50 Square Meters of Public Space

The folks at Guerrilla Innovation recently posted a great intervention by Czech artists/activists Epos 257:

Back in September, a group of Czech artists called EPOS 257 camouflaged themselves as city-workers, went to the Palackeho square in Prague and installed a fence. The fence was left on the square with no apparent intent or explanation. At first, the city council didn’t know about it, and when there were told, they didn’t know how to deal with it – what if somebody put it there for a reason? The fence stayed for 54 days before being removed.

54 Days…nearly 2 months!  Epos 257 reflect on the installation this way:

Have we grown accustomed to having our living space curbed by just anyone? Is public space a mere myth?  In the current society, our living space is defined by legal norms and regulations, the same way as fences demark the choices of our free movement.  Only by attempting to cross those boundaries, we learn how limited the space we live in really is – that we are not as free as it may initially seem. We are getting the sense that the individuality of today is destined to an existence amidst restrictions.

We don’t think public space is a myth, as the irony here is that a sector of the public actively appropriated public space in this instance.  But we agree that public space is deeply conditioned by social norms, codes and a plethora of regulations.  We are intrigued by the effects that can be produced with materials of everyday urban logistics, such as temporary construction fencing.  Similarly, there is the inverted camouflage effect of wearing neon construction uniforms in the urban landscape, combined with walkie talkies and hard hats.  This attire can get you access to all kinds of places you wouldn’t otherwise. Its remarkable how easy this type of thing is to pull off.

We’ve experimented with tactics similar to this installation (albeit less bold than this) and they consistently go unseen, or are oddly respected for months or even longer.  But our conclusions from that research might be framed a little differently.  Rather than the acceptance of the intervention being a sign of loss of freedom, it seems more a product of spatial distraction and byproduct of the general complexity of agency (apologies to Faslanyc) within the urban field.

The embodied experience of moving through the city requires the participant to use selective attention.  If one stopped to verify the authenticity of every other event or actor in their daily path of travel – be it bus driver, sewer repair crew, food cart vendor, Kinkos clerk, or mail carrier –  they would be overwhelmed and lose the ability to follow through on their own agendas.   Urban fields require anonymity and discreet specialization.  Unlike living in a small, rural community, the richness of actors and their interlaced choreography  of specialization necessitates a high level of trust in the swarm of bodies that surround us, even though we don’t really know them.   We find this specialized vulnerability to be very poignant.  Unfortunately, so do terrorists and political agendas.

If the above installation does reveal an erosion of freedom,  it equally exposes an underlying pervasive trust, even if its an abstract, conforming and relatively unfelt trust.  So if, for example, temporary construction fencing goes up in a square where we tend to eat our lunch, we won’t like it.    But rather than taking the time and energy to figure out why, its far more common to unconsciously trust it’s there for a legitimate reason and find another location within the freedom of the city until it goes away.

Have we grown accustomed to having our living space curbed by just anyone?”

If in costume, unavoidably yes.

-images courtesy of EPOS 257-

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