In cross-disciplinary gatherings at the Arts Research Center of UC Berkeley, we have found it worth going over territory that we all think we know, to review the staples, the bread and butter of our fields, in order to expose blindspots and to jostle ourselves into new perspectives on the heretofore obvious. So we began thinking all over again about that keyword…
But should we really reflect on the term "public" when so much ink has been spilled on this subject historically… and recently from so many quarters? The term is so ubiquitous and its associations so varied and contradictory both in the meaning and the politics. Is Public about extroversion, about visibility, about access, about openness? Does Public connote the "public sphere," the one Habermas extolled (and many feminists and postcolonial critics have revised) as an arena of bracing and vibrant deliberation, detached from the sphere of commerce as well as the sphere of the state? Or is Public referring to the "public sector," the domain of state and civic governance that is sustained by taxes, distributive justice, and ambivalent trust? Is that the same public sector imperilled by corruption, appropriation, and by the pervasive anti-state distrust circulating quite differently in both right and left sectors of society?
The term Public often seems defined by its opposite. Public is the opposite of private, the opposite of hidden, the opposite of the closed, the opposite of the private sector, the opposite of the for-profit sector. But the opposing terms are not themselves equivalent. The Public can be celebrated as unfettered deliberative engagement, but, in the very next breath, the Public can be castigated as bureaucracy and state control. Publicness is the opposite of closed, from one perspective, but it is the opposite of free from another.
In the field of socially engaged art, where I am most involved, I find the ambiguity around the term Public to be a source of intense mobilization and of intense confusion. For many artists, making "public art" meant exiting the confines of the studio, the gallery, or the theatre to redefine the parameters of one's medium as well the sites that housed it and the receivers who encountered it. The public art gesture was both formal and political. How such gestures understood themselves in relation to the goals of a public sphere or to the goals of a public sector is debatable. It varied internationally in contexts where questions of democracy or freedom differed thanks to local state systems and ideologies.
Indeed, in many public art and protest actions, the deliberative goals of the public sphere often seemed in tension with the distributive goals of the public sector. Some felt that the public sector needed to be protected by the interventions of a political art practice, and others that the public sector is precisely what needed to be combatted. Others might not have been very clear on either score.
In our current moment, we are witnessing a global, if contradictory, conversation about what public-ness might mean. For myself, it was interesting to me how much questions of "urban planning" are at the center of public protests arising in the summer of 2013 – in Turkey at Taksim Square – where the prime minister's plans for urban space are a key source of outrage - and all throughout Brazil where critiques of political corruption are often focused on the infrastructural issues of civic governance (and whether the construction of hospitals or schools might be able to elicit the material support that "sports stadiums" seem to have secured).
Of course, these and other movements have followed, rejected, and/or revised a different kind of urban public practice collected under the banner of "Occupy" and homogenized in shaky allegiances with a so-called Arab Spring.
As I try to sort through the effects of this rangy and thorny network of discourses and practices, I very much look forward to deeper engagement with the fields of civic, public and participatory governance. Do these fields and practices have different ways of framing the competing associations of the Public? And can we develop a different way of keeping these claims in productive tension together?
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.