Donnerstag, 31. Dezember 2015

Getting Started: An Introduction to the context of public space.

written by Ilka Theurich, 2014
Published, 2015 (1)

Public urban space: a place where, historically speaking, society and democracy have been constituted and which in 2014 certainly is a place where society models and ways of living together can well be discussed. In my art and artistic research, the public urban space at the beginning of the 21st century becomes the precondition of all practice, a frame in which my performative strategies develop. And so, at this point, I would like to summarize my basic thoughts about public urban space, about how it has influenced me, and which thoughts I give to it today.

While in the middle of the 1980s nothing kept me in my small home village in northern Germany and my curiosity about the world had become so great that I simply had to move to the city, almost 25 years later I wonder whether the German saying “City air makes you free” is still true. I wonder whether one does not have much more freedom in the villages today than in a crowded and confined city. When I moved to Hanover (2) at the age of 16, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity. My hope was to gain knowledge fast and unbureaucratically through art, culture and many libraries and archives. Archives - a knowledge that seemed to be very far away in my home village without a library, theater, cinema or internet access back then. Tim Rieniets, the curator of the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2009, defines cities as places which “enable social encounter, collaboration, and solidarity. They are vast pools of knowledge, ideas, and information; they offer perspectives of personal and collective visions and they can offer freedom needed for emancipation and personal fulfillment.” (3) Today I am in the fortunate position of having access to all areas of public life, of culture and science. But we are living in an achievement-oriented society in which the gap between rich and poor is widening, especially in the big cities and the mega cities of this world, and the urban space is forfeiting its manifoldness.

In order to be able to write about the city as such, one has to realize how complex such a project really is in the year 2014. Location, economic and globalization factors have to be taken into account for an extensive view. A short inventory shows that globalization is already there. Inner cities look confusingly similar, and it almost does not matter whether one is in a megacity, a capital city or simply in one of the many other big cities. The disappearing public spaces show how strongly the large corporations are already interfering with everyday life in the cities. Oftentimes, people think they are in a public location, and only when they observe people being banned from the spot by a security company they notice, that this site already belongs to a globally operating consulting firm.

In the 19th and 20th century, public places, at least in European cities, were spots of diversity and of democratization. They were sites of togetherness and of exchange. Today I wonder where they are gone, these areas of freedom, these blanks in the city map. Where do you find locations where people can encounter each other regardless of their origin, their religion, their sex, and their income?

From an external viewpoint, urban development seems to have assumed an independent existence. Entire streets of houses are bought up and renovated by large-scale investors in almost every city in the world. In the process, house residents or grown neighborhoods are not taken into consideration. The individual citizen, the individual person has little influence on his or her environment. Speculators, investors and economically oriented state and city governments influence urban planners and architects. The director of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), Georg Brugmans (4), warns of too little influence being wielded by city dwellers, who form the majority of voters: “Money is made in cities, yet it is not what the money is being spent on. Most voters now live in cities, but these voters have not yet learned to drive a hard bargain – that is, to demand that politicians make a new and strong engagement with the city a political priority, not just on a local level, but also nationally and globally.”(5)

The fear of violence and muggings adds its share to the city slowly changing into a high-security zone. Two safety concepts clash here. In the first concept, total surveillance is demanded, and architects and city planners are required to design their buildings and places in a way that prevents blind and dark corners from coming into existence in the first place, as the initiative of the London Police “Secured by Design” (6) shows. In the second concept, enclosed private apartment complexes arise which literally divide the district. Islands of safety, as it were, that spring up like mushrooms and spread across the complete urban space. Rieniets explains that “many urban areas are no longer coherent territories, instead they are turning into what Stephen Graham calls hermetically-sealed 'secessionary networked spaces': urban enclaves, which are spatially, socially, and functionally disconnected from their immediate surroundings.” (7) I was able to observe this phenomenon in the district Dongjak-gu in Seoul in 2011. The mayor’s long-term objectives were implemented here to construct, amongst others, “resident space for elegant and clear life, and preventing from community's calamity.” (8) Now, whether I look at the one or the other of these safety concepts –freedom feels different for me.

Although I do not want to start a fundamental debate on freedom in this text, I have my very personal wish for my own future in the city: in coming years, I still want to be able to live in a city where citizens can meet openly in the streets, where neighbourhoods can form anew again and again, and where progress does not turn into solitary confinement.

Another great change in the cityscape as well as in the perception of urban space certainly lies in the city dweller himself. More and more people are just temporary residents of a city before they have to move on for professional reasons. I myself moved from one town to the next and commuted between Asia and Europe from 2001 to 2011. In spite of this, or exactly because of it, in November 2011 I wondered whether it might not make more sense to return to my home town Hanover. Maybe that is the only place where I can directly influence the future of this city I have grown so fond of. The madness of speculation had begun there, too. And in Hanover, there was and still is no sign of milieu protection as we know it from Berlin districts like Kreuzberg and Neukölln. In addition, there is the phenomenon of more and more city residents finding their peer group on the Internet, in social networks, and on virtual platforms. Rieniets exemplarily quotes the project director of the Bauhaus Kolleg, Regina Bittner (9): “Cities can no longer be exclusively understood as territorially fixed, nationally contextualized entities.” (10) The Japanese sociologist Ueno Toshiya says: “The age of Globalization is at the same time the age of Tribalization.” (11) For him, those people who seek out rather smaller groups, who share the same interests and who function on a similar emotional level belong to an urban tribe. A very good example for this is the worldwide network of performance artists via Facebook and other internet platforms. Sometimes one catches oneself completely forgetting the reality of the distance between two countries. Arriving in Seoul, which was my very first study stay in Korea, I already knew so many local performance artists that the distance between Germany and Korea seemed to me like I was commuting between Berlin and Hanover. What felt like 243 km clashed with an actually existing linear distance of 8378.36 km. How do we experience public urban space with this shift in perception? Can we still really do it?

Theoretically, cities in the 21st century have become more diverse than ever before through migration and mass mobility. However, the reasons mentioned above, like fragmentation and shielding of the different groups from each other and the influence of investors and speculators on urban planning, make it more difficult every day to live and to experience this cultural diversity. And even if we are occasionally lucky enough to find a habitat that is somewhat more mixed, it will immediately be professionally marketed as a tourist attraction. We can see this, among others, in districts like Neukölln in Berlin, the Schanzenviertel in Hamburg, Kallio in Helsinki, or in my home neighborhood Linden in Hanover.

In my own private inventory of conditions in the cities at the beginning of the 21st century, I come to a rather negative result at first sight. I observed that the poor are dislodged and, if they still have work, must accept a very long journey every day. Peer groups have retreated to the Internet, and formerly public places have been privatized. However, I would not be writing this text if I did not still see the chance of a further development! And it was this positive belief in the future that has driven my previous artistic work and my artistic research forward.

In his introduction to the publication Open Cities: Designing Coexistence, Rieniets concludes that it is this very diversity which offers a great chance: “This spatial order opens up many possibilities to conceive moments of Open Cities. The juxtaposition of social and cultural differences could lead to new and unexpected forms of urban coexistence and exchange.”(12) Although for Rieniets, even the philosophy of city planning, whose older concepts build on the wish to always integrate everything, has segmented, “the belief in urban planning as a discipline that can orchestrate and shape the city as a whole”(13), yet on the other hand, in his understanding of the recent history of urban planning this holistic approach is not considered important anymore, and the different regions of a city are acknowledged.

However, with the 4th International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, it was his aim to look for new ways of urban coexistence and of exchange. He invited researchers from different disciplines (architecture, urban design, sociology, ethnography, law, history, economy, urban design...) in order to give thought to possible conditions for an Open City (14). Architects and city planners were asked which situations they would implement in practice when approaching such a concept, and “which spatial design practices could be applied to create the conditions for an Open City”. (15)

I believe that it will probably be a mixture of both approaches that could bring us a well-functioning Open City. But only if urban planning involves, above all, the local people in the planning process. As an artist with a background in performance studies, of course, I wonder: who establishes the life in the city? Design and planning may help, but is it not rather the people who fill the city with life? I missed, the participation of the citizen in the 2009 Rotterdam Concepts. How do we actually imagine a common future in our cities? What can we do? What can the individual citizen do? Where is participation in the cities imaginable? And how can we live and experience diversity?

Personally, I miss public open space in various forms, blank spaces so to say where the city resident can still design something him- or herself. Areas which can change in their own tempo and in their own way. The German-Russian author Wladimir Kaminer, who lives in Berlin, points out in a video interview how important open spaces are for the people in a city: „We have an achievement-oriented society, and in an achievement-oriented society, every millimeter has to be built on (….) I think that efficiency is not a human term at all. It comes from computer language. Or one says, the insurance company cancels my benefits. I plead for passion instead of efficiency. (…) And such an empty area … is not really empty, it is never empty. It is transformed every day. It is an area where people can live their passion instead of their efficiency.“ (16)

I strongly support the exclamation “Passion instead of efficiency.” For me, it is one of the most important components in planning an Open City. In my opinion, public places have to be created where the citizens can try things out; away from a mentality of easily manageable neutrality and towards the more complex structures of an experiment. How can the citizen “commune with his heart“ (17) reflect his situation and form an opinion if he lives in a society that believes expertise alone can answer every question? (18) In a sustainable city and society, passion and efficiency must be able to balance each other.

  1. Theurich, Ilka. "Poetic Encounter: A Hermeneutic Journey into the Microprocesses of Performance Art", Theatre Academy Helsinki, 2015.
  2. Hanover or Hannover is the capital and largest city of the German state of Lower Saxony
  3. Rieniets 2009, p. 13.
  4. George Brugmans has been the executive director of the IABR since 2004. He also chaired the Curator Team of the 5th IABR: Making City.
  5. Rieniets 2009, p. 11, Brugmans in Rieniets.
  6. Secured by Design, 2011.
  7. Rieniets 2009, pp. 19-20.
  8. The City of Dream and Future, 2011.
  9. Regina Bittner is a cultural scientist, an urban anthropologist and the project director of the Bauhaus Kolleg at the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Germany.
  10. Rieniets 2009, p. 17, Bittner according to Rieniets.
  11. Kamiya 2000, p. 14, Uneno according to Kamiya.
  12. Rieniets 2009, p. 21.
  13. Rieniets 2009, p. 22.
  14. cf. Rieniets 2009, p. 15.
  15. Rieniets 2009, p. 209.
  16. Kaminer, 2011. // GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Wir haben eine Leistungsgesellschaft, und in einer Leistungsgesellschaft muss jeder Millimeter bebaut werden (…) Ich finde, dass Leistung gar kein menschlicher Begriff ist. Das kommt aus (der) Computersprache. Oder man sagt zu einer Versicherungsgesellschaft, mir werden die Leistungen gestrichen (…) Ich plädiere für Leidenschaft statt Leistung. Und eine solche leere Fläche …Sie ist ja eigentlich nicht leer, sie ist nie leer. Sie ist jeden Tag anders gestaltet. Sie ist eine Fläche, wo Menschen ihre Leidenschaft statt Leistung ausleben können.” NOTE: In the English version, the content changes due to the translation. In the German version there is a connecting word in all sentences: LEISTUNG (which can be translated as efficiency, power, performance, output, benefit, capacity, service, achievement, accomplishment, rating, payment, effort, feat, result, work, merit)
  17. Gadamer 1986, p. 168 cf. "Mit-sich-zu-rate-gehen".
  18. Gadamer 1986, pp. 155-173 cf. "Über die Planung der Zukunft".


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Gesammelte Werke Band 2 –Hermeneutik II –Wahrheit und Methode
Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1986.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1975/2004.

Edited Work or Several Editors
Rieniets, Tim; Sigler, Jennifer; Christiaanse, Kees (ed.) Open City, Designing Coexistence. 
Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SUN, 2009.
Kamiya,Yukie (ed.) Territory, Contemporary Art from the Netherlands
Tokyo: The Tokyo Opera City Cultural Foundation, 2000.

Web Sites
Police of London. “Secured by Design.” (last visit 31.12.2015)
City of Seoul: Dongjak-ku. “The City of Dream and Future.” (last visit 24.09.2011)


Youtube Video: Wladimir Kaminer. “Ich plädiere für Leidenschaft statt Leistung.” (last visit 31.12.2015)


WM = Wahrheit und Methode

TM = Truth and Method