The background is not unimportant: the Olaus Petri School was to be completely refurbished. But hardly any money had been budgeted for refurbishing the school playground in spite of the fact that pupils spend a considerable amount of time there. This led to Anders Boqvist at the National Public Art Council initiating a development project aimed at investigating what might be done with a worn school playground and what would be required to achieve this.
It is no accident that it was love and devotion that received the brief. Several of their earlier projects have involved working with a whole environment, of taking a comprehensive view of the place or institution that they were dealing with. Two wards at the Ulleråker psychiatric hospital in Uppsala are a good example of their approach. With relatively simple changes they were able to produce a much better environment for staff and patients. And what did they do? Everything from such obvious measures as changing the odd curtain and removing old junk to having a staircase made to provide direct access to the hospital’s pretty garden. Their work also served as a reminder to look carefully at less visible aspects. For example, it transpired that the firm that was responsible for repairs and maintenance was not doing its job and this naturally had a serious effect on the quality of care at the hospital.
In the same way one can claim that the most important part of love and devotion’s work on the Olaus Petri School was in the way it influenced refurbishment that had already been decided. Together with pupils, teachers
and representatives of various societies in the neighbourhood they worked out a proposal for the playground that was not going to cost a small for tune.
Something interesting has happened during the last decade. Increasing numbers of artists now go in and work directly with social structures political and other. With this in mind the term “site-specific” seems strangely dated. For the physical site is merely one small aspect of a larger situation that the artist addresses. One can speak of a change in the role of the artist but also of the work of art as such. For what is the “work of art” in the case of love and devotion? True, one can view the result of their work as a total artistic arrangement. But influencing the parameters-the basis for the entire project in all its dimensions-is just as important. The primary concern is not what materials, genres, techniques or spatial circumstances have been used. Equally important is the dialogue and the relationships that have been created in the process. Organizing a lecture can be as important as designing a climbing wall.
I do not wish to dismiss the possibility that a specific work of art that has nothing to do with the site as such can be very successful. Sometimes what appears at first sight to be all wrong is actually perfectly right. But in a situation when not even the most fundamental environmental needs have been met it would require a very high degree of tunnel-vision for an artist to come in and place an artistic ego-trip on the site in the form of a sculpture or other artistic decoration.
The playground is now in use, ready to be explored and evaluated by pupils, teachers, art experts, boules enthusiasts and people who live in the neighbourhood. True to their habits, love and devotion have approached the site as an open question whose answers are to be found in dialogue with the people who use the site. Several of the changes are remarkable for their simplicity. Like the concrete cube that has been embedded in a little hill. This creates a new space in which the inside, for example, can be used for exhibitions and the roof as a stage. Playground economics as a fine art: the rising ground is made from spill created while remaking the playground. This is perfect for ice slides in winter, as a look-out place and as a visual interruption. At another point, a number of lampposts that were going to be thrown out, have been rearranged into a bouquet of street lamps; a wonderfully contradictory image.
Space does not allow us to describe the playground renewal in detail. The character of the playground is basically unchanged with large tarred areas, trees, areas for playing, basketball apparatus and climbing fames. It is the attention to details that is fundamental to the renewal. More unexpected is the way in which love and devotion have constructed large wood en decks on the outside of two of the buildings, an area not designed for any specific purpose but that can serve as a gathering place for lunch or just for relaxing. A meanderingly magical world has been created for the smallest children out of a previously unused area. This contains a winding stream, grass, concrete animals, a bridge and-not least-highly imaginative lighting.
The entire project addresses the question as to what a playground really is. The most radical answer is to be found in the southern part of the site, the open stretch running along one side of a quiet street. love and devotion have removed the usual tall fence and replaced it with low rails about two-foot six in height; a discrete indication of the boundary between the school and the world beyond. Just inside the new fence they have organized an 80-metre track covered with finely crushed stone which is ideal for playing boules. With the trees on the street this forms a leafy drive or boulevard.
In this border area verging on the “outside world” there is an opening towards people we do not normally associate with playgrounds. People who want to play boules, neighbours or pensioners who want to sit and rest for a moment. Does a school playground need to be shut off from the world around? Many parents would unthinkingly say: shut in the children and shut out people who don’t belong. love and devotion turn the question round: cannot the school playground be a place where the generations can meet? Is it not a better strategy to increase the presence of adults?
An important aspect of the work has been to show that one can choose artistic solutions and quality products even in an area that is normally subject to compromises and budget considerations. In this case, it is collaboration with others that has been fundamental, including collaboration with one of the schools of technology in the town.
The question of the increased instrumentality of art-that art should be a tool for other purposes-is much discussed today. Not least in relation to the ever more commercialized world of art in which art is reduced to something to be marketed or consumed. But this must also be discussed with regard to how art works in the context of national or local government. Is art in the process of being reduced to a mere service as the state seems gradually to be being dismantled? love and devotion will increasingly have to address questions like this the longer they work.
What is good art? In the case of love and devotion, the question is unavoidably linked to the issue of what is good for the people using it. I see this as an ideological stance on the part of the artists, a conscious step away from the image of the artist isolated from society. They have commented on the matter themselves: “As artists we are grateful for the opportunity to be able to be where the action is, for example on a school playground!” Similar expressions can still seem provocative in a world of art in which “usefulness” is still contrasted with artistic integrity.
Their work is an expression of something that, I believe, many artists feel today and that has been summarized by Susan Gablik in the now classical anthology Mapping the Terrain-New Genre Public Art: “Autonomy, we now see, has condemned art to social impotence by turning it into just another class of objects for marketing and consumption.”
One may claim that respect and generosity are an important aspect of love and devotion’s work. This is only half the truth. For the reverse is equally true. They show a fine disregard for what is familiar, for processes and mechanisms that have become ends in themselves.