During the Commonwealth Games there was a piano outside Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). It was battered, beat up and jaunty. It was a raggamuffin of piano. A scamp. It would nonchalantly climb a scale and then duck and weave through an arpeggio before falling silent like nothing had happened. This piano may not have been to great heights, but it had depth. More soul than range. Charm than prestige. This piano didn’t have it all together, it wasn’t perfectly in tune. But it didn’t expect you to be either. It was a friendly, non-threatening piano. People of mixed ability and background had a go at playing a wee piece while we stood around – awkward and engaged – on edge and enlivened by the insouciant incongruity.
The other day I noticed that the new sleek bank that has opened up on the corner of Royal Exchange Square – a few hundreds yards from the steps outside GOMA – has a piano in its foyer. Now I’ve not seen this piano up close, it is behind glass in a building I would have no cause to enter. It’s hard to miss though when walking past, being as it’s one of those grand uprights. I’ve passed it a few times now and I’m yet to see anyone playing it. It ostentatiously dominates a shiny silver and red room. How it must feel to be in that room with the slips of paper, uncomfortable chairs, blinking lights and bookies’ pens. The piano, from a distance, looks to be a fairly impressive one. I’ve never heard it play, and indeed I know not if anyone has, but I’m sure it would sound strong and clear.
These two pianos tell two different stories. Both pianos would have been (GOMA’s troubadour has since trundled on) very easily accessible to members of the public and both would have soon found an audience.
But the music would have been so different.
How do we treat public space? As something full of drama and carnival, constantly shifting, as psychologically accessible as it is physically accessible? Or as something we find in the midst of the impressive, insured, owned? One piano takes the public into the private. The other takes the private – the tentative practices and rehearsing – out into the public. One is a story of prestige the other of dynamism. One uses a display of power, quality, luxury while not affording any of these things. The other offers a grab at sovereignty – a chance to take a seat – have a go. To play the piano in the street is absurd and tempting. To play it in the bank is pretty annoying and self conscious.
When you enter the bank you are playing the part of the entitled, your power comes from the fact that you can be someone who listens to the piano. You are entitled to money, and entitled to listen to the piano. You are cutting about in a sophisticated tribe.
When you walk through the street – you play a part only so much as the hubbub makes you – you can, in snatches, between beautiful buildings when the sun mingles with rain clouds – just be yourself. That piano is tempting you to be you – to get power through playing or participating – singing, clapping, dancing, egging on – shouting out requests – being part of something.
Both have the potential to earn money. A few quid in a hat or a bonus for a manager who gets positive customer satisfaction reviews. Both could be sources of humour and entertainment – one edgy and unruly – the other one controlled and guarded.
Are we guests in public or are we hosts? Are we guests in our cities? Moving as a great ‘public’ through a ‘public’ space mediated by one shop to another which sell us different versions of power packaged in various shapes and sizes? Are we guests ricocheting from one established interest to the next? In our towns, cities, malls are we guests? Is none of it ours? Should we be happy with being spoiled with carefully moderated ‘classiness’ and ‘quirkiness’?
Or are we hosts in our cities? Making space and inviting others. Are we hosting one another, welcoming and greeting each other – offering to entertain and engage each other in our home?
Is public space owned by everyone? Or really owned by someone? Or owned by no one?
And if it’s owned by no one – is that marvelous?