These are bad times for public art. Municipal budgets are tight and spaces are increasingly privatized. Large projects—the mythical Bilbao Effect—may be good for tourists, but they cannot brighten every neighbourhood. The squeeze, in other words, is on.
Such challenging times place the onus on alternate sources to fill in the gaps. This state of affairs is not necessarily a great thing—praising the charity of individuals, pace the Democratic convention, is no substitute for a comprehensive social welfare state—but that doesn’t make the actions of those trying to fill in the gaps any less laudable.
Go to various sites across the city, pick up your phone, and see sculptures grow on a building’s façade or poetry hang between trees like a hammock. Some of these things could be built, but they haven’t been. Instead they live on, untrammelled by the elements or time. It’s a strange kind of permanence, both invisible to the public and yet insulated from time itself—maybe.
This approach to public art calls to mind Charles W. Moore’s 1965 essay, “You Have To Pay For the Public Life.” Moore was concerned with the development of suburban California and its oppressive sameness. He was not smitten with the kitsch of Disneyland—also a recent development—but recognized the importance of a needs-must attitude in trying times, writing:
For the opportunity, the actual commission to create a public realm, we must look to other sources than the Establishment of other times or other places, to people or institutions interested at once in public activity and in place. We depend, in part, on more Disneys, on men willing to submerge their own Mickey Mouse visions in a broader vision of greater public interest, and who are nonetheless willing and able to focus their attention on a particular problem and a particular place.
That, in effect, is where Miami finds itself with Lapse. This is not a perfect form of public art, requiring that you have a smartphone and some forewarning to experience it. In terms of building a perfectly democratic experience, it is suboptimal. But that doesn’t mean that it, like Pokémon Go, cannot get people out of their houses to experience the world and come together, albeit with a certain degree of intermediation. As in Moore’s 1965 California, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good when it comes to public art.