A few years ago I found myself walking from the “entertainment zone” in Milton Keynes to my hotel near the station. It was a desolate and spooky experience. Milton Keynes, the UK’s city of the future, was designed with cars in mind, with little thought apparently given to its in-between spaces, which at that time of night become empty stretches of concrete, devoid of other living beings. Perhaps the supremacy of the car was an understandable assumption in the 1950s and early 60s, but more interesting in many ways is the evidence in the city’s layout of the dead hand of over-design, the stultifying effect of the organising imagination.
Milton Keynes was created on very rational principles. It’s laid out in a grid. The centre is zoned, so restaurants, theatre and cinemas are grouped together in a single area, while the nearby shopping zone is similarly self-contained. The shopping centre closes with the shops, and as the night comes in it becomes apparent that the vitality of an urban space depends on randomness, depends on there being a chaotic mix of shops, bars, other entertainment and homes, anything that keeps people in sight.
The important word there is “chaotic”. Reacting against the easy sterility of uniformity, contemporary builders are now surrounding us with mock-chaotic estates, with houses of different size and design within the same street, up to a point. This depressing idea seems to have been inspired by developments like Poundbury, Prince Charles’ favoured new “village” on the outskirts of Dorchester. These soulless attempts at “traditional communities” bear as much relation to good design as X Factor performances bear to music, falling somewhere between the laughable and the nauseating. You cannot design the random: it always looks fake, because it is.
I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to “design” good urban spaces. I’m arguing that good urban design works with the grain of the random, the accidental.
Walking one evening recently along the Folkestone Leas, past the ten hour clock left over from the 2011 Triennial, and then one of the more recent “whether” vane cockerels on the roof of the Leas Cliff Hall booking office, it struck me that these objects were themselves beginning to seem random, and in this were taking on an enriched meaning that had little to do with the intentions of their creators. It was always agreed that many pieces would stay in the town, slowly building into a kind of open air gallery of contemporary art/sculpture, but now it seems that over time and in between the usual shops, offices and homes, Folkestone might slowly fill its nooks and crannies with apparently pointless and eccentric objects. The further we move in time from the original conceptual designs of their creators, the more interesting the objects become, not least because they will begin to redefine the character and nature of the town, rather than standing as “artworks” in contrast to ordinary life here.
I’ve written in the past about problems with the pretensions of much conceptual art, and particularly the asinine vocabulary and unexamined assumptions that underpin much of what passes for critical thinking in the visual art world. Let’s put that aside because in the light of randomness a lot of the work that goes into the Triennial is probably more enjoyably appreciated without the pretensions of art.
It becomes a form of street entertainment, an enlivening of our daily experience. Of course entertainment and enlivenment can be part of an artwork, part of what it does, but if the word art is going to mean something different from entertainment then artwork has to do more than entertain. This isn’t an easy line to draw. We might reasonably see an Alan Bennett play as a work of art, but then does it really help to see Fawlty Towers that way? It’s certainly brilliant, but the art label won’t help you understand the brilliance any better.
I’m not going to try to define here what makes art different from other types of endeavour. Actually I think that difference can be usefully discussed, but not rigorously defined (it will, like the concept of consciousness, always be elusive). At the same time seeing the Folkestone Triennial legacy as a growing collection of eccentric objects highlights the need for a term describing a different kind of creative activity. This activity is often design-led, but has either no or very limited designs on us, on our perceptions. It might like good graphic design have a strictly practical purpose, while being nicely executed in its own right, or it might have no real purpose at all, but what makes it valuable is the way it will take on a life of its own as part of the life of its surroundings.
What could this term, this word be? It’s not “craft”, which has its own specificity, often foolishly denigrated by the contemporary art world. But perhaps we don’t need another term at all. Perhaps we should reject the urge to categorise, and respect the spirit of the random, which so often brings us the unlooked-for delights that can make life seem worth living.