Uncovering the politics of urban space
Interview with Azahara Cerezo
by Barbara Tomšič
This is an overview of her recent project Long May it Wave with which she was involved in the TRIBE research residency in Ljubljana in December 2013. We talk about different aspects of the usage and the representation of flags in public space with a special focus on Ljubljana, where she did her field research. We speak from the viewpoint of representers of power, of them who declare the position of each flag on a certain building. We would like to point out that the project is still in progress.
As I understand, your project is designed to be done globally. Correct me, please, if I’m wrong – its research approach is aimed for field work in any city of the world from your (authors’ – researchers’) point of view. And as I have read on your webpage, you have also done some investigation in the city where you live, in Spain? So which cities do you plan to investigate in the future development of the project?
The project started when I was living in Madrid in 2012, where I felt that there was not only an excess of flags, but of symbols in general. I started mapping all flags and making a route through them, also timing myself from flag to flag. The project consists of some field work, which is really important, but there are no formulas. I do not think that a project that works in one place will necessarily work in another one. If you try to approach public space or specific dynamics or urban forms, you have to pay attention to the difference. I am approaching other ways of exploring cartographies now, not necessarily linked to flags, but to symbols and new technologies in a broad way.
Flags – be it local, national or European – are your top research interest. Do you consider them – besides their relation to the political, historical and economical dimension – also in relation to (active) citizenship, i.e. to an individual or to the community?
I am mainly interested in flags linked to political powers, as they are raw material for political action. As I see it, we cannot understand this without dealing with the economical, social and historical dimension. However, flags are obviously related to the individual and the community too, especially if we take into account that a flag requires a certain social nexus and shared information, which does not mean that it has the same significance. As a tool for identification, it implies a certain type of communication, therefore a code. But citizens do not use only the official flags, there are many flags displayed in protest and they are clearly a way to communicate something to others, even if they are considered “unregulated” flags. Flags of this kind are ephemeral and are not subject to design rules. During demonstrations, there are many examples of “unregulated” flags; protesters carry their own flags that try to speak for a group or fit in with the idea of the whole event, their variety is potentially infinite.
The fact is that the emergence of flags does not have a long history (only about 200 years). According to this fact, how – if so – do you understand their relation to citizenship?
In my opinion, flags are mainly symbols that intend to speak in the name of a group. This implies a process of negotiation, but also of appropriation and domination. It also means that, politically, they are used to homogenize citizens and (nationalist) processes. This is especially true for the national or regional flags, the ones more linked to a territory. It is easier to put citizens together under an emblem of a flag than pay attention to details and differences.
Referring to the last question, how do you perceive the relation between flags – as one of the constituent symbols of national identity – and the individual or collective and his/hers or their identity (citizenship, sense of origin and belonging, national emotions, patriotism)?
Any national identity comes from a process linked to certain interests. In fact, flags as symbols of national identity were born mainly between the 19th and 20th century, which means that they arose along with the middle class. Then, Old Regime forms were replaced by a new liberal and capitalist order that goes hand in hand with the emergence of the middle class. As Rosa Luxemburg stated, a nation as a homogeneous sociopolitical entity does not exist, there is more than one social sphere and the struggles for national interests are usually promoted by the strata of the bourgeoisie. This is, as far as I have realized, slightly different in transitory – or post-transitory – countries such as Slovenia because of its role in Eastern Europe. I am especially interested in how nationalism conforms itself through symbols and its relation to the virtual and physical public space.
Concerning your research residency in Ljubljana in December 2013 in the frame of the TRIBE project, which were the main points of your field observations?
At the beginning, I had a very clear idea about the project, but this changed due to the residency in Ljubljana and what I experienced there. My main observations deal with flags, buildings and architecture, as well as the influence of a Soviet past on these fields. I also wanted to explore the use of flags, their use in the public space and how they connect with urban forms and planning of the city. I am always interested in conflict contexts, which is why I decided to refer to some of the demonstrations and its protests as part of the project.
As I see, one of them is also the Stock Exchange building, perhaps one of the most turbulent and detracted symbols of economic power. How do you understand its public representation, considering the fact that it was the centre of first mass demonstrations against neoliberal economy that quickly spread throughout Europe and USA at the end of 2011? Keep in mind the fact that the protesters endured the outdoors for almost four months in the winter time.
The squares or streets nearby Stock Exchange buildings have certainly been one of the main scenarios of recent protests. They represent the idea of supranational organisms that are not subject to democratic control and are the true decision makers.
A public space – although some of them are not public anymore, and in many cases not even in a legal way – is always a space of representation, where power relations converge and where you can see the limits and the links between exclusion and inclusion. The Agora of Athens, for instance, which was given as an example of open participation, excluded women and foreigners. In this case, Stock Exchange buildings have become a symbol. It is the same with Parliaments, Universities and main urban squares, as they are spaces where people come to meet and be visible, apart from being hotspots in the city, which implies that they are sites of power. Staying outdoors in front of Stock Exchange buildings has been a common movement in London, New York and also Ljubljana, amongst others. I am also interested in how people organized, mainly through social media, but also how they decided for a form of protest that was always used: the body. This relation between the physical and virtual sphere (a connected body) in conflict contexts – understanding Europe as a place of economic conflicts – is very interesting within my working lines.
Do you consider that the public representation of the Stock Exchange building also addresses the collective citizenship?
It addresses collectives of citizens that represent themselves against capitalism in front of a symbolic building. This space is where citizens’ rights can be exercised as a medium to gain access to the citizenship. There is also an interesting component of transitoriness in this public representation, which I try to revisit by means of the project.
If we conclude with the recent European Elections in May 2014, could you give me your opinion as to the negative impression and decline in the attendance in the elections – what is the real power of flags as symbols of national/European identity?
The European Union was built first with an economic purpose, but without thinking through all the identities, differences or having a shared political project. As Foret states in “Symbolic dimensions of EU legimitization”, the traumatic effects of the introduction/intrusion of the EU flag have been sometimes underestimated and they have caused a shock to the experience and structures of identification of the people. Eurobarometer reports showed in 2007 that only 54 % of Europeans said that they identify with the flag. European flags are mainly displayed in public buildings or sometimes hotels and tourist spots, and they are usually not considered as an identity-refuge. In my opinion, there is a trend towards abstraction in European symbols to facilitate somehow the idea of Europeanism without making reference to cultural diversity and differences.
Do you agree with Konzen’s thesis about the public space regulation? Do you see flags as de facto one of its tools?
Indeed, flags contribute to the order and regulation of a place. There are many symbols, banners, signals that guide and tell us about different aspects of the city. If we disrupt this, we also alter our surroundings. A drift can be a way of doing it, as it is an unproductive action that can call into question the logic of urban forms and rhythms. Urbanism also deals with this order. Through this discipline, flows and ways can be changed throughout the city. For example, the renovation of the banks of the Ljubljanica river have received the 2012 European Prize for Urban Public Space. This contributes to the way we regulate public space, in this case, for example, how people meet and how the space is used.
Your project involves a wide range of topics. Amongst them: power, identity, citizenship, history, public/private, individual/collective, norms & laws, regulation & freedom, space/time, just to list a few. Since Slovenia is one of the transitory (or post-transitory, depends on the researchers’ point of view) countries amongst the countries of the former Soviet bloc, what comes to your mind if you consider the role of the flag as a political symbol? Could you make a relation to the situation in your country, too?
In this case, Slovenia is a young state and, due to its particular history, the national flag is very recent and possibly not distinctive enough. It was introduced in 1991, even though we can search and find older origins. Its colours, white, blue and red, apart from being revolutionary colours, are usually shared among countries of the former Soviet bloc. The country itself is often confused with Slovakia, which uses the same colours, or even with the Baltic countries. Politicians like Bush or Berlusconi have referred to the Slovenian President as “Slovak” in public acts by mistake. Spain is also a young democratic country and, especially in further countries, it is confused with a Latin American country. The previous flag, which is now banned, was introduced when Franco ruled. We have another unofficial but legal flag, which is the Republican flag. Unlike Slovenia, there are some strong independentist movements: the Basque Country and Catalonia, mainly. Spanish, Basque and Catalan nationalist movements use the flag often and they display it not only in public buildings, but in hotels, houses and during demonstrations, as well as other places and situations.
Let’s return again to your residency stay in Ljubljana. How would you describe your experience?
I would have needed more time to achieve a truly contextual work, although I have done a lot of research to get to that point. In general, the thing that I like the most about residencies is the chance to do some work in response or relation to a certain context. In Belfast, the situation was very different, as there are still several conflict points and many urban forms, codes and symbols that can be read in a political way. While I was developing the project, I found out that Ljubljana is challenging in another form. Because of its past and its situation as part of the European Union (the country has been in the spotlight of a bailout several times), I found interesting facts and elements in the city to do the project. As an artist, I consider that residencies are an essential part of building a solid career, but I admit that not all artists fit in with this idea of context and stages.
Please, briefly describe your fieldwork and methodology in your research work in Ljubljana.
I try to combine field work and research, and my strategies are usually linked to the repetition of processes and the rewriting of forms and uses. I often – almost always – use the drift to approach the city where I am doing a residency or a project. I like the idea of a false position, of being outside and inside the context, as Paul Ardenne states in “Contextual art”. I tried to approach tourist dynamics, I took guided tours and visited tourist destinations, but I do not like to homogenize this subject. There are several tourist dynamics and layers; my exploration, even if it addresses symbols, tourism and the city, aims to be a way to raise questions about surroundings, planning and the use of urban forms.
Would you like to define your project also in relation to contemporary art, especially transitory art?
Long May it Wave deals with transitory art, at least as I understand this idea. It is a project that approaches and is aware of its temporary component and this is the main element of the work. It also approaches contingency and changes of a city and revisits past events and facts, which contributes to the rhythm of transitoriness.
Which of your project ideas do in your opinion fit in best with the definition of transitory?
The core of the project, which is the approach to the urban space taking flags as reference, has in itself a notion of transitoriness. Urban space and its elements are changing gradually and modify the forms and uses of the city. The project also proposes an itinerary, a possible way to raise questions about Ljubljana that also implies the idea of transitoriness. I like the idea of the project as a transit, since it proposes to move around the city and discover other possible forms to relate to and narrate surroundings, planning, tourism and temporary elements. Besides, Slovenia – and Ljubljana – is an in-between territory. For many tourists and visitors, it is a point to stop as they go to Austria or further in the Eastern Europe. I believe that this idea fits in with the definition of transitoriness, too.
We have listed only a few topics from your recent work. What are your plans for the future?
I keep working on the virtual and physical public space and contexts, too. I would like to get more residencies and stages abroad but the financial situation of Spain does not make it always easy.
Thank you for your collaboration, Azahara, and good luck!