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Non-place; the ultimate playground for urban activism and civil disobedience

vrijdag 1 juni 2018
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  • Slow but efficient on a Paris highway. (photo owned by REUTERS)

Imagine, an urban scenery with a mass demonstration right in the center of the city. And around the corner; the sudden metamorphosis of a monumental building into a dirty squat. What we see is a kind of centralised urban activism, very known by the common mind. Centralised in the sense that the efficiency of such activism seems to rely on the centrality of its location, both geographically and socially. As if: the more central, the more momentum. A little poke in the heart shakes up the whole city? Probably, yes.

But, as we know, whether or not being effective and whether or not gaining the desired impact of an action, depends on way more than the location of its epicenter. Such as: media (where the real debate is; read Judith Butler), postproduction (when action becomes event; also Butler), ‘right moment, right time’ (a bit of luck), etc, etc. To state a common vision: well-known squares and boulevards in front of obvious churches and buildings are the pre-emeninent locations of urban activism, because those are the ‘most public’ places. But – as every flower grows and starts to bloom, it finally dies – such as the steps of the Brussels’ stock exchange (de Beurs / la Bourse). What used to be a true amphitheatre of political and social expression; the most public place in its far surroundings. Today, on this exact same spot, political gathering and protest is prohibited: the place is dead. Downtown Brussels – among many other cities – is depoliticised. Centralised activism might therefore become a taboo. (Where to go? What to do?)

Break a tradition in order to move on? A brief definition of the tradition: the occupation of Hôtel Central (at the time a vacant housing block threatened by demolition, right across de Beurs) is often seen as the true arche of urban activism in Brussels. What we see here – and very often see elsewhere – is a bunch of people standing up and fighting for a place, because they belong to the place. They belong to the place due to its history, its identity and perhaps most important, due to their memory of the place. These seem three crucial necessities in order to get active, adaptable to every form of centralised activism and its traditional hotspots. But, due to the strong individualisation of references, it is exactly this notion of history-identity-memory that became blurry the last decades. Moving away from this kind of activism means searching for a new playground. The unexpected itinerary towards places with no individual belonging and no memory; non-places might be the way to go.

The expression ‘non-place’ (non-lieux) is introduced by French anthropologist Marc Augé, used to describe ‘places’ withouth history, relations or identity; the very opposites of ‘places of memory’. Think of airports, hotels, highways, shopping malls; think of the built product of modernisation; think of what Koolhaas calls ‘junkspace’. Although, by using the term ‘non-place’ we acknowledge a certain environment not being significant enough to be regarded as ‘place’. Non-places might therefore be out of the margin seen from a ‘platial’ (not 'spatial', but platial, perhaps even 'palatial') relevance, their economic and social contribution remains unequalled. As non-places are – perhaps together with the internet – the true distribution zones and maintainers of a global market. A global market built upon the innocence and ignorance of its consumers. The non-place is therefore also the space of the innocent, as all individuals become unambigeous users characterised by homogeneous behaviour. (Footnote: the French expression non-lieu means ‘non-place’, but is more commenly used in a technical juridical sense of ‘no case to answer’ or ‘no grounds for prosecution’: a recognition that the accused is innocent.)

Now, let activism come in, in order to wake up the innocent and disrupt the civil blindness. How to distort the space of the innocent? Depict the highway as a space of flows; of people and global goods (see Manuel Castells; urbanism and sociology in the Information Age). Block a highway and you jam a global distribution market. In the United States – where a hero of civil rights movements used to march the streets – residents occupied a highway which was built a half a century ago at the disperse of black communities and the demolition of their neighborhoods. Like many US highways, their construction was used as an authoritarian tool to separate black people from whites. So, these active residents blocked the full width of the highway and bugged the spatial logic that has long allowed its users (the innocent) to pass through at high speed without encoutering the poverty or problems of the actual environment of being. Side-effect: this blockade upended the economic heart of the city too. And all this for the occasion of the death of a black man who was shot by a police officer. Now, that is some shaking and quaking activism and inspiring use of a non-place. This highway suddenly became a ‘space of hesitation’ (cf. Isabelle Stengers, although ripped out of its original context), as the literal ‘slowing down’ creates an opportunity ‘for a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us’. In these kind of actions, ‘activism’ can be seen as - what Stengers calls - ‘the idiot’: a character that nags us by forcing us to ask ourselves ‘what am I busy doing?’ (read Isabelle Doucet: interstitial activism).

A more free interpretation of the non-place – as a no-man’s land – is set to work by the ‘Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination’. This activist collective often operates on the very edge of urbanised surroundings. Google them and their ZADs (zone à défendre; zone to defend) and what you see is the creativity of the right action on the right place.

Justin Dirkx

  • 'Black Lives Matter' protest in Minneapolis-St. Paul. (photo owned by Star Tribune)
  • A clear message from a Hong Kong barricade.
  • Insurrectionary Imagination (Google Images)