The Commons is an ephemeral public art project by Munich-based artist Gretta Louw. Here, she talks about the origin of the series and the Los Angeles-inspired work she made while in residence at Otra Vox.
The Commons is an ongoing series, the first being in Munich, these works being created in Los Angeles. Is it site specific?
The short answer is yes (and a little bit no). I developed the original campaign in the first half of 2020 for a public art commission in Munich, where I live. The messages came out of a very specific set of circumstances and were personal and genuine to the experience of that time period in that place. That being said, there is a universality to the messages that became evident to me very quickly as they started getting shared widely internationally online. It was a moment of realization for me that, in fact, the most personal work is often, paradoxically, the most universal. When it came to creating a second edition in Los Angeles, I thought very carefully about where each piece would be shown and how the mythos and reality of the city interact with the wording.
For Los Angeles, I created two new texts, but I also completed two hand-painted versions of billboards from the Munich edition because I felt they were equally poignant in that setting. I'd love to show the project in new settings, working with a mix of new and existing messaging. I think it's very interesting to see how existing messages are perceived in different places and cultural contexts as well as, of course, projecting my headspace into a new location and making something new from that perspective.
What is this series reacting to?
When I first conceived the project in 2019, I described it as an ‘anti-advertising advertising campaign.’ I wanted to address the use of public space for commercial purposes and the financialization of attention through advertising both in public space and the digital realm. But then we all know what happened in 2020 — everything was at a stand-still. I think in Europe, that freeze mode lasted much longer than in the US. Commercialized public spaces (shopping malls, high streets, outdoor plazas, restaurant areas) were all closed. Billboards faded without being exchanged. In Germany we were only supposed to leave our homes for an hour per day of exercise, so suddenly parks and green spaces were more crowded than ever before.
It completely changed how I thought about public space. Suddenly the infrastructure that had seemed central pre-pandemic, like roads or high streets, paled in comparison to the network of walking trails and public parks, particularly in highly urbanized areas where people don’t live with a private backyard at their disposal. I began thinking intensely about the inequity of city planning in which wealthy neighborhoods where people live in single-family homes with large gardens also tend to have the greenest streets and old parks with mature trees. But also, I want to make it clear the work comes from a deeply appreciative, hopeful place, too. During those very difficult times, the tiniest interactions with nature, walking paths near my apartment, watching the trees bloom in spring, and so on, took on an outsized role in my life — a shift that I think has become permanent by the way. And I began thinking about my relationship to the city completely differently.
"What I like about public art, particularly working in the spaces usually occupied by advertising, is that it can be so much more direct, inviting real engagement from viewers, particularly those who might not see the work that exists within the bounds of the art world(s)."
What is the desired effect on the viewer? Are you demanding a moment of presence? A disengagement with technology?
Firstly, the work makes no demands. Rather, it opens an invitation. It's an invitation to imagine one's environment anew, to rethink cities free from the baggage of 'how things have always been done.' But also to bask in the small glories of the world, even though (or, perhaps, especially because) we know there are so many issues that need resolving. In that sense, yes, the project does take a critical view of technology and our addiction to it — akin to the critique of tech companies trying to engineer expensive and resource-intensive carbon drawn-down devices when that's literally what trees do. But I'm also an artist who's been engaging heavily with technology for more than a decade in my practice. I'm not a luddite. I think it's about balance and a mindset shift away from tech-saviourism and towards true appreciation and respect for the living systems we rely on.
You work in many different mediums – how did you arrive at exploring urban and public spaces in this way?
I do work in many different mediums and there are a number of reasons for that, but perhaps the most important two are that I don’t like to be bored or limited in my practice and that I tend to think about the ideas first and the mode of expression second. That being said, as I mature in my practice, I’m learning to delve into the deeper layers of a few chosen mediums rather than skipping across the surface of many. What I like about public art, particularly working in the spaces usually occupied by advertising, is that it can be so much more direct, inviting real engagement from viewers, particularly those who might not see the work that exists within the bounds of the art world(s). And public space should be created for and evolved by all who use it for social good, but it can feel like our opportunities to build those spaces together are being constantly eroded. Public art feels like a way to win back some of that space for mutual exchange.
How do you address technology in your art? In this series as well as your other works.
Advancing technologies, the mythologies and narratives around them, and the social, cultural, psychological, and environmental impacts that accompany them are central areas of concern in my practice. I use a lot of digital tools in my work, from algorithmic image-making processes (so-called Artificial Intelligence) to found images online or social media for engaging with my audience and colleagues. My practice is steeped in it. I also recognize digital and network technologies as being one of the biggest factors shaping life in the 21st century and beyond. It would feel disingenuous for me not to address it.
So, for example, even as I was conceptualizing the first The Commons billboard campaign in Munich and researching the history of commons spaces in Europe, the legal framework for public spaces etc., I was also thinking about how the parallel digital realm utterly fails at defining and preserving public space. Everything is privatized online. This fundamentally impacts what, how, and with whom we share information and represents an enormous shift in power towards the owners of the networks.
You also work as a digital artist. What is the relationship between The Commons and your other type of work?
Most of the work that I’m doing at the moment is a hybrid between extremely physical methodologies — painting, textiles, embroidery — and digital methodologies. My practice is fundamentally hybrid and moves fluidly between the corporeal and the networked, which I think reflects the way most of us live our lives these days - shifting seamlessly between IRL, augmented, and digital or screen-based planes. In a way, The Commons does this too. The works are centered in the physical space but also live and expand from engagement online.
These days, seeing something, liking something, and posting something online are heavily overlapping, blurred happenings. Ultimately, I think I am a watcher of the world, and my work is one of the ways I try to sort through my observations, draw attention to things I find important and feel like they’re being overlooked, or try to create little shifts in perspective that might contribute to culture change.
Are you speaking more about digital culture as a phenomenon or the human experience of it?
I don't think those two things are separate, actually. Without a human experience of social media, for example, the platforms are just websites, empty husks. Digital culture is made by people, just like software, platforms, and algorithms are made by people. All of it is a social phenomenon as much as it's a technological phenomenon. And the human experience is inherently embodied. We are sensory creatures — our experience of space, our bodily physicality, is intermingled with all of our other experiences, in the same way that the digital has become intertwined with the physical. I am not interested in separating things out and trying to study them individually as botanists did in previous centuries. What is really interesting is how things work in context, the hidden interactions — the mycelium network connecting the trees in a forest.
Discover more at grettalouw.com.
More on Gretta's residency at Otra Vox here.
Shop Gretta Louw's Prints
The artist would like to thank Curt Wills Stiftung and the City of Munich Department of Arts and Culture for their generous support of this project.