What is public speaking and its meaning

City and society

Kathrin Wildner

Kathrin Wildner (Dr. phil.) Is a professor in the Metropolitan Culture Department at HafenCity University Hamburg. As an urban ethnologist, she conducts research in New York, Mexico City, Istanbul, Bogotá and other urban conglomerations. Her main research interests are ethnographic methods and artistic practices of spatial analysis, theories of public space and transnational urbanism. She is a founding member of the group “metroZones” and was the scientific and artistic coordinator of the research and exhibition project “Global Prayers. Liberation and redemption in megacities ”(2010-2014). As a model project of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, she designed the “School for Urban Action” (2015-2016) with metroZones.

Hilke Marit Berger

Hilke Marit Berger is a research assistant in the field of cultural theory and cultural practice in the Metropolis Culture course at HafenCity University Hamburg. With her doctoral thesis Action instead of negotiation. Art as a common urban design she was a member of the graduate school Congregation and participation. Urban publics and performative arts. She was a lecturer for the University of Leipzig and the Ohio-Leipzig European Center in the field of performance studies. Further teaching assignments for artistic work in public space at various universities. Production and assistant director for Herbert Fritsch (hamlet_X). Further assistance at the HAU in Berlin, at the festivals euro-scene and the DOK in Leipzig. Jury member of the Hamburg cultural authority for spoken theater, music theater and performance.

Kathrin Wildner and Hilke Berger discuss the history and importance of public space for coexistence in cities and ask about the role of art.

(@ Meike Fischer)

Most people associate public space primarily with urban plazas. Reports about central places in European cities in several large German daily newspapers from the summer of 2016 complain about the loss of public space, despite the huge differences between the respective locations and their contexts.


Loss of public space

What exactly is being mourned here? Is there an ideal of the public space? Has the city changed? Your materiality? The idea of ​​the city? What are public spaces anyway? How do you look? What are their functions? Which principles does public space follow? And last but not least: What significance does it have as a social space for coexistence in cities?

City and public space

Public space is a prerequisite for urban life. The relationship between the individual and society is reflected in public space. It is only through him that the city becomes a city [1]. The public space offers the possibility to disappear anonymously in the crowd, but also to identify with a group. According to the philosopher and sociologist Richard Sennett, the public space is that in which one is exposed to the scrutiny of everyone, the space in which there are actors and spectators, in which one is at the same time observer and observed [2]. Meeting strangers or like-minded people is another principle of public space [3]. The social behavior of the users is in close correspondence with the built public space and changes it accordingly.

In a contemporary understanding, public space is understood as a process. Function and use are linked to social transformation processes, which in turn influence the change, perception and use of space. Public space only becomes spatially concrete through the behavior of the people who form it figuratively. Today, public space is used very differently and often unconsciously: as a traffic space, as a space for consumption, as a communication space, as a recreational space, etc. This also names an essential property of public spaces - their multifunctionality [4]. There is no public space without the public. Who creates this public and how is a matter of negotiation. Even if it is not easy to separate public space from questions about the public and the public sphere [5], the focus of this contribution is on public space in its capacity as a concrete urban location.

Principle agora

The classic image for public space is the Greek agora. The agora was the market and meeting place of the Greek polis and the center of public life. Business was negotiated, debated and politics was made in the extensive space with administration buildings, court of law, library and ritual places. Based on this epitome of urban life in Greek antiquity, public space became a concrete urban planning location with corresponding characteristics: a clock tower, fountain and monument served as decorative and representative markings of a place that materialized the ideal of the European city [6].

Public space and exclusion mechanisms

But the ideal of the ancient agora of being a place equally accessible to all people is deceptive: only adult, free and possessing men met there. So those who had the citizenship of the city and at the same time could afford to spend the whole day on the varied terrain of the agora and to debate the interests of the city and the state [7]. The workers, slaves and women took care of the household and the family. With the assumption of free access for everyone - the central promise of public spaces to this day - the story of a utopia begins. Because, as the urban sociologist Walter Siebel states, public space has always been exclusive space [8]. There has never been public space in any city as a space accessible to everyone. In different historical epochs, cities differ mainly in who is excluded from which areas in what way: In the 19th century it was women and the proletariat, today it is mainly the homeless and drug addicts [9].

The public space can thus provide both a resource for self-assertion and becoming visible as well as a vehicle for displacement for urban actors [10]. It has something in common and is carried by collectives. The composition of these collectives can, however, be very different and they can assume the most varied of sizes [11]. However, “all” are never equally part of this collective. Rather, it is always a question of partial publics in which some are involved and others are excluded [12]. The decision about who is part of urban society in this sense, who has a part in decisions and who has the right to interfere and make demands, is today tied to national affiliations on the one hand, but also to the possibilities and skills of being heard in public space on the other To provide.

Urban crisis, public space crisis

In principle, the question of public space arises when it is determined that it has disappeared. In the course of the identified crisis in the cities in the 1980s, the loss of public space was also particularly lamented [13]. With reference to privatizations, suburbanization, neglected inner-city living quarters, segregation and vacancy, there is talk of the decay of the big cities or even of the misused city [14].

Because today it is increasingly impossible to distinguish what is private and what is public space: both the forms and the functions are mixed. The train station - a paradigmatic public traffic area - becomes a privatized shopping mall with domiciliary rights. The private shopping center is designed by architects in the style of Italian squares, with fountains and park benches, suggesting the freedom of a supposedly public space. The public space becomes blurred and withdrawn. Nevertheless, public and private spaces can be distinguished from one another in four dimensions: functional, legal, social and structural / symbolic [15].

Major changes have taken place in all four dimensions in recent years, which erode the polarity of public and private, as the urban sociologists Walter Siebel and Jan Wehrheim show in their study. From a functional point of view, the authors state that political events have long since emigrated from the public space of the cities to party organizations, associations and the media. Manuel Delgado, urban researcher from Barcelona, ​​states that public space is becoming an ideology. Public space is used by urban planners, politicians and investors as a tool to create exclusive areas of consumption and control in which only selected people can stay [16].

Can one still speak of public space at all?

In the case of arcades and shopping malls, the function of the market (but also, for example, in the case of train stations, that of transport) is initially transferred from the area of ​​public law (the public sector) to the private law of the owner. This privatization of public space through new extensive ownership structures and designated consumption zones is intensified by another type of privatization: From the overlay with private and even intimate actions practiced in public space, which are caused by technical developments (e.g. in the mobile communications sector). were made possible. As a consequence, situations arise for which there does not (yet) appear to be an established code of conduct - which is evidenced by the uncomfortable feeling that arises when, for example, one involuntarily reveals the most intimate details in the context of a supposedly private phone call public space is confronted. It remains unclear whether the private space for telephoning in public space will be retained or whether public space for the involuntary listener will be taken over by such private actions.

(@ Meike Fischer)

This dissolution of the character of public space, which is also characterized by the behavior associated with it, is also driven by zeitgeist phenomena such as the piled-up city beaches, which must not be missing in any big city and which one can use in public space watch meets half-naked in bikini and swimming trunks. Richard Sennett speaks of a tyranny of intimacy [17].

Despite such freely practiced revealing private actions, public space is perceived (reinforced by appropriate media reporting) as a special factor of uncertainty and fear. Even if the public space is relatively safe according to statistics (for example, especially for women who are much more likely to be exposed to domestic violence), it is nevertheless constructed and perceived as threatening (by the dangerous stranger) [18]. Above all, a differentiated, cosmopolitan public space is perceived as a threat and is protected by security discourses and technologies [19]. The privatization of public space through changed property claims and the relocation of private actions thus go hand in hand with an idea of ​​social homogeneity.

With the question of security and the introduction of the surveillance discourse, the classic utopia of the European city as a space of possibility is gradually being reduced to absurdity. It is being replaced by a utopia of security in principally unsafe spaces [20]. Public space is becoming a competitive asset.

Art and public space

One possibility of reading the significance of the public space beyond the city and beyond its concrete and normative functions, which needs to be updated, is to look at its relationship to art [21].

In the 1980s, public space was still considered an outdoor space for the presentation of sculptures (drop sculptures) and for art in buildings. In the 1990s, public space itself became the subject of art and artistic interventions [22]. This "art of the public" (as opposed to an "art in the public") is about intervening directly in the city and the political field based on approaches from conceptual art, institutional criticism and the counterculture of the 1960s [23 ].


Art and public space

In order to be able to present the interplay between art and public space in a differentiated way, the curator and art scholar Miwon Kwon has proposed an instructive separation into first “art in public space”, second “art as public space” and thirdly “art in the public interest”. This is not (exclusively) a historical-linear progress, since all three types of public art still exist.
  • The separation into three categories proposed by Kwon shows that artistic practice does not just illustrate or beautify public space (Category 1),
  • but through site-specific art, artists are involved in the creation of public spaces in a completely different way (category 2).
  • And it makes it clear that art can also create public spaces for discussion, so that the public discourse itself is co-determined or generated (Category 3) (cf. Berger 2014: 302).

The generic term “new genre public art”, which corresponds to the last category, also goes back to Kwon's work [24]. The desire to make the public space a place for self-determined action and communication again is controversial in this context [25]). Through this art of the public, urban space becomes more than just any interchangeable place for artistic activity. He changes from the object to the subject of the action [26]. Not the representation of urban life, but experimentation with urban life becomes the subject of the projects [27]. Through artistic practice, not only the space, but also the public that produces it, is genuinely created.

In this sense, one can also speak of a re-appropriation of public space. Political actions such as “Reclaim the streets” or “Inner City Actions” address - artistically and symbolically - the loss of public spaces through privatization and control (cf. Brendgens 2005). They reclaim the public space through symbolic appropriation. This not only addresses the physical meeting place, but also the public space as a basic requirement of a democratic, urban society.

Updating the public space

In these artistic and political practices, the understanding of public space no longer necessarily follows an understanding that understands space as a container or as a stage on which something takes place. Rather, public space is understood there as a place that is only created when different people, practices and opinions come together. In this sense, the existence of public space is a central feature and a prerequisite for the urban, which is characterized by diversity and difference [28], by the "encounter with the foreign" [29].

Political events in recent years speak for such a more open definition of public space, according to which public space is no longer tied to the built environment but to the lived environment. The various squares from Cairo, Istanbul and New York to Madrid and Athens vividly illustrated the public space as a space for negotiation.

And so the history of public space outlined here leads back to its beginning, to Athens: in the occupations of the central Syntagma square in front of the parliament building in the summer of 2011, social issues, demands and debates that went far beyond the representative function of the square manifested themselves. The square itself became an actor and is thus an example of the heterotopic (in the sense of Foucault's concept of a heterotopia, an actually realized utopia) constitution of an urban place. The public space was both the place and the occasion as well as the object for alternative experiments in political self-organization [30]. Even if initially as an attempt, a central principle of public space is revealed here. It can act as a place for social negotiation processes in the sense of the utopia of a “real democracy”.

In summary, it can be said that public space is temporarily used in different ways. It is not characterized by stability and continuity, but is process-based and situational.It is thus a space for negotiation, materially and discursively contested. It is produced, used and negotiated by heterogeneous groups or partial publics. The continuous encounter and negotiation of different interests and values, of - even contradicting - attributions of meaning is what defines public spaces [31]. The public space is precisely not the organized, managed, rational, planned space - but the spontaneous, incalculable, even fleeting space that is in constant motion and is characterized by the unpredictable [32].