Review: The Right to the City


Katrina Dunn-Jones

In 1853, civic planner, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann began a redevelopment of Paris that would set a precedent for the way in which cities would operate in the future (notable cities include Chicago in the 1880s and Sydney’s Redfern more recently). Designed to service the needs of capitalism, the city would become the centre of consumption and pleasure, the playground of the wealthy bourgeoisie. To make way for this new city the inner city slums would be destroyed, forcing the underprivileged working class to the outskirts of the city to live amongst factory waste and the slag of mines. It was far enough away that a revolt would be unlikely, and a blind eye could be turned upon them.

The Right to the City, curated by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg, was a recent and important exhibition-publication-symposium concerning ‘one of the most precious and yet most neglected of human rights’: the right to the city. 1 By locating their exhibition in the Tin Sheds Galley – situated within Sydney University’s faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning – Stickells and Begg remind us both of this dark, shameful history; and that in the last 100 or so years nothing has really changed. Space continues to be a red-hot commodity, gentrification has reached almost epidemic proportions, and exorbitant property prices and rental rates are effectively evicting the underclass from their city, forcing them to the periphery, dispossessing them of agency and their right to their city. Never fear. All is not lost! This exhibition, while also engaging in the past, seeks to provide us with an escape plan’ 2 for the future. Collectively, the works in the exhibition show how space, specifically public space, may be utilised to liberate us from the oppression of the capitalist city.

 

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The North Everleigh Propositional, Milkcrate Urbanism
(2011), installation, North Everleigh Propositional dispenser. Photo by Hugo Moline

Public Phenomena: Documentation of Roadside Memorials and Basketball Hoops by Temporary Services and At the Ground Level of the City by Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree show how small interventions into the landscape allow the city’s silenced inhabitants to reclaim their agency and humanity. Temporary Services presented a series of images of roadside memorials, found in the outer suburbs of Chicago and Copenhagen.

These images draw attention to the oppressive soullessness of these working-class suburbs; nothing but concrete, empty streets and telegraph poles. Interestingly, it is the memorials that inject the humanity into these desolate landscapes, imbuing them with a sense of hope – albeit in a bittersweet way. These memorials can be seen as interventions in, and revolts against, the city. Ignoring city laws these people ‘vandalise’ the city – the city that, in all probability, claimed the life of their loved one. They pay tribute to the dearly departed, and in the process, remind us that they live and die here.

At the Ground Level of the City similarly shows the revolutionary potential of spatial interventions, focusing on the libratory power of creative play.This work presents us with five years’ worth – and I assume hundreds of hours – of video footage documenting the collective use of an abandoned industrial space in one of Paris’ less affluent suburbs. Viewers are invited to explore the archive on an impressive Mac computer, where these images of everyday life have been sorted into various categories including ‘persons’, ‘places’ and ‘events’. This draws attention to the powerless position these individuals occupy, highlighting the divide that exists between the viewers and the viewed, the classifiers and classified, the haves and the have nots. The films, however, reveal that in spite of their situation, these individuals have managed to preserve their dignity and retain their agency by creatively engaging in their surroundings. This is most poetically demonstrated in a short piece of footage showing two young boys playing in the space, incorporating both elements of the building and an abandoned table into their make-believe, as well as drawing invisible pictures with the wheel of their scooter. As they play, the boys intervene and take ownership of this space and as a result appear confident, relaxed, happy and incapable of being dispossessed of their right to inhabit space.

Nic Papa and volunteers’ Edible Garden (2011) was a self-sufficient, sustainable community garden that inhabited the entrance of the Tin Sheds Gallery for the duration of The Right to the City. Sitting along side the ever-congested City Road, this work foregrounds both the lack of and need for a sense of community in a city where capitalism has alienated its inhabitants from one another. At the Ground Level of the City, which is also centres around a community garden, demonstrates how spaces may be transformed into what Springer calls ‘agonistic public space’4 where through collaboration and, more importantly conflict, a truer more democratic community is made possible in the city.

 

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Temporary Services, Temporary Services
(2010), photograph on wood block, dimensions variable

 

At the Ground Level … documents ‘The ECObox project’ which brought together a wide variety of people, from differing backgrounds into a space with the purpose of “creating the city in real time”5. It would be created, not by a single city planner, but through “the experimental interweaving of specialised knowledge and shared experience”6. The documentary footage tells of how this project was made a success; we are shown, every collaboration, frustration, argument, power struggle and victory. In the end, we are shown ‘the community’ – a group of people eating at a communal table engaging in ‘unscripted’7 interaction. This work provides a model for the way we could reassemble our community, through which we may regain the power to be involved in the creation of the space within which we all live.

Stickells and Begg further this idea with The North Everleigh Propositional (Milkcrate Urbanism). This work asks gallery visitors to donate a button and in return they receive ‘The North Everleigh Propositional: Issue # 1 City-Making’; a publication calling for city-making to be taken out of the hands of ‘the dominant powers’, that is ‘the Speculators (developers, investors, architects, project managers, real estate agents) … [and] The Regulators (planners, lawmakers, bureaucrats)’. 8 They ask that that power be returned to city’s inhabitants. Included in the publication is a blank propositional, inviting the gallery visitor to contribute to the dialogue and take back their city.

Overall, The Right to the City was an excellent exhibition, cleverly curated by Stickells and Begg. Our lack of rights to city spaces is indeed an issue of great importance – particularly in light of the recent Global Financial Crisis – and each work made points pertinent to the issue. However, the major strength of the exhibition, I feel, was the way in which the works functioned collectively, generating many dialogues, transforming Tin Sheds into a public space where a truly democratic discussion might be possible and a better future attainable.

The Right to the City was held at Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney from 7- 30 April 2011. It was curated by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg.


 

1. David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review, Vol. 53, Sept-Oct 2008, p.23.

2. Lee Stickells & Zanny Begg, ‘Introduction’, The Right to the City, (Sydney: Tin Sheds Gallery, 2011) p. 5.

3. Henri Lefebvre, who coined the term ‘the right to the city’, was particularly concerned with social and psychological rights, including the rights of pleasure and play.

Margaret Crawford, ‘Rethinking ‘Rights’, Rethinking ‘Cities’: A Response to David Harvey’s ‘The Right to the City’”, The Right to the City, (Sydney: Tin Sheds Gallery, 2011) p. 34

4. Simon Springer, ‘Public Space as Emancipation: Meditations on Anarchism, Radical Democracy, Neoliberalism and Violence’, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 2011, p. 526

5. Constantin Petcou & Doina Petrescu (Atelier d’Architecture Autogeree), ‘At the Ground Level of the City’ The Right to the City, (Sydney: Tin Sheds Gallery, 2011) p.70

6. Ibid.

7. Simon Springer, ‘Public Space as Emancipation: Meditations on Anarchism, Radical Democracy, Neoliberalism and Violence’, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 2011, p. 526

8. The North Everleigh Propositional. Sydney: Milkcrate Urbanism. 2011.

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