Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

March 2, 2012

An Aesthetics of Participation

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


Art, Articles, Bottom-Up, DIY Urbanism, Guerrila, Mike Kelley, Public Space, REBAR, Tactical, Urbanism

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.

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.