Need, Politics, Alytus, Gentrification, Commons: Five Intersections on Public Space

This conversation took place a couple of months after Kasparas Pocius gave his lecture “Indiscernibility: Public Spaces, Nomadic Strategies” in Kaunas, at the “Forensic Flaneur” event. I (T.M.) had quite a few questions for Kasparas, I wanted a proper discussion, but the lecture, as it often happens, was not the space for that. Especially since talking about space, or even more so about public space, is talking about many things at once, delving into antagonisms and seeing the multiplicity in intersections (IS).

Both Kasparas and I are talking from radically left positions. They differ quite much, but there is something in common between them: desire for communal becoming, constantly critical approach (even towards the closest comrades), and endless drawing of “action plans”. I am quite glad that a few other people interrupted our talk from their “backseat”, i.e., on the one hand a hierarchically lower position, on the other, a position of watchpeople exerting constant supervision over the “talking heads”. These people are Elzė, Eglė and Raimonas, all students of Vilnius Art Academy. The “backseat” directed our dialogue towards “public”, turned it to something closer to poliphony.

IS1: “Most people do not need a truly public space”

T: I could say that, looking around me here, in the centre of Vilnius, it appears to me that public space actually exists. So many bars and cafes, so many beautiful people in them, everybody’s out when it’s sunny. What kind of problems are there to talk about, why would one want to make this space more public? Public spaces also exist in peripheries: somebody’s standing on the street corner, somebody’s chilling in the village square… What kind of desire for public space can we talk about?

K: First of all, public space is something that resists homogenisation, it is unexpected and can produce events and situations by clashing. Looked at from this point of view, our public spaces, e.g. parks or public transportation, are poor. What we lack is communication, attempts at breaking the habit of consuming public spaces as if they were our comfort instruments, attempts at turning them into places of the unexpected and the – actually – public existence. I do not see many attempts at “switching” the public space off the dichotomy of private and public, breaking the private-public dialectics in order to establish common space or commons, which pre-date this dichotomy both historically and genealogically. England is celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year. In this first constitution, among other things, king John Lackland granted the right for public to use, free of charge, the common lands, or commons. Peasants were granted the right to pick wood and berries in their respective fiefdoms, and workers at London docks would collect wood chipings to improve their houses. This process of common, collective consumption existed until it was killed off by enclosures. The latter, some contemporary researchers say, still exist: history of Capitalism in general is a history of endless appropriation of the commons, a history of legally supported pillage.

T: I suppose by commons you mean spaces that are experienced directly, i.e., “privately”, but non-alienated from the actual “public”?

K: Yes, I am talking about spaces that do not provide the prerequisites for this distinction between public and private. Everything that is happening in such spaces is common. These spaces require a very political relation with everyday life, here the good old slogan “private is political” applies. I imagine them to be complete refusals to distinguish private or even subconscious needs and public spaces.

T: Ok, let us come back to the point of the clashing space. These clashes are caused by categories that objectively exist “before” such spaces, e.g., class, race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, age…

K: These categories do not necessarily pre-date the space, for they can develop through clashes. Self-determination can develop in spaces like this. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari talk about two kinds of multiplicity: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative multiplicity is perceived in space, qualitative multiplicity is perceived in duration and time. Therefore, space alone is not sufficient for qualitative multiplicities, they require changes and becomings to happen in that space. One could say that such public spaces are exactly opportunities to become, to leave one’s “self” behind… If we obtain something that pre-dates this kind of space, it must be only our congealed habits, and they can mutate along with us in these public spaces, and we can mutate by becoming animals.

T: I find these statements problematic. If we talk about Deleuze, I suppose he would agree that public space is not some new “opening” or a qualitatively new break, something where there allegedly was nothing. Just like everything else, it always starts in the middle. How do we plug this public space into something already existent without turning it into the kind of protest that turns to art and identity-development, i.e., production of social or financial capital? Have there been examples of such a space in Lithuania?

K: Well, there have always been markets… Most people do not need a truly public space. There are not many of those, who desire public spaces as such, as they are, and not as a nice comfortable change to the cozy spaces of private consumption called “home”. I would not bet on many people getting involved into the struggle for public spaces, I would not put my hopes into this: you do what you have to do at home, and then you go for a walk, go to a cafe, chill with friends in a park, play outside… People who cannot imagine the distinction between private and public are often people who do not have what others call “private”. Critique of public space should aim exactly at this, at creating a people who cannot live without public space. At the time, I think, public space in Lithuania and abroad is inseparable from some very material, sometimes carnivalesque, personalities, e.g. Duke Vildaugas1 in Vilnius. These characters can live a life of vagrancy, of eternal holiday.

IS2: Student-council mentality and minor politics

T: Such an approach can be counterproductive for several reasons. Let us think about how subjects, “people” and their desires are constructed: space produces them to the same extent or even more than the “people” produce the space. One of the dreams expressed through social centres is space that is available not only to those subjects who want to “wholeheartedly” take part in it, but also to the local community who could come and socialise there, leave their children at a daycare etc. Also, I see a hidden desire lurking under these statements, a desire not to leave one’s safer spaces. I see a desire characteristic to disfunctional student council’s mentality, where having a smily good time together is the most important thing, in the name of which the unfriendly side of reality must be rejected. People who want to go to a park or a cafe to relax after hard day’s work… why is there anything wrong with that? Is it that public spaces should only be accessible to those who have nothing or not much to do with restrictive capitalist structures, especially at times when there is close to no outside to this system? We live in (at least so far) inevitable dichotomies and we must not start demonising ourselves for that.

K: Ok, let me tell you a story. Last year, we were spending time in Žeimiai2, at the LUNI Free University camp. Suddenly, a group of locals joined us. After quite a while, they started burning chairs, harrassing me (I was DJing at the time) by asking if I could play “Sel”3, of course I could not, etc. Is this desire to join public space as a readymade social centre not a thing of elitist luxury, too? I.e., do not the “locals” attend it as if it were a church, is this public space their natural need?

T: There is no such thing as “natural need”. If you do not get involved in the production of needs, you allow those who have been producing them up until now to continue their work. I am talking about opening fields of possibility and alternative. One person, who is squatting in Dublin, told us a story about some kids who lived in their squat’s neighbourhood. First, they would also come to burn some chairs, destroy and harrass, but, little by little, they became involved and became participants of the place, even started anarchist organising among themselves. We should clarify if we want to talk about safer spaces or public spaces. The former are very necessary, too, but they are not the same. A space where you can be free of violence and harrassment and have a good time is a safer space, whereas in a public space, unpleasant encounters occur.

K: For example, some skinheads come and beat you up. I have experienced this in a public space, but that was exactly public space…

T: I am not saying we should open public spaces for nazis…

K: But I agree, in public spaces one must be ready for anything. Anyhow, let me come back to the idea that public spaces are not necessary to everyone. Even having this in mind, this need, this desire is still much more prominent than we usually imagine. For example, an initiative at Šnipiškės4 is taking place, there are people who take care of that district. Here again, this kind of public space is not that public. I really like the neighbourhood and community method which stems from Southern countries: public business becomes everyone’s common business and replaces politics. My grandparents would also talk politics with their friends at home, but they would talk about what was happening in the parliament, in the US, in the major politics far from their immediate lives. How can we make life and politics inseparable? I do not mean the removed and distinct politics that are always hierarchical towards people, but politics that pierce through our very bodies and arrange them according to their desires. It is what our lives are made of: identities without frames, feminisms that infect men who live with women, and feminisms that go further than female subjectivity, that draw lines of flight in familial trajectories, that make Oedipal relations lose their Oedipal nature…

IS3: Alytus Art Strike Biennial

T: When you gave your lecture in Kaunas, in March, on public spaces and attempts at reviving them, you presented three examples: pro-test laboratory in the former “Lietuva” cinema in Vilnius, “Fluxus ministry”, and Alytus Art Strike Biennials.

K: “Fluxus ministry” is creative industries that smoothly take over and appropriate the concept of public space. It was weird but interesting to see how few people would attend actions and parties that were taking place at “Lietuva”, and how many people would be attracted to “Fluxus ministry” in Vilnius. I do not know why it was that way: perhaps parties always attract more people, perhaps there were more people interested in these things than there had been before. Crowds would constantly flock “Fluxus ministry” in Vilnius, millions would attend public evenings…

T: It seems like none of the initiatives you mentioned had the goal – or if they did, they did not succeed in achieving it – to act in the context of their spaces. Alytus Biennial is quite elitist in its ways, it is an event that goes almost unnoticed among the inhabitants even when it is taking place, and what is taking place is purposefully arranged to be not interesting to the outsiders. The participation-only discourse beatifies itself to the point where no outsider is allowed to even touch this all-encompasing participation. I think this is exactly the task for squats and social centres: to avoid limited accessibility spaces that can be entered only by the young, the artsy, the active and the creative. I think the Biennial only succeeds in communising those who come to take part in it. This is not per se evil, for it is good to build tight, even if sometimes virtual, communities. On the other hand, I am from Alytus and I do not see the supposed effect of the Biennial to public spaces in the city. It seems like the most important direct effect that Alytus Art School has in the city is guarding one public space: its surroundings, the park where local youth gathers to have a beer and a chat.

K: Monstrations and actions take place during the Biennial. Are these things happening somewhere else, have they happened before?.. Not all actions involving the inhabitants are aimed at criticising the public space or imagining it as something more than the Easter fair. Attempts at engagement in the protest-space are made, practically and intellectually. On the other hand, yes, it is limited accessibility, aimed at certain group of people, which changes every time, but, nevertheless, stays closed. But then, what would the outsiders say about those who say art and art galleries are unnecessary and even harmful?

T: This reminds me of a performance that took place in Alytus in 2005, in which an artist from Estonia was splashing a shop window with his blood. I was volunteering at that Biennial. When we were bringing water from the neighbouring shop to clean the blood, the shopkeepers were discussing the performance: “I understand art, art is when somebody’s singing, painting beautiful things, but this…” Since Redas Diržys is talking about inaccessibility of art, I would like to see a move towards that, but it seems like the Art Strike is stuck at 2005. I do not see that which was closed being turned into public, or smashing of elitism and avanguardism, I do not see how art is replaced by creation. Biennial is still accessible only to its participants…

Backseat: …who operate certain knowledge. That is paradoxical.

T: After a while, even those who “get it” get bored of it.

Backseat: Because they have heard it many times before.

K: What about the DIY music gig?

T: You mean the DIY noise? Even I, who was semi-participating, was not attracted by it.

K: You either take part in the spectacle or… According to Deleuze, there are two kinds of happenings. In the first one, distinction between the observer and the performer is imitated. In the other, which, by the way, works according to the logic of the spectacle, one simply takes part.

T: This reminds me of a rich kid who attends Waldorf School. His subjectivity, ego, “personality”, fostered by good material conditions and privileges, are being further inflated by constantly listening to him, attending to his needs and wishes.

K: But what kind of avanguard are we talking about? On the one hand, it is synonymous with contemporary elitist art, on the other, it is a principle of revolutionary action employed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks in 1903. I do not mean to say I like avanguard. I simply wish that avanguard in the public space became something that qualitatively changes our ways of thinking, something that creates new unexpected encounters and openings without reproducing distinctions between “those who know” and “those who do not”. The latter distinction between “the expert” and “the idiot” is essential for the sustainability of the current regime, and is often reproduced even by the “most progressive” movements and initiatives. We could see avanguard from a different perspective: I am thinking about Deleuzian abstract machine which directs us towards the outside of normativity, towards new experiences and the unexpected…

IS4: Gentrification and production of public spaces

Backseat: Kasparas, what is your opinion on the Bernardinai Garden and its reconstruction?5

K: It is awful.

Backseat: Sereikiškės would be much better?

K: It is a public space that should not exist. It is a horrible example of control, discipline and regulation.

Backseat: But, perhaps, it outweighs nicely: Vingio Park as Central Park and Bernardinai Garden as Champs-Élysées, where one can take a walk on sandy paths.

T: I feel quite a few sentiments to Sereikiškės. I can understand why we need places for families to walk with their baby strollers, why we need a “Central Park” etc., but there are so many forms of life that are being constantly pushed to the periphery. I was a life form that wanted to drink beer in that park at night. I understand how futile this kind of statement sounds when it is not represented in the strong discourse of order and “welfare”. What I have in mind is not even cultured “a couple of beers”, I mean spaces where one can write on walls, break benches, have sex in public… Weak, ugly, anti-aesthetic discourses cannot prove their right to exist by the “strong” means, and most probably they should not try, for it will end in humiliation.

K: But this regulation does not even make that park attractive. Even from a capitalist point of view I cannot see how gentrified spaces work. It is simple, e.g., after gentrification, Užupis6 lost its charm.

T: Charm was “congealed” so that all the surplus and profit can be extracted from it. The same will happen to Stotis and Naujamiestis. Everything is going to be just fine, do not worry.

K: But they will want profit in twenty years, and then it will be much harder to extract it, for the environment that was charming ten years ago will have been destroyed.

T: It will be congealed and turned into a clearly perceived commodity. Where to invest then? To other districts. After that, many buildings can be left abandoned to keep the real estate prices high. I do not think gentrification has “natural limits”, after reaching which it would implode, at least not in Vilnius, not in Lithuania.

K: But it is not as prominent here as, let us say, in London, where districts are gentrified one after another.

T: Yes, compared to London or Warsaw, it is slow, but when I come from Kaunas after a few months, I can see very clearly where the city is “moving” and how in the centre, which I once imagined to be “mine”, spaces I do not want to or simply cannot afford to visit are proliferating. I can see “beautiful” people gathering in certain places and “ugly” people gathering in other places more and more…

Backseat: Is it possible to produce public space as such, at all? It has to appear naturally, when there is a need for it, people have to naturally accommodate this or that corner in the centre or some abandoned building in the Stotis district.

T: Yes, but it happens that, for example, seven people are already living together and they feel the desire to open their home up…

Backseat: “Dvarelis”.7

T: Yes, “Dvarelis”, or a squat, or the punk “Kablys”,8 public spaces can also appear where people are somewhat political. Of course municipality should not “produce” public spaces, it should always be the prerogative of those who live in them.

IS5: The real-ness of common space

K: We need to talk about neighbourhood. The relation between the newcomers (squatters, let us say) and the neighbourhood is essential. Solidarity either appears or it does not.

T: Quite often this relation is instigated by need rather than desire. It is dangerous not to have good relations with the neighbours, you cannot survive without that, especially if you exist in the not-quite-legal zone. This, however, leads to good things: descending from one’s safer space-ivory tower, where you imprisoned yourself, such special, such repressed-by-the-society yourself. Some danger is sometimes beneficial.

K: Threats can help us feel that there are common fights to be fought for the sake of commonality. Commons can have many appearances: bodily, material (resources), common use of space. This is probably that another dimension I was talking about, effacing the limits between public and private and producing new qualities. I am so annoyed by the “democratic” purpose of public spaces, in which “everyone” could take part, where this “everyone” must be discovered as value… Common space is fought for and won by those who need it. When you are talking about squats, if I get you right, you emphasise the necessity of this need, when you need to occupy the space, to fill it with life. Space is not only the place to arrange our armies, it is also where life happens here and now, the Bergsonian duration, which makes all coincidences and events, various everyday connections, possible: common space is real, actual, collective.

Community evening next to the social centre "Clinics", Prague

Community evening next to the autonomous social centre “Klinika”, Prague. Image ©

T: Yes, but how to keep this real space real? There is a lot of mythology around such spaces, lots of modelled formations. Closures, that exclude these spaces, happen. A squat can be completely alienated from what is happening in the city.

K: Always be related to the outside. It is a huge problem and a hard task to perform. For example, if we talk politics, neither nor other publicly active subjects predicted the January 16 riots in Vilnius in 2009. It is good that these forces were not coordinated, but it is not good that we did not manage to contact them. You can have so many active spaces with local communities but still lack this relation to the outside and heterogeneous approach, and it can stop your growth. Common space is a space of becoming and change. Social relations, formerly congealed, mutate in spaces like that, they change their angle and move the way that, for the first time, you can see how that which you desired, that which you only pondered normatively, is finally becoming real.

  1. Former member of Vilnius municipality council, now a slightly insane vagabond poet of the city.  
  2. A village close to Jonava, not far from Kaunas, with historical manor buildings where various activities take place.  
  3. Lithuanian pop band.  
  4. A district of old houses and shacks in the “new centre” of Vilnius, slowly gentrified and taken over by skyscrapers.  
  5. Bernardinai Garden, formerly Sereikiškių Park, was reconstructed in 2013. Now it features singing fountains and sandy paths. It is now forbidden to smoke in the park, it is the first public park in Vilnius that closes at night.  
  6. The “artist” district of Vilnius, once known for its criminal aura and squats, now one of the most expensive.  
  7. Literally, “The Manor”, a now-evicted semi-social space in Vilnius that was rented by some young artists.  
  8. Literally, “The Hook”, a former squat, now a punk venue in Vilnius.  
Tomas Marcinkevičius
June 9, 2015
Published in Tribune
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