions of spectatorship and the establishment of communicative platforms and/or networks in or around the art work. It is contingent on, and changing according to, different points of departure in terms of spectatorship. The gaze of the spectator is, of course, not only dependent on the work and its placement, but also on the placement of the spectator in terms of age, class, ethnic background, gender and politics. Or, more broadly speaking, on experience and intentionality. We can, thus, speak of three variable categories, that, in turn, influence the each other's definition: work, context and spectator. None of which is given, and each of which is conflictual.

When thinking about art production and representation, it is therefore crucial to negotiate these terms both individually and in relation to each other. And just as contemporary art practices have shown that neither the work nor the spectator can be formally defined and fixed, we have in recent years come to realize that the conception of a public sphere, the arena in which one meet and engage, is likewise dematerialised and/or expanded. We no longer conceive of the public sphere as an entity, as one location and/or formation as suggested in Habermas' famous description of the bourgeois public sphere. Instead, we have to think of the public sphere as fragmented, as consisting of a number of spaces and/or formations that sometimes connect, sometimes close off, and that are in conflictual and contradictory relations to each other. And we have, through the efforts of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, come to realise that our interactions as subjects with the public spheres are dependent on experiences. There not only exists public spheres and ideals thereof, but also counter-publics.

If we can, then, only talk about the public sphere in plural, and in terms of relationality and negation, it becomes crucial to understand, place and reconfigure art's spaces as 'public spheres'. Is the art world to be seen as one fragment of a generalised bourgeois public sphere, or is there a possibility of opposing spheres within it? And how are these related? If we analyse a particular public sphere called 'the art world', what are its delimitations, and how can it be employed strategically to engage with other public spheres? Finally, there is the question of how art works, and the thinking around art, can intervene in these different spheres - on the one hand taking their point of departure in the specific fragment the art world, and on the other engaging in other spheres directly or indirectly. Just like the modernist conception of the singular art work and spectator, the idea of the universal, bourgeois public sphere now seems historical. The well-ordered bourgeois public sphere is as much a fragment as other formations, and indeed, the question is rather whether it ever existed at all as anything other than a projection or an ideal. A projection that, moreover, does not seem useful in our multi-cultural and hyper-capitalistic, modular society. Perhaps this modulation of division of society into different areas and specialised disciplines should be seen as the foundation for the realisation and fragmentation of the public sphere into different camps and/or counter-publics; fragmented spheres that together form the "imaginary institution of society" as described by Cornelius Castoriadis.

When establishing the art world as a particular public sphere, we must explore this notion along two lines. Firstly as a sphere that is not unitary, but rather conflictual - a platform for different and oppositionary subjectivities, politics and economies, or a 'battleground' as defined by Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke. A battleground where different ideological positions strive for power and sovereignty. And, secondly, the art world is not an autonomous system, even though it sometimes strives and/or pretends to be, but is regulated by economies and policies, and constantly in connection with other fields or spheres. This is evident not least through critical theory and critical, contextual art practices. Since the formal, autonomous work is no longer a useful model, we have been witnessing a number of artistic projects that take their point of departure in the notion of different fields, if not downright in the notion of difference in itself; projects relating to a specific set of parameters and/or a specific public, as opposed to the generalised and idealised. In other words, we are speaking of works that do not employ the notion of the bourgeois public sphere, but rather of different fragments, camps and/or counter-publics. Or, at least, works that have different ideas of a public, be they utopian or heterotopian. It is a question of to and for whom one is speaking, and on what premises.

In the Place of the Public Sphere will attempt to map out such territories, and discuss the changed and changing possibilities for art production as communicative toolbox and representational politics. The seminar will take its point of departure in conceptions of practice and spectatorship based on the notion of a fragmented public sphere, and explore which potentials, problematics and politics lie behind the construction (real or imaginary) of a particular "public" sphere or field. How does one perceive and/or construct a specific public sphere and positional and/or participatory model for spectatorship, as opposed to (modernist) generalised ones? Does this entail a reconfiguration of the (bourgeois) notion of the public sphere into a different arena and/or into a mass of different, overlapping spheres? Or, put in other terms, what can be put in the place of the public sphere? Private zones, salons, institutions, sub- and/or counter-publics? And what are the different arenas and possibilities and methods for interaction within and between them? Finally, among the questions to be raised is how this should relate to artistic production, art's spaces and institutions.

Introduction to a seminar on the potentials and possibilities of art in a fragmented public sphere, after the dematerialisation and/or expansion of art practices.

The Art Academy, Odense, Denmark, week 46, 2001 and spring 2002