Who Curates Public Space?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal drew attention to the role of LAPD Officer Daniel Gonzalez http://ow.ly/fAZbc In policing the Venice Boardwalk he must make an assessment of the work on offer to determine its originality and artistic value. This raises a host of issues from the authority and responsibilities of policing and curatorship, through first amendment rights, to the nature of place. It’s apt that this knot comes out of Venice, home of the awkward squad.

Venice is a unique mixture of carnival and creativity, home to world-class artists, aspiring artists and the plainly delusional. This summer everyone’s expectations were given a boost by the Venice Boardwalk’s inclusion in the much-respected Hammer Biennial. I think it probably started as a joke – the Venice Biennial – but curator Ali Subotnick was following the well-trodden path of artist intervention into the fabric of public life.  Her selection of artists joined the melee, setting up stands along the boardwalk and engaging new audiences. It was a great event.

And for every intervention from the artworld pushing outward, there is an incursion of raw culture (pop/folk/outsider/graffiti/lowbrow/street) that fertilizes the mainstream. I think it’s important that this underground has a place to be nourished, and traditionally Venice has been one of those places.

Every summer thousands of tourists descend on us to be shocked by the anarchic energy of the Boardwalk. Keeping those people safe is a major concern of the LAPD. In a way I suppose the police are always the ‘curators’ of public spaces.

So we now have a discussion about who should curate the Boardwalk. Is the police officer ‘qualified’ to do it? Should a space like this be curated at all?

If it is curated by anyone, it’s unlikely that the guy who charges $2 to take a picture of you (with your own camera) next to a large grey inflatable alien would make the cut.

Yet it is he, and others like him who make the Boardwalk authentic and contribute to its heady ambiance. If it’s a choice between him and the potshops that have mushroomed on the legitimate commercial side of the Boardwalk, he has my vote -  and the lady who writes your name on a grain of rice, and the sandcastle guy, and the bodybuilder and his snake.

Which brings me to the first amendment right to free speech, often used in defense of artists who make work not readily accepted by certain sectors of the public. For every “Piss Christ” or Ofili elephant dung painting, there is some guy with an inflatable alien, or a pavement shouter decrying the illuminati as responsible for the financial crisis.

The point is, we don’t get to choose on this one. Or rather I think we shouldn't.

Now everyone is a curator - glossy magazines show us living in homes that could be mistaken for museums, we parse and weigh our pinterest boards, curate our web content and spend our days in online judgement. What the Venice Boardwalk gives us is a glorious mess. An unwieldy headache of legislative, social and curatorial problems, that creates its own dirty, outrageous, vibrant self - every weekend of the year. It is a little piece of chaos right inside a little piece heaven. Long may it continue.