I reflected yesterday. It was hard.

“Media exerts a general influence on forms of perceiving space, objects, and time, and they are tied inextricably to the evolution of humankind’s sense faculties.”

Oliver Grau (2007, p. 140)

I regret to say that as often as not, I start sentences in the middle of my thought process. Generally speaking, I’m the only one not thoroughly confused. (Though not always – my third-gear-before-first approach sometimes gets the better of me, too.) My boyfriend rebukes me lovingly. My advisor assures me there’s plenty of time. Slow down. Think. And yet I persist in running headlong into ideas and projects before establishing the all-important introduction.

This website is no different. I realize now I should have stated explicitly that the annotated bibliographies herein are more descriptive and less analytical; that they’re here to serve as study guides for the late summer intellectual gauntlet that are my qualifying exams. So they’re thin on analysis (perhaps no less thin than my defense of their thinness). In all likelihood, I’ll persist in doing the “then the scholar said this” coverage for the rest of my major and minor field titles, but not today. Today I reflect. Component to this endeavor is a lot of introduction, as much to my intellectual intentions as to the paper itself.

My major field is community development. My minor field is media arts in the public sphere. The specificity of the latter bespeaks not a rejection of “analog” art. My position is so far outside art scholarship that my thoughts have no bearing on the analog v. digital dialectic (assuming there is one). I can revel in my ignorance and say my interest is in art, always, and specifically digital technologies for their representative potential. I advocate integrating these technologies into planning so that planners and community members can together visualize communities as they were once were, are now, and how they can look for a better future. Nothing captures the imagination and technical realities better than the ever-evolving new media art technologies. Why not use them?

Integrating Art into the Urban Planning Movement

Collaboration “presupposes the sharing of responsibilities between parties in the creation of something new.”

Pablo Helguera (2011, p. 51)

As institutional and hair-pullingly bureaucratic as it can be, planning is a movement. Not perfect (Scott, 1998), not cohesive (Banerjee, 1993a, 1993b; Richardson & Gordon, 1993), and not even all that popular (Harvey, 1985), but a movement all the same. Multivalent and messy, in the spirit of the cities planners love so dearly. We cannot hope to create just cities if we conceive of them as streamlined, utilitarian, self-organizing entities. And subservience to “the market” makes no sense when we agree that two markets, the formal and informal, constitute the dual city (Castells, 1989). Just interventions are necessary, if elusive; therefore we must explore every alternative available to us.

To that end, I submit the new media art and socially engaged art movements have much to teach planning practice. Both movements privilege context, time, process, and interactive engagement between creator and audience, and in the best cases, reject an idealized modern construct of artist (planner) as auteur, and viewer (community) as grateful recipients. Neither, however, goes so far as to cede full control of the product, as critics of community participation submit planners have done.

Digital Visualizations: Space In and Over Time

“Rather than simply saving things I emphasize the use of saved things to say something…. New things must be created and others allowed to be forgotten.”

Kevin Lynch (1972, p. 237)

New media art claims many forebears. Each one – Dada, conceptualism, culture jamming, computer art, feminist art, the happening, the installation, op art, performance, pop art, situationism, and video art – is a variation on a preoccupation with context and the identification of the viewer as active participant (Grau, 2007; Rush, 2005; Tribe, Reena, & Grosenick, 2006). New media art/networks are open, personal, and collaborative.

What these varied approaches remind us is that there is no one perfect, rational, ideal type. I find this equal parts exhilarating and vexing. To wit, one of the reasons I love digital technologies for planning is that they offer so many modes of virtual design and representation. Lynch (1972) singles out film as instructive “since its material basis is visible change” (p. 166). “In film, time can be accelerated or decelerated, reversed or dwelt upon, vaulted in either direction” (ibid.) We can see time’s progression, envision positive erasures with more positive insertions. My inner optimist rejoices, knowing with local expertise, we can develop and literally project neighborhoods’ futures on their present-day walls. Per Lev Manovich, we can convey “information as aesthetics” (as cited in Rush, 2005, p. 221).

This digital infusion vexes, though, because it inspires nostalgia of all stripes. We know for each new program launched, another simulating an idealized past enters the market with it. Instagram alone. Castells (1989) goes to great lengths to remind us society’s integration of information technologies reflects sociocultural conditions, specifically capitalism’s greedy global demands. His subjects are informational capitalism, the informational mode of development, the space of flows, the power of flows, and each topic drearier than its predecessor. No wonder, then, that we channel this anxiety through nostalgia. It’s not Instagram’s fault people born in the 90s want their pictures to look bicentennial-esque. But canonization of the past equates to an implicit acceptance of the status quo, if not outright NIMBYism. Nostalgia, in art (Berger, 1990), culture (Wherry, 2011), and urban design (Lynch, 1972) at least hamper and possibly harm the future. We can do better.

Socially Engaged Art: a Counterpublics Approach

Art making offers “the complication of readings so that we can discover new questions.”

Pablo Helguera (2011, p. 71)

 So how? Enter socially engaged art (SEA), detailed in Pablo Helguera’s (2011) Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. Any SEA project explores “critically self-reflexive dialogue with an engaged community” (ibid. p. 12), and the best SEA projects require time, concerted effort, and deep commitment to communities. By page ten, I thought, “I’m going to require this for social context classes. With modifications.” Helguera brilliantly connects social work – planning for our purposes – and socially engaged art. They operate “in the same social ecosystems” (ibid. p. 34) and share the postmodern understanding that one’s knowledge and worldview are constructions of “the perception of facts” (ibid. p. 37). However, Helguera separates SEA out, saying it and it alone can “provoke reflection” (ibid. p. 35). Moreover, unless deliberately antagonistic, even the most provocative engagement seeks consensus, following Habermasian (1985) communicative action theory.

I see two major issues with Helguera’s adherence to consensus. First, many regard the drive for consensus (and communicative action theory) as the culprit in community participation-related blunders. Planners have relaxed standards, acted against their better judgment, and enacted substandard plans in the name of consensus. Second, Habermas’ communicative action theory assumes the centrality of reason, wherein a single option outshines legion others. This very idealism ignores what we already know: there is no one ideal solution. What there can be, and something that Helguera recognizes in the section’s quote but doesn’t see through in his book, is a productive complication of the issues for further questions and quite possibly better answers.

And so here I propose the following modifications to Helguera’s excellent work. Every time I assign Helguera, I will assign Nancy Fraser’s (1992) “Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy,” Margaret Crawford’s (1995) “Contesting the public realm: struggles over public space in Los Angeles,” and James Holston’s (1996) “Spaces of insurgent citizenship.” (It is a lot of reading. I will spend a full week.) The former, a correction of Habermas’ (1989) bourgeois public sphere, asserts contestation led by “subaltern counterpublics,” namely women and workers, has achieved more democratic breakthroughs than anything within the bourgeois public sphere. I realize Habermas’ public sphere is separate from his communicative action theory, but both bespeak his modern dedication to a one truth. Crawford’s and Holston’s essays bring these productive contestations to bear in planning specifically, as well as bring our larger conversation full circle: both celebrate the present and near-future, and admonish modernity’s nostalgia. Crawford chides Michael Sorkin (1992) and Mike Davis (1992), no neocons, for upholding conventional public spaces and not seeing the great value in what Los Angeles’ most designed against communities, migrant street vendors and the homeless, do on daily basis to make the city theirs. Holston upbraids modern utopian planning for its bizarre negotiations with an imagined future, and advocates for agonistic deliberation between opposing camps in “spaces of insurgent citizenship” for constructive dialogue.

Conclusion

The December 16, 2011 episode of This American Life centered on the topic of nemeses: How can people set aside intractable differences? Do they ever? The prologue featured the story of a Columbia University professor’s mid-1990s attempt to bring together Bostonian women from either side of the abortion debate. If they only got to know each other, maybe they could see each other’s humanity and arrive at some solution went the logic. After many weeks, the women had indeed become great friends… and stauncher than ever in their convictions. The call to articulate and rearticulate their views had only hardened them. Was the mistake looking for consensus?

This is a blatant straw man argument, I know. At the end of the day, the abortion debate has really but two irreconcilable options. Our cities, though? They are palimpsests, and we have a lot of alternatives, many of which we don’t yet know. The healthiest and most enduring cities are those that welcome erasure and construction with equal measure. Let’s be similarly artful, experimental, and provocative in our city making. If we resist treating the future with the same reverence as we do our past, we won’t have any.

Finally, I write all this knowing this blog is full of nostalgia. I ogle an old VW. I praise an old-timey typewriter. My nostalgia for design is timeless, sure, but in the end, I want the ease of copy/paste and a catalytic converter.

 

WORKS CITED

Banerjee, T. (1993a). Antiplanning undercurrents in US planning education: antithesis or ideology? Environment and Planning B, 20, 519–519.

Banerjee, T. (1993b). Market planning, market planners, and planned markets. Journal of the American Planning Association, 59.

Berger, J. (1990). Ways of Seeing: Based on the BBC Television Series (1st ed.). New York: Penguin Books.

Castells, M. (1989). The informational city: information technology, economic restructuring, and the urban-regional process. Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.

Crawford, M. (1995). Contesting the public realm: struggles over public space in Los Angeles. Journal of Architectural Education, 4–9.

Davis, M. (1992). Fortress Los Angeles: the militarization of urban space. In Variations on a theme park, the new American city and the end of public space, M. Sorkin, ed. New York: Hill & Wang.

Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. Social text, (25/26), 56–80.

Glass, Ira and Chicago Public Media. (Executive Producers). (2011, December 16). Prologue | Nemeses. This American Life. Chicago: WBEZ-Chicago and Public Radio International. Retrieved from http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radioarchives/episode/453/nemeses?act=0.

Grau, O. (2007). MediaArtHistories. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Beacon Press.

Habermas, J., & Burger, T. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere. MIT Press.

Harvey, D. (1978). On planning the ideology of planning. In The Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist Urbanization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Helguera, P. (2011). Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books Inc.

Holston, J. (1996). Spaces of insurgent citizenship. Architectural Design, 66, 54–59.

Lynch, K. (1972). What Time Is This Place? Cambridge: MIT Press.

Richardson, H. W., & Gordon, P. (1993). Market planning: oxymoron or common sense? Journal of the American Planning Association, 59, 347–352.

Rush, M. (2005). New Media in Art (2nd ed.). New York: Thames & Hudson.

Tribe, M., Jana, R., & Grosenick, U. (2009). New Media Art. Cologne: TASCHEN GmbH.

Scott, J. C. (1998). Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sorkin, M. (1992). Variations on a theme park: the new American city and the end of public space. New York: Hill & Wang.

Wherry, F. F. (2011). The Philadelphia Barrio: The Arts, Branding, and Neighborhood Transformation. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

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Filed under Community Development, Major Field, Media Arts, Minor Field, Research Fields, Scholarship

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