The following is an essay dealing with public space and public art in physical space and online. It can also serve as a cultural background to the ShiftSpace project I’m working on with Dan Phiffer.
Public space is defined as a place to which anyone has the right to come without being excluded because of economic or social conditions. This basic ethic definition is the subject of a passionate conflict between authoritative forces trying to police this space to their view of the public good, and other individual forces that are trying to claim a different, less-governed approach.
Public art, meaning artwork exposed in public space, is a perfect example of this tension. The term is broad enough to include both artworks that are purely institutional such as monuments and statues of national heroes, artworks that are commissioned by companies and corporations to be presented on their private ‘public space’, and unauthorized artworks, or ‘guerrilla art’ which does not seek this official approval.
This Guerrilla-Art, also known as Street-Art protests against the government surrendering the control over public space in the hands of commercial forces. These artists and activists, commonly working as collectives, claim the place that was supposed to belong to the public has become a money-trap, reducing the role of the public in it to mere potential customers. These artists are using several forms of street art such as graffiti and stencil art, outlaw sculptures and installations, performance art and happenings.
The web, often discussed in terms of urban space has it’s own social dynamics. We can understand how through using this metaphoric equivalence a ‘home-page’ would be a private space, but how can we use this metaphor to describe public space? The contemporary bloom of social software is transforming the focus of content on the web towards user generated content. Sites like MySpace and Flickr offer a stylized social interaction under one rooftop. Would these be the public spaces of the web? Hardly. These are social spaces but not necessarily public spaces, they define specific sets of rules to determine exactly what kind of social action is allowed, by whom, when and how much. These spaces would probably be the public-institutions or the members-clubs of this digital urban space.
Then what would be the streets of the web? Does it even have any?
I would like to suggest discussing this question through the case of Christophe Bruno’s conceptual netart work, The Google AdWords Happening. Following a discussion on the Rhizome.org mailing list, revolving around the question of ‘how to earn money with netart?’ Bruno has decided to start by losing money with netart as a way of understanding finally how to earn some too. He bought keywords through Google Adwords service and published short poems in the form of Google ads. These poems, some nonsensical, some funny, others a bit provocative have appeared when Google search engine was used to search for keywords such as “symptom”, “dream”, “mary” and “money”. Each of these keywords presented it’s own short poem and linked to Bruno’s site.
In 24 hours about 12,000 people saw Bruno’s poems. During the campaign Bruno received messages from Google saying:
“We believe that the content of your ad does not accurately reflect the content of your website. We suggest that you edit your ad text to precisely indicate the nature of the products you offer. This will help to create a more effective campaign and to increase your conversion rate. We also recommend that you insert your specific keywords into the first line of your ad, as this tends to attract viewers to your website”.
After ignoring these messages, Bruno received the following mail:
I am the automated performance monitor for Google AdWords Select. My job is to keep average clickthrough rates at a high level, so that users can consistently count on AdWords ads to help them find products and services.
The last 1,000 ad impressions I served to your campaign(s) received fewer than five clicks. When I see results like this, I significantly reduce the rate at which I show the ads so you can make changes to improve performance.
( … )
The Google AdWords Automated Performance Monitor”
After that the ads were disapproved. Bruno was disappointed.
In his artist statement he discussed the price of words and how different words have different prices, when “sex” costs a lot and “free” is the most expensive word.
Bruno criticized Google for creating such an important public tool which is not based on ethic rules but on economic ones. Indeed Google’s search engine is the closest the web ever got to a street. It is then understandable why an artist would believe he should reclaim this public space. What Bruno’s attempt did not acknowledge was that Google is not a public space. Google is a private property, and though it is holding an extreme power over ‘our life on the web’ Google follows it’s owners terms & condition, and it’s own perspective of commitment to it’s clients. Bruno should not hope to reclaim what was never really his.
I do think The Google AdWords Happening is a very important work though. It is a perfect illustration of the controversial question of online public space and clarifies that if the web indeed have streets, they are governed by corporate powers and should not be mistaken for a public space.
The web was not built to have public spaces, but there is a growing need for them now. These spaces should be non (web-) site specific, and therefore would belong to the public. We should build them as a layer above the current protocol of the web. These spaces would allow for a less orchestrated public interaction, and more creative freedom for internet users. The web is the most informative experiment we have leading a post-globalised governance system, we must acknowledge that fact and understand it’s importance. If we want the world to have a public space tomorrow, we should make sure the web have a public space today.