On May 19-21 2016, the Akademie der Künste in Berlin hosted a 36-hour long conference entitled “Public Space: Fights and Fictions: a 36-hour Factory of Thought,” dedicated the politics of public space, organized in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut. The numerous keynote lectures, roundtables and performances involved the participation of many architects, urban planners, artists, journalists, and other thinkers from both the Global North and Global South. Along with good friends of New South, Meriem Chabani and John Edom, I was invited to curate a publication built upon the discussions that seemed the most relevant to our respective work’ editorial line. The result is the publication below, grouping interviews we did of contributors to the conference (Eyal Weizman, Nana Dusei-Poku, Cooking Sections, Omar Nagati, Ana Dana Beroš, Pedro Gadanho), as well as short essays by others (Anna Minton, Tentative Collective, Elpida Karaba, Mona Fawaz & Ahmad Gharbieh, Kathrin Röggla, Ethel Baraona Pohl). We hope that you will enjoy the editorial result of this collaboration and would like to thank Julia Albani, Nicola Beissner, Joachim Bernauer, Karin Lelonek, Johannes Odenthal, Joanne Pouzenc, and Andrea Zell for this opportunity. You can read the publication below or download freely the PDF version by clicking here.
Public Space: Fights and Fictions. An Editorial Project by The Funambulist and New South commissioned by the Akademie der Künste and the Goethe-Institut (Paris-Berlin, 2016).
“Who do we exclude from our fictions?
Who do we include in our desires?”
— Tentative Collective
Architects appear increasingly to be getting interested in the politics of public space. The 36-hour Factory of Thought event at the Akademie der Kunste in Berlin is therefore inscribed in a larger movement towards social awareness as a key value in architecture practice. Regardless of its successes or failures, the 15th edition of the Venice Biennale Reporting from the Front, curated by Alejandro Arevena, provides the latest solid evidence of this move. Although such a shift both in the practices and questions encountered by architects can only be a positive shift, what is too often missing from the conversation is the crucial need to question the very nature of public space itself: not only the way it is made and used, but the broader societal vision that it represents and reinforces. A useful starting point, then, is to examine what we mean when we say ‘public’, before we move on to ‘space’, the material that as architects, urban planners and spatial practitioners, we may dissect more comfortably.
Who is the public? The temptation is to take its pure definition at face value: ‘public’ means open to all, inclusive, democratic, shared, a right. What emerges upon closer examination of specific cases however is that these apparently universal values come with rules attached. The label public, across different contexts, can therefore obscure fissures that exclude certain individuals and groups, or that place constraints on their belonging to a common ideal. As such, ‘public’ reproduces a hierarchy of belonging and a dominant idea of ‘the public’ that eclipses a multiplicity of diverse minor ‘publics’. Behind these symptoms of inequality lie the structural mechanisms of the norm. Bodies that share a majority of characteristics with the local norms are those perceived primarily as constituents in this notion of the ‘public’. On the contrary, bodies that do not conform to the norm, be it on the basis of their gender, their race, their health, their age or, more generally, their behaviour, are excluded from this notion to an extent proportional with their degree of non-conformity. Consequently, the ‘space’ of the ‘public’ will also be proportionally inappropriate for these non-conforming bodies.
Let us be clear: this is not a problem of a lack of tolerance or inclusivity. In her interview transcribed here, as well as persistent and patient contributions throughout the event in Berlin, Nana Adusei-Poku addresses the simple but devastating point that tolerance of people of colour, the queer community, Muslims and other marginalised groups in European and American public space is experienced by those individuals themselves as the postponement of a negative and violent rejection. Tolerance for — and what we conceive as ‘good intentions’ toward — others from those normative bodies toward which public space is calibrated, only constitute the patronising testimony of this inequality. Architects and designers are too often the deliverers of such a testimony. Before hoping to contribute to better, more ‘participative’ forms of public space, we need to deconstruct this notion and its contradictions. This is the aim of the present publication; it can be seen as a theoretical toolbox oriented toward spatial practitioners and others engaged in the physical modification of the commons.
The other contributions curated for this present publication also engage with these processes of deconstruction.
Ana Dana Beroš addresses the segregation of public space in her close analysis of the infrastructure for receiving displaced persons in the so-called ‘humanitarian corridor’ in the Balkans, and particularly in Croatia and Slovenia. The fast paced evolution of the refugee situation and the political adaptions and improvisations that seek to address it, throw into relief many assumptions and underlying tensions within European societies and the way that these are articulated in the public sphere.
With a recalibrated awareness of the power of public to exclude and obscure its own hierarchisisation, we can begin to develop a more nuanced understanding that admits the possibility of public space not only facilitating conflict and negotiation, but being made by them.
Omar Negati insists on this characteristic of the public, drawing on his experience of the immediate aftermath of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Here, a new set of rules to govern the public sphere had to be constantly improvised, negotiated and renegotiated, illuminating through the absence of the state or any shared understanding of constraints, their integrality in ‘normal’ circumstances. Omar’s experience of an absent state in post-revolution Cairo also provides the basis for his critique of the tendency, particularly amongst architects, to reject another key aspect of the definition of ‘public’, namely as it relates to government as opposed to private interests.
We wonder ‘for whom’ public space is designed, but also ‘against whom.’ In her contributed essay, Anna Minton discusses the current proliferation of privately owned public spaces in the UK. These selective spaces have ushered in the phenomenon of private security companies effectively policing the bodies that use them, where the nature of ‘policing’ demonstrates an ambiguity in which behaviours are actually prohibited: unlawful ones, or simply those that do not produce capital. Anna places her observations within the context of an increasingly militaristic and hostile attitude towards the public on the part of the political and business classes in the UK.
For spatial practitioners Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernández Pascual of Cooking Sections, the terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ no longer function and need to be supplemented with new terms that capture the nuances of the dynamic and mutating situations we now find ourselves in. Cooking Sections aim to explore these themes through their work, opening up the field of possible constituents of the public to include insects, plants and climatic phenomena, both as active stakeholders and in terms of the way they demand and influence negotiation and engagement in the public sphere.
This publication compiles what we consider to be a cross section of the key themes to emerge from 36 hours of intense discussions, performances, key-note lectures, parties and interviews. It is not a report on the event per se but a specific and situated regard derived from our own participation as critical observers. Neither is it a collection aiming at a universalist reading of public space — we know all too well that universality often masks an exclusionary Western hegemony. On the contrary, it attempts to learn from the specificity of each context within which each of these contributions are formulated. The publication includes six interviews conducted during the event with Eyal Weizman, Daniel Fernández Pascual and Alon Schwabe of Cooking Sections, Nana Adusei-Poku, Pedro Gadanho, Ana Dana Beroš and Omar Nagati. In addition, we present a selection of articles that provide a response to the event by Anna Minton and Mona Fawaz, as well as texts that formed part of contributors’ presentations at the event itself from Elpida Karaba, Tentative Collective, Wilfried Wang and Kathrin Röggla. Our hope is that this editorial approach can be used as a framework for debate around the question of public space, the remit of which should not be constrained to the field of professional architecture but integrate and impact upon the broader social contexts within which we operate.