What is still called public space has been undergoing a profound transformation over the last decades. Neoliberal practices have induced a shift in the political and moral structures that demarcate space so that even if public space remains a cherished idea, it is now rather common that the public nature of public space be legislated in such a way that only certain kinds of manifestations of the public be possible. From the historical phenomenon of unregulated common spaces such as the the agora, to a contemporary public realm wholly regulated by either public authority or private property laws, the forms of publicness happening within the city have evolved. According to scholar and ex-architect Miguel Robles-Durán, public space is no longer a place available to all for social gatherings, debate, protest or retreat without specific purpose for the simple reason that these uses do not “[meet] the requirements of the private investors, private corporations, and of public-private alliances to extract land rent and most importantly, to develop new spaces in which re-invest their accumulated surplus” . The boundaries between personal and collective expression are blurred as they are recoded in favour of commercial interests or reduced to state-sponsored notions of participation. Whether designed for cultural or commercial uses, urban spaces are equally appropriated for this new form-of-life, where the dictates of privitization either actually characterize spaces or are used to justify legislation that operates against the manifestation of dissent directed toward governments or the market, themselves increasingly indistinguishable.
Despite the manifold changes in social organization that neoliberalism has produced, voices of dissent that imagine that other worlds are possible cannot be quelled. The list of recent actions are, by now, quite familiar: anti-austerity riots, Idle No More, Occupy. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was not just a series of football games but waves of protest against the expenditure of public funds to finance the games and a corresponding diminishment of Indigenous land rights.
Mega events, in fact, are a microcosom of these practices, where non-state actors are suddenly very able to act in ways that sidestep regular democratic or legalistic processes. In what has become rather common, these types of mega events become paradigmatic drivers of social, economic and political transformation emerging in service of neoliberal agendas. Long before the events arrive, and even before a host is assigned, cities compete to offer the most extreme benefit to the mega-event overlords, competing to offer the most extreme tax breaks or most robust infrastructure for the event itself, the cost, of course, displaced onto citizens and used to justify rollbacks of social services, including support of culture or access to education.
This afternoon, I will be part of a discussion at Blackwood Gallery about the paradoxes of public space as part of the exhibition Falsework. On the invitation of Adrian Blackwell, I contributed an essay to his Furnishing Positions project, which is part of Falsework, reflecting on whether public space is made by the state or its citizens. Using a series of programs that happened at VIVO Media Arts during the 2010 Winter Olympics as a case-study, I propose that in our neo-liberal present tense, public space is more a philosophical position than a spatial organization. Come and convince me otherwise. Details below.
FURNISHING POSITIONS: CONVERSATIONS
Part colloquium, part workshop, and part experiment, this event is a support structure for the exchange of ideas.
Eric Cazdyn, Greig de Peuter, Karen Houle, Mary Lou Lobsinger, Dylan Miner, Paige Sarlin, Scott Sørli, Christine Shaw, Kika Thorne and cheyanne turions. Moderated by Adrian Blackwell.
Saturday, November 22, 2014 | 1 – 6PM
Blackwood Gallery, University of Toronto Mississauga
A shuttle bus will depart Mercer Union (1286 Bloor St. W) at 12:30pm, and return at 6:30pm. Snacks and refreshments will be provided.
If capitalism has produced two forms of property, one owned by the state (spaces of public authority) and the other owned by private citizens (private property), then public space is always an appropriation of one of these. Insofar as public space is political, that appropriation involves the construction of a physical space in which the paradoxical reality of capitalist society is rendered sensible.
Adrian Blackwell’s Furnishing Positions explores the paradoxical relationship between publics and space through three different structures: a sculpture consisting of thirty pieces of furniture, reconfigured over twelve weeks to test the social effect of different spatial forms; a broadsheet series that interrogates six paradoxes of public space through artwork and texts by twelve contributors from diverse disciplines; and now, a set of conversations that test these ideas with an assembled public in the sculpture.
Furnishing Positions: Conversations brings together the contributors to the broadsheet series in order to test the ideas developed within its artworks and texts in dialogue with other contributors and an assembled public. The event is structured through two conversations. The first will function as a sequence of short monologues, in which each of the broadsheet contributors will present their ideas in turn. The second conversation will involve contributors and the assembled public and will be an opportunity to connect and relate these discreet provocations. Between the two conversations, there will be a break, during which time the assembled public will reconfigure the sculpture for the second half of the event.
 Miguel Robles-Durán, “For the Brief Moments of Confrontation,” in Make_Shift City, Renegotiating the Urban Commons, ed. Fracesca Ferguson and Urban Drift Projects, in cooperation with the Berlin Senate for Urban Development (Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2013), 25-31.