Our real and virtual environments have merged during the pandemic and blurred once and for all the distinction between the private and the public space. We hence set out to paint alternative images of public spaces that draw contrasting perspectives of what we value in the public space. We experiment with a dimension of enquiry reflected in the arts-based research movement. The public space shaping up during the pandemic has meant a frequent need to merge the private and public sphere, along with our personal and professional lives. This project has also acquired a participatory research dimension, as we produced and built the argument on a related podcast in dialogue with people representing various backgrounds and social groups.
The ensuing discussion is mediated by the experience of a street art festival and its ‘forced’ move to the virtual sphere in 2021. Fisart is a street art festival started in the city of Timisoara, and Virtual Fisart has been its virtual manifestation during the pandemic. The shift of daily interactions to the virtual world provided an opportunity to rethink the impact of interventions in the urban environment, and the significance of a universal framework anchored in the virtual public space. This invites the reassessment of accessibility of public culture. We propose the comparison of street art as created in the real, versus the virtual sphere. Yet, as we transcend the real and the virtual space, we note new opportunities to consider street art, as a tool to promote inclusivity in a shared public space.
Our cities as public spaces could be defined as ‘inclusive cities’ that offer cultural inclusion by locating and transferring the content of street art works. These are crucial elements of the visual information system and integrating factor of the local community and a way of constructing the identity of the public realm. The city as a sensory, emotional experience offers intense social processes. It is that feeling that overwhelms city dwellers because of its size and excess. Street art becomes vital for the regeneration of ‘wounded spaces’ or of ‘visually wounded spaces’ that are simultaneously ‘socially wounded’. These can be spaces that suffer from an identity crisis resulting from the lack of identification of people with their place of living.
The experience of virtual street art and spaces further allows to reconsider the possibility to enhance the way in which we shape the world around us. It also leads to the question of what constitutes a more accessible public space, and how that can be enhanced through street art. We redefine the public space, from its conception as a busy transit place, to a destination allowing for contemplation. This is in contrast with an emphasis on public infrastructure, for example prioritising transportation networks in urban design. There, people are helped to move away from shared spaces, reinforcing separate private spaces. These can define prosperous individual daily lives, but trigger separateness and alienation and result in urban decline. Public art and design of inclusive public spaces allows instead for the coming together of various dimensions, from the visual to our spatial perceptions, stimulating a unifying human wellbeing.
Valuing Public Space through real and virtual cultural goods
While the public space of our cities can be seen as a place of struggle, where people gather to challenge established power structures, it has been historically designed to capture and reflect the wellbeing in an urban context. Economic development is also measured by the conditions prevailing in our local or urban settings. But wellbeing for groups and individuals is known to ensue from a variety of factors beyond the economic sphere. A good example is the satisfaction we derive from freely available public cultural goods and access to these, both today and across time and space.
Moreover, as we question our ‘work-life’, the implication is that life happens somewhere outside the sphere of economic activity or the workplace. As social beings we devote a large part of interacting with others. Time dedicated to families, friends, and social networks are the best predictors of wellbeing in the public space. The spaces of interaction and what defines it matters, as it sets the scene for support, information, and ideas we provide each other.
Extending interactions in virtual public spaces, allows such exchanges to expand and to connect easier with our cultural and artistic heritage. The virtual space has the ability to synthesise and sometimes recreate cultural goods, making them accessible beyond the ‘city walls’, as global public goods. The ever-increasing pervasiveness of communication technologies links people, but also reconfigures the meaning of the traditional public space. The capacity to generate wellbeing in the traditional, city context, of public spaces is challenged. As the pandemic has shown us, we crave direct human interaction. The limitless virtual space has temporarily substituted real public spaces, permitting public arts and culture to survive, yet it can barely substitute the original expression of public culture in its ‘city space’.
In fact, limitless as the online public space might seem, it comes with serious limitations, especially for those usually on the fringes of society. Marginal groups are negotiating access along new limitations: from the availability of online connectivity to the ability to navigate the virtual public space. The constraints of disability or social capital are at least as severe in the vast virtual space as in our cities and real spaces requiring a careful, inclusive design for enhanced accessibility to all.
In virtual spaces, constraints to public culture are also diversified – from the lack of possibility of ‘random encounters’ with the art in our streets and public spaces, to the ability to enjoy cultural goods enhanced by human interaction – such as the experience of a live concert, the theatre or the murals on a real city wall. Despite such limitations, the migration of public art forms to the virtual space – including of street art – allows us to both appreciate and reappraise the value we derive from our public spaces.
The next section looks more closely at the way in which street art, which has been inherently constructed as an inclusive art form, accessible to all in the city space, has redefined itself and learnt from the experience of numerous lockdowns during the recent pandemic. It thereby had both the potential to re-emerge as a more enhanced form of public art and to review its mission upon return to the real public space and cities. By the new option of sharing the virtual public space, it might allow for enhanced inclusion and representation in the public consciousness.
Moving street art from the real to the virtual public space
Our first question is how street art itself can be reconfigured to facilitate ongoing access and inclusivity of what normally belongs to public spaces. Then, can the virtual space substitute or complement and perhaps enhance the public space and street art beyond such temporary closures as experienced during the pandemic? Finally, what can public artists do in the virtual space to which the pandemic temporary confines them, and what can they learn from the experience of public space ‘closures?
Public space is a common value, a meeting place, and thus includes in the virtual space created by new technologies. Street art has been perceived over the years as an illegal activity, unworthy on the art market and hence classified as delinquency rather than creating value in the public space. We first wish to reframe street art in public spaces as a new way to enhance wellbeing, even where it sometimes generates negative reactions from the public or authorities. While acts of vandalism are condemned and are usually labelled as such under various manifestations of graffiti, street art in its positive acceptance is encouraged. The goal is cultural and aesthetic enrichment of the urban space. Being figurative and accessible, street art reaches an audience reluctant to the supposed hermetic character of contemporary art. Moreover, street art as captured by anyone in photographs, taken in public spaces, flows easily with the stream of images that feed social networks. Indeed, social media has made street art not only acceptable, but highly valuable, and perhaps less controversial.
We can also emphasise that photography has been, is and will always be an important component for planning, making and documenting works of art in public space in the context of urban aesthetics. The photos taken are an integral part of the planning process of various works in the architectural and urban context. As it stands, photography of street art in the urban space has been the only certain way in which to access and understand street art in the future. This is because photography remains unchanged, while the work in in the street has been designed to alter over time, or even permanently disappear. As a next step, we proposed for street art to be now created on a virtual city canvas, using photographs of different city walls and spaces. Virtual murals can then be virtually enjoyed and accessed, despite both artists and the public being confined away from real streets and city spaces.
Case study: Fisart as street art between the real and the virtual public space
From the temptation to intervene in the public space, to experiment artistically with visual codes that reflect different ideals, messages and perceptions about the world, the Fisart (i.e., the Timișoara International Street Art Festival) concept was born. Over the years it acquired public artistic value and became internationally recognised thanks to renowned international artists contributing to the city’s public space. The city of Timisoara has emerged as a scene where the possibilities of artistic expression are unlimited, accessible, and never finalised. Fisart is the most representative Street Art festival in Romania, transforming in just a few years the city of Timișoara into a museum of street art and bringing together various approaches and styles, as well as the city’s inhabitants and its visitors.
The ‘right to the city’ for artists corresponds to a development of the city’s image through visual and artistic regeneration of the urban public space. The transformation of the city, the changes in the existence and structure of human communities, the evolution of architectural forms, new ways of artistic expression as generated by new techniques, technologies and materials, have influenced and transformed in the last century the typology of Urban Art or Art in the Public Space (APS). Moreover, as a form of public art, it is essentially more involved in the life of the community to which this art form belongs. APS has been in fact conceived as a kind of urban art workshop – as performance in progress. The events that Fisart proposes in this context brings to the public freshness, and an extraordinary variety of themes, languages and techniques of urban art forms, along with awareness through direct and indiscriminatory public exposure.
Inclusion is the central theme of a healthy society and accommodating its diversity in the public domain is a right of all members of society. Every city dweller has a right to the city. Fisart has thus become vital to an inclusive city by promoting creative expressions and increasing the attractiveness of public spaces – while making the urban landscape more individual to different experiences. It raises awareness of the power of each of us to design a symbolic space, of harmony and social cohesion, in which we focus on the things that bring us together and make us feel part of the community. An example of resulting work is from the walls of School no 1 in Timisoara, made for and with the children studying there.