Monday, March 19, 2007

Public Space

Once two neighbours fell to arguing over which owned a particular piece of land. Their argument threatened to grow into a bitter quarrel as each was convinced that he owned the land over which they fought. Another neighbour suggested that they go and ask their rabbi for advice. This they did and each man presented to the rabbi his case and his proof for ownership of the land. The rabbi listened to each man and said, “you both have good cases, good proof and you are both correct. I cannot decide. Let us go to the land you are arguing over.” Once they arrived on the disputed land the rabbi got down on his hands and knees and put his ear to the ground. He stayed in this position for some time and then he stood up. “Gentlemen, I have listened to the land. And the land says that it belongs to neither of you. Rather it says that you belong to the land.”

I’m doing a show this Saturday as part of Fabled City (part of the 29th Annual Toronto Festival of Storytelling) about the Stop the Spadina Expressway struggle of the 1960s. I was an odd beneficiary of this struggle as I lived in wonderful house on Spadina Rd. in the early 90s that would have been destroyed by the grandiose dreams of those techno-besotted urban planners of the 1950s and 60s who seemed to take the Jetsons a little too literally. And this has me thinking about public and private space and some of the contemporary activism in Toronto and around the world that is advocating for the common good and against the corporatization/privatization of the whole bloody world.

Four of the newest institutions in this ancient struggle include:

The current issue of The Eye Weekly poses the question Is The Movement For Sale? featuring Newmindspace’s playgroundification of urban spaces (you may remember something about the pillow fight in Yonge-Dundas Square). While the Eye Weekly piece skirts too quickly over what the "public space movement" is and just what it is that might be "up for sale" (as well as some misrepresenting some things - see their letters column sometime this week), it does foreground the relationship between public space activism and capitalist culture.

I am ambivalent about things like public pillow fights, urban capture the flag, flash mobs, raves and even le parkour (though this last one is pretty bloody cool - ahhh, the adolescent in me still lives a bit). I am simultaneously appreciative and skeptical about the carnivalesque nature of such things. On the plus side they disrupt our unquestioned common sense about how to use both public and private space; and insurgent, performative, playful occupying of the physical and imagined landscapes just might lead to a richer citizen participation in the daily life of a city. However, my skeptical, malcontent self knows that carnivalesque tactics - or call 'em trickster strategies - are, by their nature (or is it design) hard to control. There is no way to guarantee that the spaces (or political moments) that they open up will be used for good and not for evil (okay... sometimes i talk like a comic book - blame it on my mis-spent, if geeky, youth).

The Eye Weekly article sets up some volatile, and ultimately unhelpful, dichotomies: public space activism as principled and pure (i.e. free from the taint of crass commercialism) vs selling out to the ubiquitous marketing machine; and political activism vs having fun. But, while there's always a bit of truth in such simplistic contrasts, the world is way messier than these common equations. Focusing on one institution's choices (and, in this case, it's actually the individuals who co-founded the institution who are being singled out) Whether Newmindspace co-founders Lori Kufner and Kevin Bracken are "selling out"is hardly an indicator of movement trends. With capitalism as the dominant economy, it's inevitable that the experience that individuals accrue in social movement work will eventually be bank-able. And what are individuals to do in an economy that is so unforgiving (i just got word of the demise of another non-profit IMPACS, who are declaring bankruptcy).

Planning Action members Deb Cowen and Sue Bunce name the issues well in a response letter that should be printed in Eye Weekly by now:
But more important than a moral debate about what kind of fun we engage in and how ?diverse? that sense of fun isn?t, public space activists might revisit their own assumptions about what constitutes a ?public space? problem to begin with. Public space has never been about comfort and joy except for the chosen few. Tightly tethered to social norms, public space has historically been a site of exclusion as much as inclusion. If we think city space through the experiences of different social subjects, we might see efforts to fight racialized police violence, to provide sanctuary for undocumented people, or to fund daycare spaces as struggles for public space par excellence. It is not surprising that many of these efforts emerge out of communities of colour, organized by working people. This is not a critique of fun.

The Eye Weekly article ends on a quote from Newmindspace co-founder Lori Kufner who says, "Our events aren't about anything except for having fun and reclaiming public space and meeting new people." And it is this that i have the hardest time with. Not to read too much into Lori's understanding from one quote, but it is this type of sentiment, common enough, that gives me the most grief. For in a world of such vast inequalities (even in our relatively gentler welfare economy country) i don't think that such fun can be had except based on privilege and oftentimes at someone's (with less privilege) expense.

Nor is it the case that i don't believe in fun. But, for the sake of argument, i would contrast fun with pleasure. If , for a moment, we say that "fun" names the adolescent, naive characteristic of life (something we are all entitled to live through for a time), then "pleasure" could name something more, the kind of fun that can be had when one's experience of life, depth/breadth of character and one's increased mindfullness of one's inter-relation with all things has expanded one's capacity for containing joy. I am clumsily referring to what Barbara Ehrenreich calls a "politics of pleasure" in an article she wrote titled Was it Good For You (The Progressive, 1999) and in which she writes:

Oppression is not the sole factor pushing people into activism, and even the most egregiously oppressed people have often expressed their rebellion in a way that looked, to their oppressors, like mindless hedonism. European peasants looted bakeries and manor houses, eating and drinking as they went. Caribbean slaves and French villagers used carnivals, with their masks and public processions, as occasions for revolt. In this country, slaves sometimes warmed up for uprisings with song and "ring shouts." Considering this venerable tradition of combining pleasure and politics, only the most pinched Puritanical soul could insist that political activism be an exercise in deferred gratification.

It's not just "the sixties" raising its impish head here. Yes, that decade was famously fun: Abbie Hoffman wrote (and largely lived) Revolution for the Hell of It. French radicals ran in the streets shouting, "All Power to the Imagination!" American campus activists made love, not war, and probably did as much recruiting at all-night dance parties as at teach-ins--not just opportunistically, but because we truly believed that the id could be a reliable guide to social change. But the sixties weren't all sex-drugs-and-rock-'n'-roll. Most of the time, we were doing the same kinds of hard work activists have always done: Going patiently from door to door, bickering over the wording of leaflets, organizing teach-ins and rallies. In fact, most of the reputed political fun of the sixties was the same kind of "fun" no doubt experienced by activists in the thirties or teens: The thrill of solidarity, of marching and chanting together, of being caught up in a great transcendent cause, "larger than ourselves."

And i agree with her conclusion:

But on the whole, we have barely begun to explore the politics of pleasure. For all the time spent on "principles of unity" and structures of leadership, we know hardly anything about how to make the struggle something that people might, in large numbers, actually want to join.

I do believe in working together and think that there is much to be learned by combining the playfulness that Newmindspace represents with the community organizing and intellectual smarts of groups like TPSC and Planning Action and others. Ahhh, but that is tricky, of course. As it means tolerating if not accepting big differences. As dian marino, a dear friend, used to say, the necessary working in coalition that we must do in social change work is about "keeping difficult company".

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