Spatial thinking and artistic practice – re-visiting Michel de Certeau

Konjunktur und Krise?, No 2

It seems to be a dominant assumption today, that art can only be critical if it occurs outside the institutions. This assumption has its roots in a long tradition of cultural theory treating the streets as the place for opposition, disruption, tactics and protests, as for example seen in the works of Henri Lefebvre, Georges Perec and Michel de Certeau. In this article I will critically examine one of these theorists, namely Michel de Certeau. While de Certeau’s thesis on «The Practice of Everyday Life» (1984) has been praised for offering new ways to deal with the spatiality of urban life, I will argue that there is a present tendency of treating his theories as part of a so-called «limited spatial imaginary» (Dikeç 2012). This limited spatial imaginary enhances a conception of spatial connections and disconnections as deduced rationally from the givens and thus may be problematic regarding de Certeau’s influence on contemporary and critically engaged site-specific art practice. In this regard I will re-visit de Certeau’s theories in order to point to the importance of re-thinking them in order to inform contemporary and critically engaged site-specific art practice in a fruitful way.

Much present academic research as well as urban debates are occupied with our so-called «post-political» situation and how we can re-instantiate the political in the present culture of consent (Hall & Hubbard 1996, Mouffe 2005, Swyngedouw 2008). Art practices are here seen as having the potential for offering powerful catalysts for transformative forms of politics, providing new sets of resources for urban and spatial thinking (Hawkins 2012, Woodward et al 2009). Art is praised as a mode of critical exploration that may contribute to re-imaginations of urban geographies, and is accordingly increasingly gravitating towards notions of space and place (Deutsche 1996, Harvie 2009, Kaye 2000, Massey 2007, Miles 1997, Pinder 2008, Rendell 2006, Sunderberg 2000). The theories of de Certeau are frequently visited by artists and academics as a source of inspiration and reference point in this regard.

However, there is a tendency here to place de Certeau’s theories within a set of binary oppositions, which may enhance a view on the arts as solely an effect of or reaction to urban space, and thus occlude art’s potential for critical exploration. These binary oppositions are reflected in the contrast de Certeau makes between strategies and tactics. A strategy is here defined as relating to an already-constructed, static, given place/structure, whereas tactics are the practices of daily life which engage with and manipulate this structure. This conception may immediately be seen as introducing a dichotomy between power and resistance, and structure and agency, which divides the space of the city in two: the city structure vs. the street (Massey 2005). The street is here seen as the characterisation of the everyday, as removed from the central power. When reading the theories of de Certeau in this light, then, one may hold that there is an inherent politics of space and that space is intrinsically and univocally political. In effect comes a certain expectation of what the arts can do when going into the streets, how it then becomes political and should contest the power systems, and engage in and change the social realities of a place. This is reflected in the expectation of art practice to provide «solutions» to urban problems either by creating, improving and restoring meanings or land values through branding strategies and public spectacles (Evans 2003, Griffiths et al 2003, Metz 2007) or by an «artivism» that tries to impede, promote or direct change (de Cauter et al 2011). Accordingly there is a tendency of artists being the first in line to join political and social movements when societies gets shaken up – whether it is in the EU crises, the Arabic world, the social uprisings in Greece and Spain, the Occupy movements etc. In this context then, art is simply looked upon as a mode of resistance against «the city as system» (Massey, 2005:46). In this regard one may read de Certeau’s theories as a framing of space merely as a static exteriority against which resistance can be constituted.

Ironically, this conception of space as a static entity was exactly what de Certeau wanted to problematize in «The Practice of Everyday Life». By focusing on the immense contrast between experiencing the city in the streets and high above the ground, de Certeau criticized the top-down view of public officials and planners for seeing space as a frozen and static entity, neglecting the small dynamics that brings life to the city. Thus, de Certeau attempted to create a dialogue between the institutional structures in charge of planning/administering urban space and the everyday users of the space. However, this attempt may be seen as reflecting a view that constructs space as an immutable container whose «proper» meaning/form is conducted within the framework of institutional structures, such as the government and its urban planning departments, implying that there is a pre-given signature and intention for urban space that decides its use and function. Public space is for example predetermined as being public, it is not seen as becoming public through a multiplicity of actions, relations and performances. This approach to urban space may impede art’s potential for the re-imaginations of urban geographies as it reduces, rather than opens up, possibilities of new relations and forms that are not already given in the order or sensible experience of things. Thus, instead of questioning space and searching for spatial varieties, art is – again – reduced to merely a reaction to space as closed and given.

Again, this conception of one pre-determined and static form of space is probably exactly what de Certeau wanted to criticize in his book. For de Certeau urban space is neither fixed nor stable, and no proper official version of the city exists. How then, can we bridge these discrepancies between how de Certeau may be read and his original intentions with what he wrote? It is my argument that the key to answer this question is to look at de Certeau’s spatial theories not as an attempt to elucidate the true political nature of space – his spatial theories should rather be seen as a mode of political thinking. As such, space in de Certeau, can be seen as a metaphor that functions as an expansive imaginative tool for understanding and ordering our world (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). In this sense, metaphors have got little to do with objective reality (if this exists), but nevertheless play a central role in constructing a social and political reality and enabling us to have a reality. The «space-talk» of de Certeau should hence not be seen as providing us with answers to what is the «true» or correct meaning of or way to deal with urban space, but rather it should be seen as a way of questioning space and opening up for seeing connections or disconnections that cannot always be deduced rationally from the givens. Thus, de Certeau is not equating space with politics, but rather showing what can be gained from thinking spatially. In this context then, the binary oppositions that de Certeau introduces could then be seen as pointing to permanent possibilities of re-configurations of any given order, rather than constituting fixed categories determining a certain function or use of space. When applying this approach then to site-specific and critically engaged art practices, these should not be construed simply as a reaction to or a means to fix a ready-made urban space, but should be seen as integral to creating, analysing and understanding space. As Harvie (2009) states, art practices does more than merely demonstrate urban process, it may also produce urban meaning. The same can be said for the theories of de Certeau.


  • Cauter de, L., de Roo, R. & Vanhaesebrouck (eds.) (2011) Art and Activism in the Age of Globalisation. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers
  • Certeau de, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press
  • Deutsche, R. (1996) Evictions. Art and Spatial Politics. Massachussetts: MIT Press
  • Dikeç, M., (2012) Space as a mode of political thinking in Space, Contestation and the Political, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 669 – 676
  • Evans, G. (2003) Hard branding the cultural city –from Prado to Prada in International Journal for Urban and Regional Research, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 417 – 440
  • Griffiths, R., Bassett, K. & Smith, I. (2003) Capitalising on culture: cities and the changing landscape of cultural policy, Policy and Politics, vol. 31, no. 2, p. 153 – 169
  • Hall T. & Hubbard P. (1996) The entrepreneurial city: new urban politics, new urban geographies in Progress in Human Geography, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 153 – 174
  • Hawkins, H. (2012) Geography and art. An expanding field: Site, the body and practice in Progress in Human Geography. Available at: [Accessed January 3, 2013]
  • Harvie, J. (2009) Theatre and the City, 1st ed. NY: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Kaye, N. (2000) Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation. London: Routledge.
  • Kwon, M. (2002) One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. Massachussetts: MIT Press
  • Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Massey, D. (2007) World city. Polity: Cambridge
  • Massey, D. (2005) For Space: SAGE, London
  • Metz, T. (2007) The Event City, in G. Marling & M. Zerlang (eds.) Fun City, Copenhagen: Arkitektens Forlag
  • Miles, M. (1997) Art, Space and the City. London: Routledge
  • Mouffe, C. (2005) On the political. London/NY: Routledge
  • Pinder, D (2008) Urban interventions: Art, politics and pedagogy in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 32, pp. 730–736
  • Rendell, J. (2006) Art and Architecture. A Place Between. London/NY: I.B. Tauris
  • Sunderberg E (2000) Space, Site, Intervention: Situating Installation Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
  • Swyngedouw, E. (2008) Where is the political?: [Accessed February 28, 2012]
  • Woodward K, Jones JP III, and Marston SA (2009) Of eagles and flies: Orientations toward the site in Area, no.42, pp. 271–280
Verschlagwortet mitKonjunktur und Krise?, No 2

Über Cecilie Sachs Olsen

Cecilie is working as a research assistant at Zürcher Hochschule der Kunste and ETH Zürich. Her research focus is on the intersection between art and urban space, and she is about to start her PhD on this topic at Queen Mary University of London. Furthermore, Cecilie is co-founder of the social artistic urban laboratory zURBS in Zurich.

Die Kommentarfunktion ist geschlossen.