Monday, 9 April 2012

Dreampolitik - Imagination and Politics as the Art of the Impossible

Following last summer's riots the London School of Economics and the Guardian newspaper interviewed 270 rioters from London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester and Salford as part of their collaborative project Reading the Riots. Their findings suggest that 85% of participants believe that poverty was an 'important' or 'very important' factor, apparently with 68% of the general public in agreement. Additionally a compelling case has been made by both left-wing intellectuals and the people interviewed on the ground for the pressures of consumerism as a contributing factor:
Among some interviewees – such as the 19-year-old from Battersea who felt "revolutionary … against capitalism" – there was a sense that an opportunity to change society had been lost. "They fucked up big time, the opportunists," said a 19-year-old man from Tottenham, who observed the riots but did not loot. "If they went to parliament and stood up for what they thought was correct, they could have brought down the government, man. We could have changed the whole everything, the whole government, man, but people wanted Nikes and crap on their feet."
So had the rioters been duped into wanting the wrong things? In the words of one 16 year old girl who was interviewed:

"It was like Christmas; it was so weird"

Perhaps if they had known better, if the spell of the Nike fetish had been removed, perhaps then they wouldn't have made the same choices? The 'revolutionary...against capitalism' can suppose that the downfall of the Nike brand will help them realise that they actually want other things. Likewise, the enlightened liberal can suppose that better access to education will help show young people where they are going wrong, be more rational, and recognise their mistakes before they make them. In both cases we find the same assumption. Enlighten the youth and they'll realise that they actually want the same things as us. This was very much the argument made by Plan B (aka Ben Drew) in his recent TED talk. All sensible stuff! However, Josh Hall gave a great summary on the music blog Line of Best Fit where he wrote as follows:
Drew is the archetypical liberal. He believes that poverty can be solved through charity, and that the poor must respond to structural violence either by ignoring it, or by acting within strict parameters of acceptability. For Drew it’s bad that there are no jobs, that there are mothers skipping meals in order to feed their kids, that people are being forced to work for free in order to keep their benefits – but if you throw a brick through a window you’re on your own.
In practical terms the choice offered by liberal ideology is that There Is No Alternative. If you can't afford Christmas all year round you end up alone in ill Manors by default. But if that is the case does it not imply that Christmas all year round really is the true horizon of peoples expectations? Why wouldn't that be rational when juxtaposed with a life of deprivation? And if so, might the dystopian Urban Imaginary of ill Manors actually be more powerful in reinforcing this ideology than the critical message of the song is in displacing it?

In the video lecture above sociologist and activist Stephen Duncombe suggests that the central issue for political transformation today might actually be the atrophy of the imagination, not the failure of education or critique. In doing so he offers a highly accessible discussion of the ideological situation described elsewhere by Slavoj Zizek, following German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk's characterisation of Cynical Reason, as that of 'enlightened false consciousness':
[O]ne knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.
According to this view the rioters may be fully aware of the criticisms levelled at companies like Nike for using child labour in circumstances even more impoverished than their own. The may also fully believe that the Corporate and Social Responsibility programmes of such companies are nothing more than cynical attempts to distract consumers from their questionable ethical practices. The point is that knowledge of these facts and the strength of these beliefs don't necessarily make Nike trainers or the promise of a liberal consumers Christmas all year round any less desirable.

Following the argument of his book Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy Duncombe argues that oppositional political programs inevitably reach loggerheads insofar as their political power relies on two assumptions about the efficacy of rational critique:

1. That there is an intrinsic value in knowing the truth.
2. That there is a false belief that must be removed in order to reveal that truth.

Duncombe accepts that these assumptions are justified in a situation where there is a scarcity of knowledge or a monopoly of power as in Hans Christian Andersen's story The Emperor's New Clothes. In that story the young boy frees the adults around him from their complicity in the pretence that upholds the Emperor's power by saying out loud what they all already knew: "But he isn't wearing anything at all!". However, Duncombe offers two arguments against the efficacy of critical practices.

Firstly he suggests that the democratisation of knowledge and our recognition of the collective production of truths today undermines the idea that the value of any specific truth, and hence the exchange of that truth for any other, might have conclusive political implications. The example he uses is the collective maintenance of open source information such as that held on wikipedia.

Secondly he argues that belief itself, whether true or false, is no longer required as the support for the political legitimacy of a society for which there is no alternative because there is no positive program to displace or supplant the established routine to which 'there is no Outside'. By way of example the reader might consider our own government's policy u-turn on civil liberties and the public ambivalence toward privatisation.

In the rest of his discussion Duncombe explores Utopian fiction and art as a way of opening a space of thought in which alternatives can be imagined. Crucially he argues that this Utopian space must necessarily be maintained against closure precisely by attempting to imagine the 'impossible'. Against Otto von Bismarck's proposal in 1861 of a Realpolitik according to which 'Politics is the art of the possible', Duncombe suggests that today 'politics is in fact the art of the impossible'.

This is not to claim that material poverty, rampant consumerism, and access to education aren't crucial political issues. Neither is it to claim the sufficiency of imagination alone for political change. The task of Dreampolitik would be to offer alternatives which inform particular political struggles by providing them with an aim, but without thereby functioning as their necessary end.

The challenge to progressive political art is that it needs to show what else there might be to look forward to other than Christmas in ill Manors.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Article 31.1 - Sneak Preview

Article 31.1 - The Universal Right To Play

That every human being has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. That cities shall respect and promote the right of the citizen to participate fully and spontaneously in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

Adapted from Article 31 on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

How would the playful city be designed and planned?

What institutions would civic society need to create in order to support the universal right to play? How would the culture and practice of everyday life be changed?

What space is there in the city for the imagination? Is there anywhere left for play by rules of our own making?

The old team are back with some new faces to participate in the London Festival of Architecture 2012 - The Playful City. Exhibition proposals will be hitting venues shortly.

Watch this space or check out the Article 31.1 web pages for further details.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Space For Rent - The art of street skating

In this beautifully shot short film Space For Rent filmmaker Jeremy Knickerbocker considers the relationship between street skateboarding, artistic practice and the use of space in the urban environment.
Space For Rent is a short documentary which examines the creative act and process of reacting to spaces in architecture, as it manifests itself in both performance and sculpture. Street Skateboarders are largely reacting to the excesses created by industrialization and corporate capitalism.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Crack The Surface - Episode II

This is a must see! Following the release of Crack The Surface - Episode I last summer the good people at, and have teamed up with and to explore the UrbEx scene beyond Europe in Canada and the US.

Be inspired, stay safe, and don't try this unless you know what you're doing!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Chantal Mouffe: Agonistic Politics and Artistic Practices

In this talk given to the European The New Patrons Project for art commissioning, Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe examines the function of critical artistic practice in terms of her politics of 'agonistic pluralism'.

Mouffe develops her understanding of 'the Political' through the concepts of 'antagonism' and 'hegemony'. The key to Mouffe's position is to understand that antagonism or conflict is considered to be 'ontologically', meaning necessarily, irreducible. What Mouffe refers to as 'the Political' is distinguished from 'politics' which refers to the hegemonic practices and institutions through which society is ordered and conflict controlled. However, because antagonism is necessarily irreducible, the social circumstances in which we live are inherently 'contingent' meaning that they could always be otherwise. It is this fundamental contingency that explains why social change is possible. It also implies that hegemonic projects are always insufficient with regard to their own stated ends e.g. new laws being continually required to patch up the insufficiencies of their precursors.

Rather than seek the elimination of antagonism through the completion of hegemonic projects which is both totalitarian and impossible, Mouffe advocates a politics of agonism which acknowledges the contingency of all hegemonic practices. Hegemonic practices would not disappear. Instead they would be democratically regulated through the creation of institutions and practices that support the formation of dissensus. What Mouffe refers to as 'critical art' would be one such means:
According to the agonistic approach that I am defending critical art is art that forms a dissensus. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to what is silent within the framework of the existing hegemony. But of course in order to put this question in a fruitful way one needs to understand in each moment what is the conjuncture in which one should intervene. And this is I think where a hegemonic approach is important because it allows us to grasp, for instance, that the current neoliberal hegemony is the result of a set of political interventions in a complex field of economic, legal and ideological forces.
Where hegemonic institutions and practices seek to legitimate or naturalise themselves by concealing their contingent foundations, agonistic critical art would be any aesthetic practice that uncovers and exposes the specific combination of circumstances that enabled them to form. In order to achieve this critical art would necessarily be public art. This in turn has implications for our understanding of public space:
Such a view challenges the widespread conception that, albeit in different ways, informs most visions of public space, conceived as the space where consensus could emerge. For the agonistic model on the contrary, the public space is the battleground where different hegemonic project are confronted without any possibility of final reconciliation.
In these agonistic spaces the hegemonic struggle for the exclusion or elimination of 'enemies' is replaced with mutual competition between a plurality of 'adversaries'. Here I think we are at the threshold between something like Graffiti Wars and radical politics. In order to make the leap from one to the other Mouffe suggests there are several myths of modernist avant-garde art that need to be relinquished:
  • That to be political or radical requires a total break with the existing state of affairs;
  • Critical art must create something absolutely new in order to achieve that radical break;
  • The more transgressive a practice is, the more radical it will be and the less susceptible to recuperation by the status quo;
  • That a total break with the existing state of affairs is possible.
Finally, Mouffe argues that critical artists must avoid trading on moral condemnation in the place of aesthetic judgement otherwise they risk missing the specificity of the agonistic political struggle inherent in the process of revealing the complex contingent structure of the hegemonic institutions and practices their art seeks to undermine.

The Power of Paper and Glue - Use art to turn the world INSIDE OUT

Recently I've been interested in fly-posting and the uses of media that might otherwise be considered outmoded. In this TED talk from 2011 French artist JR discusses 'the power of paper and glue' in the context of his previous art projects. Having started out as a graffiti writer on the streets and roof tops of Paris the artist now describes works with poster-sized, black and white photographic prints, which he posts in public places where they are likely to achieve the most social impact.

The discussion above ends with his proposal for a global participatory art project called INSIDE OUT which is now underway. Submit a photographic portrait of yourself or someone you care about to JR via the project website, he'll then help you share it with the world by sending you back a full size poster.

Here's JR's own glue recipe to help get you started:

The rest is up to you...

Via Lens Culture

Monday, 9 January 2012

Codified Space

Tonight filmmaker Justin Ascott's excellent short film Codified Space will be screened as part of The London Short Film Festival 2012. The screening will be in collaboration with Passenger Films Passenger Films who hold regular screenings related to the subject of cultural geography. In Ascott's film we see an unnerving study of a disused car park now transformed into an uncanny space:
Architecture is a system of signs that structure patterns of social use, but what happens when a building falls into disuse and no longer serves the function for which it was originally intended? Does it continue to transmit its own secret signals? The film metaphorically links eroded signs in a car park with distorted sonic signals - based on diegetic location sounds manipulated using modulation filters.
The screening is part of The Architecture of Re-Assurance programme hosted tonight by the Hackney Picturehouse from 6.15pm.

Other films being screened are as follows:

DRY by Nic Wassell.

A London-shot 16mm film about travel and memory, inspired by the Taiwanese films of Tsai Ming-liang.

THE FOLLY by Mira Aroyo.

The cottage home of an elderly lady who has to adapt to her remote surroundings as she gets older.

MIRAGE by Srdan Keca.

Dubai as an unfinished ‘post-apocalyptic’ city.

A THOUSAND TREES by Ed Lawrenson.

A Scottish new-town built for a non-existent population that never came.

The screenings will be followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers and Justin Jaeckle, Curator of Public Programmes at the Architecture Foundation, hosted by Ben Campkin, Director of the UCL Urban Laboratory.

Monday 9th January 2012 at 6:15pm, Hackney Picturehouse (270 Mare Street London, E8 1HE, Tel: 0871 902 5734). £6, £5 conc, £4 Hackney Picturehouse members.

Via Passenger Films

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Return to the Street - Culture or Critique?

The Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths recently announced their two day Return to the Street conference running 27-28 June 2012. The call for papers provides an excellent statement of the socio-political landscape that a relevant and genuinely critical urban practice today would need to negotiate:
Identity formation and public debate do not simply occur online or through new media technologies. As the recent excessive imprisonment of those involved in the UK riots this summer demonstrated, the control and regulation of real bodies within real spaces is still very much at stake. Within the context of riots, protests and occupations in the UK and worldwide - the street appears to have become once more the space where people gather to be heard and counted. Considering this ‘return’ (although it is questionable whether we every really left the street) how might a line be drawn between the type of discourse which pays lip service to banal, neoliberal fetishised notions of street as site and object of subversive cool – incorporating graffiti, fashion, skateboarding, hiphop - and a more critical and engaged examination of processes of exclusion, confrontation and violence which constitute the everyday reality of life on and in the street. The street is and should not simply be flagged up as a site where power relations are toyed with as part of an ongoing Damien Hirst-meets-Banksyesque flirtation between public and private space. Such fetishisation ignores or glosses over notions of territory, surveillance and fear.

Yet at every moment attempts to challenge existing power structures from within the space of the street are at risk of being recuperated in the service of bourgeois, neoliberal modes of consumption. The return to pedestrianised zones in major European cities is frequently part of gentrification processes and occurs within privately owned spaces with the aim of encouraging consumerism rather than increased social interaction precluded by motorised city spaces. The festival atmosphere at protests and occupations might also be considered not simply as a means of creating greater solidarity amongst participants but as embodying a Bakhtinian form of carnival in which the political impetus of the event or movement exhausts itself in a media circus of spectacle and rhetoric staged between protestors and law-enforcement.

Despite the growing importance of social media in our everyday lives, our city streets are still indispensible sites for the exercise of citizenship. And yet a vibrant street culture, though laudable, will never be sufficient to guarantee our civil liberties against intended or accidental forces of societal control. No matter how subversive particular urban practices assume themselves to be, they are never wholly immune to recuperation or exhaustion by way of spectacle and consumption. One more effort is always required.

What is at stake for a critical urbanism is not EITHER street culture OR critique, but rather BOTH street culture AND critique. We must be able to think the complex interactions between graffiti and protest, fashion and territory, shopping and riots, skateboarding, surveillance and exclusion...No small task!

The full call for papers for the conference can be hound here.

Incidentally the conference coincides nicely with the London Festival of Architecture 2012 in which I'm hoping to participate. With the theme of 'The Playful City' the LFA2012 could easily descend into a nostalgic apology for the kind post-industrial, pre-crunch aspirations associated with Richard Florida's 'creative class' and the 'creative cities' in which urbanist Charles Landry supposed they would live. 

Here's to those with a little more imagination who take up the critical urbanist challenge! Play hard!

Via Limit Experience

Monday, 2 January 2012

New York Longboard

Yes I am obesessed! So here we are again with another great longboard video, this time by Alberto Alepuz of Perropro. This film sees longboarders Ra and Bruno Sorondo skate New York. Great opening sequence skating in the rain!

The Billsticker - Taking liberties with outmoded media

In the SENSEable and augmented cities of the near future it may be expected that traditional print media will become obselete. When your internet search history can be monitored remotely on the fly and appropriate adverts posted to you directly via your smartphone, why would anyone bother handing out paper flyers or posting them to the wall?

Something that has been interesting me recently is the way that old media are re-purposed as their prior uses are assumed by new media. If as Marshall McLuhan said "The medium is the message", could it be that traditional forms of print media such as the fly-post will communicate more fully on their own terms, unburdened of the uses to which they had previously been put? Perhaps, or perhaps not.  What we can expect that they will be used to carry different messages and find new audiences for those ready to exploit them imaginatively. Might we also find that they afford the willing unexpected liberties?

Here's a suggestive passage on 'The Billsticker' from Charles Manby Smith's Curiosities of London Life of 1853:
He may be said to live in the eye of the public as much, if not more, than any other man of his day; and is, whatever pretenders may choose to think, or cavillers to say to the contrary, essentially a public character. He is a literary man in a sense at once the most literal and extensive, and he caters for the major part of the population almost the only literature that they ever peruse. He is a publisher to boot, whose varied and voluminous works, unscathed by criticism, are read by all the world, and go through no end of editions. It is an axiom of somebody's - whose, we forget just now - that most men look at the world, and all things in it, through the medium of their own profession. If that be the case; how does the billsticker regard it? What tricks does his fancy play him? What are the myths ever revolving before his imagination? Is there a golden age looming in the distant future of his hopes? A good time coming, when every wall and hoarding, every house-front, window-shutter, and now interdicted inclosure - from the "palaces of crowned kings," down to the humblest "habitations of all things that dwell" - shall be patent to his paste-brush, open as charity to his broadsheet, and when he shall no longer be compelled to trudge beneath his heavy load in all weathers, through weary miles of mud and rain, in search of a sanctuary where the art and mystery of his calling is not forbidden?

[...] it may chance that an amateur billsticker may get himself into trouble, through ignorance of details with which the regular professional is intimately acquainted. Though the majority of hoardings - if bill-stickable at all - are free to all paste-pots, that is by no means the case with them all. Many which are of long standing are private property, and are let in compartments to the members of the profession, who of course tolerate no trespassers upon their domains, and would inflict the penalties of invasion upon any one caught in the act of violating their privileges. To such irregular aspirants to this honourable profession we commend the admonition, familiar to us on brick-walls and park-enclosures - STICK NO BILLS.
The text above can be found in full on Lee Jackson's excellent website Victorian London.

Further information about fly-posting and activism can be found on Urban75. Readers should be aware that fly-posting in the UK is covered by the Anti-social Behaviour Act  2003 and can incur fines of between £50 and £2500.