Networked Culture

Peter Mörtenböck about Placemaking Dialogues

Peter MörtenböckHow can we think of ways to engage in dialogical situations in the urban realm today, to extend – in Deleuzian terms – the co-existence of polyphonic, multi-vocal compounds? In Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of ‘dialogism’ words constitute subjectivity by generating a social space that is fundamentally interpersonal and thus facilitates a constant appropriation and transformation of the voice of the other.

What emerges in such dialogues is not merely a reproduction of self-contained worlds but a complex map of intensities whose distribution, rather than according with a predetermined logic, develops out of reciprocal points of contact: singular encounters, movements, contacts and spontaneously co-ordinated actions. None of the links appearing between the encounters is required to be part of an overarching plan, part of the grammar of a common project. Dialogues evolve in the acts of speaking and hearing, in processes of interruption and sedimentation and not in the planning of a common outcome.

Approaching the Hungarian pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, visitors were treated to a cacophony of sounds – a twittering and hissing, chirping and clucking, all seeping out from what looked like a brightly coloured Garden of Eden tucked away in the courtyard of the pavilion. As one drew closer, however, it became apparent that these sounds were not being produced by birds or other happy creatures and that the garden was not composed of trees and plants but of strange, artificial structures that looked like a landscape of rotary clotheslines that were loaded and interconnected with thousands of little Chinese toys the mechanics of which were producing this ragtag soundscape. The installation by Usman Haque and Adam Szaboles Somlai-Fischer took its inspiration from the spread of Chinese markets into the everyday life of even the smallest villages in Hungary. What, the work seemed to ask, would happen if the Chinese mass production of disposable commodities did not just flood these spaces with cheap toys and textiles but also provided an excess of cheap, basic building material that could be shipped around the globe from China? What would become of the European cityscape and its aura of longevity and cultural rootedness if it were transformed into a commodity of global capitalism? What impact would this have not only on the physiognomy of the built environment but also on cultural identifications geared towards a concurrence of the notion of place and vernacular ways of making oneself at home.

Driven by new imperatives of social mobility and the expansion of transnational spaces brought about by the unequal movements of tourism, migration and flight, marketplaces have come into being that have created novel and extreme physical configurations from local opportunities. These spatial structures are intermediate zones that are being seized by diverse interest groups, irrespective of whether they are local or global, formal or informal, or have access to a great deal or very little capital. Their unstable positioning is allied to the ambivalent logics of mobility and circulation and to a range of unsolicited processes within the streams of global geopolitics.

Placemaking practices are thus deeply intertwined with the organisation of the world economy. In his book Networking the World, Armand Mattelart locates the struggle over territorial resources within a restructured organisation of economic space in which the orientation of the world economy towards network organisation is characterised by two distinct processes: the relocation of economic activities towards regions with low labour costs combined with liberal environmental regulations, and a highly flexible agglomeration of capital investments in ‘innovative’ world regions. The dynamics of this development are threatening to create a two-speed social geography made up of a network of megalopoli and deteriorating areas in between global nodal points

A new kind of urban system that has arisen from the multi-directional movements of transnational urban deregulations and realignments – the ‘extended city’ as a cluster of networked sites produced by political upheaval, migratory movements, regulatory bodies, laws, technologies, and other translocal forces that are acted out locally. This new urban form points toward a shift from a ‘citizenship of borders and confines’ to diverse forms of ‘latitudinal citizenship’ associated with the exertion of lateral influence across social and political domains. It signals a complex entanglement of neoliberal technologies of government with forms of self-organisation. In this environment, informal markets behave as performative frames that build increasingly complex webs of relationships linked to a redefinition of the urban system not purely as an effect of accelerated globalisation but as a set of situated cultural practices and interactions between particular emergent assemblages.

In light of these mechanisms, it seems that an intensifying network of nodalised informality emerges where different cultures coincide locally and yield volatile, contradictory and contested space-time ecosystems. Territorial realities are distanced from the familiar framework of geographical representation and are instead articulated via spatial relationships and the extension of territories to include ideational worlds, flows, contexts, images and peripheries. The orientation to the site has thus morphed into a creative participation in translocal spaces of action. These spaces of action are places of participation growing out of a constant negotiation of the conditions of taking part, i.e. out of a constant subversion of expected functionalities and a shifting of definitions of what actually constitutes participation. They are not tied to a specific duration or concrete place and yet are based on principles of mutual responsibility and shared horizons. The goal of many networking activities is the disruption of the linearity of development processes, jurisdictions and role prescriptions in favour of a horizontally layered sphere of collective production, the changes of which constantly throw up new questions. In contrast to the participatory art projects of the 1960s and 1970s, the concern here is not with the production of a concrete identity-establishing place but with a form of involvement that is achieved via participation in networks. What is decisive for a contemporary kind of urban dialogue is therefore neither a prepotent global sphere nor an essentialist local mindset but rather the uneven terrain of unforeseen occurrences, irritations and disturbances, which emerges in the moment of confluence between unequal forces and provokes a whole series of unforeseen paths and situations.
Peter Mörtenböck
is an architect, theorist and curator based in London and Vienna. He is the initiator of Networked Cultures, an international research platform that investigates the potentials and effects of networked spatial practices (www.networkedcultures.org). Together with Helge Mooshammer, he has recently published Netzwerk Kultur (2010) and Space (Re)Solutions (2011). Their forthcoming book Other Markets (2012) will discuss the global nature of informal economies.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Estland
May 2011