Public and Private Spaces

While they are best known for Park(ing), San Francisco group Rebar recently completed another interesting project called COMMONspace in which they visited POPOS (short for Privately-Owned Public Open Spaces) around San Francisco and staged some bizarre stunts in order to highlight the fact that these places were, despite common perception, open for public use, whatever the public determined that to be (within the law). Their self-described objective was to ask of these public places, "How public?"

From a recent article on the project in The Next American City: "'We partnered up with [performance and activist group Snap Out Of It] and said, 'Let’s just get in there and energize these spaces,' which appeared to us to be underused by the public and constrained by the psychogeography of downtown,' says [Rebar member] Blaine Merker -- in other words, the very fact that these spaces are located in the business district gives the public the idea that access and certain behaviors are prohibited."

Security guards, surveillance cameras, and the business attire of the crowds of office workers in San Francisco's financial district had all created the illusion of exclusivity in these decidedly un-exclusive places. POPOS were the result, after all, of a law that aimed take advantage of new commercial construction by requiring developers to include public areas for the enjoyment of all San Franciscans. But citizens were not enjoying these spaces because the physical environment, while perhaps attractive, was hardly welcoming in the way that a park or plaza might be.

I have to wonder, reading this, what effect corporate advertising has on public spaces. This is largely due to a recent post at Spacing Wire that pointed out the absurdity of Canadian communication megacorp Rogers spraypainting advertisements for Myspace Mobile onto sidewalks in public parks.

"Big businesses like Rogers (and the ad company responsible for implementing the campaign) should act like responsible corporate citizens. Sadly, these companies take advantage of [the City of Toronto's] over-stretched staff. They are fully aware that City will not invest the time or energy to prosecute them. But when teenagers get caught with a spray-paint can in hand, they’re arrested and eventually ordered to take part in community services."

The Spacing team also pointed out that this was the same park where Audi placed advertisements thinly veiled as sculptures earlier this year. Rogers and Audi are certainly not alone when it comes to corporations willing to bend the rules in public places in order to create "authentic" or edgy advertisements for their products. (While I can't comment on their legality, I have seen multiple "graffiti ads" around Chicago for various companies). But what do these infringements say about the role of corporations in the public realm?

Whether they are spraypainted on random surfaces or screwed onto fake art, logos undoubtedly have some effect on the psychogeography of a place that is supposed to be the unfettered domain of the common citizen. In the same way that cameras and guards create a "you are being monitored" feel in POPOS, logos and advertisements that encroach on public places seem to say "you are still on our turf." When private corporations take over public spaces and undermine the legal entities that care for those spaces, they claim the public for the private. These seemingly harmless infringements say some disturbing things between the lines.

I'm not trying to sound paranoid, and I am aware that this is a small problem at present. But it is certainly something worth keeping an eye on. After all, when private entities claim psychological domain over public spaces, we start down a slippery slope.

Challenging the Commons (The Next American City)

Rogers thinks the sidewalk is my space (Spacing Wire) (Photo credit)

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