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PUBLIC SPACE MY A$$

During the ”Barbie Month” in 1997, Mattel had an entire street painted bubblegum-pink in Salford, UK. In a similar way the popular Queen Street in Toronto was painted silver for a period of a whole year to market Levi’s Silver Tab-jeans. Pepsi had an idea to project their logo onto the moon and at a school in Georgia a student was suspended because he was wearing a Pepsi t-shirt on Coke Day.
Private capital shapes our daily life and environment. We have got used to an ever-changing flow of imagery, and sometimes also appreciate it as part of a seductive urban landscape. But to have your favourite city street painted silver because a company bought the right to do it, then one starts to feel like a puppet in someone else’s game. How can public space be bought?

The overwhelming amount of commercials (on the streets, on radio and television, to your cell phone, mailbox and post-box etc.) is becoming a nuisance. We now start to pay for the privilege to avoid commercials. An example of this is the specially designed Disney town Celebration, a gated community in Florida built in the spirit of neighbourliness, i.e. as one generally imagines an all-American wealthy suburbia in the 1950s. This is a place that treasures the old times, when there were still small shops, bakeries and eateries in every corner and Wal-Mart wasn’t even invented. Public space is here a completely privatized place, which is sold to people who want to experience a sense of community where ”residents gather at front porches, park benches, recreational areas, and downtown events celebrating a place they call home” (cited from celebrationfl.com). No conflicts, no insecurity, no class differences and no diversity in terms of values. Public space is interpreted as a place for consumption and leisure.

In the media-savvy society, traditional marketing trumpeting out its buy me-message is loosing in street credibility and impact. Instead guerrilla advertising and buzz marketing has become increasingly common. The purpose is no longer only to sell us goods, but to communicate values through experiences and finding new, shocking ways to grab our attention. As for example painting a street Barbie-pink. The Barbie-event in Salford immediately made the national news. The mayor who attended the celebration of Barbie’s 40th birthday was happy with all the attention and Mattel donated 8000 pounds to local charity. Sony also got the talk going with the commercial where 250 000 super balls are bouncing down the streets of San Francisco. You gain street cred when the so-called opinion formers in various age groups start to spread the message by word-of-mouth. To create an experience you have to touch the real, or rather: touch up the real.


SPEAK BACK (PINK ISN’T JUST FOR BARBIE)

The logic behind the strategy to communicate through creating experiences is the same as when states and interest groups erect monuments in public spaces. The aim is to initiate or define incidents that will become the formative events of a nation’s (or corporation’s) identity. It is about impact and presence, either in the sense of being monumental, as architecture and billboards, or simply everywhere as bank notes and logos.
Though political elites and corporations have far greater power than the public to shape the physical and symbolic representation of public space, there are still ways to take collective action and speak back. To reactivate places which have been taken hostage either by state, corporate or private interests. For example a group of Czech artists altered a memorial, a Soviet tank, by painting it bright pink over and over again. Eventually the Soviets were forced to remove it out of embarrassment.

To re-contextualize or displace are other ways to engage in a dialogue with the seemingly static representations around us. If we refuse to take them for granted as ”normal”, they will reveal themselves as being saturated with politics – which means they are possible to change.


POWER/POSITION

After the political changes in Hungary 1989-90, the problem of what to do with all the statues dating from the previous political system was solved by creating a park, The Statue Park Museum. All the statues that once stood in public places in Budapest were gathered together here. The aim was not to create a mockery-park. To move the statues from public spaces to a space framed as a museum is to move them into history and also to transform their function. The Hungarian architect Ákos Eleöd writes on szoborpark.hu: ”This park is a very delicate matter. I've been trying my utmost to treat this terribly serious theme with the proper amount of seriousness. But what is Truth? Of course, I can't answer that. But there's plenty of time to think about it.”
He continues: ”I had to realise that if I constructed this park with more tendentious, extreme or realistic methods - as a number of people were expecting - I would ultimately be doing nothing more than constructing my own Anti-propaganda park from these propagandist statues, and following the same thought patterns and prescriptions of dictatorship that erected these statues in the first place."


THE ECONOMY OF GIFTS

Using gifts as blackmail. The Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli has developed a curious business strategy. He offers his sculptures as gifts from the Russian people to cities all around the world, specializing in huge monuments to commemorate victims or historical figures. He has for example offered New York City a monument to the victims of the 9/11 attacks and is further planning a monument to the victims of the hostage crisis in Beslan and to those hit by the tsunami in South East Asia.
A gift is difficult to refuse because it is a gesture of sympathy, the object itself being a mere sign. Thus most of us have received gifts we don’t necessarily want to put on display. But Tsereteli is persistent.

Mayors seem to play a crucial part in this economy of gifts. The monument "To the Struggle Against World Terrorism” was first offered to New York after 9/11, but was rejected. Instead Tsereteli turned to the mayor of New Jersey who happily agreed to erect the monument on a pier directly across the Hudson River from where the Twin Towers once stood. The mayor hoped to unveil the 30 metre bronze sculpture on the third anniversary of the attacks, but his sudden death coupled with a public outcry over the memorial's design forced the City Council to eventually turn down the offer. The mayor of nearby Bayonne agreed to install the monument. He personally recommended the artist to the City Council after receiving a phone call from a close associate of Senator Hillary Clinton. The monument has been shipped from Russia and will be installed in time to commemorate 9/11 in 2006. A stone engraving will declare that the memorial is a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian people.


FIGHT EVIL THROUGH ART

Tsereteli says he wants to fight evil through art and make life more safe and beautiful. But the effect of his art might very well be the opposite. The municipality of Cataño in Puerto Rico who’s mayor accepted the many times rejected monument to Columbus named "Birth of A New World", has spent millions of dollars to ship the "gift" from Russia. It has caused protests among citizens considering that the so-called ”Birth of the New World” involved the oppression and murder of indigenous people. The colonial tradition seemed to continue since the project triggered a nasty expropriation fight with residents who are in the way of the monument and don’t want to move.


ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has made it possible for Tsereteli to erect statues all over the Russian capital. But when Tsereteli decided to erect a monument in Moscow to the poet Joseph Brodsky, Muscovites finally got fed up and started an Internet campaign. The website www.helptobrodsky.ru collected signatures for an appeal to the authorities and the sculptor himself to stop spoiling the capital's image. "We're really, really fed up with your bronze monsters" their petition read, adding that public support is needed because no one seems able to stop Tsereteli.