I am struck by the wonderful connectivity between Prof. Holston’s incisive and provocative paper and the Exhibition we have on display around the corner. More precisely, perhaps, what we have here in the Bush Room is a view from the periphery of the Exhibition. The Exhibition focuses on the outward public manifestation of political protest, strategically deployed in the centers of cities, while the talk argues forcefully that we cannot understand... view all
Professor and Head,
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Remarks at Compton Gallery Opening in Response to the
Ross Silberberg Memorial Lecture by James Holston
Why view social movements in a spatial or design context? How can an understanding of space as both a material and social construct generate new insights into the meaning, nature, and impacts of social protest? What new questions will emerge about the meaning and relevance of physical spaces once we see and hear the divergent choreographies of social protest -- whether in terms of voice, boundaries, or appropriation – that have inhabited those spatial terrains? This aurally and... view all
Professor and Head, International Development Group
Department of Urban Studies and Planning
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Preface, exhibit booklet.
Out of the images, videos, and recorded sounds from rallies, marches, and protests that made up a fascinating exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in February and March, "Urban Design and Civil Protest," one keeps coming back into my head. It was one of the more mundane photographs from the show - a could-have-been-anywhere shot of a sea of backs in a public square. But one person has turned to look at the camera... view all
Associate Professor of Architecture and History
University of Massachusetts in Amherst
Places, Forum of Design for the Public Realm
Boston Parks commissioner Antonia Pollak suggested last week that large grass-trampling gatherings should no longer be allowed on Boston Common, but should instead be held on the concreteclad City Hall Plaza. This came during a public hearing March 19, the first for the newly instated Special Committee on Boston Common, composed of City Councilors Mike Ross, Bill Linehan and Sal LaMattina. The committee also discussed other issues like reducing property crimes... view all
The Northeastern News
The Students’ Newspaper of Northeastern University
A new exhibit at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains the fine art of protest. Here & Now's Ken Shulman toured the show and filed this report. Listen
Boston's NPR news station
Why view social movements in a spatial or design context? How can an understanding of space as both a material and social construct generate new insights into the meaning, nature, and impacts of social protest? What new questions will emerge about the meaning and relevance of physical spaces once we see and hear the divergent choreographies of social protest -- whether in terms of voice, boundaries, or appropriation – that have inhabited those spatial terrains? This aurally and visually experimental exhibit by Tali Hatuka begins to answer these questions by presenting a range of materials from sound and video installations to architectural models and photographs that together show how and why social protest is more than political opposition or an expression of citizen grievance. Social protests are physical and political performances that unfold in and on certain “stages,” whose very essence will build on the ways that territorial locations have been designed or can be appropriated, represented, or re-arranged to embody power and its discontents, and whose long-term impact can change the meanings of place and space.
With its central focus on social protest, this exhibit raises questions of citizenship, political participation, collective identity, and state power. Yet its visual and acoustic displays also generate curiosity about the individuals involved, about the phenomenology of their actions, and about their motivations as participants. In the study of social movements, scholars have been divided over which of these vantage points lends most insight into the character, form, and meaning of social protest. There are those whose starting points are political structures and processes, and those who see social movements as a form of collective citizen response to “opportunities” for action that present themselves differentially over time and space. An open plaza could be one such “opportunity.” Scholars taking this perspective, among whom the sociologist Charles Tilly towers as a leading intellectual, focus their attention on changed conditions that make protest more likely, such as a responsive political party coming to power or a government weakened by crisis, as well as on the social or political resources that can further motivate citizens to join together in collective protest. In this view of social movements, changes in the state and formal structures of power matter greatly, as do the resources available to citizens to promote their cause and to encourage others to join them.
But there is another school of thought associated with the eminent European sociologist Alain Touraine that looks more closely at the motivations and conditions of individual protesters, at the cultural and identity politics that unite them with other like-minded folks, and at the subjective frames of social action that promote citizen solidarity and generate mobilization as a response to deep personal dissatisfaction with social exclusion, injustice, and other forms of political or cultural disenfranchisement. In the real world of protest, both perspectives shed considerable light on collective action. But when posed singularly, each offers only a partial view of the multiple forces and conditions that generate citizen mobilization. Sometimes the proclivity to see social movements as either the rational response to changed political opportunities and resources, or as an essentialist expression of citizens’ feelings or cultural identities, will stand in the way of a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the ways that social protests actually unfold in time and place. One only need look more carefully at specific locations, and avoid the grand theories that sociologists are wont to manufacture, in order to see how and why it is possible for citizens to respond to genuine identity concerns while also tapping into political institutions, structures, and “opportunities” for action that emanate from powers beyond their grasp.
If we recognize that both citizen attitudes and larger political structures of power are key ingredients in the social construction of protest, the task becomes to find a methodological approach that brings both citizen and the state into the theoretical equation. In my own work I have found that social movements and other forms of citizen protest are often a response to a sense of real and perceived distance from the state, particularly if distance from the state is defined in cultural, geographic, social class, and institutional terms. To understand these dynamics, I have argued that we must understand “the power of distance”1 and how it can engender social protest or collective action. This approach, which moves beyond more conventional theories of social movements by building its claim around a more nuanced appreciation of spatiality, builds on the premise that “location directly influences the formation, objectives, and strategies of citizens as individuals and collectively in social movements”.2 Space, or the setting in which people live and act, establishes parameters on action even as it interacts with social forces, structures, and conditions to construct that action. And precisely because some citizens or groups of citizens are more distanced from the state than others, “it is the extent of citizens’ distance from the state that explains their likelihood of joining social movements, the strategies they are likely to pursue, the meaning they attribute to movements’ activism, and even the identities enshrined in these collective actions”.3
However, it is also true that social protest is about engagement, not just distance. In this sense, social protest should be understood -- in phenomenological terms at least -- as the act of seeking to bridge the distance between citizens and the state, with protest serving simultaneously as a form of opposition and engagement. The concept of a bridge, defined by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary as a structure that spans or provides passage over a chasm, also has a second meaning, as “a connecting, transitional, or intermediate route or phase between two adjacent elements, activities, conditions, or the like.” Both of these definitions rely on concepts and ideas drawn from the design world and the study of space, even as they lend insight into life in the social world where connections and bridges within and between different actors are in fact the basis for mobilization and successful social change.
If engagement and distance are what social protest is all about, then this exhibit takes up the definitional challenge and takes it one step further by introducing new methodologies and techniques for unpacking the engagement-distance nexus through the study of specific physical locations. At its core, “Urban Design and Political Protest” is a celebration of disciplinary boundary-crossing that makes recognizable the epistemological value of seeing social protest as something produced by citizens in their everyday actions, who are opposing yet also engaging the state, but doing so in a delimited space. By integrating design studies and visual arts into the social and political sciences, the exhibit’s aim is to make evident the phenomenological underpinnings of protest as both a social and spatial construct, and to give the viewer a sense of the interactive social and physical context in which most social protests unfold. By building the core of the exhibition around a closer examination of the design and collective action dynamics that give rise to voice, as well as how they interface with the “acoustic politics of space” to define boundaries and inspire appropriation, we see how the physical form of protest spaces can either enable or constrain the nature and impact of civil disobedience, as well as the actions of the state. We see how protest locations can be differentially understood both from within (e.g. by its users) and without (e.g. by the state). Such physical and social patterns, which define many of the social protests presented here, remind us that even when citizens and the state have different agendas, their combined impact in and on space is highly legible to themselves and others. This is why the study of space is so important, both for advancing our knowledge of social protests, and for understanding who we are and the ways we are socially and politically engaging, or not, with others.
Boston Parks commissioner Antonia Pollak suggested last week that large grass-trampling gatherings should no longer be allowed on Boston Common, but should instead be held on the concrete-clad City Hall Plaza.
This came during a public hearing March 19, the first for the newly instated Special Committee on Boston Common, composed of City Councilors Mike Ross, Bill Linehan and Sal LaMattina.
The committee also discussed other issues like reducing property crimes and increasing drug arrests. Councilor Ross suggested commercial revenue could increase for abutting business with a lift on an alcohol prohibition placed on the area.
The proposed regulation of use of the Common, however, was a prominent issue discussed in local media, where city park officials and the Special Committee on Boston Common were urged to preserve the Common as a venue for freedom of expression and protest, for which it has been historically used.
Martin Luther King Jr. made a famous speech on the Common in 1965 after he led 22,000 people to the green in a rally starting in Roxbury. In the '60s, the Vietnam War drew tens of thousands out to demonstrate. Last year, the public grounds were host to scores of Darfur activists and antiwar protesters.
But Parks Department officials were quick to clarify claims that civil liberties would be stifled.
"This has nothing to do with free speech or antiwar protesters," Pollak said in an e-mail to The News. "In fact, there is an area specifically zoned for that purpose below the State House that requires no permit. That is also the most popular location for these groups due to its proximity to the State House. In fact, there were two rallies there this week, one both pro and con regarding casinos."
Unless the organizers of one of these events want to bring heavy staging and machinery onto the Common they will not be affected, she said.
At the meeting, the committee heard testimony from residents of the area who mentioned "concert-like" events such as Hempfest, the gay pride celebration and Shakespeare on the Common that brought in noise, litter and destroyed theOne man, who has lived on the corner of Beacon Hill and Charles Street for 20 years and is a member of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, urged the group to adopt legislation that transforms the Common into "park space rather than use space or event space."
"Historically the use of that park - the Common - there's been a tradition that it should be used for larger types of events," said James, whose last name was inaudible in the video of the hearing. "And as far as I can tell that's always been a sort of vague, mutual agreement. The issue from the perspective of those who live in the neighborhood is that large events tend to damage the Common. There have been trash issues, destruction of real estate issues and noise issues."
He concluded that it would be in the Special Committee's best interest to pressure groups to seek permits before uniting en masse.
A representative from Councilor Ross's office also offered assuaging about the proposed restrictions.
"The issue on this is certainly not a free speech issue," said Reuben Kantor, a Ross spokesperson. "We just want to make sure when big tents and large vehicles come onto the Common that there is a process for that. We want to take steps to limit [damage] with licenses and permits. We don't want events coming in and destroying thousands of feet of grassland."
Still, some local activists said compromising any rights to assemble could create problems.
"I believe that, basically, permits should be given unfettered," said Nate Goldshlag, coordinator for a local chapter of Veterans for Peace. "The Boston Common has a long history of welcoming protest and being a place where citizens' democracy is in full-view."
If the city were to stop a group on a stipulation it would be an outrage, Goldshlag said.
"Grass can be replanted and tended, our democracy is fragile and in many ways nonexistent already," he said. "Taking the Common away from protesters would just be another nail in the coffin."
For one Northeastern activist, the new proposed regulation of Boston Common use does not pose a problem.
"I could never support a move that impedes on our ability to use a venue like the Common as a rally point for our cause and other causes alike," said Sunish Oturkar, president of NUSTAND. "However, if large scale events like the Darfur rally we organized last April are actually the main contributors in the destruction of the actual Common itself, we must take the right precautions to avoid this. It's a mutual relationship: we use the Common to help us, and we should make sure that we are not damaging it in the process."
Oturkar said groups can, "in the worst case scenario," slightly modify their events to suit the proposed restrictions.
For Tali Hatuka, an architect and urban planner who has been a research fellow in Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, the proposal could pose a problem that is more than an issue of respecting neighbors' wishes to decrease noise and help the city maintain green space - it's a critical decision that raises questions about citizenship and civil participation.
In respect to the notion that protests should shift to locations like City Hall Plaza, Hatuka said, "[It] will redefine the culture and performance of large scale events and define hierarchical relationships between the citizen and authority, which do not exist now in the informal space of the park."
Hatuka is an expert in the study of how the urban design of an area affects the dynamics of civil demonstrations there. Her multimedia exhibition, "Urban Design and Civil Protest," is currently on display in the MIT Museum Compton Gallery until June 9.
"Protests and other large-scale events take place within physical space that represents the civic identity of that society," she said. "Thus, modifying this setting and, in particular, moving it to the City Hall Plaza would affect the way citizens negotiate with authority. We must recall that City Hall is a formal space and a constant reminder of the spatial hierarchy between the citizens and the government."
The desolate, windswept City Hall Plaza, the City Hall building and others that surround it would have a visual impact, she said, much unlike the lush, intimate Common.
"The large scale of both space and structure has an affect on the way people express themselves," Hatuka said. "Think about the scale of buildings, the rigidity feeling in space, its bareness and in particular how the latter affect the climate of space."
The formal setting of City Hall also might intimidate those considering an anti-authoritarian voice, she said.
"Like many other city halls all over the world, this space is under constant surveillance, which no doubt intensifies the dynamic of gathering in this space," Hatuka said. "At a time when the US advocates democracy worldwide, one should not disrupt the existing practices of civil participation, but instead think of new ways of engaging citizens in what is happening all over the world. Lastly, traditionally many political protests in America take place in parks."
Parks Department calls for regulation of Boston Common use, a move some activists decry as constrictive.
Issue date: 3/27/08
Out of the images, videos, and recorded sounds from rallies, marches, and protests that made up a fascinating exhibition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in February and March, "Urban Design and Civil Protest," one keeps coming back into my head. It was one of the more mundane photographs from the show - a could-have-been-anywhere shot of a sea of backs in a public square. But one person has turned to look at the camera, nervously wondering who is taking this picture. It is in Leipzig, at one of the Monday-evening rallies that grew and spread to every city in the German Democratic Republic in the fall of 1989. The young man warily looking into the camera might well have reasoned the camera is being held by an agent of the Stasi, the East German secret police, cataloguing the perpetrators of this protest. But he and thousands of others remained and returned week after week, in the process, it is not too much to say, bringing down the East German regime.
The man's look is a reminder of the power, in Woody Allen's words, of "just showing up." Though the exhibition deftly portrayed the diversity of national traditions of protest, from China to Venezuela, it returned again and again to its central premise: the persistence and effectiveness of mass protest in public places.
The exhibition, at the MIT Museum's Compton Gallery, in Cambridge, was a visual and aural first draft of a larger work, on "the socio-spatial dynamics of protest" by its designer, the Israeli architect Tali Hatuka. Hatuka, Marie Curie Research Fellow and Fulbright Fellow at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, has traveled the world documenting the relationship between urban design and civil protest. The exhibition presented preliminary findings from this research, and had the refreshing feel of a work in progress, with tentative ideas offered to visitors, not finished conclusions.
The exhibition had three components. Its centerpiece was a series of case-study models - Resurrection City, on the Mall, in Washington, D.C., in 1968, Istanbul in 1977, Leipzig and Beijing in 1989, Tel Aviv in 1995, Caracas in 2002, Buenos Aires in 2006, London in 2007, and several others - each showing the venue or route of protest, and key architectural elements that defined it. The models sat atop rolling pedestals, which also contained pull-out drawers offering further glimpses and documentation of each event.
Two black-box rooms were carved out of the exhibition space, one showing video clips of different types of protest and the other - by far the more powerful - playing sound recordings from protests. In this latter room, visitors came closest to being connected to a protest, with calls for "Out of Iraq!" a mass rendition of "All we are saying is give peace a chance," and, in the case of one protest, the sounds of gunfire.
Ringing the exhibition space were graphic interpretations that began to develop a visual vocabulary for understanding the interaction of political protest and urban space. For example, to analyze the Leipzig protest of October 9, 1989, Hatuka used a Nolli-like map to mark in white the open space of the protest site, the Augustus Platz. She then inverted the map, to show the physical boundaries of the protest in white. In each case she further noted the dimensions of the protest site and provided a sectional view of it. To these she added the form of protest (e.g., a march or a rally with speakers), its voice (the means of expression), and, finally, its scale (i.e., whether it was a local or national protest and whether it was a one-off or recurrent event). The goal of the exhibition and Hatuka's larger project is to understand what she calls "spatial choreography": "an intricate juxtaposition between people - through voice and appropriation of space - and space itself."
Peripheral vs. Denied Space
The opening reception for the exhibition was highlighted by the inaugural Ross Silberberg Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The event honors a former faculty member who was known for his commitment to social justice. In its first year, it was given by the University of California, Berkeley, anthropology professor James Holston, author of Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil (Princeton University Press, 2007).
Holston complicated an already multilayered topic by suggesting that we need to look not only at protest in central civic spaces but also to where the protesters come from - the peripheries of the great metropolises of the new century. "Insurgent citizenships may utilize central civic space and even overrun the center," he said, but "they are fundamentally manifestations of peripheries."
Holston went on to suggest that a focus on protests in the civic center may be misdirected, or at least misleading. Rather, the real protests - or insurgencies - begin "in the realm of everyday and domestic life taking shape in the remote urban peripheries around the construction of residence. It is an insurgence that begins with the struggle for rights to have a daily life in the city worthy of a citizen's dignity."
The department head, Lawrence Vale, brought the exhibition and talk together by suggesting that "insurgent citizenship, to be effective, needs to exploit both periphery and center." He then posed the question that Hatuka's exhibition suggested, though never made explicit: "How does a regime design public spaces that accommodate a rally but also serve daily life?" Shouldn't urban designers be able to create better spaces for the exercise of democratic protest by learning from them?
I am not so sure.
Is not the central tone of most protests an aggressive irony, a boisterous public excoriation of political hypocrisy, of the emptiness of a regime, whether it be the most closed, authoritarian police state or an open, democratic administration? As the exhibition made clear, protesters choose their sites, their routes, their rituals, and their songs to highlight the distance between a regimeâ€™s symbols and the needs and desires of the people. A protest can succeed only, I argue, if it defies the regime by occupying space usually denied it, or occupies it in a way that transforms the placeâ€™' meaning.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, in Argentina, chose their location - in front of the Presidential palace, in Buenos Aires - to tirelessly insist on getting final justice for their disappeared sons and daughters. In response to laws preventing demonstrations, they inventively - and as a biting critique of the repressive rules gagging free speech - "walked" in a circle around the fountain at the heart of the square, wearing their signature bandanas and carrying photographs of their children.
Anti-Iraq War protestors in London chose Trafalgar Square precisely to challenge contemporary jingoistic attitudes by tying them to those of the past, embodied in the column of Lord Nelson at the center of the square, named after the battle where he gained fame in 1805. The tension between the architecture of the regime and the call of the movement is the generating energy of the event. In a way, urban design and civil protest have to be at odds with one another.
But choosing a site filled with irony is only one element of protest. In my view, one of the central experiences of a mass protest is precisely to be part of the "mass": to find oneself in a space that is expressly out of scale with the individual, and to find that thousands, together, have filled it. In the March for Women's Lives on the Washington Mall in 2004, that vast, agoraphobia-inducing swath of grass and monuments was as packed as a New York City subway car. The space had been "appropriated," to use Hatuka's term. I suggest that it had been conquered, at least for a day - and, in the minds of the participants, forever.
Likewise, the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool were not designed for the civil rights demonstration of 1963. But, surely, we cannot now imagine them without envisioning the scene there when Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. That the image of a protest has supplanted the image of a monument designed in part to reunite the white North and the white South in the 1920s is in and of itself a sign of the victory of the civil rights movement.
Finally, the element that remains constant over virtually all of these protests, is this: the feeling of being surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other people who share beliefs. Most people who would participate in political protest feel themselves in the minority, besieged by forces beyond their control. Activists often suffer alone, or in small cells of likeminded sufferers. A massive rally is supremely uplifting for the protestors themselves and the movement they represent, reminding them of a simple point: you are not alone.
Michael Walzer's powerful book Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985) ends with his summation of the power of the Exodus story in Western culture. The message of the enslaved people who rise up and defeat an invincible power and head toward the Promised Land comes down to this:
"The way to the land is through the wilderness." There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
I am struck by the wonderful connectivity between Prof. Holston’s incisive and provocative paper and the Exhibition we have on display around the corner. More precisely, perhaps, what we have here in the Bush Room is a view from the periphery of the Exhibition. The Exhibition focuses on the outward public manifestation of political protest, strategically deployed in the centers of cities, while the talk argues forcefully that we cannot understand such places and events unless we see the sources of protest and empowerment in the insurgent citizenry of the periphery.
The Exhibition shows such places as Resurrection City (the appropriation of one side of the Washington Mall in 1968 by the Poor Peoples Campaign for Jobs and Freedom, but –at least by implication—the talk reminds us to ask ‘where did those people come from?’ and ‘why did they come?’ Many of those people came from the rural hinterlands of the American South and their motives were not so far from those of the Brazilians that Prof. Holston has met in the outer reaches of Sao Paulo.
It is a reminder that civic squares are destinations, but they do not mark the whole journey or show the full socio-spatial design. One of the strengths of the Exhibition is that it acknowledges several scales, and shows how public space is often linear and that important political action takes place outside of designated public gathering places, particularly on roads, through marches that move power through space.
Above all, though, I am struck by the fact that social movements need to be imageable. The real action may indeed be out on the periphery, but if it takes an anthropologist to find it, this means that such actions may be slow to gain the visibility they need to turn unease into genuine political change. For better or worse, to be effective, political action needs to be visualized and consumed by the media. If a protest falls on the periphery and nobody hears it, did it really happen?
What I take from tonight’s exhibition and talk is that insurgent citizenship, to be effective, needs to exploit both periphery and center. On the periphery, hardfought socio-legal rights can be pursued outside of the media limelight, away from the surveillance cameras in what Professor usefully terms a “sphere of independence.” He seems uncontestably right to observe that the “material and legal difficulties of autoconstruction politicized” the would-be citizens of the periphery. Autoconstruction is wonderful term, since it implies not just self-build housing but also construction of a political self. Yet, it is also true that the passions of the periphery need to be made visible. It is hard to imagine a world reaction to pro-democracy protests in China if they had occurred somewhere out on the 4th ringroad rather than in Tiananmen Square.
We can see this insurgent visuality both in appropriation of official space such as civic squares, but also in the more informal processes of tagging and more violent actions.
Let me conclude with a few questions that come to mind as I start to think more about how the insurgent citizens of the periphery seek to be made audible and visible in the center. I think there are some important questions that designers ought to ponder.
Is there a difference between space that is designed to control and delimit public voice and space that is intended to encourage it?
How does space function differently in an orchestrated rally versus a spontaneous protest? These days, for instance, many public spaces that have been designed for the display of official power can be disrupted by a flashmob or other form of organized resistance.
How does a regime design public spaces that accommodate a rally but also serve daily life? Places such as the Zócalo in Mexico City seem to do this, but certainly can convey a rather vast and intimidating emptiness when not wholly occupied.
Can regimes retain control over the messages of their major public spaces? Sometimes, they lose control even when not being faced with explicit forms of public unrest. In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, for instance, it is not just the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 that caused a stir but more subtle things. At present, for instance one can sit in a McDonald’s opposite the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square and have a good view of the back of Mao’s tomb.
Increasingly, as cities and governments democratize and markets spread, regimes lose control over their public spaces. They cannot control the message either within the public space or on its peripheries. Even more dramatically, we are entering into a world of programmable facades, where markets control messages.
Increasingly, what I have elsewhere called the “Nationalism of Display” has come into persistent and insistent question, through the acts of the insurgent citizens that Prof. Holston documents. There has always been an ambiguity at the heart of notions of public space. On the one hand, “public” frequently means owned and operated by the state; yet “public” can also describe the collective entity rising up in opposition. Civic space is the place where these two forms of public often collide.
Spaces of civil protest are not just acts of politics but also enactments of urban visual culture. Increasingly, in an image-driven world, politics need to be seen as well as heard. Civic space helps construct the visual narratives that enable us to interpret our society.
Some of this civic realm is subject to the political designs of insurgent groups, but some of it is still fostered by the shaping of space by urban designers. I am delighted to see us considering design and social justice together, since this is exactly the convening intent of the Ross Silberberg Memorial Lecture.