Alex Werth: Community

Posted on by Alex Craghead
Filed under: Reimagining the Urban,

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post "on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape." This posting is by Alex Werth, graduate student at UC Berkeley. This post originally appeared on the Arts Research Center blog, Muses.

One of the themes that we’re exploring in our seminar—entitled “The City, Arts, and Public Spaces,” and planned in conjunction with Reimagining the Urban—is that of publics and publicness.  (See Shannon Jackson’s post for an overview of these many-sided concepts.)  As a budding geographer, and a scholar of urban public space, I began the semester with the view that public space is public in the sense that it is, in theory, open to universal use, and that, to that effect, it is also a space in the sense that it is inhabitable.  Of course, in practice, public space (so conceived) is always subject to prohibitions and exclusions that place inegalitarian limits on urban citizenship, limits that may be challenged, and perhaps changed, through appropriations of precisely those spaces—“public spaces,” like parks, streets, and civic centers—that name an ideal of publicness.  I’ve been tested in this view, however, by the idea that we can point to neither predetermined publics nor public spaces, but rather to discourses through which publics may come into being.  This latter idea can be understood simply (and perhaps simplistically) as the distinction between pre-formed and per-formed, or a priori and emergent, collectives.

With this tension in mind, at Reimagining the Urban, I was struck by the similar many-sidedness of the concept of community.  We heard about LIED to (“low-income, ethnically diverse”) communities, neighborhood communities, the Bay Area community (responsible for making collective decisions about the body of water at its heart), the arts community, and even the development community.  Note that all of these collectives are pre-formed, or a priori.  They exist somewhere.  We can point to them, talk to them, represent them, and, at best, empower them (assuming we, ourselves, are members of, or have inroads into, them).  I was struck by the sense that—for many of the participants, some of whom were “community organizers” or “community liaisons” by trade—the idea of community was something of a necessary concept, like a public might be for a “public official.”  I found this surprising because I think of the artist as affecting our shared cultural lives through the production and circulation of texts, and thus likely to acknowledge that his or her work convenes an audience, and so helps to produce, rather than merely speak to, a community.

Perhaps this performative notion of community too nears that of a public.  If that’s so, then we should ask: What’s the relation between communities and publics?  But rather than detour into that question, however useful it may be, I’d like to finish this post by proposing a concept of community as a group that shares cultural and linguistic norms, values, and practices.

So defined, a community can, on the one hand, form through cohabitation, in which common cultures evolve through shared historical and geographical experiences.  In this sense, communities can come to us a priori.  On the other hand, however, norms, values, and practices can emerge out of contingent, even ephemeral, circumstances, and perhaps especially through an art practice that is extroverted.  We can see this notion of community, in its dual aspects and temporalities, in Rebecca Novick’s post on site-specific art.  In her final paragraph, she notes that, by attending a healing ritual at the Fruitvale BART station, she entered a “community” that she “[doesn’t] belong to.”  Yet, at the same time, she explains that, “for everyone there,” the performance turned the site into “a place for community sharing, somewhere where perhaps healing can begin.”  So, then, is or isn’t Rebecca a member of the community that grieves for Oscar Grant?  In the spirit of the dialogue that emerged at Reimagining the Urban, I’d like to suggest that the answer is both–and.