Artistic Production as Place-Making Imagination

Bruce Janz, University of Central Florida

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On Making, and Imagining Places

There has been a great deal of work done in recent years on "place-making". The concept has had currency in urban renewal and design circles, and a quick search of the Research on Place and Space page turns up a number of uses of the term. Usually the idea refers to the various ways in which physical and social space can be arranged to facilitate and encourage elusive, visceral things such as "community".

While attention has been paid to what makes a place, I would like to argue that one aspect has been overlooked. That is the idea of "place-making imagination". Two incidents brought this to my attention: first, looking to see what a major place theorist, who worked on both place and imagination, had to say about the two together, and second, the narrative assigned to a community in crisis, that is, Orlando in the days during and after the hurricanes of fall 2004.

Edward Casey on place and imagination

Just as imagination takes us forward into the realm of the purely possible - into what might be - so memory brings us back into the domain of the actual and the already elapsed: to what has been. Place ushers us into what already is: namely, the environing subsoil of our embodiment, the bedrock of our being-in-the-world. If imagination projects us out beyond ourselves while memory takes us back behind ourselves, place subtends and enfolds us, lying perpetually under and around us. In imagining and remembering, we go into the ethereal and the thick respectively. By being in place, we find ourselves in what is subsistent and enveloping.

Edward Casey, Getting Back Into Place, xvi-xvii.

Question: Why does Casey, one of the foremost theorists of place, and also one who wrote an extensive study on imagination, keep the two separate?

Works by Casey:

Places and a Lack of Imagination

My most recent example of a lack of place-making imagination occurred in the hurricanes of 2004. Orlando was represented as a specific kind of community in the aftermath of those events, one which (I think) stood in the way of imagining place, rather than supporting it. This was particularly true in the Orlando Sentinel. As I have argued elsewhere, the response to the hurricanes gave lip service to the common belief that "communities pull together in times of crisis", but in fact, almost all the reporting rendered the community passive by casting the response as an official and corporate one. People were encouraged to stay out of the way - "helping" would only make matters worse. In fact, of course people did help each other, and communities pulled together, but in the official media, this version of place was not even noticed.

In a place like Orlando, whose claim to a sense of place is sometimes strained (it is hard to know what a city is when the world's largest tourist destination lies on its border), it is interesting to see what kind of place can be imagined in extreme circumstances. The presentation of place was not the same elsewhere (for example, in Ft. Myers, which was hit at least as badly by the first hurricane). It raises the question: What does it mean to imagine place?

Using the term "place-making imagination"

Moral Imagination

One's moral universe is imagined, not simply given, in the sense that moral options are made available or realistic partly through our ability to imagine them. Holding resolutely to a black and white / good and evil morality (what I will call "bimodal morality") may not be a sign of character, but rather the sign of a lack of imagination. In some cases, the best moral choice might be one that presents itself only when one's imagination is sufficiently nuanced, educated, experienced, or mature as to allow more sophisticated options to appear. One writer says that moral imagination is " try to change one's habits, or ask oneself weird questions, to try in some way to place oneself in a different perspective so as to regard events from another point of view." Far earlier, Aristotle spoke of phronesis as the virtue of the statesman, the one who is able to understand the myriad of subtle and nuanced ways to govern a state. Moral imagination is the ability to be morally literate, in the sense of being able to read situations and come to conclusions about action that do not fall into simplistic patterns.

Question: Can we be held responsible for our lack of moral imagination?

Place-Making Imagination

  • Like moral imagination, place-making imagination resists bimodal places. It resists the easy distinction between public and private, commercial and recreational, real and virtual.

  • Like moral imagination, placemaking imagination resists positivist accounts of place, which tend to reduce place to sites where specific actors find their legitimation. We cannot first identify the object of investigation (the place) in some objective manner, and then subject it to our tools of analysis. Places necessarily exist as interpreted entities.

  • Place-making imagination works in metaphor, recognizing that we regularly transport and overlay senses of place on each other. Like a good artist, metaphors are made complex and contradictory. If, for example, a place is imagined metaphorically as a small town of the 30's (e.g., some versions of New Urbanism), two things are done. First, we think about what it was really like to live in such a small town. Was it really Mayberry? Second, the metaphor is placed alongside other metaphors. Is the urban space a metaphorical small town, or rural space? What other ways do we have to think about this? Whose politics does this serve?

  • Place-making imagination necessarily works in image (that's what "imagination" is, after all). That means that our tendency to understand place as a text is at least made more complex. Do we really read places like we read texts? When we speak of symbolic place, is that meant as a textual metaphor? Are there modes of understanding that are part of the visual, which are not part of the legible? What are our habits of textual interpretation (e.g., hermeneutics, understood broadly), and are they adequate to understand place? More pointedly, have those of us who are trained in textual analysis simply used our own favourite method of understanding the world, and not recognized that there might be other ways?

  • Further to this, I want to suggest that place-making imagination privileges the artistic and creative over the scholarly. This is a deep division within many departments in the university, and one which has not received sufficient attention. But the question is this: What is the difference between studying place and producing place? Are these really modally equivalent, just two sides of a coin, or are they fundamentally different? And, can the production of place possibly be a scholarly activity? Is there a mode of scholarship that foregrounds the creative rather than the analytic?

  • It might be tempting to see place-making imagination as just another version of the social construction of place. I want to resist that equation. Of course, place is socially constructed, in that it is made possible through the tacit and explicit social assumptions, agreements, practices, habits, and significations we hold. But that's not enough to understand the ways in which places flow in and out of being, and take hold or fail to take hold. "Social production of place" is a shorthand which ironically dismisses the actual work of making place by generalizing it (that is, by focussing on the generalized flows of force which make particular places possible). This generalization comes under specific headings, usually related to identity communities which are marginalized, which succeed or fail to create space, which stand against flows of capital and practice to inscribe their identity on the physical world. "Social construction of place" is a scholarly shorthand, which once uttered makes us think we know all we need to know about what places are. In effect, it dismisses the actual creative production of place, since that is a process only viewed by the scholar after it has been completed. The results are analyzed, and the process of production becomes secondary.


Question: If we can be held responsible for our lack of moral imagination, can we also be held responsible for our lack of place-making imagination?

What is it to imagine place?


Imagination has had bad press in recent years. It has been associated with the romantic cult of the genius. It has been dismissed as a nostalgic appeal to a mystical Urwelt, an originary mode of being buried and lost within us, accessible only to those who have the calling of the genius. Alternatively, it has been trivialized and co-opted. We think we are using imagination by buying the latest mass produced goods. Our imagination becomes scripted by those same market forces, so that dreams become commercials, which become television shows and movies, which become dreams all over again, severed from their material history and therefore believed to be unique.

Is imagination about the production of the original or the unique? That seems a tall order. And yet, what passes for imagination in a world of interchangeable parts seems to be less about imagination and more about conformity.

Is imagination only about the production of images? The root of the word, after all, has to do with the source of images. I can imagine a unicorn, for instance, which means that I can produce a bit of mental content which never existed in the physical world. It is not the production of images that I am particularly interested in, though, but the production of possibilities. We might say that it is the ability to imagine worlds, except that that seems to indulge too much in Romantic excesses. Moral imagination entails producing possibilities that enrich the moral universe;
place-making imagination seems to do something more than simply create nuanced possibilities, but less than creating a whole world. The imagination that makes place possible is not the imagination of fantasy, fiction, or utopia. It is not that we produce self-contained worlds, which we then use to reconstruct the real world.

Place-making imagination must be something more than simply the production of abstract possibility, though. One problem is that our imagination can present possibilities to us which seem possible when they really are not. For instance, we might imagine a place such as one depicted in an M. C. Escher mathematical landscape or interior. The fact that a logically impossible space can be depicted visually does not mean that it is possible after all, but just that our imagination can present space to us in convincing yet impossible ways.

So, place-making imagination must be something more than the mere production of images of place or space. This is why I argue that it has to be about the
production of possibilities. In that sense, the word "imagination" is being stretched beyond its usual literal scope.

The Artist and the Imagination of Place

Five observations on the artist's place in place-making imagination:

The artist's work does not necessarily imagine or produce place.

An artist's work does not have to explicitly be about place or depict literal places in order to contribute to place-making imagination.

An artist can contribute to place-making imagination by working with the fissures and aporias of identity, and not just by presenting that identity as accomplished and rooted in place.

Place-making in art does not simply exist in the work of art itself, any more than that work encapsulates any other attribute. The art is the locus of dialogue. The art raises the interrogator to question, and asks, "who are you that could see/read me in this manner, and where do you come from?"

It is not only artists who are engaged in place-making imagination.

Some Ways of Imagining, and Making, Place

1. Identity

A great deal of attention has been given to the relationship between place and identity. Most of this has focussed on place and memory. Place-making imagination is also about identity. I have already discussed the idea that place lies ahead of us, as a project. Identities are imagined as much as they are found. By "imagined", I do not mean that they are created ideally in the mind, without regard to material conditions or history. As I have argued to this point, imagination does not necessarily imply fantasy or wish. But identity is part of place imagination. If place is not an object contemplated by a previously existing subject, how is it that place and self are tied together?

Philosophers have written extensively about this, beginning with Edward Casey's work, mentioned earlier. Jeffrey Malpas has also started from the mutual connection between place and self in
Place and Experience. But my interest here is not simply in the phenomenological connection between place and self, but in the imaginative and productive aspect of that connection. Articulating place often means articulating self.

2. Flux

Place is inevitably time, but it is not reducible to time. That is, we cannot simply regard place as a function of time. Engaging in place-making imagination necessarily orients us to the future ("what might this place be?"), and the past ("how has this place been experienced, particularly in ways that have not received much attention?").

But there is another sense of flux involved here, besides the focus on time. Many people assume that place is static, and that imagining place means imagining a scene filled with congealed meaning, caught in amber. In fact, though, places may well be fluid, and their meaning may well not be easily captured in a statement. Traditional realist representational painting after the advent of photography is often understood as a capturing a scene as a momentary slice of time.
We begin to think that the visual slice essentially and metonymically represents the real whole, and so begin to identify place with its enduring elements. At its best, though, art allows us to move past the illusion of the static place, and begins to incorporate or suggest impermanence, fluidity, and change as integral to place.

Diamond Jim Parker, a former clown in travelling circusses, became a circus historian and the creator of a world of miniatures related to the circus. He engaged in what he called "kit-bashing", which meant that in creating his miniatures he used model kits in ways not intended by the manufacturer.

In itself, this is not new, but the purpose was to imagine the circus world. This was his family, and he conducted his imaginative world in the town of Gibsonton, Florida, where circus and carnival people went to winter and to retire. This was his family, and his construction of miniatures became the homage to his family.

That family, though, was on the road most of the time. It was in flux - people came and went. The life was ephemeral in every sense of the word, and yet it holds a place in the American imagination. People "run away to join the circus", as both an escape from the requirements of their normal life, and as an adventure. It is a liminal space, on the edges of towns, on the edges of respectability, and on the edges of normality. It is a precarious place, and to that extent, one which requires place-making imagination.

3. Rupture

One way to put this, which also leads into the next point, is that place-making imagination "rupts". It interrupts, disrupts, and erupts. Many think of place as merely nostalgic, looking back to an arche or source. Place certainly looks back, and in a sense it is even archaeological, but nostalgia is a continuation of the present, rather than a disruption of it. Nostalgic place-making simply underscores our present sense of value and entitlement, and does not truly engage the past. Place-making imagination that does engage the past must disrupt and interrupt the present, and erupt, that is, spill forth from the fissure of that disruption.

What is notable about this place is that it stands as a disruption precisely because it engages its past, rather than simply ignoring it. The architects could have decided to raze the building and start over, or on the other hand, to simply restore it to its former state, in a nostalgically imaginative leap to the time it was built. But they did neither of these. They recognized that the church had meaning in that place, that the place would not be the same without it. And yet, to simply restore the church would not be to engage in place-making imagination.

The result of conjoining an apartment and a church raised questions, even if only at a subconscious level.

  • Where is the line between the sacred and the secular?
  • Where is the line between the public and the private?
  • Where is the line between tradition and modernity?

All of these questions were raised in this project. This place disrupted any easy account of life in the Back Bay area of Boston, and in doing so, required people to think about the kind of place it was.

It is worth noting that not every question was raised in this project.
It did not, for instance, interrogate the line between privilege and lack of privilege. The condos that were constructed were luxury condos, and there is a certain irony in a church, whose doors had presumably been open to all, being converted into an exclusive site. And, this exists as part of a movement to reconfigure former public spaces into expensive and exclusive private ones. One could legitimately raise questions about the kind of place that was imagined in this project, and these questions would necessarily highlight omissions of the imagination. And yet, if the place does not interrupt in some way, no questions can be raised at all, or rather, the true questions about place are assumed. Interruption and disruption are always risky.

4. Resistance

Much of the impetus for place-making imagination comes from dissatisfaction with existing accounts or experiences of place. Sometimes, the places we experience are narrated in a very restrictive fashion. Place-making imagination can be an act of resistance, an attempt to broaden the narratives we give to place. That resistance may simply be a matter of multiplying possibilities about place, or even fictionalizing it. Imagining place as an act of resistance may mean little more than providing alternate story-lines in an effort to unseat or destabilize a dominant account of place.

Place-making imagination may, then, have a negative function, that is, to say no to existing versions of place (and in the process, to say no to existing versions of self). But such resistance need not take the form of simple negation. One can imagine resistance to place that parodies the place, for instance. Some British comedy turns on the parody of place. Every school child is told of the history of England, and Monty Python comes along and parodies it (e.g.,
Monty Python and the Holy Grail), along with deep-seated assumptions about class and race.

The imagination of the United States since the events of Sept. 11, 2001 has been severely restricted. The narratives of place have been intoned in a religious fashion. America is the good, it is the free, it is outside of the flow of human history. It has attained the ideal of political and social life, it is built on conservative and religious principles. There will come a time, I believe, that such facile stories as these will be resisted, as they will be seen to leave out increasing numbers of people. They can only produce the equivalent of a theme park's version of place - shiny, colored in primary colors, always happy, always fun, always sunny - and never real. The United States is due for a new imagination of place - the terror of the place produced by 9/11 is growing stale.

5. Anamnesis

Places have been inadvertently or deliberately constructed so as to excise or ignore the presence of particular people and groups. Place-making imagination can engage in anamnesis , the deliberate recollection that is not simply the naive celebration of the past, but is the recovery of that which has been suppressed, elided, or wilfully forgotten. The term "anamnesia" is used in medicine to refer not just to recollection, but also to a patient's history as recalled by that patient. In other words, it is experienced history, not medicalized history (the counterpart to and basis of prognosis).

Anamnesis is not simply memory. It is the re-presentation of the past in the present, but it is more than just presentation - it also causes something to occur or happen. It makes a claim on us, and does not leave us as mere consumers or tourists of the past. It is sometimes used for recalling an author by memory, and sometimes used to refer to memorials, but not simply in the sense of remembering. It is the word used in Luke 22:19 when at the Last Supper Jesus says "Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me".
That remembrance is not just a memorial of a long-past event, but is intended as a re-enactment. The remembrance is one that is supposed to make Jesus present to the celebrant and is supposed to make a claim to the celebrant's allegiance.

The most basic form of anamnesis in place is the process of memorializing an event or person. It is basic because we have control over it, and we intend to solidify an interpretation of the event for the future. The World Trade Center attack has been the subject of a great deal of discussion over what kind of memorial is appropriate. What should be remembered, who should be remembered, and what ought to be forgotten? This memorial will make a claim on us, at least for the foreseeable future, not simply because it was a place of death, but because it was the place of a particular kind of death.

At another level, though, anamnesis is not about controlling future narratives or memories, as if this is even possible. Those in the future will make use of their past in ways that suit their purposes, and no amount of insistence on our part will guarantee that they tell the story of the World Trade Center events in the way that we might want (even assuming that we could settle on one way that "we", whoever that is, might want). Anamnesis must be about the claims that the past makes on us, not simply the claims that we wish to make on the future.

For the past to make a claim, it must be freed from narrow and comfortable accounts of place. By this, I do not mean that we are approaching some essence or spirit of the place that rises above all accounts. I mean that place tends to be narrated in narrow ways, sometimes because it is the easiest way to conceive of place and sometimes because there is something to be gained by thinking about place in a particular way.
Anamnesis means re-enacting elements of the past which have been elided or forgotten, but which continue to make a claim, whether we rationally acknowledge them or not. Re-enactment means re-enrichment, that is, allowing complex versions of place to co-exist.

6. Representation

Places are certainly literally represented by artists, but I am more interested in the modes of re-presentation that occur to make place available. The re-presentation of place layers on new possibilities of meaning. A place may be literally represented in a painting, for instance, and then the place becomes forever mediated through that painting. The clearest examples of this are the gardens in England in the 18th century, particularly those constructed by Capability Brown, which were modelled on Claude Lorrain's landscapes and their imitators and which became so popular after the Grand Tours of Europe that English noblemen took.

But we need not simply see representation in the explicit or conscious debts of artists, architects, and landscape designers.
Place-making imagination is representation not only by the artists, but also by those who circulate and propagate their work. The Folkvine project again becomes a useful example. It is a digital representation of the work of folk culture. The folk culture itself is very material, and all of it has some level of materiality associated with it.

So what does digitizing do to the work? Digitizing at least makes it available, but it also allows a different kind of conversation to occur. It allows a new layer of metaphor, in the site organization and interactivity. It is a risk - done poorly, it may simply be a gimmick, or a new novelty that never really raises the question of place-making. Done well, though, it allows a form of representation not likely originally considered by the artist. It is not that the art is the same as the artist intended, except in digital form. It is that the art changes, takes on new possibilities, by being represented in this form.

Other layered representations could be imagined - the art could be the subject of a television show, for instance, or of a museum exhibit (when the art was not particularly imagined as a set of museum objects in the first place). These too bring different forms of representation to the art. They may do violence to the art (as has sometimes been the case in museum shows of African cultural objects), or at best they may allow a different narrative to be made available.

But is place imagined and made in this? As I say, it is a risk. Place may well be lost, forgotten, or pushed aside in the re-presentation of folk culture. African place has surely been lost in some of the representations of those cultural items in glass cases and soft lighting. And yet, just because there is risk does not mean that the tension of re-presentations cannot sometimes be productive.

7. De-pathologization

Places can be pathological, in the sense that they can encode and enable our fears and obsessions rather than our hopes and collective identities. The most common pathologies of place are claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the fear of enclosed places and the fear of open spaces or large crowds, respectively. It is noteworthy that, while each of these is imagined as an individual pathology, one might also think of our places as social pathologies. We could imagine, for instance, a claustrophobic city, one which feels existentially or psychically enclosed and restrictive on our subjectivity. In that sense, a traditional small town on the wind-swept prairie might be experienced as claustrophobic, even though the physical setting is expansive.

There are many other recorded phobias and manias of place, though. I want to argue that these pathologies do not simply point to personal reactions to platial stimuli. If place is a relation, as I have suggested above, then anxieties of place must also at some level manifest themselves culturally. We may, for instance, speak of a cultural condition of claustrophobia, or the condition in which our places crowd us and stand as a threat to subjectivity rather than as a constructive element in it. Places become claustrophobic when they are seen as other, rather than as existing in a dialectical relationship with us.

Where can we see these cultural pathologies of place? It sometimes appears in planned suburbs and gated communities. One can attempt to control place to the extent that all threats are excised; what in fact happens, though, is that the place itself becomes the threat. Even if there is less crime (and this is by no means certain), the place itself becomes a technology designed to resist the possibility of crime and exert human will over the locality. That technology of place must alienate those who live there, unless they find ways to work against the control of the place. This certainly has happened in some communities of this sort, but it is just as likely that the cultural expressions associated with such places end up being fearful or manic.

So how does place-making imagination help to de-pathologize place? Quite simply,
by deconstructing the binary opposition that caused the cultural pathology in the first place. If place is to be controlled and regarded as a technology, it necessarily must result in the same for the self (its relationality does not go away just because we insist on thinking of it in the deficient I-It mode). At best, the artist can press the absurdity of that technology of place. This has already been done in countless movies and books which portray perfect small-town America as having its problematic underside (perhaps the best example here is Pleasantville). Place-making imagination enables not only a view of other options for place, but also enables us to recognize alienating places, and refuse to put up with them.

Gate 12, Islip Airport, New York

The airport, at the best of times, can be an alienating place, a non-place (Marc Auge's first example in Non-Places is of an airport). In this harshly lit institutional place, it is now the baggage that lines up to travel. People are out of the picture entirely, both literally and figuratively.

8. Interstitiality

Place-making imagination can sometimes occur when we are able to see between the cracks of place. Places, being limited and located, necessarily border other places. Place-making imagination foregrounds the betweenness of place, and recognizes that what lies between may actually be constitutive for the places we consider to be established and clear.

Nicholas Entrikin, in
The Betweenness of Place , argues that we have to take a middle ground between regarding place objectively, through the lens of the quantitative scientist, and subjectively, through the lens of the qualitative scientist. His concern is the analysis of place, and he believes that a complete understanding of place cannot afford to simply objectify it, nor can it afford to make it a product of human subjectivity. His analytic concerns are well taken, but we could push them further by thinking about the ways in which place-making imagination must rely on the spaces between places to do its work. Increasingly there is little space between places, and the places we take as given become what they are through interaction with other places. We can imagine places as abrading, smoothing, shaping, and texturing each other. Of course, the metaphor cannot be pressed too far - as I have argued earlier, places are themselves relational, and not objects in any real sense. But these conflicting metaphors for place can both have their place, I think.

There are clear examples of places being structured and affected by other places. Cities are full of neighbourhoods that affect each other by their interaction, and by the assumptions their residents make about the residents of the other places. And we can often tell where the dividing lines are between these neighbourhoods. We know where the "tracks" are, and try not to be on the wrong side of them. But it is those tracks which end up defining both sides.

9. Interrogation

To imagine place is to interrogate it. We often think of interrogation as aggressive and confrontational questioning. I do not mean to suggest that place is subject to this kind of questioning, but I do mean to suggest that the questioning of place is persistent. It means to pursue what place does not present. The comments above about the pathologies of place are one example of this.

Art can also be seen as interrogating place in this way. An example might be the installation that Christo and Jean-Claude erected in Central Park. 7500 gates covered in fabric covered the walkways in Central Park in New York for about 2 weeks in February 2005. These gates force us to ask new questions about a very common site, one which is understood by New Yorkers and has become iconic of New York itself. The place can no longer be a simple park any more than the Reichstag can simply be a government building after Christo and Jean-Claude wrapped it. Another example would be one I mentioned earlier when discussing aporia/rupture: the converted church in Boston. That place builds in its questions - are you standing on sacred or secular territory? What does that mean for your life? Are you in a private or public place? What does it mean to live in a former church? Is it simply fantasy, a kind of up-scale Disneyworld, or is there something creative here, that necessitates a new sense of place and self?

The imagination of place is always the questioning of place, and with it the questioning of those who question place, as well as those who do not.

10. Dialectic

Dialectic is a word that has come under a lot of suspicion, as it suggests a linear development in which the past is overcome by the present in the service of progress to the future. I do not mean that kind of dialectic here. I simply mean that imagination breeds imagination.

If an artist is able to present a new version of a place, to establish or suggest a meaning for a place, that meaning then contributes to new imagination for a place. People respond to place-making imagination - done well, it enables people to imagine place for themselves, and create it for themselves.

Unfortunately, usually the dialectic is of a different sort. Place is imagined in a narrow or utilitarian manner, perhaps in solely commercial terms. People may well respond in the way that the designers intended (that is, they spend money), or they do not (they stay away).

In either case, the dialectic simply produces more of the same, either more commerce if it is successful, or revised forms of commerce if the initial idea is not successful. Or, the imagination of place can seem to have range when it really doesn't.

The vast majority of television programs, for example, imagine place in very similar ways, with similar social dynamics, practices, and meanings. Very few places fall outside of what the medium has established as the proper way to present place (it is why the internet, at least for the time being, has the opportunity to establish new ways of representing place).

If places simply continue to fall into the same pattern, there is little dialectic possible, and hence little place-making imagination. We end up with urban places looking roughly the same, and rural places also looking similar.

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