The invitation from the town council of Oosterhout, in The Netherlands, to a series of recognized artists to create an identity-forming or identity-confirming work for its public space, was based on the unmistakable, not to mention annoyingly present, presupposition that the existing identity of the town is regarded as rather weak, or at least in need of reinforcement.
Why? Why would a town council ask artists from elsewhere to make works of art for its public space, when the age-old town has identity enough to stand on its own feet (even to aspire to being a work of art itself) and probably includes enough makers of beautiful things among its inhabitants to record a characteristic moment of Oosterhout in lasting material? To show that the Oosterhout authorities were prepared to comply with the world of contemporary art, they agreed that the commission to the artists had to be wrapped up in a question: In what way can art 'function' in public space? In short, what we see here is one of those alternately deeply sorrowful and hilarious examples of public authorities trying to make art function in public space: the area of tension between noncommittal attitude and self-importance.
In July 1992, Paul Perry answered the question posed with the proposal to name a random new insect, to be discovered in the Latin-American rainforests, after the town, in accordance with the international taxonomic rules. His project was entitled: The origin of pride. A new species of insect is named after the municipality of Oosterhout and had as a motto: The map is not the terrain. The whole idea amounted to no more than simply this deed: find a new insect and give it the name of the town, just because the local authorities had asked for a number of works of art in the public space of their street plan. Rusting iron, for instance. But of course the artists were guaranteed that vitally important artistic license to display their creative talents.
Finding the insect would not be a problem. The tropical rainforests were tens of millions of years old and on the evolutionary time scale there had been ample opportunity for the development of a formidable biodiversity. On the time scale of human history there is less room for the jungle. According to optimistic extrapolations, the last original trees will have disappeared from the face of the earth within fifty years if the felling and burning of the existing primaeval forests continues without acceleration of the present pace. This includes all jungle-adjusted micro-species (the mammals and birds have a better chance of survival in nature reserves and zoos). And now, one of these endemic species – either discovered by an expedition to be organized by Perry himself, or discovered in a sample taken locally by a scientist and handed over to Perry – was to be named after Oosterhout. The name would be something like Cicadetta oosterhoutensis (family Cicadiae, suborder Homoptera, order Hemiptera, class Insecta).
Decoration of Public Space
Why name a species after Oosterhout? is what most people wanted to know. Perry's answer: art is committing an act in order to call the act into question. On the question about the 'functioning' of art in public space, Perry replied: Responding to this, I made some intuitive decisions at the outset, which I think pretty well reflect my attitude. The first was my rejection of the 'art object' as an entity with any future within Oosterhout. This follows a personal distrust in the algebra of such 'objects' – what I tend to see and group together as well-behaved works of art. I believe Oosterhout is much better off without yet another of these objects.
Thus, Perry primarily rejected the function of art as decoration of public space. Whatever decorations are, or do, they are not art. There is nothing against decorating public space – to quote Multatuli (Dutch writer, 1820-1887) on poetry: I have nothing against verse as such. If people wish to line up their words, it is fine with me, but they should not say anything that is untrue. This puritanical rejection of the decoration as an untruth is, by the way, a modernistic subterfuge with a calvinist ring to it – already according to Erich Wichman (1890-1929), the contribution of calvinism to religious art consisted of whitewash – something the town council, carried on the waves of the time, had just outgrown: beautiful things are allowed again.
Perry, however, went further than a rejection of the frills: In addition, it seemed a pointless exercise to have to hunt for 'public space', wandering within the boundaries of Oosterhout's streets. I did not want to look for some specific physical feature or activity and transform it into an excuse in which to evolve a work. I felt this would be taking the first step in the wrong direction. The first step he took in the right direction was: not to go to Oosterhout. He had never been there before, either. Wherever Oosterhout's public space was to be found, it certainly did not consist of the town's own traffic system - something the town councillors agreed to, in view of the fact that they had asked people from a much wider traffic system than their own to contribute.
No Name Brand
This raises two inevitable questions - questions which explain why the project became a success, but was never carried out (or at least, not until now). The first question is: what is wrong with Oosterhout, that it may not have any public art in its parks or squares? And the second: if a public space in which art can 'function' still exists, where is it?
Oosterhout goes by its name. A name that has persisted for more than 700 years. The name designates a particular space, but we feel that it also designates a certain character, an identity. Or that it did once upon a time. Today, this character is difficult to characterize. Oosterhout on the outside seems no different from other municipalities in the region, or, for that matter, many similar communities in The Netherlands. We are reminded, in the facelessness of Oosterhout, of a trend we see inside the supermarket and the pharmacy, that of the no name brand, the generic consumer product. When we step outside, no matter where we are, we see the same shopping street, with the same stores.
Place names, the place: if Oosterhout ever had an historically rooted, topographically localized identity, this has evaporated on the world-consumer market. A request for art in public space can therefore never be more than a request for a monument to vanished character. A double negation, not only: If we were to describe Oosterhout in terms of a geography of shopping or a geography of trade, we could not say that the physical character of the geography was unique, but also: To a large extent, what actually defines Oosterhout is its civil organization. But this also seems a reason to hold the unique identity of Oosterhout suspect. The basic political structures underlying Oosterhout's government were not formulated yesterday but in another century and for another world. And our comparisons show that today's specifics seem to vary little from gemeente to gemeente. So does Oosterhout have an identity? To pose the question is to answer it in the negative.
The town councillors' question, whether real art could be used to erect a meaningful identity decor in public space, was parried by the observation that although there was a decor, there was no trace of an identity, at least not in the town centre. The public space within which the local-government unity of Oosterhout functions is that of the world market/world media brought in by its modern local government, to give the town a place in this complex modern world we live in. But as soon as local identities are linked to the world, it turns out that they no longer exist, and possibly never did. Oosterhout does not feature on any globe. With unerring instinct, Perry discovered the strength of Oosterhout's identity, respectively the local authorities' taboo, and found it a symbol: an insect threatened with extinction, for which we are to blame.
I believe Oosterhout is much better off without yet another of these objects. The success of Perry's project is determined by the fact that he found an answer to the town's question about the functioning of art in public space. Paul Perry replaced Oosterhout's local identity with an insect. Place names, the name. The map is not the terrain, it only refers to other maps. If there is still a place for Oosterhout, it is in a media-mythical onomastics where we encounter, to mention but a few at random, Eastwood (Clint), Twin Peaks (There's evil in the woods), Rumpelstilkin, Hakim Bey. Every oosterhout (eastern wood) has its westerhout (western wood) - the tropical rainforests of South America.
Identities are never more than mythical constructions which, as soon as they are read as information, stop making their constructive contribution to public life. Perry: Mythical structures consist of hearsay and mannerisms that are handed down, like inherited suitcases, from generation to generation. Over time, the suitcases gain authority and become 'monumental'. These myths or monuments of code become 'undesirable' when they turn into monuments to code. As Perry concludes from this statement, art would have a function in public space (the world) if it removes the myths from the monument list, preferably once and for all, beginning with the myth of identity. However, this would raise a small practical problem: Many of us depend for a livelihood upon their continued existence, which means they can only be questioned and not completely eliminated. Even if we do temporarily manage to damage them, our hands are empty; we lack other models, other paradigms, there is nothing to replace them. But it is the artist's task to deal with this fact in a creative way.
Perry turns the self-pity which apparently nobody in the premillennium can do without into an offensive weapon: We feel by taking myths apart we might open a space for more accurate or more interesting myths. And that Oosterhout as a local identity is not interesting is proved by the fact that its local government has managed to make its public space so monstrously dull and meaningless that it has now had to come begging to genuinely recognized great artists to return to the street scene that face of its own, which would take away from chance visitors and inhabitants this - justified - urge to leave the awful place as quickly as possible. Why then this oppressive craving for local authenticity? Why not replace this identity with something as light and unsightly as a minute insect, far away from here?
That Oosterhout fails to (can no longer) enthrall us is because it has become part of the world. Oosterhout has vanished into the world. The trick that Perry performed in his project was that of the reversal. He concretized not only the mythical structure of 'identity', but also that other myth, that of the 'world', into an object, a living creature even, an insect, and thus miraculously made the following discovery: linking a local, historical identity to the world makes this identity disappear, but it reappears at the same time under a different sign, albeit no longer as an identity – the monumental block of steel, barred from the public space of Oosterhout thanks to its local government – but as a name, an identity metamorphosed into a name, within an endemic space in which only Oosterhout and, for example, an insect exist. The tendency to strip localities of their historical identity to make place for the world market should not be restrained at the last minute to fill the void with simulated, artificial identities; it should be carried much further even, preferably to the collapse of the world market itself: let us get rid of all this oppressiveness. Perry parried the request for rusting iron with the lightest of all, something that is already almost immaterial (because it is dying out): an insect from the disintegrating cyberspace which is the tropical rainforest.
Consequently, if we dissociate ourselves here and now from town councillors and capitalists, we gain this insight: art functions in public space in that it 1) creates its own public space, 2) denies existing identities in historical spaces, 3) replaces these with random signs, 4) lets its space appear under these signs for everyone who is cursed with a handed-down identity, and 5) presents us with the enigma which challenges us to explore this new space, until far beyond the original work of art. What happens when we name something that had no name before? Could we not, in Oosterhout, say the map is the territory, when, by our mapping, we bring a new reality into being?
But what does this new, artificial reality consist of? The simulated world? If we leave the political and 'mythical' terminology even further behind, we see a bipole: an unknown town and an unknown insect. The name of the town is more than 700 years old and the town gives this name to an insect that might possibly be a million years old. The insect appears on the map of the town. The town appears on the map of the insect. Both are endangered species. They have nothing to say to each other, but can no longer do without each other. Dasein als Sorge (Existing as the main concern). Two points are enough to make the world start again, time after time. Leave Oosterhout now. Leave the historical world. The New World is waiting. Enter it. Come on.