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I was thinking about our discussion on Olympics, events at 家作坊 and public space. I don’t know how far we can explore the way the Olympics have actually changed the practices of urban public space during that period…or at least, this is probably not a question that can be answered yet but will request some time and distance before finding an answer.

What we could explore, though, is how far the Olympics, as a public event, have allowed you to produce events at your place that were justified…precisely because of the high publicity of the Olympics. Would these events have been possible otherwise? It is sure that the Olympics have raised many restrictions about the use of public space, yet they have also allowed community restrictions to loosen (and thus made you organize parties in the hutong without major problems). I find this negotiation between restrictions and freedom very interesting…definitely needs some more research!

Here is a piece of an article published by Ash Amin [(2008) ‘Collective culture and urban public space’, City, 12:1, 5 – 24], where the author explores how public space is actually working (or not), which are the dimensions and interactions between humans —- but also between humans and materiality —- that allow encounters in the public space. Can send you the paper if you like.

The ethics of the situation, if we can put it in these terms, are neither uniform nor positive in every setting of thrown-togetherness. The swirl of the crowd can all too frequently generate social pathologies of avoidance, self preservation, intolerance and harm, especially when the space is under-girded by uneven power dynamics and exclusionary practices. My second claim, thus, is that the compulsion of civic virtue in urban public space stems from a particular kind of spatial arrangement, when streets, markets, parks, buses, town halls are marked by non-hierarchical relations, openness to new influence and change, and a surfeit of diversity, so that the dynamic of multiplicity or the promise of plenitude is allowed free reign. There are resonances of situated multiplicity/plenitude that have a significant bearing on the nature of social and civic practice. At least five that merit conceptual and practical attention can be mentioned.

The first resonance is that of surplus itself, experienced by humans as a sense of bewilderment, awe and totality in situations that place individuals and groups in minor relation to the space and other bodies within them. What Simmel tried to explain in terms of behavioural response among strangers when placed together in close proximity in urban space-from bewilderment and avoidance to indifference and inquisitiveness–might be reinterpreted as the shock of situated surplus, experienced as space that presents more than the familiar or the manageable, is in continual flux and always plural, weaves together flesh, stone and other material, and demands social tactics of adjustment and accommodation to the situation (including imaginative ways of negotiating space without disrupting other established modes, as shown in Figure 2). The resonance of situated surplus, formed out of the entanglements of bodies in motion and the environmental conditions and physical architecture of a given space, is collectively experienced as a form of tacit, neurological and sensory knowing (Pile, 2005; Thrift, 2005a), quietly contributing to a civic culture of ease in the face of urban diversity and the surprises of multiplicity.

These surprises are rarely disorienting, for a second resonance of situated multiplicity is territorialization; repetitions of spatial demarcation based on daily patterns of usage and orientation. The movement of humans and non-humans in public spaces is not random but guided by habit, purposeful orientation, and the instructions of objects and signs. The repetition of these rhythms results in the conversion of public space into a patterned ground that proves essential for actors to make sense of the space, their place within it and their way through it. Such patterning is the way in which a public space is domesticated, not only as a social map of the possible and the permissible, but also as an experience of freedom through the neutralization of antipathies of demarcation and division–from gating to surveillance–by naturalizations of repetition. The lines of power and separation somehow disappear in a heavily patterned ground, as the ground springs back as a space of multiple uses, multiple trajectories and multiple publics, simultaneously freeing and circumscribing social experience of the urban commons.

A third and related resonance of situated multiplicity is emplacement. This is not just everything appearing in its right place as a consequence of the routines and demarcations of territorialization. The rhythms of use and passage are also a mode of domesticating time. Public spaces are marked by multiple temporalities, ranging from the slow walk of some and the frenzied passage of others, to variations in opening and closing times, and the different temporalities of modernity, tradition, memory and transformation. Yet, on the whole, and this is what needs explaining, the pressures of temporal variety and change within public spaces do not stack up to overwhelm social action. They are not a source of anxiety, confusion and inaction, and this is largely because of the domestication of time by the routines and structures of public space. The placement of time through materialization (in concrete, clocks, schedules, traffic signals), repetition and rhythmic regularity (so that even the fast and the fleeting come round again), and juxtaposition (so that multiple temporalities are witnessed as normal) is its taming. Accordingly, what might otherwise (and elsewhere) generate social bewilderment becomes an urban capacity to negotiate complexity. The repetitions and regularities of situated multiplicity, however, are never settled. This is because a fourth resonance of thrown-togetherness is emergence. Following complexity theory, it can be argued that the interaction of bodies in public space is simultaneously a process of ordering and disruption. Settled rhythms are constantly broken or radically altered by combinations that generate novelty. While some of this novelty is the result of purposeful action, such as new uses and new rules of public space, emergence properly understood is largely unpredictable in timing, shape and duration, since it is the result of elements combining together in unanticipated ways to yield unexpected novelties (DeLanda, 2006). Public spaces marked by the unfettered circulation of bodies constitute such a field of emergence, constantly producing new rhythms from the many relational possibilities. This is what gives such spaces an edgy and innovative feel, liked by some and feared by others, but still an urban resonance that people come to live with and frequently learn to negotiate. This is what Jacobs (1961) celebrated when championing the dissonance of open space, receptive to the surprises of density and diversity, manifest in the unexpected encounter, the chance discovery, the innovation largely taken into the stride of public life.

A final resonance can be mentioned. We could call it symbolic projection. It is in public space that the currents and moods of public culture are frequently formed and given symbolic expression. The iconography of public space, from the quality of spatial design and architectural expression to the displays of consumption and advertising, along with the routines of usage and public gathering, can be read as a powerful symbolic and sensory code of public culture. It is an active code, both summarizing cultural trends as well as shaping public opinion and expectation, but essentially in the background as a kind of atmospheric influence. This is why so frequently, symbolic projections in public space–lifted out of the many and varied material practices on the ground–have been interpreted as proxies of the urban, sometimes human, condition. There is a long and illustrious history of work, from that of Benjamin and Freud to that of Baudrillard and Jacobs that has sought to summarize modernity from the symbols of urban public space, telling of progress, emancipation, decadence, hedonism, alienation and wonderment (Amin, 2007b). Similarly, politicians, planners and practitioners have long sought to influence public opinion and public behaviour through the displays of public space.

2 Responses to “on public space”

  1. e

    i think i mentioned this to you in person already, but something that quite surprised me about local reactions to the HomeShop events had to do with the disparities of acknowledged freedoms. in the beginning, i had anticipated the worst in regards to my neighbours not being pleased with what i was doing, and also with police reactions to public gathering, but it turns out that most of the locals were completely in support of these kinds of activities: “中国人应该这样!应该怎么热闹!看我们开放后那么多年还不能这样聚会。。。” More than one neighbour told me that, however, if they had been the ones to organise something like this, there would have been no problems whatsoever. Nervousness on the part of the 派出所 stemmed from the fact that I am 外地的,and the fact that there were many foreigners around. In the context of the Olympics and the shooting at Gulou, this is why they were not pleased. But they also said that if I try to organise such a gathering at a non-Olympics time, there should be no problem at all. So there is a multi-layering of complications involved here, all in the name of safety and keeping the 安静. As Zhou and Zheng say, I don’t think that Olympics allowed a loosening up, but rather they make things more stringent. All of the flows within the city during this time, are in fact quite staccato’d and disrupted, ironically, for the sake of the “smoothness” of the Olympics presentation and the nation’s face. With the arrest and deportation of the American protesters, it’s obvious the government was not willing to loosen up rules for the sake of the Games, and while maybe what HomeShop did could on small counts be said to be illegal as well, we had the support of the locals as well as a positive (to the community and to the Olympics) intention that makes it okay. The thing that is sticking with me is what Lao Zhang said the other night: “外松,内紧。” He said that to explain why the police were relatively calm in person, but chose to go through my 房东 to get on to me. He said it’s a question of face and language barrier, and I am thinking of how these very stringent networks work within Chinese society while the public resonances, to refer to the text you posted above (which i like very much, yes please post or send!) maintain utter optimism, welcoming and relative freedom.

    I was just reading a very interesting article, probably i mentioned to you before, about the meanings and evolution of the home in Chinese history, and the central courtyard itself is a very interesting example (beginning Ming and Qing dynasties). It is the thoroughfare for feng-shui principles, and the means in which the public may enter the sanctity of the Chinese family space. It is also the place from which the master of the household may watch over all the comings and goings of his kingdom, but suddenly during the Cultural Revolution, when these large properties are being divided and multiple families begin to share a space, the courtyard becomes the place of public shaming, where you are put out to be accused and punished before the public, on the very space that was once private domain. There is no privacy at this time, of course, and gossip and rumours hold so much social power–what becomes of space then? The communications which negotiate public/private space in China happen far in advance of telecommunications technology. So how does this reflect back on the city and urban life now that we are in the midst of a media/telecommunications orgy?

  2. e

    and p.s… really a pity to miss your going-away again! but it’s another thought that we don’t say goodbye, only 再见, of course… hope your last ’08 summer days have been good, and that we’ll get keep to 碰一碰 here in the next months… thank you for so much brain food, it’s been really wonderful to keep going with this! 也祝你一路顺利!