The Destruction of Public Space

In the past few days, this bench has made an outrage among my Internet community. I had to look it up and discovered that it is a public installation by the German designer and conceptual artist Fabian Brunsing intended to pervert the idea of public space as a satire of the commercialisation of modern life.


But the idea behind this piece of art is not entirely new. In 2001, a Seattle gallery exhibited the piece “SeatSale: Licence to Sit”: an “Internet Chair with magnetic stripe card reader and spikes that retract when a seating license is downloaded from a license server in response to input from the card reader incorporated into the chair”.



After some time (e.g. after the movie has finished) a bright flashing animated version of the following is displayed:


Now if we go back to real life…We are all familiar with the relatively recent emergence of anti-seater seating in UK public spaces:

Photo: Dan Lockton

Photo: Dan Lockton

In 2007, as a poor East-European MA student in the UK, I went to Brussels and got stuck there overnight because I stupidly missed my flight. I discovered that both the Central Train Station, and Brussels Airport, are designed to make sleeping very hard. There were no spikes, but the walls of the station were curved in such a way to make it impossible to sit or lie next to the wall; if you lied down, you would be almost in the middle of the hall, and exposed to a horrible cold draft. In the airport, all benches had arm rests and  there were no flat surfaces. Having filled my camera with photos and my time with an improvised photoshoot, exasperated, I finally fell asleep at 5am on a bar table. I caught a bad cold and spent three weeks ill on antibiotics. And I am very, very far from homeless.


Spikes for the prevention of rough sleeping are used under bridges in China:

Do not sleep under this bridge in Guangzhou. Photo: Daily Mail

Do not sleep under this bridge in Guangzhou. Photo: Daily Mail

A couple of days ago, the Guardian reported that a new housing development on Southwark Bridge Road in London has installed metal spikes to deter “beggars and homeless people sleeping there“.

Photo courtesy of the Ethical Pioneer @ethicalpioneer

Photo: Ethical Pioneer @ethicalpioneer

Historians reading this would be better qualified to comment – but I am sure that this has been happening throughout history. The first example which comes to mind is the Window Tax – a property tax based on the number and size of windows in a house which existed in England, Scotland and France in the 18-19 Centuries. The point is not whether defensive urban architecture, or other restrictions of public access to nature or necessities, is a new phenomenon, but that the public outrage it causes is usually too short-lived to resist it. Dystopian art can warn us about the dangers of the future, but sadly, we rarely listen.

Categories: The Idle Ethnographer, Visual Sociology

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3 replies »

  1. has a significant public (enough people/clout to be effective) really ever been brought to progressive public action by avant-garde art, and why would we attend to speculative art more than we do to actually alleviating present day outrages?
    we really need to start to come to terms with peoples’ cognitive-biases if we want to make a difference that makes a difference…

    • I don’t know whether avant-garde art has ever been successful in bringing about public action. It’s a good question. I’m not sure I know where the boundary lies between avant-garde art and popular art, I think some avant-garde art influences the wider public indirectly, by influencing other artists who then create stuff that reaches wider publics. Any idea of where to find research on that?

      Which exactly cognitive biases on that list did you mean? Who are “we” and do you mean that we need to learn about our own ones, or about the biases of the public we try to influence? Say more!

  2. The historic Lincoln Prison has seats that have a very similar shape to the curved ones shown here. They are almost impossible to sit on. For those with an interest in the panopticon there is further description and pictures here:

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