Φεβρουάριος 15, 2014

Melancholy in the Desert. An Aesthetics of Exodus

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia
ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics and about its proper form: – first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; – second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; – and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness”. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.1


“You are leaving at last!”: A captain at the port of Piraeus addresses the clueless passenger of his ship, whose day started with the strong desire to visit the P.s and who ended up departing for an unknown destination. This is the ending of the poem I Episkepsi (The Visit) by Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, recited by the female performer Elina Mantidi at the end of the performance Ectoplasmata by the artists’ collective NOVA MELANCHOLIA/Vassilis Noulas. “You are leaving at last!” is the redeeming remark addressed in a very docile tone to someone, who somehow always wanted to leave but did not know how. The clueless passenger accepts this turn of events without protesting that this was not his initial decision. The performer, who recites the poem and who was wandering around wordlessly during the performance, holding a cup of coffee in her hands, watching TV for some minutes, lying down, looking out of the window, or just sitting motionless, also finds a way out of all this – she is at last free to leave the stage, the performance is over.

This text is dedicated to an exploration of acts of leaving. I am focusing particularly on ‘exodic practices’ and investigating the specific ways, in which these practices are performed in theatre and/or performance art today. In doing this, I would like to rely on three recent performances of the artistic collective NOVA MELANCHOLIA2, namely Meditation I: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt (Athens, 2011) based on René Descartes’ text; Ectoplasmata (Athens, 2013) using poems by Greek poet Miltos Sachtouris, and Adieu To Emmanuel Levinas (Athens, 2013) based on Jacques Derrida’s text with the same title. I am arguing that these three performances are indeed “exodic acts,” performing modes of ethical (i.e. political) coping within specific settings and contexts. In what follows, I want to elaborate on the various articulations of these acts in order to be able to describe in detail the kind of ‘Exodus’ that is suggested here.

Before I enter into the discussion about the concrete manifestations of exodic practices in the performances, let me first try to clarify a bit the notion of ‘exodus’ in this specific context. I am using the broad term ‘exodus’ in order to refer to various related notions such as leaving, exit, escape, departure, desertion, anachoresis to name just a few. Exodus would mean, then, literally the act of leaving behind a concrete framework of existence and more precisely – due to its special connotations originating from Jewish or Greek history3 – breaking out of an unbearable state of servitude and oppression. Significant political theorists and philosophers elaborated on the notion of ‘exodus’ linking it directly to possibilities of resistance and the articulation of radical politics today.4 Exodic practices are, thus, generally understood as productive acts of escaping repressive regimes, destabilizing them and setting the basis for a new kind of being. It is not the place here to present the discursive story of the notion, its transformations and ramifications; rather, I am much more interested in special qualities that characterize exodic practices and that are relevant for the artistic articulations to be discussed in this context.

Some of these qualities and facets, which seem to play a particular role in the context of my discussion, seem to get surprisingly overlooked or concealed when theorizing exodus. Theorists tend to speak about ‘exodus’ with a certain guilt, I would say, in order to destigmatize the notion from an impression of laziness, inactivity and resignation. They are keen to attach the exodic act to a ‘productive end’, to a creative praxis that brings about change or at least the promise of a change.5 What they seem to neglect is the importance of the act of exiting as such, the moment when the outbreak begins and – following here the biblical imagery – the long, exhausting ‘march in the desert’ before something really happens. I favor an understanding of the exodic act not as organically linked to a telos, to the ‘promised land’ as imagined end that functions always as a drive. Rather, I would prefer an understanding of exodus – and the march for that matter  as departure that has much more to do with despair, pain and limits than with a clear and planned aim. So, my focus – and the focus of the performances I am discussing here, I would suggest – lies mainly on this space and time in-between, in which the exodus has to take forms and figures. This exodic topos in-between is perhaps not confrontational, but it is not safe or controllable either. It favors “an oblique or diagonal stance”6  that instead of showing a clear and undeniable direction, much rather reveals possibilities of moving.


The dream 7

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia
MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia

The second part of the performance Meditation I: Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt is constituted by a series of songs (by Juliette Gréco, Laibach, Lena Platonos etc.) accompanied by various transformations of the female performer: she appears amongst others as a somewhat deformed Jesus, as a peculiar giant insect or as three-headed freak. Each transformation corresponds very vaguely to the song that is played; each scene functions as a kind of live video clip. The songs do not seem to have anything in common or to follow any kind of coherent logic. I call this second part of the performance, in which the Cartesian text as such does not play any role, a ‘dream sequence’, because it escapes causal logics and lingers in an in-between topos of uncanny forms and queer bodies.

MEDITATION I © Nova Melancholia
MEDITATION I © Nova Melancholia

As if I were not a man who sleeps at night and often has all the same experiences while asleep as madmen do when awake – indeed sometimes even more improbable ones. Often in my dreams I am convinced of just such familiar events – that I am sitting by the fire in my dressing gown – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed! Yet right now my eyes are certainly wide open when I look at this piece of paper; I shake my head and it isn’t asleep; when I rub one hand against the other, I do it deliberately and know what I am doing. This wouldn’t all happen with such clarity to someone asleep. Indeed! As if I didn’t remember other occasions when I have been tricked by exactly similar thoughts while asleep! As I think about this more carefully, I realize that there is never any reliable way of distinguishing being awake from being asleep. This discovery makes me feel dizzy, which itself reinforces the notion that I may be asleep!8

Descartes himself wonders, while writing about doubt and performing the “demolishing of [his] opinions”9 whether he is asleep or awake; whether his is dreaming or not hesitating indeed to come to a conclusion. The performance stages this hesitation by refusing to allow any act of situating it. In the first part of the performance, the actor speaks the whole text into a microphone and exposes it more or less as what it is, i.e. a philosophical text to be perceived and – ideally – understood. Suddenly, the second part of the performance departs from the concrete context of the text and performs a world beyond. The exodic practice consists in this choice to exit to a dream world that negates deciphering and interpretation.

This withdrawal into the world of dream is for the performance connected to despondency and helplessness – see here for example the discreet appearance of another performer in the second part, pointing a flashlight to the audience and transmitting an SOS Morse signal. The protagonist remains caught in this in-between topos (between ‘reality’ and dream, between in and out etc.) without end, forced to (re)configure it again and again,10 establishing it at the same time as the only possibility of being. I call this specific situation melancholic because it insists on the necessity of a cruel escape.

MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia
MEDITATION I © Evi Fylaktou, Nova Melancholia


The zombies/ the beyond

The performance Ectoplasmata took place in a small private apartment in Exarcheia, an area in the center of Athens (Greece) in February, March and April 2013. It was acted out by five performers in front of fourteen to fifteen spectators each time. The entrance was free of charge. The performance began as an exodic practice: out of theatre (buildings), out of public space, out of economic exchange. By performing at home and for free, NOVA MELANCHOLIA was performing first of all a breach into the expected framework, within which performance usually takes place.

The performance acted out the exodus as an escape from a system of life. The escaping action was articulated as ethical attitude towards an unbearable context. Ectoplasmata in an private apartment, in today’s Athens performed escape indeed as an “unpretentious act” of subverting subjectification and betraying representation”11. Four actresses and one singer (the director himself performing two songs and withdrawing again) staged a series of poems by Miltos Sachtouris, which were not initially written for theater. The girl wandering around with the cup of coffee in her hands was the only one who seemed to be moving in a ‘real space’, performing banal actions as described above. The other three looked like inhabitants of an unfamiliar landscape (beyond life?), soaked in blood, with an amputated hand in the mouth or resembling giant, furry, rather amorphous creatures sometimes hugging, sometimes struggling against each other. In a similar manner, the poems recited rather upset the situation instead of clarifying it. It was difficult to understand who speaks, because the reciting voice did not belong to the performer, who was simply opening and closing her mouth or because it came from the off. In this sense, the performance did not stage subjects and characters. It much rather painted a bizarre landscape lying beyond, inhabited by creatures that occasionally adorned their space with words.

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia
ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia

The actresses, the space and the words/ poems ignore or betray representation in that they refuse to settle in a “real”, “normal” context. Instead, they repeatedly manifest their strangeness and state of not-belonging. The actresses-zombies, the apartment-stage, the poems about departures and death are already “beyond”, they do not belong, they are unsettling and they unsettle the context they are in. They perform an exodic aesthetics in that they demonstrate precisely their being as a being beyond, producing consequently an anomaly of placement and positioning.

The performance daubs the exodic with melancholy. The exodus that the performance proposes is a melancholic withdrawal, which articulates itself as a quiet and subtle escape. This kind of withdrawal, apart from suggesting an ethical attitude, constitutes a political act in that it manifests itself as an odd, eccentric event. The melancholic exodus does not concern everyday people regressing to melancholy; it is the inhabitants of this landscape of beyond that are escaping. They exist already at the same time in- and outside by performing an invitation to an exodic mode of being.

The most challenging thing about the performance is this difficulty of situating it. It takes place in a melancholic here that embeds at the same time an odd beyond. It performs exodus as an ambivalent practice in an ambivalent place. In this sense, it somehow suggests that the exodic action has already taken place, escaping perception and time. Hence the melancholic Gestus towards an action that remains mostly unlocated and fleeting.

ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia
ECTOPLASMATA © Nova Melancholia


The address/ adieu

In April, May and June 2013 NOVA MELANCHOLIA continued the ‘farewell-tour’ by staging Jacques Derrida’s eulogy Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas in various Athenian locations (in a museum, in the squatted theatre EMBROS and at two central public squares). One female performer stood in front of a microphone and addressed Derrida’s text to the gathered group of people – her audience. On her side, a vase with white flowers – extremely typical for Greek cemeteries – looked somewhat poor and meager for a funeral. She was wearing a dress in dark red/ purple and pantyhose. She was mourning a loss; she was addressing a departure.


Nevertheless, this was a performance, no “real” funeral (particularly not the funeral of Levinas!) was taking place. Who, then, was leaving? Who was the farewell addressed to? The event performed an “attacking farewell” (Virno 2010, p. 50, my transl.) in that it addressed an ‘adieu’ to a city, its particular audiences, its particular settings. The performance constitutes a “droiture” (straightforwardness and uprightness)12 confronting its audiences and places with a coming departure. The performance, about to leave, addresses an “adieu” to its context. In essence, the performance performs what it does, its exit and its end.

At the end of each performance the actor performs a painful gesture by emptying the vase from the flowers and asking for a voluntary (financial) contribution for the spectacle13, sometimes bursting out in tears. The responsibility towards the Other – that the text addresses constantly – gets transferred through this gesture to the audience which is invited to assist the performance or the performer to really exit. The event performs thus the exodic practice par excellence confronting the context, in which it is staged, with its ephemerality, its end, its departure. Melancholic is this gesture of performing ‘adieu’ from the beginning to the end.


Melancholy in the desert

I suggested in my text that the performances discussed here establish a certain “aesthetics of exodus” in that they expose or literally perform exodic practices. The performances chose various ways in order to articulate exodus – the dream, the undead, the adieu…The articulation begins as a withdrawal from the unbearable, from despair and from pain and lingers in the in-between topos of exodus (“the desert”), without pointing to a direction, but instead by exhaustingly marking the void that is left behind. The performances do not seek the Promised Land; instead, they grave their print by marching quasi on site. This makes their unfolding melancholic: the certainty of a promised land and the certainty of never reaching it.

The most provoking quality of these performances is perhaps their insistence on overtly occupying the “in-between” – Meditation I paints a landscape between reality and dream; Ectoplasmata situates itself between life and death and Adieu marks the space between here and beyond. This in-betweenness and/or unsituatedness are melancholic because it never comes to a still (a pause, an end), but rather suggests a constant restlessness, which only makes the void deeper.

The performances flirt with subtly proposing an ethical coping with the current Athenian situation. They try out the anachoresis from a specific state, a quiet exodus, which does not designate the direction or the place of arrival, but rather points to the vacuum left behind. This is why exodus is always first of all an act of disobedience: it does not primarily refer to an affirmation or a presence that eventually comes after the act itself,14 but insists on the void, the absence, the trace that remains. Exodus does not have to do with going somewhere, but with leaving from somewhere.

The performances suggest, in effect, a rather disquieting exodus, which is not to grasp but remains undefined, ambivalent, existing at the same time within a system and outside of it. This is exactly the advantage of theatrical praxis: it occupies an ambivalent and very powerful space, which is capable of giving rise to such threatening exodic actions that negate determination. In this sense, the remark “You are leaving at last” is in effect addressed to theatre as a constant reminder to defend the place and the power from where the dangerous exodus is to be initiated.



1. Michael Walzer: Exodus and Revolution, New York: Basic Books 1985, p. 149.
2. http://www.novamelancholia.gr/en
3. I am referring here to the ‘Sortie of Messologhi’ (in Greek: Exodus), 1826, while Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire.
4. To name only a few: Toni Negri/ Michael Hardt, Paolo Virno, Chantal Mouffe, Michael Walzer etc
5. Cf. for example Isabell Lorey: „Attempt to Think the Plebeian. Exodus and Constituting as Critique“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/lorey/en (last accessed: 07.11.2013); the critique to the notion articulated by Chantal Mouffe and Oliver Marchart (Exodus und Stellungskrieg. Die Zukunft radikaler Politik, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005; s. also: Chantal Mouffe: „Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/mouffe/en, last accessed: 07.11.2013) is very much related to this fear of scarce efficacy. Even Paolo Virno, who accepts the exodic act as means to articulate radical politics today, cannot help but get defensive sometimes! (Cf. Grammatik der Multitude, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005; Exodus, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2010).
6. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri: Empire, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press 2000, p. 212.
7. Cf. my text: „Theorie und Theater: Eine melancholische Beziehung. Am Beispiel von Performances der Gruppe NOVA MELANCHOLIA“ (Theory and Theatre: A Melancholic Relationship. The Example of Performances by NOVA MELANCHOLIA), in: Mascha Vollhardt et al. (eds.): Theoriediskurse in Theater und Performance der Gegenwart (Theory Discourse in Contemporary Theatre and Performance), Heidelberg: Springer VS (forthcoming).
8. René Descartes: Meditation on First Philosophy in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and body, pp.1-2, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/descmedi.pdf (last accessed: 07.11.2013).
9. Ibid., p. 1.
10. See here also the very haptic and explicit body energy that the performance requires from the actor: the constant metamorphoses, elaborate gymnastic exercises etc.
11. Dimitris Papadopoulos et al.: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Sidmouth: Pluto Press 2008, p. 73.
12. Jacques Derrida. Adieu To Emmanuel Levinas, transl. P.-A. Brault, M. Naas, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999, p. 2.
13. The performance was free of charge.
14. The space of the exodus remains rather undefined and diffuse, it “relies […] on a latent abundance, an excess of possibilities.” (Virno 2005, p. 98) (my trans.)


Derrida, Jacques: Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, transl. P.-A. Brault, M. Naas, Stanford: Stanford University Press 1999
Descartes, René: Meditation on First Philosophy in which are demonstrated the existence of God and the distinction between the human soul and body, http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdf/ descmedi.pdf (last accessed: 07.11.2013)
Hardt, Michael, Negri, Antonio: Empire, Cambridge (MA), London: Harvard University Press 2000
Lorey, Isabell: „Attempt to Think the Plebeian. Exodus and Constituting as Critique“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0808/lorey/en (last accessed: 07.11.2013)
Mouffe, Chantal: „Critique as Counter-Hegemonic Intervention“, http://eipcp.net/transversal/
0808/ mouffe/en, last accessed: 07.11.2013
Id.: Exodus und Stellungskrieg. Die Zukunft radikaler Politik, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2005
Papadopoulos, Dimitris, Stephenson, Niamh, Tsianos, Vassilis: Escape Routes: Control and Subversion in the 21st Century, Sidmouth: Pluto Press 2008
Siouzouli, Natascha: „Theorie und Theater: Eine melancholische Beziehung. Am Beispiel von Performances der Gruppe NOVA MELANCHOLIA“ (Theory and Theatre: A Melancholic Relationship. The Example of Performances by NOVA MELANCHOLIA), in: Mascha Vollhardt et al. (eds.): Theoriediskurse in Theater und Performance der Gegenwart (Theory Discourse in Contemporary Theatre and Performance), Heidelberg: Springer VS (forthcoming)
Virno, Paolo: Exodus, Vienna: Turia+Kant 2010
Id.: Grammatik der Multitude. Die Engel und der General Intellect, Wien: Turia+Kant 2005
Walzer, Michael: Exodus and Revolution, New York: Basic Books 1985


Dr. Natascha Siouzouli is a theatre theorist. She works at the Institut für Theaterwissenschaft of the Freie Universität Berlin as a researcher in the project The Aesthetics of Applied Theatre. She co-directs the Institute for Live Arts Research |Π| in Athens. She also works as a translator.

Οκτώβριος 19, 2013

The Art of Democracy

‘…as soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.’

(Benjamin, 2003: 256-257)


In the afterword of The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin links cultural mass production with the aestheticization of politics and with fascism. Beside his main thesis that art has lost its aura through technical reproduction, Benjamin thus initiates –in his renowned essay – another interesting train of thought, one that assumes there is a specific relationship between art and society or, more specifically, between cultural production and political regimes. Earlier in his essay, Benjamin had already mentioned in passing that in the future, when its ritual function has evaporated, art will be founded in politics. This line of thinking arouses curiosity. It sets in motion a train of thought that has become highly topical nowadays. Would there also be a direct connection between a kind of art and a kind of political regime that dominates the western hemisphere? Is there a link between modern art and the democracies in which it is embedded? Is there a specific art of democracy, which consequently can only survive in democracies? But also: what is the art of realizing and maintaining a political democracy? The phrase The art of democracy can be interpreted in two ways: that of which art facilitates democracy and of which conditions should a political regime meet to be defined as democratic nowadays? These questions make it necessary to first re-examine some basic concepts, such as: What actually is democracy and, perhaps even more difficult: what is the definition of modern art?


The basic formula of democracy

Although democracy harks back to principles from the year 508 B.C., it was only at the end of the eighteenth century that modern democracy was firmly outlined. In the United States, this happened with the Declaration of Independence, while Europe had to wait for the French Revolution. Remember that the polis in Athens did not include slaves, immigrants or women. Classic democracy applied to a small segment of the population only. ‘Thus, whether we can legitimately refer to Athens as a democracy at all is a question that at least has to be posed.’ (Held, 2006: 19)

It is important to realize that democracy is a relatively young form of government, for which, and other reasons, it is still rather fragile and vulnerable. Quite a few politicians and citizens regard it all too easily as something obvious, however. On the other hand, some political philosophers, such as Oliver Marchart, doubt whether the current liberal-capitalist regimes meet the criteria for democracy (Marchart, 2007: 158). In many cases democracy still needs to be established and in those political regimes where it already exists it requires constant maintenance. Surveying the world in a wider sense quickly reveals that not only are there still sovereign dictatorships, but also theocracies and even capitalist communist regimes. Both China and Russia demonstrate how not-very-democratic regimes are maybe even more in line with the capitalist market imperative than the democracy we are so accustomed to. According to the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, the Chinese brand of communism may herald a fundamental development in the 21st century: the transition to an authoritarian capitalist world system (Sloterdijk, 2004: 193). This system ‘implies the project of including all forms of labour, desire and expression of the people caught within the system in the immanence of spending power’ (Sloterdijk, 2004: 195). So, democracy is no more than one of many possible political regimes. But then, what exactly is democracy?

Just as there are many different forms of government, there are, of course, different interpretations of democracy. The political scientist David Held, for instance, distinguishes four basic forms: the classic Athenian model, Republicanism, the liberal model and forms of direct democracy. From these, several other forms have been derived during the twentieth century (Held, 2006). This multiplicity does not, however, mean that we cannot trace every modern democracy back to a concise basic formula. Putting it simply, the bottom line of any democratic regime consists of two fundamental principles. Firstly, the assurance that the power of the demos is represented by a majority and, secondly, the guarantee of a legal framework that at least protects minorities (Lukacs, 2005: 5). At best, such a framework also supports, encourages and emancipates minorities. So, paradoxically, within a democracy the majority creates or protects the possibility of the minority becoming the majority and assuming power. This is why the political philosopher Claude Lefort says that the seat of power within a democratic form of government is in principle empty (Lefort, 1988: 17). More concretely, it can de jure always be declared vacant. Whoever occupies the seat of power must accept that there may come a time when they will have to surrender it. Not only that, but within a radical democracy the majority will even encourage this process, constantly preparing, in fact, for its own abdication. It is important to note that democracy has no fixed foundation. We can only articulate legitimizations or provide good arguments as to why democracy would be a better political regime than any other. Neither God, ideology nor scientific positivism can provide democracy with a steady foundation. And yet this form of political government is not bottomless. Its grounding lies in the very emptiness in which the foundation must be rediscovered time and again. This is why Marchart does not speak of anti-fundamental politics, but of post-fundamental politics: ‘Democracy is to be defined as a regime that seeks, precisely, to come to terms with the ultimate failure of grounding rather than simply repressing or foreclosing it.’ (Marchart, 2007: 157-158)


Neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism

The formula outlined above also defines when democracy starts to fail. As soon as politicians fail to design and pass legislation to protect minorities, democracy dwindles. There are subtle mechanisms to keep the weaker elements from coming to power. For instance, barriers to good education can be made so high that the lower social classes or less affluent migrants find it hard to get access to it. Or a government may fail to facilitate things like child care, making it harder for women to gain positions of authority in society. It can also cause the cultural and media landscape to become intellectually impoverished, so that citizens are misinformed and any critical voice is nipped in the bud by light entertainment. Establishing or maintaining obstacles to upward cultural, intellectual and social mobility reduces the opportunities for civil participation. This is why collective mechanisms of solidarity between social classes, between generations, between men and women, between immigrants and natives and even between regions or continents are essential to democracy. Ideologies or political regimes such as neo-liberalism, which argue for dismantling such collective responsibilities by placing as much as possible back on the shoulders of the individual (through private insurance and pensions, by giving out student loans rather than scholarships, et cetera), over time easily slide into a timocracy, in which the power to rule lies, if not de jure but de facto, with those better situated in society.

But political programmes that only wish to ensure democratic guarantees within the borders of the nation state in fact also risk taking an undemocratic attitude towards all those outside their own political territory. Such a political stance, underwritten by all forms of nationalism, is indefensible in a globalized world. That is, as long as one still subscribes to the rules of democracy. After all, many national decisions will either directly or indirectly have an impact on the environment outside the territory of the sovereign decision-maker, according to Held quoted above (2006). Just like real or virtual viruses and nuclear fallout, cultural movements and media-scapes cannot be stopped at the gates of the nation state. Therefore, some unilateral decisions can be undemocratic for the outside world, which has no say in them. In short, in a globalized world in which large parts of the world population are networked with each other and everything is connected to everything else on a worldwide scale, both neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism are unable to provide satisfactory answers for the demands of democracy. When neo‑liberalism and neo-nationalism cover for each other, their undemocratic tendency is even strengthened. Unlike nationalism, its predecessor, neo-nationalism practices a self-reflexive pragmatism that uses all information about globalization, including neo-liberalism, to obtain national privileges. In doing so, it no longer appeals to the heavy-handed blood-and-soil model, but rather to cultural diversity to legitimize and maintain economic advantages for its ‘own’ culture.

Neo-nationalism and neo-liberalism interact in a particular way here. Take the European Union, for instance. Neo-liberals have argued for the free movement of money, goods and people within the Union, whereas neo-nationalists try to obstruct transnational (and transregional) structures of solidarity wherever possible. The free flow of money, for instance, is encouraged within the European domain, but as soon as a member state runs into financial difficulties, this domain is no more than a collection of nation states in conflict. People are free to move within the European Union, until Fortress Europe is overrun by refugees. Then all of a sudden only the country where these refugees first arrive bears the full responsibility. Where neo-liberalism in some cases benefits from neo-nationalism because the latter selectively applies the freedom and rights propagated by the former, neo-nationalism can benefit from neo-liberalism by continuing to reap its benefits outside the nation state. Neo-nationalism has no qualms about international trade and even turns a blind eye towards immigration in those cases where it is good for the national economy. Neo-nationalism, or the ‘political folklore of territorialism’ as Sloterdijk (2004: 160) calls it, also happily makes use of neo-liberal principles such as marketing strategies and branding to construct a national and cultural identity. Moreover, cultural essentialism is commonly used to gain economic benefits and to protect standards of living. Or economic arguments are presented harshly as cultural ones: ‘They are lazy while we are a hard-working nation’ and ‘they live on our pocket while we have to scrape and save’. Within neo-nationalism, economic achievements are translated culturally and are ‘essentialized’ as, for example, the only Dutch culture or the American way of life. In this way neo-nationalism cleverly hitches a ride on the wagon of neo-liberalism. And when the cross-border traffic of money and especially people gets ‘out of hand’ and undermines neo-liberalism’s urge for accumulation, neo-nationalism comes in handy in helping to maintain a selective policy as to freedom. At least we can say that neo-nationalism and neo-liberalism can play a clever game in which the rules of a true global democracy do not apply.

Finally, according to Held, the faulty forms of democratic government have everything to do with the obsolete model on which most regimes in the Western world have based themselves historically, namely, liberal, representative democracy. This model reduces democracy too much to the individual responsibility of citizens, who can only realize their democratic momentum once every few years, in elections. In other words, the model neglects its duty to ‘nourish’ the civil domain. According to Held, ‘The structures of civil society (including forms of productive and financial property, sexual and racial inequalities) – misunderstood or endorsed by liberal democratic models – do not create conditions for equal votes, effective participation and deliberation, proper political understanding and equal control of the political agenda; while the structures of the liberal democratic state (including large, frequently unaccountable bureaucratic apparatuses, institutional dependence on the imperatives of private capital accumulation, political representatives preoccupied with their own re-election) do not create an organizational force which can adequately regulate “civil” power centres.’ (Held, 2006: 275)

So Held sees liberal representative democracy as a democracy of the majority that finds it difficult to organize citizenship. But civil initiatives in which minorities can also have a voice presuppose serious social and cultural programmes for the emancipation of citizens, enabling them to learn how to use their political voice. A democracy does, however, need a social programme to offer weaker groups every opportunity to obtain participatory power, and it needs a cultural and educational programme to generate the necessary conceptual frameworks and reflection that can produce alternative forms of government and power over and over again. This last element is necessary to safeguard the ‘emptiness’ in a democracy outlined above by always filling it only temporarily. Both neo-liberalism and neo-nationalism ignore this post-fundamental condition by suggesting that there actually is a foundation. Neo-nationalism sees the individuality of a cultural identity as the ultimate basis, while neo-liberalism elevates the laws of the free market to a transcendental level. In doing so, both philosophies harden their external legitimization into a kind of second nature. For neo-nationalism, nationality acquires the quality of an unchanging culture, while neo-liberalism practices the metaphysics of finance within a Darwinist model. As such, both political movements suggest that the reasons for political actions lie outside of the political realm and is therefore very hard to influence. To them, good politics are much more a matter of ‘tuning into’ the laws of external reality. In agreement with the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe (2005), we could therefore label these movements as ‘post-political’. Among other things, Mouffe applies the term to political movements that no longer legitimize their policy by referring to an ideology but by referring to external or seemingly non-political social factors, such as ‘the market’, ‘the economic climate’, or ‘cultural identity’. In such a framework politicians give the impression of being ‘forced’ to take certain decisions, while relegating their ideological and active freedom of choice to the background. But how do these political issues relate to art?


The singular ‘dismeasure’

Articulating a definition of art is a tricky undertaking at best. Historically, art has covered many fields and taken on many different shapes. Benjamin, for instance, refers to the ritual function that artistic artefacts once had, but he also talks about how the perception of art is transmuted by technological developments (2003: 261-262). When speaking of modern art here, it’s important to point out that the word is used for art that lost its aura, as Benjamin has described. This art will be mentioned in this essay as ‘post-auratic’, to point at art that has its origins in modernity or in the historical avant-garde – not coincidentally the same period in which photography and film came to flourish. So although this may include art that is created in unique shapes and in authentic fashion, it is art that is created – in Benjamin’s words – with an eye to its reproducibility (Benjamin, 2003: 256). Benjamin’s distinction between auratic and non-auratic art is also clearly postulated in his 1931 essay A Small History of Photography, in which he lucidly explains how the auratic work pretends to exist outside of history. It therefore denies its own transitoriness, or at least its potential transformation. This is why Benjamin calls it monumental art (1999: 169). The post-auratic artefact, on the contrary, emancipated itself from the aura. Among other things, this means that it is open to the future and to the transformations that may befall it there (1999: 157). In short, post-auratic art is contingent. The French art sociologist Nathalie Heinich adds that this post-auratic art aims at transgression, ever since the demise of the academic system (the Académie française) and its rules (Heinich, 1991). This is why today we may speak of not only post-auratic art but also of post-academic art. The philosopher Paolo Virno has coined this principle of transgression as ‘dismeasure’ (Paolo Virno, in Gielen and Lavaert, 2009). According to him, modern art introduces a ‘dismeasure’ inside the general measure or common sense of a culture. This dismeasure is not necessarily only aesthetic or formal in nature. It can also be political or – as Virno suggests – cognitive and affective in nature. When, for instance, the Belgian artist Jan Fabre binds the hands of his dancers to their ballet shoes and makes them dance ‘un-virtuoso’, he introduces a dismeasure into the idiom of classical ballet. In doing so, Fabre produced a formal or aesthetical dismeasure. The Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletti takes this even one step further by proclaiming his organization ‘Cittadellarte’ – in which scientists and businesses develop and implement practical new economic methods of productions and production relationships (Gielen, 2009: 207-237) – to be a work of art. In doing so, Pistoletto in any case makes an attempt to install a different measure outside of art as well.

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s view on art enables us to better frame the views of Benjamin, Heinich and Virno in a sociological sense. When he asks himself what role art plays in contemporary society – art that is often regarded by society as ‘useless’ and therefore without function – Luhmann concludes that art creates a ‘sense of possibilities’ (Möglichkeitssinn). ‘Nothing is either necessary or impossible’ or ‘Everything that is, can also always be otherwise’, is the message that art brings to contemporary society (Luhmann, 1995). With this functional definition of modern art Luhmann also makes room for ‘dismeasure’ as one of the possibilities of art. Moreover, when the measure is defined by everything that exists or by everything that is regarded as culturally obvious, then something can only be labelled as art if it deviates from this standard and thereby introduces a dismeasure. Within the dominant measure there’s always the chance of dismeasure occurring. Whether this dismeasure will be recognized as art, however, depends on its historic and cultural context. And this is exactly where the connection lies between post-auratic and post-academic art, between Benjamin and Luhmann. Both views on art share the notion that the modern artwork is contingent.

This constant possibility of dismeasure is why confrontations with modern artistic expressions often lead to debate and dissent. It is precisely this debate that has been at the core of the artistic ever since modernity: the principle of contingency makes it necessary to argue that other visions, opinions and interpretations are always possible. The point is not so much whether this alternate vision is more beautiful or more interesting or comes closer to the truth, but rather that there is always another way of looking at things. Just like democracy, modern art is also polyphonic and post-fundamental. Artists always propose other possibilities, which then have to be grounded each time again. After all, when neither religious or political representation nor virtuoso craftsmanship or the rules of the Académie française apply any longer, art loses the ground beneath its feet. This leads some populist voices to conclude that ‘anything goes’ and that modern art is therefore anti-fundamental. However, the post-fundamental interpretation of modern art realises that the only way for artists to get credit within the art world is by postulating a dismeasure based on their own singular gesture. In other words, they must take the risk of making their own artistic gesture and in doing so they make their own position as artists the subject of debate. It should be noted that, following Heinich (1991), I have deliberately chosen to use the notion of ‘singularity’ here, rather than that of ‘individual’ art, as the latter is associated too much with the idea of the isolated talent, personal genius or psyche from which the work of art originates. It carries a notion that is also echoed in political philosophy: ‘The difference lies in the fact that the individual is modelled upon the self-sufficient modern subject which, in its monadic existence, does not rely on other individuals, it does not relate, it does not compare and it does not share. Singularities, on the other hand, are exposed to the in-between through their relation of sharing.’ (Marchart, 2007: 73-74) Finally, it should be noted that according to Heinich a collective can also defend a unique and singular position (Heinich, 2000 and 2002). It is not the artist who has to be individual, but the artistic gesture – the work of art – must be singular, whether it is proposed by an individual or a collective.

At the core of modern art lies the movement from non-art to art that offers the singular position a place within a (sometimes limited) collectivity. The post-fundamental nature of post-auratic art lies in this grounding movement that has to be performed time and again from a position of singularity. This is precisely why anyone who is even slightly familiar with the current professional art world knows that definitely not anything goes. To be on the left side of the dichotomy art/non-art, artists often have to make their own difficult, lonesome and argumentative way to find their footing. When art is no longer embedded in religion or rituals and therefore is post-auratic and contingent, in the words of Benjamin, it has to be argued from every idiosyncratic artistic position. This is perhaps most evident in the visual arts, where nowadays craftsmanship or artistic skills are not necessarily required to make a work of art. Artists must then first and foremost find a social base for their artistic gesture and the only way to do this is by ‘publicizing’ their work and by providing arguments as to why the things they make – or, in the case of ready-mades, select – should be accepted as art. It is only when others are convinced of this artistic gesture that the proposed artefact or idea may enter the realm of ‘art’ in the dichotomy of art/non-art. And precisely this movement from the singular, idiosyncratic position to a collective base is a quest for a foundation which has to be undertaken with every new work of art. Art would be anti-fundamental if ‘anything goes’ and if, for instance, the individual intention of the artist would suffice to call something a work of art. This, however, is not the case. All artists also have to find a collective base for their intentions by searching for a foundation that can legitimize their art. Art would be fundamental if there were fixed rules that would decide beforehand the distinction of art/non-art. Such was the case with the Académie française, that had clearly defined rules with which, for instance, a landscape or a genre piece had to comply. Within post-fundamental art such rules do not exist. On the contrary, artists have to reinvent or make them themselves time and again and find a collective basis through public argumentation. This is necessary because the mother work of art is fundamentally undecided or contingent.


The art of democracy: modern art is only possible in a democracy

Precisely because it seeks a dismeasure in both the art world and society, modern art always occupies the position of the minority or heterodoxy, in the words of cultural sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1977). Those who confront society with something ‘different’ or ‘possibly otherwise’ find themselves alone, especially in the beginning. The dismeasure may become more acceptable over time or even come to belong to the orthodoxy within the artistic field, but the dynamic within the modern art world is only guaranteed by the constant arrival of new dismeasures. And it is precisely this law of transgression that leads to so much discussion, debate and writing in the art world. After all, those who cross the line constantly have to legitimize their actions in public, while those who excel within the rules do not. Therefore, art needs a civil framework for discussion, argumentation and debate. Without arguments and the room for counter‑arguments to decide the distinction between art and non-art, there can be no modern art. This is why post-auratic art can only survive socially by leaning on politics, as suggested by Benjamin (2003: 257). However, politics can become aestheticized themselves, as in fascism. What Benjamin means is that fascism presents itself, like the auratic work of art, as monumental or timeless. So, in an artificial way, fascism tries to reinstall aura and does so by using technical means of reproduction such as mass media. The answer of communism to that is via an opposite movement, especially the politicization of art. Communism affirms the mobility of identities and a permanent transformation of experience, whereas fascism, according to Benjamin, tries to fixate and monumentalize identities (Caygill, 1998: 103). By now, 75 years on, we know the results of communism. It is highly disputable whether the political art of, for instance, the former Soviet Union produced openness and contingency. But perhaps Benjamin envisioned a communism that was different from the bureaucratic and technocratic variation that eventually became the historic reality. The openness and sense of contingency that Benjamin ascribes to communism are nowadays perhaps more easily found in the ideal of democracy. This is why I state here that the post-auratic and post-academic or modern art – which came into being after and outside of the standardized rules for works of art of the Académie française and similar institutes in, mostly, Europe – can only be supported by democratic politics. Not only because democracy allows for contingency but also because art as dismeasure occupies the position of a minority within wider society and it will only stand a chance within a political system offering guarantees, as noted before. Artists who constantly remind society of what could be ‘possibly otherwise’ will always go against common sense. Consequently, those who choose to make art opt for a minority position in society, even if that minority is dismissed as ‘elitist’. For that matter, an elite can also be part of a minority and a cultural elite is therefore not necessarily a political or economic elite, as Bourdieu tells us (1979). Elitist or not, post-auratic and post-academic art can only survive by the grace of democracy.


The art of democracy: the modern art world as a model for a minority democracy

But modern art also demonstrates quite a few parallels with political democracy, such as its post-fundamental nature noted earlier. That doesn’t make art into politics, but it does belong to the domain of ‘the political’, especially if we see this notion, as Jacques Rancière puts it, as ‘expressing living together in form’ (2000). Interventions by artists and activities by art institutes also mould social interaction. If on top of that we characterize modern art as the provider of a dismeasure, it does not have to be limited to so-called ‘high’ culture. When standard formats are deserted or molested, dismeasure can also be detected in popular cultural expressions such as film or pop music. In this respect, the direct impact of art as a shaping force of society may be bigger than we think. As post-auratic art’s rationale is that it points out that things can always also be otherwise, the modern art world has even more things in common with politics. To conquer a position each time again by providing arguments from the singularity proposition presupposes a polemic domain of many voices, all competing for a place for their own singular work. Those visiting an art biennial or a theatre festival can easily observe how contradictory artistic styles and voices often go side-by-side. In this sense, the modern art world cultivates an ‘agonistic’ way of (at least temporary) togetherness, as within art scenes, and even within one exhibition, we often see a multitude of contradictions, diverging cultures and conflicting visions co-existing without their constantly denying each other’s rationale or legitimacy (Gielen 2009). Artists may fight against any compromise from their singular position, and relationships within the art world can often be irreconcilable, but they are rarely hostile. According to the Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe – who gave the term ‘agony’ a political-philosophical twist – this attitude is only possible when ‘we see each other as taking part in a shared symbolic space that contains the conflict’ (Mouffe, 2005: 26). Just as in a democratic political domain, antagonism in the art world is sublimated into an agonistic way of co-existence. The singular minority position within this domain is, however, only accepted on the basis of the arguments that support it.

Argumentation here refers to the activity by which one tries to obtain public support (however limited) from the singular artistic gesture. Such arguments may be rational, theoretical, emotional, or aesthetic, but they can also reside within the artistic gesture itself. The agonistic democratic space is always constructed from a multitude of such singular argumentation activities, which mostly come from a minority position. In that sense, the modern art domain is very much different from the liberal representative (majority) democracy outlined earlier. The latter, after all, is not grounded on the voiced argumentation of the voters but on an anonymized act in a polling booth that is not publicly substantiated. In liberal representative democracy only the numbers count. All voters can vote without ever having to defend their vote in public. Within the agonistic space of the artistic domain, however, people are allergic to democratically ‘elected’ works of art, because any dismeasure that is preferred by the majority ceases to be a dismeasure and becomes measure. Within the democracy of the art world, the only way to convincingly obtain a position for dismeasure is by means of argumentation or ‘publicizing’ the singular artistic gesture. This is why we could also speak of a minority democracy, in contrast to the liberal democracy of the majority. Within a minority model one can only gain a position or obtain a broader social basis by means of argumentation. One only gains a voice by making one’s choices public, not by anonymously checking a box in a polling booth. If one seeks one’s way by argumentation, however, a confrontation with other minorities who are also claiming a position is inevitable. In other words, a minority democracy is agonistic. Because it is continuously confronted with always changing possible minorities it does, however, acknowledge its modest place in the world. Because of this confrontation with the always possibly otherwise, a minority democracy is much more a continuous, self-reflexive search for democratic forms than a consolidation of power by a majority. Minority democracies do not see democracy as an entitlement but as goal worth striving for.

Perhaps this minority democracy does offer some handles for a future political democracy. If we are to believe Held, not a single classical, republican, liberal or direct democracy would survive in a globalized world. Only a democratic autonomous model would have any chance of success, according to this political scientist (Held, 2006). Held is referring to a democracy that stimulates and organizes a multitude of singular civil voices; a formula that experiments on a large scale with self-government by individuals, businesses, civil initiatives, organizations and all sorts of collectives. In other words, a democratic autonomy is a form of government that constantly promotes and facilitates the autonomous economic, social and cultural development of a range of minorities. This multitude of singular initiatives in turn makes every effort to reach democratic self-rule. And it is precisely this multitude of diverging initiatives that brings them into an ever more symmetrical negotiating position with states, transnational governments, local authorities, civil initiatives, et cetera. The state or supranational governing bodies are just democratic decision-making systems like so many others. In the future, democracy can only maintain its legitimacy if it makes the transformation of inequalities the core of its politics, according to Held. Among other things, this means that it must declare the minority as the focal point of its policies.


To conclude: modern art as a test for democracy?

Regardless of this second speculative idea of the art of democracy in which it is suggested that an art world could provide handles for a future agonistic democracy, the first thesis of the art of democracy still holds true that the post-auratic and post-academic art of dismeasure can only survive by the grace of democracy. Neo-nationalism will always suppress this type of art because it undermines the alleged foundation of a stable national culture from within, which it tries to monumentalize. This is why modern art may appear as even more threatening to neo-nationalists than the migrant who brings a ‘possibly otherwise’ culture from the outside. Neo-liberalism, in turn, is not quite sure how to deal with the art of dismeasure because this art can hardly be legitimized through the power of measure or numbers, regardless of whether those numbers represent money, audiences, or opinion polls. The numeric democracy of neo-liberalism is also at odds with an argumentative democracy, as it still assumes a fixed and therefore not arguable foundation outside of politics, especially that of the laws of the free market. Within this neo‑national and neo‑liberal context of fundamentalisms, post-auratic and post-academic art may well prove to be a test for democracy. In any case, modern art is one of the domains in which the post-fundamental idea of contingency that anything that is, can also always be otherwise is very much alive.


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De Duve, T. (1998) Kant after Duchamp. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gielen, P. (2003) Kunst in netwerken. Artistieke selecties in de hedendaagse dans en de beeldende kunst (Art in Networks. Artistic Selections in Contemporary Dance and Visual Art). Leuven: Lannoo Campus.
Gielen, P. (2009) The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude. Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism. Amsterdam: Valiz.
Gielen, P. and S. Lavaert (2009) ‘The Dismeasure of Art. An interview with Paulo Virno’, in: P. Gielen and P. De Bruyne (eds.) Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times. Rotterdam: NAi-Publishers, 17-44.
Heinich, N. (1991) La Gloire de Van Gogh. Essai d’antropologie de l’admiration. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
Heinich, N. (2000) ‘What is an artistic event? A new approach to sociological discourse’, in: Boekmancahier 12 (44), 159-168.
Heinich, N. (2002) ‘Let us try to understand each other. Reply to Crane, Laermans, Marontate and Schinkel’, in: Boekmancahier 14 (52), 200-207.
Held, D. (2006) Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Marchart, O. (2007) Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Mouffe, C. (2005) On the Political. London and New York: Routledge.
Rancière, J. (2000) Le partage de sensible. Esthétique et politique. Paris: Editions La fabrique.
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Originally published in Krisis, 2011, issue 3, pp. 4-12, http://www.krisis.eu/content/2011-3/krisis-2011-3-02-gielen.pdf.

Pascal Gielen (1970) is director of the research center Arts in Society at the Groningen University where he is associate professor of sociology of art. He also leads the research group and book series ‘Arts in Society’ (Fontys College for the Arts, Tilburg). Gielen has written several books on contemporary art, cultural heritage and cultural politics. Gielen edited together with Paul De Bruyne the books Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times (Nai, 2009) Community Art. The Politics of Trespassing and in January (Valiz, 2011) Teaching Art in the Neoliberal Realm. Realism versus Cynicism (Valiz, 2012). He published the monograph The Murmuring of the Artistic Multitude. Global Art, Memory and Post-Fordism (Valiz, 2009).

Οκτώβριος 19, 2013

The Creation of the Urban Commons

The  city  is  the  site  where  people  of  all  sorts  and  classes  mingle, however reluctantly and agonistically, to produce a common if perpetually changing and transitory life. The commonality of that life has long been a matter of commentary by urbanists of all stripes, and the compelling subject of a wide range of evocative writings and representations (in novels, films, painting, videos, and the like) that attempt to pin down the character of that life (or the particular character of life in a particular city in a given place and time) and its deeper meanings. And in the long history of urban utopianism, we have a record of all manner  of  human  aspirations  to  make  the  city  in  a  different  image, more “after our heart’s desire” as Park would put it. The recent revival of  emphasis  upon  the  supposed  loss  of  urban  commonalities  reflects the  seemingly  profound  impacts  of  the  recent  wave  of  privatizations, enclosures, spatial controls, policing, and surveillance upon the qualities of urban life in general, and in particular upon the potentiality to build or inhibit new forms of social relations (a new commons) within an urban process influenced if not dominated by capitalist class interests. When Hardt and Negri, for example, argue that we should view “the metropolis as a factory for the production of the common,” they suggest this as an entry point for anti-capitalist critique and political activism. Like the right to the city, the idea sounds catchy and intriguing, but what could it possibly mean? And how does this relate to the long history of arguments and debates concerning the creation and utilization of common property resources?

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen Garrett Hardin’s classic article on “The Tragedy of the Commons” cited as an irrefutable argument for the superior efficiency of private property rights with respect to land and resource uses, and therefore an irrefutable justification for privatization.1 This mistaken reading in part derives from Hardin’s appeal to the metaphor of cattle, under the private ownership of several individuals concerned to maximize their individual utility, pastured on a piece of common land. The owners individually gain from adding cattle, while any losses in fertility from so doing are spread across all users. So all the herders continue to add cattle until the common land loses all productivity. If the cattle were held in common, of course, the metaphor would not work. This shows that it is private property in cattle and individual utility-maximizing behavior that lie at the heart of the problem, rather than the common-property character of the resource. But none of this was Hardin’s fundamental concern. His preoccupation was population growth. The personal decision to have children would, he feared, eventually lead to the destruction of the global commons and the exhaustion of all resources (as Malthus also argued). The only solution, in his view, is authoritarian regulatory population control.2

I cite this example to highlight the way thinking about the commons has all too often itself become enclosed within far too narrow a set of presumptions, largely driven by the example of the land enclosures that occurred in Britain from the late medieval period onwards. As a result, thinking has often polarized between private property solutions and authoritarian state intervention. From a political perspective, the whole issue has been clouded over by a gut-reaction (laced with hefty doses of nostalgia for a once-upon-a-time supposedly moral economy of common action) either for or—more commonly on the left—against enclosure.

Elinor Ostrom seeks to disrupt some of the presumptions in her book, Governing the Commons.3 She systematizes the anthropological, socio- logical, and historical evidence that had long shown that if the herders talked with each other (or had cultural rules of sharing) then they might easily solve any commons issue. Ostrom shows from innumerable examples that individuals can and often do devise ingenious and eminently sensible collective ways to manage common property resources for individual and collective benefit. Her concern was to establish why in some instances they succeed in so doing, and under what circumstances they might not. Her case studies “shatter the convictions of many policy analysts that the only way to solve CPR problems is for external authorities to impose full private property rights or centralized regulation.” Instead, they demonstrate “rich mixtures of public and private instrumentalities.” Armed with  that conclusion,  she could do  battle with  that economic orthodoxy that simply views policy in terms of a dichotomous choice between state and market.

But most of her examples involved as few as a hundred or so appropriators. Anything much larger (her largest example was 15,000 people), she found, required a “nested” structure of decision-making, because direct negotiation between all individuals was impossible. This implies that nested, and therefore in some sense “hierarchical” forms of organiza- tion are needed to address large-scale problems such as global warming. Unfortunately the term “hierarchy” is anathema in conventional thinking (Ostrom avoids it), and virulently unpopular with much of the left these days. The only politically correct form of organization in many radical circles is non-state, non-hierarchical, and horizontal. To avoid the implication that some sorts of nested hierarchical arrangements might be necessary, the question of how to manage the commons at large as opposed to small and local scales (for example, the global population problem that was Hardin’s concern) tends to be evaded.

There is, clearly, an analytically difficult “scale problem” at work here that needs (but does  not  receive)  careful  evaluation.  The  possibilities for sensible management of common property  resources  that  exist  at one scale (such as shared water rights between one hundred farmers in a small river basin) do not and cannot carry over to problems such as global warming, or even to the regional diffusion of acid deposition from power stations. As we “jump scales” (as geographers like to put it), so the whole nature of the commons problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically.4 What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, patently good solutions at one scale (the “local,” say) do not necessarily aggregate up (or cascade down) to make for good solutions at another scale (the global, for example). This is why Hardin’s metaphor is so misleading: he uses a small-scale example of private capital operating on a common pasture to explicate a global problem, as if there is no problem whatsoever in shifting scales.

This is also, incidentally, why  the  valuable  lessons  gained  from the collective organization of small-scale solidarity economies along common-property lines cannot translate into global solutions without resort to “nested” and therefore hierarchical organizational forms. Unfortunately, as already noted, the idea of hierarchy is anathema to many segments of the oppositional left these days. A fetishism of organizational preference (pure horizontality, for example) all too often stands in the way of exploring appropriate and effective solutions.5 Just to be clear, I am not saying horizontality is bad—indeed, I think it an excellent objective— but that we should acknowledge its limits as a hegemonic organizational principle, and be prepared to go far beyond it when necessary.

There is much confusion also over the relationship between the commons and the supposed evils of enclosure. In the grander scheme of things (and particularly at the global level), some sort of enclosure is often the best way to preserve certain kinds of valued commons. That sounds like, and is, a contradictory statement, but it reflects a truly contradictory situation. It will take a draconian act of enclosure in Amazonia, for example, to protect both biodiversity and the cultures of indigenous populations as part of our global natural and cultural commons. It will almost certainly require state authority to protect those commons against the philistine democracy of short-term moneyed interests ravaging the land with soy bean plantations and cattle ranching. So not all forms of enclosure can be dismissed as bad by definition. The production and enclosure of non-commodified spaces in a ruthlessly commodifying world is surely a good thing. But in this instance there may be another problem: expelling indigenous populations from their forest lands (as the World Wide Fund for Nature often advocates) may be deemed necessary to preserve biodiversity. One common may be protected at the expense of another. When a nature reserve is fenced off, public access is denied. It is dangerous, however, to presume that the best way to preserve one sort of common is to deny another. There is plenty of evidence from joint forest management schemes, for example, that the dual objective of improving habitats and forest growth while maintaining access for traditional users to forest resources often ends up benefiting both. The idea of protecting the commons through enclosures is not always easily broached, however, when it needs to be actively explored as an anti-capitalist strategy. In fact a common demand on the left for “local autonomy” is actually a demand for some kind of enclosure.

Questions of the commons, we must  conclude,  are  contradictory and therefore always contested. Behind these contestations lie conflicting social and political interests. Indeed, “politics,” Jacques Rancière has remarked, “is the sphere of activity of a common that can only ever be contentious.”6 At the end of it all, the analyst is often left with a simple decision: Whose side are you on, whose common interests do you seek to protect, and by what means?

The  rich  these  days  have  the  habit,  for  example,  of  sealing  themselves off in gated communities within which an exclusionary commons becomes defined. This is in principle no different than fifty users divvying up common water resources among themselves without regard for anyone else. The rich even have the gall to market their exclusionary urban spaces as a traditional village commons, as in the case of the Kierland Commons in Phoenix, Arizona, which is described as an “urban village with space for retail, restaurants, offices,” and so on.7 Radical groups can also procure spaces (sometimes through the exercise of private property rights, as when they collectively buy a building to be used for some progressive purpose) from which they can reach out to further a politics of common action. Or they can establish a commune or a soviet within some protected space. The politically active “houses of the people” that Margaret Kohn describes as central to political action in early twentieth century Italy were exactly of this sort.8

Not all forms of the common entail open access. Some (like the air we breathe) are, while others (like the streets of our cities) are in principle open, but regulated, policed, and even privately managed in the form of business improvement districts. Still others (like a common water resource controlled by fifty farmers) are from the very start exclusive to a particular social group. Most of Ostrom’s examples in her first book were of the last sort. Furthermore, in her initial studies she limited her inquiry to so-called “natural” resources such as land, forests, water, fisheries, and the like. (I say “so-called” because all resources are technological, economic, and cultural appraisals, and therefore socially defined.)

Ostrom, along with many  colleagues  and  collaborators,  later  went on to examine other forms of the commons, such as genetic materials, knowledge, cultural assets, and the like. These commons are also very much under assault these days through commodification and enclosure. Cultural commons become commodified (and often bowdlerized) by a heritage industry bent on Disneyfication, for example. Intellectual property and patenting rights over genetic materials and scientific knowledge more generally constitute one of the hottest topics of our times. When publishing companies charge for access to articles in the scientific and technical journals they publish, the problem of access to what should be common knowledge open to all is plain to see. Over the last twenty years or so there has been an explosion of studies and practical proposals, as well as fierce legal struggles over creating an open-access knowledge commons.9

Cultural and intellectual commons of this last sort are often not subject to the logic of scarcity, or to exclusionary uses of the sort that apply to most natural resources. We can all listen to the same radio broadcast or TV show at the same time without diminishing it. The cultural commons, Hardt and Negri write, “is dynamic, involving both the product of labor and the means of future production. This common is not only the earth we share but also the languages we create, the social practices we establish, the modes of sociality that define our relationships, and so forth.” These commons are built up over time, and are in principle open to all.10

The human qualities of the city emerge out of our practices in the diverse spaces of the city even as those spaces are subject to enclosure, social control, and appropriation by both private and public/state interests. There is an important distinction here between public spaces and public goods, on the one hand, and the commons on the other. Public spaces and public goods in the city have always been a matter of state power and public administration, and such spaces and goods do not necessarily a commons make. Throughout the history of urbanization, the provision of public spaces and public goods (such as sanitation, public health, education, and the like) by either public or private means has been crucial for capitalist development.11 To the degree that cities have been sites of vigorous class conflicts and struggles, so urban administrations have often been forced to supply public goods (such as affordable public housing, health care, education, paved streets, sanitation, and water) to an urbanized working class. While these public spaces  and public goods contribute mightily to the qualities of the commons, it takes political action on the part of citizens and the people to appropriate them or to make them so. Public education becomes a common when social forces appropriate, protect, and enhance it for mutual benefit (three cheers for the PTA). Syntagma Square in Athens, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Plaza de Catalunya in Barcelona were public spaces that became an urban commons as people assembled there to express their political views and make demands. The street is a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression.12 There is always a struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests. The struggle to appropriate the public spaces and public goods in the city for a common purpose is ongoing. But in order to protect the common it is often vital to protect the flow of public goods that underpin the qualities of the common. As neoliberal politics diminishes the financing of public goods, so it diminishes the available common, forcing social groups to find other ways to support that common (education, for example).

The common is not to be construed, therefore, as a particular kind of thing, asset or even social process, but as an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-be-created social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and livelihood. There is, in effect, a social practice of commoning. This practice produces or establishes a social relation with a common whose uses are either exclusive to a social group or partially or fully open to all and sundry. At the heart of the prac- tice of commoning lies the principle that the relation between the social group and that aspect of the environment being treated as a common shall be both collective and non-commodified—off-limits to the logic of market exchange and market valuations. This last point is crucial because it helps distinguish between public goods construed as productive state expenditures and a common which is established or used in a completely different way and for a completely different purpose, even when it ends up indirectly enhancing the wealth and income of the social group that claims it. A community garden can thus be viewed as a good thing in itself, no matter what food may be produced there. This does not prevent some of the food being sold.

Plainly, many different social groups can engage in the practice of commoning for many different reasons. This takes us back to the foundational question of which social groups should be supported and which should not in the course of commoning struggles. The ultra-rich, after all, are just as fiercely protective of their residential commons as anyone, and have far more fire-power and influence in creating and protecting them.

The common, even—and particularly—when it cannot be enclosed, can always be traded upon even though it is not in itself a commodity. The ambience and attractiveness of a city, for example, is a collective product of its citizens, but it is the tourist trade that commercially capitalizes upon that common to extract monopoly rents (see Chapter 4). Through their daily activities and struggles, individuals and social groups create the social world of the city, and thereby create something common as a framework within which all can dwell. While this culturally creative common cannot be destroyed through use, it can be degraded and banalized through excessive abuse. Streets that get clogged with traffic make that particular public space almost unusable even for drivers (let alone pedestrians and protestors), leading at some point to the levying of congestion and access charges in an attempt to restrict use so that it can function more efficiently. This kind of street is not a common. Before the car came along, however, streets were often a common—a place of popular sociality, a play space for kids (I am old enough to remember that was where we played all the time). But that kind of common was destroyed and turned into a public space dominated by the advent of the automobile (prompting attempts by city administrations to recover some aspects of a “more civilized” common past by organizing pedestrian precincts, sidewalk cafés, bike paths, pocket parks as play spaces, and the like). But such attempts to create new kinds of urban commons can all too easily be capitalized upon. In fact they may be designed precisely with that in mind. Urban parks almost always increase nearby residential property prices in surrounding areas (provided, of course, that the public space of the park is regulated and patrolled to keep the riff-raff and the drug dealers out). The newly created High Line in New York City has had a tremendous impact on nearby residential property values, thus denying access to affordable housing in the area for most of the citizens of New York City by virtue of rapidly rising rents. The creation of this kind of public space radically diminishes rather than enhances the potentiality of commoning for all but the very rich.

The real problem here, as in Hardin’s original morality tale, is not the commons per se, but the failure of individualized private property rights to fulfill common interests in the way they are supposed to do. Why do we not, therefore, focus on the individual ownership of the cattle and individual utility-maximizing behavior, rather than the common pasture, as the basic problem to be addressed? The justification for private property rights in liberal theory, after all, is that they should serve to maximize the common good when socially integrated through the institutions of fair and free market exchange. A commonwealth (said Hobbes) is produced through privatizing competitive interests within a framework of strong state power. This opinion, articulated by liberal theorists such as John Locke and Adam Smith, continues to be preached. These days, the trick, of course, is to downplay the need for strong state power while in fact deploying it—sometimes brutally. The solution to the problems of global poverty, the World Bank continues to assure us (leaning heavily on the theories of de Soto), is private property rights for all slum-dwellers and access to micro-finance (which just happens to yield the world’s financiers hefty rates of return while driving not a few participants to commit suicide in the face of debt peonage).13 Yet the myth prevails: once the inherent entrepreneurial instincts of the poor are liberated as a force of nature, it is said, then all will be well and the problem of chronic poverty will be broken and the common wealth enhanced. This was indeed the argument made in support of the original enclosure movement in Britain from the late medieval period on. And it was not entirely wrong.

For Locke, individual property is a natural right that arises when individuals create value by mixing their labor with the land. The fruits of their labor belong to them and to them alone. This was the essence of Locke’s version of the labor theory of value.14 Market exchange socializes that right when each individual gets back the value they have created by exchanging it against an equivalent value created by another. In effect, individuals maintain, extend, and socialize their private property right through value-creation and supposedly free and fair market exchange. This is how, says Adam Smith, the wealth of nations is most easily created and the common good best served. He was not entirely wrong.

The presumption is, however, that markets can be fair and free, and in classical political economy it was assumed that the state would intervene to make them so (at least that is what Adam Smith advises statesmen to do). But there is an ugly corollary to Locke’s theory. Individuals who fail to produce value have no claim to property. The dispossession of indigenous populations in North America by “productive” colonists was justified because indigenous populations did not produce value.15

So how does Marx deal with all of this? Marx accepts the Lockean fiction in the opening chapters of Capital (though the argument is certainly larded with irony when, for example, he takes up the strange role of the Robinson Crusoe myth in political-economic thinking, in which someone thrown into a state of nature acts like a true-born entrepreneurial Briton).16 But when Marx takes up how labor-power becomes an individualized commodity that is bought and sold in fair and free markets, we see the Lockean fiction unmasked for what it really is: a system founded on equality in value-exchange produces surplus value for the capitalist owner of the means of production through the exploitation of living labor in production (not in the market, where bourgeois rights and constitutionalities can prevail).

The Lockean formulation is even more dramatically undermined when Marx takes up the question of collective labor. In a world where individual artisan producers controlling their own means of production could engage in free exchange in relatively free markets, the Lockean fiction might have some purchase. But the rise of the factory system from the late eighteenth century onwards, Marx argued, rendered Locke’s theoretical formulations redundant (even if they had not been redundant in the first place). In the factory, labor is collectively organized. If there is any property right to be derived from this form of laboring, it would surely have to be a collective or associated rather than individual property right. The definition of value-producing labor, which grounds Locke’s theory of private property, no longer holds for the individual, but is shifted to the collective laborer. Communism should then arise on the basis of “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single labour force.”17 Marx does not advocate state ownership, but some form of ownership vested in the collective laborer producing for the common good.

How that form of ownership might come into being is established by turning Locke’s argument on the production of value against itself. Suppose, says Marx, that a capitalist begins production with a capital of $1,000 and in the first year manages to gain $200 surplus value from laborers mixing their labor with the land, and then uses that surplus in personal consumption. Then, after five years, the $1,000 should belong to the collective laborers, since they are the ones who have mixed their labor with the land. The capitalist has consumed away all his or her original wealth.18 Like the indigenous populations of North America, capitalists deserve to lose their rights, according to this logic, since they themselves have produced no value.

While this idea sounds outrageous, it lay behind the Swedish Meidner plan proposed in the late 1960s.19 The receipts from a tax placed on corporate profits, in return for wage restraint on the part of unions, were to be placed in a worker-controlled fund that would invest in and eventually buy out the corporation, thus bringing it under the common control of the associated laborers. Capital resisted this idea with all its might, and it was never implemented. But the idea ought to be reconsidered. The central conclusion is that the collective laboring that is now productive of value must ground collective not individual property rights. Value—socially necessary labor time—is the capitalist common, and it is represented by money, the universal equivalent in which common wealth is measured. The common is not, therefore, something that existed once upon a time that has since been lost, but something that is, like the urban commons, continuously being produced. The problem is that it is just as continuously being enclosed and appropriated by capital in its commodified and monetized form, even as it is being continuously produced by collective labor.

The primary means by which it is appropriated in urban contexts is, of course, through the extraction of land and property rents.20 A community group that struggles to maintain ethnic diversity in its neighborhood and protect against gentrification may suddenly find its property prices (and taxes) rising as real estate agents market the “character” of their neighborhood to the wealthy as multicultural, street-lively, and diverse. By the time the market has done its destructive work, not only have the original residents been dispossessed of  that  common  which  they had created (often being forced out by rising rents and property taxes), but the common itself becomes so debased as to be unrecognizable. Neighborhood revitalization through gentrification in South Baltimore displaced a lively street life, where people sat on their stoops on warm summer nights and conversed with neighbors, with air-conditioned and burglar-proofed houses  with  a  BMW  parked  out  front  and  a  rooftop deck, but with no one to be seen on the street. Revitalization meant devitalization, according to local opinion. This is the fate that again and again threatens places like Christiania in Copenhagen, the St. Pauli districts of Hamburg, or Willamsburg and DUMBO in New York City, and it was also what destroyed that city’s SoHo district.

This is, surely, a far better tale by which to explicate the true tragedy of the urban commons for our times. Those who create an interesting and stimulating everyday neighborhood life lose it to the predatory practices of the real estate entrepreneurs, the financiers and upper class consumers bereft of any urban social imagination. The better the common qualities a social group creates, the more likely it is to be raided and appropriated by private profit-maximizing interests.

But there is a further analytic point here that must be remarked. The collective labor that Marx envisaged was for the most part confined to the factory. What if we broaden that conception to think, as Hardt and Negri suggest, that it is the metropolis that now constitutes a vast common produced by the collective labor expended on and in the city? The right to use that common must surely then be accorded to all those who have had a part in producing it. This is, of course, the basis for the claim to the right to the city on the part of the collective laborers who have made it. The struggle for the right to the city is against the powers of capital that ruthlessly feed upon and extract rents from the common life that others have produced. This reminds us that the real problem lies with the private character of property rights and the power these rights confer to appropriate not only the labor but also the collective products of others. Put another way, the problem is not the common per se, but the relations between those who produce or capture it at a variety of scales and those who appropriate it for private gain. Much of the corruption that attaches to urban politics relates to how public investments are allocated to produce something that looks like a common but which promotes gains in private asset values for privileged property owners. The distinction between urban public goods and urban commons is both fluid and dangerously porous. How often are developmental projects subsidized by the state in the name of the common interest when the true beneficiaries are a few landholders, financiers, and developers?

How, then, are urban commons produced, organized, used, and appropriated across a whole metropolitan area? How commoning might work at the local neighborhood level is relatively clear. It involves some mix of individual and private initiative to organize and capture externality effects while putting some aspect of the environment outside of the market. The local state is involved through regulations, codes, standards, and public investments, along with informal and formal neighborhood organization (for example, a community association which may or may not be politically active and militant, depending on the circumstances). There are many cases in which territorial strategies and enclosures within the urban milieu can become a vehicle for the political left to advance its cause. The organizers of low-income and precarious labor in Baltimore declared the whole Inner Harbor area a “human rights zone”—a sort of common—where every worker should receive a living wage. The place- bound Federation of Neighborhood Associations in El Alto became one of the key bases of the El Alto rebellions of 2003 and 2005, in which the whole city became collectively mobilized against the dominant forms of political power.21 Enclosure is a temporary political means to pursue a common political end.

The general outcome that Marx describes still holds, however: capital, impelled onwards by the coercive laws of competition to maximize utility (profitability)—as do the cattle owners in Hardin’s tale—produces

progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, only devel- ops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.22

Capitalist urbanization perpetually tends to destroy the city as a social, political and livable commons.

This “tragedy” is similar to that which Hardin depicts, but the logic from which it arises is entirely different. Left unregulated, individualized capital accumulation perpetually threatens to destroy the two basic common property resources that undergird all forms of production: the laborer and the land. But the land we now inhabit is a product of collective human labor. Urbanization is about the perpetual production of an urban commons (or its shadow-form of public spaces and public goods) and its perpetual appropriation and destruction by  private  interests. And with capital accumulation occurring at a compound rate of growth (usually at the minimum satisfactory level of 3 percent), so these dual threats to the environment (both “natural” and built) and to labor escalate in scale and intensity over time.23 Look at the urban wreckage in Detroit to get a sense of how devastating this process can be.

But what is so interesting about the concept of the urban commons is that it poses all of the political contradictions of the commons in highly concentrated form. Consider, for example, the question of scale within which we move from the question of local neighborhoods and political organization to the metropolitan region as a whole. Traditionally, questions of the commons at the metropolitan level have been handled through mechanisms of state regional and urban planning, in recognition of the fact that the common resources required for urban populations to function effectively, such as water provision, transportation, sewage disposal, and open space for recreation, have to be provided at a metropolitan, regional scale. But when it comes to bundling together issues of this kind, left-analysis typically becomes vague, gesturing hopefully towards some magical concordance of local actions that will be effective at a regional or global level, or simply noting this as an important problem before moving back to that scale—usually the micro and the local—at which they feel most comfortable.

We can here learn something of the recent history of commons thinking in more conventional circles. Ostrom, for example, while dwelling in her Nobel Prize lecture on small-scale cases, takes refuge in her subtitle of “Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems” to suggest she has some solution to commons issues across a variety of scales. In fact, all she does is gesture hopefully to the idea that “when a common-pool resource is closely connected to a larger social-ecological system, governance activities are organized in multiple nested layers,” but without resort, she insists, to any monocentric hierarchical structure.24

The crucial problem here is to figure out how a polycentric governance system (or something analogous, such as Murray Bookchin’s confederation of libertarian municipalities) might actually work, and to make sure that it does not mask something very different. This question is one that bedevils not only Ostrom’s arguments, but a very wide range of radical left communalist proposals to address the problem of the commons. For this reason, it is very important to get the critique right.

In a paper prepared for a conference on Global Climate Change, Ostrom elaborated further on the nature of the argument which rests, conveniently for us, on results from a long-term study of the delivery of public goods in municipal regions.25 The assumption had long been that the consolidation of public service provision into large-scale metropolitan forms of government, as opposed to their organization into numerous seemingly chaotic local administrations, would improve efficiency and effectiveness. But the studies convincingly showed this not to be so. The reasons all boiled down to how much easier it was to organize and enforce collective and cooperative action with strong participation of local inhabitants in smaller jurisdictions, and to the fact that the capacity for participation diminished rapidly with larger sizes of administrative unit. Ostrom ends by citing Andrew Sancton to the effect that

municipalities are more than just providers of services. They are democratic mechanisms through which territorially based communities of people govern themselves at a local level … those who would force munic-ipalities to amalgamate with each other invariably claim that their motive is  to  make  municipalities  stronger.  Such  an  approach—however  well-intentioned—erodes the foundations of our liberal democracies because it undermines the notion that there can be forms of self-government that exist outside the institutions of the central government.26

Beyond market efficiency and effectiveness, there is a non-commodifiable reason to go to a smaller scale.

“While large-scale units were part of effective governance of metropolitan regions,” Ostrom concludes, “small and medium-scale units were also necessary components.” The constructive role of these smaller units, she argued, “needs to be seriously rethought.” The question then arises of how relations between the smaller units might be structured. The answer, says Vincent Ostrom, is as a “polycentric order” in which “many elements are capable of making mutual adjustments ordering their relationships with one another within a general system of rules where each element acts with independence of other elements.”27

So what is wrong with this picture? This whole argument has its roots in the so-called “Tiebout hypothesis.” What Tiebout proposed was a fragmented metropolis in which many jurisdictions would each offer a particular local tax regime and a particular bundle of public goods to prospective residents, who would “vote with their feet” and chose that particular mix of taxes and services that suited their own needs and preferences.28 At first glance the proposal seems very attractive. The problem is that the richer you are the more easily you can vote with your feet and pay the entry price of property and land costs. Superior public edu- cation may be provided at the cost of high property prices and taxes, but the poor are deprived of access to the superior public education and are condemned to live in a poor jurisdiction with poor public educa- tion. The resultant reproduction of class privilege and power through polycentric governance fits neatly into neoliberal class strategies of social reproduction.

Along with many more radical proposals for decentralized autonomy, Ostrom’s is in danger of falling into exactly this trap. Neoliberal politics actually favors both administrative decentralization and the maximization of local autonomy. While on the one hand this opens a space within which radical forces can more easily plant the seeds of a more revolutionary agenda, the counter-revolutionary takeover of Cochabamba in the name of autonomy by the forces of reaction in 2007 (until they were forced out by popular rebellion) suggests that the embrace of localism and autonomy by much of the left as a pure strategy is problematic. In the United States, the leadership of the Cleveland initiative celebrated as an example  of  autonomous  communitarianism  in  action  sup- ported the election of a radically right-wing and anti-union republican for governor.

Decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality through neoliberalization. Thus, in New York State, the unequal provision of public education services across jurisdictions with radically different financial resources has been deemed by the courts as unconstitutional, and the state is under court order to move towards greater equalization of  educational  provision.  It  has  failed  to do so, and now uses the fiscal emergency as a further excuse to delay action. But note well, it is the higher-order and hierarchically determined mandate of the state courts that is crucial in mandating greater equal- ity of treatment as a constitutional right. Ostrom does not rule out such higher-order rule-making. Relations between independent and autonomously functioning communities have to be established and regulated somehow (hence Vincent Ostrom’s reference to “established rules”). But we are left in the dark as to how such higher-order rules might be constituted, by whom, and how they might be open to democratic control. For the whole metropolitan region some such rules (or customary practices) are both necessary and crucial. Furthermore, such rules must not only be established and asserted. They must also be enforced and actively policed (as is the case with any common). We need look no further than the “polycentric” Eurozone for a catastrophic example of what can go wrong: all members were supposed to abide by rules restricting their budgetary deficits, and when most of them broke the rules there was no way to force compliance or deal with the fiscal imbalances that then emerged between states. Getting states to comply with carbon emissions targets appears an equally hopeless task. While the historical answer to the question “Who puts the ‘common’ into the Common Market?” may correctly be depicted as embodying everything that is wrong about hierarchical forms of governance, the alternative imaginary of thousands upon thousands of autonomous municipalities fiercely defending their autonomy and their turf while endlessly (and undoubtedly acrimoniously) negotiating their position within Europe-wide divisions of labor is hardly alluring.

How can radical decentralization—surely a worthwhile objective— work without constituting some higher-order hierarchical authority? It is simply naïve to believe that polycentrism or any other form of decentralization can work without strong hierarchical constraints and active enforcement. Much of the radical left—particularly of an anarchist and autonomist persuasion—has no answer to this problem. State interventions (to say nothing of state enforcement and policing) are unacceptable, and the legitimacy of bourgeois constitutionality is generally denied. Instead there is the vague and naïve hope that social groups who have organized their relations to their local commons satisfactorily will do the right thing or converge upon some  satisfactory  inter-group  practices through negotiation and interaction. For this to occur, local groups would have to be untroubled by any externality effects that their actions might have on the rest of the world, and to give up accrued advantages, democratically distributed within the social group, in order to rescue or supplement the well-being of near (let alone distant) others, who as a result of either bad decisions or misfortune have fallen into a state of starvation and misery. History provides us with very little evidence that such redistributions can work on anything other than an occasional or one-off basis. There is, therefore, nothing whatsoever to prevent escalating social inequalities between communities. This accords all too well with the neoliberal project of not only protecting but further privileging structures of class power (of the sort so clearly evident in the New York State school financing debacle).

Murray Bookchin is acutely aware of such dangers—the “agenda of a libertarian municipalism can easily become vacuous at best or be used for highly parochial ends at worst,” he writes. His answer is “confederalism.” While municipal assemblies working through  direct  democracy  form the policy-making base, the state is replaced “by a confederal network of municipal assemblies; the corporate economy reduced to a truly political economy in which municipalities, interacting with each other economically as well as politically, will resolve their material problems as citizen bodies in open assemblies.” These confederal assemblies will be given over  to  administration  and  governance  of  policies  determined  in  the municipal assemblies, and the delegates will be recallable and answer- able at all times to the will of the municipal assemblies. The confederal councils

become the means for interlinking villages, towns, neighborhoods, and cities into confederal networks. Power thus flows from the bottom up instead of from the top down, and in confederations, the flow of power from the bottom up diminishes with the scope of the federal council ranging territorially from localities and regions and from regions to ever- broader territorial areas.29

Bookchin’s proposal is  by  far  the  most  sophisticated  radical  proposal to deal with the creation and collective use of the commons across a variety of scales, and is well worth elaborating as part of the radical anti- capitalist agenda.

This issue is all the more pressing because of the violent neoliberal attack upon the public provision of social public goods over the last thirty years or more. This corresponded to the root-and-branch attack upon the rights and power of organized labor that began in the 1970s (from Chile to Britain), but it focused on the costs of social reproduction of labor directly. Capital has long preferred to treat the costs of social reproduction as an externality—a cost for which it bears no market responsibility—but the social-democratic movement and the active threat of a communist alternative forced capital to internalize some of those costs, along with some of the externality costs attributable to environmental degradation, up until the 1970s in the advanced capitalist world. The aim of neoliberal policies since 1980 or so has been to dump these costs into the global commons of social  reproduction  and the environment, creating, as it were, a negative commons in which whole populations are forced now to dwell. Questions of social reproduction, gender, and the commons are interlinked.30

The response on the part of capital to the global crisis conditions after 2007 has been to implement a draconian global austerity plan that diminishes the supply of public goods to support both social reproduction and environmental amelioration, thereby diminishing the qualities of the commons in both instances. It has also used the crisis to facilitate  even  more  predatory  activity  in  the  private  appropriation  of  the commons as a necessary precondition for the  revival  of  growth.  The uses of eminent domain, for example, to appropriate spaces for private purposes (as opposed to the “public utility” for which such laws were originally intended) is a classic case of the redefinition of public purpose as state-led sponsorship of private development.

From California to Greece, the crisis produced losses in urban asset values, rights, and entitlements for the mass of the population, coupled with the extension of predatory capitalist power over low-income and hitherto marginalized populations. It was, in short, a wholesale attack upon the reproductive and environmental commons. Living  on  less than $2 a day, a global population of more than 2 billion or so is now being taken in by microfinance as the “subprime of all subprime forms of lending,” so as to extract wealth from them (as happened in US housing markets through sub-prime predatory lending followed by foreclosures) to gild the MacMansions of the rich. The environmental commons are no less threatened, while the proposed answers (such as carbon trading and new environmental technologies) merely propose that we seek to exit the impasse using the same tools of capital accumulation and speculative market exchange that got us into the difficulties in the first place. It is unsurprising, therefore, not only that the poor are still with us, but that their numbers grow rather than diminish over time. While India has been racking up a respectable record of growth throughout this crisis, for example, the number of billionaires has leapt from 26 to 69 in the last three years, while the number of slum-dwellers has nearly doubled over the last decade. The urban impacts are quite stunning, as luxurious air-conditioned condominiums arise in the midst of uncared-for urban squalor, out of which impoverished people struggle mightily to make some sort of acceptable existence for themselves.

The dismantling of the regulatory frameworks and controls that sought, however inadequately, to curb the penchant for predatory practices of accumulation has unleashed the après moi le déluge logic of unbridled accumulation and financial speculation that has now turned into a veritable flood of creative destruction, including that wrought through capitalist urbanization. This damage can only be contained and reversed by the socialization of surplus production and distribution, and the establishment of a new common of wealth open to all.

It is in this context that the revival of a rhetoric and theory of the commons takes on an added significance. If state-supplied public goods either decline or become a mere vehicle for private accumulation (as is happening to education), and if the state withdraws from their provision, then there is only one possible response, which is for populations to self- organize to provide their own commons (as happened in Bolivia, as we shall see in Chapter 5). The political recognition that the commons can be produced, protected, and used for social benefit becomes a framework for resisting capitalist power and rethinking the politics of an anti- capitalist transition.

But what matters here is not the particular mix of institutional arrangements—the enclosures here, the extensions of a variety of collective and common-property arrangements there—but that the unified effect of political action address the spiraling degradation of labor and land resources (including the resources embedded in the “second nature” of the built environment) at the hands of capital. In this effort, the “rich mix of instrumentalities” that Elinor Ostrom begins to identify—not only public and private, but collective and associational, nested, hierarchical and horizontal, exclusionary and open—will all have a key role to play in finding ways to organize production, distribution, exchange, and consumption in order to meet human wants and needs on an anti-capitalist basis. This rich mix is not given, but has to be constructed.

The point is not to fulfill the requirements of accumulation for accumulation’s sake on the part of the class that appropriates the common wealth from the class that produces it. The return of the commons as a political question has to be integrated wholly into anti-capitalist struggle in a very specific way. Unfortunately the idea of the commons (like the right to the city) is just as easily appropriated by existing political power as is the value to be extracted from an actual urban common by real estate interests. The point, therefore, is to change all that and to find creative ways to use the powers of collective labor for the common good, and to keep the value produced under the control of the laborers who produced it.

This requires a double-pronged political attack, through which the state is forced to supply more and more in the way of public goods for public purposes, along with the self-organization of whole populations to appropriate, use, and supplement those goods in ways that extend and enhance the qualities of the non-commodified reproductive and environ- mental commons. The production, protection, and use of public goods and the urban commons in cities like Mumbai, São Paulo, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Tokyo becomes a central issue for democratic social movements to address. And that will take much more imagination and sophistication than is currently brought to bear in the hegemonic radical theories of the commons currently circulating, particularly as these commons are being continuously created and appropriated through the capitalist form of urbanization. The role of the commons in city formation and in urban politics is only now being clearly acknowledged and worked upon, both theoretically and in the world of radical practice. There is much work to do, but there are abundant signs in the urban social movements occurring around the world that there are plenty of people and a critical mass of political energy available to do it.


1. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1,243– 8; B. McCay and J. Acheson, eds, The Question of the Commons: The Culture and Ecology of Communal Resources, Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1987.
2. It is astonishing how many left analysts get Hardin totally wrong on this point. Thus, Massimo de Angelis, The Beginning of History: Value Struggles and Global Capital, London: Pluto Press, 2007: 134, writes that “Hardin has engineered a justification for privatization of the commons space rooted in an alleged natural necessity.”
3. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: CUP, 1990.
4. Eric Sheppard and Robert McMaster, eds, Scale and Geographic Inquiry, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
5. One anarchist theorist who does take this problem seriously is Murray Bookchin, in Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990; and Urbanization without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992. Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina, Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006, provides a stirring defense of anti-hierarchical thinking. See also Sara Motta and Alf Gunvald Nilson, Social Movements in the Global South: Dispossession, Development and Resistance, Basingstoke, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. A leading theorist of this hegemonic anti- hierarchical view on the left is John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power, London: Pluto Press, 2002.
6. Jacques Rancière, cited in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Common- wealth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009: 350.
7. Elizabeth Blackmar, “Appropriating ‘the Common’: The Tragedy of Property Rights Discourse,” in Setha Low and Neil Smith, eds, The Politics of Public Space, New York: Routledge, 2006.
8. Margaret Kohn, Radical Space: Building the House of the People, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.
9. Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.
10. Hardt and Negri, Commonwealth: 137–9.
11. Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America, from Colonial Times to the Present, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1999.
12. Anthony Vidler, “The Scenes of the Street: Transformations in Ideal and Reality, 1750–1871,” in Stanford Anderson, On Streets: Streets as Elements of Urban Structure, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1978.
13. World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography,
Washington, DC: World Bank, 2009; Ananya Roy, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, New York: Routledge, 2010.
14. Ronald Meek, Studies in the Labour Theory of Value, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989.
15. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital, London: Verso, 2005.
16. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, New York: Vintage, 1977: 169–70.
17. Ibid., 171.
18. Ibid., 714.
19. Robin Blackburn, “Rudolph Meidner, 1914–2005: A Visionary Pragmatist,” Counterpunch, December 22, 2005.
20. Hardt and Negri have recently revived general interest in this important idea (Commonwealth: 258).
21. United Workers Organization and National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, Hidden in Plain Sight: Workers at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and the Struggle for Fair Development, Baltimore and New York, 2011; Sian Lazar, El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
22. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1: 638.
23. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, And the Crises of Capitalism, London: Profile Books, 2010.
24. Elinor Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review 100 (3): 200, 641–72.
25. Elinor Ostrom, “Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change,” Background Paper to the 2010 World Development Reports, Washington, DC: World Bank, Policy Research Working Paper 5059, 2009
26. Andrew Sancton, The Assault on Local Government, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000: 167 (cited in Ostrom, “Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change”).
27. Vincent Ostrom, “Polycentricity – Part 1”, in Michel McGinnis, ed, Policentricity and Local Public Economies, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999 (cited in Ostrom, “Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change”).
28. Charles Tiebout, “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures”, Journal of Political Economy 64:5 (1956): 416-24.
29. Murray Bookchin, Urbanization Without Cities: The Rise and Decline of Citizenship, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1992: Chapter 8 and 9.
30. Silvia Federici, “Women, Land Struggles and the Reconstruction of the Commons”, Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society 14 (2011): 41-56.


Originally published in David Harvey, Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the urban Revolution. London and New York: Verso, 2012, pp. 67-88.

Ελληνική μετάφραση: Ντέιβιντ Χάρβεϋ, Εξεγερμενες Πόλεις. Από το Δικαίωμα στην Πόλη στην Επανάσταση στις Πόλεις. Αθήνα: ΚΨΜ, 2013.

David Harvey teaches at the graduate Center of the City University of New York and is the author of many books, including Social Justice and the City, The Condition of Postmodernity, The Limits to Capital, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Spaces of Global Capitalism, and  A Companion to Marx’s Capital. His website is davidharvey.org

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Portraying the global financial crisis: Myth, aesthetics, and the city

From 2007 until today an intricate set of events has been unsettling the global financial markets. The naming of these incidents has been multifold, varying between a general rhetoric of economic downturn (‘crash’, ‘crunch’, ‘meltdown’, ‘hangover’) and more descriptive terminologies indicating the reasons, geographic involvements, and historic time-span of the developments at hand such as: ‘US subprime mortgage crisis’, ‘European sovereign-debt crisis’, and ‘late 2000s financial crisis’. From the outset, the media played a key role in communicating and interpreting these market developments. For the sake of convenience I will subsequently refer to these developments as the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ (GFC).

As a discursive event existing ‘insofar as it is proclaimed and recognized as such’,1 the GFC has been dependent on the media. However, this crisis also epitomises a crisis of the media, challenging the general capacities of media representation and critique. How to illustrate the instantaneous yet systemic, rational yet exuberant, virtual yet highly consequential functionality of contemporary finance capitalism? This question has been particularly troublesome for filmmakers and journalists who have been trying to make the crisis sensible in audio-visual terms. Oliver Stone concisely articulated the challenge of GFC representation by stating, ‘I don’t know how you show a credit default swap on screen’.2 Central aspects of the GFC such as financial securitization, derivative speculation, and high-speed digital trading appear to defy audio-visual representation. Nevertheless, this crisis has been conjuring a flood of multimedia narratives such as films, television documentaries, and hyper-textual timelines.

In this essay I will focus on the role of cities in attempts to picture the GFC. Central to my analysis is the thesis that, by showing specific images and staging the urban experience of different cities (above all London and New York), the inconsistencies pervading the GFC have been indicated, interrelated, and rendered iconographic. The urban imaginaries of various crisis portrayals thus act as narrative means of articulating the fields of tension that characterise this crisis and of giving it a visible shape. The term ‘urban imaginary’ refers to a concept used in critical urban studies which has most aptly been defined by the urban geographer Edward Soja as ‘the interpretive grids through which we think about, experience, evaluate and decide to act in the places, spaces and communities in which we live’.3 In GFC portrayals, such urban imaginaries paradoxically enable medial crisis representations to both illuminate and also conceal the complexity of twenty-first century finance capitalism. The concept of myth, describing a narrative ‘response to the inevitable failure of our minds to overcome their cognitive or categorical limits to understanding the world’,4 will therefore be crucial to my analysis of urban imaginaries within distinct GFC portrayals.

What does the term ‘myth’ mean today? While the everyday use of the words ‘myth’ and ‘mystification’ implies a falsification of reality, a fictionalisation of truth for the benefit of an enchanting narrative, the fields of anthropology, philosophy, psychology, and political and literary theory have developed much more profound understandings of the concept. For the following analysis of GFC portrayals, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ and Roland Barthes’ conceptualisations of myth will be of particular relevance. Both scholars stand out amongst the most prominent theorists having inspired a critical examination of the role of myth in culture.

Central to Lévi-Strauss’ theory is the idea that myths constitute elaborate narrative strategies for dealing with what humans experience as insolvable worldly contradictions. The focus of his theory of myth lies on the structural composition of mythical expression. As Lévi-Strauss wrote in an article entitled ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ (1955), ‘If there is a meaning to be found in mythology, this cannot reside in the isolated elements which enter into the composition of a myth, but only in the way those elements are combined.’ He claims mythical narratives to symbolically replace and reiterate worldly conflicts. Myths resort to an imaginary field of expression to re-stage real contradictions such as, for instance, a disturbing incongruity between theory and practice.

To prove this thesis, Lévi-Strauss provides an exemplary analysis of the Oedipus myth by subdividing the narrative into elements that hold similar and opposite implications. He concludes his analysis by stating that the Oedipus myth re-articulates an incongruity between the cosmological belief into autochthony, the idea that mortals originate from the actual earth, and the empirical reality of human reproduction and childbirth. By means of symbolic re-articulation, he argues, the Oedipus myth symbolically objectifies and reiterates this worldly contradiction – a process which does not resolve the original conflict but rather yields a soothing effect. ‘Myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has originated it is exhausted’.5 Consequently, myth according to Lévi-Strauss can be described as both a human reaction and a cultural strategy of dealing with phenomena that are commonly perceived as inconsistent.

In contrast to Lévi-Strauss’ structural interpretation of mythical expression, Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) stresses the ideological qualities of myth as a particular ‘type of speech’6 – a motivated form of communication. Two aspects of Barthes’ theory of myth are crucial to the analysis of urban spaces in GFC depictions. First, it is important to note that Barthes extends the notion of myth to more condensed forms of expression such as images and gestures. According to Barthes’ conception of the term, myth describes both: narratives that are evidently based on a plot (such as a novel, a short story, or a film) and also more concise forms of articulation whose narrative dimension consists in the fact that they relate certain signifiers with each other. In other words, Barthes’ conception of myth covers any object of human culture that, due to its specific semiotic composition, carries a meaning beyond itself and its common function, whether as a sign, a commodity, or another object of utility. Architecture, edibles, or celebrities can be as mythical as ‘photography, cinema, reporting, sport, shows, publicity’.7

Second, Barthes’ understanding of mythology (the study of myth) extends structural semiotics by employing a critical formal and contextual perspective. Barthes’ analysis of myths is concerned with the meaning that a sign can adopt in a specific historical context and due to the concrete modalities of its staging. What defines myth is the fact that it conveys a surplus idea. Advertisements or political campaigns are exemplary of this; by cunningly combining selected signifiers in a particular manner, mythical articulations provoke certain connotations to deliberately imply specific ideas and emotions. Therefore, mythology ‘is a part both of semiology inasmuch as it is a formal science, and of ideology inasmuch as it is an historical science: it studies ideas-in-form’.8 This implies that the study of myth has a critical function, indentifying the ideological presuppositions and political implications that arise from specific, ‘mythical’ forms of expression.

Although Lévi-Strauss’ and Barthes’ interpretations of myth differ considerably, both theories emphasise the formal dimension of myth. Its structural and stylistic composition account for a myth’s distinct function in culture, whether as a narrative procedure of dealing with inconsistencies or as a semiotic form of communicating an idea. Beyond that, both theories emphasise the relation between a myth and its historical context. For Lévi-Strauss the Oedipus myth can only be fully understood in relation to the ancient Greek belief into autochthony, while Barthes stresses that a myth can only be realised by taking into account the embedment of signs within a discursive field of cultural and political connotations. Lévi-Strauss’ and Barthes’ conceptions of myth will inform the subsequent study of GFC portrayals, insofar as the analysis will focus on the composition and the connotations of the presented material by a close reading of its form, style, and context.

Against the background of these premises, I would like to begin by discussing a shot from Oliver Stone’s financial crisis blockbuster Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010). During the opening credits, the shot shown below ‘sets the scene’; it introduces the place and also the general topic of the subsequent narrative. The image details New York viewed through the window of an apartment. Sketches have been drawn on the window pane. The word ‘BAYSIDE X’ is written out next to something that looks like the Greek letter π (‘Pi’). Both references are surrounded by further sketches, which combine arrows and abbreviations in a mind map-like manner. The drawings overlay and frame the urban space in the background. Manhattan’s famous Empire State Building forms the middle of this arrangement, dividing the image into two halves and recalling a graph’s Y-axis.

Geometrical aesthetics in Wall Street: MNS.
Geometrical aesthetics in Wall Street: MNS.

Contouring cognitive maps and mathematical formulae in a graph-like composition, the opening of Wall Street confronts the viewer with methods of visual rationalisation. Reflecting geometry as the most figurative form of mathematics, Manhattan’s modern architecture in the background of the image paradigmatically ties in with this field of reference. The urban imaginary evoked by the opening shot is a stereotypical vision of the modern city as a geometric composition of varied ‘building blocks’. The urban grid, of which the skyscraper is a vertical vein, stands out as the aesthetic pattern of this modern urbanism, symbolising the rationalising ethos of ‘stripping away the character of place’9 by means of geometric division. Overlaying the geographic morphology of a place relentlessly, the urban grid stands for a denial of specificity due to geometric appropriation. It thus adheres to the same logic of abstraction and exchangeability that is also at the heart of capitalist economics. The privilege of exchange value is inscribed in New York’s urban form in the same way that the city symbolises the capitalist rationale.

‘There is a closer connection between neutralizing space and economic development. The New York commissioners declared that “right angled houses are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in.” What is unstated here is the belief that uniform units of land are also the easiest to sell. This relationship between the grid city and capitalist economics has been stated at its broadest by Lewis Mumford thus: “The resurgent capitalism of the seventeenth century treated the individual lot and the block, the street and the avenue, as abstract units for buying and selling, without respect for historic uses, for topographic conditions or for social needs.”’10

Emphasising the relation between gridded urbanism and the real estate business, Richard Sennett points out how urban aesthetics and economics constitute interrelated spheres determined by the same methods of rationalisation, such as mathematic division. By rationalising complex entities into exchangeable units, Sennett infers that both modern architects and early capitalists ‘sought to control the world through detachment’.11

GFC representations play upon this correlation between urban aesthetics and economics; the gridded urbanism that Sennett describes forms a recurring visual topos, which often expresses itself through high-angle shots of New York City. Filmic GFC portrayals such as Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010) and the Dutch television documentary Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox (2011) are full of panorama shots that highlight Manhattan’s chessboard-like structure. This structure, as David E. Nye argues in his work American Technological Sublime, is emblematic of the principle of reason; it stands for the ‘triumph of reason in concrete form, proving that the world was becoming, in Emerson’s words “a realized will” – “the double of man”’.12 The gridded urbanism as it is displayed in GFC films thus also symbolises a form of control over space – a controlling power that can only be realised from above, by the imposition of a plan that provides a total vision of the space below.

Figure 2
Figure 2
Figure 3: High-angle shots of the city grid in Inside Job and Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox.
Figure 3: High-angle shots of the city grid in Inside Job and Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox.

Therefore, it is not a matter of arbitrariness that in these films, urban panorama shots frequently replicate the outlook on the city as viewed from the high-altitude office rooms of distinct corporate skyscrapers. In particular, J.C. Chandor’s film Margin Call (2011) continuously shows Manhattan through the windows of a skyscraper. Throughout the film, scenes depicting the generic office spaces inside of an investment bank building alternate with panorama shots of Manhattan, replicating the bank employees’ elevated outlook on their urban surroundings.

Figure 4
Figure 4
Figure 5: The financial perspective in Margin Call: between office room and urban panorama vision.
Figure 5: The financial perspective in Margin Call: between office room and urban panorama vision.

The aloofness of the urban panorama vision (reinforced by the repeated contrast between inside and outside perspectives) suggests that not just the employees’ everyday urban view but also their worldview significantly differs from that of the urban dwellers below on the streets of Manhattan. From above the city can be seen as a gridded total. In an almost panoptical manner, the panorama gaze through skyscraper windows gives an overview of everything outside while at the same time denying outsiders the ability to look in.

However, because of the physical distance between viewer and street, the panorama view does not allow for a detailed panoptical vision. As Michel de Certeau points out in his famous essay ‘Walking in the City’, the bird’s-eye view of the city creates a ‘fiction of knowledge’ which, by privileging a fixed, total vision of the city, ignores the concrete dynamics of urban everyday life. The panorama-city is a ‘theoretical (that is visual) simulacrum, in short a picture, whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and misunderstanding of practices’.13 Hence, the investment bankers’ everyday outlook is staged as an estranged perspective, alienating the city according to the same principles of detachment, abstraction, and rationalisation that Sennett declares to be the basic logic of both modern urbanism and capitalist economics.

It is not by coincidence that the only financial insider’s perspective that is shown almost as frequently as the urban panorama view is the flickering surface of digital trading screens, displaying finance’s indexical parameters of complex mathematic abstraction. Cinematically speaking, the financial world’s inside is thus staged as an empire of estranged perspectives. In this empire, the urban panorama view (providing a distanced but far-reaching outlook on the city) equals the abstractly coded yet enormously powerful tool of worldwide market observation – the market ticker.

Figure 6
Figure 6
Figure 7: Framing the market ticker screen in Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS.
Figure 7: Framing the market ticker screen in Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS.

Like the urban panorama vision, the market ticker provides an abstracted overview – an overview of a market or market segment. Along with the urban locations of the global financial business, market ticker screens constitute the most recurring objects displayed in visual narratives of the GFC. The numerical codes and curves that the ticker screens display form the primary representations of the crisis – the crisis as it has been ‘narrated’ in the transnational ‘language’ of global finance. Interestingly, such indexes are repeatedly juxtaposed in relation to skyscraper architecture. Alluding to the stock market crash on 29 September 2008, the film Wall Street: MNS shows the curve charts of three major stock market indexes in a visual correlation with Manhattan’s skyline. Due to the blending effect, the index curves and the urban silhouette appear as fatally aligned to each other. Visually, skyline and index converge during the market fall.

Similar images can be found in Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox, which explores the role of high-frequency trading in the course of the Flash Crash on 6 May 2010. The documentary also fuses a Monopoly game board into the scenery. As the purchase of streets, houses, hotels, train stations, and other forms of property is at the heart of this game, the board introduces the topic of real estate investment into the visual narrative, thus establishing another allusive relation between buildings and index curves.

Figure 8: The visual correlation of Manhattan’s skyline and financial index curves in Wall Street: MNS.
Figure 8: The visual correlation of Manhattan’s skyline and financial index curves in Wall Street: MNS.
Figure 9
Figure 9
Figure 10: Visual collage of skyscraper architecture, financial indexes, and Monopoly in Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox.
Figure 10: Visual collage of skyscraper architecture, financial indexes, and Monopoly in Money and Speed: Inside the Blackbox.

What is the connection between urban architecture and the index curves? As the social geographer David Harvey argues, historically, the real estate business has been systematically intertwined with the ups and downs of the financial markets. Harvey understands the process of urbanisation as a process of fictitious capital accumulation that ultimately has led to a series of financial crises throughout the history of financial capitalism.14 In order to apply this thesis to the GFC it is important to note that Harvey’s definition of urbanisation is not confined to the building and development of real estate within inner-city regions but also refers to the process of urban sprawl. It thus includes the investments into homeowner mortgages that ultimately led to the United States sub-prime bubble.

According to Harvey, (sub-)urban property has become the major target of investment activities throughout the last four decades in the United States. In his latest work, The Enigma of Capital: and the Crises of Capitalism (2010), he provides a Marxist analysis of capital flows, viewing urbanisation as a vehicle of surplus capital absorption that ultimately raises further capital expectations in the form of interest. The crucial problem that Harvey ascribes to contemporary real estate investments is that they are particularly prone to raise false expectations, resulting in disproportionate amounts of fictitious capital.

‘Fictitious capital, for Marx,…is a fetish construct which means…that it is real enough but that it is a surface phenomenon that disguises something important about underlying social relations.…When the bank lends to a consumer to buy a house and receives a flow of interest in return, it makes it seem as if something is going on in the house that is directly producing value when that is not the case….When banks lend to other banks or when the Central Bank lends to the commercial banks who lend to land speculators looking to appropriate rents, then fictitious capital looks more and more like an infinite regression of fictions built upon fictions. These are all examples of fictitious capital flows. And it is these flows that convert real into unreal estate.’15

A further problem that Harvey underlines is that, in order to generate immediate profits, contemporary financial markets are not urged to care about the interdependency between the accumulation of fictitious capital and the creation of surplus value in the so-called ‘real’ or ‘productive’ economy. Instead, the risk of a debt default can be disguised by bundling it up and spreading it amongst investors. Financial instruments such as the infamous Collateralised Debt Obligations (CDO) have enabled the financial business to accumulate excessive amounts of fictitious capital. With regard to the property markets, securities can therefore both conceal and encourage sub-prime lending; it can ‘convert real into unreal estate’.

Against the background of Harvey’s overall analysis of financial crises in relation to the process of urbanisation, the fact that crisis portrayals visually combine urban architecture with falling index curves no longer appears as arbitrary as once before. Urban property is factually related to the fluctuations of the financial markets; an analysis that makes this even more concrete is the so-called Skyscraper Index. Developed in 1999 by the economist Andrew Lawrence – apparently as a joke – the Skyscraper Index retraces temporal correlations between the construction of major skyscrapers and the presumably cyclic fluctuations of the global financial markets.

Lawrence discovered that the construction of the tallest, most impressive skyscrapers often preceded a financial crisis. For example, the construction of the New York Chrysler Building began in 1928, shortly before the Great Wall Street Crash of October 1929. The Empire State Building was planned before and finished during the Great Depression. The construction of the World Trade Center in New York and the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago was finished in the early 1970s – shortly before the 1973-1974 stock market crash. The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur were opened in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. The foundation stone for the Taipei 101 was laid in 1999, shortly before the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000. Finally, the GFC coincides with the completion of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai.

How can these coincidences be explained? In 2005, the economist Mark Thornton interpreted the Skyscraper Index with the aid of Austrian business cycle theory, claiming excessive skyscraper construction to result from four major effects of low interest rates: cheap credit, high land prices, increasing demand for office space due to corporate expansion, and the trend to invest in technological innovation. According to Thornton, skyscrapers are built when interest rates are disproportionately low (for instance, due to government intervention). Skyscrapers are thus the manifestation of a particular economic situation and mood. They stand for investment booms which ultimately lead to economic crises. Contrary to the image of the skyscraper as a materialisation of the rational economic ethos, Lawrence’s index shows that skyscrapers can also manifest irrationality and economic imbalance.

Skyscrapers therefore evoke equivocal connotations. As I argued before, citing Sennett and de Certeau, skyscrapers symbolise an ethos of rational abstraction and mathematic calculation. The monstrosity of their appearance suggests power and precision. The aloof overview that they enable suggests neutrality and control. On the other hand, skyscrapers stand for irrationality and excess. Historically, they often resulted from an economic behavior that was unreasonable and miscalculated. The history of skyscraper construction indeed calls attention to the fact that modern capitalism is not just determined by rational estimates but also by economic climates. Similar to the financial indexes next to which they have been visualised, skyscrapers often result from a collective emotion. It is this symbolic ambivalence in relation to rationality and emotion that, as I propose, accounts for the special prominence of skyscrapers and skylines in portrayals of the GFC. Similar to myths which, according to Lévi-Strauss, replace worldly with imaginary contradictions, skyscrapers are emblematic of an incongruity between the theoretical belief in market efficiency and the reality of market moods, fluctuations, and crises. In this sense, they mark a field of tension that characterises contemporary economic thinking as such.

Bankers and hedge fund managers have repeatedly justified their decisions to pursue profit maximisation and risk elimination. Yet, at the same time, public discourses did not cease to describe finance using a vocabulary of irrationality and excess. Expressions such as ‘greed’, ‘madness’, or ‘irrational exuberance’ constitute catch phrases of GFC discourses. Publications such as Terry Burnham’s Mean Markets and Lizard Brains: How to Profit from the New Science of Irrationality (2008), George Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller’s Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (2010), or Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street (2011), which currently flood the book market, equally hint at an actual controversy in economic beliefs. Likewise, the advent of behavioral sciences and cognitive psychology approaches to finance indicates that rational market theory itself undergoes a crisis. In exchange, the concept of emotion increasingly appears in economic theory.

While market rhetoric has long since been inspired by the human psyche (by its ‘manias’ and its ‘depressions’), emotions nowadays constitute serious factors of market evaluation. In 2002 the Nobel Prize in economics was awarded to two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who introduced the concept of ‘cognitive bias’ to market theory. Challenging the homo economicus model, their theory thus contests a powerful idea which (together with Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’) has been influencing capitalist economics since the eighteenth century.

The visual framing of skyscraper architecture in GFC portrayals – in combination with index curves or via accentuated high- and low-angle shots – highlights the ‘mythical’ function of skyscraper images as emblems that hint at this controversy in economic beliefs. Though this is particularly obvious in the film Wall Street: MNS, which even stages the market crash on 29 September 2008 as a fall from a skyscraper, skyscrapers also form a recurrent topos in journalistic crisis portrayals.

Figure 11: The skyscraper as bomb: cover image of Der Spiegel (No. 29, July 2009).
Figure 11: The skyscraper as bomb: cover image of Der Spiegel (No. 29, July 2009).

In July 2009, the German news magazine Der Spiegel devoted an editorial to the insurance company American International Group (AIG) and its complicity in the GFC. The magazine’s cover shows a collage of buildings belonging to different urban financial districts. Amongst these buildings are famous edifices such as Shanghai’s World Financial Center, London’s 30th St Mary Axe, and the New York Stock Exchange. Protruding from the amalgam of global financial city-pieces, a bundle of dynamite labeled ‘AIG’ overshadows the imagined environment. The fuse is lit by a flash of lightning which crosses the headline: ‘The Most Dangerous Company in the World’. The dynamite bundle’s geometric form and urban context clearly hint at a skyscraper, from which a global state of exposure emanates.

This image suggests that, in the event of the bundle’s explosion, financial centers all over the world would be affected. This implication ties in with the subtitle: ‘How an Insurance Group Became the Biggest Risk of the World Economy’. Instead of picturing the concrete infrastructures of global market exposure, danger is allegorised as a bomb. Evoking associations of terrorism, the cover design thus stages the financial business as an urban threat which, regardless of its far reaching destructive potential, is neither predictable nor transparent from the outside.

A lack of transparency as such constitutes another important motif that pervades the urban aesthetics of GFC portrayals. Reflective surfaces and mirroring effects recur in both photographic and filmic crisis depictions, such as in Alex Gibney’s documentary film Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010). The film treats the political career and downfall of Eliot Spitzer, New York’s former governor, who publicly pursued cases of financial fraud on Wall Street. When showing corporate skyscrapers, Client 9 mostly focuses on the buildings’ exteriors, emphasising their sleek, repellent facades.

Figure 12
Figure 13: Skyscraper facades in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.
Figure 13: Skyscraper facades in Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer.

Another example that illustrates the motif of a lack of transparency is the widely-circulated photograph of a crisis meeting which was held on 11 September 2008, at the London office of the investment bank Lehman Brothers (see photo ‘Meeting at Lehman Brothers on the verge of bankruptcy, London, 2008’ by Kevin Coombs  http://www.icareifyoulisten.com/2013/09/ergodos-musicians-i-call-to-you/ accessed 11/10/2013). In the photograph, two floors can be viewed through reflecting window panes. On the upper floor, several men and one woman in business attire can be observed from behind. The image implies that an important meeting is happening upstairs, as the lower office floors are empty. Since the employees stand with their backs towards the window, blocking any insight into the room, the image is marked by a gesture of exclusion.

Figure 14: Meeting at Lehman Brothers on the verge of bankruptcy, London, 2008 (Photo: Kevin Coombs).
Figure 14: Meeting at Lehman Brothers on the verge of bankruptcy, London, 2008 (Photo: Kevin Coombs).

These examples, along with the fact that most representations of financial businesses stop at the outside of well-known corporate buildings, show that the public knowledge and imagination about the financial industry is strongly limited, if not precluded.

In line with this argument, the French president Francois Hollande recently described finance as an adversary who has neither a name, nor face, nor party.16 Hollande’s polemic points to a profound lack of imagination that characterises our common understanding of finance. Again, Oliver Stone’s question of ‘how to show a credit default swap on screen’ comes to mind, emphasising the challenge of representing a business that is based on abstract investment calculations, risk assessment, and the speculative trading of future payment obligations. What does the creation of value in the financial industry look like? To return to the topic of crisis, how does the immense loss of value in the industry show? The first results when typing the words ‘financial crisis’ into Google’s image search engine are pictures of falling market index curves. Arrows and zigzag lines dominate the immediate visual imaginary of financial crises. Simplistically, financial crises are portrayed in the way they appear to business insiders – as indexes.

Figure 15: The crisis discovered on screen: financial risk analysis in Margin Call.
Figure 15: The crisis discovered on screen: financial risk analysis in Margin Call.

Digital index curves – produced by an investment banker’s risk analysis software – also constitute the starting point of Margin Call. Echoing the demise of the Lehman Brothers in 2008, the film depicts the early stages of the GFC by following key people in an investment bank over a 24-hour period of time. While a reappearing time code documents temporal progression, the viewer can observe the distinct protagonists coping with the looming crisis situation. Their bank’s fatal involvement in the trading of ‘toxic’ CDOs is first discovered on screen – according to the above-mentioned measures of computerised risk analysis – and then discussed at consecutive crisis meetings. Strikingly, the recurrent shots of Manhattan’s skyline form strange moments of relaxation compared to the events inside of the depicted investment bank, where the upcoming market crash appears to become increasingly palpable. The urban realm outside of the protagonists’ office windows remains strangely unaffected by this emerging atmosphere of crisis. Fast motion shots of Manhattan’s skyline reinforce the impression of a relative urban standstill, insofar as they create the impression that, while markets are in a state of turmoil, the public realm of the city remains strangely unchanged over a longer period of time.

The inside of the investment bank and the outside city appear as if they constitute two parallel universes. Only the recurring time code suggests that there actually is a relation of simultaneity between both depicted spheres.

Figure 16
Figure 16
Figure 17
Figure 17
Figure 18
Figure 18
Figure 19: Atmospheric contrasts: the early crisis inside and outside of the financial business in Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS.
Figure 19: Atmospheric contrasts: the early crisis inside and outside of the financial business in Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS.

By contrasting the tough developments inside of an investment bank with a calm urban exterior, Margin Call emphasises that, in an almost spectral manner, the GFC was present when it still seemed absent. In critical theory, this temporal specter of the crisis has most famously been described by the literary scholar Joseph Vogl in his work Das Gespenst des Kapitals (The Specter of Capital, 2010). Inspired by Jacques Derrida’s reading of the ghost figure in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Vogl interprets the GFC as a specter which indicates that ‘time has become out of joint’.17 He argues that financial crises, above all, epitomise the disparate temporality of speculative finance capitalism. Financial crises thus reveal a mismatch of expectations that are related to different times. They uncover the fact that the speculative capital obligations of the present (which are often realised by means of complex derivative deals) do not correspond to the future state of value distribution on the markets.

Therefore, the bursting of a speculative bubble always exposes a disjunction of temporalities, making it obvious that an asset’s future development does not live up to the anticipations of its investors. These anticipations, on the other hand, are mostly inspired by past developments, forming the basis of trading decisions and automated trading algorithms. In order to make immediate profits, today’s financial system exploits experiences of the past and anticipations of the future, whereby a crisis of finance epitomises a miscalculation between these temporalities. ‘One benefited from another future than the future one had prepared.…The specter of capital always returns from its own future.’18

Because of this multi-temporality of finance, the directors of crisis films such as Wall Street: MNS and Margin Call were faced with the challenge of having to render something tangible which simultaneously relates to the past, present, and future. Like many other financial crisis portrayals, both films repeatedly depict conversations that either assess future risks or assign blame for past mistakes. Alternately, future and past reappear in the contemporary story. However, as the previous example from Margin Call showed, the multi-temporality of finance is also indicated by means of non-verbal allusion. These allusions often relate to the urban realm, investing the city with the uncanny aura of quiet before the storm.

The film Wall Street: MNS achieves this effect during a scene that is set in New York’s Central Park. In the lead-up to the ‘credit crunch’, the investment banker Jacob Moore tracks down his boss and mentor Louis Zabel, who is walking his dog. They have a brief conversation, in which Jacob unsuccessfully tries to interrogate his mentor about the current state of their company:

            Jacob: Are we going under?

            Louis: You know, I never liked this damn dog…

            Jacob: (interrupting) Louis, are we going under?

            Louis: (stopping to walk, facing Jacob) You’re asking the wrong question, Jacob.

            Jacob: What’s the right question?

            Louis: Who isn’t? (walks away, leaving Jacob behind)

The next shot details children who are playing with soap bubbles. Accompanied by a slow and foreboding piano melody which forms a contrast to the children’s laughter, the camera follows the bubbles ascending into the air, showing upper Manhattan’s skyline in the background.

Figure 20
Figure 20
Figure 21: Spectral moments: on the verge of the GFC in Wall Street: MNS.
Figure 21: Spectral moments: on the verge of the GFC in Wall Street: MNS.

Symbolically, the soap bubbles rise into New York’s atmosphere as heralds of the United States sub-prime bubble, which will move closer to the bursting point throughout the film. The city appears as a space where, covertly, future market developments loom large even before they become official and consequential. A similar picture has been drawn by Time magazine in an article entitled ‘London’s Gathering Storm’ (2008), in which the metaphoric storm is illustrated by a black and white photograph highlighting a cloudy sky above London’s financial district ‘The City’.19

In both examples, the city seems haunted by a crisis that is not yet tangible. The ambiance imposed on the urban setting indicates that the GFC has had an intricately deferred tangibility. The scene implies that the dubious financial security-and-derivative deals which ultimately caused the GFC have not destabilised the world economy immediately, in a coherent chronological succession, but rather occurred in mysteriously oblique ways, leaving behind indeterminable temporal gaps between the causes of the crisis and its effects.

In an attempt to bring light and chronology into the darkness, the international news agency Reuters launched an ‘interactive crisis timeline’ called Times of Crisis, which is available online.20 The hyper-textually organised website presents key moments of the GFC as a collection of images, facts, and figures that have been gathered at different stages of the temporal progression of the crisis. Moreover, the timeline is complemented by an introductory video which shows inter alia violent street protest in Taipei, New York, Karachi, London, Riga, and Athens. Displaying fights against the police and the vandalisation of stock exchange buildings, the scenes above all point to a general blindness of the public reaction to the crisis event. The scenes demonstrate that, as it had been hard to pinpoint the brewing GFC as such, common anger has been set free in the city, in the streets of national financial capitals worldwide.

Figure 22
Figure 22
Figure 23: Reuters’s ‘Times of Crisis’, which shows protests at the Karachi Stock Exchange (Pakistan).
Figure 23: Reuters’s ‘Times of Crisis’, which shows protests at the Karachi Stock Exchange (Pakistan).

The city thus acts as a contact point, filling in the gap that has been caused by the intangibility of the GFC. Beyond that, it provides a materiality in relation to which crisis reactions have been articulated. Protests against the financial system, such as the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, always had a metonymic referentiality, addressing the financial business by its central locations. As such, the idea of attacking or occupying the sites where finance supposedly ‘takes place’ is symptomatic of a more general confusion. How to boycott a business that works via digital networks, transferring values and complicated payment obligations at enormous velocities? How to demonstrate opposition against an industry whose workings neither adhere to a coherent chronology nor to a consistent logic of value creation? Wall Street and other stock exchange sites at least provided a physical target against which common anger could be directed.

This is not meant to deny that the GFC has a materially sensible dimension. Contrary to the assumption that the crisis has been a quasi-fictional event – existing only in the form of falling market indexes, or on the balance sheets of different market players – the GFC became most manifest with regard to its impacts on real estate development, corporations, and private households. Films such as John Wells’s The Company Men (2010), which exposes the individual effects of corporate downsising, or Dieter Schumann’s Wadan’s Welt: Von der Würde der Arbeit (Wadan’s World: On the Dignity of Work, 2010), which documents the development of a German dockyard in the course of the crisis-inflicted economic depression, illustrate the tangible, everyday dimensions of the GFC. The previously mentioned Time article equally points out that, at a later stage, the GFC left visible traces in the public realm of the financial capital in London, where the economic recession has tied up an abundance of large-scale building projects. De-commissioned building cranes in the middle of London’s ‘square mile’ attest to the city’s economic contraction.21

In contrast, films such as Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS depict the GFC at its early stages. Both films try to shed light on the early crisis by portraying it as it was first realised by the accursed yet largely unknown insiders of the financial business. At that time – before it turned into a global economic recession – the GFC mainly expressed itself virtually, as a ‘loss of balance’ occurring within the abstract trading parameters of the financial markets. It thus appeared to exist only due to the mutually intertwined hyperreality of digital charts and the news media, which followed financial market developments almost in real time. This dependence on the media renders the crisis event spectral. Like a specter, a financial crisis needs a medium in order to show itself. In contrast to a storm or a tsunami – both popular allegories for the crisis – financial crises constitute mediated events, not the least of which because the very principle of money and exchange value is referential. It is within the mediated social process of ascribing value to a currency, a stock, an asset-backed security, or other forms of signifiers that financial value increases or diminishes.

Regardless of the potentially weighty consequences of such profits and losses, financial value does not have an independent existence. One possible way to picture an acute financial crisis is through the media technologies financial businesses use in order to gather and process market information and by means of which a market fall can render itself visible, such as the digital stock market ticker and market analysis software. Beyond that, it has been particularly hard to picture the early GFC at a stage when, apart from extensive dismissals in the financial business itself, the effects of the market crash were still to be expected. In films (also in novels that depict this initial stage of the crisis) the city often acts as a realm where protagonists wait for the crash to kick in. In line with this tendency, the author and financial journalist Michael Lewis asserted in April 2009 that:

‘The world is now pocked with cities that feel as if they are perched on top of bombs. The bombs have yet to explode, but the fuses have been lit, and there’s nothing anyone can do to extinguish them. Walk around Manhattan and you see empty taxis: people have fled before the bomb explodes.’22

Global financial capitals such as New York and London form the infrastructural nodes of the financial business. Therefore, it seemed natural to expect the crash to first be felt close to its epicenter. However, in reality this did not happen immediately. A motif that frequently recurs in crisis portrayals is that of the financial expert who tries to relate the market crash to everyday life in the surrounding city. In the film Margin Call, for example, two risk analysts drive through New York in a taxi. Looking outside of the car’s window, one of them remarks: ‘Look at all these people, wandering around with absolutely no idea what’s about to happen.’ The same situation is depicted in Lewis’ non-fiction crisis-based best-seller The Big Short: Inside Doomsday Machine, which retells the story of how three hedge fund traders experienced the crisis situation on 18 September 2008 in front of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

‘The weather was gorgeous – one of those rare days where the blue sky reaches down through the forest of tall buildings and warms the soul. “We just sat there,” says Danny, “watching the people pass.” They sat together on the cathedral steps for an hour or so. “As we sat there we were weirdly calm”, said Danny. “We felt insulated from the whole market reality. It was an out-of-body experience. We just sat and watched the people pass and talked about what might happen next. How many of these people were going to lose their jobs? Who was going to rent these buildings, after all the Wall Street firms had collapsed?” Porter Collins thought that “it was like the world stopped. We’re looking at all these people and saying, ‘These people are either ruined or about to be ruined’.” Apart from that, there wasn’t a whole lot of hand-wringing inside FrontPoint. This was what they had been waiting for: total collapse.’23

Atmospherically, the depicted moment of reflection is full of contrasts. The doomsday scenario jars with the ‘gorgeous weather’, while the crisis – of which the protagonists are well aware – has still not affected everyday life in the streets of Manhattan. The ‘total collapse’ is present and yet strangely absent. Similar to the atmosphere created in Margin Call and Wall Street: MNS, Lewis’ description of the city indicates a profound divergence of crisis perception between financial insider and the rest of the urban dwellers. Other GFC novels such as Sebastian Faulk’s A Week in December (2009) and Alex Preston’s This Bleeding City (2010) narrate the city in similar ways – as a ‘contact point’ that reveals an inconsistency, making it obvious that there actually is no common perception of the GFC.

It is in relation to the city where it has been demonstrated that, unlike a storm, a breaking financial crisis does not bring about the same experience for everyone outside on the streets. By means of urban visions it has been highlighted that, contrary to an explosion, the GFC does not exist as a single ‘event’ but rather as a series of strangely interrelated incidents, whose development has constantly been swayed by the ways in which they have been mediated and communicated. In sum, urban spaces in GFC portrayals point to different sources of complexity without offering any resolution.

In an allusive and often atmospheric manner, the temporal deferrals of the GFC, its inner contradictions, and its fields of tensions are indicated without ever being disentangled. The framing of skyscrapers marks the ambivalent workings of the financial markets which, based on an ethos of rational calculation and efficiency, react affectively, producing investment bubbles that excessively exceed reasonable measures. Furthermore, profound divergences in worldview and crisis experience have been articulated in relation to the city: contrasts of perspective on the city’s public realm such as the urban panorama and the street view indicate that, despite its enormous power, the financial industry constitutes a sealed off sphere, operating from an estranged point of view in relation to its exterior. In turn, the intangibility of the financial industry becomes obvious in depictions of demonstrations at different stock exchange capitals. Atmospheric portrayals of urban places at the outset of the crisis additionally show that there actually is no simultaneous and uniform experience of the GFC but rather a fractured crisis reality. In relation to the concept of the specter, I have suggested that it is due to the intricate temporal functionality of investment on the one hand and finance’s dependence on media on the other that the GFC eluded any consistent form of discernment.

Consequently, the urban imaginaries of various GFC portrayals indicate the problems of articulating an economic system that neither adheres to a consistent logic of value creation nor to an evident temporality. As myths in terms of Lévi-Strauss, they reflect worldly inconsistencies on an imaginary level. In doing so, they potentially express a critical stance regarding contemporary finance – for instance by evoking images of terrorism, staging the urban public’s exclusion from the financial world, or generating uncanny atmospheres within the city (‘quiet before the storm’). Similar to Barthes’ understanding of myths as ‘ideas in form’, these urban imaginaries act as pivotal points in relation to which certain ideas about the financial business in general and the GFC in particular have been expressed.

 In a similar manner, Vincent Mosco analysed urban icons in narratives about digitalisation and cyberspace, such as the former World Trade Center (WTC) in New York which, as an icon of the post-industrial information society,24 has been used as a focal point in relation to which the history, critique, and insecurities regarding digitisation and cyber culture have been articulated. Jean Baudrillard’s interpretation of the WTC towers as a ‘vertigo’ of digital duplication25 ties in with this tendency. Likewise, Barthes’ reading of the Eiffel Tower as a ‘pure signifier’, ‘a form in which men unceasingly put meaning’,26 provides a catchy example of an urban emblem acting as a myth.

However, Barthes’ conception stresses that myths have a tendency to naturalise what they communicate.27 By rendering iconic the financial business, urban spaces in GFC portrayals indeed run the risk of leaving both the ethics as well as the legal and technological conditions of contestable financial practices unquestioned. Therefore, these urban visions need to be read as symptoms rather than as potentially adequate representations or means of critique of the inconsistencies that are produced by today’s speculative financial system.



1. Crosthwaite 2011, p. 4.
2. Kinkle & Toscano 2011, p. 47.
3. Soja 2000, p. 324.
4. Mosco 2004, p. 28.
5. Lévi-Strauss 1972, p. 193.
6. Barthes 1957, p. 107.
7. Ibid., p. 108.
8. Ibid., p. 111.
9. Sennett 1990, p. 51.
10. Ibid., p. 53.
11. Ibid., p. 62.
12. Ibid., p. 77.
13. De Certeau 1988, pp. 92-93.
14. Harvey 2011, p. 4.
15. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
16. ‘Il n’a pas de nom, pas de visage, pas de parti, il ne présentera jamais sa candidature, il ne sera donc pas élu et pourtant il gouverne: cet adversaire, c’est le monde de la finance.’ (qtd. in ‘François Hollande à l’offensive contre la finance, « adversaire » sans visage’)
17. Vogl 2011.
18. Vogl 2010, pp. 171-172 (my translation).
19. See http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1847501_1776684,00.html.
20. See http://widerimage.reuters.com/timesofcrisis/.
21. See http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1847501_1776684,00.html.
22. Lewis 2009, p. 210.
23. Ibid., p. 250.
24. Mosco 2004, p. 146.
25. Baudrillard 1983, p. 136.
26. Barthes 1997, p. 5.
27. Barthes 1957, p. 130.



Barthes, R. Mythologies (1957), trans. Jonathan Cape. New York: Noonday, 1972.
_____. The eiffel tower and other mythologies, trans. R. Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Baudrillard, J. Simulations, trans. P. Foss, P. Patton and P. Beitchman. Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 1983.
Crosthwaite, P. Criticism, crisis and contemporary narrative: Textual horizons in an age of global risk. New York: Routledge, 2011.
De Certeau, M. The practice of everyday life, trans. S. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Derrida, J. Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning and the new international, trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 2006.
‘François Hollande à l’offensive contre la finance, « adversaire » sans visage’. Boursereflex.com, 23 January 2012.
Gumble, P. ‘London’s Gathering Storm’, Time.com, 9 October 2009.
Harvey, D. The enigma of capital – and the crises of capitalism. London: Profile Books, 2010.
_____. ‘The Urban Roots of Financial Crises: Reclaiming the City for Anti-Capitalist Struggle’, Socialist Register, Vol. 48, 1-35, 2012: 10-11.
Kinkle, J. and Toscano, A. ‘Filming the Crisis: A Survey’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 1, 39-51, 2011: 47.
Lévi-Strauss, C. ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in The structuralists: From Marx to Lévi-Strauss, edited by R.T. de George and F.M. de George. New York: Anchor Books, 1972.
Lewis, M. The big short: Inside doomsday machine. New York: Norton, 2010.
_____. ‘Wall Street on the Tundra. The Implosion of Iceland’s Economy’ (2009) in The great hangover: 21 tales of the new recession from the pages of vanity fair edited by G. Carter. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010.
Mosco, V. The digital sublime: Myth, power and cyberspace. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.
Nye, D. American technological sublime. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.
Sennett, R. The conscience of the eye: The design and social life of cities. London: Norton, 1990.
Soja, E. Postmetropolis: Critical studies of cities and regions. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Vogl, J. Das Gespenst des Kapitals. Zurich: Diaphanes, 2010.
_____. Interview by René Aguigah and Wolfgang Hagen. ‚Gespensterkunde‘. Deutschlandradio Kultur, Cologne, 22 May 2011.

Originally published in NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies 1.1 (2012), open access, http://www.necsus-ejms.org/portraying-the-global-financial-crisis-myth-aesthetics-and-the-city/ 

Miriam Meissner is writing her PhD thesis with the working title ‘Narratives of the 2007-Present Financial Crisis as a Mythology of the 21st Century Global City’ at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis. She is affiliated with the Department of Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam and is a member of the ASCA Cities Project. Her main research interests include finance, cities, and the articulation of globalisation and neoliberalism in everyday and popular culture.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Sleeping as an act of non-cooperation

In this essay I am going to argue why the act of sleeping is seen as subversive in our society. I think this is due to the neoliberal ideology which has formed our economy, culture, politics and cities. In the first chapter I am going to describe how the act of sleeping can be instrumental to resist this hegemony and in the second chapter how it can be a tool in collective movements enforcing social change.



To understand how we can see sleeping as an act of resistance we have to consider our current social-economic situation. The first part of this article will revolve around the contemporary neoliberal doctrine and its consequences on our everyday life. Only if we understand how neoliberalism changed our working conditions, our experience of the city and even shaped our individual identities, we can explore sleeping as a strategy to oppose these developments. This opposition is not characterized by loud outcries, clenched fists or banners, normally used in protests organized by oppositional political parties or unions. Sleeping can be an oppositional action through being an action and a non-action at the same time. When sleeping we suspend all action, we rest. This suspension can be instrumental for resistance through non-cooperation.

Neoliberalist theory is a revival of the liberal doctrine of the 18th century, which became popular again in the 1970s. As David Harvey explains it, the main values that neoliberalism advocates are individual freedom and liberty, and its followers believe that this ‘individual liberty and freedom can best be protected and achieved by an institutional structure, made up of strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade: a world in which individual initiative can flourish. The implication of that is that the state should not be involved in the economy too much, but it should use its power to preserve private property rights and the institutions of the market and promote those on the global stage if necessary.’1 So the role of the state changes under neoliberalism from controlling the market into serving it. In order to make the market flourish it has to be freed of all interference. Neoliberalism is a theory that was developed in opposition to communism and fascism, but also very much in opposition to the strong welfare states which were constituted in postwar Europe.


economy of dispossession

The emphasis on the individual is the basis of neoliberal capitalism – individual freedom is the highest good. In a way this ideal of individual freedom came out of the protest movements of the 1960s. The students in that time struggled for greater freedom of state and corporate domination. And next to that there were other movements like the more traditional labor movements which struggled for social justice and equality and the people who fought for a more sustainable economy. In the 1970s neoliberalism seemed a way to realize the individual freedom and liberty, although it had no answer for the questions of social justice and sustainability. Harvey thinks that ‘what happened in the 1970s is that when the neoliberal move came in, the idea erupted that, okay, neoliberalism will give you individual liberty and freedom, but you just have to forget social justice and you just have to forget environmental sustainability and all the rest of it. Just think about individual liberty and freedom in particular, and we’re going to meet your desires and your interests through the individual liberties of market choice – freedom of the market is what it’s all about.’2

A lot of people who were active in the 1960s responded to this way of thinking. But now, forty years later, we can see what a devastating effect this train of thought had on social justice and the environmental well-being. We live in a consumerist society with a commodity market sustained by disempowered workers in sweatshops all over the world. And moreover we live in a society of waste, we produce enormous amounts of rubbish which is again largely disposed in the same development countries where our goods are produced. Thus although life seems fairly good in the rich, Western part of the world it can only be sustained by an economy of dispossession, mostly played out on the other side of the world, but also very apparent in the position of the undocumented people in our own countries.


1,2,3 action!

Also the less deprived people, the social middle class, find themselves in a stranglehold held by the neoliberal doctrine. The free and flexible market without governmental interference causes all working conditions to be more and more precarious. There is no such thing anymore as a job for life and many people work under a zero hour contract. This working condition plus the conviction that we are all individuals produces a need to perform. Only when we are active, when we produce and consume, we take part in the economy. To participate in this economy is essential to be respected in a society which is characterized by the market. Therefore we need to deal with the competition of the free market, we need to work harder, better and for lower wages than the competitors. At the same time we work in a deindustrialised, post-Fordist economy – everything is based on ideas instead of products.

The capitalist economy is based on growth – we experience a crisis if the growth decreases or the economy stagnates. To ensure the accumulation of wealth, people need to have desires which need to be fulfilled, only to be transformed into new desires. It is never enough, in order to pursue happiness we always need new things, new kicks, new commodities which carry the promise of happiness and fulfillment – a promise cleverly constructed by marketing campaigns. This makes consumerism the pivot of our culture.

Our individual identity, which gained so much importance in neoliberal times, is mostly constructed with what we possess and what we do. Through our lifestyle, taken as the commodification of the way we live our lives, we try to differentiate ourselves from others. To show our competence we exhibit what we do and what we like on social networks like Facebook and thus we are even commodifying our friendships.
How can we get out of this circle of consuming and producing? How can we say NO to the demand to perform? How can we resist the dominance of the market?


I prefer not to

In this light it is interesting to look at Herman Melville’s story Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street. A lawyer who works in Wall Street hires the scrivener Bartleby to copy his lawsuits. Bartleby performs very well in the first few days, but then he starts refusing work with the sentence: ‘I prefer not to’. He works less and less but somehow his employer doesn’t have the heart to fire him. One day he discovers that Bartleby is actually living in the office on Wall Street. After some time the desperate employer decides to move his office in order to leave the completely passive Bartleby behind. Later the lawyer hears from the new tenants that Bartleby refused to leave (‘I prefer not to’) and that they finally had to kick him out – only to discover that he slept on the stairs from then on. Bartleby gets arrested and dies in his cell because he prefers not to eat.

I think Melville’s story depicts a very radical refusal to perform. Bartleby no longer wants to meet the pressure put on him. He refuses to be active and to play the rules of the game. He seems to be overwhelmed by feelings of depression. It is exemplary that the office is located in Wall Street, New York’s financial heart. Bartleby is resisting the demands of the market through pure passivity. But although he is completely passive, he resists the demand to perform in an active way by being always present. He even moves into the office and does not want to leave anymore. When he is chased out he starts sleeping on the stairs. He uses the presence of this passive body as a charge against the economic system. The act of sleeping performed by Bartleby is a radical act of underperforming right in the center of business, where everything is based on activity and movement.


undoing, unworking and unconsuming

To sleep means to stop with what we were doing – to pause. We stop working, walking, travelling, eating, producing. When sleeping we suspend activity and therefore it is unproductive in an economical sense. Sleeping collides with the neoliberal ideal of the 24/7 economy, production and consumption that never stops, creating cities that never sleep.
The sleeper neither produces nor consumes. In his book The Fall of Sleep Jean-Luc Nancy states: ‘He who sleeps does not feed on anything that comes to him from without. Like animals that practice hibernation, the sleeper feeds on his reserves.’3
The sleeper doesn’t need anything, I understand his or her state of being as a closed circle. This self-fulfilled, closed state is a strong rejection of the capitalist hegemony. It rejects the accumulation of capital caused by perpetual desires through its passiveness. Sleeping is undoing, unworking and unthinking.


the fall of sleep

To sleep means to surrender – to let sleep take control. Only when we surrender completely we can let go of our desires, of our fears and our commitments. When we fall asleep, we let go of everything we normally hold on to and we start to fall – a free fall. This fall is a breakdown, but it is a breakdown which is at the same time rejuvenating. This rejuvenating character of the fall of sleep makes it very interesting as a technique of resistance. Mental breakdown, burnout, physical fall or even dropping death (like Bartleby in the end of the story) can be potent refusals to the demand to perform, but these breakdowns are at the same time destructive for the actor.

Therefore I think the fall of sleep is a very special fall, it is an endless fall which stops if you are waking up, but you will never hit the ground. Just before sleep takes over, we feel how we start falling. We seem to fall backwards, a free fall in an undetermined space. We descent into the unconscious.This fall is beautifully described by Jean-Luc Nancy:

I’m falling asleep. I’m falling into sleep and I’m falling there by the power of sleep. Just as I fall asleep from exhaustion. Just as I drop from boredom. As I fall on hard times. As I fall, in general. Sleep sums up all these falls, it gathers them together. Sleep is proclaimed and symbolized by the sign of the fall, the more or less swift descent or sagging, faintness.4

This falling is only possible through endless trust and surrender. Although we are completely passive, we are not static, we do move. We descend further and further. Sleep leads us away from the world that we know. This fall sets us free, we are loosened from all worldly connections. Fragments of our lives, our jobs pass by. Two friends can suddenly be combined in one body, lovers can turn into monsters. It is as if we fall in Wonderland’s rabbit hole – we pass endless shelves with familiar objects, but we are not able to hold on to anything.5

Or as Nancy describes it:

In any case, faintness and falling consist in not allowing a state to persist with the tension natural to it (a state of tension, then, that is not a “state”). With its tension and its intention slackening, giving up: activity into fatigue, interest into boredom, hope or confidence into distress, pleasure into displeasure, rejection of pain into morose delectation of it. Keenness becomes dull, momentum is lost, an alertness falls asleep.6

Because falling asleep is not allowing a state to persist it is always a disruption. When we fall asleep we break with our wakeful state and sink away in another kind of consciousness. Feelings and emotions we have while awake, fall away and transform into others. Therefore sleeping creates a counterpoint – when sleeping we are able to inhabit a point which counters our wakeful state. From this point, established by the act of sleeping, new alternatives can be formulated.


the fall of I

When we fall asleep we make no distinction anymore between ourselves and the outside world. Our individual identity, which is so important to neoliberalism, falls away. Jean-Luc Nancy writes:

I myself become indistinct. I no longer properly distinguish myself from the world or from others, from my own body or from my mind, either. For I can no longer hold anything as an object, as a perception or a thought, without this very thing making itself felt as being at the same time myself and something other than myself. A simultaneity of what is one’s own and not one’s own occurs as this distinction falls away.7

So our carefully constructed individuality suddenly dissolves, there is no clear distinction any longer between you and me. At the same time the whole notion of possession melts away – we no longer make any distinction between what is ours and what is not ours. This is highly subversive to everything neoliberalism stands for. How can we strive for individual freedom if we can not perceive our individuality any more? If we are no longer able to desire possession we strike capitalism in its heart.


mimicking death

‘Like death, sleep, and like sleep, death – but without awakening. Without a rhythm of return, without repetition, without a new day, without tomorrow.’8

Sleeping in a way mimics death, we refuse all interaction with our environment. Jean-Luc Nancy writes: ‘Not – says the sleeper as well as the dead man, I am not there. Not there, not now, not here, not thus.’ Death and sleep are a rejection of everything, except for death or sleep itself. But although it rejects any interaction with the environment and the one who sleeps or who is dead doesn’t react on outside stimuli, he or she is physically very present. This presence, this embodiment of the rejection to interact is very important when using the state of sleeping as an act of resistance. Death is without waking up, and thus happens only once, therefore it seems less sustainable as a strategy. Although death can also be rehearsed and performed.

In the 1970s Bas Jan Ader made a series of films in which he investigates different falls; hesitating falls, carefully planned falls, quick falls and broken falls. All these falls try to break with the logic of everyday life. I consider these falls as very personal acts of resistance, like his last work during which he disappeared. He planned ‘a very long sailing trip’9 with a small boat over the Atlantic. ‘He claimed it would take him 60 days to make the trip, or 90 if he chose not to use the sail.’10 During this trip he vanished, maybe because he chose not to come back.

The works of Bas Jan Ader are the visual images of his personal rejection. Through his films he is saying No and I can’t. The film makes it public as being the residue of his resistance. Everytime his films are played we are eyewitness to the irreversible fall. But because these actions are captured, they can be repeated. Therefore Ader’s experiences and feelings can be shared by others. I think his falls are all in a way rehearsing the final act of suicide. Only through this repetition in his actions as well as the repetition that lies inherent in the medium film, his final disappearance is something we can relate to as a public.


virtual suicide

An interesting contemporary phenomenon is the virtual suicide. This is done by deleting one’s personal profile from the popular social network sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, in a dramatic way by making use of special virtual suicide programs.11 These social networks are the channels through which we broadcast our activity and by doing so we commodify ourselves and our relationships. Therefore social networks are maybe the most exemplary and apparent outcome of the current economy based on (un-)paid performance. Geoff Cox states in his article Virtual Suicide as Decisive Political Act that ‘virtual suicide stands as the stubborn refusal to operate under intolerable conditions of service and affirms the possibility of creative autonomy over work and life.’12 Only by radically rejecting any kind of participation we can regain this autonomy over our lives. Now that I’ve looked into ways of radical rejection, the breakdown, sleeping, enacting death and even death itself, I now want to research ways in which we can use sleeping in a more active and constructive way. An interesting thought by Cox can be a starting point:

If the current neoliberal regime is significantly underpinned by open social exchange, it continues to be the case that those who created it are logically the ones that can uncreate it – according to dialectical logic at least. Reversing the way power unfolds is arguably the only way change can happen, initially through ethical refusal and by establishing forms of resistance based on the structure of governmentality. The political task becomes one of reverse-engineering, or negating, significant elements to achieve different ends.13

In the second part of this essay I want to take off from here. I want to unfold the idea that sleeping can be politicized as an act of negating the neoliberal hegemony. I think it is very important to look at how we can use sleeping actively, because the danger of using sleep as a strategy, is that we might fall into the gloomy state of the depressed, who can’t anymore find the energy to get up. In that case sleep loses its rejuvenating qualities and it will only wear us out. To sleep should also mean to wake up.



Public space is essential to constitute a public – a group of people which feels connected and sees itself as connected. Public space provides the conditions for people (acquaintances and strangers) to meet and to experience being part of a greater collective. By being physically included in a group of people, we can recognize ourselves as together in a particular predicament. In the first part I have described how the notion of the public has eroded through the neoliberal emphasis on individual freedom. In this second part I want to look at public space and how it changed under the neoliberal influence. What effect has the increasing privatization of public space on the notion of the public? How can we reclaim public space and the right to the city? Can sleeping, as something that is very private and therefore normally only done in private space, be used as a technique to subvert the dominant powers regulating public space?


the absorption of surplus value through urbanization

The public space that I am targeting in this article is mainly the outside space and public structures like the library, the hospital, the station and the shopping centre in contemporary cities. Although much of this ‘public’ space is actually privatized, I am still calling it public, because it is the space where we can be part of a public. To understand how this public space is formed and changed by the process of urbanization I will go back to the writings of David Harvey.

In his article The Right To The City Harvey describes the relation between urbanization and capitalism. He states that the main characteristic of the capitalist system is that it runs on the repeated investment of surplus value. Every investment creates new surplus value and at least part of this surplus value has to be reinvested to keep the system running and the profit growing. Thus “the politics of capitalism are affected by the perpetual need to find profitable terrains for capital surplus production and absorption.”14 In this system innovations keep everything running, new products create new desires, the production process gets more efficient and cheaper and the geographical area from which cheap laborers and raw materials can be extracted becomes larger and larger. If any of these processes stagnate, it will inflict an economical crisis. If there is no profitable investment of surplus value possible anymore, the economic growth will stop increasing and sometimes even ceases.

“The crisis of 1848 was one of the first clear crises of unemployed surplus capital and surplus labor side-by-side and it was European-wide.”15  This crisis was most felt in Paris where it led to the most extreme political unrest. The unemployed workers and bourgeois utopians revolted against the capitalist system, but were violently repressed by the bourgeois republicans. The latter did not succeed in solving the crisis and Napoleon Bonaparte took the power. Bonaparte repressed all revolutionary thinking and solved the problem of the capital surplus by investing in huge infrastructure projects. One of these projects was the major restructuring of Paris. He hired Georges-Eugène Hausmann to create huge boulevards and to redesign whole neighborhoods.
“What he did in effect was to help resolve the capital surplus disposal problem by setting up a Keynesian-like system of debt-financed infrastructural urban improvements.”16

Hausmann’s city renewal was one characterized by gentrification; he demolished the labor neighborhoods and thus pushed the social underclass out of the city center. Never before was the city restructured on such a scale. This transformation led to a whole new urban lifestyle of leisure – Paris became the shopping center of Europe.

The pattern of solving economical crises by huge urbanization projects proved to be very effective (although only until the next inevitable crisis), and is repeated many times since then.


the segregated city – gated communities and slums

From the 1990s on similar major urban development projects take place all over the world. China is in the middle of a rapid urbanization process focused on big infrastructure projects like highways and dams, again all debt-financed. It has absorbed nearly half of the world’s cement supplies since 2000.17 All these urbanization processes in different parts of the world have a huge effect globally on the absorption of surplus capital. Many countries profit from the increasing demand for raw materials, for example Chile booms because of the demand of copper.

The most recent wave of rapid urbanization, fueled by neoliberal capitalism, started again a new urban lifestyle based on untamed consumerism. But since the economic boom of the 1990s has only benefited the very small upperclass of the world population, this lifestyle is only available to a happy few. All the major development projects, especially in countries like China or India, take place in the middle of growing slums.

Quality of urban life has become a commodity for those with money, as has the city itself in a world where consumerism, tourism, cultural and knowledge-based industries have become major aspects of urban political economy.18

The result of this growing inequality between the rich and the poor is that the city becomes more and more segregated as well. The expensive city centers and business area’s are the territory of the wealthy upperclass as well as the carefully protected, and often even gated, residential neighborhoods. Also public spaces, like parks, squares and shopping centres, are more and more private owned and therefore fenced off and kept under constant surveillance. The underprivileged inhabit so called ‘problem neighborhoods’ often without good facilities and with a low quality of housing. These neighborhoods are often being demolished during city renewal projects. Especially when these neighborhoods are located in the city center they have to make place for fancy development projects. In this way the social underclass becomes more and more marginalized. Each social group inhabits their own relatively autonomous fragment of the city.

Under these conditions, ideals of urban identity, citizenship and belonging, already threatened by the spreading malaise of the neoliberal ethic, become much harder to sustain. (…) Even the idea that the city might function as a collective body politic, a site within and from which progressive social movements might emanate, appears increasingly implausible.19

The privatization of public space and its heavy surveillance (executed mostly by private security companies) restricts the use of the space for a large part of the population dramatically. Only when conforming to the rules and regulations set by the elite, the less privileged are allowed to use these spaces. The city centers are shopping conglomerates designed for people to spend money or go from A to B efficiently. When you can not or you do not want to obey to these prescribed ways of using the space, you at least attract attention. People who try to make use of the space in a different way are often chased away – for example groups of young people, skaters, drug addicts and homeless people. These groups denounce the commercial use of the public space through their actions and therefore their presence is considered a nuisance. The bylaws created to chase these people away from certain parts of the city undermines their right to the city and with that their citizenship.

At this point there arise two very important questions: ‘How can the right to the city be democratized?’, and: ‘How can the notion of the public revive?’ Only when we find a way out of the stranglehold of the neoliberal individualism we can constitute a countermovement based on our shared predicament. These are very big questions and I don’t have a ready-made answer to them, but again I think the act of sleeping can provide an interesting point of departure.


sleeping on the streets and the dispossessed

In the first part I wrote about Bartleby and how he rejected the capitalist environment of Wall Street in a very strong way by being always present but at the same time completely passive. When the new tenants try to remove him from the office he starts to sleep on the stairs. His unavoidable physical presence is very important, it establishes his sleeping as a campaign against the demand to perform.

When we think about sleeping in public space, homeless people immediately come to mind. Because they are deprived of a private space they have to sleep on the streets. This is by no means meant as a subversive act; they sleep in public out of mere necessity. But I think there are possibilities to politicize this inevitable public sleeping without ignoring the merciless condition of the homeless. The strong physical presence on a specific location constituted by the act of sleeping can be a powerful tool to draw attention to the situation of the social underclass and to reclaim their rights to the city.


colonization of public space

The last ten years you hardly see homeless people sleeping on the streets in the Netherlands. This is not because the economical and social problems which causes homelessness are solved, but because there has been a very strong policy to remove homeless people from the streets, especially in the centre of the cities. In an interview Don Mitchell explains that:

One of the problems with homeless people is that they are hypervisible. Homeless people can be very clever about this and do a lot of things to keep themselves hidden, but they are visible doing things that they are not supposed to be doing in public – going to the bathroom, eating, sleeping, being intimate in all kinds of ways. Their being in public in this way upsets all kinds of norms that are deeply ingrained in what we think is proper in certain kinds of behavior. So this hyper visibility and the fact that they are transgressing these norms is, I think, one of the reasons that we have such an abject response to homeless people.20

Homeless people use the public space for actions other people perform in private and in this way they deregulate the experience of public space. Moreover homeless people are colonizing the space where they stay, for example a park or a square – their sleeping bodies occupy the public space and make it their own. To understand the colonizing quality of the sleeping body we have to look at public space and how it is designed primarily as infrastructure for the fluent movement of people, goods and information. The planning of the city is informed by the neoliberal demand for performance – people in public space are supposed to be active. This active state of being is characterized by the upright position – people walk, drive or sit but never lie down. As soon as we lie down we constitute a whole different relation with our location. A horizontal position breaks with all movement, the body makes as much contact to the place as possible and thus also lays a much more permanent claim on this space. This permanent presence of the lying and especially the sleeping body collides with the geographical flux needed for the cycle of production and consumption.

In the Netherlands we can see since a few years that most of the public benches have arm rests which divide the bench in individual seats, all to avoid people lying down. Also the comfortable chairs in the public library in The Hague are recently replaced for ‘active furniture’, because the chairs were used to take a nap. Homeless people can not obey to this constant demand for activity in public space and therefore they do lie down in public space. This is necessary for their survival, since sleep is one of the basic needs of a human being. But next to that they are in many ways excluded from the economy and thus their chances to perform are very limited. So they lie down and fall asleep. This is experienced as threatening, because suddenly there are people who subvert all rules and regulations of public space. People perceive places where homeless people reside as unsafe and therefore the value of the private property in the neighborhood decreases. To counter these developments the policy of the Dutch government, and governments all over the world, is to look for solutions for the problem of the visibility of the homeless, instead of solving the problems inflicting homelessness.

The homeless are seen as the cause of urban decline, rather than as a symptom of urban decline or a symptom, as I see it, of capitalism working as it necessarily must. In my work I am arguing that these people should have the right to use the public space for sleeping, toilet, etc. because there is no other option. Therefore they should have this right to the city.21

Don Mitchell supports Harvey’s theory that explains capitalism, and especially neoliberal capitalism, as functioning through the ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Homelessness is one of the results of this dispossession. This became once more evident during the current economical crisis. The global capital network which is established in the 1990s encourages risky behaviour on the local market, because the risk can always be transferred elsewhere. The global displacement of very high risks led to the housing asset-value bubble in the USA. The inevitable burst of this bubble came in 2007 and caused a global credit crisis. The first group that fell victim to this crisis were impoverished US citizens, often Afro-Americans, who lost their houses and became homeless. Although these problems are the direct outcome of global economic developments, homelessness is largely perceived as a situation imposed by personal problems.

Don Mitchell says that because the homelessness of the people is a symptom of the capitalist system, they should have the right to use the city as they need to. He continues to say that:

The visibility of the homeless people is problematic – it brings down the power of a state, of other classes that don’t want them and so forth. But their being in public is also positive or at least can be political positive in that it shows that there is a collective of people and that there is a serious problem in our world that has to be addressed. If the homeless are always hidden away, we don’t see that. That is a very instrumentalist way of thinking on who the homeless are, but I think it is a very important political way of thinking too.22

I concur: the thought that homelessness is your own fault should be countered. Only when the homeless people and all the other underprivileged people are visible, in public, only then can they draw the necessary attention to the shadow side of the economy. But since neoliberal governments do everything to reduce this visibility to protect the property value of the neighborhoods, while at the same time they are deconstructing the social safety net, the homeless people should stop cooperating.  Although for most homeless people it is very difficult to spend energy on anything else than their own survival, I think it could make a change if  they collectively reclaimed their right to the city through being physically present in the city centers. To form a collective body is in this case more important than ever because the situation of the homeless people is extremely precarious and they often have no voice in any official discourse. Therefore these people should be joined by all other people who want to enforce a change.


sleeping on Tahrir Square

To conclude this article I want to look at collective movements that are currently happening and how the act of sleeping plays a part in these. Although I have spend most of this essay arguing that the notion of the public is disappearing, 2011 seems to be a year of massive uprisings. In the early spring we witnessed the spectacular protest movement in Egypt which followed on the uprising in Tunisia and inspired many more protests in the Arab world. But also in Spain, Greece and Portugal and later in the US and Western Europe people gather on the streets and squares to protest. Although these protest have evolved out of different local predicaments, the overall tendency is that the people demand more democracy. In all these movements public space plays an important role as catalyst of the collective struggle. The massive gatherings on Tahrir Square (Liberation Square), a main public square in Cairo, became an iconic example for the other protests.

When we look at what happened and still happens on Tahrir Square, we can see that it enables the protesters to physically experience the public and their togetherness in their protest. By being en masse on the streets the individual preoccupations can grow into a collective fight. Through their inflamed feeling of collectivity the protesters felt strong enough to resist the regime of Mubarak, although protesting was – and still is – a very dangerous endeavour. By being all together the public suddenly got an enormous immediacy – with their bodily presence they were able to enforce a change.

One of the very powerful techniques of the protesters on Tahrir Square was to stay and to sleep in the public space. By doing so they made the space their own and claimed the rights to use it. They colonized the space through lying down – by lying flat on the ground they literally covered as much space as possible. Furthermore they established a more permanent relationship with the location – a relationship which is completely different than the one of the passerby. In this way the people showed their persistence in their struggle – they were present, and had a very strong bodily presence. They were not going to leave before Mubarak would resign.


non-violent resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience

During the occupation of Tahrir square preceding the fall of Mubarak, the protesters used the vulnerability of their sleeping bodies as a living, but immobile barrier in front of the army tanks.

These sleeping people embody non-violent resistance. They have put their vulnerable, unarmed bodies right in the path of the devastating tank tracks – only when the Egyptian army is willing to kill defenseless people these tanks can move forward. Their lives are the ‘weapons’ in their struggle.

These acts of civil resistance are based on a very long tradition of non-cooperation and non-violence, two techniques that have often proved to be very powerful. Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi are the most iconic spokespersons of these forms of resistance.23 In 1908 Tolstoy wrote A Letter to A Hindu in which he propagates non-violent resistance and civil disobedience as tactics for the Indians to overcome the oppression of the British. Tolstoy wrote:

As soon as men live entirely in accord with the law of love natural to their hearts and now revealed to them, which excludes all resistance by violence, and therefore hold aloof from all participation in violence – as soon as this happens, not only will hundreds be unable to enslave millions, but not even millions will be able to enslave a single individual. Do not resist the evil-doer and take no part in doing so, either in the violent deeds of the administration, in the law courts, the collection of taxes, or above all in soldiering, and no one in the world will be able to enslave you.24

Tolstoy’s letter inspired Gandhi and his non-violent struggle for Indian independence. Between 1921 and 1942 Gandhi was able to mobilize millions of Indians in the non-cooperation movement against the British oppression, with the independent state of India as the final result. The techniques of peaceful resistance, non-cooperation and civil disobedience were applied during many more political struggles and in the uprisings this year it proves again to be a very powerful method of resistance.

Action through non-action seems incredibly relevant in a world marked by the constant demand to perform. Sleeping as being existentially an act of non-performance seems the most radical way to oppose the perpetual need for production and consumption caused by the neoliberal doctrine. To use sleeping as a subversive act, it has to be made public. We have to find a way to stage our rejection and thus to overcome the private realm. Only if we succeed in reaching out to others, we can collectively start a social movement which can realise a change. The protests of 2011, including the Occupy movement have been a very potent beginning, but are by no means an end. Only if we continue to subvert the neo-liberal hegemony collectively we can create space for alternatives.


1. David Harvey, “On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey”, interview by Sasha Lilley in the webzine of Monthly Review, June 2006, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2006/lilley190606.html (accessed on 30 May, 2011)
2. David Harvey, On Neoliberalism: An Interview with David Harvey, interview by Sasha Lilley in the webzine of Monthly Review, June 2006, http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2006/lilley190606.html (accessed on 30 May, 2011)
3. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), p. 6
4.Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), p. 1
5. In the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Caroll, 1865, the protagonist Alice follows the White Rabbit and falls into a rabbit hole. This brings her in Wonderland where she gets involved in a range of adventures. In the end of the book the sister of Alice wakes her up, and everything appears to be a dream.
6. Jean-Luc Nancy, ibid., p. 2
7. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2009), p. 7
8. Jean-Luc Nancy, ibid., p. 41
9. Bas Jan Ader, 1975, quotes taken form his website: http://www.basjanader.com/ (accessed on 5 June 2011)
10. Bas Jan Ader, 1975, ibid
11. There are several virtual suicide programs developed like the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, 2009 (http://suicidemachine.org) and Seppukoo, 2009 (www.seppukoo.com). Both suicide programs are not working anymore due to conflicts with Facebook and overwhelming demand from people who wanted to commit suicide.
12. Geoff Cox, “Virtual Suicide as Decisive Political Act”, article written for the Activist Media and Biopolitics conference, University of Innsbruck, Nov 2010.
13. Geoff Cox, ibid.
14. David Harvey, The Right To The City, article in New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, London
15. David Harvey, ibid.
16. David Harvey, The Right To The City, article in New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, London
17. David Harvey, ibid.
18. David Harvey, ibid.
19. David Harvey, The Right To The City, article in New Left Review 53, September-October 2008, London
20. Don Mitchell on Homelessness, Geography, Survival, and the Right to the City, an episode from UBLaw Podcast, 16 October, 2009.
21. 45. Don Mitchell on Homelessness, Geography, Survival, and the Right to the City, an episode from UBLaw Podcast, 16 October, 2009.
22. Don Mitchell, ibid.
23. The anarcho-pacifism of Leo Tolstoy and Mohandas Gandhi was inspired in turn by the essay Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau which he wrote in 1849.
24. Leo Tolstoy, A Letter to A Hindu (written in 1908 to Tarak Nath Das and published in the Free Hindustan newspaper in 1909 the letter was reprinted by Gandhi in his own South-African newspaper Indian Opinion)


This article is a shorter version of the thesis ‘Sleeping as an act of non-cooperation in neoliberal times’ written by Doris Denekamp, 2011. This thesis was developed in the context of the Dutch Art Institute and supervised by Doreen Mende.

Doris Denekamp is a Rotterdam based artist and holds a Master in Fine Art (MFA) from the Dutch Art Institute. Together with artist Geert van Mil they have created INFORMAL STRATEGIES (2011), an artists’ collective as aim to actively learn about and react upon the contemporary environment with its progressive neoliberal ideas and devouring capitalism.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Spatialities of Emancipation and the “City of Thresholds”

Perhaps one of the dominant modern images of emancipated communities presents them as barricaded in a liberated stronghold, always ready to defend themselves. This image, embedded in the collective imaginary of the oppressed, tends to construct geography of emancipation as a map clearly depicting free areas defined by a recognizable perimeter. Either as islands, surrounded by a hostile sea or as continents facing other hostile continents, these areas appear as spatially definable and traceable.

Utopias described through extensive plans of ideal cities are only the most consistent versions of such an imaginary geography of emancipation. There is however nothing inherently emancipating in a well-defined area declared as free. Modern utopias, starting from those of the so-called utopian socialists, were conceived as harmonious communities inhabiting well-ordered cities with regulated mechanisms of production and distribution of goods. As Foucault remarks, considering Godin’s familistere, there is no architecture of freedom, as there are no liberating machines (Foucault 1982). Familistere could become a well intended, however terrifyingly effective panopticon. Conceiving emancipation as being contained in specific spaces and attempting to imagine emancipatory mechanisms through spatially embedded regulations, eventually reduces emancipation to a localizable essence. True, emancipation has to do with a radical transformation of the existing social worlds. To locate it however in the image of a totally absent site (absent spatially as well as temporally) means to accept a kind of spatializing ethics: What is outside of the evil existent is by definition unpolluted, purely “other”.

Emancipation however, is a process not an essence, if we find it crucial to differentiate it from the religious image of a happy afterlife. Emancipation is the ambiguous actuality of spatially as well as historically dispersed struggles. There may be potentially liberating practices, however there can be no fixed areas of freedom.

Could we then perhaps visualize spatialities of emancipation by considering those appeals for social justice which focus on the use of space? Spatial justice, in this context, could indicate a distribution principle that tends to present space as a good to be enjoyed by all. Accessibility can become one of the most important attributes of spatial justice. Any division, separation or partitioning of space appears then as obstructing this kind of justice. True, an emphasis on spatial justice may establish the importance collective decision making has for the social as well as the physical definition of space. This imaginary geography of emancipation however, has to understand space as a uniform continuum to be regulated by common will rather than as an inherently discontinuous and differentiated medium that gives form to social practices. In a somewhat crude form, this imaginary could end up completely reducing space to a quantity to be equally distributed. And accessibility might end up being some kind of distributing mechanism. We can actually connect this way of understanding spatialities of emancipation with contemporary discourses on human rights or human communicability. More often than not, these discourses presuppose some kind of transhistorical and trangeographical human figure. The same kind of human figure becomes the subject of spatial justice, only this time such a figure is not viewed as the inhabitant of an ideal city any more but rather as the free-moving occupant of a homogeneous spatiality.

A different kind of geographical imaginary has emerged out of a criticism for this idealized view for a just city (or a city of justice). Sometimes drawing images from contemporary city-life, this imaginary focuses on multiplicity and diversity, as well as on possible polymorphous and mutating spaces, as a means to describe a spatiality of emancipation. Strong roots support this view. A critique of everyday life and everydayness, already put forward during the 60’s, has provided us with a new way to deal with the social experience of space. If everyday life is not only the locus of social reproduction but also contains practices of self- differentiation or personal and collective resistance, molecular spatialities of otherness can be found scattered in the city. As de Certeau has put it, “a migrational, or metaphorical, city slips into the clear text of the planned and readable city” (de Certeau, 1984:93). True, this image contains a view of inhabited spatiality as a process rather than as a condition. Spaces of otherness proliferate in the city due to diversifying or deviating practices. Spatialities of otherness thus become inherently time-bound. At the same time, space is neither reduced to a container of otherness (idealized in utopian cities) nor to a contestable and distributable good. Space is actually conceptualized as a formative element of human social interaction. Space thus becomes expressive through use, or, rather, because use (“style of use” as de Certeau specifies) defines users. If an idealized version of spatial justice tends to invoke common rights in order to define space as common good, an emphasis on spatialized molecular otherness tends to posit space as dispersed and diversified therefore not common. Emancipating spatialities, in such a view, would be dispersed spatialities of otherness. Discontinuous and inherently differentiated space gives ground to differing social identities allowed thus to express themselves. Essentially connected with identity polities this geographical imaginary “tends to emphasize situatedness” (Harvey 1996: 363) as a prerequisite of identity formation.

Identities, however, may rather be the form that social discrimination actually takes. A social inculcation of human interaction patterns is always the scope of social reproduction. Inhabited space, in societies that lack “the symbolic-product-conserving techniques associated with literacy”, is, according to Bourdieu, the principal locus of this inculcation of dispositions (Bourdieu, 1977:89). Inhabited space though, seems to have resumed this role in post-industrial societies, not because people have become less dependent on formalized education but because city life has become the educational system par-excellence. A wide variety of em-bodied reactions are learnt through using metropolitan space. Identifying oneself means being able to deal expressively with the risks and opportunities of city life. Where someone is allowed to be and how he or she confirms to spatial instructions of use is indicative of his or her social identity. Space identifies and is identified through use.

A contemporary liberating effort may indeed seek “not to emancipate an oppressed identity but [rather] to emancipate an oppressed non-identity” (Holloway, 2002:156). If social reproduction is enforcing identity formation, an emancipating struggle might be better directed against those mechanisms that reduce humans to circumscribed and fixed identities. Spaces of emancipation should then differ from identity-imposing and identity-reproducing spaces. Space as identity (and identity as space) presupposes a clearly demarcated domain. Space as the locus of non-identity (which means relational identity, multifarious identity, open identity) has to be, on the contrary loosely determined space, space of transition.

Societies have long known the ambiguous potentialities of these spaces. Anthropologists have provided us with many examples of spaces that characterize and house periods of ritualized transition from one social position or condition to another. What Van Gennepp has described as “rites of passage” (Van Gennepp 1960) are ritual acts connected with spaces that symbolize those transitions (from childhood to adolescence, from single to married life, from the status of the citizen to that of the warrior or the hunter). Ritual acts aim, above all, to ensure that an intermediary experience of non-identity (Turner 1977), necessary for the passage from one social identity to another, will not threaten social reproduction. Through the mediation of purification rites or guardian gods, societies supervise spaces of transition, because those spaces symbolically mark the possibility of deviation or transgression.

Liminality, however, this experience of temporarily occupying an in-between territory as well as an in-between non-identity, can provide us with a glimpse of a spatiality of emancipation. Creating in-between spaces, might mean creating spaces of encounter between identities instead of spaces characteristic of specific identities. When Simmel was elaborating on the character of door and bridge as characteristic human artifacts, he was pointing out that “the human being is the connecting creature who must always separate and cannot connect without separating”(Simmel 1997:69). This act of recognizing a division only to overcome it without however aiming to eliminate it, might become emblematic of an attitude that gives to differing identities the ground to negotiate and realize their interdependence. Emancipation may thus be conceived not as the establishing of a new collective identity but rather as the establishing of the means to negotiate freely between emergent identities (‘freely’ only means without corroborating pre-existing asymmetries). Difference thus is not connected to privilege but to potentiality.

In-between spaces are spaces to be crossed. Their existence is depended upon their being crossed, actually or virtually. It is not however crossings as guarded passages to well-defined areas that should interest us. More it is about crossroads, thresholds connecting separated potential destinations. The spatiality of threshold can represent the limit of a spatiotemporal experience that becomes the operating principle of a network of places. A “city of thresholds” might be the term to describe such a spatial network that provides opportunities of encounter, exchange and mutual recognition. Those spaces of encounter are the alternative to a culture of barriers, a culture that defines the city as an agglomeration of identifying enclaves. Thresholds, by replacing check points that control access through interdictions or everyday “rites of passage”, provide the ground for a possible solidarity between different people allowed to regain control over their lives.

Those spaces essentially differ from the non-places Auge describes (Auge 1995). No matter how temporary or general, the identities imposed in non-places are effective in reducing human life to the rules of contemporary society. “Transit identities” are nonetheless identities. And, most importantly, these identities do not result from negotiations between equals. Intermediary spaces can be the locus of an emancipating culture only when people assume the risk of accepting otherness as a formative element of their identities. Social experiences of this kind have been actualized in various social and historical settings. Carnivalesque transgressions flooding the streets of a city have sometimes resulted in carnival riots: social acts of appropriating the city as a network of passages belonging to nobody and everybody. During the short-lived Paris Commune or the days of Chile’s Unidad Popular we had acts of establishing public space as space of encounters between emancipated otherness. Communards or Chilean pobladores as today’s Argentinian piqueteros or anti-global demonstrators actually produced threshold spaces and not only strongholds to be defended. Zapatistas, in their long march for dignity, were also creating intermediary spaces of liberation, spaces temporally inhabited by those invisible and suppressed others. Their acts might point to an emerging historical awareness that could even redefine historical time as “homogeneous, empty time” (Benjamin, 1992:252) but as full of ruptures and turning points, thresholds representing opportunities of radical change.

W. Benjamin has well understood the power thresholds have to compare differing adjacent areas as well as different adjacent periods in history. His liberating profane Messiah was to appear in those thresholds in historic time. And his redeeming of modernity’s liberating potential was connected with the illuminating knowledge of thresholds embodied in the flaneur as a metropolitan archeologist. A redeemed potentially emancipating metropolis emerges as indeed a city of thresholds. Paris Arcades, those ambiguous spatial passages were to become, in Benjamin’s thought, emblematic of a collectively dreamt future trapped in modern phantasmagoria.

Indeed, emancipation as a process and not as a state is potentially emerging in spaces and times opened towards radical otherness. After all, what we need is bridges, crossings, passages to a different future. And if spatialities of emancipation may be envisaged as thresholds to otherness, then it is by inhabiting and creating thresholds that, to use Benjamin’s words, “revolution will disenchant the city” (Benjamin, 1999: M3,3).


Auge, M. 1995 Non-Places. Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. 1992 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, London: Fontana Press.
Benjamin, W. 1999 The Arcades Project, Cambridge Ma.: Belknap Press.
Bourdieu, P.1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P..
Certeau, M. de 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. 1982 “Space, Knowledge and Power” (interview with P. Rabinow), Skyline.
Harvey, D. 1996 Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Oxford: Blackwell.
Holloway, J. 2002 Change the World Without Taking Power, London: Pluto Press.
Simmel, G. 1997 “Bridge and Door” in Rethinking Architecture, N. Leach (ed.), London: Routledge.
Turner, V. 1977 The Ritual Process, Ithaka: Cornell U.P.
Van Gennep, A. 1960 The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Paper presented at the 4th International Conference of Critical Geography, Session 2 Geographical concepts in action, City of Mexico, 2005.

Dr. Stavros Stavrides is associate professor at the School of Architecture, National Technical University of Athens Greece, where he teaches a graduate course on social housing, as well as a postgraduate course on the meaning of metropolitan experience. He has published five books (as well as numerous articles) on spatial theory:
The Symbolic Relation to Space (Athens, 1990), Advertising and the Meaning of Space (Athens, 1996), The Texture of Things (Athens, 1996), From the City-as-Screen to the City-as-Stage (Athens, 2002 National Book Award), Suspended Spaces of Alterity (2010) and Towards the City of Thresholds (In English, 2010).

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Horizontal Democracy Now: From Alterglobalization to Occupation1


When the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in Madrid on 15 May 2011 began to occupy public squares across Spain, social movement networks well beyond Spain took notice. In no time I was receiving emails, text messages and facebook invites telling me that I should go to the Damrak in Amsterdam to “Take the Square!” in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands who had taken so many of their local squares across Spain. My email inbox was overflowing with emails about what was alternatingly being called the #spanishrevolution, the Real Democracy Now movement, the Indignant/Outraged movement, the take-the-square movement and the 15 May movement. Within days there were squares being (temporarily) occupied all over Europe, and within six months, there were occupations all over the world, culminating in 951 occupations in 82 different countries on 15 October 2011.2

Officially the protests were linked to the upcoming Spanish elections which were scheduled for 22 May 2011, but the 15 May movement continued under the slogan “we are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians.” Faced with governments that defended finance and banks at the literal expense of the people, many people stood up and demanded, “a real democracy, a democracy no longer tailored to the greed of the few, but to the needs of the people” (Rodríguez and Herreros 2011). For some participants these political statements are part of an anti-capitalist agenda, but for many, they are primarily an expression of outrage about the way contemporary political and economic structures make input into decision-making on the part of those most affected by economic and political decisions impossible.

In this context of heightened distrust for both economic and political institutions, the 15 May movement set about creating more inclusive models of political decision-making. This model of decision-making is based on a set of principles that pre-date the rise of the 15 May movement and in this article I argue that in order to understand the significance of these political practices, we have to place these practices not only within the historical context of each town, city or country where these practices have emerged, but also within the historical trajectory of experiments with participatory democracy and horizontal decision-making in social movement networks internationally. In what follows I therefore contextualize my findings not in relation to a deep insider knowledge of the ins and outs of the 15 May movement, but rather in relation to my deep knowledge of horizontal decision-making within social movements over the past ten years. It is my hope that this ‘insider’-perspective-from-elsewhere will nevertheless shed some light on the political importance of the 15 May movement for the history and evolution of horizontal decision-making.

This article therefore first sketches a brief, and necessarily partial, historical context for horizontal decision-making and then examines two different decision-making procedures enacted during the height of the 15 May movement in Barcelona to show how these procedures are remarkably similar to the procedures practiced by the alterglobalization movement over the past ten years. Many activists and several scholars have already demonstrated that there are important continuities and discontinuities between the alterglobalization movement and the 15 May movement or the Occupy movement more generally (see Anonyous 2012, Graeber 2011, Klein 2011, Razsa 2012, Reyes 2011, Wainwright 2012) with one important continuity being that activists perceive the 15 May and Occupy movements to be in part a response to a crisis of representative democracy (see Razsa 2012).3

In this article I focus on two characteristics of horizontal decision-making that figure centrally in both the alterglobalization movement and the 15 May movement: the pursuit of multiple and open movement goals through decentralization and diversity and the willingness to embrace conflict as a potential source of creativity. Although my intention is to demonstrate continuity, I also explore some of the important innovations introduced into these horizontal decision-making practices through the occupation of public space within the 15 May movement to show how the context in which decision-making is practiced can transform the enactment and the significance of these decision-making procedures. To this end I explore both the ‘grounding’ of these previously disembedded practices in geographical (urban) space and the increased scale of decision-making as circumstances that raise new questions and dilemmas for horizontal decision-making.

In order to make this comparison I draw on decades of social movement organizing and eight years of ethnographic research that focussed specifically on practices of horizontal decision-making in global social movement networks. In 2003 I began doing research into these decision-making practices in order to explore the broader implications of these decision-making mechanisms as a model for decentralized network forms of ‘democracy’ exploring the question of what happens to democracy when it is enacted through a network structure instead of the nation-state (see Maeckelbergh 2009). For years I participated in hundreds of planning meetings for the mobilizations against the G8 in Evian (2003), Sea Island, GA (2004), Gleneagles (2005), part of the planning process for the anti-G8 in Heiligendamm (2007), and Lake Toya (2008). I also helped organize parts of the European Social Forum in Paris (2003) and London (2004) as well as the World Social Forum in Mumbai (2004). The information about the 15 May movement presented here is drawn from meetings I attended in the Plaça Catalunya at the height of the uprisings, a follow up visit in November 2011 as well as interviews and informal discussions with long-time activists in Barcelona. These visits and conversations were buttressed with the many email discussions, statements issued, twitter feeds, facebook updates, blog entries, websites, and videos that were continuously appearing online.

From day one I was working with activists I have known for years from the alterglobalization movement who are now active in the 15 May movement. I instantly found myself in the middle of discussion after discussion about horizontal decision-making, life in the acampada, and politics in general with both people who had been in the square from the start and with other people, like myself, who had just turned up from abroad. In addition to the friends I had arranged to meet, I kept running into people I had known for years; people who I had met at mobilizations against the G8 or other actions in other countries, contexts and time-zones.

This article also draws somewhat more implicitly on research done as part of a film project on social movement responses to the economic crisis (see www.globaluprisings.org). In 2011 this film project brought me to various cities including Athens (May 2011), New York (July-August 2011 and December 2011-January 2012), London (October and November 2011), Cairo (December 2011) and Oakland (January 2012). In most cases these trips included attendance at general assemblies and lengthy discussions with those attending the assemblies about how the assemblies are structured, why they are structured that way, what works well and what works less well, as part of a collaborative attempt to improve these decision-making processes.

Although there are many important differences between all these contexts that are beyond the scope of this article, the experiences and conversations I had in all of these places have shaped the way I think about which questions are of central importance in a discussion about horizontal forms of decision-making. This article, therefore draws on these other experiences when making choices about which elements of the meetings in Barcelona to emphasize, in the hope that the discussion here can become a constructive contribution not only to the study of the 15 May movement, but to our understanding of horizontal structures more generally.

The assumption underlying this article is that the more we know about the history of these processes of horizontal decision-making, the better equipped we will be to improve them. In this way we can, when appropriate, draw on lessons learned in the past and come to understand horizontal decision-making today not as an entirely new invention, but as part of a much longer political process that is continuously evolving. The current historical juncture has brought about unprecedented opportunities for experimentation with horizontal decision-making and decentralized forms of democratic governance, and as such it seems an apt moment to reflect on the politics of these procedures as part of an attempt to remain open to the new lessons as we learn them.


A very brief history of horizontal decision-making

Although the alterglobalization is the immediate historical predecessor to the 15 May movement and the Occupy movements in terms of the organizational structure of horizontal decision-making, neither the alterglobalization movement nor the 15 May movement can be credited with ‘inventing’ horizontal decision-making. Although it is impossible to trace the exact way in which movement practices diffuse from one place and time to another, what we can say is that the thousands of people in the square in Madrid or in Barcelona who were waving their hands in the air, ‘twinkling’ in agreement, were not the first to use this hand signal within social movement praxis as a signifier for agreement, nor were they the first to attempt to create inclusive and participatory structures and procedures for democratic decision-making on a large scale based on principles of ‘horizontality’.

Two key practices that seem to be defining of the current historical moment actually have a long history: 1. the refusal of singular demands, ideologies, or programmes for social change (linked to the movement terms ‘diversity’ and ‘horizontality’), and 2. the idea that the political practices the movement itself develops are part and parcel of the movement’s aims (prefiguration). These two political assumptions became quite prevalent during the 1960s and have been growing more central to social movement praxis ever since. The New Left was characterised by a rejection of unitary programmes for revolutionary change and pursued instead notions of participatory democracy as a way to embody multiple movement goals (Gassert 2007, Horn 2007, Miller 2004, Polletta 2002, Klimke and Scharloth 2008). This merger of the pursuit of multiple goals with practices of participatory democracy has undergone many mutations over the past fifty years, as have the decision-making practices that grew out of these ideals: from the New Left in the 1960s to feminist movements, anti-nuclear and peace movements in the 1970s and 1980s, to environmental and Do-it-Yourself movements in the 1980s and 1990s all the way through to the alterglobalization movement at the turn of the century (see Maeckelbergh 2011a).4

Although horizontality only became a key movement concept in the first few years of the twenty-first century, the idea of non-hierarchical social and political organization far predates the use of the term horizontality.5 In the case of the alterglobalization movement, horizontality refers to the active creation of nonhierarchical relations through decision-making processes. Horizontality is both a value and a practice. Rather than assuming that equality can be declared or created through a centralized authority that is legitimated to rule by ‘the people’, movement practices of horizontality rest on the assumption that inequality will always permeate every social interaction. This shift in assumptions results in an acknowledgement that these inequalities always exist and that each person is responsible for continuously challenging these inequalities at every step of a decision-making process.

The importance of horizontality, especially within the autonomous strands of the alterglobalization movement, is directly linked to movement actors’ assumption of a prefigurative strategy for social change (see Maeckelbergh 2011b). Many alterglobalization movement actors rejected the notion that social change would be possible by seizing power at some future moment after which an egalitarian social structure would be instituted (see Nunes 2005). Instead, social change was often spoken of as far more likely to stem from a process of setting up alternative democratic structures to take the place of the existing political structures of nation-state based representative democracy.

With the rise of the 15 May movement, many more people are involved in these decision-making practices than during the alterglobalization movement, and consequently many of these political values have become blurred and the political structures are entering into a new phase of transformation. The structures being used to run the meetings I witnessed in Barcelona, however, are the legacy of this long and winding history and in the sections that follow I explore the acampadaBCN, the inter-barrio meeting and the general assembly in detail with some of this history in mind.


Acampada BCN: spatial continuities 

It was early morning when I first arrived at Plaça Catalunya in central Barcelona. I intentionally made the square my first stop, but when I arrived, the camp was still sleeping. Contrary to what I had seen on the internet and heard from friends, the square seemed pretty empty. There were a few people sleeping in the middle, but otherwise those sleeping in the camp were mostly off to the sides in the grassy areas and impressively, up in the trees. Despite the empty core, the square was extraordinary. All around the outsides of the inner square (which was more of a circle really), there were information stands – exactly the types of stands you find at an anti-G8 camp: a medical/first aid stand, a kitchen, legal support, a media centre, a women’s space, a ‘serenity’ space for meditation, message, relaxation, etc. On the opposite side of the square there was a library with radical books and comfy chairs to sit in. All in all, then, the square mimicked almost exactly the infrastructure that is usually set up during the temporary camps that accompany large-scale mobilizations against the G8/G20.

Picture 3

In addition to these, for me, familiar sights, there was a stand that provided raw materials for people who wanted to build their own living structures or meeting spaces, there was a drop box for sleeping bags and mats so that anyone who wanted to could stay the night in the square and there was a community garden where the tomatoes that had been planted two weeks earlier appeared to be ripe and ready to eat. At the main entrance into the square there was a large wooden structure that was labelled “acampadaBCN” that served as the general information stand for outreach to the public. At the other end of the square was the little platform that served as a type of stage from which people could address the general assembly and the many other meetings that would be held in the square that night and every night.

Picture 4

These differences, although few, were significant. Since the square was meant as an occupation, the goal was to stay as long as possible. During anti-summit mobilizations, the goal is to stay only a few weeks at the most. The supplies for building lasting structures as well as gardens growing vegetables were a sign of the intent to stay, to cultivate a space for living. There were differences on the level of content as well that exposed this long-term vision. The incorporation of so many local concerns – most notably the problem of housing evictions in Spain for example – showed how the space was being used not just for living but also for the coordination of ongoing long-term campaigns.

Finally, probably the most striking and politically important difference was the openness of the space. This is an innovation that was introduced by the occupation of public squares and parks. In order to understand the significance of the introduction of the tactic of occupation of public space it is worthwhile comparing it with how the camps during the alterglobalization movement were organized. The occupation of public squares is different in at least three ways: first, the space is often being occupied (semi-)illegally; second, the space is in the middle of an urban centre; and third, the people within the space are welcoming to strangers, curious people, cameras, etc.

The camps during the alterglobalization movement, although they looked very similar in terms of infrastructure, were much less welcoming. They were often on a big piece of land outside of the city centre – with the result that mostly only people who intended to camp there ever came there (plus a few curious locals). Although technically anyone could come and stay there, the camp was meant only for people who were in the area for the purposes of protesting the G8 (or whichever summit). This was not always said explicitly, but the whole point of the camp was to provide space for people to sleep and to plan actions. Especially the latter made it a much more ‘closed’ environment. Activists were often planning illegal activities, had often experienced repression in the past and were therefore wary of being ‘seen’ – of being recognizable. Cameras of any sort were considered dangerous by many and meetings would spend hours discussing the fact that no pictures could be taken of anyone anywhere in the camp without explicit permission.

In strong contrast, the Plaça Catalunya was always full of people filming and taking pictures, sometimes even with live streaming. There was no need for me to commit to taking action in order to participate in the camp, nor was there even any need for me to know what the square occupation was about; I could just walk in and ask. Also, the political topics that defined the occupation of the square were topics for which the target audience was perceived of as much larger, as all the people in the city, country, world and not just those that came to ‘protest’. In the case of Barcelona these topics included Health, Education and Housing – three political issues that effect everyone in the city and part of the aim of the occupation was to have a place where anyone could come to learn about these issues and to take part in the general assembly decision-making process and the struggle to change the way these issues were decided upon.

For many of us who were veterans of the anti-summit camps, the acampada in Barcelona had a strikingly open atmosphere where people who wandered in off the street felt welcome. And for all its flaws, and of course it had flaws, I can confidently say that in over 20 years of political engagement I had never seen anything like it before. And if innovation is essential to social movement organizing, which I believe it is, then at least this was a clear example of innovation.

But the innovation was not only in the spatial organization of the square, although this was important; the real innovation came in the combination of occupation of public space with the meeting structures and assemblies. The meetings were the movement’s way to embody their own demands and the physical geography of the public and open space meant that the meetings intended as an embodiment of a ‘real’ democratic process were open to far more people than similar meetings within the alterglobalization movement had ever been. This new-found openness was not without its exclusions and its problems (see Anonymous 2012 for an important critique), and the activists involved are the first to identify these limits, but if we can forgive these processes for not being perfect, we can perhaps identify some of the important innovations that are at the very least an improvement on representative democracy as it functions today.


The inter-barrio meeting: decentralized diversity

The initial emptiness that I encountered in the early morning at the square was hard to imagine when I returned at noon. By then the square was swarming with people and there were activities going on in every corner and at every stand – it seemed every inch of the square was enthralled in activity. And this, everyone told me, was nothing compared to what it had been a week earlier. I couldn’t imagine, it was already almost too much to wrap my head around. The Barcelona-based activists I was with laughed at me when they saw the look of surprise on my face at the sheer number of people. When I told them that the square was almost empty earlier, one replied with the humorous comment, “well, yes, the revolution will not be in the morning”.

We had come to the square to take part in the Catalonia-wide inter-barrio assembly that was planned for twelve noon. It was clear to me from the very start of this meeting that I was witnessing a democratic potential that I had imagined many times during my research into decision-making within global movement networks, but which I never really expected to see with my own eyes. It was a geographically-based, decentralized network of inclusive decision-making. I had seen this model of decentralized decision-making put into practice for years within the alterglobalization movement, but in those cases, the ‘barrios’ in the inter-barrio meetings, were artificial – they didn’t exist – they were created within the geography of the temporary anti-summit campsite just for the purpose of decision-making. I’ll explain the importance of this distinction below, but first I need to describe how this decentralized inter-barrio assembly was structured so that the significance of the similarities and differences will be evident.


The meeting structure

The meeting began with a woman on the small podium at one end of the square who took the microphone and started calling for people to gather around. A few hundred people came and sat down on the ground in front of the podium and the rest (probably more than a thousand in total) stood behind them all in a semi-circle. Some people had come prepared, holding a small hand-made sign with the name of their town, province or region written on it. For those who had not come with their own sign, the facilitators (by now there were three people up on the podium) had prepared printed signs for many of the towns and regions within Catalonia. The facilitator on the podium would then call out the names of the different regions or cities and pass the paper to someone from that region or point out someone in the crowd who already had a sign for that city/region. As she did this, the crowd reorganized itself into the different regions and cities/towns. As people joined up with other people from their area, they would go off to the side, out of the centre of the square, to discuss. In this way, the larger meeting of over a thousand people, split into a series of smaller meetings of twenty to a hundred, or in the case of the “Barcelona” barrio, a couple hundred people.

My friends and I went to the Barcelona-barrio meeting. The agenda for this meeting consisted of report backs from each of the different barrios within the Barcelona “barrio”, of which there were many. The report backs were about all of the assemblies and actions that had taken place in each barrio of Barcelona over the past week and any concerns they had or lessons they learned. The second half of the meeting was focussed on the future – on which actions they should coordinate with each other on a Barcelona-wide scale for the next week. Several action days had already been identified before hand, so the discussion was rather structured and involved mostly questions of when and where the actions should take place and fewer questions about which actions to take.6

Picture 5

This barrio-meeting had two facilitators, one man and one woman, who kept track of all the lessons learned, the concerns raised, and the actions planned for the next week. After all the groups had given their report back, the facilitators briefly summarized a compiled list of actions, past and future, and checked for consensus on action plans for the future. They checked for consensus by first summarizing what the plan was, then asking if anyone had any comments, suggestions or concerns, if someone did they let that person speak and then incorporated the concern or suggestion into the proposal, and checked for consensus again. In the case of these actions, there was very little disagreement and the process went smoothly.

After about two hours of updates and action planning in the smaller barrio meetings, all the barrios regrouped in the centre of the square and began a feedback session between the barrio-level discussions. One or two people from each group summarized briefly for everyone else what had been done in their region/city/town over the last week and what they were planning for the next week. This meeting structure made it possible for people from other regions to know all the highlights of what was going on in each of the many barrios/regions of Catalonia without having to be present at each of the two-hour discussions. Consequently, everyone was able to focus on what needed to be done in their own area without becoming ignorant of what was going on elsewhere. This made it possible to exchange far more information and be much more effective in planning actions than it would have been if everyone in the group would have had to listen to every update and every action idea.


Inter-barrio meetings from alterglobalization to Plaça Catalunya

This basic meeting structure from large group to small group to large group is exactly the idealized meeting format within the meetings for the anti-summit mobilization of the alterglobalization movement. For years, whenever activists within the alterglobalization movement would talk about how they envisioned their decision-making system should work and what made it a better alternative to systems of representative democracy, they would mention small-group-to-large-group, network-based decision-making as a way to allow everyone to be included at the local level in decisions being taken at the national or international level (see Maeckelbergh 2009).

The most obvious legacy of the alterglobalization movement, aside from the use of facilitators, the circular seating pattern, the report-back structure, reaching consensus through a process of taking proposals from different groups and the making amendments to proposals through collaborative discussion (see the next section for more on this), was the use of hand signals to facilitate discussion. This linguistic practice was developed during the 1970s within feminist, peace and anti-nuclear movements (especially in the Anglo-Saxon world) and carried on at a smaller scale during the 1980s within environmental and Do-it-Yourself movements, especially within the more autonomous or anarchist strands of these movements, but the movement that most recently brought these practices into the mainstream political practice of social movement networks across Europe was the alterglobalization movement. When I stood there at this meeting of thousands of people, together with fellow veterans of the alterglobalization movement, I couldn’t help but remark to them, “remember when we thought these hand signals were what made us marginal freaks? Now everyone is using them and they don’t seem to think it is alienating at all!”

The use of hand signals in the case of this meeting also signified something of how these decision-making practices were learned by participants. We were three weeks into the 15 May movement and at this meeting; the hand signals were never explained. It wasn’t until I attended the general assembly the next day that I saw the hand signals explained. At the inter-barrio meeting, the hand signals were just used, but they were not used by everyone. Instead there was a mixture of hand signal use and non-use that created a type of embodied learning. Rather than some veteran of the alterglobalization movement explaining to participants how and why these hand signals were used, the meaning and value of the hand signals became clear through practice. Whenever people would agree with a statement made, most people would raise their two hands in the air and ‘twinkle’ their fingers in agreement. While most people would twinkle, the rest of the people would clap. This partial clapping meant that as the meeting progressed, the meaning of finger twinkling as being synonymous with agreement (normally expressed through clapping) was obvious.

Picture 8

After ten years of ethnography into the alterglobalization movement, I had never before seen this decision-making method performed so perfectly. At most of the campsites set up to house people during an anti-summit mobilization, the campsite is artificially divided into separate ‘barrios’, and the inter-barrio meeting (which is what it was often called) would consist of people representing ‘barrios’ that they only moved into the day before. The barrios that made up the inter-barrio meeting were barrios that consisted of people who just happened to pitch their tent in that part of the campsite (or groups of people who travelled together form elsewhere). Wherever you ended up pitching your tent, therefore, would become your most direct line of intervention into the political process of the camp. At the time, this meeting structure was certainly one of the most effective ways to ensure democratic participation for everyone living in the camp. Each person could attend their morning barrio meeting and have a direct line of influence into camp-wide decision-making without having to attend a whole days worth of meetings.

But after watching the meeting in Barcelona unfold in front of me, I was struck by how superficial these temporary anti-summit barrios had always been. The people who were at the Barcelona barrio meeting were people who live in Barcelona, who have long-standing relationships with the other people in their neighbourhood and who have jobs, networks, skills, resources at their fingertips. Everything did not have to be invented from scratch as it often needs to be during an anti-summit mobilization where people just turn up from all over the world with a backpack and a tent.


Grounded decentralization

The fact that the meeting was taking place in the middle of the day in a city centre and that people had come to the square from their homes just for the meeting transformed the dynamic. Usually at anti-summit campsites, the only people in attendance are the ones who are capable of spending a week or more in a tent. The Barcelona-barrio meeting, on the other hand, was attended by people of all ages and physical conditions. Some of the older or less-able participants were given chairs to sit on while others stood around the outside and the more physically flexible sat on the ground so that the meeting was structured in concentric circles going outwards from those sitting on the ground, to those in chairs, to those standing. This concentric circle formation is also an important political statement that mimicked the alterglobalization movement practices (and several movements before it). People faced each other, listened to one another and did not privilege the role of facilitator or speaker above the role of participant.

This meeting structure made the inter-barrio meetings both inclusive and efficient. In just a few hours updates had been exchanged for the entire region so that people could gain inspiration and concrete lessons from each other and a whole week of “coordinated actions” had been planned. In the ten years that I have been following this type of decentralized decision-making, I had rarely seen it function so effectively. Part of this efficiency seemed to stem from the fact that people came to these meetings prepared. The inter-barrio meeting was not the site where people discussed all the details of political action and tactics, these discussions were held at the barrio-level. The basic meeting structure that the alterglobalization movement had been trying to achieve for over ten years was being enacted right in front of my eyes in this occupied square. In the context of anti-summit mobilizations the official plan often required that all the local groups should discuss the meeting agenda before the national or international meeting and come to the meeting prepared with local updates and action proposals, but rarely had I seen this actually materialize.

This improvement on decision-making since the alterglobalization movement has everything to do with the fact that in Barcelona, the ‘barrios’ were not temporarily created arbitrary zones and the people coming from these barrios were not brought together by affiliation to some group that had to be actively held together through meeting coordination. The neighbourhoods were real, they had histories, pre-existing social relationships, infrastructures, common points of reference, a physical architecture that made it easy for people to find each other – most importantly the neighbourhood square where people could find each other. This was in effect a decentralization of the “occupation” tactic from the Plaça Catalunya to many neighbourhood squares and it was essential for grounding the 15 May movement in the everyday lives of people living in Barcelona. It was also explained to me as the source of sustainability for the movement in the hopes that if people could get involved in the movement in their own neighbourhood and collectively address the issues they face everyday, then the movement would have a stronger and long-lasting base.

The specific history of Spanish social movements and prefigurative politics in Spain and of neighbourhood organizing in Barcelona become important factors here. This inter-barrio structure would probably not have worked so smoothly in other cities or places in the world. Although I do not know how many of the people involved in this inter-barrio meeting were active before the 15 May movement, when I returned to Barcelona six moths later, the barrios that were the most active were ones that had a history of political organizing or at least had inhabitants who were politically active prior to the 15 May movement. When I was in New York in December 2011 and January 2012 there were similar attempts by those involved in Occupy Wall Street to create neighbourhood assemblies, but at that time only a few of these were taking root. 


From encuentros to decentralized horizontal decision-making

For people who are familiar with the alterglobalization movement and its history, the description above might ring some bells for being incredibly similar to the encuentro structure of the Zapatistas that has functioned as an inspiration for movement organizing since the mid-1990s. Encuentros are large participatory meetings that are aimed not at making universally binding decisions, but at creating and facilitating networks of communication and resistance to help people organize against neoliberal globalization.

The People’s Global Action (PGA) network was born out of the second encuentro held in Spain in 1997. PGA was one of the first international network-based movement structures to organize Global Action Days against, among others, the WTO in Seattle in 1999. For the more horizontally inclined activists within the alterglobalization movement, the PGA hallmarks and the PGS process played an important role in creating and expanding practices of horizontal decision-making. As one participant at the second encuentro put it:

In spite of vastly different contexts, we discovered that our struggles are increasingly similar in every part of the global empire, and that a new, horizontal form of solidarity is emerging (Style 2002).

The PGA hallmarks served as a very vague (and thus not too restrictive) common ground within the highly disparate and diverse alterglobalization movement. If there is a birth place at all for ‘horizontal decision-making’ as a key international social movement practice, then it might be in the encuentros of the Zapatistas. These practices merged with movement experiments with participatory democracy in Europe and the US and before long they became the guiding principles of the anti-summit mobilizations and to a lesser degree the European Social Forums. Now, it would seem these decision-making practices have become the guiding principles within the 15 May movement, at least for the inter-barrio meetings.

Chesters and Welsh (2005: 195) argue that the encuentro is a meeting structure based on “the concept of creating a global ‘mirror and lens’ (collective recognition and focus) for antagonistic movements” and that “[t]his process enabled activists to ‘bridge worlds’ through the deliberate construction of spaces wherein links between diverse movements could be made.” This meeting practice of the ‘encounter’ was applied differently each time it was enacted, but  despite, or perhaps because of this malleability, it has had a strong influence on the alterglobalization movement over the past ten years.

What the alterglobalization movement learned, however, through years of practice with this type of meeting ethos, was that the types of links that are made is of crucial importance. The links that were most valued within the alterglobalization movement were the links that brought people into, “new spaces, meet new situations, establish different relations” (Nunes 2005) and links that had a transforming capacity – an ability to help each actor to see with the eyes of the other actors, a process sometimes referred to by activists as ‘reciprocal contamination’ (de Angelis 2003).

With a heightened awareness of the importance of how and what kinds of links were being made, the alterglobalization movement developed an embodied understanding of how conflict functions and at times dysfunctions within horizontal decision-making. Chesters (2004) argues that encuentro always:

implies a degree of friction and confrontation. Which can energise or debilitate depending upon how it proceeds. Such friction is often a necessary part of movements traversing problems and oppositions and provoking intensities that leap the gap separating the potential from the actual.

If friction can be either debilitating or energising, then the important question that emerges is under which circumstances does it become debilitating and how can we help to enhance the role of conflict as energising?


The general assembly: incorporating conflict

The next evening, there was a large general assembly in the Plaça Catalunya. The meeting began with an introduction to the process of the meeting. The details of how the meeting would be organized began with the announcement that there would be translation into Urdu, Arabic and Sign Language. Then the facilitator, a women who was stood on the podium at the front of the thousands-strong crowd, introduced the process of the meeting and the different roles that the facilitation group would be playing – including her role as facilitator and the others who were in the crowd who would go around and count the hands when something needed to be voted on. Then the hand signals were explained. First, the hand signal for agreement: two hands in the air and fingers ‘twinkling’. Then she explained the hand signal for blocking a decision which is making an X with both forearms up in the air; the hand signal for “speed it up”: two fists rolling over each other in a circular motion; and the hand signal for sexist language or behaviour – banging two fists together with your arms raised in the air (to be used whenever someone speaks with or exhibits sexist or racist behaviour). These hand signals were almost identical to the hand signals used within the alterglobalization movement as was the practice of explaining how horizontal decision-making works at the start of the meeting to make sure everyone knows what the meeting procedures are.

In the case of the acampadaBCN, however, the situation was considerably more difficult. First, there were far more people than I had ever seen at an everyday planning meeting in the alterglobalization movement and because the space was open, people kept arriving throughout the meeting, which meant that many people did not hear the ‘instructions’ or understand what was going on. When I spoke to one of the facilitators later, he expressed exhaustion about the general lack of familiarity with decision-making mechanisms:

So people were arriving, because it is obviously in the street, people were arriving in the middle of the meeting and they would understand that there is someone telling them ‘you vote.’ And they were wondering who is this person, they didn’t know that there is this figure of the facilitator. So you have start from the very beginning, stop the meetings and say, look this is a facilitation, this is the third or fourth time I am explaining today. Because there is no facilitation culture at all in Spain. Even among activists. Now that has changed a bit.

This lack of ‘facilitation culture’ in Spain is hard to imagine in the aftermath of the 15 May movement and in the case of this particular general assembly, at least the introduction of facilitation was going very smoothly: after explaining the hand signals, the facilitator then went on to explain that there would be two parts to the meeting. The first part would be the organized part, meaning that there were a series of proposals that had already been developed within the different working groups that needed to be discussed by the general assembly. The agenda for this part of the meeting was relatively fixed. The second half of the meeting would be an open part in which anyone could take the microphone and add their item to the agenda for discussion. The facilitator then requested one more time that people please use the hand signals to express agreement or disagreement because cheering, booing, or clapping creates an atmosphere that can impact the way decisions are made.

The first item on the organized part of the agenda was a proposal to support a statement for the self-determination of Catalonia and other regions that do not want to be a part of Spain. I had earlier noticed that there were surprisingly few Catalonian flags in the square – previously a common sight at mass mobilizations in Barcelona. When I enquired about the lack of flags, I was told that the assembly had voted against having flags of any nation, union or political party in the square. Now there was a proposal on the table to support a declaration. This proposal, I was told, had already gone through several general assemblies, but never passed. It had already been changed from support for self-determination for Catalonia to include also self-determination for other regions of Spain, but the assembly on this day was still not keen on approving the statement.

The statement was read out loud from the podium and almost immediately arms raised in the air, many in agreement, but also many in disagreement, with Xs raising all around me. First, the facilitator asked two people for and two people against the proposal to come up and make their case. The main concerns with the statement seemed to be that it was too focussed on Catalonia and that there are people all over the world who need support for their independence and self-determination in a non-nationalistic framework. These concerns were incorporated into the wording of the statement, but disagreement continued. After the four interventions, the facilitator explained that if there were more than 40 people who had their forearms crossed in an X to block the proposal (which there were – many more), then the proposal is supposed to go back to the working group for further discussion. Those who opposed the proposal were supposed to join the working group meeting in order to help improve the statement until it took the concerns of the blockers into account.


Incorporating conflict, fostering diversity and rejecting uniformity

At this point I was astonished to see how similar, into the details, these meetings were to the hundreds of meetings I had taken part in over the past ten years within the alterglobalization movement. Not only were the hand signals and the basic notions of participation and horizontality the same in the acampada as they were in the anti-summit mobilizations, but it seems even the process for dealing with conflict was the same. This is an important point because one of the key innovations within the decision-making of the alterglobalization movement is this particular approach to conflict. In the alterglobalization movement conflict is not avoided, but embraced, because it is believed to be necessary and even beneficial to fostering diversity:

If Fora [Social Forums] will be capable of expressing the diversity of the movement(s) they say to bring together and serve as a public arena, it’ll be because of their capacity to incorporate conflict, not to subsume it under a semblance of forced consensus (Nunes 2004: 8). 

Allowing diversity to flourish, in turn, is thought to be necessary for the development of a truly democratic politics.7 As the Horizontals (2003) statement issued in the run-up to the 2004 European Social Forum concludes, “diversity is healthy and necessary, as no political process however inclusive can lay claim to represent the totality of social movements and alternatives.” It was widely believed that if the types of people that can be involved is restricted, or if the types of ideas that can be expressed are limited, due to an over-emphasis on a singularity of purpose, then the political space closes off to all those who have conflicting beliefs or identities:

The issue is no longer to express a common way of struggle, nor a unified picture or one-dimensional solidarity, neither an ostentatious unity nor a secretly unifying sub-culture, but the profound understanding and the absolute will, to recognise the internal differences and create flexible groups, where different approaches connect with each other reasonably and for mutual benefit (Lang and Schneider 2003).

A truly inclusive democratic process therefore is one that remains open to new people, new ideas, and new aims.8 This inclusion of diversity and opposing beliefs leads to conflict, but this conflict is not viewed negatively, instead it is considered to be one of the ways in which creative new solutions to problems and better political analyses (better in the sense that it better represents the diverse needs of the people) are developed.

Picture 9

Despite these similarities, there were some important differences too. First, the idea of trying to reach consensus about a statement is something that within the more autonomous strands of the alterglobalization movement would (probably) be quickly identified as a trap that will lead only into deterioration and endless discussion about specific wordings. Within the alterglobalization movement, I often heard people point out that it is rarely possible, and almost never necessary, for a whole large group of people to all agree to support a single statement. When declarations or statements were issued by certain groups within the alterglobalization movement, it was usually done in the name of the smaller group and not in the name of the movement as a whole. One common solution to the “we need a statement” problem within the alterglobalization movement was to issue statements on behalf of a given meeting, for example, ‘statement of the meeting of 25 May’. In this way the group avoided speaking on behalf of anyone who was not present and who did not get the chance to have input into the statement.


From networks to neighbourhoods: resisting uniformity

Employing this tactic was made more complicated in Barcelona, however, because of geography. The alterglobalization movement was a diffuse network with no beginning and no end and consequently there was no sense of “one group” of thousands of people – there was no movement as a whole. Although there is only a vague sense of nationhood or city-hood at the acampadaBCN there was still an apparent belief in the need to decide all together about nearly everything. What the inter-barrio meeting had shown, that most decisions can be taken at the barrio level and merely communicated at the inter-barrio level – creating a sense of autonomy between interconnected neighbourhoods – was being somewhat undermined by the general assembly format. The general assembly was being treated as the “highest authority” in the decision-making system of the acampada and this meant for many people that no decisions could be approved without going through the general assembly first.

Many of the people camping in the square pointed out to me that this had an unintended stifling effect on the creativity and autonomy of the movement, leaving people feeling as though their actions had to be “approved” by the general assembly before they could do anything. Given the lack of time and the complex set of structures that determined which proposals made it to the general assembly and which did not, for many people it was not an option to bring their action plans to the general assembly for approval. For the people I spoke with most frequently, this very idea that they should need approval from some centralized authority was a problem in and of itself.9

In the case of the Barcelona meeting, bringing the statement to the general assembly, although possibly unnecessary (it is of course hard to know what would have happened if the statement were not brought to the assembly), helped to transform the statement to better represent the positions and beliefs of a wider group of people, even though it never managed to fully incorporate the positions of everyone. In this case the general assembly proved useful for the improvement of proposals so that they better represented a diversity of interests, but in this case there was little chance that the proposal would ever be acceptable to everyone. Given the sheer numbers of people present at the meeting and the meeting format which was geared towards unanimity, requiring an overwhelming majority to pass a proposal, without any structure for granting autonomy to those who want to issue statements or carry out actions without the explicit agreement of everyone else, it was impossible to either pass or reject the proposal without violating the procedures of the meeting.

Apparently, in this case, those who opposed the statement had not attended the working group meetings where the proposal was being written and therefore did not make use of the avenues of input available to them. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the very well-structured conflict-embracing general assembly ended up violating its own principles in order to pass this proposal. The very tired facilitator first concluded that there was clearly no consensus, so we would need to talk about it again later, but then after a bit more discussion she decided to simply approve the proposal even though a bit less than half the hands counted (hundreds of people) were opposed to the proposal. When she passed the proposal, the crowd got upset and she simply said, “You fix the methodology if you don’t like it. We’ve been talking about this text for three weeks.” This was an expression of exhaustion and in a sense, she was admitting defeat, that there was no way for this proposal to ever satisfy everyone, and it was taking up much needed time to discuss other matters, so she just passed the proposal on a majority rule principle and moved on to the next item on the agenda.

On the surface this looked like a failure of the decision-making structures, which clearly reject the principle of majority rule on the grounds that it always necessary excludes minority opinions. It would be unrealistic and unfair to expect these meeting structures to work perfectly all the time and to expect the facilitator to be able to come up with a clever solution on the spot with thousands of people there just waiting to pass judgement on the decision and the process. Nevertheless, this example raises important questions about how to keep decision-making horizontal and inclusive when dealing with topics about which people will never agree. In this case, those who wanted to have input into the statement had already had three weeks to give their input, they had a clearly identified (by the facilitator) channel through which to provide that input, and when they did not did take advantage of this channel, their block was negated.

Within the alterglobalization movement the principle was that people could not just block decisions for no reason. One common definition for a block was that people could only block decisions when the decisions went against their most deeply held beliefs or the beliefs of the group as a whole (if the group had such shared beliefs). In practice this meant that people could ‘stand aside’ instead of blocking – choose to not take part in an action or not sign a statement or issue their own statement. Less frequently, when it was something really important to them they would be given the chance to have direct input into transforming the proposal together with those who originally drafted the proposal. A block was therefore only recognized as such when someone was willing to engage with the process.

In the square in Barcelona though, there were so many people and so many blockers that the proposal probably should not have passed, but on the other hand, it is easy to block something just because you don’t like it and that is a scenario that should be avoided because people will always disagree and agreement cannot work as the guiding principle of horizontal processes. If a proposal seriously violates the most important values of those involved then it should not pass, but then the question of how to establish the ‘seriousness’ of a block has always been a difficult one. One way to assess this could certainly be whether those blocking are willing to do the work required to help reshape the proposal, and if they are not, then this might be a good indication that the block they are expressing is not ‘serious’ enough to impede the passing of the proposal.

However, while this approach might have been a useful one for the alterglobalization movement, this ‘solution’ is confounded in the larger more diffuse movements such as the 15 May movement because the people in attendance at these assemblies are not only different people every day, but also different people at the start of the meeting and at the end of the meeting due to the coming and going made possible by the open square. Under these circumstances, giving one or two people the chance to input their criticism into a proposal is not enough to satisfy the people who just arrived, not to mention all the people who do not follow the assembly process closely.

Although the acampada was disbanded soon after this meeting and much bigger problems quickly presented themselves, the principles that this example highlights are crucial. When should decisions be taken to a general assembly? What kinds of decisions should be taken at a general assembly and, especially, which ones should not be brought to the assembly? Should the assembly be a decision-making body at all or a rather space for collaboration and communication as in the inter-barrio structure? If it is to be a decision-making space, then what are the procedures for overriding blocks? What are the procedures for incorporating concerns into proposals? These are questions that have to be answered if the alternative democratic process that the 15 May movement is developing is to become a viable and more inclusive alternative to existing systems of democratic governance.



It is my feeling that the only real way these questions will be answered is through praxis. An article can perhaps highlight implicit values, explain practices and draw on historical examples as comparison, but the circumstances have changed since the alterglobalization movement and solutions to current dilemma’s will likely have to be found through what Sturgeon (1995: 36) calls ‘direct theory’: theory developed through action.

When I first began to analyse the theory of democracy that underlies global social movement networks, one of the key limitations for which I had trouble finding a solution in the practices of the movement, was the idea that in order to embrace conflict, which is necessary for horizontality, and in order to create real equality and not just an officially ‘declared’ equality between ‘the people’, then time and space needed to be divisible – in other words, geography cannot be fixed. This was a working solution for many situations that the alterglobalization movement faced partially because it was a global disembedded network structure that travelled across time and space. If you had three groups who all wanted to protest the G8, but they could not agree on a common mode of action, then you divided up time and space. If the location was very important (for example if everyone wanted to hold their protest at the conference centre where the G8 was meeting) then you divide the time – one group does Monday, the other Tuesday, or one group goes in the morning the other in the afternoon. If, on the other hand, the timing was very important (everyone wants to take action right before the opening of the summit meetings) then you divide the space – those who want to hold a march follow the a given route through the city centre, those who want to smash windows go to the main shopping street, and those who want to blockade the delegates from getting in go into the ‘red zone’ around the conference centre. This didn’t work every time, but it became common practice within the alterglobalization movement and meant that the mainstream political parties and the anarchists rarely had to agree on a single course of action.

This system of dividing either time or space worked as a practical solution, but theoretically, it was a serious limitation to the alternative democratic decision-making system they were developing because you cannot divide geography infinitely. If the democratic system were a real governing system, people would live in particular places and need to be satisfied with the decisions taken for their locality and could not just move elsewhere every time they disagreed. The current developments in Spain and occupy movements more generally, are precisely interesting for this reason. They are employing many of the same decision-making structures, but they are doing so in a way that is very grounded in the material reality of neighbourhoods and pre-existing communities that cannot be easily shifted based on the types of decisions taken. People cannot simply realign themselves politically, keeping the wider network intact, as was so often done as a solution to conflict within the alterglobalization movement.

And yet, I was surprised by the results of this grounding in geography. When I witnessed the inter-barrio meeting, based in actual barrios, a curious effect arose that I had not anticipated and which laid many of my concerns to rest. I realised that although space can less easily be divided, time gets much longer – the process becomes more permanent and so the question of time becomes less restrictive. When the ‘barrios’ are real, then the number of decisions that have to be taken together are even fewer than within the alterglobalization movement. The various barrios in an anti-summit camp are by virtue of their presence at the anti-summit mobilization implicated in a common process of opposition. With the barrios in Barcelona, it was relatively easy to reach agreement between the various barrios, and even to incorporate differences because each group had a degree of autonomy from the other groups. Much more so, at least, than within an anti-summit camp where the barrios had this autonomy in principle, but depended on each other for carrying out effective action or for maintaining the running of the camp.

The general assembly structure as developed in the example above has also raised some important lessons learned since the days of the alterglobalization movement. The first is that these assemblies work very well for the exchange of information, ideas and lessons across contexts but perhaps less well as a decision-making body when the tactic of decentralization is not used (the small group to large group structure). Second, they result in far more dynamic proposals because of the meeting structure of preparing the proposal before the meeting, presenting the proposal to the large meeting, and reworking the proposal in the working group meetings and smaller ‘parallel’ meetings. However, although this is an effective way to merge some of the conflicting opinions and needs, it is not a perfect solution and other ways to incorporate conflict might be necessary – perhaps through counter-acting the idea that the general assembly needs to approve people’s actions and promoting instead decentralization so that people can turn to multiple decision-making bodies and even create their own spaces and procedures of decision-making.

Prefiguration as a strategy for social change relies on movement actors (or those involved) to remain open to the idea that goals may shift and may need to be multiple in order to accommodate everyone. The decision-making process itself, therefore, also needs to remain open and fluid. As soon as a coherent and singular political platform becomes the basis of unity, as the alterglobalization movement has learned over the past ten years, the political space closes off to new ideas, new people and new potential structures of democracy. One of the more innovative guiding principles of the alterglobalization movement was that in order to create more inclusive forms of democracy, structures are needed that can incorporate diversity and differences – even incorporate the people who hate meetings. These structures also have to account for the power inequality implicit in any one group of people (even the general assembly) determining for everyone else what the aims should be.

Within the alterglobalization movement this openness was facilitated by the liminality of the process – the temporary coming together of people for a weekend or a few weeks usually in a different location each time combined with an action-oriented focus. This made it much easier for those involved to stay open to new ideas and people because there was so often a new context to be taken into consideration. In other words, the structures developed by the alterglobalization movement were continuous but never permanent.

This liminality, therefore, was also a constraint. Prefiguration relies on the creation of a process that transforms those involved through practice. In other words, social change arises when a collective process is able to transform the way power operates between individuals. This transformation takes time and continuity – people do not change quickly without the use of force. One of the limits to the alterglobalization movement’s strategy was that the continuous process required for prefiguration to work had to be moulded out of a series of disparate events (summit mobilizations and social forums). Without the infrastructure to ground this collective process in the lives of those involved, prefiguration stood little chance of succeeding.

The 15 May movement, however, has added the key innovation of the tactic of occupation, and with it an element of permanence (whether the occupation itself is permanent or not, the organizing continues in a given locality). The 15 May movement, for all its faults, may finally make it possible for this continuous process to be grounded in our everyday lives. If it succeeds in this, as the inter-barrio meeting in Barcelona did, then there is a real chance for the development of democratic decision-making structures in the here-and-now that can replace those that are currently crumbling around us.



1. Many thanks to the blind reviewers, to guest editor Mayo Fuster Morell and to Laurence Cox for taking the time to offer their insightful feedback which greatly improved this article. Thanks especially to the people I met in Barcelona who took the time to talk with me and work with me even though I know they had very little time and energy left after putting so much into creating the acampada and working on their urgent campaigns.
2. More recent accounts estimate around 1,400 occupations worldwide (see Occupy Together, 2012)
3. Even in countries where there may appear to be primarily a rejection of foreign powers (such as the IMF) intervention, the activist responses mimic for a large part those of the alterglobalization movement which rejected international intervention and multi-lateral organizations not in favour of a nationalist agenda, but in the pursuit of a ‘globalization from below’ that was grounded in the creation of new models for participatory democracy and international cooperation that rejected forms of fixed ‘representation’ all together (see Juris 2008, Graeber 2009, Maeckelbergh 2009).
4. Anarchism as a both a political philosophy and a set of political practices was crucial for the development and improvement of non-hierarchical decision-making practices within most of these movements (see Epstein 1991, McKay 1998 ; Franks 2003).
5. I trace the use of the term horizontality within the context of US and European social movements here, but it cannot be separated from at least two essential historical developments outside of Europe and North America. First, the meeting structure of the encuentro popularized by the Zapatistas and secondly the Argentinian uprising in 2001 where horizontalidad was a key organizing concept (see Sitrin 2006)
6. There were already some action days set – there was an action day for education/healthcare, and action day against Puig, and an action planned at the parliament.
7. This point differentiates the movement’s praxis from most democratic theories and practices. Even deliberative democratic models which are presented as alternatives to liberal representative democracy consider univocity to be the aim of the democratic process (see Gould 1996: 172). It is precisely this normative principle of uniformity that is being challenged here. Mouffe (1996: 246) argues that “pluralism is not merely a fact . . . but an axiomatic principle. It is taken to be constitutive at the conceptual level of the very nature of modern democracy and considered as something that we should celebrate and enhance.” The alterglobalization movement welcomed conflict as a sign of diversity, resolving it by rejecting the normative principle of singular unity and refusing to “choose between unity and plurality” (Hardt and Negri 2004: 105). For a discussion of the implications of this rejection of ‘univocity’ for the way we understand and theorize ‘democracy’ see Maeckelbergh (2009: chapter 4).
8. This openness, however, occurs, and in fact requires, rather strict guidelines of behaviour to ensure that some people are not excluded by the inclusion of other people’s beliefs or practices. For example, the common anti-racist and anti-sexist guidelines would certainly exclude some people from the process, but does so to ensure that women and people of colour can be included in the process.
9. According to one of the facilitators, the facilitation team would decide ahead of time how many interventions they would have time for during the meeting and then send between 15 and 20 volunteers out into the crowd to select the people who would get a chance to speak. Proposals usually came through the working groups/commissions and were discussed first in a ‘parallel’ meeting structure (also open to anyone) and prepared before they were brought to the general assembly and opened up to thousands of people without any clear structure.



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Klimke, Martin and Scharloth, Joachim. 2008. 1968 in Europe: A History of Protest and Activism, 1956-1977. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lang, Susanne and Florian Schneider. 2003. “The Dark Side of Camping”. Online: http://makeworlds.org/node/44 (Last accessed 30 October 2011).
Maeckelbergh, Marianne. 2009. The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalization Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy. London: Pluto Press.
Maeckelbergh, Marianne. 2011a. “The Road to Democracy: The Political Legacy of ‘1968’” International Review of Social History 56(2): 301-332.
Maeckelbergh, Marianne. 2011b. “Doing is Believing: Prefiguration as Strategic Practice” Social Movement Studies 10(1): 1-20.
McKay, George. 1998. DIY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties Britain. London: Verso.
Miller, James. 1994. Democracy is in the Streets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mouffe, Chantal. 1996. “Democracy, Power and the ‘Political’,” in Benhabib, S. (ed), Democracy and Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Nunes, Rodrigo. 2004. “Territory and Deterritory: Inside and Outside the ESF 2004, New Movement Subjectivities,” Euromovements. Online: http://www.welt2raum.de/welt2/texte/territory.pdf (Last accessed on 30 October 2011).
Nunes, Rodrigo. 2005. “Nothing is What Democracy Looks Like; Openness, Horizontality, and the Movement of Movements,” in Harvie, D., Milburn, K., Trott,B., Watts, D. (eds), Shut Them Down!, Leeds: Autonomedia / Dissent!. Online: www.shutthemdown.org/contents.html (Last accessed 30 October 2011).
Occupy Together. 2012. “Actions and Directory”. http://www.occupytogether.org/actions/ (Last accessed 22 March 2012).
Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Razsa, Maple John. 2012. “The Occupy Movement in Zizek’s hometown: Direct democracy and the politics of becoming” American Ethnologist 39(2).
Reyes, Oscar. 2011. “A Road Made by Walking” Red Pepper, August 2011. Available online: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/a-road-made-by-walking/ (Last accessed 22 March 2012).
Rodríguez, Emmanuel and Tomás Herreros. 2011. “It’s the Real Democracy, Stupid”. Online: www.edu-factory.org/wp/spanishrevolution/ (Last accessed 31 May 2011).
Sitrin, Marina. 2006. Horizontalism. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Sturgeon, Noel. 1995. “Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory,” inDarnovsky, M., Epstein, B., and Flacks, R. (eds), Cultural Politics and Social Movements. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Style, Sophie. 2002. “People’s Global Action”. Available online: http://www.zcommunications.org/peoples-global-action-by-sophie-style. (Last accessed 22 March 2012).
Waging Nonviolence. 2011. “The Demand is a Process”. Posted online on 21 September 2011: http://wagingnonviolence.org/2011/09/the-demand-is-a-process/ (Last accessed 30 October 2011).
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Originally published in Interface: a journal for and about social movements, Volume 4 (1): 207 – 234 (May 2012).

Marianne Maeckelbergh is Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, the Netherlands and is the author of The Will of the Many: How the Alterglobalisation Movement is Changing the Face of Democracy. She has been active in grassroots social movements since the 1990s and is now working on the independent film project www.globaluprisings.org.
Email: mmaeckelbergh@fsw.leidenuniv.nl

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Art strike. The unfinished work…

‘It is essential that the minority advocate the necessity of going on an ‘active art strike’ using the machines of the culture industry to set it in total contradiction to itself. The intention is not to end the rule of production, but to change the most adventurous part of ‘artistic’ production into the production of revolutionary ideas, forms and techniques.’

Alain Jouffroy

What is an art strike? The question was first posed by Alain Jouffroy in his 1968 essay ‘What´s to be done about Art‘.1 Already at that time, it was obvious that an art strike constitutes a special type of strike. A decade later Gustav Metzger, the artist who wrote the Auto-Destructive Art Manifestos (1959-1961), called upon his artist colleagues to support a three year Art Strike between 1977 and 1980. Metzger proposed a production cut-off, in which artists should stop producing, distributing, or selling their art work, as well as participating in exhibitions. But there was no response to his call and the strike was a failure!

Art workers_SB

Another decade would pass before Stewart Home brought back the art strike idea in the context of his ‘Art Strike Papers‘ and the Neoism movement. Once again, a three-year strike was proposed. Home´s 1990 Art Strike was called as a means of encouraging a critical debate on the concept of art.2 By reading the printed version of YAWN, a fanzine that came out during the ‘art strike’ of 1990-93, one can identify the strike’s aims and specific characteristics: ‘It consists of a paradox. – Sure, the proposition of an art strike is paradoxical, incredible, illogical, bizarre, incoherent, extremist, masochistic, unrealistic and pretentious, but it is a social action that has as its primary goal the deliberate provocation of annoyance.’3 Home himself argues in the Art Strike Papers that, ‘while certain individuals will put down their tools and cease to make, distribute, sell, exhibit or discuss their cultural work for a three year period beginning on 1st January 1990, the numbers involved will be so small that the strike is unlikely to force the closure of any galleries or art institutions’.4 However, according to Home the strike could demonstrate that the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts can be aggressively challenged. As far as we know, the call fell flat a second time, despite the resonance of the Art Strike Papers across the US, Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. Only strike organizers Stewart Home, Tony Lowes and John Berndt actually participated in it (staying productively ‘inactive’ during those three years).
What happened along these different attempts to strike within the art field? Can artists and by extension cultural producers in general go on strike; in other words, can one disprove and boycott one’s own art practices, which are directly linked to the production of images, sounds, words, objects, or situations? How are art production and/or art labor currently conceived? What could an art strike mean today?


Refusing to participate in art production mainly implies the logic of a strategic preparation set against a macro socio-political horizon: one that might bring under scrutiny the creative spontaneity contained in the historical avant-garde or neo-avant-garde movements. Metzger’s perception of an art strike drew attention to the fact that it can neither be understood as a naive denial of the art field, nor as a final break with the production system of art. The art strike can be more than a bare negation or a simple negative gesture. Metzger argued that a temporary production cut-off involves abstaining from the immediate experience of art for a short period of time and ‘delving into theory’ instead, with a view to critically questioning production mechanisms. Today, however, given the ubiquity of theoretical and curatorial discourse, one should be more cautious. What exactly does it mean to delve into theory and which specific theory(ies) can contribute to building anew theoretical ‘arsenal’ for the artist?

Taking his cue from Metzger’s argument, Gerald Raunig poses the following question: how could one break with the post-fordist time regime in the art field, which is normally characterised by discontinuity and frequent disruption?5  With Raunig we can argue that an art strike would not imply some kind of adaptation of the general strike idea to fit the art field. Rather,it would mean a radical negation of post-fordist production mechanisms. This negation, in my opinion, is not to be identified as a complete systemic inertia, though it might prove as ‘productive’ in fashioning new theoretical tools or consolidating social alliances. The essential condition for that would be to reconsider the notion of time within art production. The concept of time, as underlined by Raunig, is essential in order to examine the art strike in socio-political terms, not to mention its theoretical shifts that arise from within the strike idea as such. We ask: how might one call for a different concept of time through which to focus on the notion of cultural and, more specifically, artistic production and its processes? What form might a focus on art production and its discourses assume? Raunig speaks about ‘intensifying theory production’ and the critical potential of theoretical production, which is related to art production. Intensifying theory production also means engaging with its contexts, and institutions, as with discourses of theory formulation and art production.

Going back to Metzger’s point of view, that is the suggestion to cut off art production and regain a strategic theoretical perspective on socio-political matters: we could argue that the goal of the art strike serves a double necessity: the emergence of new forms of deterritorialization and reterritorialization (Deleuze/Guattari). For example, on one level, deterritorialization can take place along the negation of compulsive time, which firmly establishes an hyper-activeness rooted in ‘the anxiety of visibility’ within the post-capitalist model. An art strike would question the voice of a superego that that impels you ‘to be present’; it would demand a different time. On another level –not necessarily parallel to the previous one – deterritorialization as a process may be complemented by one of reterritorialization: that is to say, for example, shifting production to a different time, a different place, a different discursive context by focusing anew on the socio-political dimension of the art. It is clear though, that the art strike cannot take place in vacuo (out of nothing) – let alone be another perspicacious joke among white male artists from the 60s. What is needed is a transversal rearrangement along contemporary precepts. During the process of reterritorialization the art strike needs to be linked with and ‘dispersed’ within social and political forms, such as social movements, citizens´ or non-citizens´ action groups, activist groups etc.6


Let us see now which subjects might be interested in an art strike today. The art strike concept seems ideally suited to precarious art and cultural producers as well as precarious creative workers in Greece, Europe and elsewhere. Within the contemporary matrix of post-fordist accumulation regimes, cognitive capitalism, or, ultimately, semiocapitalism,7 art production and, beyond that, labor as such have acquired different qualitative attributes compared to previous times. Whether the focus is on precarious art and cultural producers or on other precarious laborers in different sectors, these attributes seem almost the same. To be more specific: art production is linked with the worker’s body (see for example a musician, actor/actress, dancer, or performer), but also with the production of articles (for example objects, images, films, situations) whether these have a symbolic value or a real financial one. As Isabell Lorey aptly observes, artists (art producers as corporate identities, or freelancers) are not exactly what Karl Marx would call productive labour. ‘However, Marx should not be accused of banishing cultural producers in general to the realm of unproductive labour since he does not tie the distinction between productive and unproductive labour to the content of that labour. (…) Marx defines productive labour, rather, through a relationship: though not a relationship with money in general and with the question of whether an activity is performed for financial reward or for free.’8
What needs to be stressed about the current situation is the almost canonical phenomenon of art laborers accumulating symbolic capital or at least this is the hanging carrot to keep on. That is to say that in some cases art producers earn the value of their work only on a symbolic level (for example: enriching one’s CV with self-financed art projects, or other participations). There are more than a few artists who participate in exhibitions or other projects without receiving production costs or travel expenses, let alone an honorarium. Unpaid art labour is apparently part and parcel of working conditions across off-spaces and galleries, as well as bigger art institutions.


In the marathon for visibility and recognisability, not to mention survival, some of us (art workers) may have already noticed the increasing antagonism among art and cultural producers for a piece of the same cake that is becoming smaller by the day. Exploited and self-exploited young precarious art and cultural producers are being added to the bigger part of the creative industries. Such cases seem to be the focus of “Working Artists and the Greater Economy“ (W.A.G.E), a group of artists, performers and independent curators based in New York City. Drawing on their experience of working with art institutions, and specifically on the common practice of non-payment, W.A.G.E. aim their attention at critical actions against economic inequity and precariousness in the art field. The “Carrotworkers Collective” in London, a group of current or ex-interns, cultural workers and educators primarily from the creative and cultural sectors share a similar agenda. The Carrotworkers speak up against unpaid internships or compulsory free work in museums, galleries and other organisations. Recently affiliated with the“Precarious Workers Brigade“, a group of precarious workers in culture and education, the Carrotworkers have broadened their focus to include conditions of precarious work and life in the creative and cultural sectors. Such groups or collectives may be slowly expanding, but are still very much a small part of the art and cultural fields. That is to say that a larger mobilization among art and cultural producers on different levels is still an issue.
However, one should once again examine the position of art producers within their field. It is clear that many art producers are often (self-)trapped and some times negate or reject themselves within processes that they have mostly (supposedly but also in fact) chosen themselves. The issue on the one hand is being aware of how the current creative industries operate, and, on the other, of the controversial conditions of self-confinement within this operation. One could not neglect the fact that the creative industries put a stress on continuous creativity, innovation, and authenticity, as well as on ‘imperative autonomy’ as the best ways to success. Constant floatation from one short-term project to the next, fluid interconnection among creative sectors, open networks, cognitive processing – not to mention the ultra profit-oriented models of the new entrepreneurs: these are the main axes of a continuous creative capitalist development. Within this framework the black spots are already clearly visible: temporary employment, ephemeral, almost unofficial contracts, unpaid or black market labor. More specifically, unstable or ultra flexible working conditions in the art and cultural field seem to be the canon; let alone the fact that many artists or art workers try to ensure that they will continue to work in their field by taking up other jobs or occupations, which are just as precarious. If we add to these last remarks the fusion of working and living space, the indiscernible boundary between labor-time and leisure-time that tend to become two almost identical levels of time occupation, we have somehow a clear image of the art producer in the late capitalist model.


Let us go back to the art strike idea. What is at stake is the desire of art producers to break with the hegemonic and, so to speak, mechanic rules of the broader cultural industry. Such a radical rupture requires that producers as subjects be reset, keeping in mind that art and cultural producers are still very much ‘under the whip’ of their particular characteristics or symptoms: fragmentation, personal responsibility, self-realization, self-control, self-management, and self-precarization. Eventually all these symptoms are created around the myth of being completely autonomous. But while an immersion of new types and forms of collective subjectivities is already underway (see W.A.G.E, The Carrotworkes et.al) – as a result of increasing consciousness raising in the art field – we are at the same time confronted with a widespread sense of embarrassment among artists, at times an obsession with anachronistic, almost romantic perceptions of the artist’s figure, at others a certain ‘blindness’, a conscious refusal to reflect on common issues. However, one could not deny the typical contradictions emerging during the formation and identification of creative individuals through their art practice, a process in which individuals define themselves as artists, thinkers, doers, and act as such; although, a critical art practice (at least this is how many an artist would like to define their work) should remain a field of continuous confrontation within the art discourse but also outside of it, within the broader socio-political realm. Finally, we can argue of the necessity to reformulate the art strike concept, which could be summarized as follows: i) Scrupulousness or critique of the self. An inevitable duality, which makes artists bullies and victims at the same time, seems here to be the core of their actions. Well, if we admit that the power dispositive is in the main imposed by and through our relation with others (family, society, nation state), while bearing in mind that power dispositive are not necessarily an objective state that cannot be challenged, we should promptly claim that individuals and subjects can practice self-criticism and eventually assume responsibility for their actions. ii) Reclaim a different concept of time. To make use of a concept of time that helps transform the ‘inertia’ of not producing to a state of strategic preparation. The latter may generate new forms and dynamics. One key dynamic is the awareness of the radical affinity between art producers and the rest of the precarious groups and/or productive labour. This affinity is crucial if we want to draw a common line on an agonistic level in order to enact politics in the art and cultural fields. iii) Rupture the established rules of production within the production system. The key premises for this move are to collectively defend the possibility of radical change within the art institutions and to scrutinize the monadic substance of the current systemic structures, for example the absolute punditry or the immutable sovereignty of existing art institutions.

We suggest that art and cultural producers who are engaged with practices of negation, radical debate, and confrontation inside and outside of the institutional frames of art are embodying the idea of the art strike as a radical project. If we follow Gerald Raunig in his book A Thousand Machines we may trace these practices within the collective machine. Raunig conceives of the machine as a social movement.9 Such an organic collective machine, whose parts are not necessarily connected to each other in place or space, is taking different shapes and forms on different levels. The machine operates on more than two or three levels – it is linked to different kinds of struggles. The collective machines are eventually competent in challenging the current cultural and political hegemonies. The foolhardy idea of the art strike could also have a part in the collective machine.

Goldsmiths, UK 2011.

To conclude: the art strike keeps us alert; it is a process of vigilance and strategic preparation for current and forthcoming conflicts. However, the reformulated model of the art strike that we suggest here is slightly different to those proposed by art strike pioneers in the last decades. What we must never lose sight of is that the art strike may only be articulated by those subjects who actively attempt to re-examine, reform, or profoundly change their constitutional core. In the end we may ask ourselves and be in turn asked by others, in the manner of Precarias a la deriva: what is your strike?


1. Alain Jouffroy ‘What is to be done about Art’, in: Art and Confrontation, London: Studio Vista, 1970.
2. Stewart Home, The Art Strike Papers, Stirling: AK Press, 1991.
3. ‘Four Billion People Can’t Be Wrong’ in YAWN No. 6 – November 24, 1989.
4. Stewart Home, The Art Strike Papers, Stirling: AK Press, 1991.
5. Gerald Raunig, Industrien der Kreativitaet, Streifen und Glaetten 2, Zuerich: diaphanes 2012.
6. See for example Precarias a la deriva, W.A.G.E., Arts & Labor.
7. Semiocapitalism: the capitalism that makes signs, effects, attitudes and ideas directly productive. See Franco Berardi Bifo, After the Future, Edinburgh/Oakland/Baltimore: AK Press 2011.
8. Isabell Lorey, ‘Virtuosos of freedom. On the implosion of political virtuosity and productive labour’, http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/lorey/en
9. Gerald Raunig, Tausende Maschinen, Wien: Turia + Kant 2008.


First published in Λεύγα, Issue 7, Summer 2012 (http://www.levga.gr)

Sofia Bempeza is an artist, theorist, performer and cultural symptom currently based in Zurich.
She graduated from the Athens School of Fine Arts and holds a Master of Art in Context (University of Arts in Berlin). She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Philosophy at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Her thesis explores contemporary art practices and strategies within an agonistic public sphere, especially the relation between art, public spheres and conflict. As an artist she works with installations, performance art interventions and photography focused on themes such the politics of public spaces, the field of art as place of work and cultural production in the post-fordist era. She works as a teaching assistant at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), Department of Art and Media.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Καλλιτεχνική απεργία… Το έργον δεν έλαβεν τέλος!

“Είναι ουσιώδες ότι η μειονότητα συνηγορεί στην αναγκαιότητα της μετάβασης σε μια ενεργό καλλιτεχνική απεργία, χρησιμοποιώντας τα μηχανήματα της πολιτιστικής βιομηχανίας ώστε να τεθεί σε πλήρη αντίφαση με την ίδια. Πρόθεση δεν είναι να σταματήσει ο κανόνας της παραγωγής, αλλά να μεταβληθεί το πιο περιπετειώδες μέρος της καλλιτεχνικής παραγωγής, έτσι ώστε να παραχθούν επαναστατικές ιδέες, μορφές και τεχνικές.”

Alain Jouffroy

Τι είναι μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία; Το παραπάνω ζήτημα τέθηκε για πρώτη φορά το 1968 στο δοκίμιο του Alain Jouffroy Τι θα γίνει με την Τέχνη;1 Ήδη από την πρώτη αυτή αναφορά, αντιλαμβάνεται κανείς ότι η καλλιτεχνική απεργία συνιστά έναν ιδιαίτερο τύπο απεργίας. Στη δεκαετία που ακολούθησε ο Gustav Metzger, ο καλλιτέχνης που συνέταξε το μανιφέστο Auto-Destructive Art (1960), κάλεσε τους συναδέλφους του καλλιτέχνες να σταματήσουν την καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή για τρία χρόνια, από το 1977 μέχρι το 1980. Οι καλλιτέχνες κλήθηκαν να σταματήσουν να παράγουν έργα, να μην πωλούν και να μην δείχνουν τα έργα τους σε εκθέσεις. Σε αυτήν την απεργία δεν ανταποκρίθηκε κανείς!

Art workers_SB

Ο Stewart Home, περίπου μια δεκαετία αργότερα, επανέφερε την ιδέα της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας στα πλαίσια του Νεοϊσμού και των Art Strike Papers. Το πρόταγμα ήταν και πάλι τρία χρόνια απεργία με σκοπό την ενθάρρυνση μιας κριτικής συζήτησης γύρω από την έννοια της τέχνης. Στην έντυπη έκδοση του YAWN, funzine που κυκλοφόρησε κατά τη διάρκεια της “απεργίας” μεταξύ 1990 και 1993, γίνεται σε έναν βαθμό αντιληπτή τόσο η πρόθεση των απεργών καλλιτεχών όσο και τα χαρακτηριστικά της απεργίας: “Σίγουρα, η πρόταση της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας είναι παράδοξη, απίστευτη, παράλογη, παράξενη, ασυνάρτητη, εξτρεμιστική, μαζοχιστική, ρεαλιστική, και απαιτητική, αλλά είναι μια κοινωνική δράση που έχει ως πρωταρχικό στόχο της την εσκεμμένη πρόκληση της ενόχλησης”. Επίσης, στο κείμενο Art Strike Papers (1990-93) τονίζεται ότι έστω κι αν ορισμένα άτομα αποφασίσουν να συμμετέχουν ενεργά στην απεργία, για την περίοδο που ξεκινάει την 1η Ιανουαρίου 1990, ο αριθμός τους θα είναι τόσο μικρός έτσι που η απεργία είναι απίθανο να οδηγήσει στο κλείσιμο κάποιων ιδρυμάτων τέχνης ή γκαλερί. Ωστόσο, όμως, η απεργία θα μπορέσει να καταδείξει ότι η κοινωνικά επιβεβλημένη ιεραρχία επί της τέχνης μπορεί να αμφισβητηθεί επιθετικά! Από όσο γνωρίζουμε (παρόλη την μεγάλη απήχηση των Art Strike Papers στην Αμερική, στη Μ. Βρετανία, στην Ιρλανδία και στη Γερμανία) και σε αυτό το κάλεσμα δεν ανταποκρίθηκε κανείς! Οι μόνοι που συμμετείχαν ενεργά στην απεργία (και παρέμειναν “ανενεργοί” στο διάστημα των τριών χρόνων) ήταν οι εμπνευστές της, δηλαδή ο Stewart Home, ο Tony Lowes και ο John Berndt!

Τι συμβαίνει άραγε με αυτές τις απόπειρες καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας; Μπορούν ή όχι οι καλλιτέχνες και κατ΄επέκτασιν οι πολιτισμικοί παραγωγοί να ανασκευάσουν και να μποϊκοτάρουν τις ίδιες τους τις καλλιτεχνικές πρακτικές, που συνδέονται με την άμεση παραγωγή εικόνων, ήχων, λέξεων, αντικειμένων, καταστάσεων κλπ; Πώς νοείται σήμερα η καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή/εργασία και τι θα σήμαινε μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία;


Η αποχή από την καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή ενέχει κυρίως μια λογική στρατηγικής προετοιμασίας σε έναν μακροκοινωνικό ορίζοντα, η οποία αμφισβητεί τον καλλιτεχνικό αυθορμητισμό των ιστορικών, αλλά και ορισμένων νεότερων πρωτοποριών. Σύμφωνα με τον Metzger, μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία δεν θα περιοριζόταν σε μια απλοϊκή κίνηση άρνησης του πεδίου της τέχνης ούτε σε μια οριστική ρήξη με το σύστημα παραγωγής της τέχνης. Μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία θα μπορούσε να είναι κάτι παραπάνω από παύση των παραγωγικών εργασιών, κάτι παραπάνω από μια απλή αρνητική χειρονομία. Η παύση της καλλιτεχνικής παραγωγής θα σήμαινε αποχή από την καθημερινή αμεσότητα της παραγωγής για ένα χρονικό διάστημα, με στόχο την προετοιμασία για μια κριτική θεώρηση των παραγωγικών μηχανισμών και την εμβάθυνση στη Θεωρία. Σήμερα, η καταιγιστική παρουσία του θεωρητικού λόγου μέσω της επιμελητικής πλαισίωσης της παραγωγής μας καθιστά πιο επιφυλακτικούς. Ποιά «εμβάθυνση στην θεωρία», σε ποιές θεωρίες, θα μπορούσε να βοηθήσει τον καλλιτέχνη στην συγκρότηση ενός νέου ορμητηρίου;

Σε σχέση με την έννοια της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας που πρότεινε ο Metzger ένας σύγρονος διανοητής, ο Gerald Raunig, θέτει το εξής ερώτημα: τι θα σήμαινε μια τέτοια απόπειρα, δηλαδή να διακόψει κανείς το μεταφορντικό καθεστώς του χρόνου σε ένα πεδίο όπως το καλλιτεχνικό, το οποίο προϋποθέτει κατά κανόνα την ασυνέχεια και τη συχνή διακοπή;2 O Raunig υποστηρίζει ότι η καλλιτεχνική απεργία δεν είναι μόνο μια ύστερη προσαρμογή της ιδέας της γενικής απεργίας στο καλλιτεχνικό πεδίο, αλλά σε σημαντικό βαθμό είναι και μια πρωτοποριακή άρνηση των μεταφορντιστικών παραγωγικών διαδικασιών. Η εν λόγω άρνηση δεν ταυτίζεται με την πλήρη αδράνεια του συστήματος, εν τούτοις όμως μπορεί να αποβεί „παραγωγική“ στην δημιουργία νέων θεωρητικών εργαλείων και στη σύναψη κοινωνικών συμμαχιών. Μια απαραίτητη προϋπόθεση είναι η επαναθεώρηση της έννοιας του χρόνου μέσα από τις πρακτικές της καλλιτεχνικής παραγωγής. Η έννοια της χρονικότητας, την οποία τονίζει ο Raunig, είναι σημαντική, προκειμένου να δούμε τους όρους μιας καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας καθώς και τις μετατοπίσεις που προκύπτουν μέσα από αυτήν. Αναρωτιόμαστε, πώς θα μπορούσαμε να διεκδικήσουμε έναν άλλο χρόνο προκειμένου να εστιάσουμε στην έννοια της πολιτισμικής παραγωγής και στις επιμέρους διαδικασίες της καλλιτεχνικής παραγωγής με ορμητήριο τη θεωρία;

Η πρόταση του Metzger και κατά συνέπεια ο σκοπός της απεργίας θα λέγαμε ότι εξυπηρετεί μια διπλή αναγκαιότητα: την ανάδυση νέων φορμών απεδαφικοποίησης και επανεδαφικοποίησης (Deterritorialization – Reterritorialization, βλ. Deleuze/Guattari). Η απεδαφικοποίηση προκύπτει με την άρνηση της επιβεβλημένης χρονικότητας, της ατέρμονης παραγωγής και της διαρκούς ορατότητας στα πλαίσια του σύγχρονου καπιταλιστικού μοντέλου. Για παράδειγμα, μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία θα αμφισβητούσε την ψυχαναγκαστική συμμετοχή σε μια πληθώρα δραστηριοτήτων του πεδίου της τέχνης, την υπερδραστηριοποίηση λόγω του «άγχους της ορατότητας». Μια απεργία θα αμφισβητούσε την υπερεγωτική φωνή που λέει «να είσαι κι εσύ παρών/παρούσα» και θα διεκδικούσε έναν “άλλο χρόνο”. Σε ένα άλλο, όχι απαραίτητα παράλληλο, επίπεδο, η διαδικασία της απεδαφικοποίησης συμπληρώνεται από την επανεδαφικοποίηση, δηλαδή τη μετατόπιση της παραγωγής σε έναν άλλο χρόνο (και τόπο) εστιάζοντας στην κοινωνική διάσταση της τέχνης αλλά κυρίως στο πολιτικό γίγνεσθαι. Είναι σαφές, ότι μια καλλιτεχνική απεργία δεν μπορεί να προκύψει εν κενώ, πόσο μάλλον ως οξυδερκές αστείο λευκών ανδρών καλλιτεχνών από την εποχή των 60s. Μία εγκάρσια αναδιάταξη με σημερινούς όρους είναι αναγκαία! H καλλιτεχνική απεργία, στην διαδικασία της επανεδαφικοποίησης, χρειάζεται να συνδεθεί και να αναζυμωθεί με ευρύτερα κοινωνικά και πολιτικά μορφώματα π.χ. κοινωνικά κινήματα, κινήσεις πολιτών, ακτιβιστικές ομάδες3.


Αλλά ας δούμε ποιούς/ποιές θα μπορούσε να αφορά σήμερα η ιδέα της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας. Ποιά είναι τα υποκείμενα που μπρορούν να προβούν σε αυτήν; Κάτι τέτοιο μοιάζει να αφορά κυρίως καλλιτέχνες ή περί της τέχνης απασχολούμενους, όσους και όσες ζουν και εργάζονται σε επισφαλείς συνθήκες στον λεγόμενο δυτικό κόσμο και κατά συνέπεια στον ελλαδικό χώρο, όντας κομμάτια της δημιουργικής βιομηχανίας. Σήμερα υπό τις συνθήκες του μετα-φορντισμού, του καπιταλισμού της γνώσης (cognitive capitalism) ή σε τελευταία ανάλυση του σημειοκαπιταλισμού (semiocapitalism)4 η καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή και εργασία αποκτούν διαφορετικά ποιοτικά χαρακτηριστικά σε σχέση με παλαιότερες εποχές. Μερικά από αυτά εντοπίζονται στο ευρύτερο φάσμα των επισφαλών εργαζομένων και άλλα είναι περισσότερο συνδεδεμένα με την καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή. Πιο συγκεκριμένα, η καλλιτεχνική παραγωγή συνδέεται άμεσα με το σώμα του/της εργαζόμενου/ης (όπως πχ. στη μουσική, στο θέατρο, χορό, περφόρμανς κ.ά.) αλλά και με την παραγωγή ενός προϊόντος που έχει κυρίως συμβολική αξία, αλλά ενδεχομένως και αγοραστική αξία. Όπως εύστοχα παρατηρεί η Isabell Lorey, oι καλλιτέχνες, ενεργώντας ταυτόχρονα ως παραγωγοί, φορείς παροχής υπηρεσιών και ατομικοί επιχειρηματίες, στέκονται άμεσα σε αντίθεση με τους εαυτούς τους ως κεφαλαιοποιημένες μορφές ζωής, στις αξίες που οι ίδιοι έχουν δημιουργήσει, με έναν τρόπο που μοιάζει να είναι εντελώς διαφορετικός από τη σχέση που ο Karl Marx ορίζει ως «παραγωγική εργασία»5. Το φαινόμενο που παρατηρείται έντονα σήμερα, είναι ότι η καλλιτεχνική εργασία και κατ’ επέκτασιν οι δραστηριότητες ενός αρκετά μεγάλου μέρους των καλλιτεχνικών παραγωγών “εξαργυρώνονται” στη σφαίρα του συμβολικού κεφαλαίου. Επίσης, αξίζει να τονισθεί ότι πολλοί καλλιτέχνες (προκειμένου π.χ. να εμπλουτίσουν το βιογραφικό τους) εργάζονται σε μεγάλο βαθμό είτε αμισθί συμμετέχοντας με το έργο τους σε εκθέσεις χωρίς την παραμικρή αμοιβή, είτε με μικρή/ελλειπή και σποραδική χρηματοδότηση (κατά κανόνα για την παραγωγή ενός έργου ή την υλοποίηση ενός πρότζεκτ).


Στον στοίβο της αναγνωρισημότητας αλλά και της επιβίωσης παρατήρουμε όλο και περισσότερους καλλιτέχνες να ανταγωνίζονται όμοιους τους για το κομμάτι της πίτας που γίνεται όλο και μικρότερο… Όλο και περισσότεροι επισφαλείς πολιτισμικοί παραγωγοί προστίθενται στο ενεργό κομμάτι της δημιουργικής βιομηχανίας, σε καθεστώς πολλαπλής εκμετάλλευσης της εργασίας τους αλλά και αυτο-εκμετάλλευσης. Σε αυτά ακριβώς τα φαινόμενα εστιάζουν για παράδειγμα οι W.A.G.E., ομάδα καλλιτεχνών με έδρα τη Νέα Υόρκη. Οι δράσεις τους συνοδεύονται από μια μαχητική ρητορική που έχει ως σκοπό όχι μόνο την κριτική στάση αλλά και την κινητοποίηση των πολιτισμικών παραγωγών ενάντια στην διαρκώς αυξανόμενη επισφάλεια στο καλλιτεχνικό πεδίο. Σε παρόμοιο επίπεδο δραστηριοποιείται και η κολλεκτίβα Carrotworkers στο Λονδίνο, διεκδικώντας από μουσεία, οργανισμούς και άλλους καλλιτεχνικούς φορείς την δίκαιη αμοιβή (πολλές φορές την ίδια την αμοιβή, το αυτονόητο που εκλίπει!) των πολιτισμικών παραγωγών, όπως πχ. νεαρών πρακτικάριων και βοηθών επιμελητών, ιστορικών της τέχνης, καλλιτεχνών κ.ά. Τέτοια παραδείγματα είναι ορατά σε ένα μικρό βαθμό, πράγμα που καθιστά επιτακτική την ανάγκη αναθεώρησης της καλλιτεχνικής εργασίας από τους ίδιους τους παραγωγούς και τους πολιτισμικούς φορείς εν γένει.

Επίσης γίνεται εμφανές ότι οι καλλιτεχνικοί παραγωγοί (αυτο)παγιδεύονται και πολλές φορές αυτοαναιρούνται μέσα από διαδικασίες που υποτίθεται ότι επιλέγουν ελεύθερα. Έτσι, το ζήτημα που τίθεται στη συνέχεια είναι αφενός η συνειδητοποίηση της λειτουργίας της σύγχρονης δημιουργικής βιομηχανίας και αφετέρου οι αντίξοοες συνθήκες του (αυτο)εγκλωβισμού των καλλιτεχνών μέσα σε αυτή. Η εν λόγω βιομηχανία δίνει ιδιαίτερη έμφαση στην επιβεβλημένη ‘αυτονομία’, στη συνεχή δημιουργικότητα και στην καινοτομία ως μέτρο επιτυχίας. Δίνεται έμφαση στην διεπικοινωνία και στη δικτύωση καθώς και στον προσανατολισμό του δημιουργικού δυναμικού με γνώμονα τη συνεχή ανάπτυξη στο μέλλον – πράγμα που αναγνωρίζουμε άλλωστε ως σημαντικό χαρακτηριστικό της νεωτερικότητας. Σε αυτά τα πλαίσια παρατηρείται μια σποραδική, αβέβαιη και ευκαιριακή απασχόληση (βλ. εφήμερες συμβάσεις, ανεπίσημα συμβόλαια, μαύρη εργασία κ.ά). Στο κομμάτι της πολιτισμικής παραγωγής οι συνθήκες αυτές (παρόμοιες με αυτές που παρατηρούνται στο καθεστώς της επισφαλούς εργασίας εν γένει) οδηγούν το μεγαλύτερο μέρος των αυτοαπασχολούμενων πολιτισμικών παραγωγών στην αναζήτηση παντός είδους εργασιών (εξίσου επισφαλών) προκειμένου να διασφαλίσουν τον βίο τους και κατά συνέπεια τη δυνατότητα να δρουν στο καλλιτεχνικό πεδίο. Στα παραπάνω προστίθεται η μη σαφής διάκριση μεταξύ εργασίας και ιδιωτικής σφαίρας αλλά και η απουσία της διάκρισης ελεύθερου χρόνου και χρόνου εργασίας, ως ιδιαίτερα χαρακτηριστικά της εικόνας του πολιτισμικού παραγωγού στο σύγχρονο καπιταλιστικό μοντέλο.


Γυρίζοντας πίσω στην ιδέα της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας, το κύριο ερώτημα που μας απασχολεί αφορά σε μια ουσιαστική ρήξη με τους ηγεμονικούς, πλην μηχανιστικούς κανόνες, της πολιτιστικής βιομηχανίας. Μια τέτοια ρήξη προϋποθέτει μια καθολική αμφισβήτηση του καλλιτεχνικού υποκειμένου, πράγμα διόλου εύκολο, μιας και η συγκρότηση του εν λόγω υποκειμένου ενέχει μεταξύ άλλων τα συμπτώματα της αυτοκυριαρχίας, της αυτορύθμισης, της (αυτο)κυβερνητικότητας, εντέλει το μύθο της αυτονομίας!

Kι ενώ η ανάδυση ενός διαφορετικού καλλιτεχνικού υποκειμένου δείχνει να προκύπτει μέσα από την ορατή πλεόν δυσανεξία στους κόλπους του πεδίου της τέχνης, την ίδια στιγμή παρατηρούμε μια διάχυτη αμηχανία μεταξύ των υποκειμένων, πολλές φορές προσκόλληση σε “ρομαντικές” εκδοχές της φιγούρας του καλλιτέχνη κι άλλες φορές εθελοτυφλία! Οι αντιφάσεις που παρατηρούνται στην συγκρότηση του καλλιτεχνικού υποκειμένου, λόγω της αναγκαιότητας του αυτοπροσδιορισμού μέσα από την καλλιτεχνική πράξη αλλά και έξω από αυτήν, είναι ορατές και εξηγήσιμες. Όμως η καλλιτεχνική πράξη, τουλάχιστον έτσι θα θέλαμε, οφείλει να παραμείνει ένα πεδίο διαρκούς αντιπαράθεσης και ανταγωνισμού στο εσωτερικό της αλλά και στη σχέση της με το κοινωνικό-πολιτικό πεδίο. Εν κατακλείδι θα λέγαμε ότι η προτεινόμενη αναδιατύπωση της σημασίας της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας συνοψίζεται στα εξής σημεία: i) Aμφισβήτηση του εαυτού. Η διττή συνθήκη που καθιστά τους καλλιτέχνες θύτες και θύματα διαφαίνεται εδώ ως το κυριότερο χαρακτηριστικό των υποκειμένων δράσης. Εάν όμως (παρά)δεχτούμε ότι το κυρίαρχο πνεύμα επιβάλλεται μεν σε έναν βαθμό αλλά δεν αποτελεί απαραίτητα μια αντικειμενική αναγκαιότητα, τότε τα υποκείμενα δράσης θα πρέπει να ενστερνίζονται την αυτοκριτική διαδικασία και να επωμίζονται τις ευθύνες τους. ii) Διεκδίκηση ενός άλλου χρόνου. Πράγμα που μπορεί να οδηγήσει τη φαινομενική αδράνεια σε στρατηγική προετοιμασία ώστε να συμπεριλάβει επιμέρους όψεις και δυναμικές. Μια καίρια δυναμική είναι η συνειδητοποίηση της ριζικής συγγένειας των καλλιτεχνικών παραγωγών με το σύγχρονο πρεκαριάτο και η πολιτική σημασία μιας τέτοιας συμμαχίας (κοινής δράσης). iii) Ρήξη με τους κατεστημένους κανόνες της παραγωγής μέσα στο σύστημα παραγωγής. Βασική προϋπόθεση για κάτι τέτοιο αποτελεί η προάσπιση της δυνατότητας ριζικών μετασχηματισμών μέσα στους θεσμούς και η συλλογική αμφισβήτηση μιας μονολογικής ουσίας του συστήματος, πχ. αυθεντία ή αμετάβλητη κυριαρχία των υπάρχουσων θεσμών της τέχνης.

Οι καλλιτέχνες/πολιτισμικοί παραγωγοί, οι οποίοι/ες επιστρατεύουν και ενσωματώνουν τις πρακτικές της άρνησης, της ριζικής αντιπαράθεσης ή της σύγκρουσης εντός και εκτός των θεσμικών μηχανισμών της τέχνης θα λέγαμε ότι ενσαρκώνουν την ιδέα της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας ως ριζοσπαστικό πρόταγμα. Επίσης θα μπορούσαμε να υποστηρίξουμε ότι αποτελούν μια άλλου τύπου “πολεμική μηχανή”6. Μια τέτοια συλλογική οργανική μηχανή, της οποίας τα μέρη δεν συνδέονται άμεσα χωρικά ή τοπικά, αποτελεί μέρος μιας ευρύτερης πολυμηχανής, η οποία μορφοποιείται, δικτυώνεται και δρά σε περισσότερα από ένα επίπεδα και είναι ίσως ικανή να “πολεμήσει” τις επιμέρους πολιτικές και πολιτιστικές ηγεμονίες. Η όχι και τόσο παράτολμη ιδέα της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας σήμερα, δύναται να είναι ένα κομμάτι της ευρύτερης πολυδιάστατης μηχανής που εστιάζει στην εγρήγορση και την ενεργή προετοιμασία για τις μάχες που έπονται!

Goldsmiths, UK 2011.

Η προτεινόμενη αναδιατύπωση της καλλιτεχνικής απεργίας αποσκοπεί σε μια νέα θεώρηση της σημασίας της, η οποία διαφέρει σε έναν βαθμό από αυτήν που τόνισαν οι πρωτεργάτες της στις προηγούμενες δεκαετίες. Αυτό που προέχει να δούμε, είναι πώς η καλλιτεχνική απεργία συναρθρώνεται με εκείνους τους συλλογικούς φορείς που κρίνουν κι επιχειρούν να ανασυντάξουν σε βάθος ή να ανατρέψουν τον καταστικό πυρήνα τους. Τέλος λοιπόν, ίσως δεν μένει παρά να αναρωτηθούμε και να ρωτήσουμε: Ποιά είναι η δική σου απεργία;


1. Alain Jouffroy «What is to be done about Art», in: Art and Confrontation. London: Studio Vista, 1970.
2. βλ. Gerald Raunig, Industrien der Kreativitaet, Streifen und Glaetten 2. Zuerich: diaphanes 2012.
3. βλ. ενδεικτικά το παράδειγμα των ισπανίδων ακτιβιστριών Precarias a la Deriva.
4. Στον σημειολογικό καπιταλισμό τα αγαθά που κυκλοφορούν στον κόσμο της οικονομίας και της πληροφορίας είναι σημάδια, στοιχεία, εικόνες, προβολές, προσδοκίες. Βλ. Franco Berardi Bifo, After the future. Edinburgh/Oakland/Baltimore: AK Press 2011.
5. βλ. Isabell Lorey, «Virtuosos of freedom. On the implosion of political virtuosity and productive labour», http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/lorey/en .
6. βλ. Gerald Raunig, Tausende Maschinen. Wien: Turia + Kant 2008.


To κείμενο πρωτοδιεμοσιεύτηκε στην έντυπη Λεύγα, τεύχος 7, Καλοκαίρι 2012 (http://www.levga.gr)

Η Σοφία Μπέμπεζα είναι καλλιτέχνης, θεωρητικός και περφόρμερ.
Αποφοίτησε από τη Σχολή Καλών Τεχνών της Αθήνας και από το Master of Art in Context του Πανεπιστημίου Τεχνών του Βερολίνου. Eίναι υποψήφια διδάκτωρ Φιλοσοφίας στην Ακαδημία Καλών Τεχνών της Βιέννης. Η διδακτορική της εργασία διερευνά σύγχρονες καλλιτεχνικές πρακτικές και στρατηγικές στο πλαίσιο μιας ανταγωνιστικής δημόσιας σφαίρας, και ιδιαίτερα τη σχέση ανάμεσα στην τέχνη, το δημόσιο βίο και τη σύγκρουση. Ζει στη Ζυρίχη.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Teatro Valle – Tony Alotta (audio)

Interview with Tony Alotta, Teatro Valle Occupato, Rome, 7th of April, 2013

Stefy Azzarello is an independent researcher, programme officer and campaigner in women’s rights. She currently works at the research Network for Domestic Worker Rights at the University of Kassel.

Thijs Witty is a funded PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, under the supervision of prof. dr. Mireille Rosello and dr. Marie-Aude Baronian. He is affiliated with the departments of Comparative Literature and Media Studies. Thijs teaches art theory and philosophy at the Amsterdam School for New Dance Development and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague. He also runs the monthly film club Kino Praxis at the OT301, together with comrades Adam Chambers and Odile Bodde.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Aesthetics of Resistance? Artistic Research as Discipline and Conflict

What is artistic research today? At present no one seems to know an answer to this question. Artistic research is treated as one of the multiple practices which are defined by indefinition, constantly in flux, lacking coherence and identity. But what if this view were indeed misleading? What if we actually knew more about it than we thought? In order to discuss this proposition, let’s first have a look at current debates around artistic research. It seems as if one of their most important concerns is the transformation of artistic research into an academic discipline. There are discussions about curriculum, degrees, method, practical application, pedagogy. On the other hand, there is also substantial criticism of this approach. It addresses the institutionalization of artistic research as being complicit with new modes of production within cognitive capitalism: commodified education, creative and affective industries, administrative aesthetics, and so on. Both perspectives agree on one point: artistic research is at present being constituted as a more or less normative, academic discipline.

A discipline is of course disciplinarian; it normalizes, generalizes and regulates; it rehearses a set of responses, and in this case, trains people to function in an environment of symbolic labor, permanent design and streamlined creativity. But then again, what is a discipline apart from all of this? A discipline may be oppressive, but this is also precisely why it points to the issue it keeps under control. It indexes a suppressed, an avoided or potential conflict. A discipline hints at a conflict immobilized. It is a practice to channel and exploit its energies and to incorporate them into the powers that be. Why would one need a discipline if it wasn’t to discipline somebody or something? Any discipline can thus also be seen from the point of view of conflict.

Let me give an example: a project I recently realized, called The Building. It deals with the construction history of a Nazi building on the main square in Linz, Austria; it investigates its background, the stories of the people who actually built it, and also looks at the materials used in the building. The construction was performed by partly foreign forced laborers and some of the former inhabitants of the site were persecuted, dispossessed and murdered. During the research it also actually turned out that some of the building stones were produced in the notorious quarry of concentration camp Mauthausen, where thousands of people were killed.

There are at least two different ways of describing this building. One and the same stone used for the building can be said to have gained its shape according to the paradigm of neoclassicist architecture, which would be the official description given on the building itself. Or it can be described as having probably been shaped by a stone mason in concentration camp Mauthausen, who was likely a former Spanish Republican fighter. The conclusion is obvious: the same stone can be described from the point of view of a discipline, which classifies and names. But it can also be read as a trace of a suppressed conflict.

But why would this very local project be relevant for a reflection about artistic research as such? Because parts of this building also coincidentally house the Linz Art Academy. This building is a location, where artistic research is currently being integrated into academic structures: there is a department for artistic research inside this building. Thus, any investigation of the building might turn out as a sort of institutional metareflection on the contemporary conditions of artistic research as such.

In this sense: where is the conflict, or rather what are the extensive sets of conflicts underlying this new academic discipline? Who is currently building its walls, using which materials, produced by whom? Who are the builders of the discipline and where are their traces?

Discipline and Conflict

So, what are the conflicts, and where are the boundaries then? Seen from the point of view of many current contributions, artistic research seems more or less confined to the contemporary metropolitan art academy. Actual artistic research looks like a set of art practices by predominantly metropolitan artists acting as ethnographers, sociologists, product or social designers. It gives the impression of being an asset of technologically and conceptually advanced First World capitalism, trying to upgrade its population to efficiently function in a knowledge economy, and as a by-product, casually surveying the rest of the world as well. But if we look at artistic research from the perspective of conflict or more precisely of social struggles, a map of practices emerges that spans most of the 20th century and also most of the globe. It becomes obvious that the current debates do not fully acknowledge the legacy of the long, varied and truly international history of artistic research which has been understood in terms of an aesthetics of resistance.

Aesthetics of Resistance is the title of Peter Weiss’ seminal novel, released in the early 1980s, which presents an alternative reading of art history as well as an account of the history of anti-fascist resistance from 1933 to 1945. Throughout the novel Weiss explicitly uses the term “artistic research (künstlerische Forschung)” to refer to practices such as Brecht’s writing factory in exile. He also points to the factographic and partly also productivist practices in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, mentioning the documentary work of Sergei Tretjakov, among many others. Thus he establishes a genealogy of aesthetic research, which is related to the history of emancipatory struggles throughout the 20th century.

Since the 1920s, extremely sophisticated debates about artistic epistemologies were waged on terms like fact, reality, objectivity, inquiry within the circles of Soviet factographers, cinematographers and artists. For factographers, a fact is an outcome of a process of production. Fact comes from facere, to make or to do. So in this sense the fact is made or even made up. This should not come as a surprise to us in the age of poststructuralist, metaphysical skepticism. But the range of aesthetic approaches which were developed as research tools almost 100 years ago is stupefying.

Authors like Vertov, Stepanova, Tretjakov, Popova and Rodchenko invent complex procedures of investigation, such as the cine-eye, the cine-truth, the biography of the object or photomontage. They work on human perception and practice and actively try to integrate scientific attitudes into their work. And scientific creation is flowing as a result of many of these developments. In his autobiography, Roman Jakobson describes in detail how avantgarde art practices inspired him to develop his specific ideas on linguistics.

Of course throughout history many different approaches of this type of research have existed. We could also mention the efforts of the artists employed by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) of creating essayistic photojournalistic inquiries during the Great Depression in the US. In all these cases, the artistic research is ambivalently co-opted into state policies – although to a different extent and with completely different consequences. Around the same time Tretyakov got shot during the Stalinist terror, Walker Evans had a solo show at the MoMa.

Another method of artistic inquiry, which is based on several related sets of conflict and crisis is the essayistic approach. In 1940, Hans Richter coins the term film essay or essay film as capable of visualizing theoretical ideas. He refers to one of his own works already made in 1927 called Inflation, an extremely interesting experimental film about capitalism running amok. Richter argues that a new filmic language has to be developed in order to deal with abstract processes such as the capitalist economy. How does one show these abstractions, how does one visualize the immaterial? These questions are reactualized in contemporary art practices, but they have a long history.

The essay as filmic approach also embraces the perspective of anticolonial resistance. One of the first so-called essay films is the anticolonial film-essay Les statues meurent aussi, by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, about racism in dealing with African art. The film is commissioned by a magazine called Presence africaine which counts as its editors people like Aimé Césaire or Leopold Senghor, main theoreticians of the so-called negritude movement in the 1930s. Only a few years later Theodor Adorno’s text, The Essay as Form, appears in which he ponders on the resistant characteristics of the essay as subversive method of thought. To Adorno the essay means the reshuffling of the realms of the aesthetic and epistemological, which undermines the dominant division of labor.

And then we enter the whole period of the 1960s with their international struggles, tricontinentalism and so on. Frantz Fanon’s slogan: “…we must discuss, we must invent…” is the motto of the manifesto Towards a Third Cinema, written by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino in 1969, in a context of dictatorship in Argentina. The relation of art and science is again explicitly mentioned in Julio Garcia Espinosa’s manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema (1969). Other methods of artistic research include situationist derive and workers inquiries, constructivist montage, cut ups, biomechanics, oral history, deconstructive or surrealist anthropology, the diffusion of counterinformation as well as aesthetic journalism. Some of these methods are more easily absorbed into the art mainstream than others. Especially strongly dematerialized practices with pronounced modernist features are quickly absorbed into information capitalism because they are compressed, quick to absorb and easily transmitted.

It is no coincidence that many of the practices mentioned here have been dealing with classical problems of documentary representation from very different perspectives: its function as power/knowledge, its epistemological problems, its relation to reality and the challenge of creating a new one. Documentary styles and forms have forever grappled with the uneven mix of rationality and creativity, between subjectivity and objectivity, between the power of creation and the power of conservation.

It is no coincidence either that many of the historical methods of artistic research are tied to social or revolutionary movements, or to moments of crisis and reform. In this perspective, the outline of a global network of struggles is revealed, which spans almost the whole 20th century, which is transversal, relational, and (in many, though far from all cases) emancipatory.

It is a coincidence, however, that Peter Weiss´ Aesthetics of Resistance also mentions the main square of Linz: the site of The Building. He describes a scene in which members of the International Brigades in Spain listen to a broadcast of the enthusiastic reception for Hitler and the German troops on Linz’s main square in March 1938. But Weiss’ protagonist notices a very small (and entirely hypothetical) moment in resistance pointed out by the radio journalist: some of the windows on the square remain unlit, and the journalist is quick to point out that the flats of the Jews are located there. Actually during the research it turned out that one of the Jewish families living there had dispersed to three different continents and two members of the family had been murdered. One of the latter was a person called Ernst Samuely who was supposedly a communist. After many ordeals, he joined a Jewish partisan group on the Polish border before disappearing. So, if we look at the Linz building from this point of view, we see that it dissolves into a network of international routes and relations, which relate to oppression but also to resistance: it relates to what Walter Benjamin once called “the tradition of the oppressed.”

The Perspective of Conflict

If we keep applying the global and transversal perspective to the debate around artistic research, the temporal and spatial limitations of contemporary metropolitan debates are revealed. It simply does not make any sense to continue the discussion as if practices of artistic research do not have a long and extensive history well beyond conceptual art practices – which is one of the very few historical examples to be mentioned, although very rarely. From the point of view of social struggles, the discontinuous genealogy of artistic research becomes an almost global one, with a long and frequently interrupted history. The geographical distribution of artistic research practices also dramatically changes in this perspective. Since some locations were particularly affected by the conjunction of power and knowledge, which arose with the formation of capitalism and colonialism, strategies of epistemic disobedience had to be invented.

A power/knowledge/art, which reduced whole populations to objects of knowledge, domination and representation, had to be countered not only by social struggle and revolt, but also by epistemological and aesthetic innovation. Thus reversing the perspective and focusing on discipline as an index of conflict also reverses the direction in which art history has been written as an account of peripheral artists copying and catching up with Western art trends. We could just as well say that many contemporary metropolitan artists are only now catching up with the complexity of debates around reality and representation that Soviet factographers had already developed in the 1920s.

Specific and Singular

In all these methods, two elements collide: a claim to specificity clashes with a claim to singularity. What does this mean? One aspect of the work claims to participate in a general paradigm, within a discourse that can be shared and which is manufactured according to certain criteria. More often than not, scientific, legalistic or journalistic truth procedures underly this method of research. These methodologies are pervaded by power relations as many theorists have demonstrated.

On the other hand, artistic research projects in many cases also lay claim to singularity. They create a certain artistic set up, which claims to be relatively unique and produces its own field of reference and logic. This provides it with a certain autonomy, in some cases an edge of resistance against dominant modes of knowledge production. In other cases, this assumed singularity just sexes up a quantitative survey, or to use a famous expression by Benjamin Buchloh, creates an aesthetic of administration.”1

While specific methods generate a shared terrain of knowledge – which is consequently pervaded by power structures – singular methods follow their own logic. While this may avoid the replication of existing structures of power/knowledge, it also creates the problem of the proliferation of parallel universes, which each speak their own, untranslatable language. Practices of artistic research usually partake in both registers, the singular as well as the specific; they speak several languages at once.

hito photo

Thus, one could imagine a semiotic square, which would roughly map the tensions which become apparent during the transformation of artistic research into an academic and/or economic discipline. Of course, this scheme is misleading, since one would have to draw a new one for every singular point of view which is investigated. But it shows the tensions which both frame and undermine the institutionalization of artistic research.

Artistic Research as Translation

The multilinguality of artistic research implies that artistic research is an act of translation. It takes part in at least two languages and can in some cases create new ones. It speaks the language of quality as well as of quantity, the language of the singular as well as the language of the specific, use value as well as exchange value or spectacle value, discipline as well as conflict; and it translates between all of these. This does not mean that it translates correctly – but it translates, nevertheless.

At this point, one should emphasize that this is also the case with so-called autonomous artworks, which have no pretense whatsoever to partake in any kind of research. This does not mean they cannot be quantified or become part of disciplinary practices, because they are routinely quantified on the art market in the form of pricing and integrated into art histories and other systems of value. Thus, most art practices exist in one or another type of translation, but this type of translation does not jeopardize the division of labor established between art historians and gallerists, between artists and researchers, between the mind and senses. In fact, a lot of the conservative animosity towards artistic research stems from a feeling of threat, because of the dissolution of these boundaries, and this is why artistic research is often dismissed in everyday practice as neither art nor research.

But the quantification processes involved in the evaluation or valorization of artistic research are slightly different than the traditional procedures of quantification. Artistic research as a discipline not only sets and enforces certain standards but also presents an attempt to extract or produce a different type of value in art. Apart from the art market, a secondary market develops for those practices which lack in fetish value. This secondary value is established by quantification and integration into (increasingly) commodified education systems. Additionally, a sort of social surplus embedded into a pedagogical understanding of art comes into play. Both combined create a pull towards the production of applied or applicable knowledge/art, which can be used for entrepreneurial innovation, social cohesion, city marketing, and thousands of other aspects of cultural capitalism. From this perspective, artistic research indeed looks like a new version of the applied arts, a new and largely immaterial craft, which is being instituted as a discipline in many different places.


At the end, let me come back to the beginning: we know more about artistic research than we think. And this concerns the most disquieting findings of the project around The Building in Linz. It is more than likely, that after the war, radiators were taken from the now abandoned concentration camp Mauthausen and reinstalled into the building. If this plan documented in the historical files was executed, then the radiators are still there and have quietly been heating the building ever since. A visit with an expert confirmed that the radiators have never been exchanged in the Eastern part of the building and that, moreover, some of the radiators had already been used, when they had been installed around 1948. The make of those radiators corresponds to the few radiators seen in contemporary photos of concentration camp Mauthausen. Now, of course, radiators were not in use in the prisoners barracks. They were in use in some work rooms, like the laundry room. They were in use in the prisoners office and the prisoners brothel, where female inmates from another concentration camp had to work.

But what do we make of the fact that the Department for Artistic Research (its coordination office is located in The Building, according to the website) could soon find itself being heated by the same radiators, which were mute witnesses of the plight of female inmates in the concentration camp brothel? To quote the website of the Linz art academy, “artistic-scientific research belongs to the core tasks of the Art University Linz, and artistic practice and scientific research are combined under one roof. The confrontation and/or combination of science and art require intense research and artistic development in a methodological perspective, in the areas of knowledge transfers and questions of mediation. Cultural Studies, art history, media theory, several strategies of mediation as well as art and Gender Studies in the context of concrete art production are essential elements of the profile of the university.” What are the conditions of this research? What is the biography of its historical infrastructure and how can reflecting on it help us to break through the infatuation with discipline and institutionalization and to sharpen a historical focus in thinking about artistic research? Obviously not every building will turn out to house such a surprising infrastructure. But the general question remains: what do we do with an ambivalent discipline, which is institutionalized and disciplined under this type of conditions? How can we emphasize the historical and global dimension of artistic research and underline the perspective of conflict? And when is it time to turn off the lights?


1. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, in: October, Vol. 55. (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143.


Originally published in mahkuzine 8, winter 2010, pp. 31-37

Hito Steyerl works as filmmaker, videoartist and author in the area of essayist documentary film, postcolonial criticism, as producer as well as theorist. The works are located on the interface between film and fine arts. Main topics: cultural globalisation, political theory, global feminism, and migration. Further activities include work as political journalist, film and art critic, catalogue and book author. The films have received international awards and are screened on TV in many countries. Phd in philosophy. Visiting Professor for Experimental Media Creation at Universitaet der Kuenste, Berlin, numerous lecturerships at art and filmschools in Vienna, Munich, Hannover, etc.

Οκτώβριος 18, 2013

Unreal Estate: An Introduction

unreal (ŭn-rē’əl, -rēl’)


1.not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria;

2.being or seeming fanciful or imaginary;

3.lacking material form or substance;

4.contrived by art rather than nature;

5.Slang: so remarkable as to elicit disbelief.


Detroit: a city seemingly so deep in decline that, to some, it is scarcely recognizable as a city at all.

And so, to most observers, and more than a few residents, what’s there in Detroit is what’s no longer there. Theirs is a city characterized by loss: of population, property values, jobs, infrastructure, investment, security, urbanity itself. What results is vacancy, absence, emptiness, catastrophe and ruin. These are conditions of the “shrinking city,” a city that by now seem so apparent in Detroit as to prompt not verification but measurement, not questions but responses, not doubts but solutions.1

Built into the framing of Detroit as a shrinking city, though, are a host of problematic assumptions about what a city is and should be. On the basis of these assumptions, change is understood as loss, difference is understood as decline, and the unprecedented is understood as the undesirable. These understandings presume the city as a site of development and progress, a site defined by the capitalist economy that drives and profits from urban growth. The contraction of such a site, therefore, provokes corrective urbanisms that are designed to fix, solve or improve a city in decline.

What corrective responses to shrinkage reciprocally pre-empt, however, are the possibilities and potentials that decline brings—the ways in which the shrinking city is also an incredible city, saturated with urban opportunities that are precluded or even unthinkable in cities that function according to plan. Taking advantage of these opportunities requires an approach to the shrinking city not so much as a problem to solve than as a prompt to new understandings of the city’s spatial and cultural possibilities.

Especially in the United States, architecture and urbanism almost always have learned their lessons from cities where the capitalist economy is flourishing, from interwar New York (Delirious New York), through postwar Las Vegas (Learning from Las Vegas), to late 20th century Houston (After the City) and beyond.2 Cities where the economy is faltering, by contrast, are places where architecture and urban planning deploy what they already have learned. These apparent opportunities for assistance and amelioration thereby provide architecture and planning with precious chances to prove themselves as in-the-know, both to themselves and to larger publics, as well. Relinquishing the desire to repair the shrinking city may thus present excruciating challenges to architecture and planning. It might compel the humbling realization that these disciplines might have more to learn from the shrinking city than the shrinking city has to learn from them. It might also compel the even more humbling realization that any specialized kind of knowledge production, whether disciplinary or interdisciplinary, is inadequate to grasp the contemporary city, and that this grasp would have to lead towards a new transdisciplinary knowledge production with a necessarily hybrid, experimental and indeterminate form.3

But the shrinking city can teach not only professionals; it also can and does teach its own inhabitants—with “inhabitation” here posed as a political act rather than a geographically based condition.4 The shrinking city is neither empty nor populated only by the impoverished and disempowered; rather, the challenges of this city have inspired many of its inhabitants to re-think their relationship to the city and to each other. This re-thinking throws into question the urban ambitions and capacities that the “creative class” has been endowed with, if not arrogated to itself.5 Most postulations of a “creative class” imagine that group as wholly different—by socio-economic level, by education, and by other parameters of entitlement—from the socio-economically marginal communities that inhabit cities like Detroit. This imagination has allowed the “creative class” to pose itself as the heroic savior, engaged educator, or sympathetic interlocutor of what some have called the urban “underclass.”6 It has also yielded the race- and class-inflected portrayal of members of the “creative class” as the fundamental harbinger of change in Detroit, a portrayal that has played out in media exposure, access to grants, and a host of other forms, as well.

Socio-economic marginality, however, should be understood not as a call for creative others but as a condition of possibility for the emergence of creativity itself. In this sense, marginality allows for the formulation of new and innovative ways to imagine and inhabit the city. This is not to suggest that the mantle of heroism be transferred from a “creative class” to an “underclass”; it is, rather, to recognize the unique capacity of Detroit’s inhabitants and communities to understand and transform their city. Indeed, for many in Detroit, hope for the city’s problems to be solved by others has not been relinquished so much as ignored as in utter contradiction to the city as both history and lived experience. In Detroit, that is, urban crisis not only solicits skills of endurance, but also yields conditions favorable for invention and experiment—for the imagination of an urban realm that parallels the realm of concern to urban professionals and experts.

What if Detroit has lost population, jobs, infrastructure, investment, and all else that the conventional narratives point to—but, precisely as a result of those losses, has gained opportunities to understand and engage novel urban conditions? What if one sort of property value has decreased in Detroit—the exchange value brokered by the failing market economy—but other sorts of values have reciprocally increased, use values that lack salience or even existence in that economy? What if Detroit has not only fallen apart, emptied out, disappeared and/or shrunk, but has also transformed, becoming a new sort of urban formation that only appears depleted, voided or abjected through the lenses of conventional architecture and urbanism? The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit is dedicated to exploring these and related propositions and, in so doing, the cultural, social and political possibilities that ensue from urban crisis.


Properties of Crisis
The guide’s focus is a property of crisis termed “unreal estate”: urban territory that has fallen out of the literal economy, the economy of the market, and thereby become available to different systems of value, whether cultural, social, political or otherwise. The values of unreal estate are unreal from the perspective of the market economy—they are liabilities, or unvalues that hinder property’s circulation through that market. But it is precisely as property is rendered valueless according to the dominant regime of value that it becomes available for other forms of thought, activity and occupation—in short, for other value systems.

Unreal estate emerges when the exchange value of property falls to a point when that property can assume use values unrecognized by the market economy. The extraction of capital from Detroit, then, has not only yielded the massive devaluation of real estate that has been amply documented but also, and concurrently, an explosive production of unreal estate, of valueless, abandoned or vacant urban property serving as site of and instrument for the imagination and practice of an informal and sometimes alternative urbanism.

Unreal estate is less a negation of real estate than a supplement of it, located both inside and outside of real estate’s political economy. Unreal estate, that is, is neither merely nor altogether oppositional—it opens onto the imagination of positions beyond acceptance or rejection of the market economy. Unreal estate may thus be understood as a term that fits within what J. K. Gibson-Graham calls “a landscape of economic difference, populated by various capitalist and non-capitalist institutions and practices,” the latter not simply absences of the former but singularities with their own particular forms and possibilities.7

“Private property has made us so stupid and narrow-minded that an object is only ours when we have it, when it exists as capital for us, or when we can directly possess, eat, drink, wear, inhabit it, etc.”8 Karl Marx’s critical framing of real estate still points to the seeming unreality of property regarded as valueless or useless. The notion of private property, that is, stupefies us to the counter-values of property devoid of exchange-value or conventional use-values. Devoid of these values, space usually passes out of our cognitive grasp and we become unable to posit a relationship to it.

And yet, the spatial residue of capital’s withdrawal—valueless property, abandoned buildings, vacant lots, unserviced neighborhoods—form a system of disaggregated places that can be claimed by and for an informal urbanism that defies the enclosures of private property. The enclosure of commons was a constituent component of the development of capitalism, a means to incorporate collective space into property regimes and profit-making processes.9 Unreal estate provides a lens through which to see how a decline in the exchange value of property can yield the undoing of enclosures and the creation of possibilities for new sorts of commons—a commons that is neither designed nor intended, but one that is a collateral result of the extraction of capital.

This proto-commons exist in spatial intervals, in the fissures and voids that open up between contracting spaces of investment and ownership. It also exists in a temporal interval, in a moment between the historical failure of modernist industrial production and the possible advent of postmodern urban gentrification. Situated in these spatial and temporal intervals, a commons-in-the-making is at once potential and precarious. It is constantly susceptible not only to further deterioration, but also to further “betterment” as defined by a value regime that equates improvement with profitability. The unvalues of unreal estate, that is, are constantly at risk or even in the process of being recuperated as values—a recuperation that could become part of a process of gentrification, redevelopment or urban renewal.

The proto-commons of unreal estate is also constantly threatened by the least-developed form of capitalism: the primitive accumulation of dispossession, or what is usually identified and experienced as crime. The breakdown of capitalism, that is, invites not only the production of new sorts of values but also the extraction of existent values by force. Violence, of both legal and extra-legal varieties, thus shadows the city of unreal estate; this city accommodates both an alternative urbanism, untethered to the imperative of capitalist accumulation, and the anachronistic urbanism of accumulation by force. In Detroit, this anachronistic urbanism has been emphasized to the point of exaggeration; this guide foregrounds an alternative urbanism in order to allow for more nuanced readings of the city.


Urban Informality: From Everyday Urbanism to Unreal Estate

Speculations on Detroit’s unreal estate have been authored not only by artists and architects but also by activists, anarchists, collectors, community associations, curators, explorers, gardeners, neighborhood groups, scavengers and many others—a heterogeneous array of individual and collective urban inhabitants. The political, social and cultural agencies of these inhabitants are diverse, but their skills, techniques and knowledge are specific, directed and often profound. A concern for unreal estate, then, involves a commitment to the informal production of urban space and urban culture by a wide and diverse range of the urban public. In urban studies, this commitment has been claimed by a discourse that revolves around “everyday urbanism.”10 Translating the concerns of urban informality to the North American city, everyday urbanism has placed a salutary attention on the way that the public co-authors the city through its manifold uses of urban space.11 Unreal estate situates practices that overlap with those categorized as “everyday urbanism,” but these practices invite a rather different framing.

The theorists of everyday urbanism have posed it as an urbanism of the “mundane” and “generic” spaces that “ordinary” city dwellers produce in the course of their daily lives. These spaces “constitute an everyday reality of infinitely recurring commuting routes and trips to the supermarket, dry cleaner, or video store”—a de Certeau-style catalogue of “tactics” apprehended by the public.12 At the same time, everyday urbanism is also supposed to be a bottom-up urbanism that “should inevitably lead to social change.”13 But this layering of political agency onto the quotidian practices of everyday life produces tensions: everyday urbanism is posed as at once mundane and tendentious, at once descriptive and normative, at once inherent to a system and an alternative to a system. How does driving to the video store inevitably lead to social change? What sort of weakness and powerlessness mark those who rent videos? How do the tactics of the customer at the video store differ from those of the store’s employee? In some of its received versions, everyday urbanism might prompt such questions.

The fundamental forms of everyday urbanism are public responses to professionally designed urban environments; everyday urbanism is thus an urbanism of reaction, whether conciliatory or contentious, to the professionalized urbanism that shapes urban space and life. As such, it does not sustain the progressive political project that some contributors to the discourse want to endow it with—a project that de Certeau was very careful not to attribute to the everyday tactics he theorized.14 Indeed, the insistent elision in everyday urbanist discourse between “everyday life,” on the one hand, and “experience,” on the other, points to the commitment of the discourse not so much to alternatives to hegemonic modes of urbanism, but rather to the ways in which these modes are received by their audiences or users. Everyday urbanism certainly offers an “alternative,” but this alternative is not so much critical, a question of difference from a hegemonic political structure, but rather authorial, a question of difference from professional authorship.

Unreal estate is a waste product of capitalism—it is not mundane or generic so much as abject. The urbanism that unreal estate sponsors is less a tactic of consumption, like everyday urbanism, than an alternative form of production. This production can be insurgent, survivalist, ecstatic, escapist or parodic; it can also be recuperative, returning unreal estate to the real estate market. The urbanism of unreal estate, then, can exist in tension with both the professional urbanism of architects and planners and everyday responses to that urbanism; it is its perceived character as subordinate, redundant or trivial that endows it with its particular differences.

In Detroit, the urbanism of unreal estate has yielded an array of practices, techniques, collectives and constructions. Sometimes—but not always—committed to the extraction of unvalues from capitalism’s spatial waste products, this urbanism is also often defined by a number of other common dimensions. This urbanism tends to be improvised, taking shape as unrehearsed and sometimes makeshift moves and actions, as opposed to being planned in advance as a means to a specified end. It tends to dissolve differences between work and play, as well as between art and other forms of cultural or symbolic production, from activism and political organization, through cooking, gardening, caretaking and teaching, to craftwork and social work. It tends to appropriate spaces that appear available to occupation or sub-occupation, or else to furtively occupy spaces that appear to be claimed or otherwise used. The products of this urbanism are often temporary or dispensable and its users and audiences are often limited to its authors or those in their direct company. And these authors tend to be self-organized, taking on responsibilities and functions typically displaced to institutions in functional cities.

The study of everyday and informal practices is often suffused with a desire to endow those practices with resistant or critical force. The urbanism of unreal estate, however, does not mount a critique as much as it claims a right: the right not to be excluded from the city by an inequitable and unjust system of ownership and wealth distribution.15 Claims to this right run the gamut from recuperative, through reformist, to radical, so that the politics of unreal estate are various.16 Occupations of unreal estate emerge from both long-term community activism, short-term artistic interventionism and a whole range of practices that are situated between the preceding in terms of their political, social and cultural stakes. Indeed, as this guide documents, unreal estate development includes escapist fantasies as well as transformative actions; it includes creative survival as well as cultural critique; and it includes the ephemeral aesthetic servicing of those supposedly in need as well as material responses to objective needs through long-term self-organization.

One of the dangers in assembling this unruly set of examples is that it may smooth over the actual and important differences that distinguish these examples from one another. Perhaps the most significant of these differences is that between unreal estate development undertaken by choice, by those with negotiable or flexible relationships to a place and a community, and unreal estate development undertaken by necessity, by those with non-negotiable or given relationships to where they live and who they live with.17 This guide does not intend to blur this or any other distinction between the projects it includes; rather, the guide seeks to suggest the manifold variety of forms of occupation that unreal estate can sustain by including projects that possess wholly different political, social and cultural valences.

While the urbanism of unreal estate takes place in dead zones for both free-market capitalism and formal politics, this is not to say that this urbanism is apolitical. Rather, it is to assert a distinction between governmental politics and non-governmental politics and to locate the potential politics of unreal estate in the latter—a politics devoid of aspirations to govern.18 Just like exits or expulsions from the market economy, rejections of formal politics also comprise invitations: to neglect or parody rather than resist, to mimic rather than replace, to supplant rather than reverse. These are invitations to consider political change and political difference not even from the ground up, for “ground,” too, is the province of government, but on other grounds entirely, grounds “not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria,” grounds that can instructively go by the name of “unreal.”


1. See Shrinking Cities: International Research, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005); Shrinking Cities: Interventions, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006); Atlas of Shrinking Cities, ed. Philipp Oswalt (Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2006).
2. Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: Monacelli, 1997); Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour and Denise Scott-Brown, Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977); Lars Lerup, After the City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).
3. See, for example, Urban Asymmetries: Studies and Projects on Neoliberal Urbanization, ed. Tahl Kaminer and Miguel Robles-Duran (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2011) and Transdisciplinary Knowledge Production in Architecture and Urbanism: Towards Hybrid Modes of Inquiry, ed. Isabelle Doucet and Nel Janssens (New York: Springer, 2011).
4. On the politics of community, see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
5. See, for example, Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
6. On the urban “underclass,” see, for example, William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making the Underclass (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). The concept of the “underclass” has been widely critiqued; see, for example, Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (Malden: Polity Press, 2008).
7. J. K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 54.
8. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts,” in Selected Writings, ed. David McClellan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 91.
9. See Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (London: Verso, 2002).
10. See Everyday Urbanism, ed. John Leighton Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski (New York: Monacelli Press, 2008).
11. This translation also reflects the propensity in urban studies to produce theory in the Global North for the Global North, rather than to theorize the city in terms of global models. On this propensity, see Jennifer Robinson, Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development (London: Routledge, 2006).
12. Margaret Crawford, “Blurring the Boundaries: Public Space and Private Life,” in Everyday Urbanism, 24.
13. Margaret Crawford, “Introduction,” in Everyday Urbanism, 11. On “tactics of consumption,” see Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
14. “The actual order of things is precisely what ‘popular’ tactics turn to their own ends, without any illusion that (the order) will change any time soon”: see de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 26.
15. On urban informality and the right to the city, see Anaya Roy, “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association 71:2 (2005).
16. On the various formulations of the right to the city, see Peter Marcuse, “From Critical Urban Theory to the Right to the City,” City 13:2-3 (2009).
17. On this difference, see Martha Rosler, “Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism,” part 3, e-flux journal 25 (May 2011), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/231.
18. See Nongovernmental Politics, ed. Michel Fehrer (New York: Zone Books, 2008).


Originally published in The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2012. pp. 6-13.

Andrew Herscher is Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency, an open-access platform for research on urban crisis using Detroit as a focal point.  His books include Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo  Conflict  (Stanford University Press, 2010) and The Unreal Estate Guide to Detroit(University of Michigan Press, 2012).

Οκτώβριος 17, 2013

Φακός στο στόμα 1

Το αστικό γεγονός είναι οτιδήποτε κάνουμε στον δημόσιο χώρο της πόλης. Τις περισσότερες φορές είναι κάτι ασυναίσθητο και πειθαρχημένο: στεκόμαστε, περπατάμε, καταναλώνουμε, μιλάμε, καθόμαστε, κινούμαστε. Σε αυτό το διάνυσμα των γεγονότων από τη στάση μέχρι την κίνηση και από την πειθαρχία μέχρι την παραβατικότητα υπάρχουν γεγονότα απροσχεδίαστα,αλλά και δράσεις συνειδητές: τραγουδάμε στον δρόμο, γράφουμε πάνω σε έναν τοίχο, σπάζουμε ένα αντικείμενο, σκοντάφτουμε, ανάβουμε μια φωτιά, παίζουμε θέατρο, κυνηγιόμαστε, κλέβουμε, χτυπούμε, ρυπαίνουμε, χορεύουμε, ξαπλώνουμε κ.λπ.

Ο δρόμος γίνεται τότε ένας χώρος οικείος –ή μάλλον οικειοποιημένος– όπως ένα ιδιωτικό δωμάτιο. Αισθανόμαστε ότι μέσα εκεί έχουμε κάποιο δικαίωμα. Με αυτόν τον τρόπο το γεγονός μεταμορφώνεται σε πράξη, δηλαδή υποκειμενικοποιείται. Είναι κάτι που «κάποιος κάνει». Είναι κάτι που πλέον δεν εκτυλίσσεται «μέσα στην πόλη»,αλλά «στην ίδια την πόλη» (επάνω στο σώμα της πόλης). Η πόλη δεν είναι πια δοχείο (ζούμε στην Αθήνα και έχουμε δραστηριότητες), αλλά αντικείμενο-παιχνίδι (ζούμε στην Αθήνα και τη χρησιμοποιούμε, την αλλάζουμε, παίζουμε με αυτήν). Ας το πούμε αλλιώς: τα γεγονότα αποτελούν έναν τρόπο και όχι έναν τόπο κατοίκησης. Και υπό αυτήν την έννοια συγκατοικούμε με τα γεγονότα, όπως και με έναν  συγκάτοικο, επειδή συγκατοικώ σημαίνει, πάνω απ’ όλα, ζω με έναν συγκεκριμένο τρόπο – όχι απλώς ζω σε έναν κοινό χώρο. Γι’ αυτό και η έλλειψη γεγονότων –όπως, για παράδειγμα, σε μια πόλη όπου δεν συμβαίνει τίποτα, και εύκολα την ονομάζουμε νεκρή– μας σπρώχνει σε μια πανικόβλητη αναζήτηση και απελπισία. Δεν ανεχόμαστε τον αδειανό χώρο, δηλαδή έναν χώρο κενό από γεγονότα. Και σπεύδουμε καθ’ έξιν να δημιουργήσουμε γεγονότα, να συγκροτήσουμε τις διαφορετικές πτυχές της πόλης, να συναρμολογήσουμε τη θρυμματισμένη εικόνα της. Το γεγονός είναι ο μηχανισμός που κάνει οικεία την πραγματικότητα και την αγωνία ενός κόσμου που αχνοφαίνεται μπροστά μας.

Κι ενώ ωκεανοί ολόκληροι των πιο άγριων μητροπολιτικών γεγονότων μπορούν να μας αφήσουν αδιάφορους μέσα σε αυτήν την ευάρεστη οικειότητα, αρκεί ένα και μόνο αναπάντεχο συμβάν, μια ανοίκεια όψη, για να διαταραχθεί η ομοιόσταση μιας πόλης που κυβερνάται από τους νόμους της εντροπίας και να αποκαλυφθεί η αλλόκοτη, συγκρουσιακή οπτική του συμβιωτικού αστικού οργανισμού (κάποιοι θα έλεγαν του οικοσυστήματος). Από μόνα τους, συνεπώς, τα γεγονότα συνιστούν ένα σύστημα ανελέητο και ανεξέλεγκτο («κάποια πράγματα φαίνονται να συμβαίνουν αυθόρμητα»).

Ιδού, λοιπόν, το σπουδαιότερο επίτευγμα της μεγάλης πόλης: να εξουσιοδοτήσει όλα τα γεγονότα, ώστε να τα καταστήσει όλα δυνατά: «μια πόλη όπου όλα μπορούν να συμβούν». Αλλά και να καταστήσει τα γεγονότα δυνατά παντού: «τα πάντα μπορούν να συμβούν παντού».Επειδή η μητροπολιτική τοπολογία δεν χαρακτηρίζεται πλέον από ένα προνομιακό σημείο του γεγονότος («εκεί όπου όλα συμβαίνουν»), αλλά από μια άνευ προηγουμένου διασπορά προς κάθε γωνιά της πόλης, από την πλέον προνομιακή μέχρι την πλέον περιθωριοποιημένη. Γι’ αυτό και μπορούμε τώρα να ισχυριστούμε ότι τα γεγονότα της Αθήνας, καθετί που παρατηρούμε στους δρόμους, είναι η αιτία καιτο απείκασμα των ίδιων των αντιθέσεών μας. μ’ αυτόν τον τρόπο εκείνο που διακυβεύεται είναι η καθολικά σχιζοφρενική σχέση της πόλης με τους κατοίκους/δημιουργούς της: «η Αθήνα είναι μια άσχημη πόλη», «ζούμε σε μια άσχημη πόλη», «η ζωή εδώ είναι άσχημη». Ας μη γελιόμαστε όμως, ο Βάλτερ μπένγιαμιν μάς έχει προειδοποιήσει ήδη από χρόνια: η απαρέσκεια δεν είναι παρά μια μορφή φοβίας απέναντι στην οποία αμυνόμαστε.

Εδώ αξίζει να σταθούμε. Τώρα πλέον το γεγονός («αυτό που συμβαίνει») μεταμορφώθηκε σε φόβο («αυτό που σημαίνει») και ο φόβος συνιστά συστατικό στοιχείο μιας «ψυχωτικής»σχέσης με την πραγματικότητα, επειδή προκαλεί ένα είδος διέγερσης που μας αφήνει καταγοητευμένους (και καλλιεργεί όλων των ειδών τις λαγνείες). Είναι η ίδια έλξη που μας ασκούν οι «κακές» γειτονιές (τις οποίες, όταν δεν αντέχουμε να τις βιώσουμε ως πραγματικότητα, αναζητούμε ως αναπαραστάσεις σε ταινίες, βιβλία, βιντεοπαιχνίδια, πρωτοποριακά φεστιβάλ, ψαγμένες εκθέσεις…) Σε κάθε περίτωση, ο φόβος και η ηδονή συναντιούνται στα σημεία εκείνα στα οποία ανοίγεται ένας αινιγματικός ορίζοντας γεγονότων («εκεί συμβαίνουν περίεργα πράγματα»). Και η μεγάλη πόλη είναι ο κατεξοχήν τόπος αυτής της συνάντησης. Δηλαδή ο τόπος που διευρύνει άνευ προηγουμένου τη σχιζοφρενικήαντίληψη που έχουμε για τη ζωή στην πόλη: «Η άσχημη πόλη όμορφα καίγεται»– «Athensburns».

Το παράδοξο δίλημμα είναι το εξής: αν επιτρέψουμε την άκριτη ταύτιση με τα γεγονότα, τότε είμαστε εκτεθειμένοι σε κάθε είδους μόλυνση, σε κάθε είδους φόβο και παρανόηση.Αν, από την άλλη, επιδιώξουμε την περίκλειστη προστασία από κάθε γεγονός (χωρίς στην ουσία να προστατευόμαστε από τον κίνδυνο),γινόμαστε αιχμάλωτοι της νοσταλγίας ενός φανταστικού αισθήματος ασφάλειας(«τότε που αφήναμε τις πόρτες ξεκλείδωτες»), που όμως δεν υπήρξε ποτέ.

Σήμερα υπάρχει η απαίτηση για κάτι ενδιάμεσο. Η σκέψη ανοίγεται σε έναν χώρο μεταιχμιακό που ορίζεται από την απροθυμία μας να διαλέξουμε οριστικώς (προσοχή: όχι διαζευκτικώς) και το ένα και το άλλο άκρο. Αμφότερα. Πρόκειται για την άβολη θέση ανάμεσα στους δύο κόσμους. Για ένα σημείο ερμηνευτικής διακινδύνευσης στο οποίο κανείς δεν μένει ευχάριστα (σαν να ισορροπείς όρθιος επάνω στο οδόφραγμα). Αυτήν την ταλάντωση μπορούμε να την αποκαλέσουμε αινιγματική κυριολεξία της πραγματικής ζωής. Είναι μια δυνατότητα να βλέπουμε τα πράγματα εδώ που ζούμε, όχι μόνο με το μάτι, αλλά και με το μυαλό. Είναι μια δεξιότητα την οποία μπορούμε να αναπτύξουμε. Και τότε ο ορίζοντας των γεγονότων αλλάζει άρδην και μεταμορφώνεται σε ένα επιτακτικό πεδίο αμφιβολίας. Στο μέλλον θα γίνει πραγματικότητα εκείνη η σκέψη του Οράτιου: «Ακόμα κι αυτό θα είναι κάποτε ευχάριστο στη θύμηση». Είναι σίγουρο ότι θα γίνει. Στο παρόν, όμως, αυτόν τον σκυφτό άντρα θα τον αφήσουμε έτσι αβοήθητο;


Η ΠΟΛΗ ΔΕΝ ΕΧΕΙ ΠΟΤΕ ΜΙΑ ΜΟΝΑΔΙΚΗ ΟΨΗ. Σωστά. Υπάρχουν και όλες εκείνες οι ευεργετικές, οι ευχάριστες εκπλήξεις, τα ανοίγματα που ξεπετάγονται στον χάρτη όπως τα απρόσμενα ξέφωτα στην πυκνή βλάστηση ενός δάσους. Κάποιες μέρες νωρίς το πρωί, όταν ο ουρανός είναι καθαρός και ο ήλιος βρίσκεται ακόμη χαμηλά στον ορίζοντα, αρκεί μια βόλτα στον πεζόδρομο κάτω από τον Παρθενώνα. Αλλά την αμέσως επόμενη στιγμή η εμπειρία ανατρέπεται. Είναι κάτι βαθύτερα τρομαχτικό. Είναι η εμπέδωση ενός γεγονότος: της επίγνωσης ότι κάτι έχει αλλάξει ανεπιστρεπτί. Μια μεγάλη αράχνη τριγυρνά πεινασμένη στον ιστό της πόλης που μας φιλοξενεί. Ένα στραβοπάτημα και οποιοσδήποτε από εμάς μπορεί να βρεθεί εγκλωβισμένος στο δίχτυ. Η αράχνη μάς βλέπει όλους, φαντάσματα και ανθρώπους, μέσα απότην παραμόρφωση των πολυπρισματικών ματιών της. Για εκείνη είμαστε μόνο περαστικά θηράματα.

Όταν περπατώ, δεν ψάχνω για κάτι νέο. Δεν γυρεύω την έκπληξη. Αδιαφορώ αν διασχίζω συνέχεια τους ίδιους δρόμους, ξανά και ξανά. Η επανάληψη είναι πολυτιμότερη από την ανακάλυψη. Περπατώ με τον ίδιο τρόπο που παρατηρώ. Παρατηρώ με τον ίδιο τρόπο που γράφω.

Ο φιλόσοφος Τζον Σερλ παρομοιάζει τη γραφή με το βάδισμα: κινώ τον μηρό, σηκώνω το πόδι, συσπώ τους μυς, εκτείνω την κνήμη, ακουμπώ το πέλμα στο έδαφος κ.ο.κ. Αυτή η σειρά των πράξεων δεν μπορεί να είναι βεβαίως προμελετημένη, αλλά παραμένει επαναληπτική και εμπρόθετη. Εδώ συνυπάρχουν δύο συνθήκες: η επιμονή και η επιθυμία. Η βούληση λοιπόν μεταφράζεται σε επαναλαμβανόμενη προσταγή: «Πρέπει να περπατήσεις». Είναι μια εσωτερικευμένη διαδικασία κατά την οποία ο δρόμος, ο κάθε δρόμος, αυτονομείται και παρουσιάζει ο ίδιος τον εαυτό του στον διαβάτη. Υπό αυτήν την έννοια δεν περπατώ μέσα στην πόλη, η πόλη «με βγάζει βόλτα».

Κι έτσι, η δική μου πρωτοβουλία περιορίζεται στην αναπαράσταση της μνήμης. Γράφω αυτό που περπάτησα. Τι μπορεί, όμως, να πει κανείς για τον εαυτό του; Τι μπορεί να πει ο συγγραφέας δίχως να καταφύγει στην επινόηση; με ποιον τρόπο μπορεί να περιγράψει κανείς μια περιπλάνηση σε πρώτο πρόσωπο;

Μόνο αυτό: ο συγγραφέας δεξιώνεται την απουσία. Γιατί το να είσαι συγγραφέας δεν είναι τίποτε άλλο από την αγωνία να υιοθετήσειςένα πρόσωπο και να του αποδώσεις έναν λόγο. Έναν λόγο, όμως, που απηχεί τα λόγια των άλλων: «Ο ποιητής στέκεται στο κέντρο της οικουμένης, θεωρώντας το αίνιγμα». Νά, λοιπόν, που μιλώντας σε πρώτο πρόσωπο καταλήγω να σκιαγραφώ τον εαυτό μου ως μια κινούμενη ηχώ. Δεν είμαι τίποτε περισσότεροαπό ένα όνομα. Ο συγγραφέας αδυνατεί να αντιληφθεί τον εαυτό του. Σχετίζεται με τον εαυτό του μέσα από μια γραφή που κρύβει παράλληλα αυτό που αποκαλύπτει. Νά γιατί είναι δύσκολο να είσαι συγγραφέας: γιατί απαιτεί να παραδεχτείς ότι ένα μέρος σου θα παραμένει πάντοτε απροστάτευτο, δημόσιο, και ο καθένας μπορεί εύκολα να το ξεφυλλίσει, αν το θελήσει.

Το ίδιο συμβαίνει στην πόλη. Η συνείδηση της γραφής είναι η άγνοια στη στιγμή και στον χώρο όπου γράφεις. Η συνείδηση της περιπλάνησης είναι η άγνοια στη στιγμή και στον χώρο όπου βαδίζεις. Είναι λοιπόν μια ιδιοτελής ασυνειδησία. Ο συγγραφέας και ο διαβάτης διαθέτουν μια συνείδηση που είναι παρούσα στον εαυτό της και ακούει αυτοπαθώς τον εαυτό της να μιλά. Η περιπλάνηση δεν γίνεται ποτέ στη σιωπή. Ο διαβάτης συνομιλεί διαρκώς με τον εαυτό του. Η πόλη γίνεται τότε ο κήπος της οικείωσης και της μνήμης. Ο κήπος της γραφής. μέσα εκεί εκτυλίσσονται ζωές και γεγονότα. Την ίδια στιγμή –και χωρίς αυτό να αποτελεί αντίφαση– η πόλη έχει ένα και μοναδικό έκθεμα: κάποιο ομιχλώδες πρόσωπο που φέρει το όνομα της πόλης και ζει ταυτόχρονα χιλιάδες εκδοχές της ίδιας ζωής.

Η μοίρα του διαβάτη είναι να δημιουργεί ιδεατούς κόσμους όπου συγκατοικούν αληθινοί άνθρωποι και επινοημένοι χαρακτήρες.

Η μοίρα του συγγραφέα είναι να επιστρέψει από την περιπλάνηση πασχίζοντας να τους διασώσει όλους ή όσους μπορέσει.

Κόντρα σε μια αμείλικτη δεισιδαιμονία ότι στο τέλος όλα χάνονται.


Η ΙΔΕΑ ΤΗΣ ΠΟΛΗΣ ΣΕ ΚΑΤΑΣΤΑΣΗ ΑΝΑΓΚΗΣ λαμβάνει ως δεδομένο (αληθινό ή όχι, αυτό είναι αδιάφορο) ότι κάτι γύρω από αυτήν είναι αναπότρεπτο και κοινό. Εντούτοις (και αυτό είναι σημαντικό) η ζωή στην πόλη δεν μπορεί να είναι γέννημα ούτε σύμπτωμα μιας ορισμένης δομής του λόγου. Είναι απαραίτητες λογιών «παραφωνίες», εξαιρέσεις, οικειοποιήσεις, μοναδικά αντικείμενα. Η πόλη μοιάζει κάπως «ετοιμόρροπη» ή «λοξή». Ας το πούμε αλλιώς: η αστική ζωή δεν μπορεί να είναι προδιαγεγραμμένη, μόνο προκύπτει σε κάθε στροφή, σαν μια απρόσμενη συνάντηση. Όταν ο διαβάτης αποφασίσει να αγνοήσει τα οδόσημα που βρίσκει στον δρόμο του και βρει το θάρρος να χαράξει τη δική του ανοίκεια διαδρομή. Και αυτό πολλές φορές μαγεύει τον επισκέπτη.

Η ευεργετικότητα της Αθήνας είναι ταυτόσημη με την αρρώστια της: υπονομεύει διαρκώς την «αφήγηση» που φτιάχνουμε γι’ αυτήν. Υπερβαίνοντας τις όποιες γενικεύσεις κατασκευάζει η εμπειρία, η καθημερινότητα εδώ έχει ένα είδος παράλογης διαστροφής που, σαν υποψία, παραμένει μόνο λίγα εκατοστά κάτω από την επιφάνεια της αντίληψης. Κατ’ αυτόν τον τρόπο, όσοι ζούμε εδώ συμμεριζόμαστε, αλλά δεν πειθαρχούμε σε αυτό που κατά βάθος γνωρίζουμε για τους εαυτούς μας.

Ακόμα κι αυτό, όμως, δεν γίνεται ποτέ κανόνας.

Οι πόλεις είναι περίπλοκες οντότητες. Εκατομμύρια άνθρωποι, χιλιόμετρα επιστρώσεων από σκυρόδεμα και άσφαλτο, υπόνομοι και πολυκατοικίες, η άγνωστη οικολογία των περιστεριών, όλα μεταμορφώνονται σε έναν τεράστιο, χαοτικό, ζωντανό οργανισμό σε παροξυσμό: θόρυβος, γκράφιτι, κυκλοφορία, έγκλημα, αστικές ταραχές, πάρκα, ζώνες εγκατάλειψης και συγκεκριμένες ώρες όταν όλα ερημώνουν.

Ο διαβάτης γνωρίζει ότι δεν υπάρχει μόνο μία πόλη.

Ο διαβάτης γνωρίζει πάντα το μυαλό του πλήθους. Διαισθάνεται τα αδιόρατα κενά μεταξύ των συνοικιών. Ξέρει πότε ακριβώς ο χρόνος πυκνώνει τη νύχτα, όπως ένα παχύ σιρόπι που κυλά αργά ώς το πρωί. Ξέρει τι θα συμβεί αν χτυπήσει τη μικρή πράσινη πόρτα στην οδό Ακαδημίας. Διαβάζει τα ονόματα πίσω από τις γραφές στους τοίχους. μπορεί να σε οδηγήσει κατευθείαν σε ένα προστατευμένο δρομάκι. Ο διαβάτης δεν θα μπορούσε ποτέ να πάει τη νύχτα σε κάποιες γειτονιές. Πολλές φορές, ο διαβάτης μοιάζει με μάντη, αλλά δεν γνωρίζει το μέλλον, ούτε έχει προφητικές ικανότητες. Μόνο αντιλαμβάνεται νωρίς κάποια σημάδια λίγο πριν εκδηλωθούν κι έτσι φαίνεται ότι διαλέγει από τύχη πάντοτε την κατάλληλη διαδρομή.

Τι μπορείς να κάνεις περπατώντας σε μια πόλη;

Η πόλη διαισθάνεται τη δυσαρέσκειά σου και αντιδρά. Βάζει μπροστά σου μια λακκούβα για να σκοντάψεις, σκηνοθετεί το δάγκωμα ενός σκυλιού, μια ύπουλη μαχαιριά, ένα αυτοκινητικό ατύχημα. Είναι εύκολο να πέσεις θύμα της πόλης, αρκεί να βρεθείς στο σωστό μέρος τη λάθος στιγμή.

Ένας διαβάτης μπορεί να συντονιστεί πραγματικά μόνο με μία πόλη. Εντούτοις, θα μπορέσει να «διαβάσει» οποιαδήποτε πόλη, έστω και με τον χάρτη της δικής του.

Ο διαβάτης μελετά την πόλη για ώρες. Η μέθοδος μπορεί να είναι οποιαδήποτε, από το περπάτημα στα σοκάκια, μέχρι την απομνημόνευση των διαθέσιμων δημόσιων καθισμάτων, την παθητική παρατήρηση του πλήθους, την αναζήτηση των χρωμάτων…

Ο διαβάτης ενίοτε παρεμβαίνει στην πόλη με δραστικό τρόπο: μπλοκάρει μια διασταύρωση με το σώμα του, προκαλεί ταραχή με μια απότομη κραυγή, οργανώνει μια υπαίθρια συνάθροιση. Εναλλακτικά, υιοθετεί ένα μέρος της πόλης που έχει το όνομά του: έναν δρόμο, μια πλατεία, μια στοά.

Το ένστικτο του διαβάτη είναι τελείως ανίσχυρο έξω από την πόλη, αλλά επανέρχεται αμέσως μόλις εκείνος επιστρέψει σε αυτήν. Όταν βρεθεί μακριά από την πόλη, ο διαβάτης αισθάνεται άβολα. Στην αρχή όλα είναι ανησυχητικά. Στη συνέχεια, γίνονται δυσάρεστα. Τελικά καταλήγουν αφόρητα.

Ο διαβάτης έχει ανάγκη την πόλη του! Η δύναμη της συνήθειας τον κυβερνά.

Ο διαβάτης μπορεί να βρει ένα πειστικό ψέμα για οποιοδήποτε γεγονός συμβαίνει στην πόλη, αλλά όχι για μεμονωμένους ανθρώπους. Για παράδειγμα, θα μπορούσε να διαπιστώσει ποιο ποσοστό του πληθυσμού θα υποστήριζε για δήμαρχο έναν δημοφιλή ηθοποιό ή ποια συμμορία ελέγχει την περιοχή ανάμεσα στην Ομόνοια και την πλατεία Βάθης, αλλά δεν θα μπορούσε ποτέ να μετρήσει πόσοι άστεγοι κοιμούνται στους δρόμους μια ορισμένη στιγμή.

Ο διαβάτης, όταν μένει ακίνητος στον δρόμο, μεταμορφώνεται σε μέρος του αστικού τοπίου όπως ένας κάδος ή ένας στύλος. Πολλοί διαβάτες πανικοβάλλονται στη σκέψη να παραμείνουν αδρανείς για περισσότερο από μερικά λεπτά. Ο μόνος τρόπος να το πετύχεις είναι να ταυτιστείς με ένα άψυχο αντικείμενο. μπορείς να επαναλαμβάνεις διαρκώς με τον νου σου τη φράση: «Είμαι ένα ταχυδρομικό κουτί, είμαι ένα ταχυδρομικό κουτί».

Ο διαβάτης συχνά αφήνει κρυφά μηνύματα που μπορούν να διαβαστούν μόνο από όσα άτομα μοιράζονται ένα κοινό μυστικό. Το μήνυμα μπορεί να λάβει πολλές μορφές: μια φαινομενικά δυσανάγνωστη μονοκονδυλιά με μαρκαδόρο, ένα σχήμα ζωγραφισμένο με κιμωλία στην άσφαλτο, ένα τραγούδι που επαναλαμβάνει κάποιος μουσικός του δρόμου, ένα ποίημα σε γραμμωτό κώδικα κολλημένο σε έναν στύλο. Όποιος γνωρίζει μπορεί να συλλάβει το νόημα. Οι υπόλοιποι βλέπουν μόνο λεκέδες στην επιφάνεια της πόλης.

Ο διαβάτης δεν φοβάται να χρησιμοποιήσει οποιοδήποτε μέσο μαζικής μεταφοράς όταν κουραστεί. Δεν πληρώνει εισιτήριο. Ξέρει πότε ανοίγουν οι πόρτες, πώς γίνονται οι κατάλληλες ανταποκρίσεις. Οι ελεγκτές τον αγνοούν.

Ο διαβάτης εξαφανίζεται, διαλύεται μέσα στο προϋπάρχον πλήθος. Όλες οι προσπάθειες να εντοπιστεί είναι άκαρπες.

Ο διαβάτης μπορεί να δει μέσα από τα μάτια ενός ζώου της πόλης. Γίνεται, αν το θελήσει, περιστέρι ή αδέσποτο σκυλί.

Ο διαβάτης κυριαρχεί σε μια συγκεκριμένη περιοχή που είναι δική του επικράτεια με σαφή όρια. μπορεί αυτομάτως να αντιληφθεί κάθε ίχνος μαγείας μέσα σε αυτήν.

Ο διαβάτης μπορεί να ενδυθεί το ένδυμα του παρία.Τότε κανείς δεν τον ενοχλεί ανοιχτά ούτε τον χλευάζει, όλοι τον αποφεύγουν επιδεικτικά. Οι άνθρω ποι θα κρατήσουν απόσταση γύρω του. Οι συζητήσεις θα γίνουν όσο συντομότερες και απότομες είναι δυνατόν. Οι μόνες εξαιρέσεις είναι στενοί φίλοι.

Ο διαβάτης αλλάζει αυθόρμητα τις διαδρομές του ακολουθώντας τις επιταγές κάθε περίστασης. Δεν τον ενοχλεί αυτό. Δεν ενοχλείται ποτέ.

Ο διαβάτης μπορεί να ταξιδέψει μέσα στην πόλη δίχως να κάνει ούτε ένα βήμα. Αρκεί να σταθεί στη μέση του κινούμενου πλήθους και να κλείσει τα μάτια. Όταν τα ανοίξει ξανά, θα βρίσκεται σε μια διαφορετική πόλη.

Ο διαβάτης διασχίζει ανεμπόδιστος κάθε είδους ταραχή. μπορεί να καθορίσει την περιοχή στην οποία ξεκινά ένα βίαιο επεισόδιο και τη λογική βάσει της οποίας ο όχλος θα κατευθύνει την οργή του.

Όσο περισσότερο μένει στους δρόμους ένας διαβάτης, τόσο γίνεται μέρος τους. Οι παλιοί εθισμένοι διαβάτες αρχίζουν να χάνουν την ταυτότητά τους. Οι ανάγκες τους συγχωνεύονται με τις συνήθειες της πόλης. Έχουν γίνει ευαίσθητοι στην επιρροή της. Αυτή η κατάσταση επιτρέπει στους διαβάτες να στείλουν το μυαλό τους έξω από το σώμα, δεν ελέγχουν πλέον οι ίδιοι τη διαδρομή τους, μολονότι κάθε τους κίνηση είναι απολύτως συνειδητή.

Σε ορισμένες μεγάλες πόλεις όπως η Αθήνα υπάρχουν και κάποιοι που έχουν χάσει ολωσδιόλου την ατομικότητά τους και κανείς δεν μπορεί να τους βοηθήσει.


1. Χρήστος Χρυσόπουλος, Φακός στο Στόμα, ΠΟΛΙΣ 2012, σελ. 24-29, 48-52, 105-111


To κείμενο είναι συλλογή αποσπαμάτων από το Φακό στο Στόμα, Εκδόσεις ΠΟΛΙΣ (2012).

O Χρήστος Χρυσόπουλος γεννήθηκε στην Αθήνα τον Δεκέμβριο του 1968. Είναι πεζογράφος και δοκιμιογράφος. Έχει τιμηθεί με το βραβείο Αφηγηματικού Πεζού Λόγου της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών (2008). Το πιο πρόσφατο βιβλίο του είναι το αφήγημα «Φακός στο στόμα». Άλλα βιβλία του: «Ο βομβιστής του Παρθενώνα», «Ο μανικιουρίστας» (νουβέλα, Οδυσσέας, 2000), «Περίκλειστος κόσμος» (μυθιστόρημα, Καστανιώτης, 2003), «Φανταστικό μουσείο» (πεζογράφημα, Καστανιώτης, 2005), «Το γλωσσικό κουτί» (δοκίμιο, Καστανιώτης, 2006), «Η λονδρέζικη μέρα της Λώρας Τζάκσον» (μυθιστόρημα, Καστανιώτης, 2008 – βραβείο Αφηγηματικού Πεζού Λόγου της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών), το δίγλωσσο artist book «Το μαύρο φόρεμα / Τhe black dress» (RCIPP, 2002), σε συνεργασία με τη φωτογράφο Diane Neumaier, το λεύκωμα “Encounters” (Listasafn Reykjavikur, 2003) και το δοκίμιο «Το διπλό όνειρο της γραφής» σε συνεργασία με τον ποιητή Χάρη Βλαβιανό (Πατάκης, 2010).
Βιβλία του έχουν μεταφραστεί και εκδοθεί σε Γαλλία, Σλοβενία, Σουηδία, Αλγερία, ΗΠΑ, Νέα Ζηλανδία και Ουγγαρία. Έχει φιλοξενηθεί σε κέντρα συγγραφέων και έχει δώσει διαλέξεις στην Ευρώπη και τις ΗΠΑ. Ήταν επισκέπτης του προγράμματος Δημιουργικής Γραφής του τομέα Αμερικανικής Λογοτεχνίας του ΑΠΘ. Ήταν επισκέπτης καθηγητής και fellow στο MFA Creative Writing Program και στο International Writer’s Program του Πανεπιστημίου της Αϊόβα και research fellow στο Πανεπιστήμιο του Σικάγου. Είναι μέλος της Εταιρείας Συγγραφέων και του Ευρωπαϊκού Κοινοβουλίου Πολιτισμού (European Cultural Parliament – ECP).  Προσωπική ιστοσελίδα: http://www.chrissopoulos-vivlia.blogspot.gr/

Οκτώβριος 17, 2013

New York Undead: Globalization, Landscape Urbanism, and the Afterlife of the Twin Towers

A tricky business, that of understanding New York. The city is always on the move, forever shifting.

Mario Maffi

Although the two towers have disappeared, they have not been annihilated. Even in their pulverized state, they have left behind an intense awareness of their presence. No one who knew them can cease imagining them and the imprint they made on the skyline from all points of the city. Their end in material space has borne them off into a definitive imaginary space.

Jean Baudrillard



A metropolis forever in the making, New York City is a constant reminder of the mutability of urban landscape and the radical impermanence of the city. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the city has also become a notorious symbol of the links between globalization and violence. Engaging with these issues as they relate to post-9/11 New York, this article focuses on an urban landscape architecture project called Lifescape. Under construction since 2008, Lifescape is an ambitious, long-term plan to transform the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (Figure 1) into a public park and recreation area. There are two reasons for this interest in a project to rehabilitate a garbage dump, and both are connected to a broader interest in the interplay between the material and imaginary spaces of the global city.

First, Lifescape marks a significant effort to reclaim and re-imagine a derelict landscape that is connected in both material and symbolic ways to the lived space of the city. Second, following the events of 9/11, the wreckage from Ground Zero was transported to the Fresh Kills Landfill, which was specially reopened to accommodate the 1.2 million tons of material. As one commentator has noted:

Fresh Kills … is not just the place where, for more than 50 years, the rest of the city sent its potato peels, broken dishes and every kind of household trash. For several months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the sad bits of busted buildings and broken lives were sifted on mound 1/9 of Fresh Kills, piece by shattered piece. style=”text-align: right;”>(DePalma, 1)

Figure 1. Aerial view of Fresh Kills Landfill, 2001. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 1. Aerial view of Fresh Kills Landfill, 2001. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

Crucially, the Lifescape project acknowledges the presence of these remains and envisions a commemoration of the Twin Towers and the recovery effort in the form of a giant earthwork monument. How this monument evokes the memory of the towers, as well as how it connects the park’s landscape back to New York’s cityscape, will be significant concerns for this article.

Through an analysis of Lifescape’s transformative vision and, in particular, its plans for a 9/11 earthwork monument, the discussion considers the ways in which the Twin Towers continue to haunt the contemporary imagination, exerting an almost ghostly presence over the skyline of New York. The argument is that Lifescape works simultaneously to reveal and conceal the mutability of urban landscape, attesting not only to the extraordinary versatility of urban space but also to the imaginative ways in which – responding to an experience of collective trauma – such space can be recycled, renewed, and remade in the present era of “21st-century green, global connectedness” (Hamilton, 14).

As such, the Fresh Kills Landfill relates in a number of interesting ways to New York as a global site. The most obvious connection is that, as the location of the World Trade Center Recovery Operation, Fresh Kills played a key role in the federal investigation of 9/11 and its efforts to understand how and why New York’s symbolic center of transnational corporate capitalism succumbed to terrorist attack. In the process, Fresh Kills also bore witness in the most detailed and intimate way possible to the violence and horror involved in the destruction of the vertical architecture of globalization. Over a ten month period, during which the landfill was designated a federal crime scene, the debris from Ground Zero was meticulously sifted and sorted in search of human remains, personal effects, and objects of everyday life. The resulting process of inspection and introspection – fueled in the national imagination by both the media and traveling exhibits such as the New York State Museum’s WTC Recovery Exhibition – contributed to wider public efforts to work through the trauma of 9/11.

Fresh Kills is also tied into New York’s status as a global city in another way entirely. In its function as a dumping ground for New York’s household trash, Fresh Kills stood for over fifty years as “the largest symbol of American waste” (Hayden, 62). The overproduction of waste may not be one of the defining processes of globalization, but it is a direct consequence of the culture of runaway consumption that has increasingly come to dominate the contemporary scene in global (and globalizing) cities worldwide. Indeed, as Harold Crooks, Mike Davis, and others have shown, the politics of waste – which have long gripped cities ranging from New York, London, and Tokyo to Lagos, Jakarta, and São Paulo – are now inextricably tied to the politics of globalization. Fresh Kills represents a poignant reminder of the material excesses of the global metropolitan condition.

Perhaps the most significant connection between Fresh Kills and New York City as a global site, however, is to be found in the Lifescape project. The reason is that, in its radical plans to redefine the space and function of Fresh Kills, Lifescape is part of the “new spatial order” (3) that Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen see as a definitive feature of globalizing cities since the 1970s. While this reordering typically manifests itself in the proliferation and accentuation of spatial divisions between the urban poor and an urban elite, it is also evident in the retreat of the middle classes from urban centers into peripheral clusters and secured enclaves.

In such terms, and mainly because of its location on the suburban margins of the city, Lifescape could be seen as a project aimed at meeting the outdoor recreational needs of a spatially segregated exurban middle class, effectively reinforcing an established pattern of separation. At the same time, however, Lifescape could equally be seen in a more positive light as an intervention in the spatial reorganization of the global city that deliberately resists the divisive trend of contemporary urban development by reclaiming an inhospitable, toxic site for new, sustainable public use. In this respect, Lifescape poses a profound challenge to conventional thinking about what constitutes waste (and wasted space) in today’s post-industrial world cities.

Fresh Kills is therefore a critical site within contemporary New York, and one that has been largely overlooked in existing analyses of the city’s development in the era of globalization. Yet, as a prominent symbol of consumer waste, a repository of late capitalism’s most notorious architectural ruins, and an experiment in new spatial order, Fresh Kills is more than just a controversial garbage dump. Alongside other urban sites such as Wall Street and Times Square, Fresh Kills is one of New York’s truly extraordinary locations in which the tensions, trends, and possibilities of the global city come together in unique and revealing ways.

Before focusing on Fresh Kills and the Lifescape project, however, it is necessary to comment further on the World Trade Center Towers and the skyline to which they belonged. This is partly because it is impossible to discuss contemporary reshapings of New York’s urban landscape without raising the specter of the Twin Towers and addressing at least in some small way the significance of 9/11. While seeking to avoid repeating recent commentary on the topic – after all, much of the crucial architectural, cultural, and historical analysis of the life and death of these iconic buildings has already been done by publications like Sorkin and Zukin’s After the World Trade Center – the discussion draws next on the philosophical musings of two notable New York outsiders in order to contribute a deceptively straight-forward idea. The idea is that New York’s skyline is a site of instability and change distinguished in the contemporary urban imaginary by visions caught somewhere between the sublime and the uncanny. This line of thought is developed by revisiting Michel de Certeau’s aeriel view of Manhattan in The Practice of Everyday Life, which is then contrasted against Jean Baudrillard’s strangely detached perspective on the vertical city in his “Requiem for the Twin Towers”. Far from extraneous to the subjects of globalization and garbage, this détournement into the philosophy of highrise architecture lays important groundwork for the analysis of Lifescape that follows.



In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau famously writes about the experience of visiting the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York in the late 1970s. Looking out over Manhattan from the summit of the skyscraper, de Certeau finds himself “transfigured into a voyeur” (92). And in his voyeuristic gaze, the undulating mass of the city becomes immobilized into a whole, graspable image:

Seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. Beneath the haze stirred up by the winds, the urban island, a sea in the middle of the sea, lifts up the skyscrapers over Wall Street, sinks down at Greenwich, then rises again to the crests of Midtown, quietly passing over Central Park and finally undulates off into the distance of Harlem. A wave of verticals. Its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into a texturology in which extremes coincide – extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal oppositions of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday’s buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today’s urban irruptions that block out its space … A city composed of paroxysmal places in monumental reliefs. The spectator can read in it a universe that is constantly exploding … On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production. (91)

One of the most distinctive features of De Certeau’s cityscape is the description of New York’s vertical architecture in terms of motion and fluidity. And yet, this sense of movement is counteracted by the immobilizing effect of the high-rise view, creating a tension between motion and stasis.

This frozen, long-distance image of New York is what de Certeau goes on to contrast against the chaos and confinement of the city street – the space and level of everyday life. For de Certeau, the pleasure of high-rise voyeurism lies precisely in the liberation it offers from the mess of the street, a liberation made possible by the distancing, estranging perspective of the high-rise view. It is questionable, however, whether such an extreme spatial dichotomy between the vertical and horizontal axes of the city actually holds up under closer scrutiny. In particular, de Certeau’s position that the high-rise view offers anything remotely approaching a totalizing image of the city is problematic, even if that image does represent, as de Certeau is careful to stress, only an “imaginary totalization”7. Setting aside this point of contention, however, what is worth taking away from de Certeau here is the broader idea that the high-rise view produces a depopulated and immobilizing image of the city, frozen in a state of suspended animation, caught somewhere between the living and the dead.

Commenting on the destruction of the Twin Towers in his essay “Requiem for the Twin Towers,” Baudrillard touches on this subject. Interspersed between reckless remarks about how the collapse of the towers resembled a form of suicide and how their aesthetic of “twin-ness” invited a violent return to “a-symmetry” and “singularity” (46-7), Baudrillard does offer some critical insight:

All Manhattan’s tall buildings had been content to confront each other in a competitive verticality, and the product of this was an architectural panorama reflecting the capitalist system itself – a pyramidal jungle, whose famous image stretched out before you as you arrived from the sea. That image changed after 1973, with the building of the World Trade Center … Perfect parallelipeds, standing over 1,300 feet tall, on a square base. Perfectly balanced, blind communicating vessels … The fact that there were two of them signifies the end of any original reference. If there had been only one, monopoly would not have been perfectly embodied. Only the doubling of the sign truly puts an end to what it designates … However tall they may have been, the two towers signified, none the less, a halt to verticality. They were not the same breed as the other buildings. They culminated in the exact reflection of each other. (42-4)

Like de Certeau before him, Baudrillard sees New York’s modern architecture in terms of energy and chaos, also stressing the legibility of the city when seen from a distance. De Certeau’s “tallest letters in the world” (91) become Baudrillard’s doubled signs. What those endlessly mirroring signs designate, of course, is the present age of globalization, and Baudrillard concludes that this symbolism is the reason why the Twin Towers were destroyed: “the violence of globalization also involves architecture, and hence the violent protest against it also involves the destruction of that architecture” (45).

In the case of the Twin Towers, however, the link between architecture, globalization, and violence is far more complicated than Baudrillard’s comments suggest. Given the global impact of 9/11, it is important to remember that the destruction of the Twin Towers was brought about by factors that included but also exceeded the symbolic dimensions of the Twin Towers. For instance, as Stephen Graham argues in Cities, War, and Terrorism, the WTC attacks were also connected to the city’s cultural and ethnic heterogeneity:

The 9/11 attacks can be seen as part of a fundamentalist, transnational war, or Jihad, by radical Islamic movements against pluralistic and heterogeneous mixing in (capitalist) cities. Thus it is notable that cities that have long sustained complex heterogeneities, religious pluralism, and multiple diasporas – New York and Istanbul, for example – have been prime targets for catastrophic terror attacks. Indeed, in their own horrible way, the grim lists of casualties that bright New York day in September 2001 revealed the multiple diasporas and cosmopolitanisms that now constitute the often hidden social fabric of “global” cities like New York. (9)

While the argument that New York’s cultural and ethnic heterogeneity rendered the city a terrorist target oversimplifies the impetus behind the attacks, Graham does highlight an important dimension of New York’s globalism that is too often overlooked. Baudrillard is therefore partially right in saying that the Twin Towers were party to their own destruction, but not in the way – or for the reasons – he proposes.

Together, the skyscraper musings of Baudrillard and de Certeau bring into focus one of New York’s most striking and enduring features. As their comments suggest, the city has one of the most visually compelling and symbolically charged skylines in the world today – so much so that it enables, as discussed in the next section, a kind of undead afterlife for the Twin Towers. Significant here is that, in their response to vertical New York, both philosophers see the skyline in broadly similar terms as a peculiar commingling of the sublime (in the Burkean sense of an aesthetic wonder that awes and overwhelms) and the uncanny (in the Freudian sense of the familiar made newly strange and alien).

The reason for stressing these points about Baudrillard and de Certeau is because their urban panoramas belong to a broader vision of the city that is shared not only by many contemporary New York artists, writers, and film-makers, but also by New York’s Department of City Planning and its ambitious efforts to revivify the dead space of the Fresh Kills Landfill. In other words, the idea of an urban landscape marked by a tension between the sublime and the uncanny also has a certain resonance for the City of New York’s vision of a new public parkland emerging from the site of what was both the world’s largest domestic garbage dump and the operational center of the World Trade Center recovery effort.



“A green oasis for all New Yorkers” (2) is how Michael Bloomberg describes Lifescape in the preface to the project’s master plan. The New York City Mayor’s endorsement is followed by a series of equally bold and exuberant statements by various city officials. The Staten Island Borough President, for example, declares Lifescape to be a “simultaneous ending and beginning” (2), a “life within a landscape” (2). The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner in turn suggests that Lifescape is “reminiscent  of the popular movements that gave rise to Central Park, Prospect Park and many of our other greatest parks” (3), and that the city’s newest green space will become “a tangible symbol of renewal” (3). Commenting on Lifescape’s cultural significance, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs Commissioner anticipates that “the expansive parkland will serve as a cultural destination like no other, engaging New Yorkers and visitors in the city’s unique and vibrant creative community” (3).

Quite apart from the positive spin, which is to be expected from politicians and city officials seeking support for a massive expenditure of public funds, this rhetoric of renewal highlights one of the most important features of the Fresh Kills parkland project. Lifescape is not so much about constructing a new space as it is about creatively reviving a dead space and making it, as stated in the master plan, “rejuvenating to the spirit and the environment” (60). Such a project is made all the more difficult yet significant by the presence of the World Trade Center wreckage within the site. As a way of coping with that presence, the 9/11 earthwork monument is a critical element of the park’s design, a symbolic centerpiece that will play a pivotal role in the project’s potential to rejuvenate the body and soul of a New York in the face of urban decay and post-disaster recovery.

Before examining this symbolic centerpiece, however, it is important to place the earthwork monument in the broader context of the park’s overall design. So first of all, some background and facts about the site and project. Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island has served as a dumping ground for New York City’s household garbage since 1948, and is the largest domestic waste landfill in the world. The site covers an area of 2,200 acres, which makes it almost three times the size of central park. The landfill was closed in early 2001, but briefly reopened later that year to accommodate the 1.2 million tons of wreckage from Ground Zero. The decision to reclaim the land for new public use had already been reached at this point, but the selected design for the transformation of Fresh Kills was not confirmed by the Department of City Planning until later that year. Following a two-stage international design competition to develop a plan for the adaptive end use of the site, Lifescape was announced as the winning entry in December 2001. The first draft of the Lifescape master plan was completed in 2005, and construction on the project began in 2008, with the first major phase due to be completed within ten years. The full transformation of the site, including the environmental recovery, is expected to take thirty years (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Rendering of Lifescape from Southeast. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 2. Rendering of Lifescape from Southeast. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

Lifescape’s multi-disciplinary design team is being led by James Corner and his landscape architecture practice, Field Operations. Interestingly, Field Operations is also working on another ongoing effort to reclaim a derelict space within New York City. This other project, called the High Line, involves redesigning a defunct elevated railway bed on Manhattan’s far West Side into a public walkway, garden, and park (Figures 3, 4, 5).

Figure 3. The High Line, NYC: sectional view. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 3. The High Line, NYC: sectional view. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
 Figure 4. Gansevoort Entry: Slow Stair and Vegetal Balcony.  (Courtesy of Field Operations)

Figure 4. Gansevoort Entry: Slow Stair and Vegetal Balcony.
(Courtesy of Field Operations)

In the design statement, Corner’s team describes High Line’s goal as being “the retooling of an industrial conveyance into a post-industrial instrument of leisure, life, and growth”. Corner’s team also cites the importance of creating “an experience of slowness, otherworldliness, and distraction”. These comments may be directed at the High Line, but they could just as easily be applied to the park at Fresh Kills. This, however, is not entirely accidental. Both Lifescape and the High Line are not only being designed by the same practice but also belong to a larger trend in contemporary landscape architecture towards the reclaiming of once-vital pieces of urban infrastructure for new, imaginative, and sustainable forms of public use.

Figure 5. Lighting concept, High Line level. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 5. Lighting concept, High Line level. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

This trend towards creative, sustainable renewal of infrastructural urban space most clearly registers in Lifescape’s vision of transforming a landfill not just into a landscape, but into an eco-friendly natural parkland complete with communal gathering spaces, playing fields, pedestrian and cycle paths, wetlands, grasslands, woodlands, and even a wildlife preserve. Commenting in a 2005 journal article on the philosophy and values behind the design, James Corner explains that “Lifescape is both a place and a process” (15):

Lifescape as a place is a diverse reserve for wildlife, cultural and social life, and active recreation. The aesthetic experience of the place will be vast in scale, spatially open and rugged in character, affording dramatic vistas, exposure to the elements, and huge open spaces unlike any other in the New York metropolitan region.

Lifescape as a process is ecological in its deepest sense – a process of environmental reclamation and renewal on a vast scale, recovering not only the health and biodiversity of ecosystems across the site, but also the spirit and imagination of people who will use the new parkland. (15)

This double inflection of Lifescape as place and process – as both sanctuary space and sustainable space – is graphically articulated in the master plan renderings, many of which present idealized scenes of pastoral serenity and utopian moments of sociality and leisure, all enabled by the environmental reconditioning and spatial reorganization of the site (Figures 6, 7, 8).

Figure 6. Rendering of park interior. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 6. Rendering of park interior. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

Given Lifescape’s emphasis on spatial and environmental transformation, one of the more interesting elements of the design is that it plans to retain most of the artificial topography created by the undulating mounds of garbage (Figure 6), some of which reach heights of over two hundred feet. These mounds will be sealed beneath a protective polymer lining and topped by a thick layer of soil, facilitating the environmental recovery of the site. On the surface, therefore, Lifescape will be a vibrant and varied natural landscape, an idea reinforced by the word “life” in the project title.

Figure 7. Rendering of the creek landing esplanade with market roof.  (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 7. Rendering of the creek landing esplanade with market roof.
(Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 8. Rendering of floating gardens and old landfill machinery exhibit.  (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 8. Rendering of floating gardens and old landfill machinery exhibit.
(Courtesy of Field Operations)

Underlying this natural landscape, however, will be the cumulated waste of one of the world’s most excessive cities. So while Lifescape will appear at first to be disconnected from the city – indeed, the parkland is mainly conceived to offer an escape from the conventional experience of urban space – the landscape will nonetheless remain intimately and inextricably connected to the city at a much more fundamental level. In a very real way, this rehabilitated natural landscape will be shaped and sustained by a hidden cityscape of urban waste.
Included in that waste, of course, are the material remains of the Twin Towers, which will be commemorated by the earthwork monument (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Rendering of 9/11 earthwork monument. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 9. Rendering of 9/11 earthwork monument. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

The monument itself will be formed by two inclining landforms that mirror the exact width and height of each tower laid on its side. And in a further commemorative gesture, the monument will be oriented on an axis with the skyline where the towers originally stood (Figures 10, 11). This will allow for a panoramic view of Lower Manhattan in the far distance – a view that will eventually include the Freedom Tower rising from the redeveloped site of Ground Zero. Fittingly, the new tower will not only serve in its own right as a monument to urban renewal but, like the two mounds at Fresh Kills, will also evoke the incompleteness of New York.

Figure 10. Location and orientation of earthwork monument.  (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 10. Location and orientation of earthwork monument.
(Courtesy of Field Operations)

In this sense, the earthwork monument establishes a strong link back to the lived space of the city. The orientation of the landforms creates direct visual and symbolic connections with the New York skyline, encouraging visitors to gaze at the city from the vantage point of its recycled dumping ground. Meanwhile, the shape of the monument evokes the origins of the urban wreckage contained in the nearby ground. It transforms the landscape into a symbolic burial mound for the urban superstructures that once stood as the world’s most prominent icons of globalization.

Figure 11. Earthwork: 360 degree view of the region. (Courtesy of Field Operations)
Figure 11. Earthwork: 360 degree view of the region. (Courtesy of Field Operations)

Putting these aspects of the monument together, it becomes clear that what the earthwork will do is frame an experience that ensures visitors see much more than what is visibly present on the skyline of Manhattan. The monument will also ensure that visitors remember and re-imagine the violent urban reshapings that took place on September 11, 2001. Such a meditative experience of city-gazing, in which the estranging effects of the high-rise view described by de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life are effectively replicated from a horizontal rather than a vertical perspective, is exactly what James Corner has in mind when he imagines how visitors will respond to the monument: “the slow, simple durational experience of ascending the incline, open to the sky and vast prairie horizon, will allow people to reflect on the magnitude of loss” (20). In other words, the monument will ask visitors to experience an absence, to gaze voyeuristically upon an urban view that no longer exists.

In this abstract sense the Twin Towers have not entirely disappeared from the New York skyline. Rather, at Fresh Kills, they will continue to engage and disturb the contemporary imagination, dominating both the park and the view of the city through their ghostly reincarnations. With the construction of the earthwork monument, the Twin Towers will thus acquire an undead afterlife. In their new horizontal form, they will once again become landmarks from which to observe the shifting verticals of New York’s architecture of globalization – a skyline now marked by a tension not just between absence and presence, but also between memory and loss, between motion and stasis, and between the spectral and the spectacular.



In his essay “Scapeland,” Jean-Francois Lyotard suggests that landscape is an excess of presence that leads to an experience of estrangement – what he calls ‘dépaysement’ (39). Despite the debatable claim that estrangement is a pre-condition for landscape, Lyotard’s words perfectly capture the dynamic at work in Lifescape’s earthwork monument. It is an excess of presence carefully designed to create an experience of wonder and unease – a site of the urban uncanny aimed at the ultimate source of the urban sublime. Remembering the appearance of the Twin Towers in their original location in Lower Manhattan, the architectural historian Mark Wigley describes them as “a pure, uninhabited image floating above the city, an image forever above the horizon, in some kind of sublime excess, defying our capacity to understand it” (82). This image of the Towers as a hovering, otherworldly excess of presence that invites yet resists interpretation is precisely what the earthwork monument seeks to revive. From their new location on Staten Island, and in their new imaginary state, the undead towers will continue to function as New York’s most powerful and conflicted symbols of globalization.

I would like to thank Elizabeth Bowman for her excellent research assistance, particularly in tracking down and securing illustrations for this article. My thanks as well to Field Operations for generously making those images available for use here.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Twin Towers.” The Spirit of Terrorism. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002.
Corner, James. “Lifescape – Fresh Kills Parkland.” Topos: The International Review of Landscape Architecture and Urban Design. 51 (2005): 14-21.
Crooks, Harold. Giants of Garbage: The Rise of the Global Waste Industry and the Politics of Pollution. Toronto: Lorimer, 1993.
Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. New York: Verso, 2006.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
DePalma, Anthony. “Landfill, Park … Final Resting Place? Plans for Fresh Kills Trouble 9/11 Families Who Sense Loved Ones in the Dust.” The New York Times. 14 June, 2004. B1.
Fresh Kills Park: Draft Master Plan. New York City Department of City Planning. 6 April, 2006. (http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/fkl/fkl3a.shtml)
Graham, Stephen. “Introduction: Cities, Warfare, and States of Emergency.” Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards and Urban Geopolitics. Ed. Stephen Graham. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 1-25.
Hamilton, William L. “A Fence With More Beauty, Fewer Barbs.” The New York Times. 18 June, 2006. D14.
Hayden, Thomas. “Fields of Dreams: Turning ‘brownfields’ and dumps into prime real estate.” U.S. News & World Report. 132.2 (2002): 62-4 (62).
High Line: Team Statement. 5 May 2006. (http://www.thehighline.org/design/fieldop.html)
Lyotard, Jean-François. “Scapeland.” Revue des Sciences Humaines. 209 (1988): 39-48.
Maffi, Mario. New York City: An Outsider’s Inside View. Trans. Derek Allen. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2004.
Marcuse, Peter and Ronald Van Kempen. “Introduction.” Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order?. Ed. Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 1-21.
Sorkin, Michael and Sharon Zukin (eds). After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Wigley, Mark. “Insecurity by Design.” After the World Trade Center: Rethinking New York City. Ed. Michael Sorkin and Sharon Zukin. New York: Routledge, 2002. 69-85.


Originally published in The Journal of American Culture, volume 31, number 3, September 2008, pp. 302-314.

Christoph Lindner is Professor of Media and Culture and Director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam, where he writes about cities, visual culture, and globalization. His recent book publications include Paris-Amsterdam Underground (2013), Globalization, Violence and the Visual Culture of Cities (2010), and Urban Space and Cityscapes (2006).

Οκτώβριος 16, 2013

Nikos Doulos & Eva Fotiadi

For a number of years now, cities around the globe have been experiencing phenomena that have been labelled “crisis”, whether economic, political or social, and both local and global.  The phenomena of economic recession such as the abandonment of commercial spaces, shifts in real estate values, as well as the phenomena of protest and civil disobedience, have left their scars and have transformed urban spaces and everyday life. The radical and often abrupt character of such phenomena has, time and again, led to their treatment as events, as exceptional, temporary situations that will gradually return to “normal” within a few years. These interpretations have, on numerous occasions, paved the way for and justified the deployment of emergency measures. Nonetheless, by now, city residents’ experiences of continuous rearrangement and transformation of public space and the public sphere, as well as everyday life’s long-term infiltration with emergency measures, demonstrate that scars and consequences of the crisis are both effects and causes within an on-going, indefinite process.

For this platform we have searched almost exclusively through published articles for approaches to the event as a process, including the city as a mediated portrait, artists’ responses, and the pursuit of  spatial justice. While our motivation and departure point concern the current local situation in Greece, and Athens in particular, the texts also explore other geographies, representations and discourses. We have tried to bring together texts that offer ways of thinking that are potentially relevant beyond the spaces and cases of the of the authors’ direct interests.

In the first section, “The city as narrative”, Miriam Meissner’s observation about mediated representations of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) is relevant for other articles as well: “As a discursive event existing ‘insofar as it is proclaimed and recognized as such’, the GFC has been dependent on the media. However, this crisis also epitomises a crisis of the media, challenging the general capacities of media representation and critique. How to illustrate the instantaneous yet systemic, rational yet exuberant, virtual yet highly consequential functionality of contemporary finance capitalism? This question has been particularly troublesome for filmmakers and journalists who have been trying to make the crisis sensible in audio-visual terms.” Nearly every article in this section brings together cultural products such as fiction and documentary films (Meissner), a TV series (Gray), an urban landscape architecture project (Lindner), and a chronicle (Chryssopoulos), which are either about, or acted out against, the backdrop of cities in economic, political or social crisis.

In the second section, “The artist as public intellectual”, we focus more closely on art, and especially to artists’ approaches and perspectives. The section opens with a general article by the art sociologist Pascal Gielen, in which he addresses the question of the relation between contemporary art and democracy within today’s neo-liberal world order. Most of the texts that follow provide artists’ approaches (or interpretations thereof) to resistance and protest within the same context. Interestingly, while the legacy of 20th century social and political engagement usually evolves around concepts of art-activism, the mobilization of art or artists in politics and society, several proposals in this section might, at first glance, strike one as expressions of passivity (Denekamp on sleep), deactivation of the artist’s work (Bempeza on artists’ strike) or retreat (Siouzouli on exodus). Accordingly, the analysis of artistic research as part of an artist’ practice (Steyerl) seems to move the latter from political activation to academic contemplation. However, this first impression soon evaporates as the authors provide acute and nuanced readings both of what needs to be resisted against, as well as how, taking into account the specificity of today’s economic, social and political conditions of art’s production and circulation.

Finally, the third section engages with the notion of “spatial justice” and the production of discourses that directly or indirectly relate to this notion. According to Edward Soja in his book Seeking Spatial Justice, before the 21st century this term was almost entirely absent from literature in the social sciences1. Most of the contributions in this section elaborate historically (e.g., Harvey), theoretically (e.g., Harvey, StavridesMaeckelbergh) or contextually (e.g., interview with Tony Alotta ) on concepts, terms and rhetoric such as the “urban commons”, “emancipation” and “the right to the city” to name a few, which are frequently employed by various sides – from city authorities, to occupy movements – for the articulation of their approaches to resistance in cities. Almost invariably, these conceptual and practical approaches propose social, economic, political or cultural rearrangements of city spaces with direct or indirect consequences regarding who may access and use (what) space, and how.

We would like to express our gratitude to all the authors and publishers who have given us their approval to include texts on this platform. We will gradually add more articles during the 4th Athens Biennial AGORA.


Eva Fotiadi & Nikos Doulos


1. Edward Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, p. 26.

Nikos Doulos holds an MA in fine art (MFA) from the Dutch Art Institute (The Netherlands). Since 2011 he is a member of the Expodium collective, where he employs artistic means in a continuous search for a sustainable, innovative and human approach to challenges that cities are confronted with as a result of ever-ongoing urban processes. Within Expodium, Doulos focuses mainly on the initiation and coordination of projects, the creation of artists’ networks, as well as the development of systems and practices of artistic research. Website: www.expodium.nl

Eva Fotiadi is a lecturer in Contemporary Art and Theory at the University of Amsterdam and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy Amsterdam. Her interests include ephemeral and participatory art, art in public space, socially and politically engaged art, performance, theories of play and games, as well as histories of exhibitions and curating in the 20th century. She has completed her PhD at the University of Amsterdam in 2009 and published it in 2011 under the title The Game of Participation in Art and the Public Sphere (Maastricht: Schaker Publishing).