If You Build It, They Will Come
A Bruce Cockburn song always comes to mind whenever I cross the border. I hear a specific line wrong, a mondegreen, thinking he says, “I don’t believe in God or borders,” when the line is, in fact, “I don’t believe in guarded borders.” It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I’m humming the tune of a well-intentioned Canadian nationalist. The line to cross customs at JFK is hardly unmanageable but that doesn’t make it any less irksome, nor does it mean the wait is without delay. To enter the US on a visa now requires fingerprints and photographs for all “non-resident aliens” living in the States, and there appears to be some kind of trouble ahead in line, which reminds me of how the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben gave up a lecturing position at New York University in 2004, arguing that such treatment amounted to a contemporary form of bio-political “tattooing” similar to that used in the Nazi concentration camps.1 It is without surprise that 9/11, the Gaza Strip, and Guantánamo Bay are referenced in Did Someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice (2006), a collection of essays, edited by Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar, which I fittingly read while flying over North America, in neither exactly the jurisdiction of the US nor Canada.
In the preface of Did Someone Say Participate?, Hans Ulrich Obrist takes up a familiar tone, optimistically declaring the metaphoric potential of “archipelagos” and an art world liberated from notions of centrality. This collection takes that decentralization to heart, roaming not only around the world, but also across disciplines. I sympathize with this sentiment, but I wonder how it is being used in this book. No doubt the emphasis on collaboration, on the role of the amateur, and on the role of space in contemporary politics and aesthetics leads these writers, artists, architects, activists, and curators, to think of the future. But just where is such a practice going? Obrist ends his essay somewhat abruptly with aphorisms about the future from a coterie of familiar names. Yet it’s surprising how mundane a number of cogent thinkers are when asked such a clichéd question.
Shumon Busar’s essay may hold a clue for this peripatetic collection, in which belief in the role of space is central. Busar discusses the “The Professional Amateur,” suggesting that “the perennial estrangement” of the terms professional and amateur “denies the possibility of a chemical conflation that at first sounds like a ridiculous oxymoron.” And Busar reduces this to belief: “Belief is the primary logic of survival for the Professional Amateur: belief that when everything is possible, the possible is merely another part of everything.” Spatial practice, the implication goes, provides a place where this commingling can happen (in Busar’s case, between the “amateur” and the “professional”). The creation of a space where an inarticulate something can happen is one of the more generative suggestions the book proposes.
And it is with this optimistic sense of belief—in the permeability of borders, in the elasticity of disciplines, and in peregrination as a political stance—that the book continues to roam from interviews such as one with Rebecca Gomperts, an activist whose Women on Waves project offered abortion clinics to women in countries where abortion is illegal; to John McSweeney’s essay on the role of water in global politics, what he calls “hydro-politics”; and to projects such as Mauricio Guillen’s photo-documentation of casetas de vigilancia in Mexico City.
While the work, which spans a vertiginous terrain, may be useful for architectural theory, critical geography, and social practice, how “spatial practice” functions to group disparate practices into one aesthetic category requires more attention. An abbreviation from architectural historian Jane Rendell’s “critical spatial practice,” the term “spatial practice” is meant to analyze the intersection of spatial theory and critical practice. But in terms of this book, what is the use of such an elastic moniker It seems to suggest something not found in another term, “social practice,” its cousin in contemporary art. Architecture, relational or socially collaborative aesthetics, political activism, critical geography, and urban planning all fit neatly under the umbrella of “spatial practice.” Needless to say, it is extremely fashionable, and, at the very least, intriguing for its vagueness. Yet, I wonder what efficacy—the desire for which, I think, is central to this project—such a collection has.
To return to a term Busar used: a modern belief—in a tradition spanning from Le Corbusier all the way to Bruce Mau—lingers here that architecture can solve endemic social and political problems. In such a case, space is the site of social change, and the “spatial practice,” as this book gathers it, seems to be a part of that trajectory, a trajectory that also now loosely includes subsections of contemporary art. The work in this collection is definitely more concerned with an architectural context than an artistic one, but I’m interested in the way certain kinds of contemporary art are currently latching onto architectural practice and rhetoric. This creates a series of problems, one of which concerns the lingering belief that space alone changes situations. However, the incorporation of forms of art complicate things by introducing, however tacitly, the problems associated with representational practice. And this begs the question: what about this collection, as both book and term, is a form of representation? Does this rhetoric mobilize a disruptive “cultural front” that would catalyze change, or does it simply engage in a series of ready-made designations that the art/architectural world already provides Or, perhaps, am I missing something? Is it something else entirely?
I guess the next question, which cannot be adequately answered in a review, is: Does taking up the designations of the architectural/art world provide the necessary means for such a project? I ask this question only to undermine it. I wonder how such idealism can be effective, rather than affective, without policy. In Brooklyn, for example, the Gowanus Canal—that industrial wasteland between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope—is primed for urban renewal. A Whole Foods is scheduled to open just off the Gowanus, but its development, though still in the works, is delayed because toxic waste has been seeping through the ground. Does this book, with its globalizing scope, offer anything more than the myriad blogs smugly bemoaning of urbanization in Brooklyn don’t already offer? Architecture, after all, is a reflection of power.
In “Architecture, Power Unplugged: Gaza Evacuations,” for example, Eyal Weizman discusses the ways in which the Israeli government pondered the demolition of more Gaza settlements. The essay considers how urban planning reflects both micro and macro political problems, and how site specificity relates to larger global problems. I’m not taking issue with Weizman’s essay, which I found germane and very useful. However, I am taking issue with what is at stake in placing it next to an interview with the photographer Frank van der Salm, in which he is asked by editor Shumon Busar whether or not “photography is transforming into a kind of ‘spatial practice’.”
The problem lies in what Weizman’s critical geography, brilliant as it may be, is doing collected with an essay that considers photography in contemporary practice. I am not suggesting one should necessarily apply some neo-Kantian self-criticality to either photography or critical geography; rather, that to neglect the context of each practice runs the risk of being naïve about the relationship between representation and politics, specifically as they stand in relation to this as a book.
But perhaps more generously, I think one of the words in the book’s subtitle offers a hint to the vexing questions this collection poses. Perhaps as a book, more than anything, it is simply an atlas—that is, a book that maps out a terrain, already a representation, and not the handbook or manual that each of the specific essays seems to desire. If that is the case, Did Somebody Say Participate? does exactly what it intends to, and the problems it unintentionally identifies in contemporary practice may be outside of its scope.
- Giorgio Agamben, “No to Bio-Political Tattooing,” Le Monde, January 10, 2004, http://www.egs.edu/faculty/giorgio-agamben/articles/no-to-bio-political-tattooing/.
About the Author
Aaron Peck is the author of the novel The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis. His criticism has appeared in Canadian Art and Matador as well as various exhibition catalogues. He lives in Vancouver.