The Art of Urban Transformations

Emma Arnold & Karen O’Brien
University of Oslo, Norway

We are living in a decisive moment, or in a plurality of decisive moments: a moment when we face unprecedented environmental change; a moment when more and more of the global population lives in cities; a moment when dualities and inequalities are rife and extreme; and above all, a moment that calls for radical transformations. Though moments vary in time and duration, content and form, they are inexhaustible and continuously invented (Lefebvre, 2014). Yet they can also represent “significant times when existing orthodoxies are open to challenge, when things have the potential to be overturned or radically altered” (Elden, 2004). Moments are full of possibility.

2014-Dreams may change graffiti-StavangerTransformation is all about possibility. It involves physical and/or qualitative changes in form, structure, or meaning-making, which can lead to a change in perspective. Sometimes these changes can happen in a moment. Can such transformative moments be created? This is exactly what artists working in urban spaces do, for artistic interventions can disrupt the everyday and break routines. By using space and place in unexpected ways, they may offer inspiration or instigation, or they may challenge conceptions and behaviours. In the playful and meaningful ways in which artists intervene in the city, they also create possibilities. While artistic actions might seem small, the smallest interventions can lead to the biggest of changes (Meadows, 1999).

Much discourse on urban t2014-Eyebombing street art-Osloransformation focuses on talk of ‘smart cities’, where technology plays an integral role in shaping the city and how it is used. Urban art is frequently discussed within a context of ‘creative cities’, which links creativity to urban branding and views artists as lucrative agents of gentrification (urban transformation of another kind). Urban strategies of this genre are linked closely to structures of capitalism, in which public art is understood in very prescriptive ways. Within these discourses, art is a product and the artist a tool for urban renewal and regeneration. Transformations to sustainability in urban areas call for a different type of discourse – one that is more organic and resistant to division, exclusion and perfection.

Artists have long been regarded as agents of change, closely associated with social movements and the progression and innovation of ideas. Surprisingly, the links between art and transformation have not been widely reflected upon in the urban global change literature. The art/science divide has had a tendency to maintain art separate and distinct within global change research, particularly in the more scientifically-oriented environmental disciplines. The innovative and transdisciplinary work of many artists working collectively in the city bring together these not so disparate disciplines. Arguing that artistic interventions in urban spaces are critical to transformation may seem puzzling. Yet this is precisely what artists are doing in cities around the world: intervening and transforming. Art is transformative, and at a time when radical transformations to sustainability are needed, it may be time to pay closer attention to art in the city.

shutterstock_245469592The city of Oslo, steadily growing since the 1980s, has seen dramatic changes to the urban landscape. Waterfront developments at Aker Brygge, Tjuvholmen, and the former industrial area of Bjørvika are examples of this. The redevelopment of Bjørvika – including the building of the iconic and modernist Opera designed by architecture firm Snøhetta (Hofseth, 2008; Smith & Strand, 2010) – has been one of the most significant urban developments in Norway (Hofseth, 2008). Such cultural institutions, of which there are many in Oslo, embrace art of a certain status. Oslo has, on the other hand, had a strict zero tolerance policy against graffiti since the early 2000s (Høigård, 2011).  Graffiti, street art, and other forms of public art do not fit easily into hierarchies of art in which institutions like the Oslo Opera occupy the highest of spaces (See [Cresswell, 1998] for discussion on art in public space with reference to Bourdieu and cultural hierarchies, p. 272.). The elusive and ephemeral qualities of art in the city make it difficult to place culturally as it “is often anonymous, it is there for all to see, it exists in the open, on the street, in the spaces of the everyday,” and, “is often transitory and cannot be bought.”(Cresswell, 1998). It is in these ways that artists intervening in the city contradict trends in urban development and city branding, their work contesting and challenging how space is used and by whom.

When it comes to transformation of the everyday, artists have been highly effective in reimagining urban space and its possibilities. Sometimes interventions are done without permission, sometimes illegally. Works are quite often impermanent and maybe not always so easily understood as art. Graffiti writers and street artists are the most obvious of those who intervene so visibly in the spaces of the city. They leave their marks substantially and materially upon the substrate of the city, raising questions of what is and is not appropriate in public space. As Tim Cresswell writes: “Art in public space, particularly when political or activist in nature, transgresses some long-held and almost invisible boundaries of what constitutes appropriateness.”(Cresswell, 1998). Graffiti and street art often challenge powerful interests; whether political, commercial, or cultural. Many other artists also use the spaces of the city for their work, but not always in as obvious and material ways. This is particularly the case for many performance and non-representational artists (See [Thornes, 2008] for a discussion of representational and non-representational environmental art.).

Artists intervening in the city blur disciplinary boundaries as well, meshing art, science, and technology. Just beyond the gardens of Herligheten, a peculiar enclave full of informality and community, several beehives are nestled in a sea of vegetation not so far away from the Oslo Fjord, the Barcode Project, and the waterfront developments of Bjørvika. In this sliver of verdure amidst concrete and construction – where the Flatbread Society bakes bread over open flames beneath towers ventilating exhaust from the tunnels below – artists meet and congregate. The keepers of those beehives are two artists and cultural entrepreneurs: Marius Presterud and Mikkel Dagestad, otherwise known as Oslo Apiary. The work of Oslo Apiary exemplifies the inextricability of art and science in everyday life. Their work may at first glance be difficult to understand as art. They keep bees on rooftops of art galleries and shopping malls and in other unsuspecting spaces of the city. They are artists who keep bees but prefer not to be called beekeepers.2015-Oslo Apiary Hive at Sørenga-OsloOslo Apiary has collaborated with other artists and undertaken a number of provoking interventions in the city of Oslo. In the work ‘If these walls could walk, where would they stray?’ (Oslo Apiary with Klara Pousette, 2015), Oslo Apiary liberates graffiti from the less than sterile confines of the restrooms at Kunstnernes Hus art gallery. Based on a concept by Oslo Apiary, textile artist Klara Pousette embroiders select pieces of graffiti onto beekeeping suits – curating the transgressions of the semi-private contested space of a public restroom – and transforming the everyday writings on walls. This work gives movement to something static, preserves something ephemeral, makes something private public, removes spatial context and adds mobility. It is a blurred line between liberation, collaboration, and perhaps even appropriation. Corporate logos join the graffiti on the beekeeping suits, the juxtaposition alluding to tensions between graffiti and advertising in public space (Oslo Apiary with Klara Pousette, 2015).  Via the embroidery on their beekeeping suits, graffiti moves with the artists to another quasi-public space, the roof of the gallery and home to one of their many hives. All this while bees of their urban hive steal water from neighbours, making their own transgressions from public to private, through the open windows of adjacent apartments (Presterud, 2015: Personal Communication). Elsewhere in the building, honey pours spectacularly down the marble banister in the foyer of the gallery into sculpted beeswax bowls laid upon the floor in the collaboration ‘Foyer work’ with artist Victoria Günzler. Collecting the touches of the many visitors who have moved through these spaces, the antiseptic properties of honey purify its path downwards. The slow movement of honey and the installation as a whole invites viewers to question how they use the public space of the gallery and raises issue of food and community, of consumption and elite spaces, of divisions of nature and culture.

How is the work of Oslo Apiary more than merely urban beekeeping? What makes their work art? As artists they challenge our understanding of what art is, as artists often do, and they challenge divisions of nature and culture. These two artists see possibilities in unusual spaces and places in cities. The most profound change lies in the transformation of the everyday and everyday spaces (Lefebvre, 2014).

Seeing possibility in unlikely places is arguably at the very heart of transformation. With global environmental problems, including climate change, we are confronted with an unprecedented sense of urgency. Such a sense of urgency can be motivating, but also debilitating. Perhaps it is the slow and artistic transformation of the everyday that is truly critical. Art opens up opportunity to create moments in the city, a momentary disruption to material and human flows.  It slows us down or even stops us for a moment, and sometimes presents us with a new perspective.  The art of transformation in urban areas will be realised by creating moments of possibility.

Like honey dripping down a marble banister, perhaps we should be thinking of slowing flows in the city instead of accelerating them. More efficient networks and movements are inexorably linked to more efficient consumption, affording not more leisure time but more time to work.  Marilyn Hamilton describes the city as a human hive that is evolving its strategic, social and systemic intelligences for resilience. She considers the honeybee’s strategy as life-sustaining because it has developed learning feedback loops that contribute value to the whole, not just to a single bee (Hamilton, 2008). The city with all its machinations and connectivity forms a social collective moving and working in tandem; each individual has some role to play in the hive. If the city is the hive, perhaps transformation is the honey; the product of collective action, slow and sticky but infinitely sweet. Creating the moments of transformation that really stick, like honey, depends on the art of seeing new possibilities.


Special thanks to Marius Presterud and Mikkel Dagestad of Oslo Apiary; for sharing their work so openly with us and students at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, and for the many inspiring conversations that led to the writing of this piece.  For more information about the work of Oslo Apiary, please visit their website:


Emma Arnold is a doctoral research fellow and cultural geographer at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo.


Dr. Karen O’Brien is Professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo and Co-Founder of cCHANGE.

Header image: Oslo, Norway.  Credit: Emma Arnold


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