Conflict as Productive Potential
communities and Public spaces
Curator, Professor of Art Theory and the History of Ideas
at the Royal Instuitute of Art, Sweden
Talking about Community-Based Art leads us back to the early 90s, which witnessed increased interest in the politically serviceable value of artistic work. Ensuing benefits were intended to accrue to socially disadvantaged groups and debates on the topic in the USA hence coined the term ‘community-based art.' Such projects are characterized by cooperation between artists and a select group of people that have certain circumstances in common, for which reason it is treated as a “community.” In the mid-90s, Suzanne Lacy coined the term “New Genre Public Art” to present this new orientation of art in public space: “It actually is a genre of public art work, not in the traditional sense, referring to a monument placed in a central area of the city, but because it deals with the public in an interactive way.”1) Art thus defined does not take place in public space, nor is it placed there: it is by its very nature public.
With Culture in Action in Chicago in 1992/93, Mary Jane Jacob curated the first comprehensive and groundbreaking exhibition of participatory art projects in public space that aimed to work with local communities. For this exhibition, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle - in cooperation with the group, Street-Level Video – organized the video-workshop, Tele Vecindario for members of criminalized youth gangs in Chicago’s West Town, which ended with a one day “block party.” This resulted in a kind of video dialogue. Participants reacted on video to those of their neighbors whom they had seen. In this way video was employed as a communication tool: to promote contact between the members of various gangs and other urban residents, on the one hand and to integrate the project in the life of the community, on the other.2) In another project, the HaHa group set up a garden that was tended by local artists and HIV-positive volunteers. In cooperation with a local chapter of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers’ International Union, artists Christopher Sperandio and Simon Grennan initiated the production of a We Got It chocolate bar, created by workers in a local candy factory.
In such “New Genre Public Art” projects, community is conceived in essentialist terms and the participants’ identities reduced to characteristics that they have not personally chosen, such as social exclusion, poverty, HIV infection, criminality or use of drugs. The aim of giving these socially disadvantaged people a voice and supporting their rights is corresponding with Suzi Gablik’s notion of “Connective Aesthetics” as “giving each person a voice is what builds community and makes art socially responsive. Interaction becomes the medium of expression”3) and further, “it makes art into a model for connectedness and healing“.4) Use of the term community in this context proves problematic when it is applied by external sources as a potentially coercive label, when participants are defined as a group due to a single characteristic that they have not personally chosen and when, furthermore, independent action by participants is not encouraged. Exclusion and marginalization are basic preconditions, which is reinforced by the intention of “healing” the other. Accordingly the notion persists of public space as a hegemonic construct in which it is only possible to create niches or “counter-spaces.”5) Christian Kravagna correctly maintains that in many of those projects defined as ‚New Genre Public Art, “the lack of political analysis” is replaced by “a pastoral mix of public welfare and education” that has “pseudo-religious traits.”6)
On this background, Gerald Raunig’s suggestion, that community projects should preferably establish the reality of a situation that takes account of the differences between respective groups rather than ignore these, appears particularly convincing. They should, according to Raunig, “insist on structural transformation, the accessibility of marginal areas and the constant collision of differences,” most effectively by means of interventionist practice.7) The idea of intervention and the afore mentioned definitions of community-based work as “public art” are considering a „community“ as a social construction within the public sphere, which requires a consideration of what „public“ could mean today.
Communities and Public Spaces
The public is today at last acknowledged to be a problematic issue and not a solution to be conjured at will. Reflections on the form and formation of public space have subsequently shifted: from Habermas’ unrealized ideal of a harmonious and homogenous whole to a space structured by diversity, in which parallel different interests coincide in conflictual relationships. Democratic theories, as expounded by Claude Lefort or Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are fundamental to the latter interpretation. Mouffe, for instance, describes this space as an “agonistic public sphere.”8) Given the current trend in public spaces towards more privatization, supervision, rivalry and exclusionary practice, a homogenous democratic space in which extremely diverse interests might be manifested concurrently and harmoniously is unthinkable. In its stead, the “agonistic model” describes a plurality of different public spaces. Acknowledging the dissonance generated by such plurality to be the productive potential of public spaces poses a new challenge to urban planners, politicians, the media, public institutions and, indeed, to anyone who uses public spaces, namely: to deal with this diversity and to channel conflict productively. Nancy Fraser posits that participation is an essential factor in this: “Considered together, these two ideas – of the validity of public opinion and of citizens’ empowerment vis-à-vis the state – are indispensable for the concept of the public formulated by democratic theory. Without these, the concept loses its critical force and its political perspective.”9)
Such concepts of space correspond with newer, or recently revived notions of community that represent a critique both of 1980s communitarian consensual politics of shared values and of Marxist ideas of community as a group united in class struggle. In The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy accordingly demands that the radical diversity and multiple voices within a community be acknowledged.10) Nancy speaks of community as a relational social organization constituted not by the fact of belonging, but by the coexistence of singularity and shared experience. This view is shared by Giorgio Agamben, who however completely dismisses the dichotomy of identity and difference.11) Both Nancy and Agamben proclaim the community to be a political project. Nancy perceives the community’s permanent struggle against immanent power as a central quality, whereas Agamben adheres to a somewhat idealistic concept of a “coming community” that arises from collective resistance to an external power and that hence somewhat approximates Negri/Hardt’s concept of “multitude.” The community that best accords with Mouffe’s concept of an agonistic public space would thus correspond to Nancy’s conception of a community’s permanent inner conflict.
With this we are also getting back to the afore mentioned proposal by Gerald Raunig concerning “the constant collision of differences”, which seems to be in accordance with Chantal Mouffe’s concept of agonistic public spaces.
The issues of public space and community are equally closely linked in contemporary art. When citizens’ empowerment is formulated as an artistic goal, it is commonly attained by means of participatory practice. This led increasingly since the early 90s to work with various communities. “Community based art” encourages active participation in public space by challenging certain social groups, or rather the art public, to take action and communicate in a co-operative process. This poses the fundamental question as to how such communities are defined respectively in the context of art projects.
To prevent art’s attempted mission being misguided, as in the afore mentioned community-based projects that intend to be a model for “connectedness and healing”, it is of fundamental importance to recognize the temporary nature of communities.12) “Provisional communities” are in fact constituted at certain locations or for limited periods, frequently in order to deal with a particular problem. Such constraints allow solely for an intervention in existing structures or for an exemplary situation – that might challenge the existing structures - to be created for a limited period. In their article about communities’ involvement in recent contemporary art projects, Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga pose one of the central questions as to the necessity of both respecting and challenging diversity in public space: “How can very diverse intentions be brought together on behalf of unified actions that acknowledge their diversity as well as their shared value?”13) They answer the question with the term “experimental communities” that acknowledges both the temporary and exemplary nature of communities in participatory art forms. The involvement in collaborative processes of individuals with diverse knowledge and experience appears in this respect to be an essential resource and one that differentiates these projects from the aforementioned, in which community-membership is defined by a categorical, essentialist characteristic. Projects with hybrid experimental communities can be found, for example, in the work of Jeanne van Heeswijk. In 2002, for the “Face Your World” project that took place in Amsterdam and Columbus/Ohio, Jeanne van Heeswijk installed computers in a bus that traveled a route, amongst others, between three urban “Children of the Future” centers, which are local community centers for kids. Children riding the bus were able to use an interactive program to manipulate, redesign or reinvent their immediate environment14) and their urban visions were displayed at bus-stops in interactive kiosks. The project united everyday use of public transport with innovative computer technology and creative thinking. For van Heeswijk, the electronic medium is neither an end in itself nor a unifying characteristic of the community addressed. Rather, it is employed as a tool that demonstrates children’s ideas productively and thus allows them to be acknowledged as creative co-producers of an imaginary urban space.
For the Amsterdam version a new Software was developed by V2-Media lab, adapted to the situation and the specifics of the project, which was in Amsterdam about collectively designing a public park. In contrast to the community-based art projects described in the beginning as “connective aesthetics” or “new genre public art” van Heeswijk’s approach is playful and using communication and collaboration to create a model situation, situated between what is desired and what is practicable. The artist, who has access to institutional spaces and processes of decisionmaking, is sharing her priviledge of access in order to offer kind of a “third-space”, the design and use of which could follow individual desires and creativity, but can be realised nevertheless. This very notion of a model as well as that of a temporary community, or I would rather say “collective”, because this implies a joint production unit, is quite important, discussing the artistic approach in contrast to a mimicry of social service. The aim of collective work is not to create a harmonious being together of a group of people, but to produce a public sphere which meets common needs, wishes and desires and which is designed following the creative proposals by those people, who will use this land. By this it is an interference in a top down designed public space - a collecitve action on a public level.
Another example for this, and prior to van Heeswijk’s park project, is the well-known Park Fiction project in Hamburg, initiated in 1995 in the Antoni Park in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg by the artist Christoph Schäfer together with Cathy Skene and continued with filmmaker Margit Czenki, with residents of the St. Pauli district, other activists and a landscape architect. The project involves residents of the St. Pauli district as creative co-producers of “personal wishes” pertaining to long-term use of the district, and not because they typified a single social characteristic.15)
The major differnce to “Community based” Arts is that the communities or collectives consist of diverse people and the collective activity they are doing is aimed to be creative contributing to their own benefits. They create the park they themselves are using, or develop models to design their own surrounding. In the framework of an art project, these activities are not limited by formal instructions or guidelines by the authorities.
Discussing experimental communities in art we could also mention the turkish group Oda Projesi, or the Swedosh artost Johanna Billing.
In contrast – and I come to the next type of community in art I would like to introduce- the term “virtual communities” describes communities that define themselves according to their use of a common medium, such as the Internet, television or cell-phones. These too, initially promised liberation from fixed identities. Above all, the Internet offers new forms of participation in public democracy, in that it facilitates activity bound neither by ethnicity nor gender, in public space that is not organized by the state. Individuals from far-flung geographical locations and diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds are thus able to contact one another directly, without regard for the social barriers encountered in local public spaces. Initially online forums existed, such as “The Thing,” founded in 1991 in New York and still used today by a community recruited more or less from the arts field, whilst the New York mailbox “Echo,” set up in 1990, was used by intellectuals from all disciplines. In contrast to Howard Rheingold’s somewhat esoteric and idealized conception of a harmonious and homogenous media community16) that approximates Habermas’ concept of the public, Echo’s founder, Stacy Horn reports in her book Cyberville that power relations are reproduced in the net in exactly the same way as in local physical communities. She thereby dispels any notion of the Internet’s democratic leveling effect in and on public space.17) In the meantime, the virtual bubble has burst and interest in the dashed hopes of “another world” has long since dwindled.
The tendency has instead been towards the constitution of media publics comprising both physical and virtual space that activates the communication potential of both synergistically.
The Indymedia network, set up initially as a “website for alternative counter-cultures”, is particularly interesting in this regard. As well as hosting Wikis and email lists, it provides live coverage of political protests, functioning at such moments as a website with a real physical base, as “a sort of alternative internet café in the immediate vicinity of a political action, with computer access and the possibility of uploading audio-visual and written documents.”18) This amalgamation of virtual and physical public space gives rise to a community that no longer distinguishes between real and virtual.
Whilst in net communities interactivity is a priori one of the medium’s key qualities, the passive viewer of the centrally organized medium of television continues to personify the late-capitalist consumer. The possibility of “interaction” is here limited to TV-shopping and dialing telephone-sex numbers, which merely reinforces the prescribed role of consumer.
The other possibility of actively broadcasting oneself is to be typecast for participation in a “reality-show” and to display oneself before a public of millions. Quiz shows too, in which one can appear and perhaps show one’s ignorance, merely confirm the prescribed and completely de-individualized possibilities of participation, the only aim of which is to trade one’s dignity for a rating in the voyeuristic entertainment sector. Several participatory TV channels and programs that counter such passivity and pseudo-participation have emerged from the arts field, for instance, Superchannel, Internet TV produced since 1998 by the Danish group, Superflex in cooperation with Sean Treadway; or tv-tv, a broadcasting slot on a local public access channel in Copenhagen that is used by a group of artists and art theoreticians associated with the Copenhagen Free Universtiy.19) Superchannel devises various methods of participation. Temporary studios are occasionally created as a contribution to exhibitions in institutions, such as the Kunsthalle in Vienna. The Kunsthalle put together a program on the theme of “Europe?” whereby use of the medium in this case did not diverge from the traditional one-way transmission of a discussion in an art institution. Another, more long-term project was established in a housing estate in Liverpool. For “Tenantspin”, the medium was used to draw attention to problems arising locally in high-rise housing, to promote social exchange amongst residents by means of collaborative work on the project and to communicate with other groups via the Internet. Due to the fact that the respective channels were unable to take up independent, direct contact with one another and had rather, to run all contributions through the Superchannel common server, the potential radicalism of the Internet’s communication structure, namely, the decentralization of news-reading, publishing, film-making and broadcasting, was capped at the systemic level. The tv-tv project, in contrast, uses a centralized TV-broadcasting structure, whilst decentralizing this by drawing on a broad network of local production groups. In this way public media are defined not only by the common use of a particular medium but to a much larger extent, by the fact that the groups are constituted in a decentralized structure on account of the independent program material that they produce.
For Mark Poster, its technological potential for decentralization is the Internet’s decisive achievement, for it marks the end of the era of public space as face-to face communication and hence calls for a new interpretation of concepts of democracy regarding the potential of electronic communication, beyond the virtual communities of mailing lists, chat-rooms and commercial or institutionalized networks.20) Such democratization primarily affects the constitution of the subject, which in the Internet can be chosen at will.
Another example for the democratization of media and for comprising locality, physical space and virtual space is Sarai, a Delhi-based New Media & Urban Culture Programme, connected to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Sarai means in Hindi, Urdu, Pujabi, Bengali, as well as in Turkish an enclosed space in a city, or beside a highway, where travellers and caravans find shelter, sustenance and companionship; a tavern, a public house; a meeting place; a destination and a point of departure; a place to rest in the middle of a journey. Sarai, who became prominent with their participation in the latest Documenta, is a collective consisting of over 30 theoriticians, artists, media activists, and software enginieers, who work with digital and electronic media, because they see them as becoming a vital part of the transformation of our urban landscapes, and also because they straddle issues of culture, economy, intellectual property, labour, democracy, political control, information management, surveillance, freedom of expression and censorship – all of which characterize the nature of our contemporary realities. They are frequently organizing local and international conferences and screenings on these topics, involving local researchers, filmmakers and teenagers, as well as the international media art and expert community. For their researches Sarai is using their vast international network, gained in mailinglists, weblogs and international meetings, which also shows in their numerous publications. A major project of Sarai are the Cybermohallas, an experimental collaborative initiative for the creation of nodes of popular digital culture in Delhi. Cybermohalla is a collaboration between Sarai and Ankur, a Delhi based NGO. The word Cybermohalla - Mohalla is neighborhood - suggests a hybrid location, which has the open-endedness of cyberspace, qualified by the local specificities and intimacy of a mohalla or a dense urban neighbourhood. The project works with young people living in slum settlements and working class neighourhoods. It is basically a free Media-lab, not only for browsing the net, but to do collective text, image and soundproduction, which the young participants enjoy as a creative and open environment, quoting one participant: We say what we want to, ask what we wish to ask. Here, there isn't any kind of competition. No tension to overtake others. We work on three things - text, sound and image. We type out that which we write before sitting in front of the computer. What do we write about? For instance, ‚what is fear, why we feel it, what causes it. There are many other such things which we may not know of, but do experience. Keeping these in mind, we write out pieces, big pieces and small texts. And then we type them out. These are stories about our basti (=name of the neighborhood), interviews with our neighbours, and our experiences. It is with these that we work on the computers. The impact of the Cybermohallas can be described as bringing together the energies of local intervention, creativity with texts, sound & images and innovative uses of computers and digital technology, while remaining alert to the imperatives of social and cultural specificity and autonomy.
Regarded against the backdrop of the rigid caste system and increasing class differences in India the relation of Sarai to the Cybermohalla-participants is about providing access, sharing priviledges and knowledge and offering a platform for creativity. Besides the Cybermohallas Sarai work in India with schools and universities, as do other artists in India as well, like for instance Amar Kanwar, for the reason that the few museums in India are not at all part of public life. The interest in taking part in public life is in the case of Sarai merging with an interest in collectivity, in an active correspondance of local collectives and virtual communities and in the democratic use and development of mediatechnology, which is important in India, because of the parallel econmies with the IT-Boom in Cities such as Bangalore, Chennai or Puna on the one hand and the 40% of the population, who cannot read or write on the other.
The specific political and societal situation of a place and its publics gives the background for public interventions and collective or community related work. In the western hemisphere we are confronted with an ever-declining welfare state in Western European countries, the decreasing availability of social services in the US, and the loss of the state-run organization of social life in Eastern Europe. In this scenario the interest of artists in investigating collaborative approaches in civil society seems proportionately to be on the rise, as well as the immediate formation of new artist collectives. Alongside to this art institutions care more and more about how to relate to diverse public groups and find in them new peergroups to support their work. What can a conscious set up of and dealing with social relations achieve for the functioning of an art institution?
Leonardo Avritzer is talking about a connection between new collective forms of occupation of public space with new insitutional designs.”21) Considering art institutions as part of the public sphere, this can be a valuable concept for art insitutions to reinforce collective working processes with artists and participants from other fields.
The traditional form of artists’ participation in insitutional processes is targeted. As expected the result of the work by an artist is exhibited. According to this artistic production is understood as a contribution for the visitors of an exhibition. But this mirrors only a small part of the actual role artists play as active co-producers in diverse areas of the art field. I consider it crucial to collaborate closely with artists also in the structural work of an institution, which means to involve artists in strategic plannings and decision processes. So that the institution is not only dealing with the expectations of sponsors, politicians and diverse publics, but first and foremost meets the requirements of artistic production in the best possible ways. This collaboration can take place on the level of planning an exhibition, but just also in the processes of setting up insitutional frameworks and operation modes. Here is looming a chance for emerging institutions, the profile of which is not yet detemined. Therefore we are talking about the potential of imaginary communities. As Phillip E. Wegner has put it: “These imaginary communities are ‘nowhere, … precisely to the degree that they make somewhere possible, offering a mechanism by which people will invent anew the communities as well as the places they inhabit.”22)
1) Suzanne Lacy, “Cultural Pilgrimages and Metaphoric Journeys” in: Mapping the Terrain. New Genre Public Art, Seattle 1995, pp. 19–47.
2) Mary Jane Jakob, “Video itself emerged as the artist’s tool for engaging the neighborhood, enlisting students, meeting other people, and learning the terrain.”, in: Culture in Action, Seattle 1995, pp. 76–87.
3) Suzi Gablik, Connective Aesthetics. Art after Individualism, in: Lacy 1995, p ..-..., cit. P. 82.
4) a.a.o. p. 86.
5) Henri Lefèbvre defines the production of “counter-space” as a subversive strategy: “forces that run counter to a given strategy and occasionally succeed in establishing a “counter-space” within a particular space.” Comp. his The Production of Space, Cambridge, MA, 1995, p. 367.
6) Christian Kravagna, “Modelle partizipatorischer Praxis” in: Marius Babias and Achim Koennecke (Ed.), Die Kunst des Oeffentlichen, Amsterdam and Dresden 1998, pp. 28–47, here p. 34 f.
7) Gerald Raunig, “Spacing the Lines. Konflikte statt Harmonie. Differenz statt Identitaet. Struktur statt Hilfe” in: Stella Rollig und Eva Sturm (Ed.), Duerfen die das? Vienna 2002, pp. 118–127, here p. 125.
8) S. Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, London 2000. S. also Claude Lefort, “The Question of Democracy,” Chap. 1, in: Democracy and Political Theory, Minneapolis 1988.
9) Nancy Fraser, “Die Transnationalisierung der Oeffentlichkeit,” in: Gerald Raunig and Ulf Wuggenig (Ed.), Publicum. Theorien der Öffentlichkeit, Vienna 2005.
10) Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, Minneapolis 1991.
11) Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, Minneapolis,1993.
12) S. also Beatrice von Bismarck on the concept of temporary communities: “Verhandlungssachen: Rollen und Praktiken in der Projektarbeit” in: Hans Dieter Huber et al (Ed.), Kunst des Ausstellens, Ostfildern-Ruit 2002, pp. 229–236, here p. 235.
13) Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga, “Rules of Engagement” in: Artforum, 43, 7, March 2004, pp. 166–169, here
14) The interactive program was created in collaboration with the media collective V2_lab in Rotterdam and Maaike Engelen. Atelier van Lieshout designed the interactive bus-stop kiosks.
15) Park Fiction, realized since 1995 in the Antoni Park in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg, is a cooperative project by the artists Margit Czenki, Christoph Schaefer and Cathy Skene, residents of the St. Pauli district, other activists and a landscape architect.
16) Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community. Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Boston, 1993.
17) Stacy Horn, Cyberville – Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, New York,1998.
18) Marion Hamm, “Indymedia – Zur Verkettung von physikalischen und virtuellen Oeffentlichkeiten” in: Raunig and Wuggenig 2005 (s. note 2).
19) tv-tv was founded by Kristina Ask, Stine Eriksen, Joachim Hamou, Kent Hansen, Henriette Heise, Christian Hillesøe, Ulla Hvejsel, Jakob Jakobsen, Marie Reynolds, Katya Sander and Simon Sheikh.
20) Mark Poster, CyberDemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere, www.humanities.uci.edu/mposter/writings/democ.html
21) Leonardo Arritzer,Democracy and the public space in latin America, princeton 2002, P. 165.
22) Comp. Phillip E. Wegner, Imaginary Communities. Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity, Berkeley 2002, p. xvi-xvii.