Urban Procedures: Small Pragmatics of Collective Space

Marie-Pier Boucher

PhD candidate. Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies, Duke University

In February 2013, in Montreal, Hexagram | CIAM invited international participants to speculate on how urban media actions can operate a spatial distribution capable of activating new forms of collectivities. Addressing the problem from a pragmatic angle by questioning modes of evaluating the practical consequences of the “bright ideas” that make us think and act in the city, the CivicBright/BrillanteCité seminar did not seek to solve the problem of collective space. The seminar’s aim was to abstract, in the sense of an extraction, the singular elements of the actions presented to identify common tendencies. The objective was to re-define modes of activity that make collective space a shared reality, and to examine how such modes could be ‘freely’ deployed.

With participants proposing the repetition of dreams, unauthorized civic actions, political events, mobile habitats and discriminatory mobilities as entry points, the CivicBright/BrillanteCité seminar implicitly introduced reenactment as a conceptual constraint. Not in the form of a negative constraint to impose determinations on ‘brilliant civic actions,’ but rather in the form of an invitation to disturb the too-stable equilibrium of the determined space where civic actions are legitimated as works of art.

Following a sociological and architectural conceptualization, this text explores how reenactment as a procedure of spatial creation, and as a political technique of civic action, can make felt the implicit conventions that underlie the construction of collective space. How can reenactment activate the emergence of open and dynamic collective spaces without ingraining its creative power in the determination imposed by a society where the public/private opposition dictates spatial distribution? Taken up in the repetition of brilliant ideas, how can reenactment create determinable, open-ended collective spaces? Reenactment renders visible the material and physical, objective and spiritual contextures of space as the reality of collective experience. Like a commotion, a contexture makes elusive the distinction between the material and the psychic, between the objective and the spiritual, shattering the symbolic borders that delimitate private and public spaces. But how can one conceptualize and activate the emergence of contextural spaces? The actions presented during the seminar put forth a peculiar technique: to complexify the becoming of physical space by constructing psychic spaces that cannot be localized in objective time and space. Or, more precisely, to perturb physical space and open it up to new possibilities by constructing spaces that cannot be reduced to determined spatio-temporal coordinates. In so doing, the seminar’s participants have collectively defined reenactment as a constructive constraint whose function is to trigger jumps between dynamic equilibriums, processes of singularization, heterogenesis, and relational openings that signal the advent of a new form of spatial composition.

For a Socio-architecture of Collective Space

Taking social reproduction as the departure point of a creative inquiry, the objective here is to illuminate the manner in which reenactment is linked to a differential logic as opposed to one of resemblance. For sociologist Gabriel Tarde, an idea can be said to be creative only once it has been reproduced socially. [1] Although for Tarde, reproduction is not synonymous with resemblance, but with overabundance: each reproduction is in fact a variation, a real advent of possibilities. As such, reenactment conditions creation only when it exceeds the initial conditions of that which it seeks to reproduce. Reenactment is thus not interpreted as a banal reproduction, but as a procedure that prolongs, as a creative and iterative procedure that repeats without reproducing.

The idea that the wealth of a social collectivity entails innovative repetition is also the operational form that the concept of the procedure takes in the architectural practice of Arakawa and Gins. Arakawa and Gins propose procedure, or proceduralism, to thwart architectural formalism and insist on the ontogenesis of forms. [2] Whereas formalism involves an identity loop of the form upon itself, proceduralism expresses the recursivity of the event. A procedure is what persists, or resists, the disappearance, decomposition, or recomposition of architectural forms. A procedure is a subjectless energy that cuts across forms and that renders their tendencies visible. In bringing forms back into their field of emergence, a procedure convokes and evokes the network of relations that animates them. Space is then understood as a dynamic system whose initial conditions can be dramatically transformed by and through the process of inhabitation. A procedure is thus a set of invitations to action; a nucleus to actions.

For philosopher Brian Massumi, reenaction is “the initial phase of every occasion” [3] such that “a nascent action is the reenaction of a tendency to action.” [4] Here Massumi clarifies the fact that reenactment does not reproduce what it repeats. Its criteria is rather the activation of an iteration. Accordingly, a creative urban action or procedure is one that activates the reenactment of a tendency to action. Even if reenactment might harbour a reproduction, its power of repetition emerges in duration, in the tendency it prolongs, that is, in the excess that emerges within the iterative process. In this perspective, reenactment gives rise to a continuity, to a trace that recalls without reconstituting; a genetic trace that renders visible a complex field of emergence. When reenactment triggers a tendency to action, it becomes a technique of singularization endowed with the power to bring back the artistic form in its field of emergence, instead of operating as mere reproduction. Only then is it capable of generating spaces that are no longer determined by spatial coordinates ingrained in the public/private distinction, but spaces that, even if crystallized in physical space, are simultaneously impossible to localize in objective space and time because they are conditioned by the mental or psychic activity of its inhabitants.

A civic action is therefore creative not when it creates an artistic form, but rather when it invents a procedure that interprets the action as always related to a field of emergence. In this light, space is no longer problematized as material or as matter, localizable in objective time and space, but as a platform, as a series of open invitations, that call upon the development of spatial awareness. In order to make this spatial awareness tangible, let us now consider the actions presented by the seminar’s participants.

Collective Space in the Making

Actions pour caméra II, a project by artist André Éric Létourneau, a professor at UQAM, spatially stages dreams through the construction of spaces of ‘deflection.’ [5]This spatial staging, in places where sensory stimulation is habitually weak, generates intimacy bubbles that are actualized as acts of appropriation of generic spaces. Those intimacy bubbles become the theatre of zones of civic autonomy; zones of civic autonomy that are not ingrained in spatial distribution but constructed by and through participants’ psychic activity. The space of deflection is deployed as a procedure of creation of a space which is simultaneously intimate and common. The spatial staging of dreams does not act as a reenactment in the context of which the dream is entirely reproduced, but as a trigger where non-spatialized psychic space is repeated in spatialized space, bestowing it with new meaning.

Similarly, Bernardo Piñero, a member of the IQ Lab in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Jesse Scott of the Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) Canada, based in Vancouver, both presented projects that aim at the creation of continuities rather than the fabrication of objects or products. By reclaiming design, functionality and code to generate a continuity, GRL invites citizens to reproduce a non-authorized civic action: graffiti. Made possible by digital technology and laser projection, the graffiti are impermanent. They take the form (formless?) of an ephemeral gesture that leaves a trace, enabling the emergence of collective memory. After their participation, citizens no longer perceive the space where they acted as a banal or generic public space, but as a meaningful space of appropriation. [6]

Papeles, 2011, IQLab, installation, projection on leaflets, IQLab - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Papeles, 2011, IQLab, installation, projection on leaflets, IQLab – Buenos Aires, Argentina

 Papeles, 2011, IQLab, installation, projection on leaflets, IQLab - Buenos Aires, Argentina

Papeles, 2011, IQLab, installation, projection on leaflets, IQLab – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Papeles, a project by IQ Lab, also invites citizens to construct collective memory by offering them the possibility to restage themselves in relation to the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. [7] This installation renders visible the complexity of the relationship between Argentinians and Chileans subjected to a control network composed in part of mandatory identification cards. Combining projected identification cards and brochures on 12 acrylics, Papeles invites citizens to imprint their hands on the installation to slow down the flux of the projection, allowing them to read the identification cards and brochures. Papeles is not a simple reenactment of a remnant of political upheaval but rather a platform offering a chance to intervene in the event and give it new temporal meaning. These two projects show how the construction of relational processes, as opposed to the construction of objects, create new zones of civic action that hold the potential to evade neoliberal capture.

Stephen Kovats, from Berlin, presented a project whose objective is to question how the construction of an open-source city could act as an aesthetic pillar to enable the emergence of a new political organization in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. #OSJUBA seeks to implement a socio-political network based on an open platform that would facilitate the emergence of a transparent and participatory democracy. [8] Inspired by the symbolic function of a recently independent country, #OSJUBA exposes the necessity to rethink how spatial distribution determines cultural, economic and social distribution in light of the non-local space of an open-city.

Kim Sawchuk, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, also suggested the necessity to rethink spatial distribution, but in relation to accessibility. Photographing and mapping spaces that become barriers to people living with a handicap, Sawchuk established that mobility can be discriminatory. In/accessible shows how mobility is socially constructed under specific forms of power. In addition, In/accessible reveals the necessity of developing procedural techniques that would re-valorize non-discriminatory spaces. Montreal-based artist Ana Rewakowicz also problematized the possibility of a sustainable mobility with her project SR-Hab (Socially Responsive Habitat), a bicycle that functions outside the grid by producing the energy requirements of a self-contained mobile habitat. [9] With this habitat, Rewakowicz questions how light, as a Finnish geo-local specificity, conditions movement as well as the creation of a ‘nowhere,’ that is, a space that is lived rather than travelled. Thus, the movement that characterizes Rewakowicz’s mobile habitat does not have any specific spatial referents in the objective space travelled by the artist.

SR_Hab (Socially Responsive Habitat), 2010, Ana Rewakowicz, mobile self-sustainable bicycle unit, Ana Rewakowicz

SR_Hab (Socially Responsive Habitat), 2010, Ana Rewakowicz, mobile self-sustainable bicycle unit, Ana Rewakowicz

The seminar’s participants collectively formulated a proposition: the construction of collective space is not determined by pre-established norms dictated by mobility, norms that are themselves controlled by fixed spatial coordinates. On the contrary, collective space is conditionned by the psychic activity of its inhabiting bodies. Objective physical space is always doubled with a non-localizable mental or psychic space. Objective space should however not be interpreted as meaningless. Rather, not only is physical space pre-psychic, meaning that it does not exist without psychic space, but it also allows for breaks that enable mental space to creatively react, opening up physical space to new possibilities.

Give Rhythm to the Fragmented City

In operating a cross-fertilization of heterogeneous fragments, the actions and projects presented at the seminar rendered visible the material, social and psychological modalities that compose space as a vectorial field. They clarified how collective space is not a space legislated by determined spatial coordinates, but a determinable space dynamically constructed by and through relational and processual conventions that emerge in thought. In this regard, psychic activity does not frame space to shape it. It modulates it so that it can express its continuity.

CivicBright/BrillanteCité shed light on the fact that collective space ought to be thought of in terms of conventional rather than legislative genesis. Collective space is a space that emerges within thought, through the implicit conventions that organize social groups, conventions that are immediately actualized materially as the reality of physical space. A collective space is therefore not a circumscribed, legislated and normalized given, but a fragmented and multipolarized open whose dynamic unity ought to be constructed. In this light, a civic action can be said to be creative when it succeeds at reenacting a tendency to action that gives rise to a psychic space that lends syncopation to the entropy of fragmented urban forms. In brief, a ‘bright city’ is one that invites us to construct fields composed within and among implicit social conventions. It is a city whose urban reality enables an endless (re)spatialization of its physical and psychic conditions.


1. Tarde, Gabriel, Les lois de l’immitation (Étude sociologique. Paris: Félix Alcan, 1890).
2. Arakawa and Gins, The Architectural Body (Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2002).
3. Massumi, Brian, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. (Cambridge: MIT Press), 114 .
4. Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts, 122 (italics in the original).
5. Hexagram’s official Web site, “Atelier de prospection à la Place-des-Arts,” 2013, accessed April 8, 2013,
6. Graffiti Research Lab’s official Web site, “LED-Throwies at CYNETART Dresden,” 2013, accessed on January 3, 2014, http://www.graffitiresearchlab.de/2013/11/led-throwies-at-cynetart-dresden/
7. IQ LAb’s official Web site, “Papeles,” 2011, accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.iqlab.com.ar/papeles
8. Summit of New Thinking’s official Web site, “#OSJUBA – Open Sourcing a New Capital,” 2012, accessed on April 9, 2013, http://open-strategies.de/sessions/osjuba-open-sourcing-a-new-capital
9. Ana Rewakowicz’s official Web site, “Prototypes,” 2010, accessed on April 9, 2013, http://rewana.com/prototypes-more.html


Marie-Pier Boucher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies at Duke University. Her research draws upon complex systems theory, speculative pragmatism, outer space science and technology, and bio and neurosciences in addressing architectural and spatial practices. Her research residencies include: Cultivamos Cultura, Lisbon, Portugal (2013), Banff Center for the Arts, Canada (2011), Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany (2010) and SymbioticA, Center for Excellence in Biological Arts, Perth, Western Australia (2006). Her work has been published in Arts & Biotechnologies (Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2012), Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology (University of Edinburgh Press, 2012) and Parrhesia, a journal of critical philosophy (Open Humanities Press, 2010).