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An Aesthetics of Participation

Lab Notes I: Trends from the New York Lab | Retrofitting Urban Life

Memorial for Mike Kelley

Memorial for Mike Kelley, Los Angeles, February 2012

It’s time to put a moratorium on urban agriculture. On guerrilla street furniture. On food trucks and on yarn bombing. As a DIY enthusiast and a known proponent of tactical urbanism, I say this with a heavy heart.

My ban is not a withdrawal of support for these projects and their respective ethos. However, it is a bit of cautionary criticism. As each project is created, then adopted by subsequent groups and formally repeated (every iteration fleetly distributed across the Internet), a set of visual aesthetics codifies around it. Modes of DIY making and participatory actions are rendered in bright colors and repurposed shipping pallets, as if low-tech craftsmanship and nonformal design are just the thing needed to deflate any pomposity attached to notions of high art or architecture.

More importantly, and perhaps more critically, as a group these tactical projects collect into a set of programmatic aesthetics. There’s a series of program typologies at work: microparks, urban farms, pop-up shops, and community-gathering spaces. Solo, each one is a much-needed intervention, but taken together they unwittingly champion traditional city-beautiful values—and as such present a more conservative urban-planning position. Embraced in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Oakland, and even Dallas, they are earnest efforts ready for satirical spearing on an episode of Portlandia.  This is because at its best tactical urbanism acts as a catalyst for change and serves as an exemplary point of difference—green space in a sea of asphalt or a vivid art installation in a disused storefront. At worst, the hallmark of most DIY subcultures—that the producer and the audience are one and the same—plays out across an urban scale. Successful projects stand out because they offer up a program type that disrupts quotidian city life but doesn’t alienate potential participants.

Two projects now considered superstars of interventionist practice, Park(ing) Day and Dumpster Pools, each grew out of an absurdist take on the built environment—an urbanist détournement or culture jam. Park(ing) Day began in 2005 almost as a prank, when the San Francisco design studio Rebar created a temporary park in a metered parking space, feeding the meter quarters in order to hold the ground. That one action spawned an international following for the annual event and inspired “parklets” in cities across the US.

Dumpster Pools took on the perverse, even disgusting, idea of swimming in a trash dumpster. The pools were first conceived in 2009 as a means to redevelop and reactivate dead strip malls—to transform elements of the ordinary into what the project developer, Macro Sea, describes as “low-fi country clubs” in urban locations. Propelled by its conspicuous strangeness, the project spread virally over the blogs and social media, and the following year was embraced by New Yorkers as the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Transportation commissioned mobile pools for the 2010 Summer Streets event.

We can attribute the success of both these projects to the fact that they push the boundaries of programmatic aesthetics. They challenge the very notion of what an appropriate urban retrofit is, and in many ways they reject both design aesthetics and good taste. The future of tactical practice may actually depend on such projects becoming weirder in their choice of programs, and increasingly visually unnerving. A case in point: an ad-hoc memorial created in honor of artist Mike Kelley after news of his death was announced on February 1. Fellow artists, friends, and fans brought candles, flowers, and stuffed animals to a driveway near Kelley’s LA home, creating a place to mourn that mirrors two pieces the artist exhibited together in 1987, More Love Hours and Wages of Sin. The first is a composition of discarded knit afghans and abject thrift-store toys, the second a tower of melted candles. Neither piece is beautiful. Both are disturbing assemblages meant to provoke.

Mike Kelley memorial (detail)

Memorial for Mike Kelley, Los Angeles, February 2012

Transferred to a neighborhood driveway, the dark aesthetics of Kelley’s artworks make for an unsettling memorial and urban intervention. But perhaps it is exactly that disquieting darkness that sets an example for productive participation. Urban life is much more than simply gathering or gardening; it encompasses death and loss as well as pranks and play. As tactical urbanism continues to move forward and remake cities from the bottom up, we need to choose programs that may seem odd and uncomfortable in order to gain more comfort.

Photographs: (top) courtesy Waltarrrr via Flickr; (bottom) courtesy mor Lovehours.

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the fourth is Retrofitting Urban Life.

  • Regan Koch

    Hi Mimi,

    I’m intrigued by your post but saddened by your heavy heart.  I’m also wondering if you just need to be shaken out a momentary jaded-ness  Hopping from city to city commenting on what’s new can easily prompt rolled-eyes and a Portlandian sneer of ‘Over!’ Yet the sort of urban interventions you’re citing are promising for all sorts of reasons (that you clearly recognise): they generate new forms of togetherness; enact an ethos of pleasurable spontaneity and creative adaptation; and provoke a wider re-think of how urban space might be made more useable, convivial and democratic. 

    The programmatic dulling-effect that occurs as these interventions get passed around is undeniable. This is particularly the case when appropriated by developers and planners looking for a quick-fix interventions. But ultimately…so what? Most urbanites are savvy enough to know how to spot a cheap copy and to know when they should and shouldn’t really care. If people in Dallas are doing something they saw online from San Francisco, but originally started Brooklyn, it doesn’t mean they’re enjoying a less authentic form of sociality. And unlike large scale city-beautiful projects, these tactical interventions rarely become permanent unless they prove successful. Experimentation, trendiness and transference are vital to how these things innovate. 

    The codification of aesthetics and subcultural nature of how these things are first produced/consumed shouldn’t really surprise us either. Cities are full of subgroups busily pursuing their own agendas, making and remaking their environment as they see fit—or at least trying to. There’s tremendous variation amongst municipalities that embrace these trends and cities that stifle them to maintain the status quo. Rather than calling for a moratorium on urban agriculture, food trucks or DIY art practices, there are more sinister forces that should be targeted. Conservative councils in many cities have stalled on loosening outdated zoning laws, restricting urban agricultural practices and making it more difficult for people to participate in growing their own food or scaling up their production. Cities like Chicago and Cleveland have flat out bans on food trucks in most instances, denying their citizens opportunities for employment and good food. And DIY art, however kooky or predictable, presents a welcome alternative to years of top-down Creative City policies.  

    Your call for more participatory forms of tactical urbanism is spot on. Demanding a bit more of them is great. But I say dispense of your weariness. Collectively, we can pass by projects and spaces blandly rehearsing tired ideas,  and reject those interventions which blatantly serve narrow interests. We can save our critical energies for locating those and calling them out. 

    Our cities are all the better for (most of) these tactical interventions. Here’s hoping the best of their creativity, idea sharing and innovation continue…

  • Maiwand Maiwandol
  • Mike Lydon

    Hi Mimi, 

    Thank you for this interesting thought piece. You are one of the few people who is looking critically at the tactical urbanism movement, and I really appreciate and expect more of that. 

    However, I am confused by your use of city-beautiful. Did you mean City Beautiful? If so, I am struggling to see the connection…

  • leshville

    I couldn’t agree more with the last comment. What I would add is that many of the intervention typologies that have come to define tactical urbanism are by nature not very sustainable, even if they’re not conceived as temporary. I think the best of them, the ones that go viral from city to city, should be seen as jump-offs to other ideas that might have a more lasting impact on the city. I live in Houston and just read about a food truck that is opening an actual bricks and mortar restaurant because the truck is too limiting. Imagine that! 

  • Anonymous

    oops, meant to say I couldn’t agree more with Regen’s comment. carry on…

  • Ruben Anderson

    Does the problem you are identifying actually lie with the funnelling tendencies of the internet. In the past you had to actually travel to see how other cities built themselves, now you can just google it, and copy it. 

    So, rather than moratoria on the action, how about stopping the tweets and blogs?

  • rozzer

    the urban agriculture movement has been around for decades – it’s just that a new “hip” generation rediscovering the city has turned its ethos into some sort of fashion statement.  my elderly vietnamese neighbor and this crazy vertical farm that he’s been building for the past 30 years isn’t some kind of political statement or blog waiting to become a book deal… he simply enjoys being outside and likes growing his own food.  as others have said – the fatigue is because people aren’t doing these things for personal enjoyment – they’re broadcasting for an internet audience – and you’re experiencing the crash after the high of discovery.
    my advice – do these things because you enjoy them, and enjoy them when you encounter them – spend less time on the internet.