City, Arts and Public Spaces: Andrew Weiner

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Andrew Weiner, Adjunct Professor of Curatorial Practice at California College of the Arts.
Keyword: Public Spaces
I’d like to start by echoing the questions that Shannon and others have already begun framing in prior posts. Part of the excitement in joining a cross-disciplinary group like this lies in seeing the precision and inventiveness with which scholars from other fields are able to engage concepts that sometimes seem to lose their edge through overuse. I wonder though about the ways in which the concept of public space might be overdetermined; the same goes for related ideas like publicity, the public sector, and the public sphere (and this is only considering one of our keywords!). I worry a bit that the extreme generativity of these concepts could also prove to be disabling, allowing people from different fields to unwittingly talk past each other even while using the same language.
With such concerns in mind, I’m thinking about some references that the term “public space” might fail to capture. The first of these is temporality. The metaphors we use to think about publicity are most often spatial in nature (space, square, sphere, arena, etc), making it easy for us to lose track of the particular tempos within which publicity is designated, contested, mediated, and so forth. In what ways might it help to think about publicity as a type of event, one that conjoins subjective perception with collective reception and technical mediation?
A second line of questions concerns the tension between global, regional, and local modes of publicity. I’m currently researching different modes of recent performance in the Middle East and North Africa, and I find myself increasingly aware of the ways in which many of our operative concepts fail to map cleanly onto the events of the Arab Spring (beginning with this term, which is incompatible with uprisings in non-Arab nations like Iran or Turkey). While the idea of public space is essential for understanding the aesthetic and political importance of these events, we obviously need to account for its predominantly European, secular origins. I’ve found it useful to rely on the work of scholars like Nasser Rabbat, who have charted the historical importance of the mosque and the public square in ways that help us connect the complex legacies of colonialism with more recent developments like neoliberal Islam.