Regaining Control Over Public Space in Rapidly Changing Neoliberal World

The issue of building, defending and governing public sphere, public spaces and commons in the era of neoliberal hegemony is becoming urgent on the global scale. Capitalism has promised prosperity, development and equality for all, which includes equal right to public resources such as water or public spaces. Still, it is becoming more and more obvious that decision-making power is reserved for a small number of owners of transnational private corporations supported by politicians. This has provoked numerous citizens’ reactions and major protests worldwide (for example, a two-day general strike in India which gathered around 15 million people in January 2019). Therefore, the scientific community is taking responsibility for discovering new models of governance which will restore the right for public sphere. In order to propose solutions, numerous topics were raised and explored: decision-making and governance, participation, co-ownership, cooperation, co-sharing, building and redefining relationships between public, private and civil sectors. The book modelling public space(s) in culture represents a worthy contribution to a better understanding of all these questions from the point of view of arts, culture, cultural policy, management and cultural governance. It will instigate researchers and practitioners in culture around the globe who are dedicated to the topic of fighting for common goods and public interests.

Many left-oriented activists and social scientists raised this subject in the XX century (primarily Lefebvre who defined the right to the city, and later Habermas). Gradually, this topic occupied a prominent place in contemporary academic and professional discussions in cultural management and policy. It emerged in the field of preservation of cultural heritage (especially after the adoption of the Faro Convention in 2005), and it was further strengthened within discussions related to criticism of gentrification and the development of a creative economy (especially thanks to Richard's Florida famous apology in 2017). Currently, cultural policy researchers are working to link the theory of political economy on one hand, and culture and cultural policy on the other (MacGuigan is one of the leading scholars in this field). Participation, participatory and shared governance, cooperation, collective actions, bottom-up initiatives became hot concepts.

Thanks to socialist past and self-management experience, countries of former Yugoslavia have a lot to offer to this discussion in the cultural policy domain. Yugoslavia was a supranational state, which was aiming to build a functional socialist self-governing (workers' self-management) system. Sadly, it broke up in a civil war into a group of new national-states in which capitalism was introduced later on. Thus, the history of Yugoslavia and its disintegration provides a number of valuable lessons about management of social (public, shared) and private property, democratic decision-making processes and the consequences of economic and social transition from socialism to neoliberal capitalism. A publication Do it Together – Practices and Tendencies of Participatory Governance in Culture in the Republic of Croatia (2018) edited by Dea Vidović is certainly worth mentioning in this context, because it is one of the first and most popular ones in the region that promoted the question of participatory governance in culture, but it is limited to the territory of Croatia. The book modelling public space(s) in culture: Rethinking Institutional Practices in Culture and Historical (Dis)continuities, which came out the same year, covers a wider geographical perspective (ex-Yugoslavia, Western Europe and beyond). It can be described as particularly rich due to the fact that it gathers international authors around the same topic – scholars, researchers, artists, managers, curators, activists and other practitioners who are working in various fields (sociology of culture, cultural policy, performing arts, architecture etc.), with diverse methodological approaches and sometimes even opposing ideological perspectives (Marxist or neo-Marxist vs. liberal).

Edited by three female cultural professionals: Biljana Tanurovska Kjulavkovski and Violeta Kachakova from Lokomotiva – Center for new initiatives in arts and culture, Skopje, Macedonia and Nataša Bodrožić from Loose associations, Zagreb, Croatia, the book was created as a collection of presentations delivered at the conference Modeling Public Space(s) in Culture, held in Skopje in October 2017, organized by Lokomotiva. The conference, dedicated to the issue of defining and managing public spaces in culture, is part of The Dissonant (Co)Spaces project organized in partnership between Lokomotiva (Macedonia), Jelena Šantić Foundation (Serbia) and the organization Loose associations - contemporary art practices (Croatia). The project was supported by the Balkan Arts and Culture Fund (the Swiss Government through the SDC and the ECF).

This book can be described as a net of profoundly political and personal testimonials of 26 cultural professionals to a rapidly changing world, as well as their self-reflective attempt to explain and define this particular moment of contemporary societies. The rapid social, political and economic transition (the so-called acceleration of history with all accompanying turbulences) reflected in various culture-related phenomena, as well as the important question how to deal with all the issues raised from this transition (from endangered right to public sphere to dissonant memory) are analyzed in the book.

Three main thematic axes are established: “Re-Assembling Institution of Culture” (first chapter dedicated to cultural policy issues and the topic of institutional critique, institutional positioning and governance), “Collective Instituting: Between the “No Longer” and the “Not Yet” (second chapter which deals with the question of communing, primarily from the perspective of artistic and curatorial practice) and “Archaeologies of the Future” (third chapter dedicated to issues of cultural memory). Therefore, a range of common key notions appears in the book: public space, public sphere, commons, collectivity, participation, sharing, co-creation, inclusion, exclusion, oblivion, decentralization, political culture, public-private, public-civil partnership etc.

Authors are not always in agreement with the meanings and interpretations of all the listed notions – which is why it is especially interesting to compare individual texts. For example, for some, the strategy of public-civil partnership means a way to achieve a higher degree of democracy in public domain (Milena Dragićević Šešić and Rada Drezgić, Ana Žuvela, Biljana Tanurovska Kjulavkovski, Violeta Kachakova, Iskra Geshoska, Yane Calovski.), while for the others – it represents just a step towards facilitating private recapture of public resources (Prnjat, p. 104). For many, cooperation in the framework of cultural projects is crucial, while for some – request for cooperation, as well as any other request that comes top-down should be dismissed.  Some authors criticize the notion of participation, because it primarily signifies consent, harmony, and acceptance, excluding the ideas of struggle and conflict (Ivana Vaseva, Building Collective Public Space responsibly: “conflictual” artistic and curatorial practices). In this regard, it could be said that texts reveal an underlying dilemma weather the actions of cultural professionals should be aiming towards a „more equal“ or „completely equal“ public sphere; whether the notion „horizontal“ means anti-authoritarianism and abolition of any type of hierarchy, or it perhaps indicates subjecting to new forms of non-hierarchical decision-making process embodied in „neo-managerial model, which deconstructs the traditional cultural hierarchy of verticality by submitting  it to the law of numerical measurability“ (Gielen, p. 21), and so on.

It can be assumed that the central hypothesis of the book is: physical spaces are essentially spaces where knowledge and values are produced and shared, and therefore, where society is (trans)formed. Or, as Gielen in the opening text states: „institutions [such as churches, museums etc.] have always played a crucial role in mediating between the real world and the imagined world (Gielen, p. 16).“ By modeling spaces – institutions, actors active in the public realm, become bearers of social change. This is why the essential challenge to contemporary democracy is summarized in all following questions raised by the book: how to enter, occupy and produce public spaces; how should spaces be modelled and governed, and by whom; what rules should be set, on what grounds, what are the values to be promoted; what content is created and how; what models of organizing and decision making should be applied. Therefore, the core research, but also practical question posed by the authors is: how to regain control over public sphere, public resources (commons, commonalities) in this neoliberal world of rapid change through the usage of public spaces.

The most striking examples of the transition period from socialism to neoliberalism that is reflected in physical spaces are revealed in the images of three neglected and missing institutions in successor countries of Yugoslavia. These examples were chosen as case studies for the The Dissonant (Co)Spaces project: former cinema-theater building Kino Kultura in Macedonia that was privatized, but nowadays operates as a public space dedicated to contemporary performing arts (Kino Kultura – Project Space for Contemporary Performing Arts and Contemporary Culture by Biljana Tanurovska Kjulavkovski and Violeta Kachakova); former Motel Soline in Croatia, a reminder of socialist times, that was as such neglected by the state, but put into function by Loose Associations as a platform and a space for contemporary art practices (Motel Trogir Project: Protecting Croatia’s Post-WWII Architecture by Lidija Butković Mićin and Nataša Bodrožić); and Pionirski Grad, Serbia – a complex dedicated to health, sports and education activities of school children of former Yugoslavia, that was completely devastated in the post socialist period (Pioneer City in Belgrade Legitimate Oblivion or Non-Culture of Remembering by Milica Božić Marojević and Marija Stanković). Not only these three examples are from former Yugoslavia, but many others presented in the book (e.g. Jadro in Skopje, or all the spaces discussed in Goran Janev’s text Neoliberal Appropriation of Public Space in Post(anti)socialist Macedonia) are important for the topic, precisely from the point of view of former socialist experiences, which was underlined by Dragana Alfirević in the text Endurance, Soft Structures and the Glitter – On Nomad Dance Academy and Its Potentials  as a Migrating Set of Institutional Practices: „We [who are coming from ex-Yugoslavian countries] all share socialist experience that the state and the social are the same, we want to be engaged in the making of the public space and the public space can be secured by the state, but mostly because it is the duty of the state to secure equal rights to everyone, as well as to take care of preservation and fostering of the public space (Alfirević, p. 92).”

An analysis of the ex-Yugoslavian context (system of governance and the role of the state), but from a broader perspective of cultural policy and with the emphasis on current state of the arts in culture, is provided in several texts signed by most prominent cultural policy experts and activists of the region (Milena Dragićević-Šešić, Rada Drezgić, Claske Vos, Ana Žuvela, and Danilo Prnjat). It can be noted that one the major concerns of cultural professionals from ex-Yugoslavia is the withdrawal of the state from financing the arts and culture and the definition of relationship between public, civil and private organizations. This process implies the simultaneous collapse of public institutions, gradual strengthening of the private sector (creative economy, creative industry), and the unclear and contradictory positioning of civil society organizations, that are at the same time seen as crucial fighters for public space that were given  responsibility for defending public interest, and promotors of neoliberal values, taking the role of mediators between public and private sectors, who are actually allowing private sector to occupy public resources.  

By no means, other parts of Europe and the world remained untouched by different pressures of neoliberalism, which can be discovered in several texts that provide a wider geopolitical perspective. For example, in their text ETMAC: The Extra-territorial Ministry of Arab Culture, Adham Hafez, performance theorist and Adam Kucharski an “anthropologist-turned-economist-turned-urbanist” described a desired reform of institutions that have lost their legitimacy, focusing “on ministries of culture as public cultural institutions marked by socialism that have largely fallen into disrepute (Hafez & Kucharski, p. 183).” Furthermore, the text Destituent Spaces by Gigi Argyropoulou, a researcher, theorist, director and curator working in the fields of performance, leads readers to Greece and Italy showcasing several occupy-initiatives that were struggling to take over the public space, while trying to avoid the trap of “replicating the social conditions of neoliberalism (Argyropoulou, p. 140).” Corrado Gemini also discusses several cases of artistic and cultural actions in Italy that were opposing neoliberal left and fighting for new models of organizing (Patterns of Commoning Ownership and Cultural Production in the Age of Automation). Speaking about cultural activism, Gemini argues that it is necessary to act primarily in the field of economy, labor and data ownership.

By placing Gielen’s text Imagining Culture in a Flat Wet World at the beginning of the book, the editors put the topic in a broader geopolitical context and anticapitalistic discourse. Gielen, a sociologist and a researcher in the field of arts and cultural policy based in Groningen University, the Netherlands, explicitly analyzes the neoliberal oppression by showing a series of negative consequences of neoliberalization in which cultural institutions were found under the shadow of market logic. He argues that submission to the law of numerical measurability (an example would be the Bologna Agreement), introduction of managerial subjects in arts universities’ curricula, and all the processes that promote uniformity, rationality, adaptability, flexibility, interdisciplinarity in arts and culture result in de-professionalization, corporate-behavior, superficiality, loss of depth and a sense of collective. Claske Vos shares some of Gielen’s ideas; while speaking about the EU policies that are shaping local (national) cultural practices in her text Building European Cultural Spaces: Discussing the Impact of European Cultural Policy in Southeast Europe, she proposes that the EU should not be that much concerned with the form of cultural projects, how much with content; and that instead of focusing on short-term success, long-term projects should also have a chance to be developed (Vos, pp. 38-40).  She states; “[p]olicy models cannot be simply developed and imposed” as ready-mades (Vos, pp. 39). Danilo Prnjat underlined the danger of introducing managerial logic in the management of culture as well: “so-called new public management is to maximally transform the activities of public institutions into activities similar to the activities of private firms capable to secure market self-sufficiency. (Prnjat, p. 107)” Similar idea is transmitted in the text Commons as an Emancipatory Tendency in Constituting New Institutions by Ivana Dragšić: “[…]commoning as a practice, using culture or cultures and not market quantification and evaluation as a driving force, can make former public things (resources, spaces, services) public again (Dragšić, p. 152).“ Hafez and Kucharski were criticizing, various forms of co-opting, customer-centrism, and „[...] displacement of institutional responsibility“ to private sector „in the name of efficiency and cost effectiveness“ (Hafez & Kucharski, p. 183).

By analyzing some small-scale projects and particular case-studies, several other authors came to similar conclusions: “Cultural workers sought to respond the social conditions of late capitalism by producing structures of togetherness and participation, convivial environments and urban interventions; Cultural organizations have to be a place of ongoing negotiation – breaking away from contemporary discourse of effectiveness, cooperation and necessity…without antibiotic effects“ (Argyropoulou, pp. 140-144). New models of institutions should be based on principles of „direct democracy, co-management, sharing of responsibility and co-ownership“ (Geshoska & Calovski, p. 101);  “[…]collective ownership of platforms [which implies no accumulation], a proper copyleft system and a strong push to mutualism and cooperation makes up a fully sustainable environment for [music and other] the arts“ (Gemini, p. 162).

The book modelling public space(s) in culture provides plenty of notions, theoretical approaches, scientific references, perspectives, positions and case studies related to the topic of fighting for public space(s) – historically as well as from today's point of view, in the ex-Yugoslavian, European and global context. That way, it successfully covers the complexity of the topic – that requires such collective, pluralistic, conflictual, participatory and engaging approach. Majority of texts strive to find solutions for regaining control over public spaces in this rapidly changing neoliberal world, which is for sure one of the most important tasks for contemporary intellectuals, activists, researchers. Furthermore, some authors have pointed to the conditions for forgetting the socialist past, while the whole book – as a collection of personal and political testimonies – can be seen as a collective effort to provide resistance to repressive economic, social, cultural and memory politics of neoliberal contemporary society. By offering some directions, the book empowers the struggle for public space, which is its principle quality – and which strongly recommends it for further reading. 


Kjulavkovski, B. T., Bodrožić, N., Kachakova, V. (Eds.) (2018). modelling public space(s) in culture: Rethinking Institutional Practices in Culture and Historical (Dis)continuities. Skopje: Lokomotiva.