Misusing public space

Unlike the politician or policy-making official, the genuine critic does not invoke so-called reactions from the field, nor statements by committees and advisory bodies, about which the critic couldn’t care less. The critic may, however, employ existing ideas about the subject at hand. These ideas may be inspired by historical examples, current practice, theoretical models or simply idealized images and may or may not be derivative. These ideas do not necessarily have to correspond to the actual subject.


The critic is, if we are to believe the French historian Michel de Certeau, like a walker. He views his walk as an addition to or reuse of routes planned by others. Which also means that the walker willy nilly misuses a place.This is also the dream of many designers and makers of art in public space. Except that they only pose as critics, they do not realize the critical project, not really, or not yet. Nevertheless, this is what is needed, in particular when it concerns such an important subject as the future of art in public space and, more especially, public space in the future. That is quite something! It is a subject that touches all the regulations, groupings and conventions of society.


Especially now that public space or the public accessibility of space is increasingly under threat: whether because of the current commercialization and privatization of society, whether because of the political vacuum in a consensus society like the Netherlands, where political problems can only be resolved by experts and advisers, whether because of the rise of new communications technology and the ever-increasing mobility of people and thus – as a direct consequence of this – the growing sense of rootlessness among those same people, whether because of the growing separation between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ which sees the interior increasingly usurping the exterior.


In the new urban development schemes, for example, it seems that communal parking areas are even being turned mini private domains. According to some hypotheses, proffered by the Marxist ideologist Michael Sorkin or the liberal pragmatist Rem Koolhaas, public space itself has degenerated into residual space – junk space – in the midst of networks of heterotopic and capsulated hubs.It is painful to observe the persistence of the solemn belief that an artist should be ‘invited’ to add something to the development process of a city. The visual artist is considered capable of ‘adding’ something or even of ‘leaving a mark on the process of the urbanization of the suburb’.


Camiel van Winkel, in his book De Moderne Leegte (The Modern Vacuum) and more recently in a debate about art in public space in the Witte de With museum in Rotterdam, [‘Kunst op locatie’ (Art on Site) debate held on 22 February 2001 in the Witte de With, Rotterdam.] and I myself, in Archis for example, have indicated on more than one occasion that a naive or opportunistic belief in the expertise of visual artists runs parallel with the political power vacuum that has developed, intentionally or otherwise, here in the Netherlands, and that is becoming more and more noticeable. In a country that is ruled by experts, advisers and all manner of other problem-solvers, political decisions tend to ‘happen’ rather than being actually ‘taken’. In a recent debate about the leisure culture, politicians and property developers even admitted this fact in public!


The developer demands, the politicians concede and make the impossible possible. Except that this is not planned, it just happens! In the Leidsche Rijn urban development scheme near Utrecht, most of the construction work has been deliberately entrusted to the self-regulating market and now all of a sudden this deregulated, profit- and consumer-led housing must be furnished with ‘deregulated’ art. ‘How to tackle art in this situation?’ is the question pondered by the visual art project team. But the question of ‘why’ visual art should be invoked at all is seldom if ever addressed. ‘Aesthetics, in the hands of administrators, is the last remaining vehicle for a coercive public morality,’ writes Van Winkel.


The question is, however, what kind of ‘aesthetics’? And what kind of aesthetic is an artist supposed to add or employ? If we are to believe Thije Adams, director of Cultural Policy at the Ministry of Education and Science, it should be an aesthetic that is appropriate, attractive and unprovocative.


Statement made during the symposium Public / Relations, the Cultural and Political Potential of Art in Public Space, held on 10 December 1999 in the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam.

The ministry’s current policy is ‘explicitly geared to the integration of work by artists with that of architects and planners’, for it is ‘convinced of the expertise of the visual artist on behalf of a renewed commitment to the malleability of social reality’. This is not policy! This is a form of Dutch instrumentalist thinking, or as the political scientist Frank Ankersmit once put it in a brave article entitled ‘Democracy and Society’: our consensus society is becoming unworkable.’The moralism that in our age has started to function as the counterpart of the expert culture, therefore demonstrates both the opposition between fact and norm and its own failure with respect to both. All this culminates in our extreme, and basically so undemocratic, need for consensus.


For in the first place the judgement of experts, ideally at least, permits no differences of opinion. In the second place, all moralism leads by definition to universalism and tolerates no heterodox opinions. And in the third place, the superficial rooting of our moralism in both fact and norm guarantees the absence of insuperable obstacles on the road to consensus: if we want consensus so badly, our perverse dealings with fact and norm will also promote its achievement. The result is a socio-political reality in which consensus is both end and means and harmony the highest law.’


Frank Andersmit, ‘Democratie en samenleving’, Feit en Fictie no. 2, 1997 (Groningen, spring 1997), pp. 49-66.

Art policy is therefore replaced by ‘communications strategy’: the ‘communications programme’ is shaped by a ‘communications editorial board’ made up of ‘communications experts’ in the form of a ‘communications medium’ that is supposed to connect everything with everyone in the same way that an insurance or mortgage policy binds and connects.


Of continuous evaluation or critique – what we do and do not want, what works and what doesn’t – is usually absent. And yet a flexible design project most certainly presupposes an explicit form of continuous evaluation. Foreigners are often astonished by the Dutch approach, not so much by the impact as by its institutionalization. Most of the references used come from the Netherlands (for there are no examples to be found anywhere else). Why does no one think to look at the experimental cultural infrastructure that the architect Cedric Price devised for Milton Keynes or at the same architect’s unrealized Fun Palace of 1961?


It is also interesting to cast one’s mind back to pioneer in situ artists like Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark who experimented early on with ‘found’ flexibility and who were past masters in dealing with it. Joep van Lieshout’s AVL-Ville puts me in mind of their ‘tactics’. Another form of ‘found’ flexibility is the literal charting, deciphering and stimulating of crypto-political and ideological motives behind the life-style and leisure culture.


In the new government-designated urban development areas (the so-called Vinex locations) we are dealing after all with a large group of ‘young-olds’ with a highly individual life pattern, people who identify with different symbols from the ones we have been used to up to now and completely different symbols (for example, from sport) from the ones provided by art in public space. ‘The word sub-culture, however, still smacks of a second-rate, marginal phenomenon, but that is untenable nowadays,’ claims Bart Lootsma, echoing the German sociologist Ulrich Beck.


During the ‘Kunst op locatie’ (Art on Site) debate held on 22 February 2001 in the Witte de With, Rotterdam.

According to Beck, many citizens are developing a sub-political consciousness, thereby revealing new niches of identity and creativity that can be deployed as new forms of public life.


Seen in this light, the Leidsche Rijn scenario is sorely lacking in relevant narratives and models: from the political films of Michael Haneke and the TV games of Arnoud Holleman, from the photo books about youth culture by Ari Maricopoulos and Wolfgang Tillmans, the three-dimensional visual archive of Alighiero Boetti and Thomas Hirschhorn, the amusingly repulsive figurations of Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, updated historical analyses of the situationism of Guy Debord, the prison diaries of Antonio Gramsci, the legacy of Constant or Archigram, to investigations of the survival of abstract sculpture in public space by Carl André, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weider and others. Also lacking are the non-pragmatic/experimental architectures of Stefano Boeri, Arquitectos San Frontera, MUF, Francesca Hughes, Dille and Scofidio, Joel Sanders and so on. Not to mention the ideas of Ulrich Beck in Living your Own Life in a Runaway World, John Chase, Margaret Crawford and John Kaliski in Everyday Urbanism, Toni Negri and Michael Hardt in The Empire, Alain Badiou in Ethics, An Essay On the Understanding of Evil, plus discerning public commentary in the thinking sections of the Dutch press and television.


All these models, narratives, commentaries and designs go more deeply into the denotative force of practices and customs in the everyday, worldly urban space I want to walk around in.The great source of inspiration for a cultural form of misuse is the French historian Michel de Certeau, the inventor of the everyday, who in L’invention du Quotidien introduced the terms strategy and tactics.


In Michel de Certeau, Cultural Theorist, London 2000, Ian Buchanan gives a detailed account of the work of de Certeau.

Strategy is a method based on ‘place’ while tactics is a question of ‘space’. Robinson Crusoe is in this context a strategist and Joep van Lieshout a tactician. De Certeau regarded everyday practices and tactics as a sort of expropriation practice by which individuals try to disrupt the network of calculated strategies.


De Certeau drew attention to the way such individuals constantly make and remake space, enter other people’s territory uninvited and appropriate the most diverse places. Transdisciplinarity is such a tactic. This kind of ‘user’ is unremittingly critical of the official offering, whether it emanates from the government or the market. Space exists for them only by virtue of relocation and is by definition a temporary activity. In an article about ‘the end of the street and the loss of public space in the post-industrial city’ Dieter de Clercq has this to say on the subject: ‘A kind of negotiation takes place between normative procedures or strategies and stubborn everyday practices and tactics.


Public space in this situation is not a given, nor does it disappear, instead it acquires constantly changing meanings and once again produces places. The public ambience in public space is then not merely a strategic form of misuse, but also a tactic of contestation, it is a deliberately negative gesture. It is created as much by conflicting interests and violent claims as by rational debate – conflict situations have a liberating rather than an inhibiting effect here.’


Dieter de Clercq, ‘Fantoompijn of krokodillentranen’, AS Mediatijdschrift no. 157 (Antwerp 2001), pp. 88-95.

In other words, it is often the very things and actions we do not understand or know that make the city livable.Art planners of the Netherlands! Exciting sources of inspiration and new models need to be devised, new goals set and appropriate ‘tactics’ employed! And we are not prepared to leave that (dangerous!) ‘space’ to communications consultants and other ‘happy coaches’ deployed by government.



This is a revised version of a lecture given by Chris Dercon on 16 March 2001 at the presentation of ‘Beyond Leidsche Rijn, the Vinex art project’, a scenario for expending the art budget (NLG 10 million) earmarked for the Leidsche Rijn urban development scheme between Utrecht and Maarssen.

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