CONTINUE in Speaking

Markus Miessen : Discussion as Signature

Spring 2010
SPOKEN at Berlin for KLAT 03

THE Talk in Brief

Tina DiCarlo speaks with Markus Miessen about avoiding democracy, Maison Martin Margiela, and Miessen’s new book The Nightmare of Participation.

TDC I have heard you say more than once “Avoid democracy at all costs.” Obviously as someone who is German and who is an advocate of participation this position becomes polemic and controversial. Is this the point?

MM On the one hand, it is certainly intended to stir a debate about current practices. On the other, it refers to a sometimes problematic politics of non-critical inclusion. Since the mid-90s participation has become increasingly overused. We are led to believe that everyone can take part, everyone can participate in the decision-making process, when in fact, in many political systems, participation is merely an excuse for elected politicians to withdraw from their assigned responsibility. This situation could be described as Harmonistan – an illusory state in which the public is denuded into believing that one can always be involved in the transformation of reality. The situation is, in fact, the reverse: while everyone has been turned into a participant, the uncritical, innocent, and romantic use of the term – hijacked and supported by a repeatedly nostalgic veneer of worthiness, phony solidarity, and political correctness – has become the default mode of politicians to withdraw from accountability. This can be traced back through several Labour governments, most prominently New Labour in the UK, and the notion of the consensual Polder Model in the Netherlands. When I claim that, sometimes, democracy has to be avoided at all costs, what I really mean is that we have to rethink the prevailing notion of participation. I am arguing for an inversion of the term: towards a model beyond modes of consensus. Instead of reading participation as the charitable savior of political struggle, I propose a reflection on the limits and traps of its real motivations. Instead of breading the next generation of consensual facilitators and mediators, I am arguing for conflict as an enabling, a productive rather than disabling, force. It presents a format and practice of “conflictual participation”, which is no longer understood as a process by which others are invited into something, but a means of acting without mandate, as uninvited irritant: a forced entry into fields of knowledge that arguably benefit from exterior thinking.

TDC: This thinking is evidently informed by your work with Eyal Weizman, who founded an entire body of work based on the notion of spatial tactics, and who also introduces your new book. And while this notion of conflictual participation sounds in theory, all well and good, can you give us an example where it has been invoked as an instrumental or effective agent of change in practice?

MM Eyal is my PhD mentor and, yes, he has certainly been an inspiration in terms of my practice. But there are many others, which I would also consider as influential from other fields, such as Christoph Schlingensief or Josef Bierbichler in theatre, or Cedric Price in architecture. My theory of praxis is not so much about conflict per se, but to reverse the notion of participation into a pro-active engagement of the individual, self-initiated practitioner. This is, by default, very different from the role of an agent, who necessarily represents the cause of others and, hence, acts and practices with a clear mandate. I am promoting a practice without mandate, and a project in which I am currently really trying to push this agenda forward is the Winter School Middle East, a self-initiated small-scale nomadic educational framework, which I set up in Dubai in 2008. This year, it will move on to Kuwait, to be followed by Tehran in 2011. The Winter School is dealing locally with issues of critical spatial practice. In Dubai we investigated the Labour Camps, in Kuwait this year we will run a research project on Bedouin housing agglomerations, in collaboration with UN Habitat. Regarding your question of conflictual participation, a good example is a consulting project I am working on together with Andrea Phillips, where we, as outsiders, enter the institutional interior of the Dutch organization SKOR, in order to critically question, advise, and redesign their institutional framework and policy.

TDC You mentioned recently that your new book The Nightmare of Participation completes the participation trilogy to which my comment was, “Then you will be known as the participation go-to man.” Part of the premise here is that since 2004 participation has become a catchword in art and architecture, in many ways perpetuated by your first publication Did Someone Say Participate? And yet within architecture one could argue participation is a long-standing tradition, going back to the 1950s and 60s with groups like CIAM and such and even just alluding to the basic architectural process. How is your use and invocation of the term different?

MM Instead of advocating, I revoke. Participation-addicted romantics that still believe in a united struggle, may despise me for this, but I believe that the only way out of the crisis is to become a pro-active individual, to no longer rely on conventional participatory frameworks. One has to take action in one’s own hands. Of course, in architecture, there were groups such as CIAM, and their efforts and tasks are highly commendable. However, their premise is based on the belief that inclusion will produce a surplus. I am no longer sure whether this is always the case. What I attempt to introduce in my recent work is the notion of ‘Crossbench Praxis’. This approach is modeled onto the independent politicians in the House of Lords in the UK. Although the House of Lords is a highly problematic and deeply conservative construct of representation, the abstract position of it, and especially the crossbenchers, is interesting to hijack. They do not belong to a specific party (i.e. Conservatives or Labour), but generate their decisions based on their individual judgment, outside the consensual realities of an existing party. My term “Crossbench Praxis” encourages an “uninterested outsider” and uncalled participator, who is not limited by existing protocols, but enters the discursive arena with nothing but critical intellect and the will to generate change.

TDC Would you say you are indicative of a new series of spatial practitioners, in which the form of architecture becomes as much about how you think and mediation as what you build? Could one even go so far as to say that this sort of disciplinarity, which comprises spatial advising and mediation that works across discourses – between politicians, policy makers, economists, cultural advocates, artists, developers – is the new form of architecture? Would you agree?

MM I don’t know if I am indicative for a new type of practitioner, but what I agree on is that thinking through and the production of non-physical realities and identities co-produces a physical reality that cannot be negated. Architecture is about relationships, politics and identity. This can also be produced through a piece of writing – an essay in a newspaper or magazine can change the entire perception of an urban area – and, as a result, force and propel a development of migration. In contrast to many architects, the physical dimension is not the application, but rather the testing of a hypothesis. The range of projects definitely plays an important role in the production of a reality, which is far from building, but allows for a production of opinions that alter reality. Our current projects are ranging from small-scale domestic interiors, to galleries, to institutional buildings, to strategic frameworks for urban areas and the production of future identities of regions, for example in Austria. The way in which we approach an architectural project is based on the same logic that we approach a strategic framework design. We are not interested in primarily formal characteristics, but the development of content-driven realizations of practice in three-dimensional space. One could of course argue that this has always been part of architecture and spatial practice. (Excerpted)


Work: Speaking