City, Arts and Public Spaces: Gavin Kroeber

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 Gavin Kroeber, freelance producer and co-founder of Experience Economies.
Keyword: Event Landscape
The arts and the city are mutually recomposing one another – conceptually, physically, operationally.


It is often noted that capitalism in the west has turned from the production of goods as a towards more ephemeral products. This turn – a turn in which municipalities have abandoned outdated ‘smokestack chasing’ strategies for economic growth and, spurred on by lobbyists and promotional campaigns, have instead engaged in an inter-urban competition to attract the mobile audiences of both tourism and business – has in forty years produced a corresponding landscape: what we might call the event landscape. At its grandest scale composed of flagship convention centers, festivalist urban developments, theme parks, theaters, large parks (“convention centers with grass”) and eventalized museums, the event landscape also includes a countless periphery of smaller rental facilities, public-private spaces, and non-profit venues, new or re-vamped, all mandated to host rotating programs that can organize a flow of spending attendees through cities. We can read in this physical landscape an ascendant modality of cultural production – “the event”, not in the sense of Badiou but in the sense of the event production industry, which relies on flexible logistics systems to assemble and disassemble its products daily and also serves as a kind of logistics system aggregating and directing bodies. Operating across disciplines and blurring their distinctions, remaking our most renowned institutions and casting up new ones to accommodate its protocols, the event writes itself into the built fabric of our cities.


We should not, however, mistake this landscape for its built forms. Landscape, as the sociologist Sharon Zukin notes, can denote not only “the usual geographic meaning of ‘physical surroundings,’ but… also… an ensemble of social and material practices and their symbolic representation.” The event landscape is cultural, social, and ideological, as much as it is spatial. It is “built” from practices and concepts as much as from bricks and mortar.


As the event landscape grows, producing new glittering venues, cultural institutions have one the one hand made more and more regular ventures into these prestigious sites (witness Storm King’s exibition on Governor’s Island or the BMW Guggenheim Lab) and on the other have remade or repurposed their own architectures to correspond more to this new paradigm (witness the eventalization of MoMA’s atrium). Engaging the protocols of the event, institutions are seeing their organizational DNA rewritten. Facing the impossibility of housing the required knowledge and technology demanded by shifting sites, diverse projects and accelerated rotation, partnerships and subcontractors have become de rigueur. The institution increasingly operates by founding sub-institutions, what might be described as “pop-up institutions” and “distributed institutions” – production teams that are temporally concomitant with each commission (and dissolve with them), assembled (in the former case) by the institution itself and (in the latter) drawing on the teams of multiple partners. New venues are regularly thrown up in service of the event – a proliferating network of landscape destinations and (I should add) biennials – but even as these official foundings multiply, founding itself seems to come uncoupled from incorporation, emerging as an essential institutional practice. As these ephemeral structurations of labor rise and collapse, mirroring the feverish rotation of events, we are reminded that the evental institution oversees not just the flexible assembly of materials but the precarious coordination of labor.


The sites, ways of doing, and discourses of the event landscape aggregate cultural works across disciplines, accommodating them to a dominant cultural logic. The event has become a meta-discipline, a meta-institution pulling more and more of the differentiated fields of cultural production into its sphere of influence. To apply this frame across genres and institutions of course risks the loss of valuable disciplinarily-specific art histories. To do so likewise flirts troublingly with economic determinism, the event being a historically specific cultural formation emerging within post-Fordist capitalism, a modality of cultural production that maps directly onto flexible accumulation. But to discuss cultural production within an event landscape also challenges the institutional and disciplinary tendency to segregate resonant practices behind the firewalls of genre and medium, and moreover challenges the ideological capacity of disciplinary and institutional fields to isolate practices from their preconditions and effects in wider contexts. At the same time flattening and liberating, the delineation of the event landscape serves not only to position us, as cultural producers, within it, but it lets us attend to the urgent question of which positions we wish to take up.