Editorial: Anything is possible
In this issue of City, Mirza Tursić proposes that attending to the lived experiences of urban aesthetics enables the identification of wider innovation and change. “Studying the aesthetic space can help urban researchers better understand how the world becomes internalized or externalized by inhabitants and how novelty is borne from a constant dialogue between the ethical and the aesthetic.” (Tursić, this issue) His development of a relational spatial aesthetic theory, in which experiences of the urban landscape are understood as both social and ethical, is an apt frame through which to think about many of this issue's contributions that address visual representation and the aesthetics of territorialised power and conflict. Ranging from graffiti in Oslo (Arnold), squatting in Amsterdam (Dadusc; Wasiliewski), contesting public space in Athens (Pettas) and gendered care work in informal transit practices in Quito (Gamble and Davalos), these papers’ critical readings of the often invisible work that visual representation does highlight politically pressing contemporary themes.
If the current trajectory of cities and urban regions around the world is unclear, and in many cases results in pessimism and despair, these papers are concerned with particular spaces in which ambivalences remain visible and tangible, and therefore open to contestation. This opens up room for maneuver, and although such militaristic terminology may surprise, its rationale is that the contentions and fights played out via signs and images, as well as through the materialities of home and infrastructure, raise important questions around possible strategies and ways of engaging with everyday life in everyday spaces, different to those imposed. Such engagement is often met by contestation, for instance when non-violent protest or mere expression is met by state or police violence. However, be it through disruption to zero tolerance policies against graffiti (Arnold), bypassing state power through providing informal transport (Gamble and Davalos), or voicing protest via posters and banners (Wasiliewski; Dadusc), these papers indicate alternative ways of dealing with critical urban issues. The papers show how being prosecuted or incarcerated for transgressions against the state (like spray-painting or squatting) appear unjustified when these transgressions are situated within the wider socio-spatial inequalities and injustices in which the state is complicit and that the state actually co-produces. This issue’s cover image, a photograph featured in Deanna Dadusc’s paper, provocatively plays with the notion that transgression is necessary in order to ‘explore and make real what currently seems impossible’ (Chatterton 2010, 235). The message is that “anything is possible,” but it involves confrontation with the current order of things.
The temporal context of the production of the visual in space is also a theme running through these papers. Amanda Wasielewski provides a fascinating interrogation of the temporal context of the international symbol for squatting (a circle with a lightning-bolt-shaped arrow running through it diagonally). She not only traces how this sign was used to embed and expand a sense of belonging amongst squatters from the late 1970s in the Netherlands, but also situates this icon of urban protest within both contemporary and historical moments of claims to territory. On the one hand, she indicates how these analogue memes are precursors to their digital descendents, used in social media as calls to street movements, such as gilets jaunes and the Arab Spring (and more recently we can add in the Libyan protesters in a central Tripoli Square, many also in yellow vests protesting against Macron’s support of Khalifa Haftar; and Extinction Rebellion’s occupations in cities such as London, Paris, Montreal, Brussels and New York). On the other hand, Wasielewski unearths a complexity of possible antecedents for the squatter symbol back to the Middle Ages, from signs marked on territory by travelling people and runaway slaves in Europe and the United States to indicate safety, to neo-fascist and punk use of the swastika symbol for their own claims and provocations. These examples make Tursić’s point well that “the aesthetic dimension runs through our entire society and is strongly and inseparably interconnected to the other dimensions of society that hold it together as a system” (this issue).
Wasiliewski’s insight that “times of economic hardship not only give rise to squatting but also a language of symbols to mark the territory” (this issue) is echoed in Pettas’ piece on two public squares in Athens in 2014. In the context of a felt sense of socio-economic decline, neo-Nazi swastika signs were marked on the surfaces around Agios Panteleimonas Square as racist protest to the perceived threat of migrants. Again, the interconnection between different social dimensions is clear, as these xenophobic visual narratives are used for the material purposes of inciting violence and forcing exclusions from the square. As Tursić argues, through the relation between the individual and the aesthetic, “the world becomes internalized and externalised by inhabitants” (this issue) in diverse imaginative ways, shaped by and shaping the social. Both these papers serve to remind us that ‘rogue signs’ used as protest (Wasielewski) and ‘horizontal power relations’ from the ground (Pettas) cannot be assumed to be progressive. Dadusc makes a similarly powerful point in arguing, in the context of Amsterdam, that “while squatted places [can] produce autonomous forms of urban commoning, both tolerance and criminalisation of squatting engendered multiple modes of enclosure and capture of the autonomous socio-spatial relations constituted through these spaces” (Dadusc, this issue).
As well as focusing on the production of the visual, Tursić reminds us that interrogating how images are diversely consumed is also revelatory of both personal and social situatedness. His focus is on the aesthetic of the urban landscape itself, rather than on constructed signs such as graffiti and protest symbols. Drawing on qualitative research with participants in Lausanne, he notes their different responses to the city’s landscape. He argues that style is the uniformity of a particular aesthetic, and resistance to style can be read as resistance to social change more widely, “a victory of being over becoming … an attempt to reestablish a continuity of the homogeneous social order” (this issue); whilst an openness to the heterogeneity of an urban landscape reflects an openness to coexisting ways of being and social change. Emma Arnold makes a similar point that the neoliberal city is constructed as a model of order and control, as a way to better brand and market the city as a commodity. So the disruption of this aesthetic order is also a political disruption. Tursić says that “[a]esthetic judgements are primarily societal choices … based on a certain idea of a society” (this issue). But they are also, crucially, political judgements. Dadusc powerfully illuminates how reactions on the part of the authorities to squatting in Amsterdam have shifted from tolerance to criminalisation, yet both these political reactions work not only to address squatting but also to attack the autonomous and perceived disordered social relations embedded in squatting.
Both Tursić and Arnold emphasise that an individual’s experience of a city’s aesthetics is deeply social, as city spaces are inhabited. Thus notions of aesthetics are always interwoven with evaluative and ethical judgements in the context of interaction with others. Tursić’s central point that aesthetic and ethical judgments emerge from interaction with the spaces of the city is an idea embodied by Arnold as she explores the aesthetic effects of the zero tolerance policy via a methodology of walking the city and taking photographs. Via this directly engaged exploration of the urban, she produces images that capture moments of meaningful interaction between herself and Oslo’s aesthetic spaces, a process that produces visualised moments of aesthetic judgement and ethical evaluation, evident in the photographs, “with analysis happening in the moments of image framing and capture” (Arnold, this issue). Resonating with the experiences of the graffiti artists themselves, Arnold materially, psychologically and ethically engages with urban spaces, exemplifying, as Tursic describes, that “people’s aesthetic sensitivities develop through the various interactions they create” (this issue).
Thus, ethical judgement emerges from the mutual constitution of the imaginative and the material (Tursic, this issue). All cases included in this issue address this by interrogating the interaction of the evaluative and the spatial. This includes evaluations made as to who has the right to be included or excluded from Athens’ public squares (Pettas, this issue); the use of squatter symbols to claim territory in the Netherlands (Wasielewski, this issue); oppressions against these claims (Dadusc, this issue); and assumptions that conflate the presence of graffiti with the presence of crime. Such ethical judgments can produce both policies and citizens’ actions that have substantive impacts on material space, ranging from the erasure of squats and graffiti, driven by state policy, to the provision of a transit infrastructure for lower-income residents, driven from the grassroots (Gamble and Davolos, this issue).
Several papers examine how state power, shaped by neoliberal politics, plays out in different local contexts to capture, promote and exclude not simply spaces or people, but the social relations that constitute them. These exclusions are framed by a number of authors in terms of both vertical and horizontal power relations. Dadusc examines how the alliance of state and capital drives exclusions from housing in the Netherlands, whilst Gamble and Davalos look at how the state-capital alliance produces an ineffective transit system in Quito that produces exclusions from employment and social services. Pettas, on the other hand, focuses on how exclusions - and inclusions - are dynamically produced by citizens’ own everyday practices in the city. He describes how, in Exarcheia Square in Athens, practices of drug dealing worked to exclude children and families from this public space. But then business owners, social movements and individual residents came together to occupy the space by providing tables, chairs, visual and audio equipment to put on neighbourhood events that, accompanied by monitoring practices, obstructed the drug transactions and deployed a counter inclusionary intervention. However, Arnold’s paper that highlights a state-led clearance of drug users from public space in Oslo, describes how this policy of exclusion was condemned for failing to address the underlying social problems and simply shifting the issue outside of the central tourist spaces of the neoliberal city. As mentioned, Dadusc traces the relations between squatters and the state throughout different political regimes and analyses the various techniques of disciplinary integration, commodification and criminalisation, suggesting that “the object of enclosure is not simply the common as such, but its radical capacity for autonomy from state control and capital capture” (this issue). Contestations in the city are thus multiple and complex, both vertical and horizontal, offering no simplistic solutions.
If Tursić firmly rejects the Latin maxim on aesthetics that “[i]n matters of taste, there can be no disputes” (“de gustibus non disputandum est,”), indeed all these papers affirm City’s own maxim that in matters of urban space there must always be dispute, as a necessary agonism to challenge power, combat injustice, contest inequality, refuse exclusion and redistribute democratic rights.
City will be presenting a photo-essay by this issue’s author, Emma Arnold, on its website, http://www.city-analysis.net/; as well as an interview with Ammar Azzouz, complementing his article published in the last issue 23.1.
Reference: Chatterton, P. 2010. “The Urban Impossible. A Eulogy for the Unfinished City.” City: Analysis of Urban Trends, Culture, Theory, Policy, Action 14 (3): 234–244.
Melissa Fernandez Arrigoitia, Debbie Humphry & Anna Richter (2019) Editorial: Anything is possible, City, 23:2, 139-142, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2019.1617462