Written by Ani Encheva
Public spaces are not naturally given abstractions. Instead, they are social, cultural and political constructs, the essence of which is inclined to be obscured, challenged and debated. On the one hand, as Zachary Neal indicates, the concept of public spaces generally refers to any open and accessible “physical or virtual area” that provides individuals with opportunities for interaction and engagement with the outside world.1 In this elementary definition, the public space is viewed as a “facilitator of civil order” that allows members of the public to develop close bonds and recognize their position in the social world.2 On the other hand, as Neal highlights, public spaces can also be defined as sites for “power and resistance” and as stages for “art, theatre and performance” where individuals are encouraged to transform their roles from passive spectators to active participants.3 According to Neal’s general definition, public spaces are, in line with Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović’s analysis, founded on “reasoning and rational debate” that presumably results in consensus.4 In contrast, his latter characterizations emphasize public spaces as places for staging ones passions, beliefs and influence in order to engender dissensus, imagine alternatives and bring about change.5 Perceiving the public space as a platform for resistance and performance empowers individuals and allows them to critically and actively reveal and re-imagine the social organizations of the city and disturb their power relations and structures.
In this public realm of opposition and creativity, urban and artistic interventions that interact with, reveal or challenge existing social structures play a pivotal role in effectuating change by framing, generating, and communicating the process of reimagination to a broader audience.6 In the following paper, I argue that these performative interventions should use public spaces as platforms for art and activism, as places for making the invisible visible, and as stages for performative citizenship. To substantiate my thesis statement, I will delve deeper into the diverse ways in which interventions should intervene in the city and engage and interact with the public. To justify my analysis, I will rely on concepts introduced and examined by Florian Malzacher, Chantal Mouffe, Engin Isin, and Karina Eileraas. Finally, to demonstrate how the multifaceted role of interventions develops in practice, I will explore three performances taking place in public space, namely Fast Fashion (2022) by performers Ani Encheva, Carla Amorós, Florine van der Feltz and Jakub Ciolkosz, Ceci N’est Pas (2013) by theatre-maker Dries Verhoeven, and I Am from Reykjavik (2021) by director and performer Sonia Hughes.
To begin with, interventions should utilize the public space as a stage for art and activism in order to provide the public with creative and accessible ways to frame and imagine the process of change. As Malzacher asserts, the combination of art and activism, or artivism, refers to the practice of using artistic and theatrical “skills, tools, tactics and strategies to advance or achieve activist goals.”7 Interventions that employ the notion of artivism are not aimed at explicitly bringing about change but attempt instead to engender and invite critical awareness.8 In these performances, spectators are transformed into active witnesses who are encouraged to reflect on their subtle, yet direct and abrupt encounter with the form and content of the intervention.9 These characteristics of the essence of artivism and the role of artivist performances in public space are evident in Fast Fashion – a theatrical and activist intervention that I and three fellow students created for a course called “The City As Stage: Critical Interventions in Public Space.” Taking place in the Dutch city of Utrecht, strategically located on a bench between the Hoog Catharijne shopping centre and the Vintage Department Store, Fast Fashion presents the audience with an installation that attempts to educate and invite spectators to critically reflect on the topic of fast fashion and its environmental, as well as societal impact.
In the intervention, performers combined theatrical features with activist tactics in order to frame their message in an innovative yet accessible way. The theatrical features included strategies, such as the performative act of sewing old clothes and Bertolt Brecht’s break of the fourth wall that allowed spectators to interact with performers, in addition to props, such as the candle arbour that served as a metaphor for the time people have left to act on and the pile of clothes that symbolized the mass production of inexpensive and readily disposable clothing.10 Fast Fashion also employed activist tactics, such as a poster stating, “Do the clothes you wear, wear out the world?” the purpose of which was to subtly confront spectators and draw their attention to the intervention and the issues it addresses. Thus, by combining artistic and theatrical tools with activist strategies, Fast Fashion used the public space as a stage for artivism. A stage that allowed performers to engender awareness, invite critical reflection, and provide the audience with an open and accessible space where artist and spectator had the opportunity to meet, engage with each other and imagine the process of change.
While generally the public realm is perceived as an open and accessible space, in practice it is often based on hegemonic structures that have the power to determine the inclusivity of the outside world.11 In this space of embrace and exclusion, interventions that use the city as a platform for questioning the existing status quo attempt to make the invisible visible by giving voice to those who have been silenced. As Mouffe asserts, these creative practices play an essential role in disturbing the dominant setting by “challenging the existing consensus” and revealing what this consensus “tends to obscure and obliterate.”12 By attempting to challenge the structural hegemony within the public space, interventions, as Eileraas states, also raise the question of “how diverse lives are valued and whose experiences are officially named, celebrated, or repressed.”13
The significance of interventions in using the city as a stage to make the invisible visible is evident in Verhoeven’s installation Ceci N’est Pas. Taking place in the city centre of Utrecht, Ceci N’est Pas provides spectators with “unwelcome representation of things” that are positioned in a glass booth in the middle of the square.14 For ten days, Verhoeven disrupts the routines of passers-by, explores the essence of social discontent and, as a result, challenges the existing consensus by exhibiting a diversity of living “statues” and social issues that, for various reasons, have been misrepresented, misinterpreted or marginalized within the public realm. The silenced matters that these “statues” address vary from the concepts of race and the Other, the taboos of nudity and sexuality to the topics of adolescent pregnancy, terrorism and paedophilia. By displaying this manifold representation of social unease and addressing it in the public realm, Verhoeven transforms the city into a site where a multiplicity of stories, perspectives and destinies can be staged. Thus, Ceci N’est Pas not only makes the invisible visible by giving voice to those whose lives and experiences have been silenced and repressed but also disturbs the existing hegemony by confronting spectators with images that have been obscured and obliterated by the power relations that define the public space.
In this public realm of power and hegemony, interventions also play a vital role in challenging the social organizations of the city and addressing the subjugation of those who have been deemed as inherently different. By using the public space as a stage for resisting and disputing the exclusivity of the city, urban and artistic performances also attempt to shine a light on the stories of those groups who have been marginalized and oppressed. In these interventions, performers transform into living manifestations that attempt to foreground the political and social struggle of citizenship and question its very essence. As Neal emphasizes, the fact that public spaces are rarely “fully open and egalitarian” presents “opportunities for conflict between those who claim the space” and those “who feel they have been unjustly excluded.”15 The tension between those who are considered eligible to be citizens and entitled to rights and those who have been characterized as outsiders is what gives rise to the so-called performative citizenship. As Isin states, the concept of performative citizenship includes different social groups, both citizens and non-citizens, that enact citizenship by “exercising, claiming and performing rights.”16 By performing citizenship, individuals position themselves as political subjects who render visible the issues of struggle, social tension, and exclusivity inherent in the notion of citizenship itself.17 By doing so, citizens also creatively challenge, disrupt, resist and attempt to transform the meanings and functions of citizenship.18 These characteristics of performative citizenship and its role in interventions taking place in the public realm are manifested in the interactive installation I Am from Reykjavik. Taking place in the city of Utrecht, precisely located on the footpath in front of Omar-al-Faroukmoskee, I Am from Reykjavik takes spectators on an intriguing and intimate journey that explores and questions the concepts of citizenship, entitlement, and belonging.19
By dedicating seven hours to build herself a shelter on the corner of this sidewalk, Hughes publicly claims, exercises and performs her rights to be a citizen, build a home, be included and represented, and feel seen and heard by the outside world. By allowing spectators to transform their roles from passive witnesses to active participants, Hughes provides the audience with an open and accessible space. Space in which performer and spectator have the opportunity to meet and address, disrupt and challenge topics that define the social organizations of the city, such as citizenship and claim rights, exclusion and inclusion, belonging and homesickness, freedom and social constraints. By exercising and claiming rights in the public realm and inviting spectators to engage in the performance, Hughes transforms the city into a stage for performative citizenship where performers and the audience have the chance to discuss and foreground the questions of struggle and exclusivity that characterize the concept of citizenship. Thus, I Am from Reykjavik attempts to disturb the conventions that only certain social groups are eligible to be citizens, entitled to rights, and allowed to claim a space in the city and, as a result, provides members of society with an equal, liberated and emancipated space where performer and spectator meet to discuss the political and social struggle of citizenship and challenge its very essence.
To conclude, perceiving the public space as a site for artivism allows performers to combine artistic and theatrical characteristics with activist strategies in order to provide the audience with innovative yet accessible ways to frame and imagine the process of change. As demonstrated by Fast Fashion, artivist interventions use the city as a stage for educating and engaging with spectators, engendering awareness, and inviting critical reflection. Using the public space as a platform for making the invisible visible provides performers with opportunities to explore, disrupt and challenge the hegemonic structures that define the public realm. As evident in Ceci N’est Pas, interventions that attempt to make the invisible visible use the city as a stage for disturbing and questioning the existing consensus by confronting spectators with images that have been obscured and obliterated by the power relations that characterize the public space. By doing so, these interventions also attempt to display and give voice to a multiplicity of stories, perspectives, and destinies that have been silenced, misrepresented, or marginalized within the public realm. Finally, perceiving the public space as a site for performative citizenship allows performers to foreground the political and social struggle of citizenship and resist and dispute the exclusivity of the city by exercising, claiming, and performing rights in the public realm. As manifested in I Am from Reykjavik, interventions that use the public space as a stage for performative citizenship provide the audience with an open, accessible, and liberated space where performers and spectators have the opportunity to meet, disrupt the essence of citizenship, and question the social structures of the city. As demonstrated by the analysed interventions, perceiving the public space as a platform for artivism, as a site for making the invisible visible, and as a stage for performative citizenship empowers individuals and allows them to critically and actively reveal and re-imagine the social organizations of the city and disturb their power relations and structures.
Cvejić, Bojana, and Ana Vujanović. “Mapping the Public Sphere in the Social Field.” In Public Sphere by Performance, 22-27. Berlin: b_books, 2012.
Eileraas, Karina. “Sex(t)ing Revolution, Femen-izing the Public Square: Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Nude Protest, and Transnational Feminist Body Politics.” Signs 40, no. 1 (Autumn 2014): 40-52.
Hughes, Sonia. “I Am from Reykjavik.” I am from Reykjavik | SPRING | UtrechtSPRING, May 15, 2022. https://springutrecht.nl/programma/i-am-from-reykjavik?language=.
Isin, Engin. “Performative Citizenship.” In The Oxford Handbook of Citizenship, edited by Ayelet Shachar, Rainer Bauböck, Irene Bloemraad, and Maarten Vink, 500-526. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Malzacher, Florian. “Putting the Urinal Back in the Restroom.” In Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, 12-25. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014.
Mouffe, Chantal. “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces.” Art and Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 1-5.
Neal, Zachary. “Locating Public Space.” In Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space, 1-13. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Verhoeven, Dries. "Ceci N’est Pas… - Dries Verhoeven (Compilation)." Vimeo, June 17, 2013. https://vimeo.com/68531906.
Verhoeven, Dries. “Ceci N’est Pas… | Dries Verhoeven.” Driesverhoeven.com, 2019, https://driesverhoeven.com/en/project/ceci-nest-pas/.
Zachary Neal, “Locating Public Space,” in Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space (New
York: Routledge, 2010), 2.
 Neal, “Locating Public Space,” 4.
 Neal, “Locating Public Space,” 4-5.
 Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović, “Mapping The Public Sphere in the Social Field,” in Public Sphere by
Performance (Berlin: b_books, 2012), 25.
 Cvejić and Vujanović, “Mapping The Public Sphere in the Social Field,” 25.
 In this paper, the term “interventions” refers to those urban, critical, creative and/or artistic performances that
use cities as stages to address, perform, and challenge concepts of community, citizenship, and public sphere.
 Florian Malzacher, “Putting the Urinal Back in the Restroom,” in Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014), 14.
 Malzacher, “Putting the Urinal Back in the Restroom,” 19.
 Malzacher, “Putting the Urinal Back in the Restroom,” 19.
 Bertolt Brecht’s “fourth wall” entails the imaginary space that separates performers from spectators. In Fast Fashion, performers break Brecht’s fourth wall by directly interacting with the audience.
 In this instance, “hegemonic structures” refers to those actors, groups, or classes that have control and dominance over society.
 Chantal Mouffe, “Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces,” Art and Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 4-5.
 Karina Eileraas, “Sex(t)ing Revolution, Femen-izing the Public Square: Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Nude Protest, and Transnational Feminist Body Politics,” Signs 40, no. 1(Autumn 2014): 41.
 Dries Verhoeven, “Ceci N’est Pas… | Dries Verhoeven,” Driesverhoeven.com, 2019, https://driesverhoeven.com/en/project/ceci-nest-pas/.
 Neal, “Locating Public Space,” 5.
Engin Isin, “Performative Citizenship,” in The Oxford Handbook of Citizenship, ed. Ayelet Shachar, Rainer Bauböck, Irene Bloemraad, and Maarten Vink (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 502.
 Isin, “Performative Citizenship,” 509.
 Isin, “Performative Citizenship,” 502.
 Sonia Hughes, “I Am from Reykjavik,” I am from Reykjavik | SPRING | UtrechtSPRING, May 15, 2022, https://springutrecht.nl/programma/i-am-from-reykjavik?language=.