things are gener­ally different behind closed doors1
Case Studies, Art in Public Space
Thorsten Goldberg

The artwork shall adapt to the archi­tec­ture and to the spatial condi­tions, it shall connect to the site and address its topic, it shall create iden­tity with the insti­tu­tion and be clearly visible from the outside. The artwork shall mark the place and create an artistic sign­post as well as be harmo­nized with the surround­ings. The char­acter and the historic func­tion of the surrounding shall be taken into consid­er­a­tion. The artwork shall be uniquely created for the special situ­a­tion. It shall be socially friendly, contain aesthetic values refer­ring to the sights of the area and fulfill educa­tional purposes as a piece of contem­po­rary art…” These are just some recent excerpts from various calls for proposals.

Contracting author­i­ties and offi­cial quar­ters as well as the public typi­cally place great demands on art in public space. The expec­ta­tions gener­ally differ much from art that takes place behind closed doors. Art in public space shall always be more than just a work of art.

So what can art in public space and art on construc­tion add to the public realm apart from being art? Should it supereroga­tory add anything at all? Does addi­tional content or extra benefit distin­guish it from art in an exhi­bi­tion room? And is the demanded purpose a bonus or is it an ingredient?

So how can public art contribute without super­fi­cially being useful?

On the basis of the most typical demands I will describe my approach and exem­plify them:

  1. Art as a memorial 

In the polit­ical situ­a­tion in Berlin just after the fall of the wall – while any reminders of the infe­rior system and of the border were about to be erased as quickly as possible – some wondered about how to put the brakes on this fast oblivion. How could the former border at least be marked without being suspected of raising a monument?

The compe­ti­tion Übergänge (Tran­si­tions) in Berlin is an example of the search for new forms of commem­o­rating histor­ical events that took place in Berlin in the 90s.

One of the tran­si­tions between East and West was the Ober­baum Bridge across the Spree. Since its construc­tion in 1902, the Ober­baum-Bridge has been one of the city’s most diverse commuting inter­sec­tions: cars, bicy­cles and pedes­trians, as well as subways and tramways, cross boat routes and regional and admin­is­tra­tive fron­tiers. Demol­ished in 1945 as a result of Hitler’s ‘Nero’ order and temporarily recon­structed in the 50’s. For 30 years after 1961 any form of commuting came to a complete stop. The bridge became a barri­cade, through which from 1972 “meagre rivulets of old-age pensioners” …were let out from the East and from the other side… “an even more dismal trickle of West­ber­liners … was let in” (after paying a toll fee).

As well as becoming a monu­ment to the Cold War, “the Ober­baum-Bridge docu­ments the conflicting desire of late 19th century Berlin’s middle-class and impe­rial society’s will to move towards metro­pol­itan modern­iza­tion, despite deeply-rooted conser­vatism”. In effect, the bridge is “19th century Berlin’s history built across the Spree.” 2

Each aspect of the Ober­baum-Bridge exem­pli­fies a segment of Berlin’s history. It is not only the name, which derives from the pile bridge rein­forced with tree trunks that was part of the city limits of Berlin-Coelln during the time of Friedrich Wilhelm I, but also its design, deco­ra­tion and method of construc­tion were consid­ered to be rather unique, even at the time. Its subse­quent destruc­tion, provi­sional rein­state­ment and slow decay due to lack of use, before its restora­tion, and current contro­versy about its tech­nical adequacy and present use, empha­size each era’s social prob­lems – perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in Berlin.

As a result of the compe­ti­tion Übergänge, Rock Paper Scis­sors is a marking the former inner-city fron­tier crossing between East and West in Berlin since 1997 now with a random­ized Neon Game.

Two round light boxes are installed in the central span­drel of the elevated railway bridge above the river Spree. Inside each box are three curved neon tubes (yellow, red and blue) depicting the contours of hand move­ments. These are the gestures of the game Rock paper scis­sors to which the title refers: the red line forms an outstretched hand (paper), the yellow line shows splayed fingers (scis­sors) and the blue line forms the contours of a clenched fist (rock). With the aid of a random gener­ator the outlines change in posi­tion and color every six seconds.

A game of chance, in a seem­ingly inex­tri­cable situ­a­tion – two people stand oppo­site each other – where neither argu­ment, nor violence will bring up a deci­sion. By using this game of chance, the divi­sion of the city and the signif­i­cance of the bridge as a border crossing between East and West Berlin from 1972 to 1989 are put in an artistic context.

More than just marking the former borders of the two polit­ical systems, the game ques­tions the histor­ical inevitability. With reduced styl­istic means, the work asks to what extent polit­ical deci­sions ulti­mately depend on chance, i.e. imply a moment of arbitrariness.

Play­ful­ness turns into ironic obser­va­tions on the apparent inevitability of compe­ti­tion between polit­ical systems and its histor­ical signif­i­cance. Its simplicity or play­ful­ness does not mean to triv­i­alize the situ­a­tion, but using simple symbols makes it univer­sally comprehensible.

  1. Art as land­mark / place-making

The NETG in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is an over 500.000 square foot (46.500 m²) transit garage, that will be home to more than 320 workers, from bus-drivers, bus main­te­nance staff to admin­is­tra­tors, super­vi­sors and cafe­teria and custo­dial staff. NETG will accom­mo­date 300 buses, 35 main­te­nance bays and much more. The project repre­sents a signif­i­cant invest­ment in public infra­struc­ture in this area in Edmonton. The inter­na­tional call for art asked for a land­mark, a sculp­tural focal element that is recog­niz­able and distinct by day and night, a site-specific, place-making public art and a signa­ture artwork for the new building.

The NETG is a huge elon­gated building with five large super­struc­tures on top. My inten­tion was not to beau­tify but to clarify the struc­ture and to tell a story of the place, by taking it to an extreme. I wanted to exag­gerate the enor­mous size of the building, point to its purpose as a building for public trans­port and pick up the vacancy and the expanse of the Cana­dian landscape.

Next to the North East Transit Garage leads the Yellow­head Highway, this impor­tant East-West link that contributed signif­i­cantly to the settle­ment of the country. Like all the major east-west routes of the world, it has a long tradi­tion. Going West has not only always been a dream from a Euro­pean perspec­tive. And so the hopes and the pledge contained in this route are still felt today - all this is percep­tible in this place.

Addi­tion­ally next to the site there is the Cana­dian Pacific Railway. Just in sight of the NETG are endless rows of large containers being trans­ported from East to West and back. Stan­dard­ized containers with their large signs are emblem­atic of today’s global move­ment of goods. These containers on the train are very similar in their propor­tions to the lanterns laying on top the roof of the NET-Garage.

So here begins my story of the building and the long journey to the west: 53°20’N is a collec­tion of five topo­graphic models depicting moun­tain land­scapes from loca­tions sitting on the same lati­tude (53°20’) as Edmonton in Canada. They will be built in stain­less steel in the scale of 1:1.000 and mounted upright on the facing sides of the lanterns on the roof of the North East Transit Garage building.

The models depict loca­tions in five geographic areas: Mount Chown (Alberta), the crater of Mount Okmok (Umnak Island in the Aleu­tians), Zhupanovsky Crater (Kamchatka, Russia), an unnamed land­scape near Dacao­di­anzi, Heilongjiang Sheng (China) and Mweelrea (Connaught, Ireland).

The artistic concept is inspired by what I call the “globe game” – placing your finger on a spin­ning globe – an imag­i­nary journey – Where would we arrive if we went in a straight line in one direc­tion, didn’t stop and never turned off? Where and when should we end this ficti­tious journey? We imagine what it looks like there, what it would be like to be there… extending this east-west route and coiling it once around the globe is about connecting places. 53°20’N was elected in the inter­na­tional compe­ti­tion of the Edmonton Arts Council and the City of Edmonton in 2015 and it is at the moment under construc­tion. It will be completed in summer 2018.

  1. Art as an indi­ca­tion / art as a patch

Indi­cating a site and patching archi­tec­tural or town-plan­ning blun­ders is also a very common task for art in urban environment.

Water­courses border the Lower Town of Gdansk, this line of the 17th century bastions and the New Motława River and a large motorway to the north. Though part of the historic City Centre of Gdańsk, the district is a clearly defined piece of land, a penin­sula, which is harshly cut off from the city by the water­courses and the motorway.

There are only three entrances to the district, two of them are already promi­nently marked. The last one, the Toruńska Bridge, which was topic of the compe­ti­tion, is rather narrow and it seemed to me not a main entrance, but more like a back­door to the Lower Town.

But a back­door is for insiders or only for good friends. There is certain charm­ing­ness in entering a place through the back­door. It has an unof­fi­cial, a private char­acter, which I felt is valu­able and which I did not want to disturb by an artwork. I would rather add a heartily welcome, a salute to this situ­a­tion, welcoming visi­tors with a cordial personal gesture or ceremony

So I devel­oped Pink Occur­rence: Crossing the bridge and entering the district from the west will cause an instant signal – a foggy, dense cloud will appear next to the bridge. A cloud of fog, candy-floss-like in its arti­fi­cial pink­ness, rises by the riverbank.

It will form itself instantly by strong fog nozzles and red light to a size of about 3 × 5 meter and will dissolve and disap­pear with the wind after a very short time.

Not everyone, but every tenth or so passer-by who crosses the bridge going east into the Lower Town District trig­gers the forma­tion of the pink cloud. The unex­pected trig­gering of this signal becomes an offi­cial welcoming cere­mony that addresses the visitor directly and at the same time marks this nonde­script place. Pink Occur­rence is planned to be built within the Outdoor Gallery of the city of Gdansk and the Łaźnia Centre of Contem­po­rary Art.

  1. Art to create iden­tity / art vs. architecture

The cause for the following work was a compe­ti­tion for a new school building in Berlin. It serves as an example for the request on art to create iden­tity and also for the continual rivalry of art and archi­tec­tural design in art on construc­tion processes. Artists often face this when entering a compe­ti­tion of art on construc­tion. Which are the possi­bil­i­ties for art to inter­vene in an already highly perfor­mu­lated envi­ron­ment. How can art unfold and at the same time create iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and involve without declaring itself super­fi­cially as participatory?

A newly built primary school in a rather neglected large housing district in Berlin proves that there is a large amount of confi­dence and belief in the people, in the chil­dren, in the devel­op­ment of the district. It is more than just a finan­cial invest­ment; it is an invest­ment in the future and it sends out a very posi­tive signal. Even more so as this school building is costly, richly equipped and very well designed. In fact, the archi­tec­tural design of the space is so explicit, that there was no space left for art.

24kt – is a work under construc­tion, It will be completed in summer 2018. But even then the work will always be in process. For the amount that is reserved for the art, I bought about one kilo of fine gold, 24kt. From the gold we cast branches and constructed a nest - a very rough birds nest as for example crows build it. The nest of approx­i­mately 20 × 20 cm will be presented in a glass show­case built-in the wall in the entrance-hall of the school. There will be no door and no way to open the glass show­case, it will be solidly welded. The show­case is extremely strong built and alarm protected. The golden nest inside is a trea­sure that the chil­dren will watch every day throughout their school years and that they will grow up with. It belongs to them and it actu­ally serves as a foun­da­tion for the newly built school and as an invest­ment for future needs, that they may decide on. Part of the work is a fixed agree­ment on copy­right and owner­ship, that allows the school to open the show­case and destroy the nest and sell the gold after a minimum of 14 years. Condi­tion for this act is the forming of a commu­nity of students, teachers and parents in equal parts and a common agree­ment on the purpose.

So the work consists of three life cycles: 1. the time ahead – it is a time of projec­tion, a dream, while the artwork is protected. 2. the time when the protected period has expired – the artwork is then avail­able, it may be melted and sold any time, it is a time of actual possi­bility. 3. the time after – the time when the show­case was actu­ally opened, when a common deci­sion was made and in the end some­thing else was bought or financed. The golden nest then is gone, but in exchange there are the proceeds and the commu­nity that was formed. The show­case will then stay empty, except a plate that indi­cates the dates and material.


The given exam­ples show just a small bouquet of requests on art in public space. They show that art – rather than just taking away space – could offer an extra perspec­tive or a theo­ret­ical plat­form and thus contribute to the public realm and to the commu­nity without neces­sarily declaring itself to be partic­i­pa­tory. At the same time they illus­trate a wide variety of forms and options of expres­sion and none of the works really points to me. In the end it doesn’t matter who the author is. And this again is gener­ally different behind closed doors.

Although there are stan­dard­ized spaces in the city with inter­change­able qual­i­ties, many spaces still have their own prop­er­ties and there are different commu­ni­ties, needs and veloc­i­ties. To meet these different needs, a variety of languages, methods and tools are needed. While tasks are more and more narrowed and oper­a­tions become more special­ized today, it is the artists that should keep track of the full picture.

A gener­alist is 1. one who has broad general knowl­edge and skills in several areas. 2. is a species whose members are able to live in a wide variety of habi­tats or consume a wide variety of foods. Both apply to artists, at least as long as they do not reduce them­selves to match a neat category.

I believe that any special­iza­tion in public art is disad­van­ta­geous and an indi­vidual artistic style is out of place here. Estab­lishing and culti­vating one’s own style as an artist working in public is like the cocky presump­tion that one has found the ulti­mate tool that matches all, an artistic Swiss army knife or a one-size-fits-all-places solu­tion. Art in public space needs no recog­ni­tion factor. This is because the rules of the art-market do not apply to the public space – and I think that they should not.


1  Things are gener­ally different behind closed doors is the title of a video instal­la­tion featuring a Smart (car) and a large cotton wool pad, that have a long conver­sa­tion about every­thing and anything in a train restau­rant. The instal­la­tion was presented in my solo show in the Fundacio Museum Miro in Barcelona in 2005.


2  From: K. Schlögel, Frank­furter Allge­meine Zeitung, 12/3/1994 and Maria and Prof. Ludwig Deiters from Berlin baut,18.