The Rise of the Instant Activist

by Miguel Robles-Durán

…and how it’s transforming the practice of architecture, urbanism and the way our cities are built

The activist is fashionable again. In a movement reminiscent of the late 1960s, young practitioners from all creative fields seem to be turning against the establishment of their discipline. Without any political or critical position, the use of words such as ‘participation’, ‘bottom-up’, ‘community’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘activism’ seem again to be the trend for emerging creative practices, as well as for some of the former vanguard. Even governments pioneering urban reform, governments that once heavily funded suburban development and the creation of central business districts such as London’s Docklands, Paris’s La Defense or Amsterdam’s South Axis, have began to re-tune their rhetoric around such ‘socially responsible’ words.

This shift should come as no surprise to the architects of the policies that determine and construct our environment. It is a clear and logical step in the search for more perfected free-market stimuli in the form of urban development or re- development. How to make urban development look more bottom-up? How to get the people on the developers’ side? How to project to the society that this or that redevelopment was justified by the consensus and approval of the community? If the urban developer can find solutions to these questions, there can be little civic opposition to their agenda, for, with the help of new ‘activists’, the project will have acquired the needed ‘community support’. In this case, the new activism and its consensual-participatory approaches will have facilitated the process for major urban investments, helping promote inter-urban competition, large private urban investments, gentrification and the continuous commercialisation and privatisation of public space, all policies that remain at the forefront of the neoliberal governance of cities.

With the aim of promoting private urban investment or the formation of public–private partnerships, many pro-market international organisations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have been hosting periodic congresses and publishing vast reports on topics such as ‘City Competitiveness’, ‘Attractiveness of Cities’, ‘Sustainable Cities’ and so forth. Among the many prescriptions given to participating cities, in the last five years, one constant key recommendation has been the need to persuade citizens to adopt new patterns of behaviour in favour of public–private urban investment and redevelopment, emphasising that this must not be seen as being imposed from the outside. The ideal, in fact, is for these new patterns to be achieved as if they had emerged from the bottom up. The reasoning is simple: the more constructed the ‘community support’, the more receptive the city becomes to urban investment, thus the easier its execution and profitability. In the light of many large urban redevelopment projects that have turned highly conflictive and costly for developers owing to citizen resistance – such as the neighbourhood of St. Pauli in Hamburg or the coastal hotel infrastructure in Barcelona – the best thing for a redevelopment public–private partnership is to engage the community with part of the project from its inception and instrumentalize the ‘activist’ into making the redevelopment process as justified and seamless as possible. The community seemingly gets what it wants and the developers make a profit! In this regard, over the last five years, the market has made a great leap in incorporating the new activist into its daily operations. In this co-opted form, we could discuss the work of the new activist in participatory redevelopment or in slum regeneration, eco- environmentalism, camp betterment and so forth. In most of these practices, there will always be a hidden market agenda that needs and finances them.

The social importance of the new activist practice en masse can be easily represented with a few leftist slogans and seductive photo-ops of people helping those in need. This too is what the instant ‘activist’ needs to declare himself a member of the club. Suddenly, by following this two- step formula, a large part of the hip creative class can be turned overnight into ‘activists’. It is at the moment when the ‘real’ is replaced by the hegemony of the market that an unconscious disengagement with the ‘political’ occurs and the apolitical posture of the fashion pseudo-world thrives. Fashion needs to reduce language to slogans, it survives through the endless reproduction of false images, one-liner rhetoric, simulacra for dummies. Ultimately, fashion requires the replacement of social intelligence by the easiness of mediatised perceptual consensus. It is then of no surprise that green revolutionaries are sworn in every day by the dozen, that participatory workshop leaders take over urban regeneration processes and that people who used to quote Richard Florida (and his ‘creative economy’) now magically begin to mix in some Agamben and Foucault in their conversations.

‘Struggle’, ‘confrontation’, ‘justice’, ‘politics’, ‘conflict’, ‘urgency’, ‘necessity’ and ‘survival’ are unnecessary words in the vocabulary of the instant activist. With such an easy incorporation to fad, why would the instant activist – concerned only with the allure of incorporation into a socially ‘responsible’ lifestyle – question the possible consequences of their actions on their surroundings? The seamless insertion of the instant activist into the new demands of the development market has gone unquestioned by the members of the club without any awareness of corporate development interests, without understanding of how public-private partnerships operate, without a clue about the political vicissitudes of gentrification and its mechanisms of displacement and spatial segregation, without knowledge of urban economy but with a lot of good intentions and expertise in the production of rhetorical slogans and images. Thus, the instant activist becomes an essential instrument for the ‘new’ and ‘better’ practice of urban redevelopment, helping governments and private developers clean their bad image by masking it as ‘democratic’, ecological and socially responsible. The merge of the instant activist with redevelopment has been a ‘win- win’ situation – to borrow the expression used often by neoliberal demagogues. In short, this instant activism has no relevant position or strong identity: it just presents itself as another unconscious addition to the neoliberal army. As Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1964 about the coming of the one-dimensional men, the architects as instant activists “take a position on all critical issues, without a critical consciousness, without technical competence, and without ethical conviction, they go along with the established order”.

Under the neoliberal umbrella, the image of the instant activist hunts and banalises the work of those creators who have constantly confronted themselves with the casualties of their political struggle, those who, out of lived experience, urgency and necessity, have persistently imagined ways to continue fighting against the present oppressions of their past. Under the current lingo, the struggling creator, the one that conflicts and opposes the neoliberal establishment from its roots, might be a rebel, a radical, a fundamentalist ideologue or a dysfunctional social actor, but never an ‘activist’.

In contrast to the old critical and calculative struggles of the activist architect, the idea of the creative architect as an instant activist has recently been blown up out of proportion. This new breed of the market is being described as ‘socially responsible’ and is considered to be what art critic Harold Rosenberg described in The De-Definition of Art (1971) “as a person of trained sensibility, a developed imagination, a capacity for expression and deep insight into the realities of contemporary life”. Rephrasing Rosenberg, the architect as instant activist has become, as it were, too big for architecture. His or her proper medium is working in the world, carrying a sustained belief in architectural responsibility, creativity and its mystical power to change the conditions of life. This aggrandisement and self-aggrandisement of the architect seems on the surface to represent an expanded confidence in the socially transformative powers of the architect today. As it is widely believed by its proponents, everything in the city can be solved and done through the ‘activism’ in architecture.

Anyone with a critical eye could easily look beyond the popular conceptions of the architect and the fad of instant activism, only to realise that its design knowledge and tools, which are typically connected to the evolution of formalisms, technicalities and ornamentation, become futile when confronted with the conflictive urban realities that construct our world and useless in the search of a more profound and dynamic understanding of the social relations that surround the production of urban space. The practice of activism as a political construct seems to have been replaced by the use of activism as a sanitised image of consensual governance. The trend has been so well adopted by the ruling system that even those with a political practice have been absorbed by the ‘activist’ label under the ‘new’ meaning.

“During the last years of unprecedented deployment of neo-liberalist economic recipes of privatization, homogenization and control everywhere, architects”, argues Teddy Cruz, “have remained powerless, subordinated to the visionless environments defined by the bottomline urbanism of the developer’s spreadsheet, making architecture simply a way of camouflaging corporate economic and political power, unconditionally.” This sense of powerlessness and the inability of the architecture profession to lead the way in rethinking systems and institutions of urban development in our time is what should motivate a true activist practice: constructing an architectural practice that constantly seeks capacity to engage in the urban debate and have a socio-political leverage in the shaping of its territory. With this as their aim, architects could focus on the design and production of what Cruz describes as “critical interfaces between and across urban opposites, exposing conflict as an operational device to transform architectural practice”.

The activist architect is never instant; he or she is made through a long and constant struggle to stand aware in critical opposition to the injustices of development. In the words of David Harvey in Spaces of Global Capitalism (2006), an insurgent practitioner “acts out a socially constructed (sometimes even performative) role, while confronting the circumstances and consciousness that derives from a daily life where demands are made upon time, where social expectations exist, where skills are acquired and supposed to be put to use in limited ways for purposes usually defined by others. The architect then appears as a cog in the wheel of capitalist urbanization, as much constructed by as con-structor of that process”. The activist must re-instate the political meaning of their practice, which not so long ago aimed to change our unjust reality.

First published in Lieven de Cauter, Ruben de Roo, Karel Vanhaesebrouck (eds.), Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization, nai010, Rotterdam, 2011.
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