Tag Archives: government

Critical Spatial Practice (a view from Philadelphia)

In October of 2007 Jeremy Beaudry and Meredith Warner wrote the following report in order to interrogate the notion of critical spatial practice as it pertains to Philadelphia and the work of the Think Tank that has yet to be named, as well as other activist work being done in the city.

Many thanks to Markus [Miessen] and Teddy [Cruz] for their incisive posts (see this and this), for shifting this month’s conversation into more solid territory. In particular, we’ve found Teddy’s [Cruz] language to be incredibly productive in thinking about our practices as artists and activists. We’d like to contribute some very concrete examples of “critical spatial practice” which have everything to with everyday, sustained practices of citizen-activists/-artists working against violent instantiations of spatial politics on several fronts via a broad range of tactics. And this work is critical because 1) it is absolutely vital in how we make the world we want to live in and 2) it questions, challenges, negates the status quo. Also, appreciating Teddy’s work (and other’s on this list, no doubt) with border politics and the tenuous status of migratory peoples, we don’t mean to privilege “citizen” here in terms of any legal standing, but rather use it to describe invested, engaged residents of the demos, however that body comes together in common, structured spaces — er, cities.

Let’s get local, shall we? The complexities of Philadelphia’s dysfunction and pathology is a history too lengthy to relate here. It is structural, cultural, institutional, and it permeates the highest offices of civic government down to the families on our block. This pathology is chiefly characterized by a patronage style of governance whereby a small (like, really small) oligarchy of elected officials, union bosses, and heads of quasi-governmental development corporations summarily implement their own agendas to the complete exclusion of any meaningful public participation. (For example, witness the Penn’s Landing Corporation which owns a large chunk of Philly’s central riverfront property. It’s funded by taxpayers, yet decides in its secret board meetings how public land is to be developed.) The polis is repeatedly divided and pitted against itself in competition for the favors of this powerful elite. Consensus is systematically undercut, or falsely represented. There is also a strong sense of identification between Philadelphians as victims with their victimizers, resulting in an unhealthy deference to authority. Agency is an attribute unfamiliar to many of our fellow citizens. Repeatedly we see those in the citizenry who have power or the capacity to build power fail to use it or recognize it.

In the last few years, the problems inherent in the political climate just described have really come to a head around issues of large-scale urban land development, particularly along Philadelphia’s central Delaware Riverfront, which contains immense parcels of post-industrial land that has sat vacant for the previous 2-3 decades. It’s the familiar story of the post-industrial city re-branding itself as the new mecca of the leisure / creative class and all the expected accoutrements: condo towers, grand destination tourist attractions, instrumentalized arts and culture entertaiments, quaint beautification, escalated gentrification… it’s the neoliberal city and it’s magnificent! It goes without saying that this is all to the enrichment of the aforementioned cabal and to the exclusion of most Philadelphians. The disenfranchisement of citizens from any legitimate process that might ennoble self-determination has recently been exemplified by Pennsylvania’s recent foray into legalized, state-sanctioned (and subsidized) gambling on a scale and speed that is really unprecedented (eg. two 5,000 machine slots parlor casinos planned for the riverfront adjacent to residential neighborhoods). The fix has been in all along — from the passage of the gambling legislation in the middle of the night on July 4th weekend in 2004 to repeated state supreme court decisions that uphold gambling interests to the cozy alliances between elected officials, casino developers, and so-called regulators who stand to make billions.

What a gift we’ve been given! (And we’re only being partly facetious.) This casino clusterfuck has in fact mobilized hundreds across the city and served as a first trial by fire for many who had maybe not been paying attention nor ever considered themselves as activists. What started as small clusters of neighbors self-organizing in living rooms and barrooms in their respective communities to oppose this unsanctioned development on the riverfront evolved into city-wide networks of community activists and also expanded to embrace other development-related issues like eminent domain, gentrification and displacement, zoning code reform, accessible public lands, environmental protections and remediation, and open and transparent governance. The reckless process that ushered in these planned casinos is symptomatic of Philadelphia’s (and Pennsylvania’s) deep structural corruption. And more than that: it is symptomatic of the fractures that follow from neoliberal policies that our civic institutions have normalized.

It is this structural corruption, these egregious acts that together we meet head-on. And there is no doubt in our mind, or in the minds on our collaborators, that this is a battle. As Markus describes, “In war, enemy and adversary usually hold territory, which they can gain or lose, while each has a spokesman or authority that can govern, submit or collapse.” This is certainly the space we find ourselves operating in. We bind ourselves to this language of war because the acts taken by the state to determine our future are, by their nature, violent. It is structural violence, implemented by the state, to slowly strip the rights of the people to participate freely in a decision-making process about their environment and futures.

Returning to Kevin’s [Hamilton] question: “But are the military metaphors for our response really necessary, and how do they function here?” Yes, they are necessary — because of the very violent nature of conflict itself. War is conflict, and through conflict within the context of participation, change occurs. Ultimately Markus [Miessen] specifically clarifies what participation looks like by referring to it as “conflictual participation,” which is more descriptive of the kind of participation that we have experienced as activists in Philadelphia, and that we believe produces change. Linking these words “conflict” and “participation” seems obvious to us because without conflict, particiaption is rendered impotent. To quote Markus [Miessen] again, “When humans assemble, spatial conflicts arise.” In our experience, the absence of conflict within the forum of participation is a warning that participation is not actually occurring at all. Red flags go up!

When we insert ourselves into a space of conflict, we often think about thick and thin experiences of participation, or even the very notion of participatory democracy (thinking here of how that is defined in the Port Huron Statement). In our experience, thick participation occurs within smaller, more organically formed settings that have yet to coalesce into institutions. In these settings, there is usually no funding, no major backer, no particular political support — not to mention, these organizations are usually run by an all volunteer force that is very localized. Any romantic notion of cooperation (collaboration that happens with ease) is quickly dispelled by the level of conflict within the group. Thick participation is much like “conflictual participation”: it is mired in conflict; it is a slow, dirty trek through a thick slough with boots on that keep getting stuck. Although compromises and resolutions are part of the process, we have yet to see thick participation within a particular conflict come to a definitive end; it is either just that slow, or we have not been around long enough to experience it. What we are more inclined to believe is, rather, that thick participation does not end. It is a continual process that may require considerable entrenchment and longevity.

Conversely, settings for thin participation are organized by large, powerful institutions like cities, universities, large non-profits, and mainstream media outlets. These forums are generally marked by narrowly framed problems, convoluted processes for citizen involvement, pre-established controls which to limit the outcome of the participation, and the careful crafting of outcomes that ultimately benefits the institutions. Conveniently for you, busy Citizen, you need only show up on the appointed time, where we will feed you pizza and let you pick between choice A and choice B. Neither will you really find acceptable, but that is the price you pay for convenience! Thin participation is fast; your involvement in it is scant and has a defined end after which the institution “takes the reigns” so you can get back to your busy life. Thin participation is simply the veil of participatory democracy, a way for institutions to create forums for public input that ultimately legitimize projects whose outcomes have already been determined. In our experience in Philadelphia with organizing and advocating for citizen input and control in the development of the riverfront and in our neighborhoods, those in power that would do as they please rely in large part on tacit consent of citizens. (Well, to over simplify, democratic governments in general rely on tacit consent.) That is why thin participation is so insidious: via sham processes of participation, tacit consent is codified and reinscribed as explicit consent, the collective will of the people.

Our concern here is to develop some workable understanding of “critical spatial practice” from a purposefully contextualized perspective. Significantly, as we engaged in activist work, our work as artists changed too. The walls we had maintained around the citadel of Art were useless, even harmful, certainly false, and only enabling a scenario that Christiane accurately bemoans: “One could easily consider that the role of the artist has now melded with that of the court jester in our privatized realms.” (Stallabrass’ “Art Incorporated” has been helpful to us in this regard as well.) So a handful of us who are artists and had cut our teeth together “in the trenches” of this activist work in Philly formed a collaborative group called the Think Tank that has yet to be named because we understand firsthand the experience of “conflictual participation” that is essential to participatory democracy and working for change. But we also believe (selfishly?) that the language(s) of art has the power to open up spaces for meaningful discourse, critical consciousness, (dare I say it?) redemption, and perhaps even Kevin’s [Hamilton] “ethics of plenitude.”

The Think Tank formed around the recognition of a single phenomenon that we see present in each of the organizations or institutions we work in as activists: the presence of the “neutral” voice. The neutral voice is the voice of one who assumes some position of power in a group (usually the “benign” mediator/facilitator), but refuses to lead, or acknowledge his power. The neutral voice plays both sides of the field as it suits his own purpose, which is to remain a central figure in the process. The neutral voice often impedes upon any progress that might be made because the neutral voice avoids conflict. But the neutral voice is never neutral; he promotes his agenda through a series of indiscernible nudges rather than through outright leadership. In the participatory processes we are involved with this neutral voice is omnipresent.

This epidemic of neutrality informed the way in which the Think Tank organized itself. Each member (a word we use cautiously, though have no replacement for) self-appoints his own distinct Directorship. A Director’s title exposes biases, revealing the Director’s position in the context of an investigation. So we immediately declared our own respective agendas and made it a prerequisite of participation that any other self-appointed Directors do so as well.

One of the forms we created was the Publicly Held Private Meeting (PHPM). These are performative and collaborative site-specific interventions, and a format that we have used frequently in our investigations of contemporary urban issues in Philadelphia. Living, working, and organizing in Philadelphia, we rely on an intimate knowledge of the city in order to initiate and faciliate these dialogical projects. This knowledge is often gained over time through research, observation, and by virtue of simply sharing and negotiating space with others.

In these investigations we are also careful to implicate ourselves as artists, if necessary. For example: the current Directors all live in or around a gentrifying neighborhood in Philadelphia called Fishtown. In addition to the claimed “organic” process whereby artists are “pioneers” in the process of gentrification, there is also a formal mandate by the City of Philadelphia to transform the neighborhood of Fishtown into an “arts corridor.” So whether we came here because it was affordable, or because there were other artists we knew here, does not matter. We are implicated in the process, and it is certain that our presence will be used by the city to further its project (here we are back at the neoliberal city). So the investigation that occurs during a PHPM is understood through the exposure of each Director’s agenda via their title, but also through the implication of our presence in this neighborhood as both newcomers and artists. Teddy [Cruz] writes, “Since when are we all not implicated in the power structure?” The Directors understand this question and use self-exposure as an attempt not to diffuse power but to acknowledge and make visible the power and privilege we each wield and benefit from.

As activists, Teddy’s [Cruz] conception of “critical proximity” describes our point of entry into situations and institutions where we engage directly with “conflictual participation,” where we challenge power head on, where we expose the “power inscribed on the territory.” But this notion of “critical proximity” is also employed in our art practice, via our Directorships, to dissect the structure of power and the ways in which institutions manage space and populations. By examining spatial issues in a PHPM, at the site of contention, via a model of self-exposure, we hope to generate constructive dialogue that might bring to light new forms of action. But we also hope that our physical occupation of a site, and our engagements with those on or near the site, might create a spatial and psychic tear that exposes the very structures that orchestrate spatial injustice. Occupying the space in between our art and activist practices, we have found these onsite conversations, the PHPM, instrumental in reciprocally illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of each practice taken on its own. Perhaps, ultimately, art and activist practices need not be fully integrated, but exist, too, in “critical proximity” to one another so that we might create “counter procedures that can generate new models of possibility.”

Best.

Jeremy Beaudry and Meredith Warner

The above post was written as a contribution to a “critical spatial practices” discussion
thread on the -empyre- listserv in September 2007. The text was later edited and appended with a postscript for inclusion in the catalogue for “…in a most dangerous manner”, an exhibition curated for SPACES by Sarah Ross and Steven Lam in early 2010. This edited version can be downloaded here.