Mar 25, 2015

Appropriation of Public(s) | In search of missing pieces

The public is a realm of multitudes. Beings and becomings. Serving and being served, by humans and machines alike. Users and abusers. Polities and technologies. Historic memories and speculative futures. Infrastructures and social networks. Eco-systems and toxic sites. Invasive glare and ambient noise. Hardscape, softscape and software. Systematic edges* and absences. Multitudes that are truly deformed into a polluted totality.

A totality where social and spatial constructs are mobilized by forces of economy, polity, governance, capitalist, communist and everything-in-between ideologies. As conceptually subterranean systems, these forces are rendered invisible by their complexity, which then leads to lack of responsibility. The more complex the system, the harder it is to make sense of it and its reach - and when they do become visible, the problem is one of interpretation. [1]

Hence, the public spatiality where this systemic apparatus materializes is indetermined, unfinished and open to (mis)interpretation. Its original and traditional make as a democratic condition, is now a means for systemic pollution.

Pollution as a systematic disposition?
Active forms are makers of disposition, and disposition is the character of an organization that results from the circulation of these active forms within it. Since these forms are always changing, as is the complexion of disposition, they cannot be catalogued as elemental building blocks or terms in a glossary. Rather, identifying just a few among the many active forms that might be manipulated, redesigned, or rewritten only begins to crack the code, making more palpable the dispositions they inflect and providing some instruments for adjusting political character in infrastructure space. Still, as signs of ongoing processes - like the ripples used for river navigation - the practicality of these forms relies on their indeterminacy. [2] 
Lately, my research has been focused on these otherwise unknown agencies that construct and transform public space - those which make (im)possible today's public(s). I have become interested in identifying and understanding the “systematic absences that make something essential unknown, not understood, hidden, distorted or simply undiscussed.” [3] These ubiquitous forces are manifested and materialized in public space - they shape its (in)visibility by activating forms and behaviors. Their presence is divisive through privatization. Its intent is their interest. Thus, the task of designing public space cannot be approached by default and be reduced as simply architectural. It should be unpacked as a strategy, an all-encompassing matrix of values and logistics that is pushed, pulled, squeezed and overblown by social and spatial conditions within the urban arrangement. It is a process that rejects pre-conceived social and spatial notions. A method that seeks clarity, not in the form of the urban product (i.e. building), but how it searches for content, context and transformation within and outside of itself. How it releases, controls and extends social behavior to reach the common practice of the everyday life and an extraordinary disposition. A pollution disposed? 

Pollution as a paradigm shift?
The practices through which social structure is both expressed and reproduced cannot be divorced from the structuring of space and the use of spatial structures. Previously structured space both constrains and enables the reproduction of social practices and social structure. The social becomes the spatial. The spatial becomes the social. [4]
I am still very much interested in the territorial spatiality of public space, but more so as a critical concept  - an agency - whose capacity and activity is realized by everyday objects, such as: the plastic chair, the folding table, the bench, the curb, the balcony/veranda, the staircase, the placement of the air conditioning units, the clothes hung outside to dry, etc. Informal space, resilient because it is always changing. A shifting paradigm that always disrupts and challenges the predetermined threshold of the building envelope. One that cannot always predict if it is going to thicken or thin the architecture, hence the city. Public(s) as a gestural practice.
“This detailed spatial structure to social life takes time to form and is deformed in time.” [5]
Public space, then, becomes a structural consequence of social practice: an extension of domestic(ated) space and privatization. Public space (per se) doesn't exist. It is a myth. A conception and perception of a seemingly democratic city. So, in order to model it (or versions of it), we need to capture and enclose it, define it first, then investigate how and to what degree it can be open (or impossible to enclose). Open to everyone. But, the only way to model it, is to unpack it as a typology of privatized and domestic(ated) patterns in the city. Patterns of inclusion and exception as a paradigm of participation.
The spatial nature of the society we live in holds more than divisions and continuity, trends and correlations. It is intricately patterned. Social patterns of power, control, deprivation and monotony are all reflected in spatial mosaics: rings of the wealthy, holes of the poor, lines of accessibility, enclaves of distinction. However, none of this would be seen if we did not seek to see it. We must know something of what we are looking for before we can know how to look. [6]
How is the city used? Its everyday. Is it open to everyone? A perception, maybe. Built to exclude? Its architecture as an exclusive and excluded threshold. That's why, when talking about public space, most people immediately think of outside. (The existence of inside public spaces is definitely worth investigating, as well.) People's definition of public space, in this case, says a lot about their participation (or lack thereof) in the city. They see (or perceive) publicness as an outside, a denied access inside, an expulsion from private space. (Let's think about this for a moment.)  Public(s) as an impossibility of enclosure, yes - but as a lack of invitation to participate as well? Exclusion through a gesture of exclusivity - of the same, of homogeneity, of membership. And further maybe, ownership through membership? The exclusion of the other, of diversity, of democracy. Public space as leftover from privatization. A collective cleansing

Pollution as public resonance?

An outside, which is not a dwelling - has been domesticated by the extension of social practice. Not a house, only an extension of the home. Human instincts of (always) wanting to expand the self, one's territory into a cognitive dissonance (of sorts) - constitute a public space that interests me. It encourages (visibility through) engagement, an overlooked public asset that catalyzes potential and consequential spatial forms. The everyday making, occupying and collapsing the public. Through a chair, a table, a door, a window, outdoor appliances, uncovered domestic infrastructures (water tanks, hvac units, electric wires) - people leaning out: talking, yelling, watching, wondering. A different kind of user - a maker and breaker? 

One that doesn't have to leave the apartment to be in public. (Hmm..interesting.) One that doesn't consider designated public space truly public - and designs its own instead. A dérive. Merely a space, more of a drift, an act that disrupts the threshold by contaminating it, by hacking its imminent domain. A public that makes itself visible without pending approval from systemic forces to recognize its presence. One that challenges the public-private (ab)use of the modern city. One that realizes the only public that matters is sovereign, not appropriated through its public space. After all, when people think of public space, they think of a void in the city. A predetermined and already bound open lot. A void, how fitting. A public emptiness. A missing piece of urban context. A void for the masses. Avoid the masses. Masses as content fillers. Contained

I am being way too cynical here, but the point I want to make is that in designing such space - a public space - these things need to be considered and included in the process. Architects and urbanists should be designing a language of visibility, intent, value and resilience for the public user - within the context of a city - competing with forces so complex, that if they don't engage, they will become irrelevant and will end up serving the systemic apparatus instead, making a public only in (as) currency. They will not be worthy of change, of empowerment, of sovereignty - a territory of public(s) that unfolds further than what most people think is public space. It is much more than a park, a playground, a plaza, a recreational activity. (It can definitely be a pyramid!) It is a life. Or rather what makes (sovereign) life possible. And polluted. 

Pollution as public space?

A multifaceted pollution of many forces at play (or at war). Making visible the reach of these political, social, historical, economical, technological, urban, tectonic, and architectural forces thickens my interest and challenge in looking into and dissecting what public space is, really. The what then leads into the how - how it is made, maintained, funded, and used. What are its stakeholders? Private corporations. The state. The community. Foreign Investors. Who profits more from public(s)? Who owns the public? Apparently, ownership does not mean or determine responsibility. Who are these public(s)? Is it the public user, the public object or the public ideology? All of the above. They make up the public realm. It is their exchange; their play and war, their right and privilege, their incapacitated occupancy and membership, their promiscuity - that pollutes

The truly public doesn't exist. Not by a solid (and sovereign) definition or design. It has been taken over by complex systems. It has been expelled. It has been rendered invisible. It has become indetermined. It has been made, remade, rejected, reached and realized unstable. In our streets. In our city. In the routine and banality of the everyday. Drifting. Fleeting. An impossibility to enclose or escape the everyday. A vulnerable spatiality between improvisation and determination. Form and Content. Use and Abuse. An asymmetric existence between warfare and spectacle. Paranoia and Comedy. (‘A paranoid misunderstanding that is played for comedy.’) A defensive architecture made offensive. (Military sites as public spectacle.) An architecture of security fetishized as nihilistic desire to punish. 
[W]hat are the spaces of the expelled? These are invisible to the standard measures of our modern states and economies. But they should be made conceptually visible. [T]he space of the expelled expands and becomes increasingly differentiated. It is not simply a dark hole. It is present. [...] They are many, they are growing, and they are diversifying. They are, potentially, the new spaces for making - making local economies, new histories, and new modes of membership. [7]
It is the most ubiquitous, random objects and actions of the everyday, that can activate public space. Again, the plastic chair, the folding table, the picnic basket,  saying hello from across the street, the voyeur out on the window, the vagabond wondering aimlessly, the children climbing on trees, the leaves falling off trees, the car honking, people jumping to avoid puddles, falling into one, fallowing signs, reading signs, giving directions, etc. It is all in and about the exchange, us as critical capacity (as agency) - the interaction or stillness that we, as public, make possible, participate in and pollute
Let us define two [types of pollution] and clearly distinguish them from one another: first the hard, and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquids, and gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public, and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin. To be sure, the pestilential invasion of space by soft signs does not enter into the physical and chemical calculations mentioned above, for instance those concerning climate. But in combination with hard pollution, soft pollution proceeds from the same drive. Here is the result: of course, pollution comes from measurable residues of the work and transformations related to energy, but fundamentally it emanates from our will to appropriate, our desire to conquer and expand the space of our properties. He who creates viscous and poisoned lakes or garish posters is making sure no one will take away the spaces he has occupied, now or after he is gone. [8]
Again, the question for architects and urbanists screams: How do we design (for) a pollution - a public space - that has been so appropriated through privatization, domestication, expulsion and emission, it finds itself devoid of agency (or incapacitated by congestion)?

It starts with an investigation in making sense of it all, in understanding what's at stake, in identifying scope and establishing value, in critically engaging its social and spatial structure, and so on. Naturally, the unpacking of this process is an uphill battle and it requires strong ethics, strategy, consideration, patience and struggle, and maybe at times a fleeting will(power) to surrender, to be bored, biased (let's stay away from conspiracy), and (occasionally) distracted - but it rewards in the polyphony of experiences it challenges, communicates and exhibits, which will hopefully be present in the design. (And, if up for a challenge, why not design its use as appropriated through abuse.)

***

* As defined by S. Sassen in her book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

[1] Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard University Press, 2014, 215-216.

[2] Easterling, Keller, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso 2014, p.73.

[3] Thrift, N.J., On the Determination of Social Action in Space and Time’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, vol. 1,no. 1 (1983), p. 45.

[4] Pred, Allan, Place, practice and structure: social and spatial transformation in Southern Sweden: 1750-1850, 1986, p.198.

[5] Dorling, Danny, The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2012, section 2.7 Adding time.

[6] Dorling, Danny, The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 2012, section 2.6 Population space.

[7] Sassen, Saskia, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, Harvard University Press, 2014, 222.


[8] Michel Serres, Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? translated by Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon, Stanford University Press, 2011, 41-42.


*********************************************************************

No comments: