Urban Profiles: Sacha Golob

Sacha Golob is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College London, leading modules in Aesthetics and Continental Philosophy. Phi was lucky enough to interview him as part of our Urban Profiles series in our Urban Issue, chatting about art, Heidegger and fantasy cities. 

What do you see as the role of public art in cities?

It’s difficult, Over the last 20-30 years, you’ve had a sustained use of public art as a regeneration project. So, the idea that putting art in cities, attracting art viewers to cities is essentially a kind of economic therapy. This is one strand that’s in the mix and one strand that I think is quite problematic. I think public art does have an important place, one striking thing about it, one obvious thing about it is that there is immediate and necessary contact between people and it. You see it every day you walk past it, you engage with it. It’s not set off in different areas, in another sector that you may have to pay to get into. So, I think it does have an interesting artistic role. I think it’s sometimes challenging because traditions of public art are potentially quite problematic, you see this with the debates about taking down former sculptures. If you’re going to work in public sculpture, you know. What would you do? So, I think the idea of a public art has become a kind of economic therapy and in another way, it has this interesting but contested but problematic sort of civic role.

Is there a way to save public art from the ‘economic therapy’ aspect? There is an effort to take art out of the museum and yet it ends up becoming sterile at times.

Yeah, yeah. It depends what you mean by ‘save’. The idea of creating a space that is sufficiently insulated, sufficiently outside that it can’t be re-co-opted by economic structures or what you might call capitalist economic structures generally. That’s basically impossible, so when you talk about sterile, there is always this fantasy that if we just had a more extreme art space… In most ways the spaces that do have that kind of extremity, that do have this kind of liminal quality, necessarily exist quite temporarily, kind of unplanned. We also have to be aware there is a kind of trope to that as well, there’s a kind of standardisation. This love in the 80s of taking over industrial spaces. One of the problems of public art is that it’s given us this dialectic where either it’s Guggenheim Bilbao or ‘we could really get outside of things and have something which couldn’t be coopted’ you know just over the horizon there is a really authentic space.

There’s also the worry that that might end up defeating the purpose. It’s just so detached from life and from people’s reality that it ceases to be public.

The true liminal space that the art world or art theory might fancy is deeply inaccessible to most people. You also have to wonder: Is it going to produce a certain kind of art?

Accessibility? The two main ways art people comes to in cities is 1 Public art … Museums…

The indescribably colossal role of the digital, the main way that people are going to interact with art now is through some form of digital media. I think that will play a transformative role, mainly because it isn’t under the auspices of an institutional gatekeeper like a museum. But how exactly that is going to play out, how exactly you’ll recreate the curation role, the selection role that museums play in a digital context remains to be seen. It’s a bit like saying we don’t need newspapers anymore because anyone can get news off the internet, but of course, that brings problems. The news you get off the internet might be bullshit… That is one issue that will be crucial to how people access art.

What about museums? I see them as almost a religious space in the city, no other institution in a city can do that apart from maybe a park at the peak of summer.

There is this idea of art as the new religion, there is some important thought that our society doesn’t have a lot of moments of transcendence in it, it doesn’t have a lot of moments of, and I hate this word but what in some sense you could call ‘spirituality’. It doesn’t have a lot of moments of evident beauty. Partly because it doesn’t have a lot of moments of disgust, I mean if you compare it to say the medieval world where everything is continually oscillating between the decaying and the beautiful and you’re aware of it all the time because, you know, the knife edge is so fine. So, I think there is an important role for museums. Particularly in the UK where we have free access to most museums, and you can just go in and see something incredible, transformative, I mean that is amazing. And for all the problems there might be with museums, that is a stunning thing to be able to do.

What is your favourite public art piece in London?

I guess it depends what you’re allowed to choose. If I could choose something like St. Paul’s I probably would. I did this interview on the Center’s website (the King’s College Center for Philosophy and the Visual Arts) with a sculptor called Kenny Hunter who does public art, a fantastic artist, he has a really great piece which we talk about there called The Scapegoat. Which is a kind of inversion of traditional monumental sculpture so rather than having a colonel on top of a classical column you’ve got a goat that’s mounted some packing crates. So, it’s monumental sculpture rethought in terms of a kind of transience, in terms of the animal, in terms of an opportunism, you know it’s packing crates rather than sturdy stone structures. It’s just down by Spitalfields, that’s a nice example and rather than St. Paul’s, it’s very much a public work of art both in the traditional sense but also precisely contesting what public art should be doing.

Do you have a favourite depiction of a city?

I’d need to think about it more. This idea of The City is so important for modernism. What the Urban is, and what the Urban is opposed to? The vision of the non-urban, is it the country, the little town, is it the private home? This idea, these fantasies of the city, in some way huge chunks of modernism are fantasies of the city.

What is your fantasy of the city?

That’s complicated, I guess I have a conflicting relationship with the city. Of course, which city? I have peculiar tastes, I mean I don’t like NYC. You’re kind of obliged to like New York, you know, but I never have. The cities I like most are Old Europe: Marseille or Vienna or Prague or something like that. Marseille is a complicated case because of its use in French literature, but they’re different from The City. Just biographically that [modern, industrial cities] wouldn’t be my fantasy of the city, but it shaped our society so much…

Which cities have you lived in?

It depends how long you mean by lived. For a period of time enough to say that I know it reasonably well: London, Berlin, Vienna, Rome.

How does Berlin fit in with your tastes in cities?

I think, partly there it’s the language, it’s just nice to be around it. It’s not my favourite city, I think my favourite of those is Rome. Which again is a kind of mishmash of all these various qualities you know, because you’ve got this insane layering of The Romans and then The Church and then the modern Italian State. [It’s literally layered] Do you know Rome at all? [A little bit, not well by any means] Last time I was there, and then at the end, you know I’d been there for ages, you then really miss the light. The actual physical light that you get in the north, the way the sun sets that you get north of Dover basically, or north of Antwerp. So, your kind of relationship to cities is a relationship to landscapes and light patterns that you’ve grown up with, so while I love Rome, I think I wouldn’t want to live there because of this issue of the light. Which sounds ridiculous but is true.

So, you’re a Heidegger scholar? Yeah, I guess so.

He was very critical of Modernity and of the City, could say a little bit about that?

He’s anti-modernist, and the city figures as a symbol in a series of tropes he opposes. All of which is tied up with, as I see it, with anti-Semitic nationalism that he espouses. So, the city is the place of the rootless metropolitan who is also, of course, the Jew. And the city is also the place of newspapers, and a certain kind of technology, and it’s bright at night, and there’s advertising, and all these things he doesn’t like. On the other hand, you have this very strong valorization of a certain rural landscape and of the notion of being rooted in that rural landscape the reason he is such a significant thinker in some ways the anti-modernism is kitschy and off the shelf and kind of predictable and you know if you throw a stick in the air in that period you’ll hit five different people who think those kinds of things. What’s more interesting is the way he develops the view of the countryside and the view of, to give the word, of this idea of rootedness and of dwelling. He has a strong idea of dwelling that he is very interested in. But it is all tainted in the other stuff, some people are rooted because they’ve been there for a long time and some people are not rooted, and it’s clear who he thinks those people are. He was a genius, and I think partly in his construction of this vision of the rural.

When one reads those critiques off that shelf, there is some part that feels akin to them.

Well, we need to keep updating our understanding of the city. The first time I saw the areas where he grew up or areas where he lived as an adult, I got a feeling for how closed these places were. So of course, in comparison to that when you suddenly get advertising or when you suddenly get American writing on shops it must seem colossal, just this colossal offence and intrusion. Whereas I think the issues of the city now are different, hardly anyone anywhere born in the last twenty years grew up in that level of isolation. Not just geographical isolation, which is still possible, but not cultural isolation, or cultural, (he would say coherence or rigour) intactness no one really has that anymore. There is just much more It’s all been intermingled and penetrated so then the reactions we now have to cities when they’re negative are for different reasons.

Did Futurism and the traditionalism you speak of manage to cohabitate in Heidegger’s fascism as it did in broader fascist movements?

In Heidegger that bit doesn’t cohabitate because he’s always very suspicious of technology. He clearly thinks National Socialism had this gem of greatness that then declined or was corrupted and when he talks of how it’s corrupted he tends to align it with Americanism or Bolshevism which he thinks are also the same thing and which he understands as a kind of technological dominance, a dominance of scale, a dominance of the urban, a dominance of speed, of production, and that’s the bad fascism and the bad won. So, for example, these famous remarks when he talks about the Holocaust as a product of factory farming techniques and he sees the bad bits of fascism (which is absurd to say) as all flowing from the technological aspect getting out of hand. He is an incredibly sophisticated thinker, so he is never as crude as someone like Walther Darré, but there are parts of his thought that are close to the rural peasant fantasies of Darré or parts of Himmler’s Blood and Soil vision of the landscape.

Be sure to watch “I Goat” Professor Sacha Golob’s interview with artist Kenny Hunter.