Making public art with a purpose with Situations’ director Claire Doherty. By Robyn Annear.

Public art producer Claire Doherty

She’s dressed all in black, soft rollneck sweater and slim trousers, flair without ostentation. You get the feeling that inconspicuousness is the key. Though she’s an international leader in the field of public art, her expertise – her renown, even – is as a facilitator, rather than as a maker of art.

Facilitator, though, makes what she does sound bureaucratic, mechanistic. What she calls herself is a producer, which sounds not much better. Say instead that she’s a thinker, advocate, impresario, enabler.

Claire Doherty is founder and head of Situations, a public art commissioning agency based in the old port city of Bristol, in the west of England. When I meet her, she has forgone 10 days of the English summer to co-convene What Happens Now?, the inaugural Public Art Melbourne Biennial Lab. This being Melbourne, the lab is quartered in a repurposed industrial building up a doglegged laneway. Close by is the Queen Victoria Market, where lab participants, 14 “early mid-career” artists, are engaged in a week’s intensive fieldwork, the fruits of which – a crop of temporary public artworks, or “interventions”, in and around the market – will be launched in October, as part of the 2016 Melbourne Festival.

At the heart of the laneway, the lab is an open fire with a sofa set before it. Doherty perches there, taking a bite of lunch between workshop and mentoring sessions. “Where you start is important,” she says. Most clients, when they think of commissioning a public artwork, envisage something permanent, monumental. Her first task is to change their minds. While an artwork that’s a fixture can fade into the background, a temporary one’s impact as a “happening” can make it legendary, living on in the minds of those who experience it. Starting with an expectation that an artwork will be ephemeral is freeing, Doherty says. Once the weight of permanence is removed, a commissioning body feels less anxious about how people will react, and the artist is likewise emboldened.

Sometimes a public artwork intended as temporary is so well received that there’s pressure to keep it. What then? Doherty usually encourages a community to think about what else could fill the gap the artwork has opened. “Perhaps the job of the artwork is not to stay,” she says, “but to show things as if they might be different.”

The potential to trigger change in the public imagination that may, in turn, effect real social change, is what drives Doherty. “What has become clearer to me over time,” she says, “is that I’m really fundamentally committed to social change. You set up the most extraordinary encounters for people, and you want it to matter. Where it’s mattered, that’s when I really get excited.”

She does. While there’s nothing strident about her, she leans forward as she talks, warm, articulate, stoked with ciabatta and quiet conviction. If public art is a catalyst for change, the same can be said of Doherty. In 2013, she issued the provocative “New Rules of Public Art”, among them “Demand more than fireworks” and “Don’t make it for a community. Create a community.” A work of art, she says, draws an incidental audience as well as an intentional one, and the community shaped by the shared, albeit fleeting, encounter counts as no mere byproduct but an integral and reverberating element of the creative act.

Doherty is engaged in the enterprise of place making. “I have come to thinking as much about public time as public space,” she says. “Either its rhythm – how it changes over 24 hours, or a week, or a year – or how the past exists in the present.” In 2015, Situations worked with the artist Theaster Gates to stage Sanctum, 552 hours of continuous live music and spoken word performance in a temporary structure of found materials built within the ruins of a Bristol church. In Oslo, as part of a dockside redevelopment, Situations commissioned Katie Paterson’s Future Library, a public art project that will be realised over the course of a hundred years: a grove of pines, planted for the purpose, will be eventually harvested for the paper on which to print an edition of 100 slim books, to be written at the rate of one a year and kept under seal, unread, until 2114. Just imagine pitching that proposal. Scaling down from permanent to temporary is one thing; but selling a hundred-year gestation period calls for persuasive skills of a stellar order. It was Doherty who did it.

In a morning at the Public Art Lab in Melbourne, I see her lead a workshop, mentor individual artists, play den mother, and do press calls, all with the same easy grace and generosity of attention. She is embedded, as are the artists, for the lab’s duration – with workshops and on-site immersions at Queen Victoria Market, day and night – in “a collective experience of research … a really intense way of getting under the skin of a place”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "Making change".

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Robyn Annear is a writer based in Castlemaine, Victoria.

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