Critical Spatial Practice

When starting a project, I know there will be a set of variables inherent to the topic being explored. These variables give physical manifestation to the work even though the perceived outcome might be a combination of physical and ephemeral. Variables are taken through a set of exercises, almost gymnastic in nature in order to let go of preconceptions, such as gravity.

Our methodology emerges from the concept of ‘ethnographic conceptualism’, as coined by Nikolai Ssorin-Chakov. Our curatorial work is intended to act as an ethnographic conceptualist portal between Zaryadyological research and art. Ethnographic conceptualism can be seen as one of the possible methodological paths towards ‘critical spatial practice’;  as well, as, in trans- or anti-disciplinary terms, towards a ‘critical area studies’.

Interested in what things do rather than what they are, this project draws on New Materialist thinking, feminist writing practices, photographic documentation, drawing and dance scores to create a practice of ‘sitting in’ or an archaeology of the present which responds to the material of the body, materiality of the site and affective relations between the two, as well as the writings of Kathleen Stewart to create a language thick with intimate resonances of everyday details near and far.  

Prue Chiles is part of CE+CA, an architectural practice that has worked together for nearly 20 years. As teachers and practitioners we all try and embed the same ethics and care into our work and collaborations, whether a participatory neighbourhood plan, a small public building or a new or restored house. This is particularly important on site. As with all other projects, this was a collaborative effort, with particular thanks to all at CE+CA.

I work with an awareness of the ethical responsibility of critical spatial practice, as a practice that moves between, to heal through connection. In my work with texts and archives, I draw on ‘poetic bio-politics’ and the ‘healing motion’ of performance to activate crucial connections between cultures and ecologies of place. ‘Telling’ place ‘in the field’, through material practices, movement, poetry and song, in relation to other bodies, and landscape, I seek to engage the immediacy and accessibility of embodied knowledge/communication as a means to move ethically between institutions and the worldly spaces/communities to which they refer.

‘Critical spatial practice’ (Jane Rendell, 2006, 2011) has been a source of inspiration for our feminist research practices, in various collaborations (i.e. within the group FATALE and together with the collective MYCKET). Our work engages in expanding possibilities of research in architecture through collective actions together with audiences. For this purpose we have adopted methods from theatre and performance studies such as Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre and borrowed formats from contemporary history studies such as the witness seminar. A critical spatial practice means for us an ethical practice which is inclusive and respectful.

In my work I try to juxtapose and merge approaches and techniques from the fields of art, architecture and anthropology. I do this in order to investigate and critically engage with spatial realities from different perspectives and on various levels. In the process of making the work I strive to move back and forth between theory and practice, between the archive and the field, between the political and the poetic, and between found situations and their transformation into cultural signs. In so doing, I’m interested in what is revealed through this transformation and what kind of agency arises from it.

Slow Research Lab initiates interdisciplinary projects that interrogate and respond to unique contexts and/or conditions of the human-built environment. Those ‘in-situ dialogues’ consider the broader ecology and evolving nature of a given site: including continuous unfoldings of material expression, visible and invisible webs of relationship (human/nonhuman, living/nonliving), sensorial and synaesthetic experiences that the site affords, and more. Within such temporary communities of practice, individual and collective desires give way to objects, spatial constructs, performance, sonic intervention, readings, writings, gestures, and actions – valuable not as ends to themselves, but as traces of process and portals to new levels of (mutual) understanding.

Signifying an expertise that exceeds waged domestic labour itself, ‘home-making’ is life-sustaining for many migrant workers. We might consider it a critical spatial practice that aims to transform the world as well as inhabit it, through an everyday performance that is creative, embodied and collaboratively supported. It knits dwelling and travel together in the experience of home, and constitutes an enormous effort to make ‘hostile environments’ (in literal terms) hospitable. The Home-Makers soundwalks aim to make this expertise sensible, inviting the listener to enact a critical spatial practice herself in experiencing spaces with and through the voices of others.

The project aims to reveal the configuration of engaging in a labouring condition, and how it models workers’ behavior, raising, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, the notion of the apparatus. At the same time, the approach which the project adopted addressed the nuanced space between anthropological field work, performance art, and architectural site documentation.

The project aims to reveal the configuration of engaging in a labouring condition, and how it models workers’ behavior, raising, in Giorgio Agamben’s terms, the notion of the apparatus. At the same time, the approach which the project adopted addressed the nuanced space between anthropological field work, performance art, and architectural site documentation.

In my critical spatial practice, duration, often in long periods, is employed as a transformative factor in establishing relationships with place, weather, and seemingly inanimate materials. My works develop with reference to context and with the aim to amplify the material’s agency amongst an ecology of contingent forces. Subjectivity, emotions and bodily gesture and posture are key markers of a critical consciousness practice. I apply the same principles and values to my writing such that the act of writing and orality of reading are infused with spatial immediacy and often test the conventions of voice, tone, and format of what academic writing has been.

Direct Urbanism involves art and artistic strategies in a durational process in urban development – on an equal level to conventional planning strategies:

_for a socially engaged and process orientated urban development 
_for addressing current urban issues as complex societal issues 
_emphasizing public space as space for appropriation by the inhabitants/ users/consumers (see Michel de Certeau)
Direct Urbanism is a new method of planning beyond ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’.

Direct Urbanism relates to direct action (Emma Goldman): It produces ‘situations’ for direct engagement and action, returning responsibility to people on site (see: ‘Silent Activism’/ Barbara Holub). For direct urbanism we have developed a number of tools and artistic-urbanistic strategies (see our publications Direct Urbanism and Planning Unplanned).

Critical spatial practice connects all our projects, directly concerning ‘direct urbanism’, as well as other projects in between art, architecture and urban intervention, between theory and practice. 

Our projects are characterized by our societal engagement aiming at a collective production of space and producing a specific aesthetic related to the context. 

The work prioritizes ways to be responsive, adaptive, and to challenge normative spatial expectations, identities, and relations. Seeking to make visible often invisible or ignored conditions, the work more broadly works as a critique to the boundaries of the architectural discipline, always with the expectation to expand the potentials for design to become more critically relevant and politically engaged.  

My work seeks to unearth lessons from the past to trigger a starting point for my practice based on the stories of others. I retrace their steps, try their methods, perform their ideas. These operations modify my perception and help me re-read historical accounts under a different light, which sparks a new cycle of practice. The cycles of history and practice repeat until I reach a saturation point. By collecting the experiences and reflections of people that came before me, my practice continues their work and becomes a collective project, a conversation between generations, where the wisdom of those cast aside engender new projects.

In describing critical spatial practice, Jane Rendell writes of ‘works [that] can be positioned in ways that make it possible to question the terms of engagement of the projects themselves.’ My approach has sought to explore the critical, productive potential of such ambiguity. Revelling in the space of the weird, where everyday landscapes, practices and characters are recognisable, and yet amazingly strange, and through similarly unstable mediums – such as drawings that are developed and altered through people’s interaction with them, or props which demand interpretation to be put to use –  such that space is opened for hierarchies to be reconfigured, and for excluded groups to be brought to the fore. 

A question I have been asking is what it means to situate ‘critical spatial practice’ itself, a concept developed in the United Kingdom, in relation to work in Zambia. In articulating ‘critical spatial practice’, Rendell points to her extension of the term ‘critical theory’ to include later theorists – among them the post-colonial – that she identifies seek to ‘transform rather than describe’ contexts towards social change. Through ‘critical spatial practice’, Rendell further extends ‘critical theory’ to include the ‘critical practices’ through which these transformations might occur. I think there are clues in this project, which speaks to acts of disrupting hierarchies of power and knowledge, and relations between bodies, bodies and matter, and bodies and the Earth, that are rooted in colonialism. Perhaps, as my and would-be-astronaut Nkoloso’s work suggests, a critical spatial practice which builds, and builds on, decolonial ambitions seeks to make transformations in these realms and relations. I look forward to continuing to think through the way a concept such as this travels – geographically, politically and, as a resulting, epistemically –  and the work it does, and is done to its original context, in the process. 

Mainstream urban place making is often a visual process designed to enhance the economic prospects of a place in order to sell it to desired investors, residents or tourists. In these visualisations ‘the future’ appear as a commodity that is fixed, controlled, and ready to be traded and exchanged for wealth creation. As an alternative to these place-making processes, this work explores ways of ‘place-listening’ – an immersive, embodied and multidirectional engagement with a place that adopts key tenets of critical spatial practice by challenging the view that alternative futures lie outside of the city’s reach or can only be produced by the so-called experts that plan and design it.

Art and Architecture: A Place Between was published as I was completing my PhD and was a light-bulb moment. Jane Rendell’s definition of ‘critical spatial practices’ as creative practices in public space that are more contingent and socially engaged than public art, but less concerned with pragmatics, enabled me to theorise the way I had been working. It has been important for my teaching and creative work ever since. 

The library that comprises ‘Objects removed for study’ was produced in collaboration with members of the Iraqi community in London, while thinking through what Donna Haraway has called ‘epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition’, so creating a way of looking at artefacts that opposes the idea of a centralised narrative.

a place called … evolved into my next urban design intervention, Words upon a Place, where I used interactive benches to tell stories from different places in a city. The benches gave voice to citizens who normally have less of a voice in society and let them tell their story about their place. The benches are located in Skovparken, a deprived housing neighbourhood in Kolding, Denmark and in the Library park in the centre of the city of Kolding, Denmark. The intervention is also part of my Ph.D.

As a European architect practicing within the ‘development’ environments of Sub-Saharan Africa I struggle to find a neutral-objective voice. Development is fraught with civilizing pathologies of colonialism that are obscured by neo-liberal discourses of humanitarianism and prosperity. Through critical spatial practices, my work has been able to find a distance between my traditional role as designer of buildings in these contexts and this voice, but within close proximity to understand the relations between ‘development’ built environments and colonial histories, discourses and sites of exploitation. Working with a film-maker from behind the lens, voice is given creative space to reflect and manoeuvre.

My work explores the idea that certain forms of play can also be critical.  Drawing from the concept of critical spatial practice I have coined the term critical play, which I understand as a relational situated process that is both highly engaging while allowing the distance for self-reflexive criticality. I see in the practice of critical play a useful methodology for dealing with contexts of social and urban conflict, or as a tool for enhancing our perception and relation with the built environment. 

My work, encompassing writing for text or performance, visual and embodied material, falls in between my positions as an artist and a psychoanalysis reader and patient. My writing stages theoretical questions with rhetorical strategies. It is site-writing, ficto-critical, a form of resistance, a way to make and to critique simultaneously. The spaces of the encounter with the work of art are often remembered, dreamed or imagined as a matter of two, viewer and work. Thus, the issue of positioning, of where we stand when we create knowledge, is questioned in the writing itself, through both internal (psychic) and external spatial qualities.

When I was looking for meaningful ways to describe what I was trying to do – and intentionally setting out some distance from other descriptions I felt partial or insufficient – I vividly remember stumbling into the concept of ‘critical spatial practice’ sometimes in the early 00s, by way of bridging other writings on social aspects of the city and non-gallery based approaches to art. The convergence of those three words (critique/space/practice), joined into a specificity of place, meaning of approach and purposeful action seemed to mean all that I couldn’t figure out from the word ‘art’ or any other art genres vocabulary that kept being wrapped around my intentions. The possibilities opened up by that encounter with language at its most generative level summoned courage and a willingness to exist in a tradition of work that suddenly became visible and productive and still propel my practice in all its aspects. Thanks Jane, that was you and still you are.

I like to think that critical spatial practice was a significant discovery (but not in the usual colonialist sense—no room for further elaboration here). I dare to suppose that my work shares in the fruits of that discovery, as I try to show how critical spatial practice is evident in all kinds of works, places, and biographies, past and present. I understand it as potentially counter-hegemonic, and as a spatial counter-point, for instance, to Raymond Williams’ proposal for a study of ‘structures of feeling’.

Having not felt like eating, but eaten, I sat down to eat / tea … on one hand gives an account of the self as a site of contestation, its form given by the multiple negotiations between what we as human beings can know, and what we can imagine. One the other, the work offers multiple sites in which the self is produced, that is an offering of a terrain in which the minute perceptions of linguistic, material, social and psychical propensities and affordances draw forth the otherness always already within any conception we have of (our)selves. The work is a site of perdurance – relationalities of perseverance and resistance – ontologically productive to all life.

My work has tended to begin with a text/texts, found or otherwise, and works with them in relation to a certain site/sites. The site-specific nature of each piece of work evolves from a process of re-reading and movement in relation to the texts, histories, spaces, practices and politics of each site; layering and shifting them in relation to one another to understand them from a different point of view. This close looking at everyday – or even ‘banal’ – architectures and landscapes, in conjunction with an experimental means of dissemination, invites a broad public to engage with the work with the eye of a critical tourist. 

Critical spatial practice is a major reference point for my work (and especially for transparadiso’s method of direct urbanism). My work as an artist oscillates between public space and art institutions, engaging in how to address diverse publics (also in corporate companies) by fostering ‘situations’ for engagement – for returning responsibility to the ‘consumer’ (Michel de Certeau), and how to translate the experience of projects in the urban/public realm into the exhibition space. This is what I call ‘silent activism’: I want to encourage the audience/ participants to explore their personal potential of engaging in societal issues – investigating the role of art in society as an ongoing parallel level. 

The work prioritizes ways to be responsive, adaptive, and to challenge normative spatial expectations, identities, and relations. Seeking to make visible often invisible or ignored conditions, the work more broadly works as a critique to the boundaries of the architectural discipline, always with the expectation to expand the potentials for design to become more critically relevant and politically engaged. 

The game is an ‘event score’ that is transformed by the voices of the players reading the stories, which take on a different accent and performative quality. In part it is a piece of site-writing, which connects the sites it is performed in, and uses methodologies derived from Jane Rendell’s work on site-writing and critical spatial practice.  The game acts as a form of détoured critical spatial practice, bringing something new into relation with the Brixton narratives each time it is played.

Through my work I try to challenge conventional historical approaches in order to acknowledge characters, tendencies and ways of understanding or interpreting which have been excluded or overlooked. I mostly work through writing or exhibition curating and design. I approach architecture from a multidisciplinary perspective interrogating its role in culture and society, locally and globally. I consider my work as part of a critical spatial practice in the sense that its ultimate aim is to try to broaden the scope of architecture through a contamination from other more inclusive fields such as art and fashion.

I have developed socio-spatial production of the tour as a form of critical spatial practice. This has involved affecting shifts in thinking from site as fixed location to a context for learning, from the institutional preservation of buildings to everyday user activation and from consumer product to socially produced tour to evolve learner-centred approaches to touring as a process.  Making ‘insertions’ into existing locations, exploring relations between immediate reactions and reverberations over time, linking concentration with contemplation in making critical responses has evolved a particular understanding of participation – in which people use the mediating capacities of geo-located data, audio narratives or annotated maps as cues to action in seemingly controlled spaces.

David Roberts collaborates with community groups to re-enact and reactivate emancipatory spaces and ideals, drawing on critical acts of writing and performance as a mode of design, as a method of engagement, and a means of activism. On site, he gathers residents around their radical social, political and architectural histories to open a social, discursive and imaginative space from which to build collective knowledge and experiences and share this publicly through artworks, interventions and campaigns. This critical spatial practice brings site writing in dialogue with dramaturgy and devising to raise questions and amplify voices.

Ridley’s was open to the public for three weeks, with an intricate programme of events organised in collaboration with other people. The building of the structure of the restaurant was collaborative, with simple construction techniques requiring little construction knowledge. Inserted in a public space, Ridley’s was a critical spatial project because it critiqued standardized strategies for market renovation while imagining and enacting an alternative possibility. It put forward an exchange system that was hopeful of creating social change, performing non-monetary exchanges of goods and affect, while at the same time stimulating trade in an economically deprived context. 

This project explores Rendell’s ideas of critical spatial practice, where various historic layers are re-interpreted through ritual, and myth making. It reflects upon Hill’s ideas of immaterial architectures, where sounds from the site, voice and instrumentation create acoustic layerings that alter experience of site. It examines Böhme’s notions of atmospheres, how the experience of site is not just informed by the architecture, or the known history, but also by what each of the practitioners and audience members brings to the project. Where they have been and what they have done is seen as contributory in the process of meaning making, and experience of site.

Since the 1960s, interdisciplinary crossovers amongst art, cinema, performance and architecture have been referred to as ‘expanded.’ Thus, the title of this exhibition series, Expanded Architecture, was developed within the lineage of such practices as expanded art, expanded cinema, expanded field, and expanded spatial practice. In each of these practices, the term expanded was first used in very specific ways, but then was broadly employed in a less-defined manner as the terminology became adopted, morphed and adapted to suit various interpretations. Despite the unarguable expansive connotations of the term expanded, when used in association with interdisciplinary practices, it does not refer to an indefinite expansion into other disciplines. Rather, here it is used to refer to an internal interrogation of one’s own discipline through the lens of other disciplines, that is, expanded architecture questions what the parameters of architecture are and how they can be examined through other practices, such as installation, performance, moving image, sound art, and so on. It is an eternal expansion of depth into the unknown that can be considered infinitely richer than expanding in all directions. It is hoped that if expanded, and expanded architecture continues to be used as a term, it will shed new light on architecture, opening up new cracks in the wall to reveal and reconstruct our spatial, material, sensorial, mental, social, cultural, and metaphysical relationships to it in built form and as a discipline. Expanded Architecture also reflects upon reflective of Rendell’s discussion around expanded spatial practice and critical spatial practice, because of its implied relationship to the spectator and situated-ness within various contexts. Rendell coined the term ‘expanded spatial practice’ in 2009 as ‘an expanded consciousness of space: thinking and practicing space in an expanded sense might then place emphasis on interior spaces of the psyche as well as those external landscapes, but also on what it means to operate spatially . . . establishing a relation between the two.’ An expanded spatial practice could also be considered less politically and socially motivated than Rendell’s other term, ‘critical spatial practice’, which she describes as work that has ‘spatial, temporal and social considerations.’ In Rendell’s definition of critical spatial practice, there is arguably a fine line between art that evokes an effect and art that critically engages with its disciplinary context. Also of relevance is Rendell’s description of critical spatial practice that is ‘at the edge of between and across different disciplines, … adopting methods that call into question disciplinary procedures.’ That is, the expanded nature of the inquiry is done specifically to interrogate the parameters of one’s own discipline.

The definition put by Jane Rendell of ‘critical spatial practice’ as a practice that operates between disciplines and spaces, and offers alternatives to binary thinking; has helped structure my research method navigating through the multiplicity of border conditions. This method of bordering has been particularly relevant within situations of civil conflict where the notion of division is more complex than simply two separate sides, of us and them, and requires one to think through the border as an activity and a living condition. It also considers the artist/researcher’s position to be inseparable from the politics of the borders that are being investigated. The resultant is the production of new narratives that operate across people, spaces, times, media and representations, and have the potential to expose the construction of certain dominant narratives and question their hegemony.

Jane Rendell distinguishes between spatial practices and critical spatial practices by pointing out to their respective descriptive and transformative approaches. My definition of traditional topographical practices and critical topographical practices is derived from Rendell’s distinction. Critical topographical practices refer to practices that regard place as multiple, subjective and open, whereas traditional topographical practices seek to define place as a determinable and quantitatively fixed whole, which indicates a closed system and certain set of elements located within this. This definition sets out rules of engagement, which position the surveyor and the viewer outside the place, looking at it from a fixed and often dominating point of view. Critical topographical practices, on the other hand, offer an ‘experimentation’, rather than an ‘imitation’ of a place that performs a place rather than reproduces it. 

Currently, my approach focuses on how my research can be linked to my activist practice with the struggles of mining-affected communities. This aims to contribute meaningfully to the movement’s processes by producing relevant information and materials, and also, to challenge the colonial logic of research by formulating a collective research strategy, that proposes the research question, methods and final products together towards the benefit of those directly involved. In addition, I want to explore how social movements in local struggles from different parts of the world connect among themselves to build an understanding of the same issues from different perspectives.

Subtraction is directed against the logic of continuous growth and addition. It is a vitalist, not a negative, form: the operation of elimination activates ‘potentialities of becoming.’ It is capable of creating spaces of independence and autonomy from the dominant laws of the situation.

n-1 has the potential to open up a gap in ‘the history we live, the history that has been imposed on us, [that] is nothing other than the result of the other histories that this very history had to oust in order to affirm itself.’ (Carmelo Bene)

Jhono’s work as strategic director and co-founder of 1to1 has focused on leading his organisation to systemically address spatial inequality in South Africa through the support and capacitation of residents of informal neighbourhoods. He has done so through tactically linking elements of national government, the private sector of the building industry and universities in South Africa via self-developed initiatives that have seen the development of situated methods of neighbourhood building, designing and facilitation that focus on designing process support tools and approaches. These tacitly designed tools play a crucial role in his advocacy work that aims to dissolve ingrained negative perceptions of grass-roots value in city-making processes in post-colonial and post-apartheid cities of Southern Africa.

My practice is situated in between disciplines; in between art and architecture, sociology and urban studies … It is an interdisciplinary practice concerned with space, location, situation that emphasises my personal involvement and subjective observations utilising and transforming methods from these fields along with inventing new tools and strategies. Through my practice I’m always questioning the relationship between contemporary art production and the urban regeneration process, the potential of a critical position that the artist occupies when becoming involved in the process of urban regeneration, and through this experience, a knowledge contribution to the critical spatial practice produced within contemporary art discourse. 

Many of the practices we employ attune the body to serve as a receptive organism that can both sense and activate spatial realities. We attune our bodies through song, movement, and service in order to facilitate experiences that open dialogues with place, history, and remembered inter-connection. Through site-specific movement practices and performance, we engage with energetic inscription — allowing ourselves to be changed by place, and to leave prayers and blessings through offering behind. Through personal story, narrative, and ancestral practices, we seek to affirm the presence(s) of the mythic, the architectural, and the spatial as interwoven expressions of a pluriverse of which we are continuously shaping and re-forming.

In this text, I focus on how spaces and institutions are both contested and re-assembled in result of withdrawal of artistic labour. In contrast to advocates of the business-as-usual, who are in favour of reproducing existing institutional or spatial forms, I concur that occupations or strikes are productive, also in a sense of producing spaces, where collective struggles are waged, and where new forms of being-together are engendered and tested.

Through my practice I aim to critique the sites of our everyday urban environments, the economic algorithms scripting these settings and the performance of the human labour with(in) this set up. Developed as collaborations across disciplines, the practice aims to visualize and actively and politically disrupt the rigid boundaries built around disciplinary procedures to serve the dominant economic forces within society. With cross-pollination, new dialogues emerge which critique the relationship between commodity capitalism and spatial production to interrogate the conditions which produce inequality around us. Through this a space for critical engagement is created which pursues a less disproportionate society. 

I do not differentiate clearly between practice and thought. A differential exists, but the exact moment of transition is as unknowable as the moment of coalescence into form: awareness here is retrospective. Boundaries have their uses, but they are ultimately restrictive, especially when elevated to principles. So writing may evolve into painting, film, and so forth. These factors define for me Jane Rendell’s understanding of “site-specificity” within site-writing, which isn’t a matter of inter/cross-disciplinarity, but a rather generously expansive mode of exploration that enables both freedom and structure, because it is its own site, yet it is interconnected.

‘Site-writing’ and making is the fundamental basis of my practice as it draws from fieldwork and site works in landscapes and interiors. ‘Deep mapping’ practices that require investigating everything you might want to know about a place inform the collection. Travelling and practising with others is the other necessary ingredient in the archive of experience and material gathered over time that enriches my practice, which is really just an ongoing experiment, now focused on the criticality of water in culture. 

At the core of my practice is an idea of working in collaboration with a place, listening to and sounding out a kind of relay of call and response across physical and temporal boundaries.

There is a consistent empathy and solidarity with overlooked sites, materials, people and processes and an impetus to salvage, glean, assemble and illuminate the hidden in new, revealing constellations. Poetics and politics combine in varied ways and with increasing urgency.  This approach has its origins in early readings of Schumacher and a world ecology, via an MA in Scenography where space was never just a backdrop to events played out in front of static, passive scenery but the event itself, through Walter Benjamin to the mentorship of Jane Rendell and Ben Campkin. Elements of montage and film theory intertwine in an understanding of space and/as time and a layered, archaeological reading of the city and its ruptures. 

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