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JMM 6, Spring 2008, section 6 — A JMM Essay

Johann Haslauer
Questions Concerning the Nature of Public Space

6.1. Introduction

Picture a bell ringing in a medieval town. A significant sound. Everybody in town hears it and knows what it means. The bells toll to make the hour known, call for service or certain prayers, or warn the populace of approaching danger. They announce events such as the election of a new pope or herald the wedding of a duke. The code is understood by everybody in town. Bells structure communal life in many respects: time, space, inner and outer orientation. They are a medium of order, a medium of perception of communality from within as well as from the outside. It is common knowledge among historians: during the Middle Ages the sound of the bells was taken as a representation of the community.[1]

These sounds which are intended to be heard in public are audible representations of community, structuring common life, helping to synchronize the activities of and to enrich resonance in the individual. We hear the sounds with our ears, perceive them with our body, and – conversely – they induce us to form a We-Subject: we, the people involved in hearing that sound are a common body (Sartre, 1991, p. 720 ff.). Other senses: the sense of sight enables us to perceive visual impulses. Also, the sense of smell can reveal to us in what part of the city or town we find ourselves: here, the blacksmith, there, the butcher, the incense in church. And smell penetrates everything as well as sound does. So we observe that the individual subject is not a closed but an open system (Picht, 1986, p. 426).

Sound can be a representation of the communal being, and – why not employ the organism-metaphor in describing a village or a town? – an expression of its “inside”, of social activities and attitudes in the community. Representation means in a very common sense a realization of something not immediately present in people’s imagination. Before we have a closer look at different representations for a community, let’s briefly investigate some notions:

  • Public means everything, that appears in front of everybody, the common (Arendt, 1960, pp. 49 ff.). In the specific topographical situation of a city public space, streets and squares are physical requirements for matters of transport and exchange, the framework and space for the life process of the city. The public place is the space of urban mixture, the space in which city life essentially happens, which has moved to medial and virtual spheres in modern times, following the transformations of public processes and technological changes. It now has a hybrid existence: public places, networks, imaginations are forming an integrative life within the built structures of the town and are together manifesting the sphere of the city being that is embodied here.
  • Being – and here a philosophical notion comes in – in existentialism is the mode of the individual human being. The question is: may we also use this term for collective beings? German philosopher Martin Heidegger has grounded his idea of “Being” (Dasein) in the term “dwelling” (Heidegger, 1951/1991). The manner in which we live on earth is the dwelling, which means: to center the world in an enclosure, a house, a thing. And Being always does include the others (Heidegger, 1927/1986, pp. 114 f.): so in a community, in a given topological situation dwelling is being organized (or should I better say: organizes itself?) in form of a community, a village setting or – the most efficient form in cultural history – the city.

My hypothesis: Cities are individuals, organisms/systems with outside/inside-appearances, with structures to organize the life process, building up an identity and also – and this is my philosophical speculation – subjectivity, understood as the notion of conscious self-relation.[2] This common Being (gemeinsames Dasein) (Schmid, 2000; Schmid, 2005) finds a plateau of appearance in public spaces – the sharing of being and time and space.

There are two objections: First, we have the change in the manifestations of urban life during the last century. Sociologists note that the traditional city is disappearing and that - with our ability to move around and create our own urban patterns through our way of living - we destroy the traditional urban setting. We live here, work there and buy our supplies at yet another place. No more responsibilities – zapping. This might sound like a contradiction to my hypothesis, but doesn’t it provide evidence for the dynamic of the city and the urban patterns? And yet – the hypothesis is only an aid for helping us to think about things and should encourage us to explore and investigate.

And second: Philosophers don’t agree with the idea of a collective Being. They say (though there are other opinions as well), a collective is only real within the individuals and their attitudes. But what about a choir? It doesn’t work without its participants who bring it into being, so that it can be heard from the audience. Isn’t the sound evidently there? And not only within the member of the choir?

6.2. Representations of the Community

There are, however, other manifestations of communal life as well. Some are in the field of the arts, but we can add on to this list of manifestations: symbols and rites representing manifestations of power, common festivities, the law-court, the recurrent local rites and processions that mark the identity of the common organism. There are even more of them on the spatial level – and some of them with more than their first function, which is to represent something or somebody, the community, the town. Some representations are also elements in the establishment of the infrastructure for the communal body, like these public places. A mutual realization.

6.2.1. Horizon of Power

Leaders can be representatives of their group, as kings or dukes or members of the city board represent the whole population internally as well as externally. Then there are symbols: heraldic signs and heraldic colors on flags or clothing are means of orientation in this complex system. Through the color of my clothing I demonstrate that I am part of this or that common body (as we know this from today’s sports arenas). There are also various examples in the art field to represent the community in public places. Sculptures, such as statues of kings or symbolic animals, are examples of the representation of power.

6.2.2. Spatial Level

The public space between the houses of the individuals not only offers room for representations of the community; it serves as the spatial locality for transport and exchange, substantially important for the process of living in which the communal being and its metabolism are engaged. We have the public square that in our urban pattern was designed to be the social space for essential common purposes such as the market, communal rites and processions.

Another type of common space is given through architecture: the communal buildings that represent the community: the churches, the city hall, guild houses, courtyards. Shouldn’t we also add here the train stations and airports, malls and parks of the 19th and 20th centuries? These also are public spaces and representations of certain structures of community living, providing room for representational content. Contemporary mirrors of the common being?

In more recent times, what we call the “public” has been established through the media of communication. Local newspapers are a means of representation for a community and a medium for continuous reflection upon itself on many levels. They are a tool of communication for producing a public, a tool which once was unfolding through oral communication; later they were published periodically and became indispensable for social and cultural life in our cities (Habermas, 1962). Here again we have two functions: first, representation of social and cultural communication in the community, and second, the newspaper is the actual basis for making this communication happen. Meanwhile, however, local newspapers – as all print media – are declining. Alternatives on the internet? There are major changes going on; it is less than 15 years since the World Wide Web has been at work and it already has changed the world of communication tremendously. Nobody can say what will be the case in another 15 years from now; this of course also depends upon what we want to have happen.

6.2.3. Horizon of Time

Sounds: here we have our bells again, but there are also hymns, local songs, and significant harmonies of fanfares to announce a rite, a common activity etc. Rites and sounds are always time-related (Picht, 1986, pp. 462 ff.) It is significant that measurement of time - when it first appeared in Europe - was indicated by the sound of the bells (Dohrn-van Rossum,1992). Sounds are happening in time – in the case of individual subjective perception as well as for the objective reality of social interaction.

Rites and traditional communal acts of getting together are ways to experience being united and of performing something together (Corpus Christi parades in traditional Roman Catholic towns, various local races and traditional sport-events and parades, some also fairly new such as the Halloween parade in New York City, and there are events such as communal meals held in order to honor someone). These happen in public spaces such as central squares or roads blocked-off for processions. These events are tools for the self-perception of the community.

6.2.4. Horizon of Self-Awareness and Self-Perception

On the border line between representation and mimesis - the making of images in order to copy reality - are vedutas and city plans: since the late Middle Ages city plans and views of towns were made for orientation, and the design of the grid of streets soon achieved the status of a brand, as did the “typical view” of the vedutas, and both were effective for the self-perception of the cities. The first models of towns had a similar effect. Nowadays these items are shown in city museums, themselves prominent media for self-representation of a city and a central goal for tourists and school classes who wish to investigate a city and its self-representation.

6.3. City Investigation through Contemporary Art, or: What Is this City About?

Art is a tool for expressing subjectivity, or as German philosopher Dieter Henrich points out: Only through the arts can the motion of subjectivity be represented (Henrich, 2001).

Is this not the case for collective subjectivity as well? Nowadays we have new instruments for investigating a city by means of the new media of contemporary art with their employment of interactivity – involving also the recipient as part of the artwork – some using huge urban screens and mobile tools, some also making connections with virtual spaces through the Internet. There are art shows that deal with specific cities, showing different aspects of a complex phenomenon, performed by a group of artists with many different media such as installations, video, or public interventions. For example the project of our Neue Galerie Landshut - StadtLAge - in 2004 as a contribution of the gallery to the 800th anniversary of the town of Landshut. There is also Airs de Paris, the 30th anniversary exhibition of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or the Sculpture Project at Münster with its intense reflection of public space. The first Biennial of Athens has just ended, carrying the motto “Destroy Athens”, referring to the myths and compulsions of the past, that often are a hindrance to contemporary development.

But there are still other ways to look at a city, like the situationists’ attitude to the exploration of urban reality. The Situationist International is a psycho-geographic movement from the 50’s in Paris, promoting the idea of an anti-art, that the arts of the future will be changes of situations, subversive, radical. This movement has been experiencing a revival in America for some years. New York-based Glowlab Collective's fourth annual “Conflux Festival” offered four days of psycho-geographic celebration at Brooklyn, N.Y. this September. The participants explored contemporary urban life through exhibits, screenings, performances, talks, workshops, and happenings (http://confluxfestival.org/conflux2007/). Crazy weirdos? Elements of the situationists’ techniques are already having an impact in urban planning. Terms like “sensual patterns” and “psycho-mapping” are now in use among urbanists.

And there are specific aspects of reality highlighted in various works through exhibitions that concentrate on a single topic, city-related projects confined to a certain approach such as the electronic art festival ISEA 2006 at San José, Ca. – the biennial event of the International Confederation of the Electronic Arts. More than a hundred participants were dealing with the theme “interactive city” using digital tools.[3] There is also the topic “common subjectivity” as in Jill Mercedes’ “Endless Lust” at the Biennale in Venice this year in the Luxemburg pavilion, where Jill set up an installation with details and pieces from 50’s movies set in exotic milieus in order to put visitors in a certain common mood. It worked! Or Susan Norrie’s installation HAVOC in the Australian Pavilion in Venice, showing videos of a catastrophic flood of mud that hit the Indonesian city of Porong on the Isle of Java. One could experience how groups of people coped with the catastrophe on different levels and different ways – some even with their music. A fine example is also Jan Hatt-Olsen’s work “The City as a Collection of Poetry” (http://www.lyrik-installation.dk/Vaerloese/j-cv.htm) – a very subtle intervention in public space in order to touch people’s mood and awareness. Transparency visualized.

Finally, there are vivid city-interventions like Angela Dorrer’s “Pilgrimages” performed five times between 2004 and 2007 at Munich, Edmonton, Calgary, Vienna and Copenhagen (http://urbanpilgrims.org/) with the central idea of a bodily exploration of a city as a participant in a group of peers and pilgrims, searching for the transcendence of a city, of that embodied Being, so unique at this special place. A new form in contemporary art, an open process for genuinely investigating a city.

6.4. Resume: Transcendence and Transformation

Art is a tool in many respects and philosophers have a high opinion regarding tools when they are employed for communication and understanding, to establish world-relations, explore reality and the potentials of subjectivity – all together the reflexivity of reality as a movement of life which is concerned with itself. But is my notion of the city a representation of something that doesn’t exist anymore? Or not yet? Both desirable and utopian? And what about the transcendence inherent in things - the thought that evolution is not centered around man, nor around the city, nor around planet Earth either?

Back to the bell in our town: the subject (here I’m talking about the embodied individual person) is not a closed, but an open system, perceiving the sound – as well as all of us other subjects do. Together, we are a body of resonance, the inside of the common body consisting of individual bodies that hear and feel this common bodily performance. And as sound permeates the inside-outside barriers, we are also open for a common subjectivity. Public spaces are suitable places for exploring these notions.





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JMM: The Journal of Music and Meaning

ISSN: 1603-7170
© JMM and the contributing authors