Public Agency - Lectures: report

Report by Nadia Palliser about the Public Agency series of lectures

The evenings lecture set out to raise the question of public space as a site of action and intervention. The speakers were asked to address series of interconnected questions: what are the new spaces that allow for acting "in public" and what kinds of action constitute these new "public spaces"? Can there be strategies for appropriating these spaces? 

The first speaker, Jeanne van Heeswijk works within the field of the visual arts and the public domain. In the reverent setting of the lecture hall, the title of her presentation "From Giant Ghettoblaster to Chrismas Pudding" jarred a little. Already there was a sense of engagement with popular and street culture: activities that take place on such an everyday level that its visibility as cultural production practically disappears. 

Heeswijk described a recent project, "Valley Vibes" in the context of a general approach to the nature of city space and her aims and objectives in making interventions. She says: "Cities are not simple houses, streets and institutions, they also have energies, oscillations and atmospheres that are intuitively felt". Seeking to avoid strategies of representing or illustrating commonly held assumptions urban space, she instead aims to provoke actions, meetings and communication processes between people. She goes on: "I am genuinely concerned with the creation of spaces whin which any person can speak. These spaces are platfoms upon which constructive dialogues between subjects are possible and where intersubjectivity can lead to creativity and hence to new social, political and aesthetic possibilities" In her practice she finds that it is important not to create isolated positions, for art or any other category of cultural production. She cites the sociologist Scott Lash as a theoretical influence, who advocates replacing representative forms of production with modes of generating meaning through shared experience, dialogue and interaction: the engagement of an attitude that he calls "sociality". 

"Valley Vibes" is a big metal box on wheels, designed by Heeswijk, which houses a sound amplification and recording system. It is, she says, "a cross between a portable karaoke set, a radio station and a conference PA system". She calls it a "vibe detector" but it is much more than a passive recording device of urban traffic. It is is presented as a gift or a service to a community and acts as an incitement to produce, despite its primary purpose of being a hybrid form of mapping tool. The chosen area of interest is "London Sector 1" or the Lea Valley area - a large stripe of London, home to six million people, that is a designated development area for European funding and currently undergoing far-reaching "re-generation"of its built environment. Within this area, a location for the vibe detector is randomly assigned, an existing community-based organisation is identified as a host, and the machine"s locale becomes a one mile radius of an existing host organisation . Its presence is publicised and it is then made available within that locale for people to use as they wish: bookings are accepted purely on the basis of availability and there are no rules or restrictions placed on its use. The machine amplifies sounds from various sources, and the recordings are straightforward documents of the audio material that passes through the amplifer. The objective is to document and research the nexus of social, cultural and political activities in a specific locale, but there is no pre-determined use or format for analysis of the accumulated recordings. 

The second speaker the evening - Frédérick Migayrou - agreed with good humour to present a half-hour history/archaeology of public space and the public sphere. As Liesbeth Levy pointed out later, his narrative addressed the struggle to find or create structures for social cohesion while social, economic and belief systems are in transition. His presentation was entitled "Dimensions of the common world", but in the light of Jeanne"s presentation decided on a change to "Localities of the Common". This shift reflected the general theme of the talk: the balance between universality and specificity in the work of architects and artists who wish to produce or enhance notions of public or public space. Migayrou began his narrative in the 17th Century with the construction of the gardens of Versaille by Louis 14th: originally conceieved as a festival on the theme of "Paradise on Earth" and therefore deliberately part of a strategy to represent himself, the King, as a god-on-earth. The courtesans who were invited to the festival were taken on a walk by the King and guided to the very best points of view on the garden. Migayrou continued his story through the 18th century and the construction of gardens in the city such as the Tuleries in Paris - part of the real and metaphoric "enlightenment" process of opening up narrow, dark, chaotic medaeval city spaces - and concurrent with new notions of the body in space, and the relationship between the individual and the collective. In the 19th Century, he notes that "privacy" and private space appear, bringing with them whole new cultural practices/disciplines such as interior decoration . Public and private therefore develop in parallel, each needing its opposite to acquire meaning. The Passages, as described by Benjamin, develop as a boundaried and market-defined public space, open only to the richest of people and providing and environment where they can move outside the dangers of the city outside. Meanwhile, the processes of colonisation sought legitimation through the fiction of world harmony and world representation, that was enacted in Europe through the cultural events of the world exhibitons. 20th Century Modernism brought a new principle of universality, and with this a new conception of space as a pure and infinite extension, space as abstraction. The architectures of Le Corbusier, in particular, but also Gropius and the Bauhaus, reflected this aspiration to a unity of inhabitation, with the notion of "the modular", for instance, developed to create a nomalised space. However, the Second World War provoked a crisis in the rationalism that lay at the foundation of this approach. Philosoper Paul Virilio has made the observation that war provided all the techniques and the tools of modernism, aswell as many of its preconditions. The existentialist philosophers, for example, and the work of many artists groups in the post-war period can be seen to represent a retreat into an intensive subjectivity, a refusal of representation and a critique of any and all unifiying ideas. The political, theoretical and cultural struggles of post-modernism can be situated in precisely this tension. Current architectures are located still within the tensions between locality and globalisation, the subjective and the universal, in a context where these questions are shifted and intensified by communication technologies and high speed, long distance travel which transform us as cognitive subjects in space and time. 

In the question and answer session there was a demand for clarification of a number of key terms. The notions of responsibility and risk had appeared in Jeanne"s talk, and a theoretical construct of the local appeared in both. These terms seem to he dialogue and the public domain, voices from the hidden and private aspects of urban experience. It is this which can in turn produce new and active subject positions. 

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