Public Agency - Workshop: report

Report by Lisa Haskel about the Public Agency workshop.

In response to the previous day's discussion, and with the participation of Frederic Migaryou, a philosopher and architectural theorist who specialises in the history of the architectural construction of public space, the morning took up the discussion about shifting concepts of the public and public space in greater detail and with the benefit of some historical perspectives.

 

Frédéric Migayrou wished to emphasise the continuity between the construction of material public space and the topologies of immaterial spaces. He has a particular interest in how modernism shapes the contemporary environment across these domains. Discussing Paul Virilio, and referencing Virilio"s progression in his writing from the theme of war, to speed, to new media technologies, Migayrou points out that it is war that created the conditions for Modernism: material destruction enabled the modernist architects to develop the idea of the tabula rasa - a clear territory in which the built environment, but also whole ways of life, the body, and even nature could be re-shaped. With the additional development of high-speed transportation, especially air travel, comes changes in space/time relationships: hence the theme of speed in Virilio"s work. New technologies similarly create the possibilities of new mappings, disconnected from material geographies but still legitimate topologies. Migayrou argues that such transformations demand a re-conceptualisation of the subject in which these cognitive transformations are taken into account. Most architects trying to create public space are mostly working, actually, with modernist notions of public space which are not relevant anymore to this cognitively transformed subject. These - the majority - of architects are working on tried and tested, convention bound models, building a simulated public space which is actually organised by the market, and which is part of an economy that demands the quickest possible returns on the lowest possible investment.

 

It is necessary, therefore, to create new and radical forms of architecture - in which artists can and do play a part - which address the cognitive changes in the experience of embodiment in the urban domain. An body extended with technological and communication tools needs an extended architecture. There are some architectural practices that are addressing this, that tend to be influences by the ideas of thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, with their descriptions of new kinds of social bonds. Such architects - Francois Roche and Peripherique were named as examples - are often very concentrated on a very local situation and its connectivity. They are "Architects of a Situation": addressing and engaging with the idea and experience of the extended body while attending to very local conditions.

 

A certain parallel can be identified with those young artists who concentrate heavily on the subjective in their work. On the one hand they are trying to build a very localised identity, but too often this work is passive. It describes an identity without attempting an active intervention. Contrast them with those artists who are able to be active in their exploration of identity and location: surely the idea is to define a new cognitive position from which to act, rather than simply describe a series of new subjective positions.

 

Christian Hübler took issue with the notion of the extended body. Though the idea of the cognitive subject is richly heterogeneous, it seems clear that the notion of technology as prosthesis has an homogenising tendency. The concept of the extended body is also modernist; it also treats the body and its limits as a tabula rasa. Andreas Broeckmann added that technological structures such as telecommunications networks constitute sites of subjectification that are in no way simply extensions of the body. Is it possible, therefore, for media space to become a more contingent space; a space in which both the body, subjectivity and location are all re-articulated?

 

Migaryou responded that it is indeed artists who have a role in re-articulating space, and that this has its historical precedents - Jules Verne, writing Around the World in 80 days, for instance, long before the days of air travel. The Eiffel Tower, even, can be seen as a materialised vision of industrialisation: in many senses it is not architecture at all. Industry is not able to understand or express such transformative versions of knowledge about their inventions: the physiological, psychological, sociological or philosophical effects of air travel, for instance are offered in the in-flight manual.

 

Public space, therefore remains an abstraction. Maybe not something that can still be built, but something that has to be understood in the light of a cognitive subject living in a complex world of local situations and technological communication spaces.

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