Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

The Violence of Participation: Spatial Practices Beyond Models of Consensus
Markus Miessen

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 legiti- mate alternative means that this consensus will not be challenged. –Chantal Mouffe

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. –Florian Schneider

When humans assemble, spatial conflicts arise. Spatial planning is often considered to be the management of these conflicts. To deal with conflicts, critical decision-making must evolve. The city—and, indeed, the progressive institution—exist as social and spatial conflict zones, renegotiating 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, this essay attempts to illustrate the importance of critical engagement in alien fields of knowledge, using spatial conditions as a means of a cultural investigation. It aims to question both the role of the architect and that of the contemporary institution.

There is a 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 a 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, instead of trying to set up or sustain common denominators of consensus, enters existing situations or projects by deliberately instigating conflicts as a micro-political form of critical engagement. Using the architect’s spatial expertise in mapping out fields of conflict, my research raises a set of questions whose aim is to uncover the relevance of spatial and architectural expertise and how, in the remit of institutions, they can facilitate 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 “architecture of knowledge” that is being built up by actively participating in space. The prerequisite to an understanding, production, and altering of spatial conditions is to identify 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 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 force field, it is crucial to identify the conflicting forces at play.

Participation is often understood as a means of becoming part of something through proactive contribution and the occupation of a particular role. However, it seems that this role is rarely understood as a critical platform of engagement; rather, it is usually defined according to 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

In Sex and the City, Charlotte York is portrayed as the most innocent of four protagonists. Throughout the series, she is the only one who follows “dating rules” 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 “bad” about her real motives (wanting to be pregnant and redecorate the house), she justifies her decision by stating that she wants to volunteer at her husband’s hospital to “raise money for the pediatric wing.” Charlotte believes that doing volunteer work for an important social cause will prevent her from being judged for quitting her job.

Isn’t this precisely the modus operandi that we find in so many “socially relevant” practices today? There is an interesting similarity between the way of such an argument and the way particular practices have hijacked the notion of participation as a positive, unquestionable means of engagement (which forms an economy, i.e. good-doing as the sudden invention of job-title). But the question is: how is it possible to “participate” in a given environment or situation without having to compromise one’s role as an active agent who is not interested in consensus and “doing good,” but rather in asking questions while attempting to inform practice in a particular direction. Becoming a vector in the force field of conflicts raises the question of how one can participate without catering to pre-established needs or tasks, or—from the point of view of the traditional architect—of how it is possible to participate in, for example, urban micro-politics by inserting friction and asking questions rather than doing local community work through existing public planning laws and economic deals with the authorities.

In architecture, there are frequent examples where critical engagement conflicts with the realities of business interests. In 2006, London-based architect Richard Rogers was summoned to New York by a number of clients, who had read that he let his office be used by a group of architects who were connected to Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine. Lord Rogers was called to the offices of the Empire State Development Corporation (which is overseeing the redesign of New York’s 1.7-billion dollar Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a project that Rogers is in charge of) to explain his connection to the group, which was holding a meeting at Rogers’ London office on 2 February 2006. As a result of this connection, several New York officials urged that Rogers be removed from the publicly funded project. Here, the architect is not welcome as a participating vector or enabler in the force field, but understood as a service provider who delivers a product. As Rem Koolhaas argued in a conversation recently: “I would say that particularly in America, the political obliviousness is considered part of the role of the architect.””3 (read footnote)”:#note3 It is this chasm that must be breached.

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 becomes an active agent, insisting on being an actor in the force field they are facing. Thus, participation becomes a form of critical engagement. When participation becomes conflict, conflict becomes space. Re-inserting friction and differences into the scale of both the institution and the city can enable micro-political forces to 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 fifty people over the course of twenty-four hours. Their 24-Hour Interview Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery, London, presented a cross-section of practitioners who, 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 among the more critically oriented members of the 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 “is” the city. The Marathon was set up as a “stimulating set of discussions.” Yet all participants were either part of an existing network of cultural practitioners, thinkers, or commentators or at least originated from the same cultural milieu.

In order to do justice to the complexity of the city, one also needs to include the conflicting forces of that city. Consensus is achieved only through the relationality of powers. One could argue that if such relationality had been broken, another kind of knowledge would have been produced; one that would have helped us to understand the composite realities of the contemporary city and the forces at play within it. In this context, it could be useful to re-think the concept of conflict as an enabler of a productive environment rather than as direct, physical violence. A more diverse set of conflicting voices could inhabit the gaps between politicized positions within rigid existing frameworks. However, it would allow for multiple agencies and a discourse that, through the recalibration 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 critical voice from outside the circle of vested interests. Through this kind of “conflictual participation,” the exchange of knowledge in a post-disciplinary field of forces starts to produce new forms of knowledge. As a starting point for such a model of conflictual participation, one could make use of the concept of collaboration as opposed to cooperation that Florian Schneider defines in “Cooperation: The Dark Site of the Multitude”:

As a pejorative term, collaboration stands for willingly assisting an enemy of one’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.

Since such a 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 that is to be agreed with and fostered), it will increasingly be the outsider who will manage to add critically to established power relations of expertise. Although the outsider will be understood as someone who, lacking knowledge of its structure, does not threaten the internal system, it is precisely this condition that allows him or her to become fully immersed in its depth, in the manner of a dilettante. What we need today are more dilettantes who, as a means of what Claire Doherty terms “circumnavigating predictability,” neither worry about making the wrong shift nor prevent friction between agents in given force fields.

One could therefore argue that instead of nurturing the next generation of facilitators and mediators, we should invite the interventions of the “disinterested outsider,” the person who is unaware of prerequisites and existing protocols and who enters the arena with nothing but creative intellect. Running down the corridor with no fear of causing friction or destabilizing existing power-relations, he or she is opening up a space for change, one that enables “political politics.”

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 that allows for conflict as a form of productive engagement: a model of bohemian participation in the sense of an outsider’s point of entry and the accessing of existing debates and discourses untroubled by disapproval.

  1. Chantal Mouffe, “Introduction,” in The Challenge of Carl Schmitt, Chantal Mouffe, ed. (London: Verso, 1999), 3.
  2. Florian Schneider, “Collaboration: The Dark Site of the Multitude,” Theory Kit 1.2 (February 6–10, 2006),
  3. Rem Koolhaas, interview by Markus Miessen, Bidoun 8 (Fall 2006), 41.
  4. Schneider, “Collaboration.”
  5. Claire Doherty, “The New Situationists,” in Contemporary Art—From Studio to Situation (London: Black Dog, 2004), 11.

Image: Markus Miessen, Consensus Machine.

About the Author

Markus Miessen is an architect and writer. His books include The Nightmare of Participation (2011), Institution Building (2009), and East Coast Europe (2009). He is the founder of the Winter School Middle East, founding partner of nOffice, Berlin, and recently became a professor for Critical Spatial Practice at the Städelschule, Frankfurt.

You Might Also Enjoy
BecomeA Member