Aesthetic Revolution

Society as a Work of Art

The End of Modernity's End?

The Strange Relation of Art and Politics

The Ambivalence of the Public Square

Creativity and its Afterlives

A Game of Appearances


Malcolm Miles
A Game of Appearances: public spaces and public sphere
(a revised version of a paper given at the Royal College of Art, London, February 2012)


In the 1980s, public art began to be regularly incorporated in urban regeneration schemes. It became largely institutionalised, unquestioning, and at times a form of visual pollution. It was also subsumed in an instrumentalist, top-down approach to urban change. The aim was – not always overtly - to increase property values. Beside new kinds of public monument designed by internationally known artists, flagship cultural institutions in zones of de-industrialisation, and the demarcation of cultural and heritage quarters in inner-city areas, acted to create a highly visible semblance of change. All this is familiar, too depressing a history to rehearse again here. But, in the 1990s and 2000s, architects and urban designers began to include new public spaces in redevelopment schemes, as they previously included public art. While art was used to access the supposedly universal values of culture (goodness, truth and beauty), so public space was used to signal democracy. Meanwhile privatisation encroached on public spaces. So, does the provision of new urban public spaces have a demonstrable relation to the concept of a democratic public sphere (the metaphorical or material site of a society’s self-determination)?

To put this issue in focus I begin with Occupy: the camps which appeared from September 2011 onwards, mainly in urban public spaces. These have since been dismantled but at the time gained visibility for the cause of social justice on behalf of the 99% of people whose common wealth has been pirated by the super-rich 1%. I then look at a case of a new public space, Millennium Place in Coventry, and ask how public participation in the production of an artwork there – The Public Bench by Jochen Gerz - relates to claims for the public good.  I draw on this case further, to examine what might point to a public sphere in more contested ways than allowed by conventional urban design. I ask finally what precedents might be advanced for the historical occurrence of a public sphere, from which something might now be understood as to what constitutes a process of democratic social determination.


The Occupy movement began on 17 September, 2011 when demonstrators occupied a site near Wall Street, the financial hub of New York. They soon gained global media coverage of their camp in Zuccotti Park, were visited by celebrities, and had the support of New York’s Central Labour Council. When the authorities confiscated their heating generators they used bicycles to power heaters and cooking equipment. They set up a media tent, and tried to deal humanely with street people and newly released prisoners from Rikers Island jail (sent by the authorities to disrupt the camp). When drug counsellors and social workers became involved, Occupy took on something of the quality of a welfare state - in a country where free health care is often called socialist. Occupy camps soon arose in many cities in North America, Europe and beyond, and even briefly in Totnes, the small market town in Devon where I live.

While initiated by the Canadian anti-capitalist group Adbusters, Occupy had no structures of leadership and no manifesto. Claiming to speak for the 99%, it offered no programme of alternative measures (as a political party would when seeking to be credible as an alternative government). Occupy has been criticised for this, but I think it indicates a necessary refusal of the structures of representational politics which have become increasingly complicit in the neo-liberal project. If representational structures make political decisions remote, and limit voters’ choices to those which do not upset the interests of global capital, so that the state is like an out-sourced agency for governmental services, then Occupy appears to take over the vacant site once occupied by the state as guardian of a concept of common wealth, or public good. But it does this by being there, not by proposing or designing anything, as a community of direct democracy. In this way, Occupy can be situated in a history which includes anti-roads protest in the 1990s, the sit-ins, love-ins and be-ins of the 1960s, Civil Rights marches in the US, and anti-nuclear protests in the 1950s in the UK. All these were examples of non-violent resistance, drawing in part on Ghandian tactics from the 1940s.

This history also includes the factory occupations which occurred in France in 1968, adopting a tactic previously used by the Popular Front (against fascism) in 1936. Kristin Ross writes of these occupations,

Occupation was generally viewed as a mark of the strength and the seriousness of the strike … a clear departure from tired, artificial forms like meetings and petitions … [It] involves the assumption of services like security, food, and the organisation of leisure by workers … a clear reversal of the director’s authority.[1]

To occupy a factory is to take over the means of production, literally, in a Leninist mode. As Ross adds, students, workers and farmers occupied public space in Paris, Nantes, Rennes and elsewhere in ‘68, too, verifying, ‘equality not as any objective of action but as something that is part and parcel of action … that emerges in the struggle and is lived and declared as such.’[2]

The integration of means and ends resonates with Hannah Arendt’s discussion of action. For Arendt, the active subject makes a new beginning, becomes a new subject.[3] This occurs in the midst of others, and, as Finn Bowring summarises, ‘freedom can only arise from something that is not the determinant product of a causal chain.’[4] Freedom appears in enactments which I take as creating a momentary public sphere. Such moments are brief yet transformative for those who live them, and indicate that an active public sphere does not require specific kinds of space in which to be performed, let alone any kind of design. This leads me to differentiate between public spaces, typified by the specifically modern, urban form of the public square, and a public sphere taken as a site of social determination. Between them, overlapping both, is a public realm of institutions where opinions are exchanged, including both civic for a (the town hall) and professional bodies (the learned society) as well as universities.

The need for a public sphere is urgently enhanced by the erosion of the state under neo-liberalism. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that the state has now abdicated its role: ‘No longer capable of balancing the books while guided solely by the … interests of the population … nation-states turn more and more into the executors … of forces which they have no hope of controlling …’[5] He continues that the state’s function is residual, so that, ‘it becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps altogether impossible, to re-forge social issues into effective collective action.’[6]The danger then is that violence may be seen as unavoidable, as some social critics argue, despite historical evidence that violent revolutions either failed as a result of superior forces on the other side, or reproduce tyranny. The problem is complicated, however, by new enclosures of public space in malls and zones of consumer culture, as a result of which some defence of public space as open to multiple uses by diverse publics is required. Yet the retention of public spaces is not as such a means to democratic exchange.

More often, except in moments of insurrection, public spaces house power’s display. Modern urban squares and streets were usually gendered and exclusionary, resort of the male stroller but not the wandering woman.[7] Far from being sites of social mixing, as if to recreate the Greek agora, they affirm the privileges which the grandiose buildings round them protect. In any case, while the agora of Athens is described as ‘the best known public space of all time … more than a marketplace: it also served as a place of assembly … in which ceremonies and spectacles were performed,’[8] it was not a site of democracy. I return to this later. Before that I want to look at a recent, new public space to ask what needs it meets.

Millennium Place, Coventry

Millennium Place, Coventry was commissioned by Coventry City Council to mark the millennium, but was not unveiled until 2003. Millennium Place includes an open arena which can be used for public performances, a public screen added in 2011 to show the Royal Wedding, and a stone bench above which hundreds of small, red metal plates inscribed with pairs of names are permanently mounted – a project by the German artist Jochen Gerz which was unveiled in 2004. Millennium Place marks the end of a walk through the city centre from the Cathedral ruins through various restored sites, promoted by the local tourist information office using leaflets and maps. Arriving at Millennium Place, the visitor faces the new Transport Museum. On the other is a statue of Frank Whittle, inventor of the jet engine. The statue and Gerz’ work offer a spectrum of what might constitute a public monument, from the traditional (if street-level) to the participatory. It may be, however, that Frank Whittle  (in a generalised military uniform) receives more immediate recognition, given the city’s history of aircraft and armaments production, and the tendency of tourists to be photographed beside such bronze likenesses. What then, does The Public Bench do? Does it lend visibility to the city’s private life? Participants were invited to nominate themselves and another person, adding a date. Gerz writes,

The reasons for the choice were not revealed. The second name could belong to a person either living or deceased. It could recall a fictitious figure from a novel, a myth, a dream or a fairy tale. In order to understand the inscriptions more fully one had to contribute oneself. Emotions such as sympathy, admiration, support, memory or love determined many choices. Each contribution was one person’s choice. Whatever the choice was, it did not need anyone else’s approval.[9]

This seems like a momentary freedom to occupy the form of the public monument; and a fusion of private or familial (domestic) meaning with public space. But the square, more a triangle, is often empty. Tourists, to whom the names would be only those of people they have probably never met, tend to go directly into the museum. Others, presumably local residents, tend to walk round rather than through the space. One side is a busy bus lane, and not always easy to cross. Observing the site, my feeling was that, until the construction of the museum for which it is a grand if slightly bleak forecourt, there was no need for Millennium Place at all. Is it a space left over in an architect’s design, or a dutiful subscription to a myth of public space as site – or badge – of democracy. Does The Public Bench, then, follow the practice of siting bronze likenesses of literary and historic figures at street level? Is it merely an adjunct to the Transport Museum, with which it has no demonstrable connection? Or does it raise other issues? Lacking figurative attraction, and needing to be read close-up, The Public Bench may draw in spectators to look for names and dates, either because their name is there, or that of a loved one, or out of curiosity. I did not see this happening, but my brief observation does not mean it never does. I wonder, still, if the fact that this project did not meet universal acclaim suggests another possibility.

There were fears of controversy following the appearance of hate graffiti on a previous work by Gerz and his partner Esther Shalev in Harburg, a suburb of Hamburg: the Monument Against Fascism, a 12-metre lead column, sited next to a recent shopping centre and market square, gradually sunk into the site as its surfaces were endorsed by spectators using the two steel pens provided. The idea was that people would sign the column as they might sign a petition, opposing fascism because the need for vigilance remains with recurrent far-right manifestations in Germany. However, with tags and lovers’ hearts, hate graffiti appeared on the column, much of it racially antagonistic. When I visited the site in 2009, there was anti-Jewish graffiti on the plaque explaining the project. It had not been an easy decision for the city authorities to commission the monument, given a reticence to remember the Nazi past, and the appearance of graffiti was unwelcome. In time, though, city officials, politicians and the artists accepted that it reminded spectators dramatically if unexpectedly of the vigilance the monument was designed to promote. Nothing of the kind occurred in Coventry. But it is interesting that the city’s Press Officer stated, ‘public art is never intended to be liked by everybody. It ought to be disliked by as many people as like it.’[10]

If public monuments are designed to provoke diverse responses – though most are not – this suggests a public realm by other means, or an exchange of opinions outside institutions. But is this a public sphere? Is anything actually determined or does that happen elsewhere? At the simplest level, property developers were adept in the 1980s at using public art to arouse controversy as a diversion from other aspects of redevelopment. Objections to unpopular art had no relation to gentrification, provoking only a licensed controversy.

Can public monuments be politicised? Can public spaces take on that role? Of course, public monuments were political statements when, for the most part, they were erected. The statues of generals and colonialists stood for an ideology which citizens were expected to uphold, just as the appropriation of classical forms in public buildings constructed a narrative of universality. During times of insurrection, the lies represented by public monuments are exposed, and the monuments themselves attacked to show that power can shift. Somehow, the sleight of hand by which public monuments were aligned to an incontrovertible history has been attached to public spaces. That is why they are ubiquitous even when they do not connect anywhere with anywhere else, badges of respectability in the re-processing of the urban fabric into profit. The agora of Athens is often taken as the foundational public space, and similarly aligned with a foundationally democratic society.

Looking back

According to Arendt, the Greek polis was a political community. But the agora was not where policy was made; it was in the assembly, meeting in the pnyx - like an amphitheatre. The speaker was silhouetted against the sky; members sat in sections by district. All were free-born Athenian men owning one talent of silver (1000 days’ pay for a labourer). Even in the agora, Richard Sennett notes, not all events were open to anyone: 

… most of the ceremonial and political events that occurred here were out of bounds to the immense population of slaves and foreigners who supported the economy …the number of citizens in Attica during the fourth century B.C. [was] 20,000 – 30,000 out of a population of 150,000 to 250,000 … never more than 15 to 20 per cent of the total population, or half the adult male population.[11]

Sennett argues that what mattered was being seen as a means of accountability, but he takes speech rather than action as the defining act of citizenship. To be political meant ‘everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence.’[12] It took place in the colonnaded stoas at the north side of the agora. Eating, drinking, making deals, and religious observances were housed in other covered sites; banking, interestingly, was in the open.[13] Arendt explains that for women, slaves, and strangers, the right of speech was withheld. Perhaps, then, Athens is not a foundational democracy. In any case, the idea of a public sphere is modern, a product of Enlightenment; as is the idea of the public square as a public space with public monuments, surrounded by public buildings.

Still, architects and urban designer purvey the fantasy that the insertion of new public spaces in redevelopment schemes adds to the public good. This assumes a notion that citizens of diverse backgrounds assemble there for the free exchange of opinions, that they do so as equals; and that they are informed, rational and able to set aside their own interests in making decisions for the common good. And it assumes they have individual agency, corresponding to the subject of liberal-humanism. The supposition that people of diverse backgrounds and status mix freely and exchange opinions equally is at best, then, idealistic. Yet the concept of a public sphere is a vital aspiration, as a theoretical possibility. The argument is confused when the idea of a public sphere is conflated with material public spaces. Most often, public squares were, instead, site for the display of power, as in processions and public executions.

The public sphere envisaged by Jurgen Habermas begins in different spaces, to an extent in the mist of a distanced past:

The usage of the words “public” and “public sphere” betrays a multiplicity of concurrent meanings. Their origins go back to various historical phases and … fuse into a clouded amalgam. Yet the very conditions that make the inherited language seem inappropriate appear to require these words …[14]

Habermas notes that public buildings are those which house state institutions, and that there is little affinity between this use of the term public and another in public opinion. But public opinion is the product of debate, of acts of persuasion undertaken rationally, without concern for private interests. Habermas notes that the idea of the public sphere derived from classical antiquity retains an unusual status:

Since the Renaissance this model of the Hellenic public sphere . in the stylized form of Greek self-interpretation, has shared with everything else considered classical a peculiarly normative power. Not the social formation at its base but the ideological template itself has preserved continuity over the centuries – on the level of intellectual history.[15]

Hence the idea of the public square has become a template for the space designed for acts of democratic persuasion. But it never was. New ideas emerge in transitional spaces. Artists and writers met in cafés in Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, Munich and Vienna in the late nineteenth century, outside art’s official institutions. Earlier, coffee houses were the site of a particular kind of verbal exchange. In England in the late seventeenth century coffee house proprietors were often publishers as well, so that political pamphlets circulated in their coffee houses, to play a key role in the constitutional changes of 1688. Habermas notes there were 3,000 coffee houses in London by the early 1800s; Dryden and Addison held gatherings in specific coffee houses, their writing legitimated by contact between writers and the governing class. He continues, ‘Thus critical debate ignited by works of literature and art was soon extended to include economic and political disputes, without any guarantee … that such disputes would be inconsequential … .’[16] He adds, ‘The coffee house not merely made access to the relevant circles less formal and easier; it embraced the wider strata of the middle class, including craftsmen and shopkeepers.’[17]Sennett notes, too, the production of equality through a way of speaking in the coffee house:

As men sat at the long table, telling stories of great elaborateness, describing wars or the demeanour of leading citizens … they have only to use their eyes and tune their ears to “place” the stories or descriptions as coming from one with the point of view of a petty-minded clerk, an obsequious courtier, or a degenerate younger son … . But these acts of placing the character of the speaker must never intrude upon the words these men use to each other, the long periodic sentences flow on, the familiar descriptive phrases which everyone has heard a hundred times before … a sign system of meaning divorced from … symbols of meaning like rank, origin, taste, all visibly at hand.[18]

Conversation without reference to rank also occurred in the coaching inns of the new turnpike roads, but there were social distinctions in the relative status of such sites. Jane Rendell summarises:

The publicness of coffee houses, arenas for debate, free speech and radical politics during and following the political reforms of 1688, suggested both autonomy and independence. Inns and taverns were considered less politicised, more controlled and respectable; whereas alehouses and ginshops were thought of as disorderly and unregulated, of a lower social status.[19]

These distinctions mirrored those of the wider society; and the coffee house was overtaken in the eighteenth century by the more restrictive gentlemen’s club. Perhaps the suspension of rank within the coffee house, an act like the suspension of disbelief in the proscenium theatre, still stands as a reminder of a possibility for the free exchange of ideas – I deliberately use an indirect way of saying that because the process is distanced – and can be understood as the imagination of a society of equals yet to be accomplished.


Coffee houses were not open to women; and when dialogic exchange moved to professional associations and civic bodies it remained difficult until recently for women, or people of non-white backgrounds, or workers, to be heard. None of this is connected to the agora, of which we have only limited knowledge from fragmentary accounts and archaeological remains. It is exactly this lack of evidence which enables projections to be made onto a remote history, not of what exists in modernity but of what it lacks. That is, we never had a public sphere but can imagine one, projected onto a suitably remote past. It is better than nothing, but not much, a crust rather than half a loaf, if what we have. Hence it needs to be unpacked but not junked.

I want to suggest another way to think about the public sphere, as a set of relations in but not of material spaces, drawing on a study of Greek philosophy: Indra Kagis McEwen’s Socrates Ancestor, her reinterpretation of the Anaximander fragment, ‘which, depending on how it is read, contains at least seventeen or at most fifty-six Greek words attributable to Anaximander himself.’[20] Having dismissed myths of origin I need to be cautious. First, the fragment is one of the most fragmentary of Greek texts, known only from quotation by later authors; second, what it says is contested, and I do not read Greek. Having said that, I find McEwen’s account interesting in relation to what I have said above. McEwen sees the material spaces of a city as where order emerges in a process of apprehension in which, like the gods, order enacts itself. McEwen interprets Anaximander to effect that that which is ordered appears while that which is not ordered is merely visible - does not appear. Appearance is a heightened state of reality, like poetry in relation to prose, or like the well-made cloth in which the weft and warp are truly perpendicular in relation to a looser weave. The same applies to the grid plan, and the arrangement of timbers in the construction of ships and temples. McEwen writes of the city as appearing, ‘as a surface woven by the activity of its inhabitants: the sequential building of sanctuaries over a period of time … and the subsequent ritual processions from centre to urban limit and back again …’[21] But the appearance of order is fragile, requiring attention:

The archaic polis was an uncertain place that needed to be anchored at the strategic points of centre, middle ground, and outer limit … It was not a vessel with a fixed form, but, like the appearing surface of a woven cloth – of all the traces of material culture one of the most perishable – had continually to be mended or made to reappear.[22]

Similarly, the ordering of a society through deliberation and reflection requires permanent attention, or vigilance, and is always ephemeral. In this way the order of a city, if it appears, cannot be imposed by plan or design but is woven in the acts of its inhabitants. In actuality, there were restrictions on who could participate in this ritual weaving of the city; the image is as remote as that of the agora yet I am attracted by the use of material culture to provide the analogy, and the idea that order appears rather than is represented. This is not far from saying that anti-roads protest in the 1990s, or Occupy in 2011-12 produced a new society. At the risk of mythicizing Occupy, its camps were sites of a new social order created when subjects who were aware of their differences could still cooperate. This may be as viable a public sphere as I am likely to see. The criticism that Occupy has no programme is inappropriate because a programme implies a narrative, an imposition; and the question as to how the model could be mapped onto an entire city’s population misses the point – it can’t be, and it doesn’t need to be. Between Occupy and the dominant society is a chasm; this radical otherness denotes an implicit imagination of a new society within the old, a revolution before the revolution, an active and collaborative, always contingent public sphere.

[1] Ross, K. 2002, May ’68 and its Afterlives, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 70-71

[2] Ross, May ’68 and its Afterlives, p. 74

[3] Arendt, H. 1958, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 175-247

[4] Bowring, F. 2011, Hannah Arendt: a Critical Introduction, London, Pluto, p. 22

[5] Bauman, Z. 1998, Globalization: The Human Consequences, Cambridge, Polity, p. 66

[6] Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, p. 68

[7] Wilson, E. 1991, The Sphinx in the City, Berkeley, University of California Press

[8] Madanipour, A. 2003, Public and Private Spaces of the City, London, Routledge, pp. 193-4

[9] www, [accessed 14 December 2012]

[10] [accessed 14 December 2011]

[11] Sennett, R. 1995, Flesh and Stone, London, Faber and Faber,  p.52

[12] Arendt, H.  The Human Condition, p.26

[13] Sennett,  Flesh and Stone,  p.54

[14] Habermas, J. 1991, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge (MA), MIT, p.1

[15] Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p.4

[16] Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p.33

[17] ibid

[18] Sennett, R., 1992,  The Fall of Public Man, New York, Norton, p.82

[19] Rendell, J. 2002, The Pursuit of Pleasure: gender, space and architecture in Regency London, London, Athlone, p. 66

[20] McEwen, I.K. Socrates’ Ancestor, Cambridge (MA), MIT, 1993, p. 9

[21] McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor, p. 81

[22] McEwen, Socrates’ Ancestor, p. 83