re-projecting (Utrecht) Event 7: Public and Private
A discussion about the public sphere with writer/curator Simon Sheikh and historian Renger de Bruin held in the home of Mariëtte Eijdems.
We took our point of departure in the connection between the public as a political construct and public artworks as representations and interventions within this spatial formation, and in how changes within both the conception of the public and the production of contemporary art has radically altered the possibilities for art works in terms of articulation, intervention and participation. We asked: How does one perceive and/or construct a specific public sphere and positional and/or participatory model for spectatorship as opposed to (modernist) generalized ones? Does this entail a reconfiguration of the (bourgeois) notion of the public sphere into a different arena and/or into a mass of different, overlapping spheres? Or, put in other terms, what can be put in the place of the public sphere? The last question can, of course, read in two ways: both as what objects and acts could be placed in so-called public spaces, but also what kind of spatial formation that could replace the public sphere as designated and imagined in the historical, bourgeois model?1 Here I shall attempt to address both questions in turn, and not least how they are connected in a continuous process of articulation as constitution, since the idea of the public and its doubles, the private, obviously, but also the counterpublic, is simultaneously something imaginary and localizable – its condition is always being and becoming in one movement, a double meaning and a double bind. Thus, any attempts at answering the, admittedly, sweeping question of an instead, of replacement, has to go precisely through placement, through the condition of the connection between imagination and implementation, if not downright as implementation. Or, as a series of conversations.
Utrecht started out in a defensive position when the Romans built a military camp there in the first century AD. More than six centuries later the deserted fort became a mission station for the English monk Willibrord. Close to this ecclesiastical area a civilian settlement arose with private dwellings for citizens around the public Buurkerk. When Utrecht acquired city rights in 1122, a wall was built around an area that contained ecclesiastical and civilian sections as well as extensive agricultural land, which was gradually built up. Around 1500, one third of the city consisted of ecclesiastical premises: churches, monasteries and hospitals. The civic part of the city consisted mainly of private houses and business premises, but there were also a number of public buildings, such as the town hall, the sheriff’s offices, and premises belonging to guilds such as the Vleeshal on the Lange Nieuwstraat. After the Reformation (c.1580) the clerical areas were opened up. In the nineteenth century, a new form of public accessibility emerged when large shops were established in imitation of the Winkel van Sinkel. This development reached its high point with the construction of the shopping centre Hoog Catharijne. From 1850 onwards the city centre lost its residential function and became gradually de-populated. The last few decades, however, have seen a development towards a renewed interest in living within the canal that surrounds the city centre, the Singel. Premises that had become offices or factories are once more lived in. The swing of the pendulum between public and private use of urban space is, at the start of the twenty-first century, again moving in a private direction.
Renger de Bruin