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Re-thinking the museum as a contemporary space – part I
Contrary to the stagnated and fixated social imagery surrounding the traditional museum, the contemporary museum setting can in fact be a transformative and dynamic environment, particularly if it is enacted as such through the social agency of minority communities. This autonomy operates most effectively in conjunction with an audience perception which too, moves beyond tradition and towards that of plurality and community participation, thus providing a view into a minority community museum setting as a contemporary space; where the museum’s artefacts, traditional objects and art are uniquely juxtaposed with contemporary art and narratives.
With cultural difference continuing to be “one of the most explosive geopolitical issues” of our time, cultural philosopher Nikos Papastergiadis argues that in everyday life, people are constantly dealing with this difference and that “artists are in their various ways exploring its complexity.” (2005:39) According to Hohmi Bhabha, cultural difference in fact pushes against the monophonic national identity and “problematizes the division of past and present, tradition and modernity, at the level of cultural representation and its authoritative address…it undermines our sense of the homogenizing effects of cultural symbols and icons, by questioning our sense of the authority of cultural synthesis in general.” (2006, 155)
It is precisely within the fractured realm of such complexities that the contemporary museum aims to sensitively explore the nuances of identity. To understand the potentiality of such a contemporary space, one must also view the challenges of museum practice through the deficiencies of the traditional museum model, but of which Michel Foucault described as “being proper to the nineteenth century” (1967, 7); its Eurocentric and colonial roots, the power-knowledge imbalance and the representation of the ‘other’ as the observable ‘uncivilised’ peoples. (Bennett 1995, Fyfe. ed. Macdonald 2006)
With experiences that occur within a certain space also comes the experience that happens outside of that space. From the sanctity of diversity where no one majority is present to the spaces where diversity becomes distilled, in the places where the minority is the majority, this experience of comfortable spaces, or spaces in which a sense of belonging and unfettered access were determined to be present once again. However, this majority-minority experience in the urban pockets of the city professes a disengaged or fringe community where a ghetto-isation of the “same” occurs simultaneously with socially sanctioned access. In this instance, access to space as a qualifier for justice seems to lose its potency and rather, a type of pseudo-spatial justice goes on to inform the experience of the person who is present. This pseudo spatial justice which is achieved through such forms of isolation or distillation, however, is markedly different to the individual pleasure of anonymity, which every citizen should have the right to enjoy … “anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority…”
Without the ‘multiplicity’ or dynamic presence variation, access to space seems no longer the political and social activation that it necessarily becomes when the presence, particularly of the minority or the marginalized, occupy public space, especially in spaces where their presence is not ordinarily received and even more so if the space they occupy is that of a disputed space or a space of exclusivity. Pseudo-spatial justice enacted via the premise of “access” can nominally exist in any given private residence and any given space where similar people associating with each other through their identity markers or their minority status. Presence or occupation of such spaces rarely challenges the real issues of access and justice that exist throughout cities; it can in fact do the opposite and potentially perpetuate further and more widespread variations of injustice by locating certain presence to particular spaces almost exclusively at a disadvantage.
Spatial justice is a necessary concept for communities to articulate in order to achieve a means towards incrementing justice the way forward. With Lefebvre’s rethinking of space as moving beyond the ‘empty place’ and Soja’s radicalizing of this to activate political action within space; the notions of what is public space is and how that space is presented or occupied conceptually, experientially, physically and through our imagining becomes fundamental. Acknowledging the multiplicity of presence, of being in the public realm, of justice in view and of occupying public spaces with presence and in keeping presence in the shared or general public domain becomes a crucial part of seeking spatial justice beyond an individual level or for the sake of one’s own comfort.
There is something almost radical in the way in which Harvey excites the sense of the right to the city, not just as individuals but in the ways in which we can and should change it for others. There is a fundamental principle of spatial justice in relation to the access and presence in public space, particularly for those belonging to a minority community where this notion of the “occupation” of space becomes essential. Being present enables one to share in the re-imagining of space; this ability to be in the reality of the space whilst at once being able to imagine the space harnesses the essential notion of the spatial with our entire individual history in place. “The child hood experience that determines spatial practices later develops its effects, proliferates, floods private and public spaces, undoes their readable surfaces, and creates within the planned city a “metaphorical” or mobile city…” (de Certeau 1984, 110).
In Soja’s thirdspace we meet, and at the time and space cross there is a new understanding emerging, one that gives the notion of justice its place beyond the societal experiential, in summary the crucial nature of space in seeking justice can be encapsulated in this quote by French sociologist Bruno Latour
“Revolutionary time, the great Simplificator, has been replaced by cohabitation time, the great Complicator. In other words, space has replaced time as the great ordering principle.”
With that we may understand spatial justice to be determined somewhat by the space itself; including that of the past, present and future realities and imaginings; where we may go on to perhaps ask ourselves, do we in fact experience spatial justice or spaces which are just?
Art, culture, presence and Spatial Justice
When considering art, culture and cultural development within the realm of contemporary society, grasping a basic understanding of this notion of spatial justice through the conceptual, experiential and imagining of spaces becomes an essential starting point. The premise of justice, in this instance, is being explored within the egalitarian ideals of access and presence or spatial access and occupation. (Mitchell 2007, 9) French philosopher Henri Lefebvre posed many essential ideas about space, but most interestingly he surmised that the organization of space is crucial to human societies, in particular, the way in which space is perceived, conceived and lived. (Lefebvre 1974, 40) With the anticipated “promise and perils” in shifting justice from the “social to the spatial” it can be suggested that it is within the realms of public space that spatial justice becomes essentially determined through the variations of presence, access and anonymity. This justice, as David Harvey passionately offers in The Right to the City, should move beyond the individual right to access urban resources and suggests something more significant: “the freedom to make or remake our cities” and that this is “one of the most precious yet most neglected of human rights.” (2008, 23) Through the exploration of space we begin to learn that much of our experiences may already be determined through our personal perceptions which are more often than not, inextricably linked, not only with our past, and in particular our childhood memories (de Certeau 1984, 10) but also with those present perceptions that are determined, not always necessarily by us, but rather for us or about us.
To make any attempt at understanding the concept of spatial justice without first finding within oneself a reasonable understanding of what space is or what space might be would be somewhat misleading. With his comprehensive theories on space, Lefebvre challenges the most common premise or ‘misnomer’ about space, that being the idea “that empty space is prior to whatever ends up filling it”. With that, Lefebvre suggests that space is a social product, and more precisely, he makes a distinction between the physical, social and mental space (Conrad 2006). Lefebvre than offers the subsequent suggestion of a differentiation made between the problematic of space and spatial practice; “the former can only be formulated on a theoretical plane, whereas the latter is empirically observable. It is not hard, however, for an ill informed approach, one that misunderstands the method and the concepts involved, to confuse the two. The ‘problematic’ the term is borrowed from philosophy of space is comprised of questions about mental and social space, about their interconnections, about their links with nature on the one hand and with ‘pure’ forms on the other. As for spatial practice, it is observed, described and analysed on a wide range of levels.” (Lefebvre 1991, 413) This distinction forms the basis from which we can start to perceive the concept of spatial justice, for it is within space and the presence of body that we experience justice and that justice can be seen to be experienced through this presence or occupation of space, and it becomes, as Lefebvre suggests “empirically observable.”
“A Boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.” (Martin Heidegger)
More posts on Spatial Justice to follow…
About The Word EmPress
Welcome to my blog, The Word EmPress
Here you will find words about all things art and culture, by me, The Word EmPress. The great 12th century poet, Rumi often described words as getting in the way of the heart; in the way of spirit language. Fast forward to the 21st century we can reflect on the thoughts presented in Susan Sontag’s seminal paper Against Interpretation, where the notion of interpreting culture in any of its forms is vehemently opposed. Sontag described such interpretation as “the revenge of the intellect upon the world. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of meanings.” Sontag hearkens us back to the ideal that “in place of a hermeneutic we need an erotics of art”and speaks passionately of art in its “sensual capacity.”
So why write about art and culture? Why disrupt the sensual capacity of being, of presence, of experiencing art and of participating in cultural life as a living, evolving entity, with the potential impoverishment of words? One can always sense the disparate discomfort and agitation of humankind at any given point in history; that ever present desire for a revolution or a renaissance of culture and ideas. One can always also sense that all things revolutionary starts with the mind, the imaginings, the thoughts and the philosophies of a person, a people, a community, society or nation. At the intersection; between space and time, that which crosses over into the realm of the mundane, the social, the political and the joyous tragedy of being …it is known that words which drive or sow ideas, that allow contemplation are indeed one of the great artforms in fermenting the imaginings of people. Words are the vessel through which the transmission and evolution of culture can come into play. Art, words, culture. By the EmPress. Enjoy.