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 Imanuel Schipper, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Critical Theory, and the Institute for Contemporary Art Research at Zurich University of the Arts.
Especially when we talk about the specificity of city, we think of something, that is somehow close to a lived situation (with a specific narration, setting, dramaturgy, time-structure) than a fixed place. And this situation is somehow more than „only“ the place. It also seems clear to me that we (as visitors or inhabitants of that city) are producing (or at least co-producing) that situation. I would like to strength the importance of „producing meanings“ (and always re-producing new meanings) to our life and our surroundings – but also the importance of knowing that we are constantly in the process of producing meaning.
The arts (in urban space), the processes of their reception and the knowledge about these processes could help to understand and support that „production of meanings“.
For this conversation I propose to define the term “city” as a co-productive process undergoing constant transformation and development. This process exists on four interwoven levels:
- Environment (physical structures, climate, geographical site, urban morphology)
- Urban structures (laws/policies, institutions, production of surplus)
- Urban practices (social behaviour, exchanges, interactions)
- Representations (our idea of the city, mental images, social values).
When defining the city as a process, we are thus talking about the complex system and interrelations between these four levels and through which urban life is expressed. In this context, urban space is defined as the result of the dual relation between the city’s social organization (people) and its spatial organization (space). On the one hand, space influences human action because it is organized; on the other hand, people create or alter space to express their own needs and desires. Artistic processes are in this regard related to imaginative processes, and thereby make visible the many layers of reality in which our cities exist while also emphasizing the fact that cities are imaginary as well as real spaces.
An analysis of how „our“ city is, based on these definitions and approaches may help to transform urban phenomena and produce new urban meaning.
In order to generate in-depth knowledge of cities, I propose to change the perspective from research ON something that is happening IN the city (as it is done normally) to the research OF the city as such, as a wholeness. This shift implements and points to the fact that this city we are looking at is t a thing that exists only as a co-production with us users.
How can this shift of thinking and receiving change and improve the way how we re-create meanings? How can the arts and the humanities contribute with their knowledge (and their products) to activate this process?