Fights and Fictions “Public Space! We have to take it back”

Futureland, Tokyo, 2015
Futureland, Tokyo, 2015 | © Nuno Cera

The Akademie der Künste in Berlin has been the location of exhibitions and events taking place since March under the title DEMO:POLIS – The Right to Public Space. Last weekend, the Goethe-Institut joined the Akademie to invite experts to a thought factory entitled Public Space: Fights and Fictions. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Goethe-Institut and co-organizer, explains why we need to defend the public space in a talk with Ulrich Biermann.

Public Space: Fights and Fictions is the name of the 36-hour thought factory being held as part of the DEMO:POLIS exhibition. Dr Lehmann, what is a thought factory?

The Goethe-Institut gathered many different players for the thought factory: artists, architects, city planners and industry representatives, who together attempt to solve or at least analyze a problem.

How do you define the public space?

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann bei der Eröffnung des Pop Up Pavillons in Breslau Klaus-Dieter Lehmann bei der Eröffnung des Pop Up Pavillons in Breslau | Photo: Marcin Oliva Soto The public space can be a peaceful place to gather, but it can also be a place overrun with terror. It is a place that represents; it is there to celebrate in. Yet there is ever less public space because the mega-cities are growing in a way that leaves room only for investor models. This means that public places, or places where people gather and celebrate, are becoming ever rarer and it has become very difficult to even create publicness.

You explored the public space before, last year with the event Urban Places Public Spaces, a worldwide debate in Munich, Istanbul, São Paulo, Madrid, Rotterdam, New York and Johannesburg. Why is this topic so important to the Goethe-Institut?

We are presently experiencing three different trends. First we have the mega-cities that we focused on for Urban Places Public Spaces – São Paulo or the big cities of China. Then we are observing that alongside these urbanized concrete blocks, which are mainly investor models and do not have any public spaces, at the same time slums, townships and favelas are growing so that society is divided and a huge upsurge of social problems is being created.

The third aspect, which is now increasingly intervening in development, is the fact that there are very many regimes in this world that are very critical of public spaces because they are attempting to exert control there and attempting to prevent peaceful demonstrations, prevent “advocating for mutual objectives.” The laws against civil society are being tightened more and more.

This is both a problem and a mission. Security, control, surveillance – if we look at the assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, or even at the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin, quite a few citizens wish for control.

How about public space in the future? One of the questions which discussed by the participants of Fights and Fictions. How about public space in the future? One of the questions which discussed by the participants of Fights and Fictions. | Photo: Ivar Veermäe And that’s exactly the point! We cannot naively sanctify the public space and say, “This space is unprotected and is handed over to the jurisdiction of those who occupy it.” Instead, we need to differentiate: Which spaces are used in what way; not misused or overused.

Gezi Park in Istanbul, for example, is such a place, or Tahrir Square in Cairo. They are places of remembrance where initially peaceful demonstrations were held. Then, the protests were prohibited by means of severe controls. These kinds of conflicts – with the military, with terrorists – need to be seized just as much as the peaceful ones. And that brings us to a discussion about the public space. There is no public space as such.

On your website, you say that the public space is actually the unifying element of civil protest. You mentioned Tahrir Square and Gezi Park: if the debate is global, then why do citizens everywhere have the feeling of public space no longer belongs to us; that we need to take it back?

Because urbanization is really severely neglecting the public space. At one time, public places in European cities were places where things happened – whether the market or public gatherings – yet these spaces are increasingly being dislodged.

Futureland, Dubai, 2009 Futureland, Dubai, 2009 | © Nuno Cera In addition, we are now experiencing pressure on society, which allows us to demonstrate anonymously. Therefore, the public space of the future is of central importance for democratic society. In this respect, the public space is again being accentuated much more as a space that is quite essential for the community.

Millions of refugees have come to Europe. Where will these people find their place in the public space?

This is where the function of public spaces as places where people meet can be effective, where we are able to bring refugees together with the citizens. Here’s an example: a few weeks ago, we opened a large, glass pavilion on the Plac Nowy Targ in Wroclaw. Wroclaw is the present European Capital of Culture.

We use this pavilion to hold exhibitions, discussions, performances and other events. We brought Syrian refugees and the residents of Wroclaw together here for a discursive dinner. Since Wroclaw doesn’t have any Syrian refugees we, as strange as it sounds, invited refugees from Berlin. The effect was huge. For the first time, people in Poland heard authentic reports about the fates of the refugees and began thinking about their circumstances and options. Public places offer the opportunity for mutual dialogue as well as the possibility of truly transforming “welcome” into participation.

Transcript of the conversation between Klaus-Dieter Lehmann and Ulrich Biermann on Deutschlandfunk radio.