Reflexion 08.07.2021

Introduction. Mutations in Public Space

Sören Meschede and Fran Quiroga

“The transformation of society presupposes a collective ownership and management of space founded on the permanent participation of the ‘interested parties,’ with their multiple, varied and even contradictory interests. It thus also presupposes confrontation.”
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space

This publication, launched by Concomitentes in collaboration with the Bartlebooth publishing platform, is the first in a series of books that seek to explore the idea of public space in the broadest sense, particularly in the interstices between contemporary art and the citizenry. We would like this collection to strengthen and accompany the projects we carry out in physical space in collaboration with civil society, so as to emphasise art’s ability to try out new ways of expanding democracy. 

Mutations in Public Space takes as its starting point two interrelated phenomena that have intensified during the pandemic: public space that is increasingly regulated and controlled, and lives that increasingly revolve around productivity, work, and consumption. It could seem that nothing else was happening during the pandemic, but that is not the case. In the public sphere, inequalities were deepening, time was being regulated, communities were becoming isolated, and the power of the political imagination was being eroded. We would like this book to contribute—from the perspective of contemporary arts and culture—to the debate on the lessons of this pandemic. To think about the future of the public sphere and public space and also to explore how we can redefine our relationship with the planet in social, material, subjective, and symbiotic terms, and thereby address the ecological crisis that is engulfing us.

History shows that diseases and epidemics are not just simple interludes that barely interrupt the course of history. Indeed, it could be said that humanity evolved from a close symbiosis with microscopic pathogens that have conditioned our relationships with each other and our surroundings, mutating politics and institutions of societies around the world.

“Covid also turns out to be a plague with some transformative potential. It has proven capable of crippling the economy and the daily life of citizens for a prolonged period of time.”
Sören Meschede and Fran Quiroga

The proximity of death has made us more vulnerable, and fear of contagion has gone hand in hand with distrust of the other. Sociability—understood as the web of mutual care and co-responsibility—has been undermined and public space has shrunk. 

It probably won’t be possible or desirable to fulfil the yearning to go back to “normal”. In light of this, we are justified in asking whether it would not be best to consciously abandon our current way of life, to use the pandemic as a catalyst and an opportunity to overcome a broken status quo and set a course towards another normality. Philosopher Naomi Klein talks about the idea of the “shock doctrine”, a term borrowed from the writings of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, who argued that every crisis can be seen as an ideal moment for a paradigm shift. Where Friedman saw opportunities to implement neoliberal policies, Klein sees crises as the ideal time for collective and social reflection. She writes, “we find ourselves in this moment where there are no non-radical options left before us. (...) And what we mean by that is that climate change, if we don’t change course, if we don’t change our political and economic system, is going to change everything about our physical world.”[1]

The pandemic will undoubtedly change how we “make society,” we just have to decide which path to take. Will the social anxiety and uncertainty we lived through in 2020 become entrenched, weakening personal affects, the construction of subjectivities, and social interaction? Or will we be able to learn from observing our shortcomings and dare to think more about what defines us as a society and how we want to live in the future?

[1] Naomi Klein, "There are no non-radical options left before us", Salon, 04/02/2016, ‹https://www.salon.com/2016/02/04/naomikleintherearenononradicaloptionsleftbeforeus_partner/›.

Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1982, p. 8.

“Culture should not remain on the side-lines in responses to these processes, particularly if it is conceived as a significant social actor.
Sören Meschede and Fran Quiroga

At Concomitentes, this issue is particularly close to our hearts because we are an offshoot of the French project Nouveaux Commanditaires, which has “Faire art comme on fait societé” [Make Art as We Make Society] as one of its mottos. When we set up our association in Spain in 2018, we adapted these words because we wanted to convey that while Concomitentes stems from art, it also strives to have a significant social impact. This double objective is constantly with us. On the one hand, we work towards making contemporary art an essential part of everyday life. But at the same time, the projects are intended to affect and to build community, with an awareness that public and social space is always contested place. 

In response to our urge and desire to explore what the years 2020 and 2021 might come to mean in our common future, we embarked on research that did not simply study the here and now, but ventured to look to the future. In April 2020 we launched a public survey under the title “A Questionnaire for the Future,” designed to reflect on two key issues: personal perceptions of an exceptional moment in time, and the desire to explore what society we want to live in. We used the conclusions drawn from the answers provided by the 498 respondents who participated in this survey to start a conversation with a diverse group of social and cultural actors. Our invitation was clear: to join us in trying to shed light on these mutations that are emerging in public space. At the same time, we sought out other voices and other points of view that could enter the dialogue and extend the conversation—necessary now more than ever—on the need to reconfigure our relationships: among ourselves, with the planet, with power, with the norm, with the art-object, and with the space-time relationship itself.

Legado Cuidado members at one of the meetings in Galicia.

Para facilitar la lectura de Mutaciones en el espacio público, hemos agrupado el material que surgió de esta investigación en cuatro bloques. El primero de ellos, Más allá de la norma, se abre con Eficiencias sin vida, en el que Fran Quiroga observa que el dictado de la eficiencia —entendida desde una óptica productivista— ha ido dominando cada vez más nuestras esferas privadas y, por extensión, públicas. A través de varios ejemplos, ilustra que esta eficiencia no solo no es efectiva, sino que incluso es perjudicial para entornos sociales y medioambientales y aboga por prestar más atención a lo inesperado y a lo imprevisto como forma más compatible con la vida. Amador Fernández-Savater y Marcos García llevan este debate, que Fran Quiroga sitúa más en el ámbito de las ecologías sociales y medioambientales, a la esfera cultural. En su conversación, titulada Habitar el conflicto, parten del análisis de que faltan imágenes de cambio que sean capaces de alentar un interés por una transformación de nuestra sociedad. Las prácticas que podrían proveernos esta imaginación las localizan en los movimientos sociales y culturales de las últimas décadas. Savater y García han sido capaces de interpretar la incertidumbre y la improvisación, no como una amenaza, sino como un reto desde el que provocar transformaciones sociales. La británica Lyndsey Stonebridge también insiste en su breve ensayo El mundo por venir: una nueva política de la esperanza en la importancia de nuestra capacidad de soñar otras realidades. Nos recuerda El principio de la esperanza, del filósofo Ernst Bloch, para insistir que proyectar esperanzas en el futuro no es un pasatiempo banal, sino “el anhelo de otra forma de existencia”.

To enhance the readability of Mutations in Public Space, we have grouped the material that emerged from this research into four sections. The first, Beyond the Norm, opens with “Lifeless Efficiencies”, in which Fran Quiroga notes that the dictates of efficiency—understood from the perspective of productivism—have increasingly dominated our private spheres, and by extension our public spheres. He uses several examples to illustrate that this efficiency is not only ineffective but can even be harmful in social and environmental contexts, and advocates paying more attention to the unexpected and the unforeseen, as a more life-affirming approach. Amador Fernández-Savater and Marcos García take this debate from the realm of social and environmental ecologies—which Fran Quiroga focuses on—into the cultural sphere. In their conversation entitled “Inhabiting the Conflict”, they start by questioning the dearth of images of change that could inspire an interest in transforming our society. They find that the practices that could provide this collective imagination are the social and cultural movements of recent decades. Savater and García manage to interpret uncertainty and improvisation not as a threat but as a challenge that can bring about social change. In a short essay entitled “The World to Come: A New Politics of Hope,” British scholar Lyndsey Stonebridge also focuses on the importance of our capacity to dream of other possibilities. She turns to The Principle of Hope, by German philosopher Ernst Bloch, to remind us that hope is not a banal pastime but “the yearning for another kind of existence.” 

The second section, Ecologies of the Everyday, revolves around the concept of public space. It opens with Mary Mattingly’s “The Pandemic Strengthens Mutual Aid”, which recounts how in New York the pandemic has generated a vast mutual aid network and new citizen awareness, which can be seen as an act of resistance to the dismantling of public services in American society. This idea is taken up by Maria Shéhérazade Guidici in “Commoning the City: From Consumption to Care”. She starts by describing a 1338 fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti showing two versions of the city of Siena in the 14th century and recounts how the plague of 1347 marked the end of the Siena communal experiment. She asks: "Can the current pandemic encourage us to rethink cities as spaces of care?". Guidici criticizes the Western concept of public space as understood from the Renaissance to the present because it denies direct citizen participation and transfers all responsibility for care to the state. José María Torres Nadal expands on this idea, linking it to ecologies and social justice. In “Life, Public Space, the Pandemic, and Architecture”, he turns the defining framework of public space into a holistic concept, so that it operates as a “territory of life” and a “public-political-body-space” to be cared for and looked after from a perspective beyond the human. 

Paediatric ICU members meeting in Tenerife in early 2020.

The Public Time section begins with “Where Are You?”, a personal text in which Leticia Sabsay examines how lockdown policy has brought back concepts like “household” and “the family”. The need to belong to a to a particular place and the co-constitution of space and time have always been there, but they have been pushed into the background in the unison of our Western way of life. Sabsay argues that the pandemic draws attention to the many factors (geographical, familial, political...) that condition the answer to the questions “where are you?” and “how are you?”. With the false sense of security that comes from belonging to a particular place and time, she concludes, we run the risk of forgetting that time and space can be multiple and heterogeneous. In “What’s the Weather Like?”, Jara Rocha and Amparo Lasén explore how government quarantine and lockdown policies have affected the perception of personal time, and also the emotional weather that accompanies it. They also return to an idea raised in the first section: that the permanent state of emergency was already in place and intensified with the pandemic. Athena Athanasiou also explores this idea. Her text “Time and Again, No Longer, Not Yet” begins with a scathing criticism of today’s capitalism and goes on to reflect that even in moments of crisis we are unable to let our imagination fly, as the capitalist imaginary limits us to “responsible” and (self-)regulated fantasies. Her question, “How can we reclaim imagining collective life otherwise amidst the normalising powers of a present that limits and unjustly allocates such possibilities?” resonates in several of the texts in this publication.

We close the book with Art as a Meeting Place, which addresses the apparent gap between cultural institutions as they are today and their supposed desire to play an important public and social role. In “Strong Museum, Vulnerable Museum”, Haizea Barcenilla and Eneas Bernal start with a paradox: the norms of social behaviour that became widespread during the pandemic had already been in place in museums and cultural centres for decades. Through five examples, they show how cultural spaces can embrace living experiences and ask what type of connections we want to establish between objects, bodies, and spaces. This text dialogues with Hito Steyerl’s “A Tank on a Pedestal”, published in 2017, in which the German artist cleverly challenges cultural institutions to strengthen their links to the social issues of the present, instead of limiting their scope to safeguarding the past. It is rounded off with a conversation between Alexander Koch, Anastassia Makridou-Bretonneau, and Sören Meschede on the potential of artistic practices that experiment with new relational modes, particularly those that expand democracy and happiness by continuing to build together. 

“We end Mutations in Public Space with an overview of the results of the survey “A Questionnaire for the Future”, a reflexion on the joint perception of a specific moment in time. Its value lies in that it is a still image of a collective feeling at the start of the pandemic, and all the doubts, anxieties, frustrations, and future yearnings that came with it.”
Sören Meschede and Fran Quiroga

The pandemic has of necessity constrained public space, and this onslaught has highlighted political processes that were already starting to be felt in recent decades: the growing standardisation of public space, social inequality, distrust of the other, the dismantling of public or community initiatives, and the craving for immediacy have become more starkly visible in recent years. Mutations in Public space is an attempt to reconfigure the material and sensible relationships of the present, but above all it is an invitation to recover the joy of building in common.