How to do things with art Part II

We are challenged by a double movement: on the one hand we observe not only how governmental and political aspects shape the urban condition but also how political dispositifs shape the way we read the urban. On the other hand the constitution of the political is influenced by territorial and spatial constellations. Evidently, one must conceptualise the urban politically in order to understand the organization of its production. And one must think politics spatially, in order to understand the organisation of its actions. The above mentioned examples of Quartiersmanagement or Cosmopolis help to understand why and how ‘post-politics’ intrude in urban policies and how established orders of city governance oppress political action itself. The model that Rancière presented is helpful to conceptualise that what is at stake is not the implementation of urban design strategies in a neutral space but the creation of spatial settings and frames that enable political subjectification. The UoN is a machine that not only produces spaces of and for politics but also reflects on the process of production.

The UoN is a building in process, a process of subtraction and mobilisation at the same time. It is a built structure of contestation that shifts space from a matter of facts to a matter of concern, i.e. a matter of politics (without compromising matters of facts). That in turn has consequences on how to read the UoN as a spatial – i.e. sensible – configuration. Rancière shows that politics is about disrupting routinized sensible and sense-making practices by re-configuring what he called the partition of the sensible. Politics challenge and renegotiate consensus not only theoretically but also aesthetically. So while the UoN started to become a terrain of politics, it opened up the field of struggles over and for a partition of the sensible. This partition confronted the UoN with the notion of the superposition of logics, since politics manifests dissent as ‘the presence of [at least] two worlds in one’.1 It is a double ontology: plurality always is a space producing one, producing spaces of ephemeral and contingent encounter and superposition of different and heterogeneous actors, things and concepts; at the same time plurality is produced by the spatiality of politics.

Nevertheless, whereas Rancière offers arguments for thinking politics and action spatially, he does not reflect upon the consequences that this implies for the notions of space and action. This, in turn, is the central aspect that the research of the UoN aims at. Especially UoN’s focus on improvisation and the question of the contingency of space not only refers to Rancière’s concept of regarding the space of political appearance as ephemeral and contingent and not a given. For the UoN it is of utmost relevance to take the contingency of space as a basis for any reading of the urban. Consequently, the conceptual focus of the UoN lies on challenging urban research in the mode within which notions of space and of action are thought. We follow Amin and Graham’s argument that ‘[t]he unthinking acceptance within urban studies that time and space act simply as objective, unvariant, external containers for the urban scene is now collapsing. (...) In this perspective, social ordering occurs through complex efforts of both humans and non-humans to engage other actors through performative actions that are fundamentally heterogeneous and impossible to generalise.’2 Being confronted with political spatiality i.e. contingency of space, Thrift and Amin’s observation that ‘each urban moment can spark performative improvisations which are unforeseen and unforeseeable’3 holds important questions. How can we read the contingent performativity of the urban? And how can we constructively work with its indeterminacy and its unforeseen and unforeseeable moments? One example of how the UoN tackled this challenge was inspired by Amin and Thrifts suggestion that ‘Perhaps the most exacting, exciting and enticing attempts to produce these new models of belonging have been taking place in […] performance art.’4 This inspiration led to UoN’s collaboration with Kampnagel, Germany's biggest independent production venue for the performing arts, from the very beginning of the project. Kampnagel is a centre for contemporary performance practises, hosting and producing cultural activities, theatre and dance performances and concerts.

Fig. 6. Bar for Nice People during the performance Shivers. CEOS, Project Managers, Spokepersons from Institutions mapped in Figure 1, Students and People from the Neighbourhood Enact Take 0 of the University of the Neighbourhoods. Source: Research and Teaching Programme Urban Design, HCU Hamburg
  1. Mustafa Dikeç, ‘Beginners and equals: political subjectivity in Arendt and Rancière,’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38 (1), 2013, 83.

  2. Ash Amin, and Stephen Graham, ‘The ordinary city’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 22 (4), 1997, 420

  3. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift. Cities – Reimagining the Urban, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002, 4

  4. Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift. Cities – Reimagining the Urban, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002, 48