Public Space: Fights and Fictions
The bit which never quite fits into a photo

A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao.
A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao. | © Associação Parque Minhocao

During the 36-hour Factory of Thought, organized by the Goethe-Institut and the Akademie der Künste, experts, scientists and artists talked about public space. 80 pages are giving now an impression about the discussions, that have been held, the questions, that have been asked and the answers that have been found. 

Wilfried Wang/Berlin: Curator of the exhibition DEMO:POLIS: The Right to Public Space, displayed at the Akademie der Künste from March to May 2016. (The 36-hour Factory of Thought was organized in parallel with this exhibition.)

Our goal in creating this exhibition was to encourage the public to engage in the design of public space, to lay the foundations for the participatory design of cities: hence the title DEMO:POLIS. Moreover, we wanted to reassert that we have a right to public space; that we need to protect these key freedoms from fear of surveillance of speech or movement; that physical public space and our political actions in it are more important than ever; and, that practical participatory models for the definition of public space do exist and can serve as inspiration for future projects.

A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao. A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao. | © Associação Parque Minhocao Tentative Collective/Karachi: A gathering of artists, teachers and architectures

In order to be able to talk about the urban, we want to go beyond it in scale to include narratives of ecology, and the agency of inorganic and non human matter, that are entangled in our conversations about cities and space. In doing so, we point towards the shallowing of the ground and the thickening of the air. While there are discussions about reclaiming territories of public space, we would like to draw attention to the ‘de-territorialization’ of the ground and the persistent exhaustion of its fragments that enable our modern lifestyles. To quote Jussi Parrikka and Benjamin Bratton: “We [all] carry little pieces of Africa in our pockets.”

Today, we reflect on the invisible spaces beneath our feet: the underbellies and the undergrounds, the regions that sustain us; spaces synonymous with globally distributed cheap labour, undergirding the visible spaces of our consumption.
We need to reassess our needs and desires, our performances of publicness and urgently point to the invisible spaces of production that enable them.

Nana Adusei-Poku/Rotterdam: Research Professor in Cultural Diversity at Rotterdam University and a lecture in Media Arts at the University of the Arts, Zurich

There is a disagreement in tolerating. “I’m not OK with you, but it’s OK.” We all do this in arguments: “Yes, it’s fine, mhmm,” when clearly it isn’t fine. Or at least I do that! And then you start nagging, and the issue resurfaces again and again. This is exactly what is happening when tolerance is promoted as a key value or strategy in our societies.

The urban space is organised in a way that the breaking point of tolerance always returns, because in the end, its actually not OK for the system that these people are there. I think that notion of opacity is one where you can also be fascinated and you can also share. I understand it as: “You don’t understand. I don’t understand you, but that is OK. I don’t understand. Yes it’s different, and the difference is fine and actually it’s also enriching and I’m learning something from that.” I think that is how I understand the notion of opacity: that I won’t be able to really assess everything.

In philosophy we start with the premise: “I know that I don’t know.” That is so beautiful. It’s a starting point that embraces the notion of growth and flux and exchange and curiosity without exoticism.

A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao. A highway is a park: Parque Minhocao. | © Associação Parque Minhocao Kathrin Röggla/Berlin: Journalist and author

If I had been asked to define public space a few years ago, I would have said that it is the bit which never quite fits into a photo. Whether a playground or main square, somehow there is always a corner out of shot, a part missing.

Nowadays, the desire to accommodate places in photos is a thing of the past, the urge of an ageing – very quickly ageing – generation. In any case, the only photos taken today are selfies, which no longer show any space, or any more space than that which serves as adornment for your social media presence. [...] The political space of those days has become a stage for self-promotion and pure gesture politics. And since today’s politics appears to be dissolving into pure gesture, its space is an ornament, a non-place which vanishes into postcard format. “The economy will take care of the rest,” one might say.

Yet now, Berlin’s Pariser Platz has only a few private sector signs; not even graffiti in the new grass-roots style now so common in the city, which is really just advertising for major corporations. It is becoming progressively clear that the political emphasis on public space in the city can hardly be present ‘in reality’ at this location and, above all, can never be divorced from its marketability. [...]

The crisis of representative democracies, participation, and civil society burnout: How can we use public space for the perspective of an enlightenment in the 21st century? Public space is intrinsically linked to the parameters of each particular culture and society and its historical changes.

The 36-hour Factory of Thought by the Goethe-Institut and the Akademie der Künste aimed to develop a more concrete understanding of approaches to the complex expectations placed on public space.

This arcticle is based on quotations taken from the publication “Public Space: Fights and Fictions”.