Surviving Participation Fatigue: Erased Social Geography

Surviving Participation Fatigue Erased Social Geography (English)

We Used to Protest, Now we participate

Mark Saunders (Spectacle) & Axel Claes (PTTL) co-authored Surviving Participation in 2002.


Surviving Participation Fatigue

Erased Social Geography

Sint-Joost is coloured red on every map I look at. This Brussels borough is near a station, has a red-light district and suffered riots in 1998. It’s also red because of its socialist mayors, and because there are as many Turks as Moroccans, and French and Italians, Spaniards, Congolese, Portuguese, British, Algerians and Dutch.

Due to a slight relaxation of nationality legislation in 2000, the number of inhabitants of foreign nationality, that is residents who are “non citizens” as without Belgian nationality they cannot vote, decreased from 54% in 1991 to 44% in 2000. This red curve moves steadily downward.

In Sint-Joost there are not many old people. On the other hand, lack of schooling among youngsters is a major problem.

Redouan (!), who runs a snack bar, told me how, as a fourteen-year-old young man, he looked forward everyday to the next mathematics lesson. He was arbitrarily advised to switch to the bodywork and sheet-metalwork course. It would take less than this to make you blush with shame about the future. Too many large families here live in cramped conditions, and too many homes are too small and limited in their comforts. Like everywhere else in Brussels, singles form the largest group. There are 7000 families in Sint-Joost, 15,541 people in an area of a little more than half a square kilometre. Only one in four households did not move here during the eighties, which means that residential mobility is huge. The lowest stratum takes refuge in Charleroi, where they live on caravan parks. It is as if Brussels does not want ‘survivors’ to stay within its walls. They are struck out with a red biro.

A Whale called Environment

Throughout Europe, hundreds of dilapidated residential districts like Sint-Joost qualify for financial stimuli from the government, linked to the development of residents’ participation at a local level. This idea originates in and can be widely applied in the struggle for the environment. ‘The environment’ is described by the United Nations, in the treaty of the Economic Commission for Europe, better known as ‘the treaty of Aarhus’ (1998), as surroundings suitable for one’s health, and it is precisely on this point that it becomes interesting: when the concepts of living and managing are seen in the same light, as equal and complementary. In addition, as active principles, they belong to everyone.

Thanks to pressure from environmental movements we find here precisely formulated guarantees for the effective exercise of our citizenship. The treaty of Aarhus is today still not operational. It is up to us not to let this progressive document be neatly arranged into artificial begonias on whole rows of facades behind which you no longer see any houses. This paradox may be undeserved, but in fact politicians only consciously and effectively make use of citizenship in times of war.

We reject all attempts to create a hierarchy of citizenship, as if some deserve (or earn) a higher level of rights than others. The issue is that if the democratic structures are truly equitable, accessible and accountable it is only desirable that all residents enjoy citizen’s rights. If there is a perceived need to differentiate between levels of citizenship it only suggests the political body is disfunctional and needs to change.

City and district contracts paddle cautiously in this potential storm reservoir. District contracts involve government money in four-year programmes to provide stimuli to ‘problematic’ living and working environments in cities. It all revolves around the development and management of public space, socio-professional re-involvement programmes for the long-term unemployed, and housing and community amenities. Money is also provided to encourage resident participation. It is the herald of a gentle collectivisation of local decision-making. Although the term ‘public participation’ (often a euphemism for the organisation of neighbourhood parties and filling letterboxes with glossy leaflets) is often used in this context, something quite different happened in Sint-Joost in 1999.

We used the participation budget to pay for external academic expertise and instruction. Citizens may need assistance in getting their rights recognised, you see. Not without some difficulty, resident’s work-groups were started up, which, in addition to three obligatory annual meetings with the local authority, function in a complementary, thematic fashion. From a legal point of view, they operate as informal, de facto associations, which can influence decisions, among other things about how this resident participation can be made concrete and effective. In this way we were able to pay a veteran social housing activist to take part in meetings. And an independent urbanist assisted the participants in organising broad-ranging discussions. By way of this loose, but financed, structure, their points of view were brought face to face with that section of the population that does not wish to specialise in meetings with politicians. Those residents who are trying to achieve the improvement of their living environment by other means.

Active Strategy

However, from February to May 2001 there was a feeling of overall discouragement within the group of participants. There was still no permanent contact point open or oriented to the neighbourhood. After 18 months of meetings, the local council of Sint-Joost had still not taken a single initiative on minor changes to the appearance of the streets. No extra lighting was installed, no pavement widened. Apart from laying out a semi-public inner garden, there was nothing to see. In this tense micro-climate shocked by strife and hellish homeland disputes, we considered the time was right to organise probing video interviews. With all those involved, as many of them as possible. 
The unemployment office, where PTTL based its radical office, became the recording studio and also the base for video workshops in the neighbourhood. Fifteen, mainly white, residents gave their ideas free rein during the weekends. Two ex-organisers of Mission Locale (an important social employment institution), the mayor, an architect and a fresh, new local politician. Two property owners told of their experiences with the urban renovation subsidy systems. At the end of May we rushed together twelve rough edits sorted by topic, and these aroused plenty of comment when shown at Karim’s house and in the evening at the radical office. Access was made to more than 20 hours of recorded interviews. Certain subjects opened right up. Strangely it appears meetings are not the place to exchange ideas. Floods of talk full of enthusiastic plans, philosophical views and statements...

I don’t like dormitory cities where absolutely nothing happens. I like popular neighbourhoods where the people live on the streets, where the shops are open late at night. And the part close to the city centre, where everything is accessible on foot, by bike or by public transport are particularly attractive. (Bernadette)

It’s a particularly difficult issue to claim that there is cohabitation. Some might say that people are better when they are amongst their own and consequently there are no problems. In the city there is a density that means that human contacts are intense and so the friction is too. But it is easier to say that one will build social housing for the impoverished, because they are there, rather than building social housing in Uccle to save the less favoured districts from ghettoisation. And thus things are left the way they are. (Patrick)

Video screenings spread these lines of thought with the least effort. Watching the interviews together became an alternative event. Words bubbled up that had for too long remained unspoken. Invisible hierarchies that had developed in the course of many meetings, as a result of some people being more outspoken, now ceased to work, were levelled down and made more horizontal in this impetuous, non-preconceived collective zone. Very gradually a space took shape where people listen and everyone can have their say. A group formed, apparently out of thin air, which everyone had thought to be close to a death by withering. As the sixteenth century poet said: shocked by strife and hellish homeland disputes.

Don’t Delete your Messages

When the recordings and the video evenings started to play a part in the preparation of meetings and activities, the documentation and storage of old material became both memory and project. Closely connected to other resources such as starting up a website, the neighbourhood newspaper, combined budget strategies, the free expression of opinion and freedom of association, the archives transformed into a turning wheel that doubled in size everyday. Schools, sociologists, urban planners, artists - they all came to make use of it. It was used in the making of publications and press releases. Once it is written down, you have suddenly produced the content for the neighbourhood newspaper. This spoken word performance is put on the radio. A video image on the new poster. During workshops and public screenings groups are unexpectedly randomly mixed in with other groups, faced with other subjects than the re-laying of a square. Religion! Police! School! (Why do I live here?). These are topics that are analysed everyday in the district. This ever-expanding collection of urban stories is an analytical instrument in collective hands. A critical cultural product for those who wish to look through the lens. The anecdote is virtually a constituent part of it. A drama that is discussed on every side, examined, and thus brings about change.

I believe more than anything that memory has its rights. To refer to Bergson, at the end of ‘Matière et mémoire’: The spirit borrows from matter the perceptions from which it draws its nourishment and repays it in the form of movement, in which it has stamped its freedom.’ (JL Godard)

Psycho-Geographic Acupuncture

To ‘derive’ with a camera. To influence, divert or interfere with energy flows in a particular location by the precise application of a camera.

Psycho-geographic acupuncture is an important tool we have developed as part of our active strategy. To explore a zone, gently probing with the camera to find critical points of sensitivity. Letting the lens and the ‘point of view’ dictate one’s position in the room, pressed up against a wall, lying on the floor, being static and occupying space in a zone of flows.

The camera is not only an exploratory probe but also an instrument for effecting change. Focusing a passer-by’s attention in a minute detail, momentarily disrupting everyday activity, possibly burning an afterimage onto their memory of that day or that place. The cameraman must be sensitive and receptive to approaches from the public, since the camera will certainly attract them.

Diagnosis: A camera is an excellent ‘power detector’. Judicious use of the camera will draw out the power energy of a particular location; ‘You can’t film here’. ‘You need permission’, etc. Without a camera to prick the surface you could pass through a zone all your life while blissfully unaware of how it is infected by power and regulation.

Prescription: We recommend a regular dose of cameraderive as a preventative to complacency, boredom and debilitation. Psychogeographic acupuncture operates best in dry and dramatically lit conditions but can and should be administered in a variety of conditions. It is not possible to overdose. However the uninitiated on their first trip should, ideally, be accompanied by an irresponsible adult.

Possible side effects: “Magic Moments” of video.

Warning: Do not mix with alcohol.

The Great Participation Swindle

In practice all European policies are interpreted through a hierarchy of filters, national and regional government and local city administrations. In order that these policies may be slotted into existing local constitutional structures a degree of domestication is tolerated. This domestication of European urban policy obscures the real driving force behind what often appears, on the ground, to be locally inspired, spontaneous eruptions of enlightenment. Politicians are reluctant to shatter this misconception, for not only is there reflected glory to be had but revealing the true source of their new found interest in notions of participation would also reveal that meaningful participation is a condition of their getting their hands on the budgets. Consequently people believe in the UK that the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and New Deal for the Community (NDC) schemes are Labour Party initiatives, in Brussels that the Contrat de Quartier is a local government initiative, in Florence that the Contrattte di Quartiere is a regional socialist party initiative. This ignorance only facilitates the abuse of the notion of participation.

Politicians understand well that there is the letter and the spirit of any contract, the important thing is to get the money. It is not difficult to put a cynical spin on the idea of participation. You can participate by being “consulted” on a range of pre-determined pseudo-issues such as the style of street lighting. You may participate by being present at an “open day” to gawp, gormlessly at the impressive model of the proposed “fait accompli” towers. Or you might participate by being one of the minimum requirement of two people co-opted onto a board as a resident representative, hopelessly outnumbered by politicians, business interests, representatives of the police and government officers. Unable to bring to bear any real influence, your presence only serves to rubber stamp and to invest some semblance of democracy in decisions that in former times would have been taken anyway, but behind even more firmly closed doors.

We have seen our video work as an antidote to this cynicism, to raise expectations, to shine a light on the European urban policy context, to focus on the notion of citizenship and political rights.

To paraphrase Derrida in Archive Fever, There is no political power without control of the archives.

Politicians, obsessed with self-image, adore a camera. That is an adoring camera in a safe pair of hands. To a politician video is pronounced Public Relations. At best a camera is a useful, but harmless, tool to collect “evidence” of their efforts to “involve” the public in the great participation swindle. But there are some promising moves against this tendency.

Aarhus is a very very very fine house

United Nations Convention:
Recognizing further the importance of the respective roles that individual citizens, non-governmental organizations and the private sector can play in environmental protection.

Recognizing also that every person has the right to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, and the duty, both individually and in association with others, to protect and improve the environment for the benefit of present and future generations.

Considering that, to be able to assert this right and observe this duty, citizens must have access to information, be entitled to participate in decision-making and have access to justice in environmental matters, and acknowledging in this regard that citizens may need assistance in order to exercise their rights.

Recognizing that, in the field of the environment, improved access to information and public participation in decision-making enhance the quality and the implementation of decisions, contribute to public awareness of environmental issues, give the public the opportunity to express its concerns and enable public authorities to take due account of such concerns.

Aiming thereby to further the accountability of and transparency in decision-making and to strengthen public support for decisions on the environment.

(Source : The Aarhus Convention. An Implementation Guide, 1998, www.
Axel Claes PTTL / Mark Saunders Spectacle,

Saint-Josse, January 2002


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