Speculative Cities: thinking forward.
Exploring speculative practices and how they relate to and/or change public space in the current and post COVID-19 conditions
11 June, 2020
The webinar was hosted by RMIT University, CAST Contemporary Art and Social Transformation research group, Melbourne, Australia., and is part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. This panel was convened by Fiona Hillary, Maggie McCormick, and Katrina Simon from RMIT University, and zoomed into two specific dialogues: 1) Speculative design: urban, landscape and architecture practice and 2) Speculative curatorial and art practice, drawing insights and experiences from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, and the USA.
Introduction: Maggie McCormick introduced the ‘Speculative Cities: thinking forward’ dialogues by setting out the nature of this mode of critical thinking and practice and its importance in expanding our capacity to speculate forward.
Professor of Architecture (Urbanism), Industry Fellow, Architecture and Urban Design, RMIT University, Australia,
Urban Designer and Landscape Architect with Openwork.
Mark opened the dialogue with the statement “public space is the negotiation of the private body in shared space with the other (or the stranger)”, and argued that such negotiation remained to be the same throughout COVID-19, and was made more immediate and tactile via social distancing measures. In fact, the size of public space increased and the relationships were democratized throughout the pandemic. Mark brought up the 1960s concept of Proxemic diagram that depicts the relationship between the private body and its surrounding spaces: intimate, personal, social and public, illustrated as a way of spatializing social distance. During COVID-19, the distance of the whisper or touch is also the distance of transmission, turning once invisible spatial metric into ubiquity; body and space that were once unseen and ignored are now seen and negotiated; citizens’ vocabularies of public space thus grew.
Mark shared a recent project in the financial district, with the brief of transforming an unloved space into a sanctuary space. The result is a garden with plants forming a canopy of small rooms with seats in the center formed from sliced columns, leaving a 1m wide path circulation. Such public space is essentially a built diagram of the COVID-19 1.5m distancing metric with the private body at the center of the space of negotiation, a reminder of public space as a negotiation of the private body, of the individual space shared with others.
Researcher and Teaching Assistant, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, USA
With technology coming into place in public space to help track and monitor the virus, surveillance through AI, drones and other gadgets increased, so did ‘robot traffic’. Sarah raised the question of whether they make our public space less public, and the proposition: “It is possible that COVID-19 might fundamentally change our relationship with the public space, but I’d argue that perhaps it’s not just about the loss of physical space in the city due to the pandemic, rather, this loss might stem from the introduction of something even perhaps more foreign.” Sarah also set the context of the history of pandemics through the example of 1800s’ Paris that went through the cholera crisis that took the lives of thousands of Parisians. Haussmann’s reconstruction plan, as Sarah put it: “Through careful integration of technologies into the urban fabric through a close collaboration between engineers, landscape architects, architects, planners and governments.” By mapping inequality through the lens of public health (water stress, malnutrition, malaria, slums and more) and looking at India's major pandemics over the past 200 years, results reinforced the inequality between the majority and minority worlds and the overlooked fact that “we have been there before”.
Sarah illustrated further with the case of Mumbai’s traditional fishing villages that reside next to the water or railway corridor. Access to water and sanitation and productive landscapes are keys to these people’s livelihood. Public space is where all the daily activities take place and reinforce a strong sense of identity and economy. Through acupuncture urbanism, community-based water management systems in the forms of infrastructure and landscapes, the project reorganized urban fabric around the integration of smart sanitation and productive landscapes. By choosing not to simply place it on the existing public space, this design diversified the shrinking landscape-based economy (fishing) and contributed to overall livelihood. Sarah’s sharing concluded with the question of how designers can collaborate with other disciplines to ensure a safe and equitable future for public space amidst the global crisis.
Respondent: Katrina Simon
Associate Dean, Landscape Architecture, RMIT University, School of Architecture and Urban Design, Australia
Katrina thought that proxemics is becoming a universal diagram by how it explains the current situation and is placed through the landscape. Mark raised the point of thinking the proxemic diagram in reverse, it then registers physical metrics and facts, and becomes a compelling tool. Mark suggested that if we look at the bigger scale at public space, proxemics describes the perfect metric of ideal town squares that enable everyone to be seen and recognized. Policymakers and designers employ a series of tactics of design to include and exclude particular behaviors, and proxemics can be one of the tactics. Mark’s hope is that by democratizing or making spatial metrics explicit and thus revealing social relationships and behaviours, permissions and invitations in public space, people might be able to create different behaviours.
In response to Sarah’s presentations, Katrina is intrigued by the use of technology to reconstruct vulnerable communities in pandemics, and leveraging otherwise invisible infrastructure like sanitation as social agents to create social relationships and changes. Sarah echoed that sanitation is often seen as invisible infrastructure, normalized as another cause of pandemics, and led to usually demolished and reconfigured spaces, yet Sarah suggested to look into the history and understand past patterns. Coupled with the rapid global changes that are taking place, perhaps it calls for new ways of response such as retrofitting and rethinking public space through virtual space.
Diving deeper into proxemics, Katrina also observed how ubiquitous technology allows instant communication with readily audible and accessible communication, yet is almost an inversion of the physical dynamic of voice and proximity and that proxemics has the ability to change the dynamics. Sarah raised the issue of inequality regarding technology accessibility, as presented by Mumbai, a city of extreme lack of sanitation and the impossibility of keeping social distancing.
Mark continued the discussion of “public space without space” raised earlier by Sarah, suggesting that virtual exchange and negotiations are almost like a social media version of public space regarding how choices can be made and that virtual realm is an adjunct to the public realm, instead of a replacement. Sarah also observed a variety of concerns of virtual spaces like dissipation of energy, yet it also creates a version of “equal space” on the screen. Concurrently, the emergence of AI robots interventions and surveillance is pushing people out of the space and leaving us with the feelings of being chased and watched constantly, resulting in the plausible idea of public space being less public. Sarah felt that this reflected the importance for designers to work closely with engineers to integrate the discipline in a community-centric manner.
Have recent experiences fundamentally changed your sense of what your practice might involve? Did they create new dimensions or have that strengthened certain beliefs?
For Sarah, the experience has reinforced the importance of being outside and connecting physically with people, highlighting the dangers of gadgets taking over public spaces and the importance to work with the technological discipline. Mark raised with the idea of stages of adaptation, with the first stage being sleeplessness and compulsive work, then an impulse to compensate the lack of textile engagement and physicality via model-making, confirming that the physical dimension of the work is innate and the primary engine of the enterprise.
Cross-disciplinary curator, Artistic Director of Arts House, Melbourne and convenor of the Refugee Talk Series, Australia
Emily started off with the idea of broadening the definition of public spaces, they are not just streets, but also civic institutions such as town hall, gallery, museum, daycare centre and more. These government-driven spaces are crucial to new ideas and activism. Contemporary art organisations should be thinking through ways to disperse power and decision-making, albeit uncomfortable for big institutions. Emily is also exploring new systems and methods of cultural governance.
Refuge is a project Emily has been running since 2015, a project to imagine a crisis has already occurred, and think through how people would respond, previous themes included flood, heat, pandemics, displacement. This speculative project becomes the daily reality. It’s essentially a broad community preparedness project, working closely with emergency services like Red Cross to move out of what they know isn't going to work - known as a control and command approach. This project has become a space for these important discussions to happen, so far 100 people have been involved. Emily noted the artists involved in this work are uniquely prepared for living through and adapting to the crisis, in fact, they are less disrupted emotionally and mentally throughout the current pandemic, showing how speculative and imaginative work is really about resilient building. The project also stresses on embedding first nation’s wisdom in preparedness and strives to continue the advocacy.
BLEED is another project that explores everyday digital life, the idea of virtual co-presence, sharing experiences via gadgets. Emily reminded all that to expand the audience interested in arts it is important to welcome them and technological tools would be important these days to continue these welcoming.
Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan
Independent Producer and Creative Director, Pineapple Lab, Philippines
Andrei runs Fringe, a multi-arts festival started in 2015, open access and uncensored, and Pineapple Lab, an independent art space and creative space, encouraging experimental and contemporary exhibitions, performances, gatherings and more. It’s also a year-round space for Fringe artists networks to show their work and cultivate an audience. Andrei considered it a platform and safe space for emerging artists, especially women and the LGBTQIA+ community, to express themselves and increase visibility.
For Andrei, it is important to activate public spaces in the neighbourhood through murals, installations, gigs, exhibitions, performances to highlight neighbourhood history of 350 years that is often overlooked and DNA with creativity, meanwhile making arts accessible to all. Local contexts mean underutilized public space, non-existent sidewalks, lack of access and a lot of restrictions. Malls become alternatives, so as independent spaces that have become gathering spaces to bring the community together and experience art. Andrei felt that public space should be a creative space for artists to showcase the work and to include the audience in the creation process. Artistic expressions do not have to hibernate during a pandemic and we should recognize the power public space has to rebuild communities.
Artist and curator, Letting Space and Urban Dream Brokerage in response to post-earthquake conditions, New Zealand
Respondent: Davisi Boontharm
Letting Space, triggered by the 2008 financial crisis that engendered a plethora of vacancies in Wellington, is a project that activates and occupies municipal and private places. Turning an empty shop into food waste store (Free store, 2010), transforming an entire commercial building into public sculpture (The Market Testament, 2012), or collectively turning no-man’s land into a much-loved park (Projected Fields, 2015); it is about using art playfully and humorously to speak to what can be the future of these communities. The project is not solely repurposing the space, but sparks renegotiation with authority, an act of “commoning” and shifting control. Sophie also pointed to the distinction between public space, which is always “a product of certain authority”, and common space, “a challenge to dominate enclaves”. The matter of who defines what is public remains a constant contested topic.
During COVID-19, peaceful and well-managed checkpoints were set up as an action of occupying, but also an act of fearing city dwellers coming back to the countryside. Sophie also observed the trend of moving from temporary to permanent, such as residents buying the Bowling Club in Vogelmorn Precinct, but still working towards commoning in general.
Professor in Architecture and Urban Design, I-AUD Meiji University, Japan
Davisi highlighted the importance of the broadening definitions of public space, as Emily suggested, the sociality of the space should not be overlooked. Power of arts is a common thread of all three presentations; where art goes beyond pure aesthetics pieces and sensational pleasures, but vehicles to impact societies and make changes. The role of curators is also one of the activists, aiming to trigger conversation, interactions, and reflections in order to move cities forward.
How do you overcome the difficulty to bring people together during COVID? As a curator, how do you think art can be part of the process of creating/dealing with the new normal?
Emily explained that currently all works are on digital space and felt that there is a still wide range of ways to bring people together. She echoed Mark’s idea of flattened time, as physical thinness of the screen and limited tactility allows us to enter into a space with so many dimensions. It’s however going to take years while we navigate these difficult environments and reimagine what’s possible.
Andrei shared how he has been connecting with the artists in more personal ways through social media platforms, understanding that they have stopped creating and working on art. He also agreed with Emily, emphasizing on the difficulties a prolonged crisis creates. It’s therefore important to be aware of personal mental and emotional states, recognize them and communicate with other artists and art managers as they are going through the same situation.
Sophie thought that the challenge would kick in when the entire population is resuming work in the city, and thus it’s worthwhile looking into community spaces in suburbs. Even if it’s difficult to meet in person, it’s good to leave traces for others. A possible way forward would be to create a series of distribution networks of hubs and nodes and re-examine the role of community centres.
How has your speculative project Refuge, specifically the theme of pandemics shed light on the current situation?
Emily found the instinct of letting go to gather together particularly profound, the series of work created back in 2018 also related accurately to the current situation, such as advice from the community on washing hands, an AI monitoring/ talking piece installed in washrooms, game designs and interactive work on contagion spread, audio project on the history of how health and disease were used against aboriginals in the country, and a series of events on grief that are specifically relevant today. At the end of the day, it all comes to digital interaction.
Davisi: As practitioners, we believe in physical space. It must be especially burdensome for artists and curators these days as we usually rely on all sense and beyond, and are now reduced to sight and sound, the ambience is not shared and the lack of others is becoming a problem.