The good old feminist saying states that the personal is political. How would it refer to space? Does it mean, in a way, that we could claim private as public? The sphere we used to call domestic, or our very private, everyday choices and actions, are neither totally free from the influence of decision-makers on every level of political power, nor outside from dominant ideology or beliefs. But when does it work the other way, if we want to make use of the slogan? Do our everyday choices and actions, performed in enclosed spaces of our homes, have any kind of influence on the political and social structure?
The private space (not exactly in terms of ownership), which should bring every person a sense of security and comfort, is one of the basic human rights. Interfering and violating this right equals negating any kind of freedom. Both the physical aspect of walls and roof above one’s head and more abstract feeling of shelter and retreat from oppressive or abusive powers, whatever their origin or status are, are crucial here. People subjected to violence, oppressed or discriminated for any reason, need a safe space to be who they feel they are. Maintaining their way of life, even in an enclosed space, is a political gesture after all, a gesture against dominant forces trying to impose a strict and hierarchical way of life. But it’s not a public gesture yet.
Those in power also need private, enclosed spaces to maintain their influence, wealth or privilege. Maybe even not “those-in-power”, but those in a dominant position in any given society, who desperately (sometimes unconsciously) try to defend that position. They need private space not as a shelter from violence and oppression (as they sometimes like to see it) but as a sign of their status and a simulacrum, illusion that the rules from which they personally benefit are the objective, universal laws that run the whole world. They need private space, free from outside pressure, to exercise their own pressure to the outside.
An image made headlines around the world in late June 2020. A middle-aged white-American couple stands in front of their mansion holding a pistol and an automatic rifle, while in the foreground we see a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest march. Though we can’t know the exact motives or full personal background of the couple, we might surely treat this image as a metaphor. The man and the woman look anxious. Their moves suggest anticipation of some forthcoming, imaginary assault. Their mansion looks impressive. They stand out as a symbol of the private that colonized the public, a private and individual that are dominant, yet that is always nervous to lose its power. The politics of the public was biased towards their private, yet they are terrified when otherpoliticized bodies claim to be an equal part of the public space. The illusion, the simulacrum is shaking in such moments of tension. It might get broken, but that doesn’t mean it totally loses its power.
Images might just be abstractions, oversimplifying the world they try to describe, taking only some small piece of it out of the complicated landscape of relations. They translate the multidimensional character of space and actions-in-space into a two dimensional, silent and static flatness. Therefore it is so crucial to always take into account under what circumstances and in what social conditions images are taken or produced. Only then we can make use of them as symbols, metaphors or generalizations – which we do anyway – but in a conscious, cautious and meaningful way. Images are taken by some specific person (or a specific machine, nowadays) at a specific time and in a specific place, but they are also a byproduct of current relations in the political and social field. It is an important question (however not the most important), where you stand, when you take a picture.
There are many “insides” and many “outsides”, and none of them should be neglected or disavowed by default. But a specific perspective may shed light on the potential reading of the image and both the photographer and the viewer should be aware of their positions. Being an insider and trying to distance oneself from his or her everyday surroundings, is a particular task. To see things anew, to question what is unquestionable and naturalized and to undermine one’s own position is no easier than to be an outsider trying to learn, understand and feel as an insider. A task almost impossible, yet worth trying.
Despite the ground that we built our reality on is shaking, the world is not going to stop globalizing. The capitalist economy, the mode of “production of space” as Henri Lefebvre put it, made our cities and towns look as similar as probably never before. In the Eastern Europe, where I come from, we used to call this process “modernization”. For years we have been told about the need to catch up with the West in every aspect. And this process is vividly seen in urban space. But somehow, what seem to matter the most are appearances. From biggest cities to provincial towns, tens of millions and hundreds of thousands were spent on refurbishment, renewal, revitalization etc. Yet the lack of deep, structural improvements resulted in conservative, reactionary populists taking power.
The aesthetic changes, on the other hand, seem to be enough only for those who are already privileged in a given society. Living in a rich neighborhood that looks as taken straight from an American suburbs, is not an improvement — be it in Eastern Europe or South America — it’s a confirmation of one’s social and economic status. Erected in a spirit of postcolonial mimicry, such spaces state that there is some ultimate pattern out there, outside, that we aspire to repeat. To change the division of labour, power, wealth and abilities, real structural changes are needed in political, social and physical space.
Repetition and recursion can be the driving force of the future, even more powerful than today. What we start to understand now, is how much influence algorithms, automated operations and machine learning have and how much will soon have on our lives. As James Bridle states in his book New Dark Age, “we will not solve the problems of the present with the tools of the past”, not even mentioning the future. Building those automated tools on data already extracted from the past, will only give us what we already have, but more of it. Instead of “to each according to his/her needs”, we’ll get “to each more of what he/she already has”. To the marginalized, more marginalization; to the excluded, more exclusion; more oppression to the oppressed, and to the wealthy, more wealth. But what does it have to do with space?
We know now the effects of “predictive policing”, an automated approach that – based on previous criminal records – stigmatizes certain neighborhoods of American cities, mostly inhabited by people of color and immigrants. Other algorithms are on a quest to find out which areas in London are the next to gentrify, to invest there faster and expect high returns sooner. The future, as surveillance capitalists like Google try to tell us, is smart cities, packed with sensors scrapping real time data on every aspect of our being in space. But even now we’d rather be directed by the cold, synthetic voice of a smartphone maps app than perform a good old situationist dérive around the city. All in the name of our comfort, with all that really matter being someone’s profits. We love the certainty of being told what to do, but isn’t there any chance to make being lost great again?
The digital has blended with the physical. But even if machine intelligence can design or even locate new real estate developments, its human hands with which those developments are still built. It’s not much of a creative labour (not saying though that it’s not hard or important), and it’s usually meant to repeat and reproduce a system already existing. Ironically enough, it is often performed by people from the margins of that system, immigrants or low paid workforce. According to Benjamin Bratton, architecture is not only a representation of certain values or regimes of power — they are embedded in it. The most impressive and substantial examples of it are those massive monuments to capital, erected from steel, concrete, glass and “dead labour” itself. Does it have anything to do with the very masculinized stereotype of a construction worker?
There was a time when those workers were considered to be the builders of our future. Bearing in mind the exaggerations of real-socialist, East-European propaganda, they built the future for tens of million people indeed. The structural social and political changes, conducted all around the globe after the Second World War, needed a spatial, material aspect to be a backbone of our existence. What is home has to be built first, only then we can name it so.
Many of us were told to “stay home” for a few months at the beginning of 2020 global epidemic. As we heard or even hoped, that time might have been used to slow down, rethink and reimagine our present and future. How futile that hope was, we learned very quickly, as our work moved home with us, colonizing free time, multiplying with house work and child care, with the two latter still distinctly genderized.
In many parts of the world we feel and fear that the public space is being denied (or soon might be) to any kind of progressive thought. If we don’t treat our homes or other private or semi-private spaces as places to exercise what is still hard to achieve on a bigger scale, if we don’t use it to imagine the still unimaginable, where could we do it? The private safe space is a minimum condition of any kind of freedom, but equal free access to the public is a minimum condition of democracy. We must use one to reinforce the other, not retreat behind closed doors.
Can you imagine workers leaving a construction site, refusing to build another 200 meter-tall office tower, coming back to their flats to play with their children, building houses out of chairs, blankets and cardboard boxes? Or architects who propose to design affordable public housing rather than another luxurious, upper-class condo in a newly gentrified neighborhood? I can. And, maybe naively, I still believe we should keep on moving those kinds of private dreams to public spaces, discussing them and making them common.