zURBS is an urban research collective that, through a socially-engaged artistic approach, experiments with different approaches to how we can re-imagine the urban through imaginative and creative processes that encourage participants to question what urban space means and is. We here define the term “socially-engaged artistic approach” as a process that aims to pose alternatives to the collective co-existence in our cities, through creative and imaginative processes in which art becomes a method for participant self-representation, e.g. by creating a space for multiple embodied, marginalised experiences to be expressed (see Tolia-Kelly). As Woodward et. al observe, too frequently (urban) space can become calcified as it is “pre-treated with a calculus of defined-in-advance geographies of thought and action” (277). Thus, complex realities are made simpler by regarding multiplicity and difference as something that must be controlled in order to arrive at general, fixed and reproducible results. This tendency is reflected in the use of participation as a way to create submissive citizens who respect authority and accept the “risk” and responsibility of looking after themselves in the face of diminished public services. Thus, participation within this context will not change or even raise consciousness of the structural conditions of people’s daily existence; it will only help people to accept them (Bishop).
A key focus for zURBS, in this regard, is the question of how to facilitate an open participatory process that enables participants to articulate their experiences of their city on their own terms, and this way raise people’s consciousness about the structural conditions that shape their lives. The imagination, as a way of envisioning the world, as well as experiencing and reshaping it, plays an important part in this regard – the way we think about a city and how we perceive it informs the way we act in it. This is not to say that we can change structural conditions simply by imagining them differently. As Harvey points out, we cannot pretend that we are not embedded and limited by solid structures such as the institutional worlds and built environments we have already created (153). However, the question of imagination cannot be evaded as, and here Harvey refers to an example by Marx: “what distinguishes human labor and the worst of architects from the best of bees is that architects erect a structure in the imagination before realizing it in material form” (153). Thus, imagination can be seen as the first step towards collectively producing our cities, by playing a critical role in expressing desires for urban worlds that are radically better or different, and insisting that other worlds can be imagined and constructed.
Bishop, Claire. Artificial Hells. London / New York: Verso, 2012. Print.
Tolia-Kelly, Divya. “Participatory Art.” Participatory Action Research Approaches and Method: Connecting People, Participation and Place. Ed. Sara Kindon, Mike Kesby, and Rachel Pain. London: Routledge, 2007. 132 – 140. Print.
Harvey, David. Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh: Edinburg University Press, 2000. Print.