An immersion into (social) theory and its relation to public space in Brussels

État des Lieux is a ‘reflective intervention’ in various public spaces in Brussels. It seeks to examine the relationship between public space and ways in which to consider society. État des Lieux explores how philosophers, sociologists and other thinkers can throw light on our understanding of the public space and how they influence our public space.

État des Lieux consists of a series of talks that take place over the course of six Saturday evenings in August and September in a number of significant places throughout Brussels. État des Lieux gives the floor to theorists – who will each explain the ideas of an important thinker – and to experts in architecture and urban planning – who will apply these to an actual site. A unique dialogue will ensue between experts, theory and place. Hosting this series of talks in public spaces will help illustrate in a very tangible way, why (social) theories are so relevant for an understanding of public space.

Artistic interventions by BC Architects and Studies will provide a surprising framework in which the debates will take place. They will make it possible to experience public spaces in Brussels in an original manner, and to create a wider dialogue with Brussels residents.

To make the most of our gatherings, immersions into theory and the late summer evenings, food and drinks will be available at our mobile kitchen and bar at each État des Lieux.

About

État des Lieux is a ‘reflective intervention’ in various public spaces in Brussels. How society operates is nowhere more directly visible than in the public space. The arrangement and use of the public space are the result of countless political and societal choices, whether explicit or not. The definition of the public space is the subject of an ongoing societal debate.

The public space is not only the object of, but also the stage for, an ongoing contest at all levels of society. It is where we can witness the confrontation between the public and private spheres, between society and the individual, between collective and private property, and between control and freedom. It is in the public space that we determine what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The public space regulates.

Whoever immerses him- or herself in the specialist literature of architecture and urban planning inevitably comes across some of the renowned names in philosophy and the social sciences. Figures such as Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Jürgen Habermas and Walter Benjamin are the ever-recurrent protagonists in the footnote apparatus of the professional literature. Although their concepts are known to a wide audience, few people have extensive knowledge of their research. État des Lieux explores precisely what these footnote figures have to say in order to hone our understanding of the public space.

In what way can the Gramscian concept of cultural hegemony be a source of inspiration in studying the public space? What influence has Habermas’s theory of communicative action had on the organization of the public space? Can a Latourian actor-network reading of the public space contribute anything to the current debate?

État des Lieux explores the way in which the ideas of philosophers and theorists are translated in the public space and how schools of thought have influenced urban planners and designers.

Program

Foucault and normality

23.08.2014

Speakers:
Prof. dr. Maarten Loopmans, social geographer (KU Leuven)
Philippe De Clerck, architect (DEV Space, Louise ULB)
Géry Leloutre, architect and urban planner (Karbon, Louise ULB)

Location:
Allee du Kaai, Brussels canal zone  > map


French philosopher Michel Foucault, a prominent thinker of the French post-structuralist school, cultivated in his many writings his critique and distrust of modern society, which was generally associated with enlightenment, progress and universalism. By studying the shadowy side of modern society and analyzing how it dealt with marginal, aberrant behaviour, Foucault debunked the dogma of emancipatory modernity. He described how power systems proceeded to bridle deviant behaviour, and drew attention to the construction that ‘normality’ actually was.

In the context of the first État des Lieux, we will take a closer look at Foucault’s incisive analyses of the essence of normality and how it is generated. The chosen location is the Brussels canal zone. For a long time the canal and its surroundings fulfilled a particular role in the Brussels urban context. From the 1980s onwards it regressed from industrial lifeline of the city to the realm of informality: an area where one could escape strict rules and control, where that which was not possible or allowed elsewhere could bloom.

Today the canal zone is the subject of all sorts of urban renewal projects that are gradually transforming both the area’s appearance and its urban functions. But what about the informal and deviant activity and abnormal behaviour that could thrive there so long? And how do we make ‘normal’ what was abnormal and uncontrolled? And who defines what ‘normal’ means?

Social geographer Maarten Loopmans, who has devoted a lot of attention in his research to marginal urban phenomena and ways in which these are dealt with at the policy level, will approach some current Brussels examples basing himself on Foucault’s theoretical insights.

On the Allee du Kaai site at the canal in the Maritime area of Molenbeek – where the social-artistic non-profit organization Toestand was recently housed in two abandoned hangars by Bruxelles Environnement IBGE/Leefmilieu Brussel BIM – he will then enter into a discussion with architects Philippe De Clerck and Géry Leloutre, who, in their practice and research, both take a critical approach to that same Brussels urban reality.


PRACTICAL INFO

The État des Lieux on Foucault will take place on the Allee du Kaai site, Quai des Matériaux, 1000 Brussels (Near Avenue du Port 54, 1000 Brussels).
Doors open at 19: 00 – Talk starts at 20:00.
Admission is free, no booking required.
The talk will be partly held in Dutch, partly in French.

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Gramsci and cultural hegemony

30.08.2014

Speaker:
Prof. dr. Eric Corijn, philosopher and geographer (VUB, Cosmopolis)

Location: Place Sainte-Catherine in the center of Brussels  > map


Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theorist and politician, wrote his magnum opus, ‘Quaderni del Carcere’ (Prison Notebooks), in captivity. In these writings he launched the concept of cultural hegemony. He used this notion to map out the relationship between culture, power and capitalism, and sought to explain the ‘spontaneous consent’ given by the masses to the direction imposed by a dominant group on life in society. For Gramsci, hegemony is not something that can just be imposed from above by means of physical actions or threats. Hegemony is only possible when the subordinate classes consent spontaneously to a cultural hegemony which they see as advantageous and accept as common sense. In addition, hegemony is not something that finds its source in a specific class. Other social groups have to be involved in this struggle.

This État des Lieux will take place on Place Sainte-Catherine in the centre of Brussels. We will ask ourselves in what way Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony can be applied by researchers, urban planners and architects. Can a better understanding of how existing social structures are strengthened or undermined, be of any use in reflecting on the public space? Can a Gramscian approach of the supposed dichotomy between dominant and subordinate groups contribute to the current Brussels urban-planning debate?

Eric Corijn is professor emeritus of urban geography at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. In 1981 he translated ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, a work by Perry Anderson on the Italian thinker. In the context of État des Lieux, Corijn will explain Gramsci’s cultural hegemony, drawing on the research he has been conducting for years on Brussels. For instance, he has repeatedly shown how the public spaces in the Brussels city centre in the first place serve the consumption culture of the new urban middle class and how, in the layout and design of, say, the Dansaert area, the planners are especially pursuing the aesthetic and functionality of Western urbanism.

 


PRACTICAL INFO

Join us at Place Sainte-Catherine from 19:00 onwards.
The talk will start at 20:00.
Admission is free, no booking required.
The talk will be held in Dutch.

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Habermas Revisited

06.09.2014

Speakers:
Prof.dr. Jean-Louis Genard, philosopher and sociologist (La Cambre-Horta ULB, director GRAP)
Roeland Dudal, architect (director Architecture Workroom Brussels)

Location: the Woluweveld in the Brussels Eastern periphery  > map


German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas is mainly known for his 1981 work Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Theory of Communicative Action). In it he drew attention to the value of communicative action, a means by which individuals try to come to an agreement or ‘Einverständnis’. Habermas starts out from the premise that language is the necessary social binding agent of every human community, and that human society is based on norms and beliefs on which there is an implicit agreement and which guide our actions and interactions. Where this implicit agreement is threatening to disappear or where conflicts and uncertainties emerge, Habermas argues for the restoration of an agreement by means of rational and non-hierarchical discussion between all parties involved.

On an urban-planning level, Habermas’s thought is at the source of the Communicative Planning Theory, a leading systematic planning method that since the 1990s has put the emphasis on participation and consensus. However, Habermas’s communicative approach has also been the object of criticism. Political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, for instance, argues that oppositions, and dissensus instead of consensus, are crucial in the political sphere, and she develops the notion of the agonistic democracy in which conflict is an essential component of political processes. This can allow us to see how participation in the urban-planning context has been commodified, institutionalized and reduced to window dressing and pseudo-civic participation.

Are Habermas’s reflections and Mouffe’s agonistic approach really so distinct from one another or is it simply a question of emphasis, of focus? In the context of État des Lieux we will explore whether the gap between the two philosophical schools is really so deep. To settle this question, Roeland Dudal will explain the practice of his office Architecture Workroom Brussels (AWB). AWB has elevated ‘mediation’ to the basis of its activity. By taking on an intermediary role between various actors, AWB tries to bring about a thought process that is as fruitful and productive as possible in complex spatial instances. But the quest for consensus is not value-free at AWB. The organization always enters the spatial debate from a self-defined and reformulated question.

Jean-Louis Genard, professor at La Cambre-Horta ULB and director of the GRAP research group, focuses his research on ethics and urban policy. He will explain Habermas’s theory of communicative action and will subsequently measure the contemporary relevance of the thinker’s insights in a discussion with Roeland Dudal, starting out from the mediational approach developed by AWB in the spatial debate.

The Woluweveld in the Brussels Eastern periphery, positioned on the administrative border between the Brussels Capital Region and the Flemish Region, offers the perfect venue to frame this mental exercise.


PRACTICAL INFO

The État des Lieux on Habermas will take place in the fields of the Woluweveld (under the tree), at the intersection of Harenweg and Lange Wagenstraat in Woluwe-Saint-Stevin, 1932 Zaventem.
Join us at 19:00 – Talk starts at 20:00.
Admission is free, no booking required.
The talk will be partly held in Dutch, partly in French.

How to get there?
By public transport (STIB), take tram 62 or 55 (stop Eurocontrol (Da Vinci)), or bus 65 (stop Haren 3M Toyota); by car, take the N294, then Eversestraat, where you can park your car;  by bike, follow the A201 until Harenweg (next to the Toyota headquarters).

The Fietsersbond and Gracq – Les Cyclistes Quotidiens asbl will cycle in group from the city center of Brussels to the Woluweveld (departure at 18:00 at the Central Station, Carrefour de l’Europe). If you wish to join them, please contact caroline.demunck@gmail.com  - tel: 0486 312 333).

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Latour and Actor-Network Theory

13.09.2014

Speakers:
dr. Isabelle Doucet, architect and lecturer-researcher (School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester)
Xaveer De Geyter, architect (XDGA)
Brendan Cormier, writer, editor and urban designer (Volume)

Location:  Place Rogier, in the center of Brussels  > map


Bruno Latour studied both philosophy and anthropology and, without limiting himself to a single discipline, is an important thinker in contemporary social sciences. He can be considered one of the founders of Actor-Network Theory.

Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is an outsider in the social sciences, in the sense that it not only considers human or social actors but also objects as participating actors when studying social reality. Both constantly interact with one another and are involved in ever-changing actor-networks. The challenge for the social scientist consists for ANT in unravelling the changing alignments between actors.

Latour’s approach also offers another way of seeing the city. By conceiving the urban-planning research without taking a specific philosophical or ideological stance and by relinquishing a panoptic vision of the city, ANT offers the possibility of examining distinct aspects of the city, and thus of exposing the interaction between the various actors involved.

This exercise will be applied to the redesign of Place Rogier in Brussels by the architecture office XDGA during État des Lieux. By way of introduction, Isabelle Doucet, lecturer at the University of Manchester, will explain Latour’s thought and the terminology he uses. Drawing on her own experience of applying ANT within the context of urban-planning research, she will engage in a discussion with architect Xaveer De Geyter to unravel together the complex design process behind Place Rogier and to expose the key elements of this process and the spatial result that ultimately ensued.


PRACTICAL INFO

The État des Lieux on Latour will take place at Place Rogier, 1210 Brussels.
Join us at 19:00 – Talk starts at 20:00.
Admission is free, no booking required.
The talk will be held in English.

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Walter Benjamin en Passages

20.09.2014

Speaker:
Prof. dr. Lieven de Cauter, philosopher and art historian

Location:
Galerie Bortier in the center of Brussels   > map


Three new shopping centres only a few kilometres apart from one another are in development in the Brussels Capital Region, commercial free zones where consumers will be able to shop to their heart’s content, sheltered from noise and rain.

This rise in facilities for indoor purchasing pleasure is nothing new. Following the Parisian model, a number of covered shopping streets – passages – were constructed in the second half of the nineteenth century in Brussels as in many other European cities. Taking advantage of industrial production methods, the bourgeoisie was doing so well that it asserted itself with its own new consumption and entertainment culture, which was given shape in the passages. Not only the urban bourgeoisie found what it was looking for in these passages. Absinthe-drinking alcoholics, prostitutes and beggars hung around them too, as did the flâneur – the stroller who visited the galleries, not to shop, but to observe and experience the sensation of urban modernity.

In many respects the passages reflect the enormous changes which society underwent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and form the metaphor for the pivotal moment between the traditional and the modern. The German thinker Walter Benjamin resided in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where he wrote his so-called Passagen-Werk (Arcades Project).

Cultural philosopher Lieven de Cauter has studied Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk extensively, and in his book ‘De dwerg in de schaakautomaat: Benjamins verborgen leer’ throws new light on the latter’s language philosophy, aesthetics and philosophy of history. This stage of État des Lieux will take place in Galerie Bortier, a less-well-known gallery in the centre of Brussels. Lieven de Cauter will read from his study of Benjamin and provide commentary. He will show that in the current societal context and in the field of spatial thinking, Benjamin’s reflections can be a valuable source of inspiration for the reflection surrounding the Brussels shopping issue, among others.


PRACTICAL INFO

The État des Lieux on Benjamin will take place at Galerie Bortier, 1000 Brussels.
The talk will start at 16:00.
Tea and coffee from 15:00.
Admission is free.
The talk will be held in Dutch.

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Negri & Hardt and the Commons

27.09.2014

Speakers:
Prof.dr. Erik Swyngedouw, geographer (School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester)
Commons Josaphat

Location:
Wasteland Josaphat in Schaerbeek  > map


Toni Negri – Italian and one of the pioneers of (post-)operaism – and Michael Hardt – American, philosopher and literary theorist – jointly wrote the trilogy ‘Empire’, ‘Multitude’ and ‘Commonwealth’, in which current forms of power are analyzed. ‘Commonwealth’ deals with the emancipatory structures of contemporary society, the commons, which offer the possibility of transcending the traditional divide between private and public property. According to Negri and Hardt, these commons are created by the masses and exist independently of capitalism. Their work has contributed to the rise of the term ‘commons’ in the political, cultural and architectural debate.

The concept of the commons is often dismissed by critics as ‘romantic’ and seen as inapplicable in the urban-planning and architectural practice. Against a background of economic and ecologic crises and the negative side effects of an intensive commodification of our physical space, the search for a paradigm shift is still highly topical and the idea of the commons also retains its pertinence.

The frequent references to Negri and Hardt’s work in the context of the commons, have led us to study their texts in more detail. Erik Swyngedouw, professor of geography at the School of Environment and Development of the University of Manchester and an expert on Negri and Hardt, will guide us through their work. His research on political economy and urban planning makes him the most appropriate person to illustrate their work in a social and urban context.

This talk will take place at the Wasteland Josaphat in Schaerbeek – a site covering approx. 16 ha – which is awaiting its future redevelopment. The collective CommonsJosaphat has drawn its inspiration from discussions about the commons and wishes to develop alternative specifications for the development of the site. They will explain their work and initiate a discussion with Erik Swyngedouw.


PRACTICAL INFO

The État des Lieux on Negri & Hardt will take place in the circus tent of Les Nouveaux Disparus at the Wasteland Josaphat, Avenue Gustave Latinis in 1030 Schaerbeek.
Join us at 19:00 – Talk starts at 20:00.
Admission is free, no booking required.
The talk will be held in English.

In the afternoon the CommonsJosaphat collective will organize a design workshop (atelier#01) as part of their call for ideas for the development of the Josaphat site. Join them  from 15:00 to 18:00 at the Cafe Zagloba, Avenue Gustave Latinis 237, 1030 schaerbeek.
More information on the CommonsJosaphat website.

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Scenography

In times of metropolitan capitalism – coupled with the emergence of new technologies – Walter Benjamin lamented the loss of the aura of the work of art which in his view gave shape to the intense experience of the now-time. Art had been stripped of its authenticity and would thenceforth be simultaneously reproduced in large numbers and consumed by many as a product. Contemplation made way for Ablenkung, Zerstreuung, distraction.

Today – with social networks, film productions, music and print – the question as to the way in which data and information are shared is coming more and more to the fore. Walter Benjamin’s description of this crisis of experience seems topical, at the very least.

Yet Benjamin saw more than a mere loss in this crisis of experience. Thanks to the reproduction of the work of art, the experience relied increasingly on the collective perception and the collective reaction such as the public viewing of a film and the shared experience of a music concert. Technology makes it possible to process collectivity and therefore politics in the experience. Reproductions of a work of art, separated from time and space and context, can lead to the establishment of new connections in this collectivity. Today – in 2014 – we recognize little of the romanticism of the aura praised by Benjamin. But we intuitively sense all the more that we can react collectively to reproduced works of art and we are fully aware that our way of reacting collectively has a social repercussion.

With État des Lieux we wish to continue building on this positive note in the current crisis of experience. The intention is to examine whether such an event, by effectively taking place in the public space, can be interpreted in its totality as an artistic intervention. That is why BC Architects and Studies has opted for a scenography that reinforces the collectivity of the État des Lieux. They start out from the position that the act of being together in public constitutes in itself a spatial intervention and they explore how this temporary collectivity can be strengthened by means of a subtle and supporting intervention.

Sharp pictures of the surroundings are singled out and reproduced. Reproductions that reinforce the collectivity because they are detached from history – the context which we are used to and do not question – and so are free to be marked and interpreted as signs by the collectivity, to be absorbed collectively. A scenography that does not aestheticize, but politicizes.

Information

Contact

General information:
info@etatdeslieux.org

Press inquiries:
press@etatdeslieux.org


Wouter De Raeve – artistic direction
wouter@etatdeslieux.org
+ 32 (0) 485 477 130

Jorg De Vriese (City3) – programming/communication
jorg@etatdeslieux.org

Louisa Vermoere – production
louisa@etatdeslieux.org
+ 32 (0) 479 524 677


Team and partners

État des Lieux is a project organised by Wouter De Raeve and City3.

Scenography:
BC Architects and Studies together with Louisa Vermoere and Wouter De Raeve

Prospection:
Toestand

Graphic design and website:
Modem.ws

État des Lieux is organised in collaboration with:
UPV Uitstraling Permanente Vorming

Translations:
Nathalie Callens (FR)
Patrick Lennon (ENG)

Thanks to:
Wouter Bervoets, Livia Cahn, Sanne Claeys, Muriel Claeys, Andrew Crosby, Benjamin Deboosere, Benjamin De Cleen, Stefan De Corte, Marie Dehou, Roeland Dudal, Thomas J. Martin, Daan Milius


With the support of:

The Arts and Heritage Agency of the Flemish Community

The City of Brussels, Dienst Nederlandstalige aangelegenheden

The Flemish Community Commission VGC

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