You’ve probably experienced “Urban Interventionism” without knowing it. Falling under the rubric of “activist art”, it’s the kind of art installation that attempts to directly involve the audience, often constituted as passers-by on the street. Usually designed as an interruption in the urban fabric, this is socially active art that changes public spaces into temporary art galleries on what can seem like an improvisational basis.
In this vein, the Amsterdam-based Droog agency has just launched Urban Play along a portion of that city’s riverfront. Featuring works by “some of the most notorious urban interventionists,” the work actively encourages public participation/documentation by the public. Under the banner of the larger ExperimentaDesign Biennale currently running through the 2nd of November in both Amsterdam and Utrecht, the exhibit is one of the few times in which so many of these artists, together, have a legal and comissioned forum of expression. At least I think it’s legal. (update: some people are confused)
Reversing the traditional approach to urban design, in which objects and areas are created explicitly to discourage public interaction and intervention, this collection of objects will be created to encourage interaction and physical engagement by the public.
At first I thought the idea of bringing together a group of artists like this actually ran counter to my preconceived notions of what Urban Interventionism means, but rather than being subversive for the sake of it, most of the artists and their respective work simply operate outside the normal “channels” of the art world–no funding, no authorization, just creative expression with the specific intent of altering urban spaces.
While some social attitudes have previously dismissed urban intervention as a form of vandalism, at the heart of this current wave of DIY urban design is in fact a deeply sophisticated movement driven by artists and designers who want to expand our relationship between creativity and the city.
Besides, the exhibition strives to ask a series of questions about art in the city, questions like “can a city tolerate its residents interacting with it in alternative ways?” or “what is the limit of urban intervention?” And the legal status of all the Amsterdam installations is (intentionally?) left unclear, meaning some of the exhibits might test the city’s limits in untold ways–these people don’t get casually labelled “pranksters” by local governments for nothing, after all.
After the exhibition in Amsterdam, Urban Play will continue on to other various European cities. I’ve only ever experienced Urban Interventionism second-hand, through newspaper articles, design sites, and various recountings. While collecting a series of these city-mods together might take away some of the experience of stumbling upon an “intervention” at random, I’ll gladly trade a touch of spontaneity to see so many designers at work in what is undoubtedly the new direction in street art.
From small interventions such as a series of stickers that turn the London Underground’s Northern Line map into an interactive game to bold projects that transform chain-link fences in Chicago into public message boards, these actions fall outside of traditional notions of urban activity, and are quickly relegated to the margins, often labeled as subversive, underground, or even illegal. Urban Play is an international project that believes this street-level inventiveness, energy and innovation is a window into a new form of creativity in the city.