Doing democracy

Andrea Phillips

Wade/Condorelli seminar, Local Operations, Serpentine 25 May 2007


In this short presentation I will firstly rehearse the way in which Wade & Condorelli’s Support Structure attempts to access a democratic form of acting and moving in public space, and secondly, drawing on research into the relationship between politics, art and the pedestrian, look at the ways in which Support Structure has utilised walking to this effect. The idea is to ask some questions about the ongoing – and shifting - construction of public space via forms of ‘pedestrian’ participatory arts practice and claims to a novel or re-authenticated form of democratisation.

Most formations of public space – political, governmental, institutional formations – can be critiqued for the way in which they impose types of action upon their subject. In a way this has become a sociological truism. From Jurgen Habermas’ analysis of the loss of public discursive space in late capitalism due to the rise of mass media, through Richard Sennett’s demand for the return of public respect, to Jacques Rancière’s critique of the inequalities at the basis of contemporary structures of democracy, the public sphere has been understood as emptied of its ability to produce specifically and individually authored performances, as well as any political and discursive formulation. An idea of public space that is hinged upon free movement and free speech – i.e. ideals of one concept of democracy – is thus met with another in the public sphere, one hinged upon the falsification or suppression of those values. Designed space, its conception and structure, is intimate with the paradox of this meeting. The concept of any ‘public’ that constructs, utilises and defines public space is similarly striated. The right to move through space is thus a contradictory and contingent one; a territory that cannot be taken up simply or ascribed an easy political potential.

But that which Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge called the ‘phantom’ public sphere – that is, an imagined space in which people come together to act and make decisions, to do the work of democracy – is much in evidence, and especially in the institutions and practices of contemporary art. Whilst it is clear that most western democracies now rely on the phantasmatic construction of the public sphere both physically and psychologically in the sense that governments understand their subjects to participate in the compromised modes meted out to them (voting, laying tributes to the victims of street crime, supporting Red Nose Day, watching Big Brother), contemporary art calls – and calls increasingly often – for the reinstatement of a public sphere based on the creation of alternative loci for speech and action. And, to add complexities to the paradox, it does so within and through the institutions that retain and reproduce the ghost. Thus major museums produce participatory works on the streets and malls that surround them and commercial galleries commission neo-situational artworks. In London, Tate Modern is designed specifically in the format of a street (a description of the turbine hall coined by the architects Herzog & De Meuron, following the nineteenth century Milanese arcade that gave them inspiration for the initial design concept). On the street, inside the Tate, we are encouraged to get on with the business of participating in large scale and simply formatted installations. A democracy of commonality is replaced by one of the common: people moving as directed by the architecture, observing the mildly ludic regulations of the space.

Is it possible to propose another way of producing spaces of activity that elide such governmentalised democratic complicity (by which I mean complicity within the scant forms of democracy on offer)? To create a wilder democracy based not on regulation but instead on an eventful groundswell of action – that which Rancière would call a radically equalising movement? Or is such a thing impossible? Celine Condorelli and Gavin Wade seem to be proposing an experiment in such when they suggest the revision of production – or the replacement of one form of production – through a process of supporting. They says:

‘Support Structure is an ongoing project … that aims to create an architectural interface between people and places’
‘To offer support is an act of generosity; it allows and makes provision for something new to occur. Support is about the how rather than the what, the means over the end; it is critical to how things link and work together towards change. A support structure is an invitation.’
‘Support Structure is an architectural interface. Support Structure aims to create a space, which is continuously reinvented by its users in relation to its context. Support Structure houses artefacts as well as activities and aids reconsideration of existing spaces as an impulse for future change.’ (www)

It is worth examining these statements on a number of levels. Firstly in the general political claim they make in which a re-democratisation of the process of inhabiting, moving through and utilising social space is suggested. Secondly in the specific language called in to support such a claim. Generosity, invitation, working together, means over ends, future change.

Firstly the claim is, through a series of ‘phases’ that produce vehicles and interfaces, the replacement of static and homogenised conceptions of space with those of multiplicity and mutability: places in which a subject might actualise an intention that moves towards a political reframing of space, but places that, in order to enable this, must retain a sense of fluidity and fluctuation in their function. Support Structure offers the terms: temporariness, invisibility, dependency as modes of operation: things in themselves do not have a place here. The team suggest a humility in the face of support; a reversal of the traditional artist-viewer relation. We might take their support and demand something of it (and in this way it is slightly religious in its bearing!). The political claim is thus one in which the artist defers to the user (there is something of contemporary architectural theory here, of which more later). The political claim is also direct: let us help you make something new occur: we will support you. Our role is not to make the new, it is to support the new being made by you. As such, it follows the line of an itinerant form of philosophical sociology in which the user – the subject who is not yet a citizen or often discounted from citizenship in the public sphere – becomes the super-subject, the loci. This strand of theory can be traced in Michel de Certeau and Jacques Rancière but also back, I think, to Heidegger in a depoliticised way. Nevertheless the claim is clear: let us change this space together using our own means rather than those of the institution.

Secondly, the language utilised to carefully phrase this claim is the language of contemporary philosophy, not the language of contemporary politics: it is language chosen to offer weakness as a guiding energy. Condorelli and Wade take up the claims of Derrida in The Spectres of Marx when he says that deconstruction is always, and always has been Marxian in many respects –has always had a tactically weak form of politicalityy (a claim that fell on many deaf ears but is not so easily dismissible). The idea of generosity – and friendship – is central to this thought. To be a friend, in Derrida’s terms (following Levinas) one must know what it means to depend on a friend. This is, at least metaphorically, the capacity of scaffolding that Wade and Condorelli reference, an proto-architectural supposition. Again, and not without logic in Derrida’s terms, this is incidentally a very redemptive idea. Support Structure issues an invitation. This again relates to generosity, to the opening up of community suggested by Jean Luc Nancy when he talks about ‘being-in-common.’ And then, they propose the concept of means over ends, echoing Giorgio Agamben’s call for an ethics of unrepresentation, if you will, a way in which to produce errantly, to only produce potential.

To cite these connections to contemporary philosophy is not to belittle the project but instead to try to locate the technique at work in Support Structure. It is an honest gambit and I get the impression that the phases have not always worked out – or have worked in ways different from the openness the duo and their collaborators have tried to instantiate. In a way Wade and Condorelli might be seen to be calling contemporary philosophy to account via methodology. Agamben might claim means without end as a site of potentiality, but what does it actually mean to make something that does this – a ‘means’ machine, a support structure, a piece of scaffolding to keep the means up for its fleeting politics?

At the basis of these comments is a set of questions. I have been thinking over the past few weeks about the relation between Celine and Gavin’s support and the support of the state, which is the concept that provides and – yes – props up the de-democratised – or quasi-democratised – concept of the public sphere with which I started. It seems to me that there is a thin line between these two issues of support, for whilst theoretically sustainable as a generous and honest mode, the support of Support Structure inevitable becomes mutated into a set of definate and strategic actions through the very playing out of its functions in public. When, for instance, faced with the prospect of rethinking the ‘multicultural’ in Portsmouth, what state support faces off philosophical support? How might one unpick the multi of the cultural with all its nuances, with all its beaurocratisation of support – beaurocratisation that is that very much shares the life of the art world, at least its publicly funded aspect? Support is double edged: can we place it in the public realm innocently? Well, we can try. It is in a sense a noble and selfless thing to do (redemptive again….).

It is interesting that in the theorisation of their practice Celine Condorelli references Derrida’s book on blindness and visual art, for it would seem that Support Structure is profoundly interested in a certain type of blindness (one tactically imbricated in Derrida’s encounter with paintings in the Louvre in this book): that is a blindness to the production of the visual, the production of visuality. Like a number of contemporary artists – and specifically through an engagement with architecture, there is in the practice of Support Structure a desire to remove visual product from what might otherwise be a social and democratising equation – that is, to remove the obstacle of the final product, to replace it with the verbal processes of constructing, offering and moving.

In such a spatialisation the aspect of faulty, hopeful, absent, attested democracy is physicalised. Being invited in, given support to speak, being given a platform, is articulated here as a rehearsal for another type of equitable democracy, but sits within the selective demos, that is the publicly funded arts space (there are of course also claims for the democratic effect of the art market, the democratic effect of commercial galleries public facades, etc, but these claims, though of course fiscally related, are not of direct issue here).

In a number of phases, Support Structure has used walking to actualise of physicalise the ongoing and processual basis of their work (on Greenham Common, on the campus of Essex University, in particular). I offer a few thoughts on walking that might be used to read the aesthetic and socio-political aims of these works:

Over a number of years I have been gathering information on artworks that are either produced or experienced by walking, sometimes both, and been thinking about how such works are translated, often in a contradictory fashion, into wider paradigms of travel, movement and social access in contemporary culture. Some take place in the countryside, most take place in or on the outskirts of cities. Many of the works are seen principally not as live actions 'in the field' or 'on the street' (to bring in two sites of ethnographic activity that have provided for an amount of contemporary art-theoretical fetishisation), but as documentary evidence, graphically rearranged, modeled and displayed in the gallery or studio. All, intentionally or not, draw in ancient and modern mythologies of walking - from pilgrimages and diasporas to flâneurisms and dérives as part of their effect. And all, it would seem, ask pertinent questions about the relationship we have to everyday movement and the way it occupies social space. All draw attention to the effect of walking – in other words, the effect, physical, psychological and political, of turning an ordinary practice into an ‘art’.

The making of an ordinary task such as walking into an artwork is illustrative of the many contradictions inherent in contemporary discussions on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. On the one hand, artists and theorists enjoy the pedestrian for its mundanity and on the other hand, by turning it into an object of speculation, they affect the profile of walking. This to-ing and fro-ing, an exemplary form of motion, suggests an unhappiness, an inability to settle, and reflects wider political questions concerning the way in which recent and contemporary art attempts to make itself into an activity that hopes to engage its audience at a level of social interaction, a level at which their specialist activity is less recognisable as art.

The promise that walking might be a technique that overcomes the problems of representation that have amassed in art practice and criticism at the end of modernity, in which the politics of identity formation and, especially, location, have filtered away any resplendent space for art - any place where art might simply ‘be’ – is a promise taken seriously by many artists and theorists. Many of the artworks examined such as those actions of Support Structure are made by artists who grapple with the efficacy of public and site-related art and the ethical suppositions that surround these complex and often ambivalent forms. Their works variously suggest that walking, as a mundane form of space-crossing, at least provokes and at most illustrates concerns about siting work in public. Walking-art is an excellent example of the ambiguous basis of many contemporary artworks that are in themselves inspired by recent political and philosophical shifts. It is, in this sense, one marker of an economy of art in which the desire for process-based, participatory, embedded experience has replaced ideals of abstracted contemplation for reasons that might seem ethical but are in actual fact always already aestheticised.

How might we imagine an incomplete walking, rather than a walk that proposes an essential sense of movement, a mode of the ordinary that functions submissively at the threshold of what is sometimes referred to as community art, whatever the artist’s best intentions?

If we accept that walking, when highlighted as a practice worthy of speculation, is often trapped in a romantic ideal of community, land use, participation and equality that fails to register the difficulties and contradictions inherent in any emancipatory gesture, one thing we might do is to turn walking around and make it into a different practice, a practice that exposes a radical ethics of movement, with difficulty and contradiction, alienation and estrangement instead of access, agency and community at its basis. An arts practice that wishes to take seriously the very real issue of its difference from the everyday by demonstrating its instability through movement, must also come to terms with the very fact of demonstration as a (sometimes necessary) failure to ever be able to depict adequately.

The research is about walking but it is part of a more general inquiry into the use and abuse of movement as a trope of artistic and architectural thought. On the one hand, in an important debate about subjectivity and citizenship, fluid movement can be seen to open up individual experience to new and different ways of perceiving and designing the world - offering subjectivities that can shift and sway according to their context. On the other, a more pedestrian understanding of movement can be seen to inhibit the impulse to think in such fluid terms; to accept the criticality of the tentative, the hesitant, the speculative and contingent aspects of pedestrianism, and to see in them forms of protest against the streamlining and dedifferentiating, or smoothing out of cultural production.