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Politics of Things

A new book published by nai010 focuses how art and design can be better understood within a democratic framework.  Also, how it can be more effective.  A lot of the ideas raised focus on objects, or the politics of things, but Mariska van den Berg examines how the relation between citizens and the government can be reinterpreted.

By Gabrielle Kennedy /asdf 24-01-2013

"The Politics of Things: What Art & Design Do In Democracy" is an academic romp through the role of art and design in democracy.  It is full of some fascinating essays that explore what a piece of public design does from various perspectives.  The contributors do away with the usual autonomous/applied divide to offer insights into ways of better understanding function.

Included in the volume are essays on teapots “and other loaded household objects” that attempt to connect the politics of technology, issues and things.  The examples used work to prove how disparate issues, content and players are connected in complex ways.  The writer Noortje Marres makes objects (not just people) the main game players in politics.

But it was Mariska van den Berg’s “The City As Platform” essay that resonated most with me.

A lot is written about urban public space and how designers are coming up with increasingly interesting social solutions, which are very hipply being termed “interventions”.  Despite the cool factor, too many of these designs tend to entirely disregard the very real social problems that many of the neighbourhoods face.

It’s a real intellectual dilemma that design in the main tends to steer clear of criticizing the neo-liberal political policies that lie at the heart of the most abandoned neighbourhoods – neighbourhoods that can too often be termed social failures.  

Social, health and housing problems lead to crime, which is only exacerbated by high unemployment, and racial tensions.

It’s the social designers who properly engage with this issue, rather than merely looking at a “difficult” space, that can have a real impact on society.  In her essay, Van den Berg focuses on how public spaces can connect people and governments.

She uses three interesting examples and in each proves that by involving residents in very real - not just token -  ways, huge improvements in morale, civic responsibility and a feeling of connectedness can be achieved.

Apolonija Sustersic lived in Bochum in Germany for three years.  She was asked within the framework of an urban renewal programme to make a proposal for an art project on one of the large squares in Hustadt, built in the late 1960s.

Van den Berg writes that despite being called utopia at various moments in its past, the neighbourhood was characterized by problems ascribed to a multicultural population, high unemployment and vacancy.

Sustersic’s project quickly grew into a form of local self-organization involving residents, activists and social welfare organizations.  She wanted to avoid the usual administration path that entails dealing with bureaucracy and boards and instead properly involve the local residents.  In workshops, locals were invited to think about the squares history, current situation and  future.

It quickly became clear that what the people most wanted was vitality so Sustersic used the old pagoda to create a meeting spot for informal gatherings and performances - an open platform with a flexible usage.

The problem was that the councilors entrusted with the decision-making powers did not approve of the way the decisions were made for the square, and delayed approving plans for the new pavilion Sustersic filed.  The locals continued using it, however.

“This non-institutional and informal approach reached many groups of residents,” Van den Berg writes, “and creates a delicate social fabric within which [the residents] are beginning to feel at home.”

When the eventual top-down decision came through, the government said there was no money to realize Sustersic’s vision.  So she and the residents raised the funds for the construction of the pavilion themselves and eventually received permission from the government agency to proceed.

Projects like this and others like the Freehouse in Rotterdam are all about searching for creative ways to democratize local decision making.  They work to make people feel relevant and included, and active participation, "The Politics of Things" argues, can help solve social problems.

Open 24: The Politics of Things is published by nai010 in collaboration with SKOR.

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