RE: [-empyre-] Critical Spatial Practice

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? 
That's quite a question Kevin! I think I need your definition of what you see as "instrumentalizing sensation". Some people might say that it's inherent to art making. Framing perception might be a "softer" term. I'm curious.
Let's take a walk on the wild side - nice to "hear" you here.
very best from Geordie land


From: on behalf of Kevin Hamilton
Sent: Sun 09/09/2007 9:38 PM
Subject: [-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 

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/. ( 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.

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:// <http:///>

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 ( <> ) 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 

(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 

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
empyre forum

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