“Public Space in a Private Time (Remix)” by Megan Sallabedra
Vito Acconci, remixed*
The model for a new public art is pop music. Music is time and not space; music has no place, so it doesn’t have to keep its place, it fills the air and doesn’t take up space. Its mode of existence is to be in the middle of things; you can do other things while you’re in the middle of it. It’s a song you can’t get out of your head.
The model for a new public art is everywhere. Pop music is multidirectional. You take it with you. You move from your home to car to work to some vast open “public” space, all the while listening to the same song or album, either because you’re accessing a predetermined playlist on your portable device or because you’re tuning in to pop radio stations, all playing the same songs. You’re not in front of it, and you don’t go around it, or through it; the music goes through you, and stays inside you.
Pop music is public space. In order for public space to be a gathering place, where all the people are gathered together as a public, it needs a gathering point. These points are on the radio dial—AM or FM—and easily accessible. In the car you move from point to point, from public to public. In between the dials you are nowhere, but the mechanisms of technology don’t let you stay there. You push a button and skip to the next station, a new gathering place, a new public.
The electronic age obliterates space and overlaps places. The electronic age has obliterated the space between stations. The electronic age overlaps time, the various places on the dial.
The music of the seventies was punk; the music of the eighties was rap. The music of the nineties was grunge; the music of the twenty-first century is auto-tuned. Each of these types is music that says: you can do it, too. You don’t need a professional recording studio; anybody can do it, in the garage and in the house. The message of punk was: do what you can do and do it over and over until everybody else is driven crazy. The message of rap was: if something has been done better by somebody else, who had the means to do it, then steal it, and remix it; tape is cheap and airspace is free. The message of grunge was nirvana: if you live under the rule of the middle class, confined to a little box made of ticky-tacky, and you have a guitar, you have a way out. You might never leave your garage, but you’re on another plane of existence. In the twenty-first century everyone has Garage Band on his or her computer; if something has been done better by somebody else, who had the means to do it, then steal it, cover it, and put it on YouTube. The music of now is the cover, the remix, the mash-up.
On the radio, on the dial, all of these musics exist at once. You move from punk to rap to grunge to auto-tuned ballad in the space of a second. You walk down the street and hear one song from the soundbox you carry with you, another song blaring out of an audio speaker in front of a store, one more through an open bedroom window, yet another car with still one more, and then another, as the driver changes stations. This mix of musics produces a mix of cultures. This mix of musics produces a mix of times. You change stations and you’re in the seventies, you change stations and you’re in the nineties, you change stations and you’re in the auto-tuned present. The implication of a “virtual place” is that there’s no time without space—the past of the future can’t be prelived or relived without a place to live it in. A “virtual place” puts the place into the field of geography, but a fragment of geography that’s cut off from its neighbors; you’re in place, but you can’t go from place to place. In Los Angeles, you live in a car. A fragment of geography that’s cut off from its neighbors. You’re in place, but you can’t go from place to place. You move from station to station, from time to time, while sitting in the driver’s seat.
Time is fast, and space is slow. You don’t move fast on the freeways, but you have all of history at your fingertips. On one station, the year you were born, on another, the year your parents got married. Space is an attempt to place time and understand time; space is a need to have something to see and solid ground to stand on; space is a desire to follow the course of events and to believe in cause and effect. In a fast time, public space—in the form of an actual place with boundaries—is a slowing-down process, an attempt to stop time and go back in history and revert to an earlier age. It used to be, you could walk down the streets of a city and always know what time it was. Now we carry time with us, we have time in the palm of our hands. Time is part of a package deal; it comes with our phones, our cars, on our computers. Public space, in an electronic age, is space on the run. Public space is not space in the city but the city itself. Not nodes but circulation routes; not buildings and plazas but roads and bridges.
In the space that is public, the public whose space this is has agreed to be a public; these are people “in the form of the city,” they are public when they act “in the name of the city.” They “own” the city only in quotes. The establishment of certain space in the city as “public” is a reminder, a warning, that the rest of the city isn’t public. Los Angeles doesn’t belong to us. Los Angeles is a maze of private spaces, open to the public.
Private space becomes public when the public wants it; public space becomes private when the public that has it won’t give it up. The space that is made public began as its own opposite. This was a space that was never meant to be public at all: a royal space, or a presidential space, or a corporate space. Los Angeles is made up of corporate spaces: the Staples Center, the Nokia Theater, Wells Fargo Plaza, Clear Channel Communications establish our “public” spaces, the nodes and cluster-spaces establishing our circulation routes across the city.
Groups of people form territories, as if over a vast plain. Each cluster acts as if it doesn’t need the rest of the space. In fact, it doesn’t want the rest of the space; the cluster-space exists as democratic only as long as it keeps the rest of the space out. The more people break in, and make the cluster bulge, the more the cluster dissolves into individual parts that would spread out indefinitely until one person from within or without reshapes them into something bigger than a cluster, something that needs—and that is an—organization. Radio stations are cluster-spaces, democratic points on the dial only as long as they aren’t discovered by too many listeners and begin to become popular and bulge. Radio exists without a leader. Airspace is free. So long as a station, a cluster-space, a movement remains undiscovered, it can sneak into the dominant culture; once people begin to break into the cluster-space, tuning in purposefully and frequently, it reshapes into something bigger. The space becomes public because the public wants it; the space becomes multidirectional, spreading out indefinitely, pop. Of course pop music exploits minority cultures, but at the same time it “discovers” and uncovers them so that they become born again to sneak into and under the dominant culture.
The public exists as raw material; it exists only so that it can be mesmerized by a solo voice, only so that it can follow a leader.
But there are so many voices…
To keep itself intact, the cluster moves indoors where it has walls to preserve it. When “place” is embodied concretely enough to be “sensed,” it has been distinguished from the places surrounding it. The indoor cluster-place has embedded, within its own category, the principle of its own negation. The prototype of the self-destructive cluster-place is the rock music club. The club has, as its end, the playing of music that draws people into the club and keeps them there as paying customers; but the end of the music itself—if it isn’t stopped too soon, before it’s too late—is to be so loud and so strong that the walls shatter: the goal of the music is, literally, to bring the house down. In Los Angeles, the indoor cluster-space is the car; it has, as its end, the radio, the playing of which keeps them inside, part of a public sharing a “virtual place” on the radio. The model for a new public art in for Los Angeles has embedded the principle of its own negation—a vast earthquake of sound.
So keep your hands free and your eyes wide open and your ear to the ground.
*All text in italics is from Vito Acconci, “Public Space in a Private Time” (1990), reprinted in Art and the Public Sphere, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 158–76. Text in roman is the author’s own.