We Are Concerned about the Violence:
Cuts & Breaks in Public Space
Online Conversation 26.02.2021 20:00
With Swati Janu, Jaspal Naveel Singh, Márcio Carvalho, Naky Gaglo in conversation with Manmeet Kaur and António Pedro Mendes
broadcast Via our Facebook & Youtube channel
In this edition of We Are Concerned About The Violence, we salute the spirit of citizens collectivising to assert themselves claiming their rights in their/our own public spaces and we invite everyone to our online conversation to think with the architect, writer and community artist Swati Janu, sociolinguist and linguistic ethnographer Jaspal Naveel Singh, artist Márcio Carvalho and community historian Naky Gaglo in conversation with the team of the long-term residency project The Groundwaters Are Connected,artist-in-residence Manmeet Kaur and co-curator António Pedro Mendes.
The scenario makes visible, yet again, what is already there: the ghosts, the images, the stereotypes (…) But they are, ultimately, flexible and open to change.
Throughout the 21st century, many have been concerned about the representations and uses of this multi-layered space that we tend to define as public space. What is the meaning of sculptures in a “public space”? What history does the name of this or that street represent? What are the symbols one can carry in public space and on what grounds is this decided? Why are certain communities and cultures made visible in the public space as others are made invisible? What role does art have in all these spaces and how much does it contribute to creating a sense of collective memory - or amnesia? And how are communities, underground cultures, hip-hop culture and the artistic communities helping in moulding and reclaiming the idea of public spaces in its (g)local contexts?
We consider the moment we are living to be an important moment of change concerning our perception and usage of public spaces all around the world. A moment where our lifestyles, both in private and public spheres, have been forcibly undergone deep changes due to new realities imposed by the COVID-19 virus pandemic since the beginning of 2020. We live now in a moment of turmoil, one where in certain parts of the globe democracies are being put to the test in order to find a balance between avoiding mass gatherings and still allowing protests to happen, while other regimes are using this exact moment to silence all voices that might oppose them as well as capture more power ideologically and spatially. . This moment when the simple act of wandering in the streets can be considered in so many places around the globe, like in Belarus, South Africa or Philippines, an act of rebellion and disobedience. At this moment when the most human acts of connecting, talking, getting to know, sharing or simply waiting can be judged upon, we deem it necessary in the second edition of We Are Concerned About The Violence to talk about the space that brings us all together, wherever we might be – the public space.
It was not long ago that we witnessed the rapid growth of the globalized movement “Black Lives Matter” since its inception in 2013, and was recently nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace. This movement, initiated as a decentralized political and social movement protesting against police brutality and racially motivated violence against black people, quickly grew both in the physical and the digital public spaces after the 25th of May of 2020, when law enforcers killed the African-American citizen George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. However, this act that shook up and unified so many around the globe under a common voice of protest against the violence enforcement of the law in public spaces has not been the first, nor the last, just within the course of last year. While in India two activists from “Pinjra Tod – an initiative for women reclaiming public spaces” Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal were arrested “for terrorism and criminal conspiracy” after being continously hounded for months by Delhi Police controlled by the Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world. Devangana, Natasha and other such voices had dared to bring communities together out on the streets. In Bielorussia we witnessed since August 2020, a fight that has been going on almost unnoticed by the international public while the voices of activists such as Sergei Tikhanovsky, Maria Kolesnikova, or Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – Alexander Lukashenko’s main opposition during the presidential elections, who claims until now to have won those elections – among many others of politicians, journalists and protesters against the Lukashenko’s regime were silenced. Many of them disappeared without a trace, taking from the streets or their homes, some having their bodies being found days to weeks later, others being taken to prison without a trial, accused of "severe violation of Minsk's public order.” 
Since the start of the century, we have heard many voices rising in protest against political regimes, power and violence of structures and institutions, misrepresentations of peoples and their histories. Whatever the reasons for the protests, and independently of where in the globe they have taken place, we are able to identify one common factor – they all took place in the public space. Now, after one year of a global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus that has put to halt the use of the physical public space as we were used to, we think it’s necessary to rethink the existing spaces of encounter and discussion and to find new spaces to raise our thoughts and our voices.
Where do we find these spaces in the city, open to the common public for discussion, interpretation, discuss matters of justice, politics and daily needs? We could say that many of this sense of immediate need to have human contact, or to satisfy our basic needs – both material or intellectual – found its place in our era in the digital world. One could argue that the digital space is where one finds in current times a sense of nowness and also a space for discussions. But as this last year has proven to many of us all over the world - especially in the industrialised, urban spaces - the lack of a more human and tactile form of contact until here found in public gardens, streets and plazas has been proving to be one of the bigger difficulties to overcome as people still find these spaces absolutely necessary for their daily practices as social beings.
If we think about the evolution of both the notions of “public” and “private”, we will see that with modernization many of the actions that were seemingly public, are now considered private, or are in a limbo that is neither considered one or the other. If we think about commerce in a modern city, we would have to think about stores, supermarkets, malls – all of them belonging to a private sphere more than a public one, even if the use of those spaces is for the common public. However, by closing these actions indoors, by the creation of structures that are responsible for certain social activities, we are – even if we tend to consider some of these spaces to be public – imposing rules on behavior, dress code, and therefore allowing the segregation of many individuals that belong to this greater notion of “public”. From the victory of the (h)angered abortion rights activists from Argentina to Tunisian resistances, to the determined sit-in of farmers and workers in South Asia against neoliberalisation of agriculture and right to fair price for their produce, we see many collective self-assertion in public space. It is the most unfortunate that the peoples and communities of the world have been pushed to this brink that they have no other alternative than to assemble in a precarious public space at the height of the pandemic, to be just heard.
In most communities, public space plays an important role both as a space of discussion and conviviality, as well as a space for political and cultural representations. Because public spaces are the pumping hearts of urban spaces, they are often perceived as spaces of remembrance. However, in this same process of remembering, there is also an ongoing - many times intentional - process of forgetting, of erasure or manipulation of certain historical moments to establish and perpetrate the dominant ideology – economic, cultural and social. These selected memories are often set in stone in public spaces, as a way to “educate”, to “preserve” or to “venerate”, in the forms of sculptures, memorials, or street names.
In the Western world, as in many formerly colonised countries, we still cross plazas, streets and buildings that celebrate only one side of the history. However, in the last decade we have seen how more and more artists, activists and even civilians have raised their voices against this one-sided way of representing and imposing history by the use of eurocentric sculptures in public spaces. Last year, we rejoiced over the toppling of the 17th century slave trader statue in Bristol, and its replacement by a sculpture of Jen Reid, a black female activist representing the Black Lives Matter movement. As representation in the public space seems to be recognized ever more as a way to keep and create memories, and even a sense of collective memory that helps us to create our sense of identity, many artists have been contributing to an active change of the public perspectives on history and representation – through sculptural or performative interventions.
One of the most striking and persistent movements of making and shaking public spaces is Hip-Hop culture that has been active since the 1970’s in reclaiming spaces and visibility, for the voices who weren’t heard, let alone represented in this so-called “public space”. Hip Hop has been used as a tool to exchange skills and knowledge on the streets, in multitudes of its artforms. Emcees, musicians, breakers and graffiti artists have raised awareness through performative protests and their revolt has re-staged the streets. It celebrates the culture of “meeting on the corner of the street” to exercise freedom of expression. As a global street culture, it continues to challenge the ways in which these common urban spaces are conditioned to be used. It interlinks different age groups and occupations, surfacing, subverting and undergoing the layers of divisions and unions emerging out of urban spheres of human life. It is clear how Hip Hop influenced our language, our urban landscapes - through graffiti or ways of dressing, expressions and lingos or even our actions in public spaces, creating a sense of shared space within communities but also ways of expressing discontent towards imposed political, social or economical structures. At this moment where both institutional and public art are in the state of pause, and creating new spaces, words and styles of representation, we are wondering collectively to think of how much the artworld, especially the performance arts challenge the dominant ideologies by unpacking the layered histories that exist in our public spaces? We would wonder too, how languages that evolve on the street become slogans in mo(ve)ments of collective resistances – physically and virtually.
Above all, we just want to hang out.
Swati Janu is an architect, writer and community artist based in Delhi whose work engages with social justice and housing rights in Indian cities. She is the Founder of the interdisciplinary design practice Social Design Collaborative which was recently awarded the Beazley Design of the Year 2020 in Architecture. The team works with under-represented and self-organised communities in building community spaces through collective efforts. Working in collectives for community engagement forms the core of Swati's practice which strives to combine activism and bottom-up efforts with policy advocacy. A graduate from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, Swati also holds an MSc in Sustainable Urban Development from University of Oxford, UK. She has taught at School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi and currently teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi
Jaspal Naveel Singh is a sociolinguistic and linguistic ethnographer. His PhD thesis explored voice and narrative in hip hop dance, music and art in Delhi, India. Prior to coming to the University of Hong Kong, he taught at Cardiff University in Wales, UK, and at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Jaspal works ethnographically and is interested in the complex interconnections between language (languaging) and culture (transculturation). He takes inspiration from sociolinguistics, discourse studies, classic Western and Eastern philosophy, hip hop and other Black diasporic traditions, to arrive at a type of research that complexifies standard approaches in the social sciences and problematizes research ethics and common-sense writing strategies.
Marcio Carvalho is an artist whose projects are primarily focused on collective technologies and practices of remembering, and how they influence individual and group memory of past events. Carvalho shares the ancestors of two distinct world geographies with distinct epistemological and belief systems – Portugal and Angola – and it is based on them that he complicates the notions of autobiographical and collective remembrance. His work examines public life and archives, autobiographical memory and collective memory, with a focus on acts of remembering and their biological, cultural and social influences. He uses performance art as a process-based practice and a tool to examine representational memories that are embedded in different urban and private settings, specially the ones that still commemorate colonialism and imperialism at the cost of indigenous peoples’ exploitation and oppression. In an attempt to interrupt the ways official narratives create an idea and experience of the past, and with the objective of finding stories that can counterpoint the hegemony of history with a capital H, Carvalho collaborated with distinct peoples, communities and groups worldwide, where he uses art as collaboration to find "memory", to bring to surface non-western perspectives and technologies of knowledge and to complicate what constitutes today's notions of collective remembrance.
Naky Gaglo was born in Lome (Togo) and is a freelancer who has been working in many different areas of expertise. Driven by his passion for history, he created in 2014 African Lisbon Tour, a platform created with the goal to research and share knowledge on the lost, unknown and silenced history of Portugal and the African continent using guided tours around the city of Lisbon as a stage to navigate those knowledges. Being born in a country which had been a former colony of two european countries, German and France, he was surprised to notice the lack of interest in African history while living in Berlin and more even after moving to Portugal in 2014, where traces of the undeniable intertwined Portuguese and African histories were barely present. This gave him the motivation to create a tour where he could show this forgotten sides of the Portuguese African history, and how much its presence was missing from the public space.
Gaglo is conscious that there is still a lot to do and is continuously digging to reveal the most infos as much as possible. He is currently working along with several international networks of African history groups spread around the world with whom knowledge and experiences are shared in conversations that take place in the digital space and can be accessed by all.
Manmeet Kaur India's pioneer femcee, born in Kashmir and raised in Punjab, creates and performs poetry on rhythms, voicing her hope-full social perception as a stoic explorer of sounds to materialize harmony, challenging the often ignored, self-destructive social aspirations hailing in today's hyper-competitive digital world of materialistic human mind. Her expertise of practise lies in performing live lyrical improvisations with bands, along with rapping travelogues on swingy hip hop beats. Her audio visual documents so far depict her travel across India and through the European continent. She is currently in an artistic residency at SAVVY Contemporary and has just launched her latest album The Groundwaters Are Connected.
António Pedro Mendes developed his professional practice between Lisbon and Berlin as curator, researcher and coordinator of artistic projects. His research focuses on topics related to the interaction of collective memory and public space. Since February 2018, he is a member of SAVVY Contemporary, where he has been part of several projects and exhibitions. In 2019, he produced the performance series Demythologise That History and put it to Rest– a project by artist and curator Marcio Carvalho, developed between Lisbon and Berlin. In October 2019, he started co-curating the annual residency The Groundwaters Are Connected – a SAVVY Contemporary project financed by the Martin Roth Institute through which he has been closely collaborating with Manmeet Kaur.
He is currently developing his research on the effects of Lusotropicalism and the creation of the myth of the Portuguese Empire and its reflections on the Portuguese public spaces in former colonial empires.
ARTISTIC DIRECTION Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Elena Agudio, Arlette-Louise Ndakoze
Project Team Manmeet Kaur, Abhishek Nilamber, António Pedro Mendes
COMMUNICATIONS Anna Jäger
STREAMing Boiling Head Media
This initiative is organised by SAVVY Contemporary, specifically by the team of the project THE GROUNDWATERS ARE CONNECTED, generously supported by the Martin Roth Initiative.
Deutsche Welle: "The Lukashenko regime's persecution of Belarus journalists": https://www.dw.com/en/the-lukashenko-regimes-persecution-of-belarus-journalists/a-56377758
Archie Bland. "Edward Colston statue replaced by sculpture of Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid", The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/15/edward-colston-statue-replaced-by-sculpture-of-black-lives-matter-protester