Re: [-empyre-] Critical Spatial Practice

Kevin, thanks for this succinct remark. Speaking of the 'wild side', your comments remind me of an early inspiration in landscape engagement, the much - maligned and yet crazily rich literary text, "Teachings of Don Juan" by Carlos Casteneda. Obviously the 'teachings' as scholarship were discredited as anthropology, but, as aesthetic/moral inspiration to act at the risky edges of new spaces, for discovery and subversion, nothing was more piquant nor more of an intrigue.


In an admittedly sloppy stroke, I've come to think about such approaches to the senses, and others we've learned about through the likes of Crary or Stafford, as instrumental in that they discourage discovery or contingency in the interest of specific productive ends. The surveillant eye perceives aberrance only to register and quash it. The disbelieving rational ear listens for the unexpected in order to reproduce it.

I would contrast this to an experience of the senses in which discovery or subversion is possible and even anticipated. I'm thinking here of sensation in which the senses are not primarily a means to production of certain effects; rather, they are a field for confrontation and discovery of the apparently non-sensible. In the best dialogue this happens - we allow ourselves to be altered by the experience of another - and I gather through other accounts, in animistic approaches to space. But I find such intersubjectivity typically described in terms of language, and not sensation.

In my experiences of rich spatial engagement, in which reflexivity is more than a tactic, openness to sensory discovery has been key.

Yikes, this does sound on the wild side, now that I read it.


On Sep 9, 2007, at 3:53 PM, Sally Jane Norman wrote:

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 ( <http://> ) 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

_______________________________________________ empyre forum
empyre forum

This archive was generated by a fusion of Pipermail 0.09 (Mailman edition) and MHonArc 2.6.8.