In spring of 2018, in the ancient streets of Bruges Belgium (incredible city, btw. If it’s not on your must-visit list, it should be), my wife and I were strolling the canal-laiden landscape as we gathered our bearings on the first of our two-day stay. This small city is infinitely walkable, which is super helpful given how easy it is to consume calories in Belgium. Seriously, if the Belgian chocolates, frites, and beer aren’t enough, just glancing at a Belgian Waffle stand will make one’s waistband feel a bit tighter.
Then, around one particular corner, we happened upon something that simply did not fit the ancient cobblestones, canals, and medieval architecture: a massive, 20-foot-tall statue of a whale breaching out of a canal, made from 5 tons of recovered plastic. It was… unexpected, to say the least. But, it had my undivided attention because it was so out of place.
After a bit of investigation, we learned that the giant aquatic mammal—created to raise awareness of the 150 million tons of discarded plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean—was part of the city’s triennial, an arts and cultural event occurring over a few months, every third year. This year’s event encouraged artists to use their installations to raise awareness about crises worldwide, resulting in 15 large-scale art pieces scattered throughout the city. Over the next few days, we explored many of the short-lived pieces. This became one of the highlights of our european trip.
This uptick in issue-focused public art is not just happening in Bruges. Nations, cities and philanthropists have begun capitalizing on this type of community- and awareness-building style of installation, with at least one organization declaring this *the* moment for “artist-activists”.
Where did this trend come from?
For the last century, the mission for public art, as set by the Philadelphia institute of public art, has been to “promote and foster the beautiful” through “architecture, improvements, and the city plan.” Or, as Building Design and Construction put it, “city-making plus art-making equals public art, and, by extension, a good place.”
But, given generational and construction efficiency shifts, the ability to create art in public spaces has shifted towards temporary, arguably pop-up style installations. Once upon a time, creating large public art events took a massive amount of time and resources, so there has always been a focus on permanence. That is certainly no longer the case.
So, why the relatively sudden shift (considering the pace at which art periods transition) toward awareness-based public art? There are certainly a number of factors, but this certainly influenced by the coming of age of Millennials and Gen Z. As we described in the past, both of these generations describe themselves as being extremely socially conscious in their shopping habits. But this inclination extends to other parts of their lives as well, including art exhibits that they both want to experience and create.
And, creating public art installations has gotten really fast! The global supply chain is speedier than ever, and technologies like 3-D printing and laser cutting make that act of creating much faster. Since it requires so much less time (and effort) to create these experiences, the resulting installations don’t have to be permanent, leading to a boom in pop-up art installations.
One more exciting note: this trend is definitely not slowing down. In fact, there is evidence that the effort is expanding into new areas, specifically into public parks. In our backyard of Denver, a rapidly developing neighborhood recently built a pop-up park to raise awareness of the areas lack of… parks. It may be a bit on the nose, but according to organizers the effort was necessary to bring awareness to a growing problem. Depending on how successful their efforts are, the creators will have the option to make the park permanent.
So where else is this trend headed? We’re not sure, but we are quite excited to see where it goes! Have you noticed issue-focused public art in your city? Let us know in the comments!