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 Shannon Jackson, Director of the Arts Research Center and Goldman Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.
In cross-disciplinary gatherings at ARC, we have found it worth going over territory that we all think we know, to review the staples, the bread and butter of our fields, in order to expose blindspots and to jostle ourselves into new perspectives on the heretofore obvious. But should I really reflect on the term “public”? when so much ink has been spilled on this subject historically…and from so many quarters recently? For this particular session, I guess I think I will, especially because the term is one that links some elements of environmental planning to key questions in humanist debate and artistic practice. Teresa Caldeira and I have named our forthcoming course for the GUH project “City, Arts, and Public Spaces” partly because the domain of ‘public’ ‘space’ seems a clear area of overlap between our fields. But of course, the term Public is so ubiquitous and its associations are so varied and contradictory. Is Public about extroversion, about visibility, about access, about openness? And how do these terms differ slightly in their associations and their politics? Does Public connote the “public sphere,” the one Habermas extolled (and many feminists and postcolonial critics have revised) as an arena of bracing and vibrant deliberation, detached from the sphere of commerce as well as the sphere of the state? Or is Public referring to the “public sector,” the domain of state and civic governance that is sustained by taxes, distributive justice, and ambivalent trust? Is that the same public sector imperiled by corruption, appropriation, and by the pervasive anti-state distrust circulating quite differently in both right and left sectors of society? The term Public often seems defined by its opposite. Public is the opposite of private, the opposite of hidden, the opposite of the closed, the opposite of the private sector, the opposite of the for-profit sector. But the opposing terms are not themselves equivalent. The Public can be celebrated as unfettered deliberative engagement, but, in the very next breath, the Public can be castigated as bureaucracy and state control. Publicness is the opposite of closed, from one perspective, but it is the opposite of free from another.
In my own corner of the world, I find the ambiguity around the term Public to be a source of intense mobilization and of intense confusion. For many artists, making “public art” meant exiting the confines of the studio, the gallery, or the theatre to redefine the parameters of one’s medium as well the sites that housed it and the receivers who encountered it. The public art gesture was both formal and political. How such gestures understood themselves in relation to the goals of a public sphere or to the goals of a public sector is debatable. It varied internationally in contexts where questions of democracy or freedom differed thanks to local state systems and ideologies. And in many situations, the deliberative goals of the public sphere often seemed in tension with the distributive goals of the public sector. Some felt that the public sector needed to be protected by the interventions of a political art practice, and others that the public sector is precisely what needed to be combatted. Some might not have been clear on either score.
In our current moment, we are witnessing a global, if contradictory, conversation about what public-ness might mean. For myself, it is interesting to see how much questions of “urban planning” are at the center of public protests rising these last few weeks–in Turkey at Taksim Square–where the prime minister’s plans for urban space are a key source of outrage–and all throughout Brazil where critiques of political corruption are often focused on the infrastructural issues of urban planning (and whether the construction of hospitals or schools might be able to elicit the material support that “stadiums” seem to have secured). Of course, these and other movements have followed, rejected, and/or revised a different kind of urban public practice collected under the banner of “Occupy” and homogenized in shaky allegiances with a so-called Arab Spring. As I try to sort through the effects of this rangy and thorny network of discourses and practices, I very much look forward to deeper engagement with the fields of environmental design. Do these fields and practices have different ways of framing the competing associations of the Public? And can we develop a different way of keeping these claims in productive tension together?