Surplus in Neoliberal Urban Space

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A research sponsored by the Korea-England Research Fellowship (Arts Council Korea [ARKO] and Arts Council England [ACE]) and supported by the UCL Urban Laboratory.

Seminar on 20 January 2017

This research focuses on surplus in urban space as the production of the neoliberal economy. The creation and demolition of surplus (including related spaces) are currently ongoing phenomena throughout the globe, and artists’ engagement with them is significant. Thus, it ultimately raises a question on the relationship between art and the social—or art and the urban.[1] Before discussing the notion of ‘surplus’ in urban space, it would be helpful to understand the ways in which the expression ‘surplus space’ has been used. So far, landscape architects have widely used the term ‘surplus space’ to indicate abandoned facilities or spaces of the industrial era that are no longer in use. Architectural designers have, thus, been involved with renovating such spaces to impose a new value on them. The term ‘surplus,’ here, is obviously based on the utilitarian ideal of modern industrial society; it connotes that these spaces are supplementary and unnecessary for functional purposes, thereby valueless. Transformations of these spaces into ones for leisure, entertainment, art and green (parks) purposes—instilling cultural and environmental values—reflect the creation of [invisible] exchange value in addition to the spatial use value. Meanwhile, there is historically charged post-colonial ‘surplus space’—I call this ‘surplus space’ for it is almost always related to specific sites. 19th-20th century industrialization (and democratization), particularly the industrialization forced through colonization and followed by urbanization (or vice versa), sets the condition for these spaces. Such spaces represent the remains of a traumatic history in former colonized . Especially for the collaborative research between Korea and England, this study focuses on massive urban redevelopment planning—East London’s development, which had begun since the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and Seoul city’s redevelopment planning in several designated zones—and examines the ways in which artists have engaged with the current urban issues of surplus.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas’s idea of ‘dirt,’ explored in Purity and Danger (1966), describes the modern tendency to maintain order while removing ‘any matter out of place,’ a concept that has become a maxim applied to a diverse range of disciplines. In Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (2004), Zygmunt Bauman applies this idea to the context of the globalised neoliberal economic system. While expanding the notion of ‘dirt,’ he employs the economic concept of ‘surplus’ to refer to physically and socially wasted matter from landfills (waste treatment facilities) to unused industrial materials or facilities to human beings, including unemployed people, refugees and illegal immigrants. He then claims that the waste treatment and security industries will thus persist as inevitable apparatuses that preserve the present social system—security as an instrument to control waste management. In the neoliberal era, the waste treatment technique has developed so significantly that it has made the refuse almost completely unrecognisable. Surplus, which is regarded as waste, is, however, still there but just remains invisible.

Before discussing the notion of ‘surplus’ in urban space, it would be helpful to understand the ways in which the expression ‘surplus space’ has been used. So far, landscape architects have widely used the term ‘surplus space’ to indicate abandoned facilities or spaces of the industrial era that are no longer in use. Architectural designers have, thus, been involved with renovating such spaces to impose a new value on them. The term ‘surplus,’ here, is obviously based on the utilitarian ideal of modern industrial society; it connotes that these spaces are supplementary and unnecessary for functional purposes, thereby valueless. Transformations of these spaces into ones for leisure, entertainment, art and green (parks) purposes—instilling cultural and environmental values—reflect the creation of [invisible] exchange value in addition to the spatial use value. Meanwhile, there is historically charged post-colonial ‘surplus space’—I call this ‘surplus space’ for it is almost always related to specific sites. 19th-20th century industrialization (and democratization), particularly the industrialization forced through colonization and followed by urbanization (or vice versa), sets the condition for these spaces. Such spaces represent the remains of a traumatic history in former colonized countries. Unlike neoliberal ‘surplus space,’ historically charged ones are rarely concerned with the people who currently reside there. Rather, those spaces are more about the ways in which each society/nation deals with the history and collective memory. In most cases, they are abandoned and/or forgotten, not existing in social consciousness, and thus, cognitively invisible—of course, different countries respond to these spaces in different ways. Invisibility, in this sense, is the point with which the artists engage in order to reveal the individual or communal existence in whatever form it may manifest and the ways in which the society/nation deals with its past.

In order to avoid confusion with the existing notion of ‘surplus space,’which is simply confined to the idea of uselessness, I will focus on the notion of ‘surplus,’which is fundamentally an economic approach, particularly based on the neoliberal context. This concept, as Bauman demonstrates, can be applied both to material entities (e.g. industrial facilities) and human beings (inappropriate producers and/or consumers such as the unemployed as well as refugees and illegal immigrants). That is, ‘surplus,’ in the discussion of urban space, is not limited to the abstract economic sense, but actively embraces and is intertwined with the urban and the spatial.

There are ethical and aesthetic aspects to surplus. First, the neoliberal surplus treatment is concerned with both the space (urban re/development) and certain groups of human beings that are inextricably intertwined with each other. Whether it is material entities or humans, the surplus value is imposed on the basis of the value criteria of a given society, particularly those of economic power, thereby entailing class issues without exception. As the corporate or government-led urban spatial transformation is implemented relentlessly yet legitimately, its subtle and intricate techniques not only determine the people whose economic lives are sub-par improper but also make them invisible in the urban space. In this sense, we can say that surplus is a socio-economically coined term that is related not only to the so-called surplus humans themselves but also to the matter of their existence and dignity. This is the very point at which artists as cultural activists intervene by visualizing the existence of such human beings (Andrea Luka Zimmerman and David Roberts), or by salvaging their material value (Hilary Powell), thereby revitalising the individual and community lives and the narratives of the locality. Such artistic practices are a means of unraveling and destroying the social criteria or system in place that makes a group of people and their space improper, valueless and invisible, leaving them behind as surplus.

Second, interpreting surplus as that which is not an absolute necessity for surviving—surplus vis-a-vis function—we can refer to surplus as aesthetic practice, or vice versa. This is one of the reasons why cultural and artistic activities often become co-opted and constantly transform into cultural and artistic industries that produce a new [exchange] value, not to remain as surplus in the context where finance rules. It is indeed more significant in the neoliberal economy. For example, public art, among other genres, has been posited in the crossroad of diverse values; regardless of the definition of ‘public,’ this genre of art must be able to demonstrate its benefit to the public to prove its productive value. As most public art is installed or performed in the public space, its spatial value also matters. However, the public benefit or spatial value (other than the increased real estate value) is hardly measurable by any determined criteria, and, thus, the value of this art often remains debatable. The public’s participation, for instance, kinetic interactivity, was once a measure of public art’s value, but such mechanically simplified interactivity only causes the terms ‘public’ and ‘participation’ to lose their essential meanings (Jes Fernie, the art director of London Olympic Parks’ art project, points out that the section 106 of the UK is a policy that produces such outmoded public art forms, which she calls the obvious negative surplus in public art). Meanwhile, creating placeness, an emotional attachment to the place, has become a new way to measure the value of the art in a public space. One trap of this movement is that the tourist industry is likely to co-opt the space, or it may become a privatized public space, yet, as long as the space remains a public one, this transition is not necessarily damaging. Despite the many risks of co-opting, artistic practice, the very position of its existence as surplus, gives the art a critical potential for engagement with urban issues (Lawrence Lek).

Such ironical double sides of ‘surplus’ reminds us of the fact that Walter Benjamin compared modern poet (Baudelaire) with ragpickers in respect of their subversive power of salvaging the value from the wasted, overturning the order and categorisation.[2] Likewise, surplus’s ethical and aesthetic aspects are interconnected to each other, while the former is generated by the latter, the latter is rooted in the former.

Jeong Hye Kim

 

[1] Andy Merrifield, drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s discourse on the urban as opposed to the city, states that urban society is born of industrialization, a force that shattered the internal intimacy of the traditional city. Meanwhile, Manuel Castells says that the shifting toward “the urban is something very close to Louis Wirth (Chicago School)’s thesis concerning the way social relations are produced.” He contested the idea that urbanism is its very own ‘way of life,’ asserting that it is an imaginary representation of the urban world behind which a real reality resides (Andy Merrifield, The Politics of the Encounter [Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013], pp. 15-17, 27-29).

[2] Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 108

Image: Hilary Powell, ‘Deconstructing Demolition’ (2015)


Full report: surplus-in-neoliberal-urban-space_jhk_2016-2017

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