Lewis Biggs (Great Britain), a curator and former director of the Tate Liverpool, a cofounder and longstanding director of the Liverpool Biennial, and one of the curators of “Kaunas 2022” who is responsible for art projects in public spaces. Lewis thinks that real art is born only after its public debate has begun. A few days ago, Lewis Biggs opened “Kaunas 2022” community programme “Fluxus Labs”. Before the event we talked with Lewis about the relationship between art and public spaces, the role of culture in a contemporary society and the aspirations of the Fluxus laboratories.
It would be nice to hear about your practice in Liverpool. How did people receive the artworks that were made there?
There’s a very interesting artwork for this Folkestone Triennial, that I’m not going to talk about today, which is taking possession of an old customs house. Folkestone is on the border between the UK and France, or it was, when there was a ferry, but we no longer have a ferry so the border control function has disappeared. But I love this word ‘customs’ house, because the ‘customs’ was there to impose control and maybe a tax on goods that come into the country, but ‘customs’ is also behaviour or a traditional way of doing things. So if you make re-use of a customs house you are looking at people’s behaviour as well as the place. So it’s a perfect example of how to combine paying attention to people’s behaviour at the same time as investigating public space.
In Kaunas we have this problem that people don’t really feel responsible for public space. Do you think it’s possible to change that and can artistic intervention do that?
Artistic intervention is good for one thing really, which is to make people aware of something. You can’t necessarily know in advance what people will do with information or attention, but unless something has people’s attention then nothing is going to happen. So the thing that art can always do is to bring attention to something. And once attention is brought, then there can be a discussion – but again from that moment you don’t know what is going to happen. As soon as there is a debate about something, then it has entered the public realm. So the work is endless, but if art is to have an effect it’s important to choose physical parts of the town that already have a story built into them. It may be a story about power, or about money, or about art or culture, but very often the stories are not well known, perhaps buried, and need to be exposed or pulled out, and so the artistic intervention can pull out that story and that helps people to think about public space.
Our environment is an embodiment of thought — it shows how people who have lived in this town have thought, and that creates the environment. Conversely, our environment influences the way we think: unless you change the environment there is no sign that you are thinking. Change is something that everybody finds difficult; we like our habits, but of course the world is changing around us all the time and in order to remain alive to that change we need to change the way we think and behave, and that means a change to our physical environment.
It’s important to think in a unitary way all the time, to remember that everything affects everything else, there’s an ecology of the town — you change one thing and everything else will change as a result. But that is not often how we go about our business. We are all of us split in the way we behave, for instance between our role as consumers and our role as citizens. A citizen is an active role and a consumer is a passive role. And we like to do both of those things, and we all need to do both those things. But of course the people who have the power and the money don’t necessarily want us to be citizens, they much prefer us to be consumers because that way life is much easier for them.
Being a director of the Public Art Programme for ‘Kaunas 2022’ and one of the curators of its branch called ‘Tempo Academy of Culture’, a workshop-based training and networking program, could you tell us a little more about this program and its goals? Who can participate in it and how?
The Tempo Academy consists of several programmes, youth programme, professional programme etc. but the part I’m most intimately involved with is the programme for the cultural agents and the Fluxus Labs. In this area, peer learning is very important — it’s about people teaching each other.
The idea of Fluxus is important to the ‘Tempo Academy’. Fluxus means change, and Tempo means time. One of the really interesting things about cultural agency is that until the last 1 or 2 hundred years, culture was about things staying the same. Most forms of culture were there in order to repeat what people already knew, to celebrate that things stayed the same. So religious festivals were there to celebrate what is already there. Culture was there to show that nothing changes, and that the people who hold power don’t change either. The idea that culture doesn’t change is nature-based: nature is cyclical so it changes while always staying the same. But in the last couple of hundred years, since humanity has been making its own environment, ‘nature’ has been replaced by human activity, creating the ecology in which we live. Now, change happens through human agency and change becomes permanent or ‘progressive’ (non-cyclical). Nature is no longer the model: we need a new model. The way that culture has always been organised is about repetition and stasis. Now, it’s important that culture is able to represent change to people. This is very hard. People hate change. So in a way, Fluxus and the Tempo Academy are both about ‘change management’. How to manage people’s expectations about culture, and understand that culture can be a way to help people deal with change in their lives.
Change is happening whether we like it or not, and we have to deal with it. Culture can resist it or culture can work with it. And if it works with change, then we should ask ‘are we heading in a good direction or not’? If culture is used simply to resist all change, then we have a problem, a reactionary situation. But if culture can work with change but make it better (less difficult) for people, then that’s ideal.