[-empyre-] Critical Spatial Practice

Hello all.

Thanks to Renate and Tim for initiating the topic, and for doing such a great job of publicizing it across the lists. Thanks to Millie and James as well, for launching a month of good discussions.

Though I'll only be speaking here for myself, my connection to the topic of "Critical Spatial Practice" [CSP] is inseparable from my relationship to a few other people (who also read empyre). I've been talking, reading, and working with Nicholas Brown, Sarah Kanouse, Sharon Irish and Ryan Griffis on efforts surrounding this topic for a few years now. Others here at Illinois have also gathered around the topic in the interest of discussion, production, tours and writing. I would point to the individual projects of these colleagues, and some of our group work, before I would point to my own projects as examples of CSP. That said, I'm happy to participate in this discussion by introducing my view of our conversations and concerns.

First, and simply - how do I use the term? For me, Critical Spatial Practice is a useful term for describing efforts to understand THROUGH ACTION the ways in which political and social subjecthood is a spatial, and therefore bodily, sensory concern. Attending to how subjecthood is granted or denied through organization of space and senses; how justice and injustice is carried out through the same; these are familiar theoretical concerns. Projects that I encounter as Critical in their engagement with Space employ theoretical examination primarily as part of action, constantly attending and adjusting to the ways in which one's presence constructs new spaces for others. To borrow from Mobility Studies, these projects pay attention and respond to the ways in which one person's movements occur in relation to, or even at the expense of, the lessened movements of others - especially when posed as "critique."

/// Broad Questions

These are some questions I keep coming back to in my engagement with the topic:

1) I've been surprised to see the thread so far focussed so much on questions of reception. As such, it's also been largely a discussion of Art, with some (to me) familiar assumptions about Art's capacity for fostering at least personal transformation, if not social change. How might we talk about examples of CSP without resorting to avant- garde models in which enlightened cultural producers educate, influence or enhance through "secular spiritualism" (phrase from Chris' posts) or perceptual/ethical superiority?

2) How can we understand and influence the material, social and political specificities of temporary or habitual perceptual practices without instrumentalizing sensation in the service of aesthetic affect or political effect? Can we talk about particular sensoria as more or less free or rich outside of an ends-oriented approach?

3) What about Art has been, or continues to be, useful to "Critical Spatial Practitioners"?

And some questions to ask of particular projects:

1) To what ends are a group's efforts to mis-use, re-use or enliven particular spaces put by the economic conditions that make a project possible?

2) Who is a particular project for? As an artist I tend to think about this question in terms of "audience," but for many of the projects I associate with CSP, this terminology makes less sense, and even hinders the work. We might ask who a project is "for" in terms of justice, or even in terms of discourse. Whom does a project stand for, or from whom does it seek a response, if any?

/// Some examples

Here at Illinois, there are certainly a collection of examples that recur in our exploration of these questions. Nick Brown and Ava Bromberg included many of these and more in their current project, / Just Spaces/. (http://justspaces.org/projects.htm.) We've also talked a good bit about the works of Multiplicity, The Long March, Suzanne Lacy and Stephen Willats. Several of the artists from Mass Moca's Interventionists exhibition have come through here as well in the past few years, and the successful incorporation of that show's language into institutional practices - conference panels, job descriptions, graduate theses - have given us plenty to talk about.

We could do worse in this thread than to pick a project from such examples and discuss it. But with those examples on hand as a way of vaguely orienting how I've experienced the subject of CSP, I'll provide some more background on how I came to the topic, and then wait for Catherine to post as well.

/// CSP at Illinois

Critical Spatial Practice is the name of a reading group here at Illinois, now in its second year of (fairly minimal) University sponsorship. We borrowed the term from the work of Jane Rendell, who inspired us during a visit to campus as part of a symposium about walking. In between our individual busy schedules we've been reading, researching, writing, and planning on more projects than we've actually realized. We ask questions about how the spaces we live in are produced, and we look to apply what we learn from those questions toward the construction of new, even temporary spaces where we live. We try to do these things at the same time. (For a good introduction to some of our common themes and concerns, I would point to the just published collection of interviews we conducted for Critical Planning, a journal out of UCLA. http://www.spa.ucla.edu/critplan/ current_issue.htm)

What I find valuable in our group's discussions is a hesitance to separate practice from theory when it comes to understanding and influencing spaces. For example, if racial injustice is constructed in part spatially, through everything from Indigenous Land Law to the proliferation of racist sport mascots, then any effort to create a space of reflection and critique is also implicated. Rather than seeking spaces of refuge from negative influence, the projects I find most helpful about CSP engage reflection in action, through (difficult) processes that require critique to be part of specific social commitments. A central challenge here is to keep critique as an action, and not an attitude or position. (An interesting post by Gene Ray to this end just appeared on Thing via http:// transform.eipcp.net/correspondence/1189078355).

The most useful metaphor here, and one that began my engagement with the topic, is still that of a walk. In 2003-2004, we organized the year-long symposium series Walking as Knowing as Making, an imperfect spatial act (not an "intervention") here at Illinois. Other events, like Nick and Ava's Just Spaces (http://www.justspaces.org) have had more focus, more attention to there own spaces, and certainly more academic rigor. But through a combination of uncomfortable speaker rosters and roaming meeting locations, we stumbled onto some productive imbalances.

A walk constructs the walker, through where she walks and what she senses, but a walk also constructs the space around it, through that walker's presence in a place. To attend to and understand how this is happening minute-by-minute is to call so much attention to steps as to cause a misplaced foot or two. But through oscillation of reflection ("who am I IN this space" "who am I FOR this space") and action (moving onward), a path might be wisely altered as informed by experience. A conversation with a co-walker might change through new knowledge gained from seeing and being seen. If this sounds romantic, it's because we're not walking right now - you're reading and I'm typing.

(I think here too of the metaphor introduced by Erin Manning and Brian Massumi at Sally Jane's Flows Conference in Newcastle this summer - that of the gentle "steering" of a co-walker to the right or left through a series of infinitesimal adjustments in relation to one another.)

The metaphor of the walk keeps in play the phenomenal and the political, the influence and presence of bodies and senses in the construction and experience of just and unjust spaces. Also important, the walk has been so blithely celebrated by so many cultural producers at this point that we have plenty of warnings to keep in mind. For starters, contemporary psychogeographical experiments and the embrace of de Certeau's tactics by walkers may engage space, but "critique" is often relegated in this work to the realm of symbol, where it is easily smoothed into operation by city planners and creative industries.

I'll end there for now, having set out a few broad questions, some account of our history with the topic here at Illinois, and some theoretical concerns I've had around the topic. I'd be happy to take up any of these, but also want to give a chance to the threads already started to respond and continue. The thread this week about Interfaces is one that is also of great interest to me, though it's not come up as often in my work on CSP. After Catherine posts, we'll see where the conversation goes.

Kevin Hamilton
Assistant Professor of New Media and Painting/Sculpture
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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