Events » SHARE Conference Aarhus 2014 » Workshops » Urban Activism


Urban activism, artistic research
and critical spatial practices

Mick Wilson


Urban activism, artistic research and critical spatial practices, the challenge to professional roles and agency presented by the contested politics of contemporary cities.


The last two decades have seen an especially intense debate emerge around a range of critical urban practices that: (i) seek to overcome the traditional professional divisions of “artist” “architect” “planner” and “urban designer”, and often seek to challenge the professional arrogation of the city as a technocratic object domain of “expertise”; and (ii) to do so in a way that engages directly with the socio-political dynamics of urban processes and the political production of urban space; that is to say with questions of control and the potential agency of city dwellers themselves.  Often the urban practices that are at the center of these debates are specifically framed as an attempt to bridge the opposition between the planning of urban areas (most notably with reference to urban renewal or extension projects) and the active production of the unplanned and emergent unpredictable dynamics of urban life.

Projects and practices that may be identified on different points across this spectrum of ostensibly “new” urban practices include (in a somewhat arbitrary but broadly indicative listing) Park Fiction , SuperFlex, Jeanne van Heeswijk , Theaster Gates , Kerstin Bergendal , transparadiso , Space Hijackers , City Repair , NLE , and REBAR . This wide spectrum of urban spatial practices includes hybrid art, design and architectural practices as well as activist and community-based groups. Some of these initiatives are explicitly framed as attempting to contest the rhetorics and logic of neoliberal urbanism (Park Fiction), whereas some frankly adopt a by-now internationally normative discourse of creative entrepreneurialism and citizen-consumer agency (REBAR). 

These spatial practices have been variously described through metaphors of territory, of combat, and of agency. Some describe these practices in terms of the locus of professional competency: “architects have expanded their practice beyond the built object and artists have moved out of the gallery, so the already blurred boundaries between the two disciplines, have become still more entwined within the realm of critical spatial practice.”  Others describe these practices – or at least the more self-consciously “activist” and “critical” practices indicated here - in terms of “counter-urbanism” where the urban environment is characterized as an “enormous battlefield where different interest groups and subcultures meet and act out their symbolic political and social battles” and where “(g)ood urban interventions subvert the system, persistently throwing spanners into the works, counteracting homogeneity, and working towards a space free from domination”.  While others have appealed to the language of agency and non-compliant participation in the attempt to identify the radical critical potential of some of this work: a “parallel planning process and a collective production of desires … without being commissioned by authorities to do so … connecting arts and social movements, without going into the trap of taking the ‘legal’ path of limited participation suggested by the bureaucratic system” – a “constituent way of working.”

The oppositional and/or enabling political ambition of many of these projects – often connected to themes of grass-roots democracy, activism, collaboration and self-organisation – has been an especially prominent point of debate and critique. Characteristic of the critical treatment of this range of critical/transformative urban practices is a recurrent anxiety of co-option or capture by the dominant logic of the entrepreneurial city (the branded, marketed, evented, pre-packaged, class-segregated, “creative” city that extracts value from the many to further the profit interests of the few). This often manifests in a critique of projects as “gentrifying” and servicing the interests of capital and/or as normalizing of the neoliberal state’s withdrawal from the production of “the public good” making way for the radical privatization of the social. Thus Phillips and Erdemci’s (2012) volume Social Housing-Housing the Social: Art, Property and Spatial Justice presents a form of this critique as follows:“For many years, artists have contributed to the design and organization of structures of living together, often with ambivalent effect. Whilst many have imagined—and attempted to implement—radical new forms of social housing as alternatives to both privatization and state provision, they have also ushered in waves of gentrification, thus contributing significantly to a story of capitalization now dominant within urban infrastructures.”

Questions for the Workshop

This workshop will examine some of the issues that arise in the interaction of different forms of activism, critical spatial practice and artistic research. How do research activities operate within the contested zones of contemporary urbanism? How does the action of enquiry sit in relation to the demands of activism, of critique and of production of contemporary urban form? What are the ways in which practitioners – artists, architects, curators, educators, researchers, activists, community organisers, self-organsied collectives – produce their own agency as shapers of urban form, process and life? What are the new fault-lines within the contest over rights-to-the-city and the claim to shape the city for the public good or private interest?

Invitation to Participate

We invite participants to bring examples with them to share in the workshop through short – 5 minute presentations, and we will also invite some of the conference participants to draw out the connection between these questions and their own current research projects as presented during the conference.


xi Urban Interventions: Personal projects in public spaces, Gestalten: Berlin 2010, p. 5

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