“The call for a pluralistic public space becomes a dream of other future spaces”
A conversation between Fran Quiroga and Sören Meschede, co-editors of Mutations in Public Space, and Felipe G. Gil, member of ZEMOS98 and mediator of the Paediatric ICU Concomitancia.
With the launch of their first book, Mutations in Public Space, Concomitentes continue to deepen their reflections, research, and discussions around the issues that their practice deals with. In this conversation, Felipe G. Gil, member of ZEMOS98 and mediator of the Paediatric ICU Concomitancia, talks with editors Sören Meschede and Fran Quiroga about the relevance of this new publication.
FELIPE G. GIL: Why do we want to make this book?
SÖREN MESCHEDE: Perhaps it’s important to mention that we’ve always planned to carry out some publishing activity. One the one hand, we want to make books that document the long, invisible, and mostly intangible processes of the Concomitancias. On the other hand, there’s the example of the Nouveaux Commanditaires in France and their collaboration with the publishing house Les presses du réel, which does not just involve the production of books documenting the commissions but also a series of more theoretical publications that are not linked to specific projects. This has established the Nouveaux Commanditaires as an important actor in the field of expanded cultural and social practices. We’ve brought that idea to Concomitentes.
FRAN QUIROGA: The concept of art as research, how art expands ways of exploring reality: that’s the perspective Concomitentes projects work from. We want this publishing undertaking to reflect that same way of approaching reality, and this will contribute to its reproducibility. That’s one of the key aspects when weighing up the relevance of generating theoretical production in book format.
“This particular publication is a response to the highly unusual situation of the pandemic and the need to contribute through art, from the modest position of not providing answers but enabling space for debate”
Considering our belief that art is interdependent—that it is connected to reality and responds to life—, we had to do something. That sparked the desire and the search for complicity with others who could help us understand the complexity brought on by this crazy time.
FGG: We know that public space is a place for negotiation, a place traditionally reclaimed by art to represent underrepresented communities and issues that reflect on the status quo. In the post-pandemic context there are restrictions on the use of common space, so how does the book deal with this paradox?
FQ: One of the issues that the book talks about is citizen self-management, and how we should be grateful for the collective effort. I think there’s also a questioning of the idea of control, which is being increasingly accepted. It’s important to emphasise that it was we—the citizens—who decided that under the circumstances we couldn’t use public space and be so close to each other. There was a process of co-responsibility and collective care, which we had never done before because we had never faced something like this. Other mediation strategies were activated, other ways of being together in that distance, which allowed us to handle the physical separation in a different, gentler way, experiencing other ways of being together apart, many of which will endure.
SM: Many of the voices in the book defend this heterogeneous, informal contested space, and mourn its possible loss. But as Fran says, the texts don’t stop there, they go further. What runs through several of them is their appeal to the potential of expanded cultural practices—in this case including urbanism and architecture—to help, to plan, and to dream.
The crisis, which was coming before Covid hit, has made us very wary of dreaming. Art and culture can help us project ourselves into the future, they can be an engine for change and to really make things happen. The call for a pluralistic public space becomes a dream of other future spaces.
FGG: Collaborative artistic practices are often somewhat misleadingly judged as inaccessible in their use of language and elitist tendencies. To those of us on the inside, it’s clear that what may appear to be abstract, inaccessible language is actually an experiment and an attempt to create a social imaginary that requires us to try out everything, even new ways of naming things. How does the book address this?
SM: Absolutely. Communication is a key issue in these participatory projects. Everything we’re doing has an aspect that is “beyond” the doing itself: an activism in support of certain problems and an attempt to make them visible.
Conveying this reflection requires a certain abstraction, naming certain concepts that are hard to understand, and this can be an obstacle to comprehension. It’s important to note that the book is not intended as a tool for mass dissemination. Rather, it’s a way for us to embark on a discussion with other cultural-professional agents who are interested in these ideas.
So the book is certainly a means of communication but it should never be the only one. We have to be open to other formulas that go further, and explore other forms of interconnection with different sectors of the community. The series of books we’re planning is very much targeted at a certain type of readers: non-academic but professional, interested in theoretical engagement with the issues we are dealing with. From there, we need to translate it into other forms. For example, a podcast would be one way of presenting this kind of content for other sectors and audiences.
FQ: Our intention is to generate discourse in an accessible format. And we have to be honest, to know who we are addressing. We have to recognise the verbiage, be aware of the hyperbole that gets in the way of understanding. But our desire to be more accessible shouldn’t weaken the discursive power. The real challenge is to say profound things in the simplest possible way. We may or may not succeed, but there must be an intention to go beyond the recursive communities of agents who operate in the art world.
FGG: That dichotomy can be misleading. For example, for a long time the word “heteropatriarchy” was mostly used in feminist academic and activist practices, and now the term has seeped into the mainstream to the point that many people know what we’re talking about, it’s not alien to them. It’s challenging to be constantly accused of elitism, because we’re trying to absorb experimental discursive production while also attempting to get out of the cultural ghetto and reach other places. Returning to the subject of your books, if we take the metaphor of wine-food pairing, what common themes do you think can be paired with or link all the texts?
FQ: The book is made up of four sections, with three texts in each. We touch on the regulation of public space and the importance of minor gestures and of day-to-day life: the small actions that are deconstructing the hyper-productivist imaginary. We also look at the idea of public time and the reconfiguration of speed and rhythms. And given that museums were the precursors of pandemic distancing, we ask: How can we rethink art as a means to facilitate meeting spaces? This book does not just raise criticism, it opens up alternatives for discussion.
SM: To pick up on your culinary image Felipe, there’s no reason why the sections of the book should be in the usual order of starter, first course, second course, and dessert. The ice cream could be first, before moving onto the wine. Certain themes are present in some way in all the texts, such as references to the future and to the ability to dream. And so are other themes like ecologies, relationships of mutual care, and the friction generated by the pandemic. The words “crisis” and “pandemic” are mentioned in nearly all the texts, but we were adamant that the book should not simply be an account of pandemic matters—with an expiry date—but should instead go beyond the immediate experience. Some texts were written before the pandemic, salvaged from other publications, and talk about other crises and other times. So we’re saying that what happened was exceptional, but it also reflects a certain crisis pattern that we’ve lived through before. We always have to appeal to that resilience.
FGG: What future do you imagine for the book?
SM: This is the first of a series, so this first book sets a precedent for a collection we want to publish with Bartlebooth. We want to create a channel that brings together various actors who think about public space and its relationship with art, society, and urbanism. On the other hand, we hope to work on these texts in more open formats, in sessions and workshops we’d like to organise when we launch the book.
FQ: Writing is restorative, it allowed us to escape the monotony of pandemic life through the small abstraction of sitting down to write. It would be great if that were reciprocated, if reading the book also has a social and collective restorative effect, contributing to the thinking that is coming out of this unusual time. And for me there’s also something else that hovers over this book, which has to do with the imaginaries that the pandemic is leaving in its wake: what is the legacy of this way of looking at the other? This book can be read as an expression of the joy of continuing to do things together: that’s what must win out. The pandemic was just another crisis, and we have to trust society’s ability to adapt. Although I do think it would be terrible if the fear of being with others persists. Hopefully the book will help to overturn that.