[-empyre-] Forward from Marcus Miessen <miessen@studiomiessen.com>

Hello, -empyre-,

Please find below an initial statement text that I have written a while
ago, which addresses some of the issues I am interested in and
currently working on. As a kind of case study to this earlier text,
there will be a book published by Sternberg Press (Berlin/ New York,
November 2007) that addresses some of those issues in the context of
Spatial Perceptions of Europe as an indicator for political imagination
as well as issues of Participation. The book is a result of another
project of mine (with Ralf Pflugfelder) that is currently on show at
the Lyon Biennial.

If you follow this link, you will find a short preview about the book:


Another books that might be of interest in this context are:

-Did Someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice (MIT Press,
2006, with Shumon Basar), and

-With/Without - Spatial Products, Practices and Politics in the Middle
East (Bidoun, 2007, with Shumon Basar and Antonia Carver)



All best from London,


The Violence of Participation

Spatial Practices Beyond Models of Consensus

&#8220;The disappearance of class identities and the end of the bipolar
system of confrontation have rendered conventional politics obsolete.
Consensus finally reigns with respect to the basic institutions of
society, and the lack of any legitimate alternative means that this
consensus will not be challenged.&#8221;

(Chantal Mouffe)

&#8220;In contrast to cooperation, collaboration is driven by complex
realities rather than romantic notions of a common ground or
commonality. It is an ambivalent process constituted by a set of
paradoxical relationships between co-producers who affect each other.&#8221;

(Florian Schneider)

When humans assemble, spatial conflicts arise. Spatial planning is
often considered as the management of spatial conflicts. To deal with
conflicts, critical decision-making must evolve. The city&#8211;and, indeed,
the progressive institution&#8211;exist as social and spatial conflict zones,
re-negotiating their limits through constant transformation.

Today, there is an ever-increasing need to consider the breaking of the
consensus machine. Taking this notion as a possible starting point, my
research attempts to understand and illustrate the importance of
critical engagement in alien fields of knowledge&#8212;based on spatial
conditions as a means of a cultural investigation. It aims to inquire
both the role of the architect and the role of the contemporary

This text presents and discusses today&#8217;s need for actors operating from
outside existing networks while leaving behind circles of conventional
expertise and overlap with other post-disciplinary fields of knowledge.
An alternative model of participation within spatial practice will be
rendered, one that takes as a starting point an understanding of
participation beyond models of consensus. Instead of aiming for
synchronization, such model could be based on participation through
critical distance and the conscious implementation of zones of
conflict. Through cyclical specialization, the future spatial
practitioner could arguably be understood as an outsider who&#8211;instead of
trying to set up or sustain common denominators of consensus&#8211;enters
existing situations or projects by deliberately instigating conflicts
as a micro-political form of critical engagement with the environment
that one is operating in. Using the architect&#8217;s expertise of mapping
out fields of conflict, the research raises a set of questions trying
to uncover the relevance of spatial and architectural expertise and
how, in the remit of institutions, they can facilitate an alternative
knowledge production. It seems that today we are in urgent need of a
re-evaluation of spatial production beyond traditional definitions,
acknowledging the possibility of an &#8220;architecture of knowledge&#8221; that is
being built up by actively participating in space. The understanding,
production and altering of spatial conditions presents us with a
pre-requisite of identifying the broader reaches of political reality.

Participation and Conflict

Participation is war. Any form of participation is already a form of
conflict. In war, enemy and adversary usually hold territory, which
they can gain or lose, while each has a spokesman or authority that can
govern, submit or collapse. In order to participate in any environment
or given situation, one needs to understand the forces of conflict that
act upon that environment. In physics, a spatial vector is a concept
described by scale and direction: in a field of forces, it is the
individual vectors that participate in its becoming. However, if one
wants to participate in any given forcefield, it is crucial to identify
the conflicting forces at play.

Participation is often understood as a means of becoming part in
something through pro-active contribution and the occupation of a
particular role. However, it seems that this role is rarely understood
as a critical platform of engagement, but rather based on romantic
conceptions of harmony and solidarity. In this context, I would like to
promote an understanding of conflictual participation, one that acts as
an uninvited irritant, a forced entry into fields of knowledge that
could arguably benefit from spatial thinking.

Undoing the innocence of Participation

From the beginning of Sex and the City, Charlotte York is portrayed as
the most innocent of the four protagonists. Throughout the series, she
is the only one who follows &#8220;dating rules&#8221; and expresses a serious
desire to marry and have children. In episode 55, Charlotte decides to
quit her job as a curator in a Manhattan art gallery. When she reveals
her intentions to her disapproving friends, she explains why she wants
to stay home. In order to not feel &#8220;bad&#8221; about her real motives
(wanting to be pregnant and redecorating the house), she justifies her
decision by stating that she want to &#8220;volunteer at Trey&#8217;s hospital and
raise money for the pediatric wing&#8221;. In Charlotte&#8217;s case, doing
volunteering work for an important social cause is portrayed as her
voluntary participation in a good cause that prevents her from being
judged for quitting her job.

Isn&#8217;t this kind of practice precisely the modus operandi that we can
find so many &#8220;socially relevant&#8221; practices today? There is an
interesting similarity between the way of arguing and the way in which
particular practices have hijacked the notion of participation as a
positive, unquestionable means of engagement (which forms their
economy). But the question is: how is it possible to &#8220;participate&#8221; in a
given environment or situation without having to compromise one&#8217;s role
as an active agent that is not interested in consensus and &#8220;doing
good&#8221;, but asking questions while attempting to inform practice in a
particular direction. Becoming a vector in the forcefield of conflicts
raises the question of how does one participate without catering for
pre-established needs or tasks, or&#8211;from the point of view of the
traditional architect&#8211;how is it possible to participate in, for
example, urban micro-politics by inserting friction and asking
questions rather than doing local community work through Section 106

In architecture, there are frequent examples where critical engagement
is conflicting with the realities of business interests. In 2006,
London-based architect Richard Rogers was sent to New York by a number
of clients, who had read that he let his office be used by a group of
architects that were connected to Architects and Planners for Justice
in Palestine. Lord Rogers was called to the offices of the Empire State
Development Corporation (who are overseeing the re-design of New York's
1.7-billion Dollar Jacob K. Javits Convention Centre that Rogers is in
charge of) to explain his connection to the group, who were holding a
meeting at Roger's London office on February 2, 2006. As a result,
several New York officials urged that Rogers be removed from the
publicly funded project. Interestingly, this case illustrates how
architects are often used as a means of power structures, but from the
perspective of the power structure itself, the architect is not welcome
as a participating vector or enabler in this forcefield, but understood
as a service-provider who delivers a product. Architects are often used
as a means of power structures, but from the perspective of the power
structure itself, the architect is not welcome as a participating
vector or enabler in this forcefield, but understood as a
service-provider who delivers a product. As Rem Koolhaas argued in a
conversation recently: &#8220;I would say that particularly in America the
political obliviousness is considered part of the role of the
architect.&#8221;  It is this chasm that I attempt to tackle.

Collaboration as Post-consensus Practice

Conflict refers to a condition of antagonism or state of opposition
between two or more groups of people. It can also be described as a
clash of interests, aims, or targets. When we look at conflict as
opposed to innocent forms of participation, conflict is not to be
understood as a form of protest or contrary provocation, but rather as
a micro-political practice through which the participant become an
active agent insisting on being an actor in the forcefield they are
facing. Thus, participation becomes a form of critical engagement. When
participation becomes conflict, conflict becomes space. Re-inserting
friction and differences into both the scale of the institution and the
city bears the potential of micro-political forces that render conflict
as practice. In this context, participation becomes a form of
non-physical, productive violence. Micro-political action can be as
effective as traditional state political action.

In July 2006, Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist interviewed more than
50 people over the course of 24 hours. Their so-called &#8220;Interview
Marathon&#8221; at the Serpentine Gallery London was set up as a model to
deliver a cross-section of practitioners that, in one way or another,
define what London is today. Although the event was interesting and
successful in many ways, one could also sense a certain frustration
amongst the more critically oriented audience. Surely, one would think,
if one sets out to trace some kind of cross-section, one would include
a multitude of dissimilar voices. Now, in order for this not to be
misunderstood, it needs to mentioned that I am not trying to argue for
a more inclusive model or one based on political correctness. On the
contrary: what was missing was precisely the conflict that &#8220;is&#8221; the
city. The Marathon was set up as a &#8220;stimulating set of discussions&#8221;.
However, all participants were either part of an existing network of
cultural practitioners, thinkers or commentators or at least originated
from the same cultural milieu.

Now, I would like to argue that&#8211;in order to include the complexity of
the city&#8211;one also needs to include the conflicting forces of that city.
Consensus is only achieved through relationality of powers. One could
argue that if such relationality would have been broken, another kind
of knowledge would have been produced; one that helps us to understand
the composite realities of the contemporary city and the forces at
play. In this context, it could be useful to re-think the concept of
conflict as an enabler, a producer of a productive environment rather
than an understanding of conflict as direct, physical violence. A more
diverse set of conflicting voices could potentially inhabit risks.
However, it allows for multiple agencies and discourse that, through
the re-calibration of vectorial forces by means of critical
conversations, could produce alternative and unexpected knowledge.

In order for any kind of participation to reach a political dimension,
the engagement needs to be based on a distant critical voice. Through
this kind of &#8216;conflictual participation&#8217;, the exchange of knowledge in
a post-disciplinary field of forces starts to produce new forms of
knowledge. As a starting point for such model of &#8216;conflictual
participation&#8217;, one could make use of the concept of collaboration as
opposed to cooperation that Florian Schneider distinguishes in &#8220;The
Dark Site of the Multitude&#8221; : &#8220;as a pejorative term, collaboration
stands for willingly assisting an enemy of one&#8217;s country and especially
an occupying force or a malevolent power. It means to work together
with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately
connected (&#8230;).&#8221;

Since such notion of collaboration is also based on an idea of the
inside and the outside (if you are inside you are part of an existing
discourse which is to be agreed with and fostered), it will
increasingly be the outsider that will manage to add critically to
pre-established power-relations of expertise. Although the outsider
will be understood as someone who does not threaten the internal system
due to lack of knowledge of its structure, it is precisely this
condition that allows one to fully immerse in its depth in a dilettante
manner. What we need today are more dilettantes that neither worry
about making the wrong shift nor prevent friction between certain
agents in the existing forcefield if necessary, a means to&#8211;as Claire
Doherty calls it&#8211;&#8220;circumnavigate predictability&#8221; .

One could therefore argue that instead of breading the next generation
of facilitators and mediators, we should aim for the encouragement of
the &#8216;uninterested outsider&#8217;, the one that is unaware of pre-requisites
and existing protocols, entering the arena with nothing but creative
intellect. Running down the corridor with no fear of causing friction
or to destabilize existing power-relations, he is opening up a space
for change, one that enables &#8216;political politics&#8217;.

Given the increasing fragmentation of identities and the complexities
of the contemporary city, we are now facing a situation in which it is
crucial to think about a form of commonality, which allows for conflict
as a form of productive engagement: a model of bohemian participation
in the sense of an outsider&#8217;s point of entry, accessing existing
debates and discourses untroubled by their disapproval.
Timothy Murray
Professor of Comparative Literature and English
Director of Graduate Studies in Film and Video Studies
Curator, The Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art, Cornell Library
285 Goldwin Smith Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, New York 14853

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