Coming Out of Materiality : Public Art and Sexuality in the Digital Age

Publié le 12 juin 2017 par Institut du Genre

Séminaire "Dynamiques spatiales du genre" (umr Géographie-cités)

Jeudi 15 juin – 14.30 – 16.30
Université Paris Diderot
Bâtiment Olympe de Gouges, salle M019

Martin Zebracki (Université de Leeds)

Coming Out of Materiality : Public Art and Sexuality in the Digital Age

Discutante : Elise Olmedo (UMR Géographie-cités)

Dr Martin Zebracki
School of Geography, University of Leeds
United Kingdom

The digital age compels a rethinking of the conceptual ramifications of art in public space within its conventional material contexts of design and experience. This invited address is informed by my present research agenda on the reconfiguration of everyday possibilities for engagement with public art as enabled by digital technologies. Although there is an upsurge of interest in digital geographies across the arts and humanities, the implications of the affordances of emerging mobile and online technologies, and especially the roles of networks of social media platforms (i.e., Web 2.0), remain under-examined as for public-art engagement. The particular niche that I tap in this presentation is how the relationship between digital technologies and public art revolves around sexual identity performance.

This presentation elaborates my recent virtual ethnographic case study on encounters with a notable social media phenomenon : Tree (see Zebracki, M., Queerying Public Art in Digitally Networked Space. Research article accepted in ACME : An International Journal for Critical Geographies). The shape of this 24-m high inflatable by Paul McCarthy, which was temporarily installed in Place Vendôme in Paris in October 2014, appeared to be more suggestive than its title. In the vernacular of social media networks, Tree became hashtagged as plug anal and alike. As postmodern, sexualised artwork, it questioned, or ‘queeried’ so to speak, hegemonic material properties and social values in multiple respects.

Radical (online) onlookers conceived of Tree, with its American artist, as out of place. It was deemed a disembodiment of French traditions of permanent statuary and classical architectural style and of heteropatriarchal society more widely. For some, Tree even epitomised the antipole of the alleged romantic image of Paris. Although the material artwork was vandalised swiftly after its installation, Tree’s digital reincarnation is still ongoing – which, in a sense, seizes the quality of a monumental public artwork of the digitally networked society.

Sexuality-inflected public artwork, such as Tree, commonly involves the pronounced formation of a publicly politicised forum, characterised by an ambiguous dialogue between marked support and explicit resistance. I elucidate how digital engagement with such controversial public artwork is part and parcel of the co-emergence of significant human attention and robotic/cyborgian circulation. This practice entails the (collaborative) digital reproduction, and ensuing mutation, of public artwork within often viral, phatic exchanges within the digitally networked spaces of social media.

In a current working paper, I provokingly render the process of turning material public artwork with sexuality-related content into a social media phenomenon as coming out. I argue how I deliberately re-appropriate this powerful, yet problematic, metaphor to ‘queery’ established dualisms, including those between the physical and the digital, the permanent and the ephemeral, the public and the private, the artist and the amateur, and the human and the non-human. In so doing, I explain the transitional, hybrid qualities of these dualisms.

My working paper, furthermore, addresses the methodological and epistemological implications of analysing perceived uses and misuses of public art through digital technologies from an etic approach (as outside observer) and emic approach (as inside, active online user as well as art engager). Accordingly, my presentation critically reflects on employing digital public art both as research subject and research tool, where I ponder on the empirical and ethical potentialities, limitations and perils of online public-art research.

In conclusion, I discuss the contributions of my research to wider scholarship on digital, art and sexual geographies. I end with proposing agendas for progressing research at the crossroads of public art, sexuality and social inclusion/exclusion in the post-urban condition of the digital age.

Photograph of Tree
Title : “Happy Birthday, Paul McCarthy ! We still love his “Tree” that shocked Paris.” The digital reincarnation of Tree (2014) still carries on, as conveyed by this public tweet from Saatchi Art, the world’s leading online gallery, a year after the artwork’s material disappearance. Photo credit : Saatchi Art.

Dr Martin Zebracki is Lecturer in Critical Human Geography in the School of Geography, University of Leeds. His current research revolves around intersecting geographies of (digital) public art, (sexual) citizenship and social inclusiveness. Zebracki is the author of Public Artopia : Art in Public Space in Question (Amsterdam University Press, 2012), The Everyday Practice of Public Art : Art, Space, and Social Inclusion (with Cameron Cartiere, Routledge, 2016) and Public Art Encounters : Art, Space and Identity (with Joni Palmer, Routledge, 2017). Zebracki serves on the Editorial Boards of Art & the Public Sphere and Geo : Geography and Environment and acts as Secretary of the Sexualities and Queer Research Group of the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers).

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