Participatory Art in Public Spaces Shyam Khandekar has a chat with Canadian artist Christopher Griffin

Art in cities has a long history. Quite often it was done by artists of repute hired by kings and queens. Art was not only meant to decorate, but also to impress. The public were supposed to marvel at it, but not participate in it.

However, in today’s day and age, as societies have become more egalitarian and vocal – with social media offering the possibility to participate at a scale never before heard in history – art in public spaces has taken on a new meaning.

The Ottawa-based Canadian artist Christopher Griffin has taken up a unique position in this dialogue with his public: Creating art in public spaces that anticipates a certain participation from the public and accepting a certain degree of impermanence of his art, realising that once art is placed in a public space, the artist loses control.

While even in the canvasses he paints, Christopher Griffin attempts to build on the randomness of the existing situation on say a public footpath by applying a coat of wet asphalt to a sidewalk and then collecting a print onto a primed canvas and building his art from this, his most controversial interventions in public spaces have been on how he has used his creativity to transform surfaces in public spaces, that have been subjected to graffiti by anonymous members of the public.

Using the graffiti or the covering paint employed by the municipal authorities of Ottawa (which has a zero-tolerance policy on graffiti), Griffin has created large pieces of public art in public spaces showing bulls, bears or falcons, animals and birds that frequented the place before it was urbanised. For example, on a sound barrier that abuts a highway in Ottawa, Christopher Griffin has transformed the surfaces of the municipality’s coloured paint, which were used to hide graffiti, into a roaming herd of animals.

Could you tell us how your art in public spaces allows for public participation?

I very much enjoy public artworks that are designed to be interacted with. It blurs the line between fine art that is meant to be revered from a distance and art that can serve other purposes. My concrete sculptures are created specifically for the public to interact with, especially children. The smooth, rounded and compact forms are perfect for climbing onto, sitting on and interacting with. Once a sculpture is installed in a public space, the artist loses control over it. Therefore, I believe sculptures need to be built to withstand all sorts of physicality and conditions.

My work with graffiti pieces allows for another sort of participation. By imagining creatures in existing graffiti, I am hopeful that others will begin to exercise this type of observation. We can all delight in making shapes and creatures out of clouds in the sky. Why not utilise these same skills with the random markings and graffiti tags in our own neighbourhoods? This switch in mindset will make one realise that it is only paint and line and shape. There is no need to take offense or feel violated. Transform these markings in one’s own mind and reclaim a sense of ownership. Change what you view and you can change what you previously did not control.

artists frown upon what I’m doing. Touching another’s tag is a sign of disrespect. I now leave a small gap between the paint from my brush and the original tag. The horns still erupt from the head and the legs still come from the body, but the paint doesn’t actually make contact with the graffiti tag. A technicality perhaps, but a nod of respect on my part. Their tag informs what I do, whether it becomes a whale or a dog relies on their markmaking and I treat it as a collaboration.

Underpasses in Ottawa that have graffiti are buffed out by city workers with grey paint. These patches are messy and often do not come close to matching the background grey of the concrete. I find them more offensive than the original graffiti and have no qualms about altering them (graffiti artists are also okay with me doing this). I tackle them differently than my graffiti collaborations. First, I take a colour swatch to mix the paint to match the grey paint used by the City. I then use a paint roller to alter the coverups. In a few hours, I can transform a mishmash of blemishes on the concrete wall into a menagerie of different creatures. The result is subtle and quirky, but infinitely better than the aggressive and depressing patches left behind by the city workers. I am a member of the public and believe that if I have the ability, I have an obligation to improve the urban experience. I understand that ownership of public spaces is an issue fraught with differing opinions and I would never do anything to a blank wall. A wall that has something on it, however, sometimes for years, is an indication that no one is accepting responsibility for it. I believe it then becomes available for someone to care for it and put some thought into making it more inviting.

Finally, your art forms very often depict animals/nature in a city’s public spaces. Any particular reason?

I have great empathy for the natural world and am disheartened by the impact we humans are having on it. Especially in a built urban environment, I believe that any depiction of nature is a good and healthy thing. Even if it is only a reminder of what once was. Animals have a purity and deep mythical associations; they are also innocent of any ills in our world and bear no responsibility. Portraying the natural world causes no offense to anyone. Particularly since I am already flirting with illegality and a sense of wrongdoing, it is paramount that my resulting transformations do not cause offense on any further lines. There is nothing political, racial, sexist, derogatory or inflammatory about a goose. Nature is something we can all accept and live with. Also, animals are very enjoyable to paint. I have an obligation to improve the urban experience if I have the ability.