Ruth Barker

Private Thoughts (Text)


Private Thoughts and Public Spaces; Public Acts and Private Places; A free symposium presented by Glasgow Sculpture Studios.

That title is quite long, all things considered. But what it does, I think, is to give us already a few things to question. The title of this symposium was, in truth, originally slightly provisional. I came up with more quickly than I should have done in response to an unexpected deadline that loomed up slightly faster than I had anticipated, and now quite rightly it has come back to haunt me.
And yet because we are using it today and because it does in a way frame this whole conversation, I can’t really ignore it. I’ve decided instead to take some kind of responsibility for it, and to ask what we can learn from something that might sound so awkward and even indecisive?

The title is a statement. It’s a description in a way, and perhaps we can ask what it is actually a description of.

There are a lot of plurals in it, firstly. Thoughts, spaces, acts and places are all assumed to be multiple: Private Thoughts and Public Spaces; Public Acts and Private Places. This is quite important, I think. Perhaps what that repetition of multiplicity does is to suggest the heterogeneity of the conditions that contemporary public practice – by necessity – inhabits. That heterogeneity of conditions – heterogeneous remember in terms of thoughts, spaces, acts and places – is diverse perhaps in the most classical sense in that the title implies that each of those nouns has the capacity to contain constituents that are unlike one another. This would mean that the ‘thoughts’ to take an example, pertain to multiple and potentially contradictory thoughts – all occurring in this case within multiple and potentially contradictory public spaces.

Each of the nouns is also explicitly non-specific: The non-specificity of which acts, which places becomes a proposition to offer up somehow an idea of thoughts, spaces, acts and places that can embrace simultaneously the actual, physical, and essentially practical understanding of these things / and also a philosophical, ideological, and essentially abstract understanding. We have the possibility of the physical act for example – walking, meeting, vandalising, waiting – as well as the notional act – the gesture, the moment, or the gift.
This co-existence (and even conflation) of the concrete and the abstract is a key element in much contemporary public practice I think, as the behaviour of a work as well as its intention becomes significant in a way that happens far more regularly than in conventional gallery practice. As objects, ideas or gestures are introduced into the public sphere, they then have a duration and an impact that cannot always be predicted, and this is certainly one way, I believe, that Public Art can define that very cutting edge of contemporary practice and thinking.

Each of the nouns in the title is made conditional only by the addition of the term ‘public’ or ‘private’. Private Thoughts and Public Spaces; Public Acts and Private Places.
Initially the defining prefix of either ‘public’ or ‘private’ might seem to be fairly randomly attributed. But there is some method to that attribution. Alternatives are offered. Things may be private or public. Can they be both? What is it that defines the publicness of this act or the privateness of this space? The two halves of the sentence also seem to be equated, with the implication that: the relationship between private thoughts and public spaces; is equivalent to the relationship between public acts and private places. Perhaps they are equal and opposite. Perhaps they are complementary, or even mutually exclusive. We’re not actually given much of a clue, and the two halves are instead held in an undefined relationship of proximity.

For me, the title might also suggest alternative pairs of vignettes that can follow the same structure: the relationship between each of them being equivalent to the relationship between the two halves of the title. So, we can say that:

The relationship between thinking about the continent of Antarctica and a bench in a public square; is equivalent to the relationship between a documented act of rebellion and the home of someone who is not suspected of a crime.


The relationship between considering Marx and the beach at Troon; is equivalent to the relationship between a radio broadcast and a shopping centre.


The relationship between thoughts of terrorism and an unregulated internet; is equivalent to the relationship between a civil wedding and a private garden.

The significance of those examples however, is that the public-ness and private-ness of each of these states is essentially complex. The direct reference here of course is to the theme of this year’s Glasgow international festival – the theme of Public / Private – the implications of which are also essentially complex.
What does it mean, when a festival like Gi sets out to examine this idea of public-ness and private-ness? There are clearly frictions that arise as we start to ask those questions about the degree of public-ness attained - or even sought - by art institutions and endeavors, but perhaps that friction is also a useful tool.

Asking what might be public and what may be private is a way of asking where the boundaries between states might lie, and how we might be able to tell the difference between them. It’s a way of asking how we might attribute association, function, and ownership to space and to place, and how those attributions might fluctuate over time or even be exchanged.

As a starting point for this symposium I will make the suggestion – which you can accept, reject, or ignore as you see fit – that the public realm as it has been understood through what we might call ‘art history’ may be changing. The first decade of the 21st Century has seemed to show something of a complex territory where the lines between the public and the private do not seem impermeable – although in fact I would ask if they ever were so impermeable. Was there ever a time at which those states of public and private were unproblematicaly divisible?

My contention is that regardless of the empirical veracity of any such evolution in public-ness and privacy, the ways in which we as a culture in the wealthy west are aware of and are discussing the ideas of public and private has evolved massively in the past few years.

The states of ‘public’ and ‘private’, are increasingly perceived to be indistinct from one another. And we can see that that perceptual blurring has occurred across a variety of socially experienced areas, as I’ve already suggested. From technology where the examples are pretty obvious perhaps (we can think of CCTV, YouTube, satellite surveillance and so on), to criminal justice scenarios where the law is asked to consider not just the limits of privacy, but also the implications of what might be private or public. Most crucially for this discussion perhaps is the level at which the physical landscapes in which we lead our lives have changed their boundaries as well as their connotations.

The last question I want to leave you with relates to the last little bit of that title I was struggling with earlier: that bit about ‘A free symposium presented by Glasgow Sculpture Studios.’ I’ve talked a bit already about the uncertainty I attach to those ideas of public and private. Perhaps I’d just like to introduce at this stage a parallel uncertainty that I attach to the term ‘Sculpture’. Not a rejection, but just a similar lack off conviction in the wisdom of assuming homogeneity in medium or approach within such a fluid context.