One of the major issues contemporary public art practitioners face when working today is a relatively immobile regional culture considering itself to be as ambiguously benign as somewhat bucolic, even pastoral, connected encountering ideas and workings of growing number of globally more mobile and interconnected individuals, whether they be migrants, tourists or urban nomads. The project „What is to be done“ began with an inivitation from a citizen of the small Thüringian town Koelleda to reconceptualize a former monument that underwent a development typical for such monuments in Germany: erected to commemorate soldiers from the town who died during World War I, it was, as so many other similar monuments in Germany, embellished and physically made larger during the Nazi era for propaganda purposes. These purposes centered on, among other well known and documented atrocities, nationalism, heroicising the military, and excluding all deemed to be „other“ or foreign. After World War II, the names of those who had died in WWI were removed and the physically same memorial was transformed into a memorial for victims of fascism under the regime of the former GDR. When the students of the MFA Public Art and New Artistic Strategies of the Bauhaus University Weimar were invited to consider working on this as part of a project, they were confronted with a memorial lying in disrepair, overgrown with weeds, with a massive, healthy tree pushing against the physical remains of the monument so that the stones forming it were in dissaray, 20 years after the „Wende“. The chestnut tree which survived all these transformations attracted the artists attention most directly, and it turns out that the artist comissioned to produce the original monument had fought to preserve the tree, even adjusting the proposal to make this possible. In a place where it is so clear that re-attribution of memory is indicative of deeper political shifts, it emphatically posed the question: „What is to be done?“. Inviting the international program Public Arts and New artistic strategies with its students from many different backgrounds and consequent viewpoints lets the question branch out, as it suggests an openness for considering the broader ramifications of these shifts, of considering the significance of this tiny monument in a broader realm. Looking beyond national boundaries, it seemed to indicate a readiness to be part of a larger memorial fabric while simultaneously suggesting a desire to engage with the label „international“, a currently highly sought after term from a funding perspective. The MFA students engaged with the place, studied maps and plans documenting both the exchange of the original artist proposal with the local government for the first version of the memorial, in particular in relation to his insistence that a tree not be removed for construction, and the subsequent developments. During the course of the project, and in particular the presentation of the students’ proposals, fissures and reconfigurations among local interests became increasingly apparent. In the end, after a process of intense discussion, the proposals by the international artists were rejected in favor of a politically problematic local proposal to simply lump all soldiers who died in war and people who died as a result of Nazi atrocities defended by those same soldiers together, and to summarily uninvite the international artists.
No Windmills this time - just protective forts.
The discussion about the power to define interpretation (Deutungshoheit) that is, who may make visible what where, determines the course of contemporary art in public space.
Contemporary examples in which the presentation of completion of artistic work was prevented or changed and adapted according to public opinion are well known from Kölleda’s immediate surroundings. The work „Willi komm ans Fenster“, changed into „Willi Brandt ans Fenster“ by David Mannstein, can be counted among these. The work can be viewed as permanent installation on the Erfurt hotel building where Willi Brandt, was who the first chancelor of West Germany to travel to the GDR, had stayed overnight. People gathered in front of the hotel to honor the West German chancelor despite strict laws against public demonstrations. Today, this is viewed as an early sign of a public willingness to fight for democratic rights. The event was considered to be worthy of commemoration through a memorial, and a process well known to contemporary artists was implemented: there would be a competition, and a selected jury of experts would decide on a proposal to be realized. Once it was publicized that Mannstein’s proposal had been selected for realization, an intense public debate against the realization of this particular work – a fight about the power to define meaning – followed. The objections to the proposal were so intense that local political support started to fall apart. A compromise had to be found, or the work, intended to address collective memory, would not be realized.
In Mannstein’s case, the artistic concept was changed and adapted according to the requirements of public opinion. At the interface between monument and artwork, public opinion influenced the decision makers to such an extent that the original concept had to either be changed or not be produced at all. Rather than leave the competition, his concept intact, but not physically produced, the artist David Mannstein decided to take the much disputed KOMM out of the proposed fluorescent script „Willi Komm ans Fenster“ – the artist agreed to, basically, compromise his work of art.
In another case involving a work of art in public space, a proposal for the Rollplatz in Weimar by the world famous artist Daniel Buren was selected for realization by a jury in an agreed upon process. Again, the selected artistic proposal so enraged the public that it ultimately had to be scrapped. In order to interpret this situation, the sociologist Suzanne Frank makes the following distinction in her article, Festivalization and the Rollplatz Debate: there are places locally based people perceive as „our own places“ in contrast to locations perceived to be „special places“The „special“ places are places of cultural significance locals are proud to share with a general public. „Our own places“ are not so obviously of high cultural value. They are the backstage, where people relax among peers. In the case of Daniel Buren’s proposal, again, the mayor who had originally been in favor of its realization, bowed to public pressure and in the end moved away from supporting it. Again and again, similar processes can be observed in relation to public art, and over and over again, these processes are described and analyzed in publications, debates, television shows and other media – and there is never a definitive answer as to what constitute a fool proof process for determining what should be on view in public space. Instead the conclusion must be that the actual discussion taking place about about what can be realized where, how and by whom in public space in particular in relation to memorials must be considered to be at least as important as the physical memorials themselves, to be an actual part of the memorial, if not the actual memorial. But „our own space“ and „cultural spaces“ are never as clear cut and separate as Suzanne Frank seems to imply, and even more complicated are the intricate relationships between the ideas of people who consider themselves to belong and therefore seemingly have a greater right to determine what is to be seen and remembered and how – simply by virtue of having lived in a certain place for a longer time period – and those who supposedly don’t.
Seen in a positive way, much in the same way as the example with Willi Brandt ans Fenster – the people currently living in Kölleda are taking up the issue not by defending „our own place“ but by taking it into „their own hands“ in a process of appropriation. They are not simply following the highly valued international artists’ expert vision, which was perhaps, from their perspective, decided upon and handed to them from above via the jury. Instead, the people of Kölleda can be said to have co-opted or repossessed the right to have a „vision“ for themselves, demanding a say in the production of meaning, and not just the process of deciding whose proposal will be realized. But in the process of making it their own they also may be not only endangering the highly valued autonomous expression of the artists specifically invited for the purpose of developing one. The tension between this prized and protected autonomous vision of the artist and the collective, participatory decision making process of what is to be done continues to be fundamental to democracratic processes. It can not be about finding a finite solution, it must be about finding, re-defining and re-evaulating an acceptable process, about the active engagement in and understanding of all positions and histories involved, not lumping them together. It must result in a critical evaluation of every individual’s an every town’s role in historical developments. Sadly, but perhaps predictably, the people of Koelleda decided to disregard the „international“ non-local artists proposals, whom they had specifically invited to develop ideas, and whitewash and blur the specificities of history by lumping the victims and perpretators and defenders of a government responsible for the holocaust together under the label of „Honorary Monument for the Victims of Violence and Violent Regimes“.