Spatial Justice: A Frame for Reclaiming our Rights to Be, Thrive, Connect and Express

Space is currently functioning as one the most important resources for the expression of disapproval and outrage in this political moment. We are convinced that we can use it even better. Our new paper on Spatial Justice outlines our ideas for that, as well as putting them in the historical context of both spatial justice and injustice. Download it here. For more of our writings, check out our Writings Page.

How to Occupy and Abstraction by Mackenzie Wark

The occupation isn't actually on Wall Street, of course. And while there is actually a street called Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, “Wall Street” is more of a concept, an abstraction. So what the occupation is doing is taking over a little (quasi) public square in the general vicinity of Wall Street in the financial district and turning it into something like an allegory. Against the abstraction of Wall Street, it proposes another, perhaps no less abstract story.

The abstraction that is Wall Street already has a double aspect. On the one hand, Wall Street means a certain kind of power, an oligopoly of financial institutions which extract a rent from the rest of us and in exchange for which we don't seem to get very much. “What's good for General Motors is good for America” was the slogan of the old military industrial complex. These days the slogan of the rentier class is: “What's good for Goldman Sachs is none of your fucking business.”

 This rentier class is an oligopoly that makes French aristocrats of the 18th century look like serious, well organized administrators. If the rhetoric of their political mouthpieces is to be believed, this rentier class are such hot house flowers that they won't get out of bed in the morning for less than a thousand dollars a day, and their constitutions are so sensitive that if anyone says anything bad about them they will take their money and sulk in the corner. They have, to cap it all, so mismanaged their own affairs that vast tracts of public money were required to keep them in business.

The abstraction that is Wall Street also stands for something else, for an inhuman kind of power, which one can imagine running beneath one's feet throughout the financial district. Let's call this power the vectoral. It's the combination of fiber optic cables and massive amounts of computer power. Some vast proportion of the money in circulation around the planet is being automatically traded even as you read this. Engineers are now seriously thinking about trading at the speed of light. Wall Street in this abstract sense means our new robot overlords, only they didn't come from outer space.

How can you occupy an abstraction? Perhaps only with another abstraction. Occupy Wall Street took over a more or less public park nestled in the downtown landscape of tower blocks, not too far from the old World Trade Center site, and set up camp. It is an occupation which, almost uniquely, does not have demands. It has at its core a suggestion: what if people came together and found a way to structure a conversation which might come up with a better way to run the world? Could they do any worse than the way it is run by the combined efforts of Wall Street as rentier class and Wall Street as computerized vectors trading intangible assets?

Some commentators have seen the modesty of this request as a weakness of Occupy Wall Street. They want a list of demands, and they are not shy about proposing some. But perhaps the best thing about Occupy Wall Street is its reluctance to make demands. What's left of pseudo-politics in the United States is full of demands. To reduce the debt, to cut taxes, to abolish regulations. Nobody even bothers with much justification for these any more. It is just sort of assumed that only what matters to the rentier class matters at all.

Its not that the rentier class buys politicians in America. Why bother when you can rent them by the hour? In this context, the most interesting thing about Occupy Wall Street is its suggestion that the main thing that's lacking is not demands, but process. What is lacking is politics itself. 

It may sound counter-intuitive, but there really is no politics in the United States. There is exploitation, oppression, inequality, violence, there are rumors that there might still be a state. But there is no politics. There is only the semblance of politics. Its mostly just professionals renting influence to favor their interests. The state is no longer even capable of negotiating the common interests of its ruling class.

Politics from below is also simulated. The Tea Party is really just a great marketing campaign. It's a way of making the old rentier class demands seem at least temporarily appealing. Like fast food, it will seem delicious until the indigestion starts. It's the Contract on America, its Compassionate Conservatism, but with new ingredients! The Tea Party was quite successful. But you can't fool all of the people all of the time, and no doubt there's a new marketing campaign waiting in the wings for when it runs out of steam. But none of this is anything but the semblance of a politics.

So the genius of the occupation is simply to suggest that there could be a politics, one in which people meet and propose and negotiate. This suggestion points to the great absence at the center of American life: a whole nation, even an empire, with no politics.

Wall Street is a name for an abstraction with the double sense of a rentier class which uses vectoral power to control resources that bypasses political processes which at least had to negotiate with popular interests. Against this, the occupation proposes another abstraction, and it too has a double aspect. 

On the one hand, it's a physical thing, a taking of space. This has confused the New York Police Department, which has responded with clumsy tactics. It just can't figure out what to do with an ongoing occupation that is peaceful and mostly content to camp out, but which swells on the weekends to thousands of people. There's a danger that it could become about the NYPD and its cack-handed arrests and either devious or incompetent crowd management.

It is possible that Occupy Wall Street has the rentier class a bit spooked. Not that they would be too bothered by a few anarchists, but they are bothered by the very possibility of any cascading of events that could really catch fire from this largely symbolic action. In the absence of any real competence at the growth and refinement of a political economy, the rentier class has basically decided to loot and pillage from what is left of the United States and to hell with the consequences. They just don't want to be caught doing it.

The taking of a tiny square in downtown New York hardly impinges on the power of the vector. It doesn't even inconvenience the minions who work in the surrounding offices, but the actual occupation is connected to a more abstract kind of occupation, and the slightest hint that it could spread disturbs the fragile constitutions of the rentier sensibility.

The occupation extends out into the intangible world of the vector, but not in the same way as Wall Street. The cop who was stupid enough to pepper-spray some women who were already cordoned off behind orange mesh was quickly identified by hackers, and all his information appeared on the internet for all to see. The incident on the Brooklyn bridge where the police let people onto the roadway and then arrested them for being on the roadway is on the internet from multiple angles. The occupation is also an occupation of the social media vector.

The so-called mainstream media doesn't quite know how to deal with this. The formalities of how 'news' is now made is so baroque that news outlets descended to weird debates about whether the occupation is 'news.' It doesn't have top tier publicists. It didn't issue free samples. It doesn't buy advertising space. It started without any celebrity spokesmodels. So how can it be news? The occupation exposed the poverty of reporting in America. And that in itself is news. 

The abstraction that is the occupation is then a double one, an occupation of a place, somewhere near the actual Wall Street; and the occupation of the social media vector, with slogans, images, videos, stories. “Keep on forwarding!” might not be a bad slogan for it. Not to mention keep on creating the actual language for a politics in the space of social media. The companies that own those social media vectors will still collect a rent from all we say and do—not much can be done about that—but at least the space can be occupied by something other than cute cat pictures.

While intellectuals have gotten into the habit of talking about The Political, the occupation has proceeded by creating a lower-case-politics which is abstract and yet at the same time completely everyday. Its no accident that it started with what we might broadly define as 'anarchists', who have been working on both the theory and the practice for some time now.

The organized labor movement started paying attention when it looked like the anarchists and the following they drew would not be easily dissuaded by bad weather or the NYPD. It is as if organized labor woke up one morning, saw that the occupation was still going strong, and said to itself “I must follow them, for I am its leader!” It beats trying to steal members from already unionized workplaces, which seems to be mostly what the unions do.

By now what we have here is what I would call a weird global media event. It is an event in that nobody knows what will happen next. It is a media event in that it's fate is tied to the occupation of the double space of Zucotti square and the media at the same time. It is a global media event at least since the NYPD arrested people on the Brooklyn Bridge and handed the occupation great free publicity. (Thanks guys!) And it is a weird global media event in that it has unprecedented elements that set it outside the staple stories of now boredom, dissent, utopia and all that other stuff is usually managed and assuaged. 

For example, commentators tie themselves in knots over whether it is a social movement or not. It is an occupation. It is in the title in case you missed it: Occupy Wall Street. Those who have been paying attention will notice it is part of a global wave of anarchist inspired occupations, big and small. My own university, the New School for Social Research, was occupied in 2008, however briefly. This is a tactic that has been tried and refined for a few years now.

An occupation is conceptually the opposite of a movement. A movement aimed for some internal consistency within itself but uses space just as a place to park its ranks. An occupation has no internal consistency in its ranks but chooses meaningful spaces which have significant resonance into the abstract terrain of symbolic geography.

That it just doesn't do some of the things social movements do is part of why its working, at least so far. It is as remote from The Political as some intellectuals would have it, but it is also different to the Social Forum politics of the recent past as well. For those who want a theory to go with the practice, you will have to look elsewhere than to Negri or Badizek (Badiou+Zizek). There's no multitude; there's no vanguard.

If the occupation is a little confusing for us intellectuals, take pity on our poor billionaire mayor! Bloomberg suggested that the occupation was inconveniencing regular banker struggling on a mere 40k-50k per year. The average household income in my neighborhood, which is quite a nice one, is just under 40k per year—and that's household income. The “poor bankers!” line seems unlikely to garner much sympathy.

So as to how this plays out, nobody knows. That's how it is with weird global media events. It's a test of wills. The NYPD are not quite ready to use strong force in case that's counter-productive. There could be quite a few people—anarchists or not—willing to get arrested. There could be quite a reservoir of popular support. For once the object of the occupation is something generally held in low regard by just about everybody who doesn't benefit from it. The key is keeping the focus on the abstraction that is Wall Street, the pernicious effects of which pretty much everyone feels in their daily life.  

I've Lived: Post-It Notes for Neighbors

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Finnish designer Candy Chang’s installation in Brooklyn explores the price of housing, owner/renter mobility, and location. Over the course of one week and several rainstorms, Candy collected data on participants’ homes: their size, location, cost, and duration of occupancy.  She publicly displayed these before aggregating the data into infographics reflecting the city’s housing strata.

Her work yields potential avenues for our thinking about Life Lab to walk.  Where she sought to uncover a community narrative, she found a suitable format for engagement.  The Post-its contain much information, are accessible to anyone who has played Madlibs or done grammar homework, and are easily disseminated and logged.

Wanting to dig more deeply into the ramifications of housing costs, DS4SI’s job is to visualize the same data in real time, while maintaining a participatory format.  There are questions of exchange that we’d need to explore – how to solicit and instantly display the information (exchange between source and result) or how to productively interact with participants (an exchange of labor).

An obvious difference between Life Lab and I’ve Lived is the latter’s emphasis on history.  Chang looks at the occupants’ time spent in the neighborhood and the data yields lessons about mobility, suggesting that lifetime residents are considerably advantaged over renters.  Life Lab frames issues in a sense of urgency.  It says real people have x, y, and z going on in (y)our neighborhood, and publicly creating ideas together will help us intervene.

A successful deployment of Life Lab could bridge this difference if we give some thought to foregrounding the context in which we place the installation.

I’ve Lived was part of the Windows Brooklyn exhibit that paired artists with storefront windows in Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens June 14-22, 2008.

Design Will Save The World

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The Design Studio often asks, where can you mix it up between the urban, architecture, design, transportation, energy, art and fashion? We find these places of intersection generative and exciting.

With the tagline Inhabit: Design will save the described themselves as a “weblog devoted to the future of design, tracking the innovations in technology, practices and materials that are pushing architecture and home design towards a smarter and more sustainable future.”  But from solar powered stadiums to foldable compact bicycles, an eco fashion show and an ancient church converted into a modern bookstore, there is a lot to taste here.

For example:

Re-inventing ordinary street dividers and concrete balls, Liesbet Bussche creates larger-than-life jewelry pieces for the streets of Amsterdam. The Belgian designer makes small interventions to the street scape, a charm to a chain or earring backs to a concrete ball. However, altogether the jewelry can easily make any passer-by smile upon finding a serendipitous change in the uniform vocabulary of the urban landscape.

Design Shaping New Possibilities for Urban Life

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So DS4SI has been thinking about a LifeLab to bring divergent fields together to consider design solutions to a familiar problem: how can we rearrange our lives so we can afford them, so they don’t destroy the earth, and so they aren’t completely dependent on the very systems that dispossess our local communities. Here are some European folks thinking along similar lines with us from across the pond and some interested examples to learn from and share. Check out “RESHAPING URBAN LIVES – DESIGN AS SOCIAL INTERVENTION TOWARDS COMMUNITY NETWORKS”

Conflux 2009 this weekend in NYC

From architects to skateboarders, Conflux participants have an enthusiasm for the city that’s contagious. Over the course of the long weekend the sidewalks are literally transformed into a mobile laboratory for creative action. With tools ranging from traditional paper maps to high-tech mobile devices, artists present walking tours, public installations and interactive performance, as well as bike and subway expeditions, workshops, a lecture series, a film program and live music performances at night.

Don’t miss —

The Village Voice describes Conflux as a “network of maverick artists and unorthodox urban investigators… making fresh, if underground, contributions to pedestrian life in New York City, and upping the ante on today’s fight for the soul of high-density metropolises.”

[MURMUR] Making Place Matter

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Are the places that matter most to you part of the official narrative of your city? Chances are they are not…

But projects like [murmur] help to make places matter for everyone. The latest launch comes to us from a group of high school students in Orange, NJ recorded people’s stories about places and developed this:

At its core, [murmur]‘s mission is to allow more voices to be woven into the “official” narrative of a place or city, democratizing the ability to shape people’s perspectives of place, and making cities, neighbourhoods and ordinary places come alive in new ways for listeners. [murmur]’s stories, though personal or even purely anecdotal, inevitably reveal elements of the wider social, civic and political history of a given spot, its surrounding location, and the communities and individuals connected to it. And each story’s details truly come alive as the listener walks through, around, and into the narrative. By engaging with [murmur], people develop a new intimacy with their surroundings and “history” acquires a multitude of new voices, while the physical experience of hearing a story in its actual setting – of hearing the walls talk – brings uncommon knowledge to common space, bringing people closer to the real histories that make up their world, and to one another.

What places would you put on the [murmur] map in your city?

You can join us for the official launch party!!

[murmur] Orange Launch Party, Ironworks Studio, 406 Tompkins Street, Orange, NJ 07050,

Sunday September 20, 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.

Directions from nyc: Take the 1:11 NJ Transit train from Penn Station to Highland Ave.  From Highland Ave.: Walk downstairs and go right on Freeman Street, walk two blocks and turn left on Tompkins Street.  Ironworks Studio will be on your left.

Mapping the "Scratch and Sniff" Experience of the City

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Check out this guy's map!

Scents and the City
New York secretes its fullest range of smells in the summer; disgusting or enticing, delicate or overpowering, they are liberated by the heat. So one sweltering weekend, I set out to navigate the city by nose. As my nostrils led me from Manhattan’s northernmost end to its southern tip, some prosaic scents recurred (cigarette butts; suntan lotion; fried foods); some were singular and sublime (a delicate trail of flowers mingling with Indian curry around 34th Street); while others proved revoltingly unique (the garbage outside a nail salon). Some smells reminded me of other places, and some will forever remind me of New York.

Foreclosures Continue...

From CityLife/VidaUrbana, Boston:

Foreclosed families gathered on September 2nd, at 5:30 pm in front of
Deutsche Bank’s annual lavish dinner for the PGA’s top golfers at the
4 Seasons Hotel in Downtown Boston to protest the bank’s continued
foreclosures and evictions of Massachusetts and Rhode Island
residents, and demand an end to unfair foreclosures and
post-foreclosure evictions.

Coalition Opposes Deutsche’s Sporting Life…Demand an End to “Fore!”closures
Deutsche Bank was responsible for 14% of all foreclosures in the past
12 months in Massachusetts and 20% of all post-foreclosures evictions
in Rhode Island in 2008. Deutsche Bank has refused to let families
in foreclosed buildings stay in their homes. One such family is the
Gonzalez family, tenants of 77 Waldo Street, Providence, RI, whom
Deutsche Bank is planning to evict sometime after September 1st.
A coalition of community groups took their demands directly to
Deutsche on September 2nd. Because, despite the economic downturn
which Deutsche helped to create through their role in mortgage
securitization and the personal economic devastation Deutsche has
created and continues to create for many Bay state and Ocean state
residents, Deutsche Bank continues its sponsorship of lavish events
such as the Deutsche Bank Invitational Golf Championship, taking place
this upcoming weekend in Norton, MA, and the annual pre-tournament
dinner at the 4 Seasons Hotel across from the Public Garden in
Downtown Boston. Dinner invitees, including tournament sponsors, PGA golfers, and local elected officials have been invited to take part in the rally to show their support for local families.

Think Different: Lessons for the Left from Madison Avenue

This article by our friend Stephen Duncombe was printed in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest.

The Power of Desire

Progressives can learn a valuable lesson from advertising: desire can be power. Advertising circumvents reason, working with the personal, the magical and associative.  A journey of universal emotions rather than an argument of fact, it’s appeal is not cognitive, but primal. Advertising is visceral.This emotionality, perhaps all emotionality, disturbs progressives. As heirs to the Enlightenment, progressives have learned to privilege reason. Feelings motivate the others: those bible thumpers, consumers, reactionaries, terrorists, the mob. All true, but emotions also motivate progressive politics. The problem is not desire, but where desire has been channeled. The solution is not to abandon emotion with appeals to “reason” or “logic” or “fact,” but to rearticulate desire as desire for freedom and justice, desire for a better world, an ardent desire to kick some conservative ass.

We Love Lewis!

I was just looking in my copy of Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. It’s one of the Studio’s favorite books! Here’s a little quote from it.

“Beware the social system that cannot laugh at itself, that responds to those who do not know their place by building a string of prisons.”