CoLab Radio

I submitted one of my photos from an HOB event in Biddeford to the MIT CoLab Radio blog:


"Le spectacle n'est pas un ensemble d'images, mais un rapport social entre des personnes, médiatisé par des images."
–Guy Debord


Music in The Park

This summer we added tables & chairs to Shevenell Park, a rather neglected pocket park on Main St. For the last few fridays they have been filled for a series of free performances featuring local bands. In terms of 'structure', we saw how the furniture immediately changed the perception of the space, from more or less an oversized alleyway to a pleasant nook shaded by trees where one might sit down for a quiet lunch. On the other hand, the music--although not a structural element-- changes the spatial perception just as much, associating the space with the concept of a stage or venue rather than, well, nothing in particular. Finally, the old park sign was replaced with a new one sporting an image of the park's namesake, Israel Shevenell, who was supposedly the first French-Canadian immigrant to arrive in Biddeford, having walked all the way from his home in Canada. The old sign had been a classic example of the long list of "NO"'s that mar so many public spaces in this country. The new sign also lists rules, as required by city ordinance, but they are written in a much more human voice and the portrait of Shevenell almost makes it seem like it is his voice speaking through the sign. Many people objected that the new chairs and tables would be immediately stolen, but as in the case of similar improvement projects, if something is useful it is usually respected and protected by the community; so far nothing has been removed or vandalized.

Additions: chairs and tables, new signage,
small plants such as ferns, and bamboo sheets
to block an open view of some dumpsters.
So here we have spatial revitalization in 3 dimensions: physical structure (chairs & tables), representation (the written sign, rules, photo, and history of Shevenell), and socio-cultural activity (in this case a musical performance).

With a little stretching it is possible to interpret the park revitalization in terms of Henri Lefebvre's spatial "trialiectic"of Spatial Practice, Representations of Space, and Spaces of Representation. These are really difficult concepts to distinguish, mostly because they necessarily bleed together, but the park example provides a really nice tool for attempting to explain them.

Spatial Practice, as I interpret it, is intended to signify everyday, un-thoughtful perceptions of space; using and thinking about space as one is "supposed" to according to the dominant ideology whether of the architect, planner, or society at large. You don't hang your laundry or sleep in the park, not because someone needed to tell you not to, just because it doesn't seem appropriate for that sort of space.

Representations of space like public signs
tell you how to think about and treat spaces.
Representations of Space have to do with the concepts, discourses, words, and images that go into creating the commonsense spatial practice mentioned above. In the park example, the sign with it's list of rules, official name, and history, is an example of a representation of space. Except for the sign that instructs you to, you don't HAVE to call the park by a certain name; you can use whatever name you want, and indeed many public spaces have 'unofficial' names that can become more famous than the official ones. Yet signs, plans, and urban planning typologies do have a great deal of power because they  overlay a certain favored interpretation of space to the extent that it can be really difficult to separate the actual space with all of its potential from the ideas that have congealed around it due to the spatial representations. Skateboarders have always been adept at cutting through representations of space and unlocking different potentials; a railing becomes an athletic obstacle for instance, defeating everything we know about what a "railing" should be.

Bringing one's own chair
as an example of engaged spatial practice

Finally, there are Spaces of Representation, the third and most difficult to understand piece of the trialectic. As far as I understand Spaces of Representation (also translated as discourse of space, or representational space), the category is meant to be a synthesis of spatial practice and representations of space, effectively forging a sort of active spatial participation, where people--by the very virtue of how they are  present in space, and act on and within it--are consciously involved a conversation (or battle) about the significance of that space. A live performance like the ones we have been holding would seem like the type of ephemeral spatial phenomenon that would allow this tricky concept to begin to emerge. Being a participant in a live performance, as a listener or musician, gives one the chance to "try out" not only the physical space of the park itself, but also the rules, ideas, and perceptions governing it.

With our "revitalization" efforts, we were basically asking a question using the medium of space which is essentially "can you see this park as a place you would want to come hang out in and use regularly?" This is what the chairs, the sign, and the concert series collectively ask; and the people who attend the concerts every friday have a chance to listen to this question and answer it for themselves. They may accept our new interpretation, or continue to think of the park in a neutral or somewhat negative light; or they may decide they have their own interpretation; after all, with our additions the park could sprout some unintended uses: drug sales, busking, sleeping, theft. Some of these unintended uses may actually be desirable, others of course less so. But if the park ends up getting used in new ways or picking up a nickname for itself, then that would perhaps show that it has become a space of representation, a site of active spatial interpretation and counter-interpretation.

'Is this a place you would want to hang out in?'
I hope my own theoretical interpretation is not so difficult to understand. I also hope it at least has some bearing on what Lefebvre really intended with his spatial trialectic. If anyone can comment on whether my interpretation is on the right track or not, I would be really grateful. A lot of times however it is tempting to get carried away in jargon and forget that even something that sounds as convoluted as "spatial trialectics" ultimately boils down to really concrete things we do and feel in our everyday lives. Whenever possible less emphasis should be placed on fragile jargon-y constructions and more on lessons taken from the experience of everyday life which is, in the end, all there is.