Gay Pride Parade 2015, São Paulo, Brazil, Credit: Kirsten Larson, 2015

An Introduction to P[art]icipatory Urbanisms

By Karin Shankar and Kirsten Larson

P[art]icipatory Urbanisms is a peer-reviewed publication interrogating the “participatory turn” in contemporary urban studies, performance studies, and art practice. The current revival in participatory, collaborative, relational, or democratic practices in the realms of urban art and planning is, in some ways, a harkening back to participatory ideas of the 1960s. [1] However, given the multitude of arenas in which participatory urban activity has been proliferating in the past two decades—including within a range of public, private, civil society, and hybrid formations—participation itself, as mode of engagement, must be examined as a critical terrain of negotiation between state, society and market forces. The articles in this anthology track the form such negotiations take across divergent sites, and from interdisciplinary perspectives, to assess the radical promise and potential pitfalls of ‘participation’ in the realms of urban art and politics today.

Participatory art projects are considered to be those in which the conventional relationship between art object, artist, and audience is subverted. As Claire Bishop defines it, “the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long- term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant.”[2] In urban participatory art projects the ‘object’ being produced is also an altered relationship to urban space. Critics of participatory art, though, see this as a compromised form, for it is ruled by the “external” or heteronomous interests of communities, organizations, local governments, etc. rather than being created within an “autonomous” field of the arts.[3] In the realm of urban politics and decision-making (city budgeting, for instance) participatory projects have been shown to deepen democracy, expand civic consciousness and increase transparency and efficiency.[4] However ‘taking part’ has, in many instances, been co-opted by the neoliberal state and international organizations, which could lead to a potential depoliticization of community struggles. Therefore, even with the emancipatory potential that ‘participation’ as mode has historically promised, in contemporary discourses of both aesthetics and politics, the term continues to occupy a complicated place.

The bracketed [art] in the title of this anthology refers to participatory urban aesthetic practices which could include community, social, or relational art initiatives, but also more general claims by city residents on the visible and sensible aspects of public space. Bracketing the [art] in ‘participation’ also suggests a blurring of the conventional separation between the aesthetic and the political dimensions of urban participation. As articles in this collection illustrate, urban praxes, from spontaneous urban protests, to everyday acts of subversion of the dominant urban spatial order, to organized minoritarian claims on urban space, are as aesthetic as they are political for they entail a re-ordering of the field of urban experience and perception (here, we consider an older meaning of the word ‘aesthetic,’ as simply ‘perceptible to the senses’). Contemporary movements from Occupy to #BlackLivesMatter attest to this.

Articles in this anthology offer critical tools from across the humanities and social sciences, and research from diverse geographic and temporal sites, to expand methodological and theoretical debates around themes of urban participation and its entanglement with state power, capital, aesthetic praxis, racialized and queer spaces, citizenship, temporality, publics, and infrastructure. The anthology is divided into four sections: Memory and the City-Body; Austerity Politics, Occupation, and Performance; Curating Publics; and Ruptures in Neoliberal Space. Critical connections also surface across thematic groups. Through the anthology, keywords for urban theory are repeated and variously defined or recast as they meet different disciplinary frames. Such keywords include: publics, counterhegemony, agonism, memory, occupation, participation, infrastructure, cooptation, amongst others.

Memory and the City-Body

The four articles grouped under the theme of Memory and City-Body theorize the labor of memorializing or remembering, differently. In her article “Ghetto Biennale and Jalousie en Couleur: The Politics of Post-Earthquake Aesthetics in Port-Au-Prince” Carolyn Duffey describes a “Ghetto Biennale” and a community mural—both of which draw from the spiritual and aesthetic practices of vodou—in two Port-au-Prince bidonvilles or shantytowns. She argues that vodou offers residents of these two bidonvilles a counterhegemonic mode of response to politicized post-earthquake reconstruction models supported by Western nations and Haitian elites.

In Rebecca Caines’ article, improvisatory performance is similarly engaged to subvert dominant urban codes. “Fugitive Moments and Public Memory: An Improvised Memorial for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X (SIEVX) in Canberra” describes a performance-based memorial from 2006, in which 600 volunteers held up wooden poles in the shape of a boat, marking the deaths of over 300 Iraqi and Afghani refugees on international waters, five years prior. The organizers of the ceremony improvised this memorial when the National Capital Authority rejected a permanent memorial for those on board SIEVX, on the grounds that memorials could only be erected ten years after a tragedy. With tragic echoes in the refugee crisis in Europe today, Caines engages this incident to pose a question about the promises of improvisatory urban planning—one in which “risk, real-time processes, and the foregrounding of the unexpected become deliberate tools in planning and managing urban spaces.”

Ying Zhu theorizes the embodied aspects of memorialization in “Reinventing Fluidity: Colliding Bodies and Architecture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.” Zhu writes, “…architecture, structures, and memorials are positioned in the built environment for its users, who are comprised of flesh, muscle, sinew, tendon, and bone and engaged in processes of motion and action (…)” She adopts a dance studies lens to illuminate how the “bodily writings” of visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial “jostle” the monument itself, thereby challenging the critique that enduring architectural memorials (and the implied ‘solidification’ of historical memory) are in opposition to the more fluid construct of human memory.

Finally, in “The ‘Good Death’ of Buildings,” Heidi Käkelä analyzes an alternate form of post-disaster memorialization. Käkelä considers Gap Filler’s participatory and performative responses to Christchurch’s devastated cityscape in the wake of the 2011 earthquake that struck this city. She describes Gap Filler’s necessary work in establishing the “good death” of buildings, or a passing marked by dignity, mourning and a reconciliation with loss.

Austerity Politics, Performance, and Occupation

We prepare this publication at a time when participatory social movements have emerged as the ongoing mode of radical political engagement in urban spaces across the globe, from Occupy (2011) to Tahrir (2011) to São Paulo (2013) to Taksim (2013) to austerity protests in Southern Europe and Greece (2014-) to #BlackLivesMatter (2014-). Aside from the participatory internal decision-making mechanisms that many of these movements engage with, all these movements may also be considered participatory in a larger sense, for they consist of multitudes reclaiming a part of the urban in plazas, parks, houses and streets. In doing so, they redefine the field of urban experience collectively; urban space is separated or un-sutured from its conventional references and opened to new orderings.[5]

The first two articles in the Austerity Politics, Performance, and Occupation section present urgent and vivid ethnographic accounts of the urban manifestations of radical democratic responses to Europe’s contemporary austerity regimes. Andreea Micu’s reading of the affective forms of protest around ongoing housing struggles in Rome and Madrid identifies ‘indignation’ as the prevailing affect in times of austerity. In Southern Europe, such indignation has grown in the “gap produced by the unfulfilled promises of the welfare state and the increasing experience of precarity by large sections of the population.” “Making of the Indignant Citizen: Politics, Aesthetics, and Housing Rights in Madrid and Rome” explores how this affect is mobilized to powerful effect in street protests. In “Critical Performance Spaces: Participation and Anti-Austerity Protests in Athens” Gigi Argyropoulou examines the occupation of the Embros theatre in Athens at the outset of the Greek debt crisis, to explore the ways in which alternate forms of sociality and citizen participation were enacted. She describes how emergent and collective participatory practices in the occupied theater may have faced repeated failures, but succeeded in marking a paradigm shift, thereby opening up the space of possibles for alternate “instituent” practices of politics and culture in times of austerity.

In the third article in this thematic section, “Participatory Aesthetics and Makeshift Urbanism: Guimarães, Cova do Vapor, and Terras da Costa” Joana Braga evaluates the efficacy of, and challenges faced by three tactical and makeshift urban experiments in the larger Lisbon metropolitan area. Braga also discusses the paradoxical place these practices hold within Lisbon’s current landscape of austerity; while on the one hand, these practices create alternative modes of social relationality, on the other, they are complicit with current neoliberal frameworks that have coopted principles of insurgent creativity.

Curating Publics

Under the rubric of Curating Publics, Rattanamol Johal, Lydia Matthews, and Cecilie Sachs Olsen present four examples of urban social practice—a participatory art form that treads the lines between object-making, installation, performance, and activism, usually taking place outside the ‘white cube’ of the art gallery or museum. In doing so, these four authors compel readers to revisit older questions around audiences, value, and efficacy of social art practice while also defining anew the terms under which agonistic, counter-hegemonic, and relational art practice may or may not “work,” in the context of specific urban spatial politics.

In “Seeing in the Dark: Unearthing Batumi’s Hidden Backyard Treasures” Lydia Matthews describes the impact of art installations co-created by artists and local residents, in residents’ backyards, highlighting the “infra-ordinary” of their daily lives and quotidian acts in the rapidly transforming Black Sea port-town of Batumi in Georgia. In “Windows on an Urban Village: Participation and Antagonism in Shaina Anand’s ‘KhirkeeYaan,’” Rattanamol Singh Johal describes how artist Shaina Anand’s project to establish channels of communication using CCTV cameras, television screens and microphones across spatial and social boundaries in Khirkee, an urban village of Delhi, became the site for “communication lapses, miscommunication and disjuncture.” Johal therefore offers important insights into the “conflictual production of urban space.” Finally, in the curatorial project invisible Zürichs,researcher and curator Cecilie Sachs Olsen’s public workshops aim at exploring how socially engaged artistic practice might produce new spatial imaginaries and alternate archives of the city, even in environments of “endless maintenance and careful design.”

Rupturing Neoliberal Space

In the articles under the thematic grouping of Rupturing Neoliberal Space, authors articulate aesthetic ruptures or new ‘partitions of the sensible’ in neoliberal space.[6] Such ruptures, as Todd May has described, not only question particular social arrangements but indeed, “reveal the contingency of the entire perceptual and conceptual order in which such arrangements are embedded.”[7] Kavita Kulkarni looks at ‘Soul Summit,’ an open air house music dance party that has been held since 2001 in the historically black, rapidly gentrified neighborhood of Fort Greene in Brooklyn. She explores the political potential of the various assemblages (both ‘live’ and in social media) of open-air house music culture—composed by largely black and brown dancers, music and musicians, documentarians, and a sizeable online community—and how, through various forms of participatory co-production, Soul Summit works to counteract “the spatiality of peripheralization” and the “temporality of extinction” imposed on black social life in the US.

In her lyrical exploration of a unique public art happening in the city of Shanghai, Chiayi Seetoo ruminates on the spatial and temporal alternatives presented by the site and art actions of O collective Happening (Shanghai 2014). Seetoo describes the venue for O collective happening as “loose space” and theorizes the significance of competing temporalities encompassed by art actions undertaken there. These temporalities include those of instantaneity, loss, memory, nostalgia, sustainability, amongst others—in an urban milieu marked by breakneck-speed development, a building boom, vast demolition, and huge influxes of global capital.

In “Squatting in Non-Spaces: Queering Art and Identity in Global China’s Guangzhou,” Jenny Lin focuses on another iconic urban space in China, Guangzhou, examining queer identity and spatial politics in one featured work, Squatting Project/Guangzhou by Hong Kong-born, United States-based artist Simon Leung. Lin argues that the piece works performatively on multiple levels, “queering language and bodily gestures to expose the fluidity of identity,” and to articulate a “non-space” that “mimics” Guangzhou, and the “cosmopolitan mythologies” of both the city and global art biennales. Finally, in “Negotiating Informality: Social and Economic Strategies of Food Vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District,” Ginette Wessel and Sofia Airaghi offer an ethnographic case study of San Francisco’s Latino food truck vendors, describing how these workers destabilize categories of formal and informal economic activity, exposing the visual, social, and legal variances that occur between these general terms, to create a spectrum of flexible possibilities rather than binary positions for control, in fast-gentrifying San Francisco.

Apart from articles in traditional scholarly formats, P[art]icipatory Urbanisms features alternate formats that perform urban scholarship in experimental modes.

  • In [Annotations] Ron Morrison’s notes on The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), are the beginnings of a manifesto of sorts, for a liberatory black spatial politics today.
  • In [Conversations] Nathan John presents three interviews with practitioners (in Berlin, Madrid, and Paris) of what he terms “spacehacking,” a mode of urban practice that entails an “intimate and highly local understanding of urban, material, and social systems to enable their dynamic reconfiguration.”
  • In [Forms in Images] Alex White-Mazzarella, Namrata Mehta and Soaib Grewal’s photo essay documents how an akhada or wrestling rink, came to be constructed by a community in the city of Gurgaon, near New Delhi.
  • Layla Forrest-White’s [Urban Prose] is a long form essay reflecting on democracy as performed on a basketball court in Mosswood Park in Oakland, California. Forrest-White writes about the ways in which the sport is made possible by democratic conditions, and embodies democracy itself, in its “fleshy, messy, overcrowded, bodies-touching-each-other reality.”
  • Finally, in [Planning Cases] Antje Steinmuller details three San Francisco-based case studies of public-private partnerships aiming to transform and activate public urban space. Steinmuller evaluates them for their potential as new forms of pro-active urban citizenship.

This publication has been the result of our collaboration and friendship over the past year-and-a half, across three cities, and also across disciplines, Performance Studies (Karin Shankar) and Architecture and City Planning (Kirsten Larson). In weekly meetings in cafés in Berkeley, or virtually, in countless skype conversations between São Paulo and New Delhi, we took part in, discussed, read, mapped, wrote, designed, and imagined each aspect of this publication together. As we launch the publication, we hope this platform continues to spark conversation and collaboration on participation as critical urban spatial praxis.

Karin Shankar and Kirsten Larson

This publication has been supported by the Mellon Foundation and UC Berkeley Global Urban Humanities Initiative.


[1] Krivý M. and Kaminer T. (2013) Eds. “The Participatory Turn in Urbanism” Footprints Delft Architecture Theory Journal, Autumn 7:2, pp 1-6.

[2] Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso. Print.

[3] Jackson, S. (2011) Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. Routledge. Print.

[4] Baiocchi, G. (2005) Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre. Stanford University Press. Print.

[5] May, T. (2010) ‘Jacques Rancière: Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics’, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Web.

[6] Rancière, J. (2001)”Ten Theses on Politics.” Theory & Event, 5: 3, 2001, Web.

[7] May, T. (2010)

An Introduction to P[art]icipatory Urbanisms
Karin Shankar and Kirsten Larson
Research Notes from a Black Urbanist
Ronald Morrison
Ghetto Biennale and “Jalousie en Couleur”: The Politics of Post-Earthquake Aesthetics in Port-Au- Prince
Carolyn Duffey
Fugitive Moments and Public Memory: An Improvised Memorial for Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel X in Canberra
Rebecca Caines
Reimagining Fluidity: Colliding Bodies and Architecture at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Ying Zhu
The “Good Death” of Buildings: Filling Gaps in Post-Earthquake Christchurch
Heidi Elisabet Käkelä
Spacehacking as Praxis: 3 Projects, 3 Perspectives: raumlaborberlin, Recetas Urbanas, Collectif Etc
Nathan John
Making of the Indignant Citizen: Politics, Aesthetics, and Housing Rights in Madrid and Rome
Andreea S. Micu
Critical Performance Spaces: Participation and Anti-Austerity Protests in Athens
Gigi Argyropoulou
Participatory Aesthetics and Makeshift Urbanism: Cases of Guimarães, Cova do Vapor and Terras da Costa
Joana Braga
‘Space to Wrestle With:’ Social Practice in Gurgaon
Alex White-Mazzarella, Namrata Mehta and Soaib Grewal
Windows on an Urban Village: Participation and Antagonism in Shaina Anand’s ‘KhirkeeYaan’
Rattanamol Singh Johal
invisible Zürichs: Multiplicity of Knowledges in Socially-engaged Artistic Practice
Cecilie Sachs Olsen
Seeing in the Dark: Unearthing Batumi’s Hidden Backyard Treasures
Lydia Matthews
Basketball Now!
Layla Nova Forrest-White
Assemblages of Difference: Place-making and Utopian Agonism on the Open-Air House Music Dance Floor
Kavita Kulkarni
‘O collective Happening’ in Shanghai: “Loose Space,” Participation, and what Sustains between Instantaneity and Permanence
Chiayi Seetoo
Squatting in Non-Spaces: Queering Art and Identity in Global China’s Guangzhou
Jenny Lin
Negotiating Informality: Social and Economic Strategies of Latino Food Vendors in San Francisco’s Mission District
Ginette Wessel and Sofia Airaghi
Beyond Bottom-Up in San Francisco: Public-Private Initiatives and the Potential for Proactive Citizenship
Antje K. Steinmuller