In the countries of former Eastern Europe, the collapse of socialism and the subsequent onset of neoliberal capitalism have resulted in a massive transfiguration of urban public space at the hands of commercial interests. Examples include the proliferation of outdoor advertising that destroys the character of natural and historic urban landscapes, commercial events that restrict access to parks and squares, the design of retail kiosks and storefronts in and around public spaces that does not respect the local context (sending a signal that it no longer represents the local community). Instead of public space where people interact freely, without the coercion of state institutions – the productive, constantly remade, democratic public space – there is space for recreation and entertainment where access is limited only to suitable members of the public, “a controlled and orderly retreat where a properly behaved public might experience the spectacle of the city” (Mitchell, 51). The image of the public thus created by this pseudo-public space is one of the public as passive and receptive, where the potentially dangerous social heterogeneity of the multitude has been homogenized. The public is turned into the ideal consumer, and public space is thus reduced to a commodity, making the privatization by commercial interest the new public space.
Advertising and branding impositions onto the public realm: the case of Skopje
As an illustration, in Macedonia’s capital Skopje, the uncontrolled spread of outdoor advertising has created problems so serious that the City authorities were at one point considering banning huge billboards around the city square and reducing their number in the streets near in the centre of the city, removing most of them to the periphery (which, in itself, is a move loaded with issues of social inequality). However, this has not happened yet.
My research showed that billboard licenses in Skopje are awarded through a tender process with five-year licenses awarded to two companies, for a total of 400 billboards. However, that number has obviously been surpassed. According to media reports, the City authorities estimate that at present in Skopje there are over 600 billboards. Most billboards are located on the main streets, primarily in the centre of the city. The proliferation of billboards can be attributed to – among other things – the low fee advertisers pay for their placement. The communal fee for putting up a billboard is less than $40 a year – the price of a one-day black-and-white ad in a daily newspaper in Macedonia! On the other hand, the price of renting a billboard ranges from 250 to 1,000 EUR per month. Despite such low fees, many billboards have been placed illegally. There are even claims in the media that as many as half of all billboards in the City have no license. The maximum allowed size of billboards is 12 square metres, but according to media reports they are often bigger than 15 square metres. Bigger billboards require a construction permit from the Municipality, but most of them lack such a permit. Jumbo billboards on buildings should be placed at least 3.5 meters above the ground and 8 meters away from any crossroad. This regulation, however, is rarely followed. The fact that billboards in Skopje are far larger and much greater in number than the regulations allow has created a host of problems for citizens, ranging from decreased visibility on the main roads and intersections to physical injuries (and even death) to unsuspecting passers-by.
In an attempt to personally identify the scope of the problem, I decided to focus on a city block in the center of Skopje, as an indicator of the overall situation. I took photographs of all billboards within that particular block, noting down their (estimated) size and location. I think it’s safe to say that the administration’s estimates are far too conservative when compared to the actual number. My identification showed a total of 81 billboards and city-lights in just one city block. If this is any indication of the overall situation, then Skopje is definitely congested with outdoor advertising, to the point of semiotic saturation.
Reclaiming symbolic public space: artist interventions
Artists in post-socialist countries are trying to reclaim this public space in an attempt to transform everyday urban experience by rewriting the body of the city with messages other than those emanating from the centres of power, capital, and privilege. In a series of citylights which form the project Bosnians Out! (Workers Without Frontiers, 2008), developed in collaboration with three migrant workers from Bosnia employed on the renovation of the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Andreja Kulunčić (Croatia) focuses on four topics chosen by the workers themselves – working conditions, life in workers’ hostels, poor nutrition and separation from their families. Employing a tactic of overidentification and focusing on what Michael Warner terms “counterpublics”, that is, of those subaltern segments defined in opposition to a “dominant public”, Kulunčić’s city lights in the streets of Ljubljana explore both the stereotypical portrayal of Bosnians in Slovenia, as well as present their poor living and working conditions to Slovenians.
In Living in Media Hype (2002), Sašo Sedlaček (Slovenia) researches the possibilities of living in billboards and other outdoor advertisements. With their enormous sizes and access to electricity, for the artists billboards are in a way perfect for inhabitation by different social groups. This kind of housing could exist in a symbiotic-parasitic relationship between the host (billboard), providing living space and electricity, and the guest engaging in different types of activities inside the advertising space. This project calls to mind Henri Lefebvre’s disctinction of how urban spaces often start as “representations of space”, but through its use people appropriate it, socially produce it into “representational space” (39). Spatial practices, concerned with the production and reproduction of material life, rely on representations of space and representational spaces to provide them with the spatial concepts and symbols/images necessary for spatial practices to operate.
In my own project Abstract Politics (2008), I installed my work on a couple of billboards (3×4 m in size each) on the busiest streets of Skopje (one right in front of the Government building). They showed an abstract, non-representational image (aggregated from Google search images associated with news titles, thus infusing advertising discourse with covert political content) and a website address www.public-space.info, with the idea of attracting passers by to visit the site where they could learn more about the issue of privatization of public space. The aim was to create conditions for public deliberation and democratic discourse in the public sphere, where citizens who are informed, active, rational and knowledgeable can engage in communicative action and communicative rationality, defined by Jurgen Habermas as “non-coercively unifying, consensus building force of a discourse in which participants overcome their at first subjectively biased views in favor of a rationally motivated agreement” (315). Furthermore, the project was funded with a grant sponsored by corporate money. The project is still ongoing, nowadays in the form of public debates and round tables on the issue with the aim of involving an increasing number of stakeholders. This particular project was informed by the series of billboards, posters and banners installed in public inner-city spaces in Eastern Europe and South America which form the project Alternative Economics, Alternative Societies, in which Austrian artist Oliver Ressler reclaims the means of outdoor advertising to present alternatives to the existing social and economic system. In large and visible type, Ressler’s billboards appeal to questioning existing power relations and offer alternatives that would be “less hierarchical, based on ideas of direct democracy and involve as many people as possible in decision-making processes”, as the artist explains on his website. Rather than unidirectional information designed to promote consumption, these billboards are intended to serve as a basis for discussion over what kind of society is desired and should be created by the people living in it.
The approach taken by these art projects is the one Michel de Certeau calls a tactic. Without a place of its own, a tactic operates in isolated actions, takes advantage of opportunities and depends on them, reacting immediately. Tactics are characterized by mobility, speed, and smaller goals. De Certeau likens it to poaching: “It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers… It creates surprises in them… In short, a tactic is an art of the weak” (37).
The new economic practices of reappropriating and restructuring public space, coupled with the absence of a truly public sphere defined by critical dialogue, increase the necessity and the urgency for alternative discourses to the official one dominated by advertising. And this is where public art, of the activist or politically engaged type, can offer powerful resistance to the power structures, both through its critique of commercial abuse of public spaces as well as through refashioning the urban landscape beyond the old spatial hierarchies and segregation. In this, politically engaged public art comes close to realizing the ideal of public space –an arena where citizens meet to confront opposing values and expectations in public deliberation and discourse.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.
Habermas, Jurgen. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity; Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990. Print.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991. Print.
Low, Setha, and Neil Smith, eds. The Politics of Public Space. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space. New York: Guilford Press, 2003. Print.