On Public Space and Street Cats / Hadas Ophrat

Image: from “Residency”, by Hadas Ophrat
Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Public space is a cultural concept. When Jürgen Habermas coined the term “public sphere” in 1962, he attributed it to the emergence of civil society, in other words forming a collective ideological position and conducting a public discourse, which only became possible when the masses began acquiring linguistic skills (reading and writing) in the eighteenth century. This was a cultural-urban turning point that created a new system of power relations between the masses (the public) and the hegemony (the regime, the aristocracy, religion, etc). The significance of the establishment of public space can therefore be understood in the very liberation of the public and legitimacy for acting to exercise its rights. Like Habermas, Hannah Arendt, too, saw a connection between the political-urban structure of space and the public’s definition of its self-identity, which was manifested in action and speech: ‘[…] while certainly only the foundation of the city-state enabled men to spend their whole lives in the political realm, in action and speech, the conviction that these two human capacities belonged together and are the highest of all seems to have preceded the polis and was already present in pre-Socratic thought.’[1]

Action and speech, therefore, are the means to define collective identity and create public space. ‘Action, an activity that takes place between multiple human beings and has no purpose outside the relationship between them, always requires the existence of public space, and struggles for its existence when this space is appropriated by the regime or the wealthy, threatened, or dismantled.’[2] The space between city buildings gradually becomes a sphere, i.e., a social and political object that invites people to come out of the private domain and mingle in public space. Public space or “life between buildings”[3] is perceived as the social-political discourse the public conducts outside, and does not necessarily refer to the physical, built dimension of this space. This discourse challenges the very existence of public order and threatens the regime’s hold. It should be remembered that the city was originally the hegemony’s stronghold. In the past, a city’s size and planning was range-of-sight- and hearing-dependent. Anyone beyond the range of hearing was unable to hear the town crier, or the bell warning the townspeople of impending danger. In the same vein, the height of public buildings enabled people to see (supervise) and be seen from a distance. Therefore, control and citizenship are entailed in seeing and hearing. Hence the dominance and centrality of the buildings of government and religion. The Panopticon conceived by Jeremy Bentham (1787) is a means for surveillance and supervision of the public, but its presence in the urban space is sufficient to discipline the public and maintain public order.

Public space does not possess an absolute value. It represents changing, temporary relationships between people and between people and authority. The actions people perform in public space take place at a given time, but in most cases do not continue long term. Even recurring practices (demonstrations, festivals, jogging, sitting in a café, etc.) are temporary and transitory in nature. In other words, public space that relies on changing relationships and actions is not an ontological entity that exists over time. By the very impermanence typifying action and speech in public space (such as a demonstration or picnic) that has no physical expression (like illegal construction or taking over a building, which require equipment and infrastructures), it could be argued that use (in action or speech) of the space does not entail claiming ownership over it. The nature of action in public space is relational, in other words forming a connection, expressing an attitude, appearing before others, and even a desire to influence or bring about change. We appear in public and use images that represent/mediate between people.[4] Therein lies the potential of the artistic action that deviates from functional, everyday action. When Ohad Fishof walks across London Bridge for nine hours, forty three minutes and twenty-five seconds against the surge of humanity walking toward him, it is not about walking for the purpose of getting there, but an action that proposes a statement or enables an observation of walking. ‘The personality creates a zoom-in on all the details, like in fast-motion photography of a blooming flower in nature films. It helps you to experience the details of change – you understand how change occurs all the time.’[5] In this respect, Fishof’s slow walking is a metaphor for walking, and instead of merging with the multitude of people crossing the bridge it rubs against reality, in other words excludes it.

Jean Baudrillard discerned the dialectical power inherent in an image of the relationship he perceived between the simulated and impermanent and the real and permanent: ‘This way the stake will always have been the murderous power of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could be those of divine identity. To this murderous power is opposed that of representations as a dialectical power, the visible and intelligible mediation of the Real.’[6]

The dialectic does not end in the simulacra-simulation relationship. It invites reference and provokes reaction, and sometimes objection as well. It is no coincidence that urban public space has become a venue for extensive interventions by artists and social and/or political activists. Formal urban situations differ from non-formal situations that are the result of activism. The built environment represents a formal, ordered, predictable, and controllable act, and in contrast, intervention in public space is an expression of a non-formal act that cannot be predicted or prepared for. This dialectic is a kind of foreplay. The space seemingly calls for a reaction, attracting and tempting the activist to challenge it. Members of Improv Everywhere have been active in New York since 2001. Between a few dozen and several hundred “agents” operating in accordance with identical instructions participate in each of their actions. They are situationists whose slogan is “We Cause Scenes”. Two examples: fifteen sets of identical twins got on a subway car at Brooklyn Bridge, each set of twins sat directly across from one another, and proceeded to mirror each other (Human Mirror, 2008). In New York’s Grand Central Station, two hundred agents froze in place (Frozen Grand Central, 2008).

Sometimes, an intervention action in public spaces actually inspires the public to participate in it or initiate subsequent actions. Rebar is a group of creators, designers, and activists who in 2005 transformed parking lots in San Francisco into gardens for the benefit of the public. This act of protest against public spaces being taken over by private vehicles attracted massive support. Within two years 180 gardens had been established in parking lots in 27 countries.

Interventions are typified by variables whose behavior cannot be predicted (structure of the action, duration, public reaction, and so forth). It is a situation of uncertainty that contains, among other things, uninvited participants and unpredictable developments. Each of its components is relative, in other words defined as a non-absolute value. The fixed values (dimensions of the space, its design, the functions for which it is intended) represent the enforcement of public order, and consequently provoke opposition. Order calls for dis-order, namely violating it to the extent of violating the law. Urbanist Alon Schwabe rode his bicycle along the boundaries of Tel Aviv-Yafo and removed signposts indicating the city’s municipal boundaries. The artist symbolically united the cities of Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan, Givatayim, and Bat Yam into a single entity (Gush Dan).[7]

The fact that private relationships take place in public space creates cognitive dissonance.[8] ‘The boundary between public and private, now blurred, has not disappeared, but only become more subtle. Because spaces and situations – public as well as private – have become more and more specialized (designed or planned for a specific purpose, HO), the social norms and codes in use in the two spheres have become increasingly similar. Situations and places are no longer specified by public or private codes; it is the other way around. A new equilibrium has been established.’[9] Thus, the transformation of public space into an intermediate, semi-private/semi-public space can be understood, a space that is undergoing a process of softening its formal and designated functions in favor of multipurposeness, and encouraging private and independent initiatives for intervention, driving interpersonal interactions, and creating real-time events in it.

We are facing a surprising twist in the plot: authorities (local government, municipal, or precinct administrations) recognize the contribution of artistic intervention and activism as an essential component and condition for the existence of creative and active urban life, especially with regard to urban renewal processes. They initiate civil involvement in public space and encourage artistic interventions. It seems that someone got confused and left the cat’s master – a street cat of course – to watch over the milk.



[1]   Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press, p. 25. Bear in mind the gap of two thousand six hundred years separating the Greek city-state and the process of the emergence of civil society in recent decades, and the historical fact that only “the best” (i.e., the landowning aristocracy) were considered free citizens in Ancient Greece.

[2]   Arendt, H. (2013) The Human Condition. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, pp. 17-18 (Hebrew).

[3]   The title of the book by Jan Gehl: Gehl, J. (2011). Life Between Buildings. Washington: Island Press.

[4]   According to Guy Debord, in “The Society of the Spectacle” we appear in public and present ourselves by means of dress, gestures, and body language in the ways we choose to resemble and be seen.

[5]   Ohad Fishof, A Slow Walk for Longplayer, London 2005. The above quote is from an interview with Roey Heifetz, Maarav, 05.05.07 (Hebrew).

[6]   Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, p. 5.

[7]   This intervention was carried out as part of Performance Kit (2012-2015). For two and a half years a suitcase was passed between artists, urbanists, and social activists in a social network format. They were asked to perform an action/intervention in public spaces in Tel Aviv-Yafo, and then pass it on. The suitcase contained a set of equipment to create installations, and diverse means for documentation and broadcasting, and operating instructions. Performance Kit is an artistic action I initiated (HO).

[8]   Cognitive Dissonance Theory addresses the internal conflict an individual experiences in the absence of balance between voices, sounds, or views. In the context of the functions of action and speech, which are the focus of this article, it should be noted that the etymological Latin origin of the word “dissonance” indicates a reaction to a lack or absence of sound.

[9]   Prost, A. and Vincent, G. (eds., 1991). A History of Private Life: Riddles of Identity in Modern Times. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Vol. 5, p. 143.