[re]public spaces

15 04 2010

Merriam Webster defines a republic as “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them”. The caveat here, of course, is that the citizen bears little power, if any at all. The supposed power held by the citizen is legally bequeathed to the government in the process of voting, meaning that the opportunity to assume and assert power is fleeting and contingent at best.

Still, there is something unique about this definition. Contrary to thoughts regarding the innate hierarchy of systems of power that suggest it to run top-down, the definition challenges this fundamental assumption by presupposing the power of the citizen over and above the power of the institution. But there is another form of power that precedes the body of citizens and one that is nearly impenetrable to the influence of institutional forms of power only if and when it is understood as so. This power is consciousness.

The inspiration for [re]public spaces draws upon the struggle between one’s individual consciousness and the institution, such as the state or the corporate body, in an effort to define and take ownership of everyday public spaces and our activities within—this can also be described as the quotidian. The body of work seeks to look at the seemingly banal ways in which the individual citizen of a public environment engages with and responds to power.

Participation in the quotidian assumes a degree of consent in the very same way as our consumption of products within it indicates our subscription to a particular set of rules of engagement that are defined by different forms of institutional power; it also illustrates our willingness to negotiate our autonomy.

These forms of institutional power overlap to construct a complex network of power. In many ways, this network of power is represented in space through the various ways in which the public is surveyed.

Surveillance has been thoughtfully embedded into our everyday existence. Its presence indicates a relation of power between an observer and the observed. Such a dichotomy points to a hierarchy within itself where surveillance represents the presence of authority and subjugation. It reminds participants in a given space of the appropriate conduct for that space, which suggests that the intent of surveillance is to ultimately conduct our conduct.

The notion of surveillance challenges human agency. Ironically, technologies, like video cameras, and many other forms of indirect surveillance that conduct behaviour, like street signs, take the place of the observer; they act as an extension of the observer’s senses, including their consciousness in many respects. These methods neither confer power on to the actual instrument, nor do they suggest that the instrument is innately powerful. Rather, they enhance the power of the institution by extending their control beyond the physical reach of a human being.

This extension represents the preservation of ideologies embedded within humanist values. It maintains the autonomy of the people involved in exerting power and offers primacy toward their ability to rationalize and to choose as a superior function over a device’s symbolic meaning or technological capabilities, which were, of course, crafted by a human and appropriated for a unique human purpose, thus dispelling also notions of technological determinism. This idea of humanist values, namely that of agency and autonomy, is central in a discussion on power relations because at the end of the day, agency and autonomy are the principal subject of control but also the only means of emancipation.

Surveillance as a symbol of the institution also portrays the public as child-like and inferior, and in need of nurturing, guidance and protection; the institution assumes a level of supreme knowledge by expressing what is right and wrong through various mechanisms. The presence of government undermines the individual’s agency and their ability to make sound judgment about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. It denies them their freedom of expression. It defines the individual by creating a discourse through which he/she can be understood. In a troubling way, this discourse is self perpetuated by the individual through his/her repeated subscription to various forms of power.

The individual expresses vulnerability through subscription, participation and consumption. Via these processes, he or she relinquishes, to some degree, his/her individuality as part of another process: conformity. The institution exploits the need to be wanted because the institution is rarely, if ever, inclusive in and of itself. This requires one to amend oneself accordingly to ensure acceptance within different forums.

Still, the individual thoughts of a citizen can remain unscathed despite intervening attempts by forms of power to affect processes of thought and resultant perceptions of the world around them. The individual simply needs to acknowledge their place in this system. Some refer to this as enlightenment.

The suppression implied by surveillance motivates individuals to find ways to speak to one another without speaking, per se, just as the institution makes its presence known without physically being present. This private expression comes in many forms. There is nothing nuanced or particularly complicated about the concept. Space, just as it is defined by the institution, can be appropriated by the individual for their own purposes, as well.

We observe this in particularly discreet ways and intimate places and yet the messages come to us loudly and publically. Notes on a bathroom walls; subtle attempts to customize our belongings; even the act of humming to one’s self. These acts represent the ways in which the individual makes the space around them their own.

The question that always seems to remain contentious in any discussion on power is one of intent. A camera is purposively positioned by a particular person or body to survey a specific facet of space. A stop sign is intentfully situated to instruct one to stop at that exact spot. This can be said with certainty. But it would be foolish and quite fallacious to assume that the effects produced as these examples compound are in anyway the objective of an organized network of power. In fact, the disorganization of the larger network of power is what makes it so easy for the individual to (re)claim a given space. Power is dispersed and decentralized. It flows through the network in many overlapping forms. It is rhizomatic and not hierarchical, meaning the network is easily penetrated by the unpredictable will and consciousness of an individual.

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