Monthly Archives: December 2018

Curating the Oslo Architecture Triennale

For our final Landscape Surgery session of this term we welcomed Cecilie Sachs Olsen, a British Academy post-doctoral research fellow at Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities, alongside Matthew Dalziel, an associate of the transdisciplinary architecture and engineering practice Interrobang, as two of the four-person curatorial team for next year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale.

Taking place from 26th September to 24th November 2019, this event is the Nordic region’s biggest festival of architecture, and an internationally-important arena for discussion around the challenges of architecture and urban space. Cecilie and Matthew’s joint presentation focused on the process of curating the Triennale around their chosen theme of ‘degrowth’, the role that art and performance will play within their practice, and the challenges they’ve encountered since starting work on the Triennale programme.

 

Degrowth and architecture

Matthew, speaking as a practising architect himself, began the presentation by outlining how individual architects often have very little agency in the construction industry to which they contribute. Despite typically being motivated by social, cultural and artistic values, 60% of architects at any given time are working on private housing, with much of it marketed towards the wealthiest 1% of the population.

However, cultural events such as the Triennale are one outlet that architects have for more critical interventions, giving these individuals opportunities to experiment with ideas outside of a ‘project’ ecosystem, and into an arena that could potentially inspire a global conversation.

The curatorial team chose their conversation for the Oslo Architecture Triennale to be about ‘degrowth’.

Degrowth has been understood to stand for “a downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions and equity on the planet. It calls for a future where societies live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions” (Research & Degrowth, 2018). Central to this definition is the reasoning that the drive for continued economic growth in our societies is unsustainable for a world that supports life.

Many will recall that this argument has been made for decades by organisations such as The Club of Rome, whose famous report The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) is widely recognised as one of the first significant studies that illuminated how the unprecedented economic growth occurring throughout the 20th century was causing, and would continue to cause, widespread ecological destruction.

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Cecilie illustrating the arguments in The Limits to Growth with a cartoon showing a hamster gradually consuming the earth, based on the idea that a hamster doubles in size every day until it reaches puberty (author’s own)

Nonetheless, according to the presenters, reports such as The Limits to Growth failed to capture the impetus of the public and policymakers due to the tone of doomsaying that accompanied the stark environmental impacts indicated by their studies. Indeed, a continual problem confronting the degrowth movement has been the negative connotations associated with the notion of reducing economic growth, as it might seem to imply a logic of austerity.

In order to avoid this risk of scaremongering by simply offloading information to the public, the curatorial team instead wanted to use the theme of degrowth to change how people think about urban environments in a way that is relevant to their lives. And in particular, to challenge the assumption that the function of the spaces we use in everyday life is already predetermined, which is one reason why people can feel alienated from the spaces they inhabit.

According to Cecilie, this is why art and performance are so important, as they have the ability to free people from their everyday roles in society and experiment with other ways of being in the world. In theatre, for example, if a person acting as a queen sits on a normal chair, the chair becomes a throne. The pre-given conception of an object can be transformed simply by putting it in a context where re-imagination is welcomed, and the enchantment accompanying such experiences can help us to rethink the agency we have within our own surroundings.

 

Curating transformational spaces

This is exactly what the curatorial team is aiming to achieve in their programme for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, for which they will be creating three ‘transformations’ in three different sites in Oslo to turn them into spaces of sharing, play and connecting.

The first location is Oslo’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. An institution whose buildings are made to house conventional exhibitions of art, crafts and design work, the space the team were given for the Triennale was a typically bland, concrete room.

The challenge facing the curators was to convert it into a catalytic space, and the idea they came up with was to create a library within it. Cecilie reflected that not only are libraries environments of sharing and making, but the most celebrated libraries also often have a uniquely awe-inspiring atmosphere to them. How could they construct such an effect in what was a small, rather uninspiring room?

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Trinity College Library, Dublin (Skitterphoto, public domain)

In their design of the ‘library’, they were particularly inspired by Olafur Eliasson, whose work has used light, mirrors and liquids to evoke seemingly limitless spaces within physically restricted sites. At present, the curatorial team are planning to craft four mirrored rooms separated by walls of varied thicknesses, with participants moving between them to gradually transition into the imagined space of the library from the ‘real’ space of the museum building. Immersion is central to the curators’ vision of the library experience, and they are keen to employ techniques used by interactive theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, which give participants the opportunity to explore and engage with fictional environments in meaningful and believable ways, guided solely by their own interests and inclinations.

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Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (Tate Photography, source: https://olafureliasson.net/archive/exhibition/EXH101069/the-weather-project)

This journey into the imaginary will begin from the moment visitors reach the building, where they will be given library cards to enter the space rather than museum tickets. Upon leaving the ‘library’ and re-entering Oslo city centre, participants will then be invited to extend the experience by taking part in an immersive audiowalk that zURBS, the ‘social-artistic urban laboratory’ that Cecilie co-founded in 2011, will be running.

The second transformation will take place in the urban public space of Oslo through the creation of a ‘playground’. Here, the curators will be drawing on the capacity of play to de-emphasize the urban environment’s economic value and functions and instead render them as arenas for “pleasure, surprise and critical possibility” (Dickens, 2008: 20).

Previously, play has been considered an activity that takes place in alternate realities separate from our everyday lives (sports pitches, games tables, virtual realities, etc.) where different rules apply, in what Huizinga (1955 [1950]) calls the ‘magic circle’ of play. By using public playful art to expand the magic circle spatially (beyond designated environments), temporally (beyond specific time limits) and socially (beyond designated players) (Montola, 2005), the stages of everyday life can be re-enchanted as realms of the possible (Klausen, 2014).

Through play centred around the concept of degrowth, the curatorial team wants participants to imagine opportunities for an improved way of living, rather than a reduction in individual agency that might be inferred from the term. Central to this viewpoint is the idea that non-essential activity should be understood as an enjoyable state of being, rather than something defined through the lens of economic growth as ‘unproductive’. Games don’t necessarily lead to the most efficient ways of completing a task – golf is a rather complicated way of putting a ball in a hole, for example – but negotiating the affordances games present to players in creative and skilful ways can ultimately lead to enrichment that wouldn’t occur otherwise.

The final transformation will take place in DogA, the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture, which will become the site of a makeshift theatre.

Here, the curators are enlisting the skills of METIS, a Cambridge-based performing arts organisation, and more specifically their interactive piece We Know Not What We May Be. Originally performed at the Barbican in September, this participatory performance asks the audience to imagine a more sustainable future, featuring talks from experts about what the future could be, and giving the audience the option to decide which one they want. These participants can then see their decisions become a reality, as the actors perform scenarios based on what has been chosen, followed by further discussion about these possibilities amongst the actors and audience.

One of the difficulties faced by the team when arranging this performance is the institutional context in which it will be set. DogA is funded by the municipal government’s budget for the economy, creating tensions between the theme of ‘degrowth’ and the continued demand for growth in Oslo’s economy today. In order to reconcile this apparent contradiction, the curators have emphasised that the performance will be focused on facilitating discussion between a wide range of people – including elites – rather than silencing points of view to further a particular political agenda.

Alongside the three transformations, as highlighted previously, Cecilie’s artist collective zURBS will be using audiowalks as a way to engage citizens and planners to think about alternative futures. These will be framed in an imaginative way. For example, in one walk participants will imagine they are researchers from the future, and will choose individually between different options of what Oslo might look like in the decades to come. Collectively, participants will then traverse the present-day environment and attempt to identify how these brave new worlds began, without knowing what futures the other walkers chose to seek.

Cecilie explained that the idea behind the audiowalks was to de-centre accepted understandings of how the city operates. By encouraging citizens to identify the transformative potential of the present city, such ‘defaults’ don’t have to exist. As soon as we’re afforded the agency to redefine what a space is for, the alternative futures we dream in our heads could become possible.

 

Challenges

Nonetheless, in talking about the challenges the team have faced so far throughout the curatorial process, Cecilie and Matthew accepted that there are often limits to what people are able to imagine as they think about better ways of inhabiting urban space. If the street is seen inherently as an instrument of consumption, this epistemology will mean that even seemingly beneficial changes, such as pedestrianisation, will be become tools to reproduce the dominant paradigm of consumption through processes such as gentrification.

Language is another force that imposes epistemological limitations on how the curatorial theme can be explored. Most problematically for the curators, the term ‘degrowth’ doesn’t even exist in Norwegian, meaning that they have had to think about alternative prefixes to use other than ‘de-’, while attempting to remain faithful to the understanding of degrowth that is implied when used in English. Yet even without language barriers, reaction to degrowth as a concept has frequently been ambivalent, as was highlighted in the discussion after Cecilie and Matthew’s presentation when its usefulness for societies in the Global South was questioned.

The last challenge the curators discussed was one that many academics will be familiar with: the need to be rigorous in their engagement with the material they are discussing, while also making their work accessible enough for members of the public to engage with it. This necessity was brought sharply into focus when the curators of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale were criticised for making works that ‘normal people’ couldn’t understand.

In contrast, the curatorial team’s efforts to avoid a similar fate are reflected in the participatory qualities of the installations, performances and other artworks they are curating, which give ‘normal people’ the greatest power to define and interpret what is meaningful within the installations and experiences on offer.

 

We’d like to offer enormous thanks to Cecilie and Matthew for taking time out of their busy schedules to talk to us about their work, and we wish them every success over the coming months as they prepare for the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which starts on 26th September 2019.

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Matthew Dalziel and Cecilie Sachs Olsen (author’s own)

 

Bibliography

Dickens, L. (2008) “‘Finders keepers’: performing the street, the gallery and the spaces in-between” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4: 1-30.

Huizinga, J. (1955 [1950]) Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press

Klausen, M. (2014) “Re-enchanting the city: Hybrid space, affect and playful performance in geocaching, a location-based mobile game” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 1(2): 193-213.

Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., Behrens III, W.W. (1972) The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books.

Montola, M. (2005) “Exploring the Edge of the Magic Circle: Defining Pervasive Games” Proceeedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference, Copenhagen, Denmark [online] Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=AB62B5B3CD2B349DE8846879B58B4AC8?doi=10.1.1.125.8421&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Research and Degrowth (2018) “Definition” Research and Degrowth [online] Available at: https://degrowth.org/definition-2/

 

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Megan Harvey and Alice Reynolds

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Safe Space

For our fourth Landscape Surgery of the autumn term, we were kindly joined by members of our affiliated research group, Geopolitics, Development, Security and Justice (GDSJ), to deliberate the notion of ‘safe space’. The surgery was chaired by Professor Katherine Brickell (Royal Holloway), and was divided into two presentations given by Dr Janet Bowstead (Postdoctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway) and Riina Lundman (Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Turku, Finland) respectively, before concluding with an open panel discussion that sought to think more broadly about the geographical importance of ‘safe space’ in today’s social and political climate.

From the outset, the task of defining ‘safe space’ presented itself as a challenging undertaking, perhaps a consequence of the expression’s resurgence within the public domain of late that has prompted rather unapologetic and heated debates “over what ‘safe spaces’ mean and if they should be encouraged and protected” (Djohari et al., 2018, p351). As noted within the latter group discussion, it seems as though the term has become obscured to negatively describe ‘sanitised’ spaces of ‘free expression’, often being paired with other culturally loaded neologisms such as ‘snowflake generation’ and ‘political correctness’ to incite adverse confrontations of speech (Djohari et al., 2018). Whilst these particular mobilisations of the term cannot be ignored, Katherine noted that ‘safe space’ in its most rudimentary form, describes:

“A place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” – (Oxford dictionary)

Indeed, when probed further this particular explanation raises important questions surrounding the theorisation of the material, physical, emotional and imagined capacity of ‘safe spaces’. However, it is starkly apparent that the concept is inherently contested, diverse and subjective, meaning that no solitary definition is ever quite appropriate, and its geographical relevance is substantially entwined within ever expansive political and social webs of understanding.

Safespace

A pink inverted triangle encased within a green circle used to symbolise alliance with LGBTQ+ rights. This is just one example of a safe space symbol. Source: http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safe_space

To highlight the individuality of our own perceptions of ‘safe space’, the session’s convenor, Katherine Brickell, encouraged the group to mental map our own spaces of safety through the medium of language and illustration. As a critical methodology, mental mapping has been utilised by feminist geographers to allow participants to reflexively consider their own “geographical imaginations and complex identity negotiations” in relation to social locations (Jung, 2012, p985).  In this sense, mental maps are not solely reflections of an individual’s cognitive identity, but are a multi-layered artefact rife with emotion, impression and knowledge.

Among the group, the home and the bedroom featured heavily as perceived sites of safety. Whilst this is unsurprising given the popular tropes of peace and security that resonate in imaginations of the domestic, it is evident that for many the home is deeply unsafe, with 1.9 million adults in the England and Wales experiencing abuse within the home in 2017 alone (ONS, 2017). For others, ‘safe space’ was recognised to be unbound by specific locations, but as visceral encounters between friends, family, animals and nature. Similarly, for some, safe space is temporally attached to particular hours of the day, fleeting feelings of comfort found in the early morning or the last few moments before nightfall.

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A mental map of my own safe spaces. Source: Authors own, 2018. 

Our first speaker, Dr Janet Bowstead, is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow within the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway. Janet conducts interdisciplinary research that cuts across geography, sociology and social policy to examine strategies of safety for women who have suffered from domestic violence. In her presentation, entitled: “Safe Spaces of Refuge, Shelter and Contact”, sought to consider service responses to women and girls at risk of abuse in both the global North and South by examining a forthcoming selection of articles in the journal of Gender, Place and Culture.

Janet begun by suggesting that safe spaces of shelter have the potential to offer freedom to victims of violence when (1) explicit boundary work is done to carve out safe spaces in hostile environments, (2) the practices for ensuring safety are central in allowing women to evoke relational place-making performances, and (3) the shelter becomes a temporary contact zone of refuge, safety and autonomy.

Thinking specifically about research conducted by the ASPIRE Project (Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience) that examined community-led responses to violence against immigrant and refugee women in Australia, Janet noted that minority groups of women face unique barriers when attempting to access domestic violence services (Murray et al., forthcoming). For instance, many women travelled long distances or entirely relocated to gain access to help, yet once they had moved were judged or shamed by other members of their community for leaving violent relationships. Moreover, language barriers between shelters and vulnerable women ultimately impacted their overarching perceptions of safety, as services could not regularly provide appropriate interpreters with correct ethical training, resulting in women feeling fearful that confidentiality breaches could leave them at risk.

Similarly, research conducted in shelter homes in Eastern India by Mima Guha (forthcoming) found that shelters can prevent emotional healing from abuse by enforcing punitive measures, leaving women feeling isolated and punished for their experience as victims. As Janet further highlighted, some protection schemes in East Indian shelters showed evidence of mistreatment by the state and families to punish ‘sexually deviant’ young women for eloping with partners without familial consent. In these cases, women’s subversive sexual behaviour became reframed as ‘victimhood’, resulting in alleged ‘safe spaces’ becoming a site in which to control and manage female agency under the guise of state protection and rehabilitation.

It is clear that “women need to be safe from abuse before they can be safe to achieve wider control, autonomy and freedom” (Lewis et al, 2015 n.p.). As such, it is necessary for shelters and refuges to offer support throughout the emotional stages of recovery and empowerment following abuse. For Janet, this is carried out through the nature of the safety, and by the nature of the space. For instance, shelters with communal facilities produce a very different rehabilitation programme than those with self-contained flats. Likewise, shelters that implement collaborative participatory creative outputs ‘can enable processes of self-help and collective support to counteract the isolation of abuse and to help prepare women for their lives after the refuge’ (Bowstead for RGS-IBG, 2017). However, this is not to suggest that the onus for rehabilitation is solely the role of shelters and the individuals themselves. Instead, it is critical that discussions on ‘safe space’ continue to be opened up and dissected to generate a new narrative for a human rights approach that allows women to feel truly, and unequivocally, safe and free within society.

Indeed, as Janet’s presentation summarised, safe spaces across the global North and South are not static or singular in their ability to afford safety and freedom for women. However, “temporary spaces of shelter, refuge and contact can be powerful places of protection and recovery” (Bowstead, 2018 in presentation) that can transform lives, inspire collective support and encourage wider societal change in attitudes towards women who have experienced violence.

Our second speaker, Dr Riina Lundman, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Turku, Finland, with interests in urban studies, public space and creative geographies. Riina’s presentation continued the session theme and discussed the idea of ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly.

Paraphrasing Furedi (2002: n.p.), Riina suggested that “safety has become one of Western society’s fundamental values”, as organisations, institutions and social groups strive to offer diverse spaces of inclusivity, to which everyone feels welcome. However, for Riina, ‘safe space’ is intrinsically paradoxical by nature. If one space is safe, does that mean all others are unsafe? And if that is the case, is it possible to generate a new ‘safe(r) space’ attitude that reduces the disparity?

In response, Riina argues that a ‘safe(r) space’ narrative could be pivotal in bridging this gap, particularly in Finland where social and political knowledges on ‘safe space’ are yet to build substantial prominence within legal research. As such, Riina is currently in the process of investigating Finnish laws and policies to examine what safe(r) spaces could mean for elderly people, and moreover, the kinds of solutions that could be implemented to allow a more sustainable practice for creating and managing elderly spatial safety.

Following Koskela’s (2009) dimensions of safety and security, Riina illustrated that in order for senior care homes to become safe(r) safes, they should cohere to the following aspects: (1) be well calculated and measured, (2) designed to be experienced and to feel personal, (3), respect cultural differences and structural duties of care, (4) have strong social elements to reduce isolation, (5) be imaginative and creative, and finally, (6) have these ideals manifested in physical and material elements, rather than allowing the notion of safety to exist solely on a theoretical basis.

However, as one would expect, the generational group of the elderly is incredibly diverse, from differences in social, cultural and political values, to what is needed and required from a medical standpoint to ensure that a space is entirely safe. With this in mind, Riina is sympathetic that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ formula to generating ‘safe(r) spaces’ for the elderly, but rather that there is a wealth of work to be done in social and legal policy to enable the best care to be given.

For Riina, much of this can be done by confronting the negative stigmas of ageism and ableism that frequently infiltrate discussions on senior safety. By looking at specific case examples of senior co-housing communities that offer more relaxed approaches to elderly care, for instance the Loppukiri in Helsinki that provides private housing clustered around communal spaces, Riina is hopeful that spatio-legal approaches to safe(r) spaces will begin to adopt a far more open and accepting attitude towards elderly care.

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Katherine, Janet and Riina for their fantastic Landscape Surgery session, and for their continued work in sustaining what can be extremely difficult conversations regarding safe space.

 

Bibliography

Bowstead, J. (2017) AC2017 – Geographies of Safe Space (1): Spaces of embodiment, identity and education. [online] Conference.rgs.org. Available at: http://conference.rgs.org/AC2017/315.

Djohari, N., Pyndiah, G. and Arnone, A. (2018) Rethinking ‘safe spaces’ in children’s geographies. Children’s Geographies, 16(4), pp.351-355.

Furedi, F. (2002) Epidemic of Fear | Frank Furedi. [online] Frankfuredi.com. Available at: http://www.frankfuredi.com/article/epidemic_of_fear.

Guha, M (2018) ‘Safe spaces’ and ‘bad’ girls: Child-marriage victims experiences from a shelter home in Eastern India. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)

Jung, H. (2012) Let Their Voices Be Seen: Exploring Mental Mapping as a Feminist Visual Methodology for the Study of Migrant Women. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3), pp.985-1002.

Koskela, H. (2009) The Spiral of Fear: Politics of Fear, Security Business, and the Struggle over Urban Space. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.

Lewis, R., Sharp, E., Remnant, J. and Redpath, R. (2015) ‘Safe Spaces’: Experiences of Feminist Women-Only Space. Sociological Research Online, 20(4), pp.1-14.

Murray, L., Warr, D., Chen, J., Block, K., Murdolo, A., Quiazon, R., Davis, E., Vaughan, C. (2018) Between ‘here’ and ‘there’: family violence against immigrant and refugee women in urban and rural Southern Australia. Gender, Place and Culture (forthcoming)

Ons.gov.uk. (2017) Domestic abuse in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017.

Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Alice Reynolds and Jack Lowe.

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