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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Art for Park's Sake

A couple weekends ago I heard a news story about Yantai Park in China -- a story of public works being influenced by an artist. According to the source of the story:

Park officials in China have found a way to stop people from hogging their benches for too long - by fitting steel spikes on a coin-operated timer.

If visitors at the Yantai Park in Shangdong province, eastern China, linger too long without feeding the meter, dozens of sharp spikes shoot through the seat.

The spikes are too short to cause any serious harm - but long enough to prevent people from sitting on them comfortably.

Park bosses got the idea from an art installation in Germany where sculptor Fabian Brunsing created a similar bench as a protest against the commercialisation of modern life.

Here's video of the work by Brunsing:

PAY & SIT: the private bench (HD) from Fabian Brunsing on Vimeo.

I have to admit a degree of skepticism toward the veracity of this story. It's been much-disseminated, but thinly sourced. For one thing, it seems like an awfully costly way to keep people moving. I was living in San Francisco when the city changed the design of the bus stop benches -- they went from being normal, static benches to thin slats which, when you stood up from them, swiveled on hinges at the sides so that the flat seating surface dropped vertical.

I wondered what the designer of those benches was thinking when he or she designed them. I'm sure it was possible to rationalize the design as something that returned the benches to their original utility: letting commuters have a place to sit, rather than having that place co-opted by snoozing vagrants. Regardless, the design helped to turn public spaces more transparently ruthless. It was impossible to just think of a bench as just a bench -- it was also politics.

(It should additionally be noted that it was impossible to sleep on them, but it was also uncomfortable to sit on them. In preparation for the commute, you were no longer sitting but perching, in a slightly anxious posture that, in the morning, abetted the nervous jolt of your first shot of coffee, and in the evening gave one final sciatic tweak to a back that had suffered eight or more hours propped by the minimal ergonomics of office furniture. That was the one point at which the design was at least somewhat egalitarian -- it wasn't just the behavior of the homeless that was being modified. )

If the Yantai park story is a fake, the general acceptance of it signals China as a prime imaginative locale into which we can project our anxieties about the future -- our anxieties about the scale at which modern life is pitched. It wouldn't be entirely unearned. The certifiably-true story of the 11-day traffic jam in China managed to make Godard's celebrated traffic-jam tracking shot in "Week End" seem kind of quaint:

If the Yantai park story is true, it's yet another demonstration of the feebleness of satire in the face of the news. The velocity of the imagination can't keep up with the outrageousness of contemporary exigency. In this sort of environment, artists can easily turn from social critics to reluctant "visionaries" -- and it's only a matter of time before Krzysztof Wodiczko's "homeless vehicles" start rolling off an assembly line, as a matter of public policy.

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