The public space starts from you
As soon as you step out of the door you enter a world where you are constantly viewed by others. Your every move is watched and observed, and you can’t escape from critical eyes. This world can make you feel insecure and scared, you may want to hide and blend in, be like everyone else. It is dangerous to step out of the line, to express your own opinions and reveal your own specialness – to publicly be yourself.
We all follow wordless rules and agreements, either consciously or unconsciously. But not until someone breaks the mirror surface of uniformity and takes possession of their own space does a public space come alive: when someone wears the wrong clothes, laughs too loudly, or goes to lie down in the middle of the street. Public space means daring to be yourself in front of others, go against the flow, turn from invisible to visible.
STEP 1: Stop for a moment and observe your own presence. How do you know how to behave in this situation? What is allowed for you, and what is forbidden? What would you do right now if you were allowed to do anything? What would happen then? Test it in practice.
Public space is polarized between “self” and “other”
In its historical definition, public space means an open street or square where citizens can freely assemble to exchange thoughts, express opinions and decide about common issues: The agora, the public square of Ancient Greece, is commonly considered the birthplace of democracy. Freedom of speech, tolerance and equality are still important values associated with public space, and thus cornerstones of the democratic system.
Transferred to a mall by the Espoo tenements/suburban mall in Espoo, these values could mean an open encounter and negotiation of space between its rich medley of characters: the ethnic and non-ethnic homies, skaters, hipsters, yobos and hobos, yuppies and suits. Today’s agora can be a concrete yard where different people and cultural groups can express their own customs, language and beliefs, fight for them and be exposed to each other without direct danger of discrimination, exclusion or violence: a place where there is room for conflicts and love, for the self and the other.
STEP 2: Look at the people around you. Who among them seem strange, unfamiliar or scary? What is it about their appearance or behavior that seems strange to you? Choose one of those people and gets as close to that person as you dare. Look at and listen to that person for a few minutes. How has your perception changed?
Public space needs constant disruption
A city becomes a city when the encounters and negotiations that have occurred in public space are cemented into agreements, rules and laws. As time passes and culture develops, these agreements change, break and are replaced by other agreements: At the same time the face of the city crumbles and is constructed anew.
What is allowed or forbidden, possible or impossible at a given time, depends on the prevailing conditions in society, and, on the other hand, on how each and every one of us takes part in producing and dismantling those conditions. A public space cannot stay alive unless it is constantly demanded and activated; the impossible cannot become possible without risk taking and disrupting the balance. We can all for our own part accelerate this movement between the present and the future: One person may organize a street fair, another person a demonstration, a third person can make art. The point is that the action disrupts the relationship between the impossible and the possible and creates something new – public space that is only emerging.
STEP 3: Look at the urban space around you. What kind of alternative ways of being and acting can you imagine there? Can you invent a whole new purpose for the space? Write a new manual for the space and leave it in a visible place for others to read.
Saara Hannula, artist