studying the city (Annette Koh)

Public space, the right to the city, and civic engagement. How can we improve equity and access through participatory urbanism? Ph.D. student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Former resident of Seoul & San Francisco.
Recent Tweets @spamandkimchi
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In the nightmare of participation, political subjects become caught in the logic of an iconic participation, a representative participation that has been exaggerated to the point of hollowness.

The power of this participation is the power of the mesmerizing icon: It sustains the nightmare that we cannot wake up from, and it compels us to go on playing our assigned roles. Why has participation become a nightmare? The history is longer than we can tell here. Start looking a few decades back, to the 1980s, when the Western political model of participation as a legitimizing force emerged—a significant step in the evolution of late capitalism’s political theater.

It is participation as instrumentalized political practice. Participation becomes a scripted scenario of liberal democracy, into which you insert the necessary actors, props, lighting, cameras, and mechanized monsters.

Jeremy Beaudry and Bassam El Baroni, Postscript to The Nightmare of Participation, November 2010. (via post-carbon)

At a common sense level, research was talked about both in terms of its absolute worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument. It told us things already known, suggested things that would not work, and made careers for people who already had jobs. ‘We are the most researched people in the world’ is a comment I have heard frequently from several different indigenous communities. The truth of such a comment is unimportant, what does need to be taken seriously is the sense of weight and unspoken cynicism about research that the message conveys. (p 3)

Linda Tuhiwai Smith's book Decolonizing Methodologies is a touchstone for many at the University of Hawai’i. I’m excited to be reading it for a seminar on methodologies this semester.

INQ13 | Linda Tuhiwai Smith & Eve Tuck “Decolonizing Methodologies” from JustPublics365 [Her talk begins at 10:25]

I have the hiccups. That is all.

I have the hiccups. That is all.

I’m venturing into the performance and aesthetics literature to better understand how our expectations and actions in urban space are changing. I keep on getting distracted while reading because I want to look up all the artists mentioned. Lux Boreal is a contemporary dance company based in Tijuana that plays a lot with public space performances. Via Hopkins, D. J., and Kim Solga, eds. Performance and the Global City. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Presentación final de la clase de montane del Curso de Verano de Lux Boreal 2009 en Tijuana B.C. Se invadió sin previo a viso un espacio publico en Plaza Río.


There is a twitter account entitled, “Shit Academics Say,” which rings so true and which I love so much that I’ve been retweeting entries periodically.  Here are some of their recent entries that made me snort with laughter while hanging my head in shame:

1. “Email me to remind me to email you.”

2. “You had me at ‘hence.’”

3. “I am outdoorsy.  I look out the window when I work.”

4. “I’ll be there in just a minute.  I just gotta finish writing this one thing.”

5. “I will not work over the holidays.  I will not work over the holidays.  Except those reviews and revisions that should only take a few hours.”

6. “Praxis.”

7. “Nothing. I was talking to myself.”

8. “I had a dream that I cheated on my manuscript with another manuscript.”

9. “If you want it done right, don’t tell your co-authors until it is done.”

10. “I crossed my arms halfway through the talk to clearly express my displeasure with the speaker unjustifiably equating our lines of work.”

Seriously, fellow academics: run, don’t walk, towards this twitter site.  It gave me countless hours of amusement.

This recent tweet got passed around and made me giggle. A guide to interpreting faculty feedback, via @AcademicsSay. 

What They Say: Very interesting

What You Hear: They are impressed!

What They Mean: Clearly nonsense

Andrea Lange’s Refugee Talks (1998, Audio & video installation, 33 min) features nine sequences of individuals or groups each performing a song. All refugees from different countries living in the same reception center in Oslo during the winter of 1998, the participants chose songs relevant to their own lives.

Description from Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Always framed amid a setting of apparent bourgeois domesticity – whether reclining back comfortably, or perched awkwardly on a couch – the refugees sing in a cappella, staring straight to the camera. They sing songs that evoke origin and a sense of place, songs and lamentations in their own languages. Sometimes, however, they sing in accents and expressions that are more familiar to people in the West: a woman sings an old blues standard, her voice drenched in the history of the Mississippi delta; two young girls dance to the Spice Girls and declare that, ‘If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends.’

Lange took her video camera to a reception centre for refugees in Norway. Awaiting confirmation or denial of their residency applications, the refugees ‘speak’ this state of ‘becoming’ through the medium of music. Exhibited at life-size scale, Refugee Talks asks the viewer to listen directly to these contemporary psalms and to reflect on the emotions and experiences being communicated.

Refugee Talks is a work that emerges directly from an engaged humanist commitment. In acknowledging the humanity of the refugees, the viewer comes to an understanding that spaces once designated as separate and different – political space, geographic space, cultural space – can possibly be transcended through music and song. This is the promise of artistic space.


People’s Climate March September 21st in NYC. Photo/ image by @jetsonorama

Some beautiful posters from the JustSeeds Artists’ Cooperative for the upcoming Climate Justice gathering in NYC. Downloadable pdfs here.

People’s Climate March poster designed by Crystal Clarity: “These Illustrations came from Hurricane Sandy. They focus on the horrible disparity that was amplified after the storm. Highlighted, the organized rescue efforts of community based organizers. ( the people’s lifeboats). During Sandy it became clear to a lot of us that our communities were not really a priority and that those with the means to afford alternative housing or had money and could afford to relocate were able to escape horrific tragedy. Those without this access were left behind in unlivable situations. It shows the struggle of those left without resources who then became resourceful.” 

Last week’s Civil Beat Cafe on homelessness reminded me that one major frustration I have with public forums and discussions is our tendency to only accept efficient/rational/articulate/unemotional communication as legitimate. How do we create spaces for democratic discourse and participation when the only kind of participation desired is one that requires Speech & Debate rhetorical abilities. Is storytelling legitimate? Is swearing ever allowed? Can your personal history be foregrounded? Is anguish legitimate? How about rudeness? If you cry, will people listen more carefully or dismiss you more easily? 


[Gulf Coast residents at a public meeting re: BP Deep Water oil disaster]

I’m not immune to the feeling of “hurry it up and get to the point.” I will squirm during an endless “3-part question.” But in general, as long as the panel discussant or audience member abides by the implicit or explicit rules of meeting etiquette, we will just silently roll our eyes. In most cases, it is the people who violate those rules of polite politics who are dismissed as illegitimate.

In fact, facilitation techniques like the notecard Q&A session (hand out notecards for people to write down their questions, then the organizers or speakers consolidate or select questions in the interest of time) are often used specifically to manage potentially contentious or long-winded audiences. Though my efficient soul thrills to these types of time management tools, my community planning brain says "wait a second, what is the effect of taking the words out of an individual’s mouth and having those words spoken or even revised by a person on stage?" Notecards narrow down the kinds of possible communication even further. Written words only please! And nevermind language access.

This is an ongoing concern in community planning. Are public meetings actually accessible to all publics? How do you go beyond words to practice inclusiveness in a meeting?

So this article “This is how I want to live my life”: An Experiment in Prefigurative Feminist Organizing for a More Equitable and Inclusive City got me excited as a case study on how one organization, City for All Women Initiative (CAWI), attempts to bring the often neglected voices of poor women and immigrant women in city decision-making. They did this by not only demystifying City Hall for their members, but also by enacting the kind of inclusive politics they wanted city politics to become.


Siltanen, Janet, Fran Klodawsky, and Caroline Andrew.
“This is how I want to live my life”: An Experiment in Prefigurative Feminist Organizing for a More Equitable and Inclusive City
Antipode (2014).

Excerpts below, with images and emphases added. For some reason the CAWI website is down, so I’ve pulled images from multiple other sources.

Prefiguration* is an effort to bring desired futures actively into being in the present. It promotes valuing the quality of everyday experience, and the processes of achieving change, as central to the doing of politics. 

The work of prefigurative feminist politics, perhaps particularly at the local level, is in many ways an example of the spectacular of the mundane (Rowbotham 1989) and the “modest beginnings” and “small achievements” involved in “starting where you are” (Gibson-Graham 2006:195–196). It is in the mundane, minute, everyday decisions about how we speak with and listen to people, acknowledge their life experience, feed them, celebrate them, collaborate with them that the personal becomes political.


[Ottawa City Hall]

CAWI also consciously tries to keep a visible profile at City Hall and does so by making use of City Hall resources. One reason for doing so is to help its members feel more at home within City Hall premises—to be seen as, and to feel themselves as, insiders who know their way around. Another is to keep the presence of CAWI and its interests visible to city staff and councillors. 

…although CAWI works to keep a visible presence at City Hall, its heart is in the community. This is marked symbolically and practically by having its “office” in the home of the Executive Director. Finally, CAWI does not receive any form of core funding from the City. Although it is a struggle to remain so, it is financially autonomous, which brings it greater liberty in terms of its self-definition.


[A Houston resident testifies in support of an equal rights ordinance] 

In articulating CAWI’s effort to support the creation and expression of new subjectivities, a CAWI woman says of the organization “it’s a place to become someone”. A strategy CAWI adopts in order to encourage confidence and self-valuing is to always think carefully about how each meeting can communicate the worth of the participants. Food is usually offered and presented with care. Religious and other food requirements are addressed. Introductions—of everyone—are always made. Provisions to support inclusion—language translations, accessible meeting venues, covering the costs of child/elder care and transportation—are anticipated and provided as much as possible. The message aimed for is that you are welcome, you belong and your skills are valued. 


[Ottawa City Council meeting from Does this kind of meeting space welcome attendees from the community?]

Examples of this type of prefigurative political engagement are hard to capture, as they often involve a quality of interaction and public presence that is not easily conveyed. Quite often CAWI presents alternative possibilities visually, tangibly and creatively: speaking to a meeting as a group, when a single spokesperson is expected; singing their views to council, when a more formal presentation is the norm; requiring that attention be paid to cultural, religious, adaptive and language needs; engaging in pointed symbolic gestures, and using artistic media (spoken word poems, music, dance, poetry, video, theatre, drawing) as ways to generate and communicate ideas and sentiments.

* [I have to thank John for introducing the concept of prefigurative politics to me via a recommendation of Wini Breines’ book Community and Organization in the New Left, 1962-1968. So, thanks!] 

I’m having disciplinary dysphoria. Longing to be at the American Sociological Association conference (I have a spouse pass! I even marked which panels I was interested in). And the upcoming 2014 Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Conference in London is on the theme of “Geographies of Co-production.”

So thank goodness for this virtual museum “Art in Public Space.”

In distinctive ways, these projects critically reveal the complexities of using public-art forms in promoting a sense of place, common ground and shared identity, or their antipodes. These works engage with the potentials and challenges of the mediating roles of artists and communities in urban public art. They also address artistic co-production in urban public space along lines of cultural diversity and empowerment, social inclusion and critical intervention.

Showcased public-art projects in this Virtual Museum include:

Forward Back Together by Simon Pope

Forward Back Together explores the material transformations of Raymond Mason’s sculpture Forward (1991), commissioned by the Birmingham City Council, given as a gift to the people of Birmingham and later destroyed by that very same ‘public’. Using a participatory methodology, this dialogic work took the form of archival research, a series of meetings with key participants, a script-development workshop and a public roundtable held at Vivid Projects in June/July 2013. Forwards Back Together explores how various publics, produced at each point of the statue’s transformation, might improvise an account of Forward’s life as a public artwork from the artist’s proposal, the commissioning process, manufacture and installation, arson attack and its final removal.

Ibis Portraits: Towards Ecologies of Belonging and The Ibis and Us: Ecologies of Belonging by Andrew Gorman-Murray;

These are portraits of the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis molucca), taken at colonies along the Cook’s River, Sydney. The Australian White Ibis is a native waterbird, whose traditional habitat is inland wetlands, such as the Macquarie Marshes. Due to persistent drought and environmental change in these habitats, these birds have established large colonies across Sydney over the last thirty years. The Australian White Ibis has become a city-dweller, a figure of urban nature. ‘Urban nature’ foregrounds the interpenetration of natural and cultural systems. Does the Australian White Ibis have a right to the city? How can humans and ibises better co-exist?

The Demolition of Royal Park School, Leeds by Michael Ainsworth

Over a period of approximately 3 months I documented the systematic demolition of the Royal Park School by Leeds City Council, from the first day of demolition to the day workers left the site. The school had been empty and unused for at least 10 years, it at least has been the entire time I have lived in Leeds. The surrounding Hyde Park community wanted to turn the site into a community centre but it was deemed too costly and unsafe a project by the council and so has been destroyed — the school was over 100 years old. The site is now being turned into green rejuvenation area, even though it is already situated next to a park and just several hundred meters away from one of the largest parks in the city.


Signs is offering open access to three recent articles in anticipation of the American Sociological Association's 2014 Annual Meeting: 

Jennifer Jihye Chun, George Lipsitz, and Young Shin’s “Intersectionality as a Social Movement Strategy: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates" from the special issue on Intersectionality,

Jerry Flores’s “'Staff Here Let You Get Down': The Cultivation and Co-optation of Violence in a California Juvenile Detention Center,” from the special issue Women, Gender, and Prisons, and

Sanyu A. Mojola’s “Providing Women, Kept Men: Doing Masculinity in the Wake of the African HIV/AIDS Pandemic.”

Authors of all three articles will be participating at the conference. For more see the Signs blog

(via signsjournal)


"Boulevard du Temple", a daguerreotype made by Louis Daguerre in 1838, is generally accepted as the earliest photograph of people. It is a view of a busy street, but because the exposure time was at least ten minutes the moving traffic left no trace. Only the two men near the bottom left corner, one apparently having his boots polished by the other, stayed in one place long enough to be visible.

I sought out this photo because of this passage in Scott McQuire’s chapter on the impact of photography on urban spatial perceptions in Media City:

Architecture in its turn was an ideal subject which ‘sat’ patiently – a great advantage since the slow speed of early photographic emulsions necessitated exposure times of up to half an hour. Unlike people, buildings didn’t have to be strapped into a neck brace in order to register a solid image. However, this meant that prior to 1851, when Archer’s wet collodion process opened the way to ‘instantaneous photography’, urban photography was distinguished by the emptiness of the streets. If this emptiness seems striking today, it was even stranger for 19th-century viewers to see usually crowded thoroughfares bereft of pedestrians and traffic. In a letter written to his brother in 1839, telegraphy pioneer Samuel B. Morse was transfixed by a solitary figure in an image made by Louis Daguerre in 1838: "The Boulevard, so constantly filled with a moving throng of pedestrians and carriages, was perfectly solitary, except an individual who was having his boots brushed."


[Image of chives from FLUX HAWAII]

A suggested pairing of two recent articles, one set in Hawai’i and one in China

FLUX HAWAII's summer series “Make It Last: ways to consume better” has some saliva inducing suggestions for how to make less waste while making more deliciousness.

Ferment It.
Smoke It.
Bottle It.
Jam It.


As the NY Times article on the rise of refrigeration in China details, traditional food preservation techniques — “everything was dried, pickled or salted” — that had been ubiquitous just 20 years ago are becoming supplanted by reliance on refrigeration.

“Food waste is a justification for refrigeration,” [Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History] said. “But at the same time, there are studies that show that, over the longer time frame, the cold chain encourages consumers to buy more than they’re going to eat.” Tara Garnett, who runs the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University, says there is a “safety net” syndrome of refrigerated storage. In the refrigerator, she writes, “the food can always keep longer, goes the thinking, except that suddenly one finds it has gone off.”

The article’s author Nicola Twilley also blogs at Edible Geography where she’s posted a companion piece, including video on the factory floor where 100,000 dumplings get made every hour, photos of the live seafood tanks at Zhengzhou’s Wal-Mart, and the front wall was covered with scoop-your-own seafood tanks.