Open Source Public Art: A Proposed Model

Public art projects have the potential to unite or divide communities. Public artworks have proven to have a highly beneficial impact when community residents feel they have been consulted, informed, involved and invited to participate. When a community feels a large scale project has been conducted without their involvement, complaints and ill will are likely to arise. Accordingly, most contemporary public art programs involve some level of community engagement, generally through consulting with community leaders and organizations, as well as through community participation in the design or fabrication of projects which can be adapted to group efforts, such as murals or mosaics.

Even in the best circumstances, however, participation in public art projects is typically limited to existing groups and organizations which can be easily reached. Until recently, there has been no feasible way to reach out to entire communities or neighborhoods except through the proxy of community leaders and selected participation in the work. While this model has produced a great many successful projects, I believe the level of participation could be made much broader by utilizing online tools for collaboration and social networking. This new approach to community participation in public art was initially inspired by the open source movement.

Open Source, Collaboration and Community

Over the last few years, the web has been transformed from a read-only medium to a read/write space. This shift puts an emphasis on feedback, participation, community and collaboration. The best example of this is probably Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia written collaboratively by its readers, but there are many other examples. Collaboration and community play a huge role in contemporary artwork as well. Music, design, film, visual art, performance and installations have found the open source model to be of great benefit. Most of the work produced in this fashion remains in a digital format, but the communication tools used to facilitate these works could offer just as much value in the design and creation of large physical works.

In most public art projects, there are at least four specific
entities which must come together and achieve some degree of consensus
in order to realize a successful project:

  • Community: the people who live, work or visit the area
    where the art is to be placed. In many cases, the community will also
    be involved in the creation and/or design of the artwork.
  • Public Space: The place where the art will go, representatived by the owners or managers of the space.
  • Artist(s): The person or persons responsible for the design
    and creation of the work or for overseeing and guiding participants in
    the creation of the work.
  • Funding Body: The persons or organization responsible for
    buying materials, paying non-volunteer workers on the project, as well
    as associated costs such as documentation, community outreach, etc.

What I would like to build is an online center for the creation of public art. The goals of such a site would be as follows:

  • Allow anyone to initiate a potential project, whether they are
    • an artist,
    • an individual or representative of a community,
    • the owner or manager of a potential site for art
    • a funding body.
  • To help artists, communities, spaces and funders find each other and choose the best partners for their specific goals.
  • Facilitate communication and organization for a project, through:
    • discussion on bulletin boards, blogs or wikis
    • community review, discussion and revision of posted images
    • allowing community members to vote on proposed designs, and submit their own ideas in a visual format.
    • tracking funding and spending in public, making the accounting accountable
    • sharing research materials (links, photos, text, etc)
    • scheduling work and events using an online calendar
    • a channel for grassroots funding of a project
    • templates for flyers and letters available to
      help mobilize support offline.
  • A permanent archive of projects, with documentation of the
    entire process from start to finish. This would include archives of
    discussions, design revisions, photos or video of work in progress and of the
    completed work.
  • A collection of resources, techniques and accumulated wisdom based on past experience.

This idea is a work in progress, and like the open source movement on which it is based, I welcome suggestions, revisions, and especially collaboration on building or collecting the tools to make it work.