»What we share is the perspective, the way we look at things and the world, that is in a critical and engaged manner. The way we make this public or common is now the question for the present and future, how to develop different formats.« – Niloufar Tajeri/Gal Kirn
In August 2011, thousands of people rioted in London and other cities and towns across England. Chaos broke out for several days, including cases of looting and arson, and resulted in the death of five people. Thousands were arrested. The catalyst for these events was the death of Mark Duggan, a man who was shot dead by police in London. An irrational mob? Looters and criminal gangs? Immigrants acting barbarically and immorally? Or a revolt against injustice through police violence and neoliberal structures? A political act of refusal, indignation, and looting, which some identify as a »moral economy of the poor?«
Architect Niloufar Tajeri and Gal Kirn, a researcher in political philosophy and cultural theory, examined the complex structure of the sub/urban riots in London as well as LA and Lyon-Paris in the past few decades, taking into close consideration spaces where the poorer working classes reside as well as the proletariat and migrants from former colonies. They encountered a strong moralizing and criminalizing discourse on the rioters by the political class and media opinion leaders. This work aims to counter this demonization of the rioters by finding new ways to address the topic. As the collective Re-orient, they started the project »Thinking the monument to the sub/urban riots« to act outside of a strict academic circle and to intervene in this space. They propose an alternative monument to adress the »forgotten layer« of those demonized after the riots and oppressed in everyday life, not for glorification or victimization, but for solidarity and emancipation.
Clara Herrmann/Judith Engel: How long has the collective Re-orient existed and what is its aims, ideas, and projects?
The collective Re-orient came into existence in 2012, first as a series of long discussions around the relationship between politics, art, and architecture from an emancipatory perspective – and specifically on the occasion of the possible renovation of a large socialist, modernist memorial park, Petrova Gora, by sculptor Vojin Bakic, in the former Yugoslavia (current Croatia) in 1980-81. This sculpture and memorial park is now in a gradual process of decay and destruction, as is case with many antifascist partisan monuments in the post-Yugoslavian context. This particular monument used to be covered in aluminium plates. It was set in nature and surrounded by a museum and other sites, making it a veritable memorial complex. But in the last few decades there hasn’t been any money or interest on the side of the state and municipality to invest in it, and these aluminium plates have been stolen over time. So the monument is being stripped away in front of our eyes, in a slow deconstructive way.
In 2012, there was a public competition curated by Vesna Vuković in the WHW organisation, in which participants were asked to address this process and explore suggestions for what to do with the monument? Our proposal was accepted for the exhibition (along with some others). We suggested a minimal intervention, some kind of curtain which would visually »substitute« the aluminium, but not completely cover the skeleton structure which shows the process of decay and plundering. The fabric that would cover up the monument would not be completely fixed and would produce sounds with the movement of the wind, creating a new sound-land-memorial-scape which resonates with the natural environment.
CH/JE: You both come from different academic and professional backgrounds. How do you collaborate together in your projects?
Gal Kirn: I come from the fields of philosophy, political, and cultural theory and have been reading a lot of Marxist and other critical literature, but I became progressively more interested in the topic of space and memory. At the same time, I want to make my work visible outside of a strict academic format (publishing articles, organising conferences, and so on) and experiment with new methodologies.
Niloufar Tajeri: I’m an architect. My doctoral research focuses on social housing and the possibility of integrating more common spaces into them in a certain way. I’m also critically revisiting (late) Modernism and asking how to continue it today. I’m also interested in critical urban studies, so conceptual work is not foreign to me …
What we share is the perspective, the way we look at things and the world, that is in a critical and engaged manner. The way we make this public or common is now the question for the present and future, how to develop different formats. We should probably mention that the project that we initially conceptualized for the Solitude residency focused on a book that we read together, and that triggered many conversations: David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity (link, 1989). In this book Harvey addressed in a powerful way how the change in aesthetical practices and movements occurred, most notably the move from (late) Modernism to Postmodernism. Furthermore, this book showed how these aesthetical changes were set in motion and interrelated with the changes in the political-economic structure of capitalism, the move from Fordism to post-Fordism and the rise of neoliberalism in the early 1970s. The strength of the book also lies in the ways in which the movement of capital is inscribed in space, and with it in architecture, and other arts. However, it also retains the sensitivity to concrete analysis of changes in arts and architecture. This gist was highly inspirational for us and predicted many structural and aesthetical changes that remained until today. Although we had at first wanted to transform and re-materialize the book into the exhibition, we later on decided to focus on certain novel political phenomena that belong to those changes: sub/urban riots (which Harvey briefly addressed in his more recent book Rebel Cities, 2012) and the way we can tell something new about them, that is to link the research on riots to the research on alternative monuments.
»Thus, after the violence – which is evidently put on display, aesthetically so in the mainstream media – we asked how to counter this demonization of the riots and revisit both the political logic (they are political and not moral matters) and their deeper structural causes. On the other hand, we thought thinking about the monument and monumental strategies which address the dissent rather than build consensus would be a new effective way of addressing the topic (outside of or together with critical sociology) and intervening in space.«– Niloufar Tajeri/Gal Kirn
CH/JE: Thinking a Monument to the Sub/Urban Riot is your first joint project, on show at Akademie Schloss Solitude until February 28, 2016. How did it start?
When we were doing the research on the urban riots in the West, especially in the former colonial centers, such as London and Paris, we encountered a strong moralizing and criminalizing discourse on the rioters: »How come they loot? They are barbaric, scum, feral youth, members of gangs.« The representatives of the political class and media opinion leaders were all competing in reasserting authority. Thus, after the violence – which is evidently put on display, aesthetically so in the mainstream media – we asked how to counter this demonization of the riots and revisit both the political logic (they are political and not moral matters) and their deeper structural causes. On the other hand, we thought thinking about the monument and monumental strategies which address the dissent rather than build consensus would be a new effective way of addressing the topic (outside of or together with critical sociology) and intervening in space. Obviously, there are many traps when thinking about commemoration – will it take away the radical core, neutralize the operative modality, or could one end up with glorification or victimisation of the marginalized urban poor? But then again, we reflected upon ways we could deploy some emancipatory aspects of riots in a counter-archive.
CH/JE: What does the false alternative of neither victimization nor glorification mean?
Here, we refer critically to the long and dominant tradition in memorial practices and monumental strategies that have generally opted for either glorification of the grand personas and history of a national state with their victories (which, as Walter Benjamin shows, testify as documents to barbarity, colonial quests, genocides on the side of defeated, etc.), or for victimization connected to a certain tragedy. If the first option (victory) pertains more to the domain of the (national) state/empire and its imagined communities, then the second strategy (defeat and victims) pertains more to the religious realm and could be connected to the ultimate figure of suffering on the cross (Jesus), the martyr who died for others to remember this and build on it further. More recently, the figure of victimhood has had many resonances with the paradigm of the Holocaust, which made the killing of Jews a kind of religious ritual on the altar of the Nazis, thus minimizing the long anti-Semitic history in Europe, while also saturating our collective memory with an always passive and unified figure of the Jew.
»For us, rioters are not some simple passive and innocent victims of police violence and objective conditions, they should not be seen as beautiful souls waiting for salvation. But on the other hand, we also don’t want to glorify the act of their insurrection as some kind of immediate and true communism, etc. – remember, Marx didn’t idealize the working class…« –Niloufar Tajeri/Gal Kirn
Thus, our proposal of an alternative memory and monument to (sub)urban riots aims to avoid this false victory-victim alternative, of which there have been millions of reiterations in form depending on the different contexts. For us, rioters are not some simple passive and innocent victims of police violence and objective conditions, they should not be seen as beautiful souls waiting for salvation. But on the other hand, we also don’t want to glorify the act of their insurrection as some kind of immediate and true communism, etc. – remember, Marx didn’t idealize the working class; he was aware of their vices, chauvinism, alcoholism, etc. But he thought about the position of the proletariat moving towards the abolition of this system. For this to happen, a lot of political organization of the struggles had to take place (and as we see, this was not enough).
Thus, in our case we want to address the forgotten layer, the repressed layer, those that are obviously demonized after the riots and, furthermore, oppressed in their everyday life. The alternative monument should address both the structural position of the oppressed and marginalized and also stress the moments of emancipation, that there is the will to change things, and to resist against the present and past unjust circumstances, despite the despair and past failures. The point is also how we are to move beyond the marginalized position and fixation within the margin. The question we ask is: Can a monument or a monumental strategy help us trigger perhaps both a stronger visual marker of structural inequalities and a stronger trigger which sets a frame in which potential solidarity among those more and those less excluded and exploited can be enhanced? How do we bring forward the solidarity of the excluded?
CH/JE: Could you talk a bit more about the alternative history of monuments and emphasize some specific cases of monuments from the past?
Alternative monuments from the twentieth century countered the dominant monuments which build on the national(istic) consensus of states. Contrary to this, they asserted a complex set of narratives and intended to achieve more than just commemoration, by inventing new spatial strategies and practices that would speak from the position of the oppressed. Despite their differences in approach, scale, and setting, all these monuments were ahead of their time because they embodied a desire toward the future despite their initial orientation toward the past. In the exhibition, we extracted nine cases; there are of course many other examples. Obviously, we started in the period after the October Revolution in the Soviet Union, which brought with it, as Mayakovsky said, the first monument without a beard. He had in mind an overt criticism on the side of the avant-garde of the former memorial pedestal (in the style of the French revolution) with their sovereignty and big heads – which also became a dominant practice in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin. Interestingly, it was Tatlin who developed a monument to the future for the Third International in 1921, which was to be one of the first monuments against one particular national tradition and not oriented toward the past! Even if it was abstract in its idea, in its physicality it was to be very concrete. It would host the meetings of the Soviets and the government with telecommunication facilities on the top, and all levels rotating at different times. This would bring together a functionalist, political, and artistic dimension – of course in a utopian perspective as the Soviet Union did not produce as much steel per year as was needed for its construction until 1950.
From a slightly different angle from countermonumental perspective, we took Jochen Gerz as inspiration, who skilfully worked with the aspect of participation and contradiction in memorial practices after the monument is built. For example, in Memorial against Fascism (1986), Esther und Jochen Gerz constructed a lead-coated column which gradually sunk into ground over a period of six years. Visitors were encouraged to inscribe their names onto the surface, while the artists attempted to overcome the short-lived experience of visiting the monument by involving the visitor in a permanent co-authorship and thus a joint responsibility, which would evoke all kinds of opposing narratives and not shy away from the political reality. Didactic moment is placed on the time after and not before the monument is built.
CH/JE: You examine sub/urban riots in different scenarios, times, cities – what are the similarities and patterns you found in your research?
There are of course differences in terms of urban fabrics: excluded banlieues or more central inner cities, with their own specific history of state violence and racism. However, they do share a large chunk of structural determinants, as well as their own specific political logic. We took into close consideration spaces where the poorer working classes reside as well as the sub-proletarian elements and the places migrants from former colonies come to: LA (1965/1992), London (1981/2011), Lyon-Paris (1981-1990/2005). We arrive at four important shared features. Firstly, sub/urban riots operate according to a logic of radical and violent disruption, which targets the central consensual points of a modern capitalist state: (private) property, respect for legal order, and monopoly over physical violence. Secondly, sub/urban riots are a political response to deeply oppressive living conditions, which are permeated by racism, (post)colonialism, class exploitation, and police violence. Rioters often come from the dispossessed sections of the youth population in segregated urban areas which have no access to the established alternative political organizations of dissent, such as parties, social movements, or trade unions. Hence, the political event of riots is driven by despair and frustration, rather than a unified political strategy. Thirdly, if riots come as an immediate answer to police brutality, then the dominant response to them operates on a double axis: on the one hand, according to even more excessive control and violence from the police – at times accompanied by a declaration of a state of emergency and subsequent military intervention – on the other hand, through a demonizing representation of rioters broadcast by mainstream media in which the racial and class stereotypes of the irrational mob are reproduced. Fourthly, riots are very political acts of refusal, indignation, and looting, which some identify as a »moral economy of the poor.«
»Obviously, urban policy is currently overwritten by securitization, surveillance, and police control, which means that aside from a smart and social urban policy, one has to tackle the deeper social causes that are behind the eruption of revolts.« –Niloufar Tajeri/Gal Kirn
CH/JE: What specific relationship between urban and social problems did you discover? Was this in opposition to general opinion?
GK/NT: Obviously, social injustices and the sharpening of neoliberal capitalism hits the margins of society first (today it also affects the middle classes); the level of unemployment rises and racism and police violence are the accompanying determinant that exacerbate the existing logic of urban segregation in the analyzed cases. For some cases, as with the ghettos or banlieues, the spatial exclusion and poor infrastructure is clear and has for long time been an open and conscious policy of official politics and real estate companies. In other case, such as London, the marginalized poor neighborhoods are not as excluded from the center, or not as segregated as their French or American counterparts, but this doesn’t mean they don’t accumulate their own social injustices. Thus, this shows even more how social logic underlines the spatial factor and addresses the fact that it is simply not enough to follow a better urban policy (cosmetics don’t suffice!). Obviously, urban policy is currently overwritten by securitization, surveillance, and police control, which means that aside from a smart and social urban policy, one has to tackle the deeper social causes that are behind the eruption of revolts. Our research, which tackled two cycles of riots in our chosen cities, shows the transition from social-democratic (1960s/80s) to neoliberal policies (from 1990s onwards) that employ a tougher stance on law and order.
CH/JE: What role does the media and media coverage of riots play within the context of your project and research?
GK/NT: Obviously, their role is huge; if you are not in the media, you don’t exist. But also when you are portrayed by the media in a specific way, it becomes difficult to dispel this image, to counter the layered and long established prejudices that are connected to both class racism and racism in general. For example, the rioters are not only presented as immoral looters, gangs, criminals, barbarians, etc., but also racialized: black, Arabic, or Muslim youth from a background of immigration. Thus, all the ethnic and religious identifications are brought into the story, which have been used progressively more and more in extreme right-wing discourse in the last decade – to blame the »other« and their inability to integrate into our society, if possible to deport them back »home.« However, rioters are in the large majority of cases citizens of these countries! The main gist of this research goes against the aestheticization of the ruins and violence of riots, which have been used in mainstream media representation of riots in order to forget about the deeper reasons of urban poverty …
CH/NT: There exists a certain complex relation between the rioters, the media, and the police. How do you address this with your work?
GK/NT: The »tragedy« of riots consists of their factual ambivalence: If a riot is contingent and opens up the urban and political space for the excluded, this void is immediately filled by an increasing militarization and a more oppressive silencing of the marginalized, which could be described as a negative spiral. Instead of tackling the immediate and deeper causes of riots, all repressive discursive measures employed by the state ensure their expressive criminalization. Obviously, we cannot predict when riots will happen (otherwise the police would be prepared and able to prevent them), but we can be sure where they will happen again, namely in areas of utmost exclusion, that were disinvested even more of social services and welfare programs with the rise of austerity. But once a riot happens, there are certain rituals and fights between rioters and police, the methods of liberating an area, and how the media reports it. The media has had prepared stories for at least the last 30 years since riots have been televised. And this is now quite a difficult crux to solve.
CH/JE: How do you break the vicious circle?
GK/NT: If we knew that, we would already be participating in changing it. For us, the task is to bring it to the fore and emancipate it from more strictly academic circles, to present it to the communities. However, this is why we used this specific name for the future monument which opposes a facile integration of memories of riots into mainstream institutions and archives some kind of postcolonial reconciliation. Fanon visits banlieues – what would Fanon say if he saw suburban riots? We would like to highlight his words, censored in 1961, which still resonate today, evidently in adapted fashion:
A world compartmentalized, Manichaean and petrified, a world of statues: the statue of the general who led the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge. A world cocksure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of those scarred by the whip. That is the colonial world. The colonial subject is a man penned in; apartheid is but one method of compartmentalizing the colonial world. The first thing the colonial subject learns is to remain in his place and not overstep its limits. Hence the dreams of the colonial subject are muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality. I dream I am jumping, swimming, running, and climbing. I dream I burst out laughing, I am leaping across a river and chased by a pack of cars that never catches up with me. During colonization the colonized subject frees himself every day between nine in the evening and six in the morning. 
Fanon can teach us a lesson in the postcolonial condition: It is upon us to re-appropriate it for the circumstances of the inner cities and banlieues and test it through the political practice of the poor in urban society.
For us, the work we do is a combination of critical theory research and, as it is a monument, reflects an interventionist nature, here intervention in public space. The fact is also that we should not be complacent and assume that a monument will change the social and urban fabric. It can help to reconstruct some solidarities, yes, but art and social work alone will not start a revolution. –Niloufar Tajeri/Gal Kirn
CH/JE: »We are not social workers,« as you once said. How do you define your intervention?
GK/NT: Social work should definitely get more credit and also more state-municipal funding to engage in the poorer neighborhoods. However, our intervention shouldn’t merely »come and go« into these neighborhood, create a project, receive some funding, and apply some political principles directly onto art and the community. This has already been criticized by people from these communities and by Jacques Rancière amongst others (see his Emancipated Spectator).
For us, the work we do is a combination of critical theory research and, as it is a monument, reflects an interventionist nature, here intervention in public space. The fact is also that we should not be complacent and assume that a monument will change the social and urban fabric. It can help to reconstruct some solidarities, yes, but art and social work alone will not start a revolution.
CH/JE: How will the project be presented in the future?
GK/NT: After the presentation of our exhibition, we will start to organize a workshop which will take place in September at Akademie Schloss Solitude, where we have invited scholars, activists, architects, and artists to collectively discuss the process. Thus, we do not want to undertake this process on our own, but rather initiate it in a more general frame. We will probably go on a small tour with an expanded exhibition – Zagreb, Slovenia, hopefully Berlin and London – which will be an opportunity to form some ties, elaborate on the topic, and perhaps also ensure that the project has a life outside of art institutions. Here, an array of concrete technical question arise, from legal permission to political questions: Who wants to commemorate the riots? How to persuade people to engage in monumental strategies?
- Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press (2004: 15