The Multitude: Art in the Urban Context.

Maurizio Bortolotti

In their book Empire Toni Negri and Michael Hardt try to define the idea of multitude as a new emerging community on the move:

"The movements of multitude designate new spaces, and its journeys establish new residencies. Autonomous movement is what defines the place proper to the multitude. Increasingly less will passports or legal documents be able to regulate our movements across borders. A new geography is established by the multitude as the productive flows of bodies define new rivers and ports." (p. 396)

These new communities arising from crossing borders of different states together have a new uncertain identity. The movements of people of different nationalities under a common fate, that of migration, are able to create a new, unstable and changing identity, due to a condition of flux of bodies, poor commodities, traditions, cultures and many implicit aspects of the original social reality.

This very complex process creates a new necessity, a request for a new democracy as the authors of Empire underline:

"The multitude must be able to decide if, when, and where it moves. It must have to right also to stay still and enjoy one place rather than being forced constantly to be on the move. The general right to control its own movement is the multitude's ultimate demand for global citizenship." (p. 400)

The demand for a global citizenship is beyond any idea of national identities, and can produce a new idea of community, which has to do with globalization. In a global form of citizenship people have the possibility to create a new kind of flexible social relation against the background of global mobility, and not against regional or national traditions where they root themselves.

The situation is now more open and the ease with which it is possible to realize open social relations is part of a process of democratization worldwide. I think these new conditions also affect the situation of contemporary art. All these transformations can change the idea of traditional categories where the distinction, for example, in art and architecture has lost any sense. The transformation equally undermines the idea of traditional institutions like museums, galleries, art fairs, and, in part, biennales.

Therefore, we could arguably divide the world population into categories: stable and rooted in a place; and secondly, on the move. The former with recognizable rights, the latter, with less recognizable rights, who will present constant demands for a new form of democracy.

And this highly motivated process involves artists, since in this new situation they shall want to actively take part in the process of producing reality. All this is more visible in big towns and urban contexts where changes are highly evident against the background of demographic fluctuation within them.

In this context, I think the ideas of Yona Friedman are again of great interest. Indeed, the Hungarian architect has theorized that a new architecture is to be realized not by architects but by people. He thinks that its inhabitants must produce architecture in a situation of necessity, in order to be "mobile" in its elements.

The question is not that of some new forms but of a new conception in architecture. The possibility to have a more mobile architecture - independent to formal result - shows a new principle, adapting precisely with art as a production more connected to a recent social phenomenon like the multitude.

In his last book, Pro Domo, Friedman writes:

"We already said that mobile architecture is an architecture which happens at random (...) over the course of time. But the most important aspect (...) is precisely the origin, the motivating power of this randomness. This architectural fluctuation is the result of the continuous fluctuation of inhabitants' behaviour." (P.31-32)

This principle - or image, as the author would prefer - is revolutionary in its agreement with the new democratic reality of the multitude. And it could be a good image for explaining the new urban reality in which a lot of art projects happen.

If we look at the urban space from Friedman's point of view we see that we are able to use it freely. We see it not as a solid space full of buildings, but a fluid one constituted by relations that change continuously, where buildings are just a partial manifestation where people can realize their own architectures. These conceptual relations are transformed as the concrete urban spaces in which the democratic expectations of multitude may happen.

This kind of multilayered space is produced from improvisation, in keeping with Friedman's own concept of irregular structures, as architecture based on very simple elements that anyone may adapt.

The requests for a new form of democracy by the multitude here co-incide with Friedman's general conception of the urban space. Their mutuality can offer us the specific contexts wherein artists are called to work. Indeed, the art space today takes its origin from the real space of the contemporary town. I mean, a road like "Canal Street" in New York, with market stalls for example, is part of the local Chinatown and it is an urban space which is quite unpredictable, and where relations between people are on the move. It is completely different from the regulatory space planned by the architects in the Midtown. In this really concrete space, the relationships between people are moving and it therefore is able to constitute the basic elements for conceiving of art projects.

So, this urban space I am nominating is that of the multitude, and represents a kind of glue, which is able to unify and connect to different kinds of art projects without totalising as a formal unity. The urban space becomes in this way a kind of urban display for visual arts and visibility. Art projects can be part of the space of the multitude, precisely because the latter conveys a form of democracy indifferent to any idea of codified art institutions like: the gallery, art fair, museum, or biennale. These are part of an institutionalized world where all facilities and the audience are specialized, and maybe this world is part of an old idea of democracy as a colonial structure- that of the western countries - which needs to be reconstructed.

This multitudinal urban space is something that can be invented continuously in terms of use by its inhabitants and can offer a lot of opportunities to artists working in it. The street with its real life becomes an unpredictable space where things can change continuously and creating a very dismantled situation, where any kind of hierarchical relationships between people and situations are made redundant.

For example, in the area of Sparkbrook, Birmingham, a lot of Pakistani and Kashmiri people have modified the identity of this neighbourhood. A lot of new shops and balti restaurants grew up in the last fifteen years changing the morphology of this area completely. A fusion between British and Asian style has produced quite original results and a new way of life. The urban context has changed social relations, which establish themselves as separated from the preceding status quo. In this context artists may realize projects starting from a particular, finite situation. Under The Sky Project, curated by Peter Lewis and myself presented the idea of creating a 'platform', as an articulated and complex situation where artists would work directly with people without any mediation by the Art World. And where people were not part of a specialized audience, but living in this area and taking part, to experience and project ideas [of art] as a part of their everyday life.

This was a really interesting experiment because, against the background of a new democratic shift created by the multitude - of which the area of Sparkbrook can be cited as a good example - the entire relation between art and audience, art and its institutions was to be upset, in creating a more direct and democratic approach to the inception of works that would comprise art, architecture, multitude, as emerging from the finite contours of the urban project, to open 'works' to new relations and opportunities. In this, works don't create new shapes but new meanings starting from relations coming out of a dynamic social space. Indeed, it is under a continuous transformation, to create works of art in a renewed democratic context and out of its revolutionary vision.