In the following interview, curator Berit Fischer talks with the artist and architect Marjetica Potrč about the potential of art and social architecture in finding sustainable and democratic solutions for living together. They discuss the question of public, social and shared space, and how shared knowledge, the local and community-building initiatives can serve as symbolic processes for remaking the culture of living.
Based in Ljubljana and Berlin, Potrč deals with such issues as social space and contemporary architectural practices, sustainability and new solutions for communities. Her practice is strongly informed by her interdisciplinary collaborations in research-based on-site projects, such as Théâtre Evolutif (Bordeaux, 2011), The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbour (Amsterdam, 2009), and Dry Toilet (Caracas, 2003). She translates these investigations into lyrical brush-worked, text-based drawings and large-scale architectural installations, which she calls case studies.
Her work can currently be seen in the exhibition Architektonika 2, at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art in Berlin.1
BERIT FISCHER: According to Henri Lefebvre social space is not static or a given, but is rather the continuous production of spatial relations, which encompass multiplicity and coexistence. He argues that the production of social space stands in reciprocal relation to society and therefore also with capitalism.
Today’s Western hegemonic ‘knowledge capitalism’ is increasingly characterised by immaterial labour and has become an ‘abstract space’. In this regard, tell me about your faith in the public space, in the local, and in knowledge producing community-building initiatives. What is their potential and why are they significant today?
MARJETICA POTRČ: It is interesting that you juxtapose the capitalist abstract space of knowledge production with the physical space. Today, physical space is extremely important, but it does not need to be understood in an abstract way, with its physical aspect pushed into the background, so to speak. We are talking about the actual site, the physical location, of place-making. Any group of people who want to be recognised in society need a place to achieve this. This sounds very basic, no? People inhabit a place and control it. It’s not about owning, it is about controlling a place, a temporary condition.
A good example is The Cook, the Farmer, His Wife and Their Neighbour, an on-site project I was involved with in Amsterdam in 2009. This is a community garden and community kitchen located in the New West district, in a neighbourhood in decline. In fact, you could see the degradation of the neighbourhood in the decline of the public space. New West was planned as a garden city, a Dutch version of Modernism, and green spaces abound even today; it’s just that many of them are fenced off. The Dutch call this kind of garden a kijkgroen, a ‘look-only garden’. The residents pay for their maintenance but they are not allowed to enter them. At the same time, the public space is eerily empty – I remember seeing empty streets.
With my colleagues Wilde Westen – a collective of architects, artists and cultural producers with whom I collaborated on the project – we opened one of the fenced-off gardens and, working with residents, created a community garden. I call this kind of community space a shared space. It was clear that for the New West residents inhabiting a shared space was much more important than having a public space.
BF: Do you think the understanding of public space has changed?
MP: Yes, the appreciation and understanding of public space has definitely changed. In the 1960s, people celebrated public space, but today people celebrate community space. In the ideology of twentieth-century Modernism, the public space is intended to be for everyone, but, as you know, it often ends up being for no one. Today people no longer dream about living in a big metropolis, they want to live in stronger, smaller parts of the city, in neighbourhoods; in people’s minds the city is shrinking into smaller parts. It is no longer about existing in a city of anonymous individuals. The city, according to our gardening community, is the sum of ‘socially conscious individuals’; they see themselves as part of a community and they like to share, to exchange stories. They exchange knowledge, not only vegetables. The community garden is an actual physical space where residents begin the process of reappropriating the city – at a time when people live in an abstract space of production and democracy is managed from above. It is important for the survival of our cities that the people who live in them feel that they are the city. By cultivating their community garden, the citizens reclaim the city. This is a symbolic process, a ritual.
BF: Maybe the public space needs to be recognised more along the lines of a civil space, a space for communication and the exchange of knowledge?
MP: Yes, I agree. It is always a question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg – the city or the citizens? Of course, it is the citizens. People change the city by reimagining it. Our cities are experiencing a transformation; they are ‘downscaling’ from the idea of the metropolis to much humbler, smaller cities composed of neighbourhoods. There are many reasons why this is happening – for instance, the economic contraction, sustainability questions that need to be resolved on the local level, and so on.
BF: What is the potential of participatory on-site projects?
MP: Perhaps most importantly, they are a place where knowledge is shared. I would suggest that instead of saying, ‘A people united will never be defeated’, we might better say, ‘People who have diverse knowledge will never be defeated’. Sometimes I like to use the term re-directive practice, which I borrow from the Australian designer Tony Fry. This refers to a form of collective action that demonstrates the process where people from different disciplines work together to bring about a cultural remaking; they work towards what I call a new culture of living. The beauty of the on-site projects is that they are laboratories of the world where varied knowledge is practised across disciplines in the attempt to articulate new solutions to complex problems. A community garden is a political schoolroom – people ask questions about how we want to live together. It is a semi-utopian space but it is also a real space. It is important that spaces with such potential exist.
Community gardens, which have sprouted across Europe as well as in the US, excel in this kind of utopian thinking. Suddenly, it’s become important to cultivate a garden together. This tells you something about the subconscious mentality of society today. Residents start reimagining the city from this sort of community space. For residents, this is a ritual, a rite of transition. They work on the land and they do it together. You have to get your hands in the soil, so to speak. Talking is not enough if you want to change a culture of living.
BF: Why do you think the symbolic space of community gardens is so important today? There seems to be a new notion of civic society and a new urge to reclaim power and space, such as in the Occupy movement.
MP: The Occupy movement is actually a very good example. In 2007, I saw an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, which was called ‘Design for the Other 90%’, referring to the large percentage of the world’s population who ‘have little or no access to most of the products and services that many of us take for granted … such as food, clean water or shelter’.2 The title was symptomatic; it implied that as a viewer of the exhibition I was part of the privileged 10 per cent. Today, the Occupy protesters tell us that we are the 99 per cent. This is an amazing shift in perception about what world we belong to. Are we a part of the neoliberal dream? Many of us are not.
BF: This leads to another topic I’d like to raise. What is the significance of ‘de-growth’ in producing new thinking and actions?
MP: Some years ago, someone gave me a text by the sociologist Serge Latouche, who at the time was the head of the French Institute of ‘Décroissance’ – de-growth – in Paris. He says that sustainable development is a paradox because thinking in terms of continuously accelerated development does not lead to sustainability. Today many people talk about the importance of de-growth; small-scale economies and small-scale communities make sense. They exist in a multiplicity of forms, but because they don’t generate a lot of capital, they are not recognised as power brokers. But they will be one day, in the different society we are moving towards. We change along with the challenges we will encounter. One of these challenges is to rethink the urban-rural coexistence. During the twentieth century, urban culture was celebrated and rural culture was swept under the rug. The twenty-first century will recognise the creativity of the rural culture.
BF: So it is part of the zeitgeist.
MP: Yes, the zeitgeist-in-becoming.
That is why, for instance, community-based projects by artists are so appreciated. By working together with ordinary people on a ‘relational object’ – in the Amsterdam project this was the community garden – we start a process of cultural remaking, we start a cultural process. Here I have a story to tell. Visitors who came from downtown Amsterdam liked the garden; of course they did: it was totally beautiful, everything was in blossom and growing. But they also felt a little lost; they were wondering: is this art? Is this useful art? We couldn’t understand what the problem was because we saw the object very clearly. It’s just that this was not a formal object, an ‘object sculpture’ or ‘self-referential object’, if you like. It was a relational object, an object the community was using as a tool to articulate a new culture of living in their city and to make the city their own. A relational object has the ability to redefine your coexistence with your city; it is a catalyst of change. This is why we need art: art negotiates our relationship with the world. This is why if you see art or if you go to a museum, you are touched by it. It tells you something that you already intuitively understand about your existence. Art is embedded in and depends on contemporary culture, but it is also a tool for changing it.
BF: What do you think is the role and responsibility of the artist?
MP: I teach at the University of the Fine Arts in Hamburg, and we were just talking there about the changing role of the artist. Is the artist someone who intervenes or someone who mediates? I sometimes say that the artist is a mediator between two sides, but of course the artist is more than that. The artist is someone who comes from the outside and intervenes by using critical thinking. Artists have the ability to negotiate not only the relationship between, say, the residents and a housing corporation; they also have the ability to mediate the conceptual vision of citizens regarding the kind of city they want to live in.
BF: I believe Martha Rosler once said that an artist is a social agent.
MP: We now have many definitions about who the artist is, what their role is and what art or design is. It seems as if we are all talking about different things, but at the same time, I think we are in the midst of rethinking the meaning of art and design, which is quite beautiful. The need to move between different disciplines reminds me of the pre-Renaissance understanding of art, design and architecture.
BF: Thinking about Bruno Latour’s philosophy of ‘compositionism’, would you understand yourself as a ‘compositionist’? That is, someone who composes and puts things together while retaining their heterogeneity. According to Latour, the compositionist approach ‘takes up the task of searching for universality, but without believing that this universality is already there waiting to be unveiled and discovered’.3
MP: Yes, he is also talking about the same thing but in different words. I think in the end we have to believe in humanity. The world is able to remake itself – take our relationship with nature, for instance. Today, it is not about controlling nature; people have to learn how to live with nature. It is not only about human rights, it is about the rights of nature as well. It is about coexistence with nature.
In this regard, it is important to think about participation, which is an overused word today, as are the words ‘sustainability’ and ‘social innovation’. This is a pity, as both sustainability and social innovation depend on participation, and, needless to say, the challenges we are facing – I am thinking of the decline of social state and the effects of global warming – demand the whole package. Why do we include the word ‘participatory’ in terms such as ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘participatory design’? Democracy and design ought to be participatory by definition, right? We make the word ‘participation’ explicit because there is not enough participation; the fact that we have to say the word is itself symptomatic.
BF: ‘Creative’ might be another word that could be added to this list.
MP: Yes, the word ‘creative’ should be here for the same reason. Our survival depends on creativity. In Amsterdam, upper-middle-class families organise workshops for their kids to learn creativity, because they don’t have enough challenges in their everyday lives.
BF: Your on-site practice, as much as your visual formulations in the art context, raises awareness about our immediate built environment and the conventional models for managing it. What potential do you see in architecture and in social architecture?
MP: At a recent symposium at the university, a representative from an association of German designers who work closely with industry said that the task of the designer today is to construct surfaces. This is also exactly where mainstream architecture is today. Everything has been decided before the architect even gets the project, so what they actually design is really just the façade, the surface. This is why we see so many signature buildings around the world. But we also know that more than 90 per cent – some would say even 98 per cent – of the world’s architecture is not built by architects.4 From this perspective, the role of the architect is quite marginal. We also know that today more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and more than half of these people live in unregulated or informal cities. It makes sense to look at how the people who live in informal cities construct architecture – which for them is not about designing a surface, to put it mildly. They design infrastructural solutions, and we can learn from these solutions. They think about the space in a different way than we do. For instance, in Caracas’s informal city, the people who live there practise a form of community control over their neighbourhoods.
In 2003, I was working on an on-site project in La Vega Barrio, part of Caracas’s informal city, which had no access to running water. With the residents, we built a ‘dry toilet’ – a waterless and ecologically safe toilet. Initially, I thought the biggest problem of the informal city would be precarious architecture, but no – it was infrastructure. It was only when we were leaving Caracas that I realised that there really was a social infrastructure in the informal city: there were hospitals and libraries, but as a foreigner I had not been able to recognise them. The façades did not tell me what was inside the building. It is a myth that barrios – their informal architecture – are chaotic and unregulated structures. They are in fact highly regulated; the difference is that the people who live there use oral regulations and we in the Modernist city use written regulations.
What was also extremely interesting was that the informal city was built by the very same people who had worked on the construction of the formal city, mostly immigrants from the countryside. They knew how to build formal Modernist architecture, but they did not replicate it in their own communities. Their rural culture proved resistant to the neighbouring urban culture of the modernist Caracas. Their city was one of rural architecture and village communities.
BF: And the social architecture?
MP: Yes, you have architecture and you have social architecture. Social architecture is made by people, it is the society. Society is a construction, right? At the beginning, you mentioned the local. Indeed, the focus today is on the local, the small and the independent. The ‘local’ sounds both scary and desirable, but it is here and we have to deal with it; we have to be part of the game.
BF: What did you learn from these two on-site projects?
MP: What we discovered in both the Caracas and Amsterdam projects were the realities and desires of people who live in stressed circumstances. They do not think in terms of the metropolis. Both communities imagine the future city as a network of neighbourhoods. Secondly, neither group was interested in public space, but they were all interested in shared space, community space. Thirdly, they desired community control over the space. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they were bringing all these ideas from another place, from another culture – the rural culture, which here was meeting the urban culture.
Interestingly enough, I am usually invited to do on-site projects in ‘places in crisis’. At the time I was there, the Caracas barrio was considered a place in crisis. The biggest problem was the water-supply infrastructure; in Amsterdam, the biggest problem was the empty or ‘unperforming’ public space. You produce a relational object, one that responds to the crises. The fact that this kind of project is what people want today tells us that our cities are in transformation. I would not say we are living in cities in crisis; that would be too negative. What I am saying is that we live in a time of transformation and that this is also an exciting time, a time of finding solutions and a time of hope.
BF: Does your on-site form of working offer some catharsis for you in your search for a medium that has real social impact and that goes beyond the walls of the museum?
MP: For sure. To do something in the real world is the most beautiful thing. But I also like to exhibit in museums and galleries, and I like to give talks, because I believe in education and that we have to share knowledge. Museums are not only the instruments of the neoliberal leisure industry; they are educational institutions, after all. When I was working on the project in Caracas, I started to understand how I could work in the city. I have always believed in collaborations. Maybe this is partly because I grew up in socialist Yugoslavia. It is natural for me to say that my thinking is produced in collaboration with others.
BF: Your work is deeply and consistently engaged with many different people. What is your source of inspiration and the source of your energy?
MP: I love on-site and research projects because they give me a lot of food for thought. I also love to work with people; I believe this is how knowledge happens. If you only read things, you end up repeating other people’s thoughts, but by talking with others you are able to construct new knowledge; knowledge is never final. The beauty of life is that we are always part of this constant transformation of knowledge, and you contribute to it by constructing knowledge with others.
BF: Thank you very much for talking with me today.
The conversation took place in Berlin, 11 February 2012.
The exhibition Architektonica 2 is on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof until 13 January 2012. For more information, visit http://www.hamburgerbahnhof.de/exhibition.php?id=36493&lang=en↑
See the exhibition’s curatorial statement, available at http://archive.cooperhewitt.org/other90/other90.cooperhewitt.org/about/index.html↑
Bruno Latour, ‘An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”’, New Literary History, vol.4, 2010, pp. 474–75, available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/120-NLH-GB.pdf↑
According to Cameron Sinclair, the co-founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity, 98 percent of the world does not ‘use the services’ of interior designers, architects or engineers. Cameron Sinclair, ‘The Power to be Valued’, Perspective, Summer 2006, pp. 37–42, available at http://www.iida.org/content.cfm/the-power-to-be-valued↑