Who are We?
Who are We? is a discursive, self-reflexive event format that strives to accompany its participants’ independent spatial and artistic practices of sensible, urban transformation. Its first session happened in 2020 in Berlin.
The usage of the plural pronoun “we” is a common phenomenon within critical urban practices, initiatives and political alliances, and suggests a solid cohesion of groups and networks. At the same time, if we look behind the scenes of such practices, we find ourselves in underwhelmingly conservative and non-transparent structures, ambivalent power relations, (over-)working in precarious conditions, disconnected from the representation and recognition of the results of “our” work.
The aim of this initiative is to encourage a discussion of “our” organisations from within: Who belongs to creative and politically engaged collective structures? What are the existing power structures? Which communication and decision-making cultures are prevailing? Which projects, spaces, cities “we” conceive, design and build accordingly? How do they influence the way “our” city is produced and represented?
The initiative provides spaces of encounter with researchers, practitioners and activists, in order to practice a necessary, empowering and enriching self-criticism, to create bonds and develop resilience tactics against shared challenges. It also provides an intimate and safe space – currently reserved to FLINTA* persons – in which to express doubts and concerns, to gather inspiring experiences and thoughts, and imagine possible ways to act together.
In the Economy of Letters
“We” is a promise. Relationality is a promise. An ethical potential to act responsibly by acknowledging our common interdependence. But relationality turns into a problem when this interdependence is denied and a kind of pathological and lethal ignorance or otherness emerges that allows for one to act on others and not with others, a (non-)relation of domination, oppression, exploitation and extermination. To counter this, we need to reaffirm relationality, to recognise others and to take responsibility, not for but towards others. The first act of recognition is to listen. What are our practices of speaking considerably of the listener and listening considerately of the speaker – of creating relationships through conversation?
Since we started working in socially engaging spatial practices, we have been preoccupied with the mechanics, regulations and dynamics of speaking and listening. In fact, such practices rely on the transmission of knowledge which often happens through the act of speaking and listening.
For this gathering, Mascha pulled out a text written in 2015, which draws a fictional scenario of a time and word-based economy, as an invitation to be considerate with the words used at the expense of others and as a starting point for a reflection on the question of whose words get heard.
In the economy of letters anything is possible. Better still, one who is endowed with sufficient letters can do anything. Long words, love letters, songs, poetry, a deep conversation or simply calling the insurance company to demand a refund for a faulty debit.
One who possesses many letters is free to express and to be liable for themselves in matters of any kind. This is why, in the past, revolutionaries have fought against the eloquent elite and even pledged for the abolishment of printed and spoken letters. In these radical circles the idea of a society was nurtured, based on the economic currency of squandered time in line with the principles of patience and boredom. Trade unions have complained about cunning entrepreneurs, who in order to save time have tried to reduce the mental demand of operations of labor. And the left has agitated against crafty mercantilists, who made use of the fact that it costs less time to say something, than to do something. These accusations have received relatively broad support, since some cases of ruthless speculation on statements have come to the fore, which have been responsible for a far-reaching crisis and the total disenfranchisement of a large part of the population. Still, some like to think it is possible to come across ideas simply laying by the wayside, while riding their bicycles or going for a walk. Sometimes all that is left to do is to linger and take note of these ideas, and so that it can be that one of them finds itself expressed, reaching a large audience.
Who speaks, who is listened to, and who listens are three fundamental questions that set the conditions of what social paradigms and societal practices are to establish, shaping a culture of knowledge production. We seek a feminist approach to urban practice that may not only be critical of a single, loud truth, but trying to change the very mechanisms of power established by overspeaking. In the words of writer Rebecca Solnit: “Inequality of voice is one of the most powerful elements of inequality of all kinds. Children and elderly people are routinely treated as incompetent witnesses to their own lives and needs. Poor people, immigrants and people with disabilities are likewise treated as subordinates and incompetents”1 .
This forms a systematic problem of the development of public, communal and community-creating living spaces based on democratic and inclusive values, as those who speak lower, from the margin, stay unheard, inequality of voice systematically produces exclusive and undemocratic spaces.
Somewhere on the way from individual thought, to an idea shared in a conversation, to a theory presented in public, there is a “colossal problem, in which biases, statuses and assumptions warp everyday life and allocate more credibility, audibility and consequence to some people than others”, Rebecca Solnit continues. We are wondering beyond the question of the diversity of perspectives, which mechanisms of speaking, which habits of certainty are prevailing? Which ways to argue, to condemn, to differentiate… how sophisticated do thoughts have to be formulated; how much habitual, practiced, established, reinsured performance is involved? Which topics are dared to be addressed?
With the research and event series Who Are We? we want to create spaces free from injunctions of keeping silent, holding back, and frightening, spaces to exercise speech; but also, and not least, to evolve toward shared spaces of love and friendship - vouching for intimacy to be established in public debate and political conversation. To replace, as the democratic example par excellence, the man-dominated parliament arena, with a comfortable and intimate environment: to ask questions, to doubt, to search and to listen together.
What are forms of conversation and hence organisation based on trust and friendship, in contrast to neoliberal logics of controlling and ordering spaces and resources? How to cultivate collaboration and hence decision-making based on mutual respect, attention, warmth and trust? In the face of war and conflict, we wonder, in the words of the writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant, “what continues to keep us together”2 , in relation?
How to speak of a “we” without drawing boundaries and lines to define, but by creating intimate and safe spaces to express oneself, to share doubts and concerns, to gather inspiring experiences and thoughts, and to imagine possible ways to resist, to act together?
- Rebecca Solnit, The serious side of ‘mansplaining’ has been lost. That’s where the harm begins, retrieved on: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/09/mansplaining-word-problem-rebecca-solnit?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other, 18.04.2023 ↩
- Edouart Glissant in One World in Relation, Dir; Manthia Diawara, USA/Mali 2010, 52min, Documetary Film ↩