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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsAndrea Mubi Brighenti: ‘Researchers Have a Public Function or Utility to Make the Life of Public Space as Visible as Possible’

Andrea Mubi Brighenti: ‘Researchers Have a Public Function or Utility to Make the Life of Public Space as Visible as Possible’

An international academic conference ‘Street Art in the Changing City: Theoretical Perspectives’ takes place on June 7-8, 2013, at the HSE. The event has been organized by the ‘Graffiti and Street Art in the Cultural Cityscape’ research and study group, and the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities. Experts in modern urban studies will participate in the conference. Keynote speakers are geographer Luke Dickens (Open University of London, United Kingdom) and sociologist Andrea Mubi Brighenti (University of Trento, Italy). They both gave special interviews to HSE news service prior the conference.

Here is the interview with Andrea Mubi Brighenti, a visiting fellow from University of Trento, Italy, where he teaches Social Theory.

— How important is public space in modern cities, especially big ones?

— Over the last 40 years or so, especially in the Anglo-American literature, there has been a veritable mourning about an alleged trend towards the end-of-public-space. In fact, in my view, what we've seen on the ground in many places around the world has been an enhanced cruciality of public space in urban life. Indeed, public space has increased its significance as simultaneously a political stake, an economic asset, and a cultural field. Public space is the space of meeting and friction among subjects who are diverse, and increasingly so. It is also the space of interaction and communication among subjects, often at increasing distance and in mediated forms, as well as the space of ongoing appropriations and resistances of urban territories. What is most needed today is, I think, to enlarge and deepen our conception of public space in order to understand better the technological infrastructure and the power relations that are inherent in this peculiar domain of social life.

— What can be done in a megapolis to create a more friendly atmosphere?

— Atmosphere, or ambience, is an essential notion, whose importance is being increasingly recognized. The atmosphere is simultaneously the in-between and the envelope, what is in the middle and what is around. As such, this notion points at the same time, towards actors and subjects, on the one hand, and towards the architecture of social connections, on the other. I personally don't have any recipe for improving society, but I believe that a clarification of these notions is of extreme importance to imagine and flesh out new options, possibly more mature and reflexive ones.

— How can researchers contribute to the improvement of city life? Have you had any experience of doing it?

— There is an important trend in scholarship that emphasizes the importance of action-research, meaning that research is not only about knowing but also about doing. I concur with the idea that, ultimately, a way of thinking is also a way of living. But I don't really presume that researchers or scholars have necessarily better ways of thinking than the average man in the street. On the contrary, I see my task as, at best, documenting and examining how people do what they do, understanding their practices, discourses and concepts, explicit or implicit as they are. By doing so, what we can hope to do is debunk stereotypes, misconceptions and banal (yet pervasive) misunderstandings, so as to ultimately advance towards the creation of spaces where different and even conflicting ideas and options can be better equipped to understand and face each other. So, to make a long story short, I believe researchers have a public function or utility, which is precisely to make the life of public space as visible as possible. 

— What's the difference between street art in a small town and street art in a big city, like London or Moscow?

— In modernity, large cities have always been centres of innovation and the place where new styles and experiments were launched. Well before contemporary street art, most 19th and 20th century avant-garde movements (loosely speaking) were imbued with urban experience. However, interestingly, since the 1960s art groups, movements and trends have increasingly appeared in marginal, interstitial or peripheral urban spaces. So, overall, what strikes me most is not so much the opposition between large and small cities, rather the extreme differentiation of urban territories, together with the complex and shifting dynamics of centralities and marginalities.

— What do you mean by social interaction in public spaces?

— As I was saying above, public-space-at-large, or, if you want, the 'public domain', is not simply a physical space, but a more complex, stratified and scattered social territory. Interaction in public is thus more akin to a style of social interaction. One might also call it a grammar, but I prefer to emphasize that there is no textbook for this type of practice. In other words, there cannot be any a-priori definition of what counts as public apart from the efforts, strategies and actions of people who take part in this social formation. The reason I emphasize the contingency of public space is that the institutional, organizational and administrative agencies that have been created to regulate public space do not coincide with it. From this point of view, it is normal to expect that they will be challenged. So it is important to say that public space does not coincide at all with public institutions, which in some cases may even act to curb and restrict real public interaction.

— What are the current problems and challenges of big city development?

— They are certainly many more that I can intelligently discuss here. But I would content myself with a short remark that is turning into a kind of obsession for me these days. It concerns measure and its relationship to value. Modernity has been a time when most human measures have been transformed. Since the late 18th century, the modern industrial city has reinvented itself on a new scale to host an urban process that was out-of-scale compared to earlier periods in terms of human density, interaction and differentiation. Today, especially if we look at Asian, African and South-American cities, we are facing a new major shift in terms of city measures. It is not simply a quantitative matter, but the point where quantitative issues turn into qualitative ones. How to establish meaningful measures for our age? What are the circuits of value-creation that we are, almost unconsciously, setting up in the present context? Obviously, I am far from having the answers to these questions, but I am increasingly convinced these are the most pressing questions we need to tackle today.

— What are your goals and expectations for the Moscow conference?

— I'm very happy to take part in this event organized at HSE by an excellent team of scholars, and proud to be invited. It will be my first visit to Russia and I am looking forward to it very much. Moscow is a fascinating metropolis and I hope to have a chance to get to know it better. One of my crucial references is the German intellectual Walter Benjamin, who visited Moscow in the 1920s and wrote a very interesting diary there. So, as I'm setting up my trip, I wonder whether Benjamin would recognize contemporary Moscow…

— How did your cooperation with HSE start? Are you planning any other joint activities?

— I have only recently come into contact with HSE, so I'd love to become better acquainted with your institution and especially with the people working in Cultural Sociology, Urban Studies and the Visual Arts.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE news service

Programme and abstracts