Material documenting the “invisible” aspects of Zurich, Switzerland, Credit: zURBS, 2013

invisible Zürichs: Multiplicity of Knowledges in Socially-engaged Artistic Practice

By Cecilie Sachs Olsen

“We didn’t look at space as something that was already there, but something that we were part of making. So if we found something funny, we would take a picture of it, and when we found an object we liked, we would bring it. […]So it was not so much “us” and then “the space” but it was rather about this interaction between us.”

Participant statement, invisible Zürichs, 2013

The discussions in this paper stem from my practical experience in curating invisible Zürichs, a socially-engaged artistic project, with the urban collective, zURBS. zURBS is a Zurich-based NGO collaborating with a range of urban groups and entities to facilitate experimental, participatory workshops, exhibitions, seminars and urban expeditions, to re-imagine urban space. zURBS aims to put to the fore that cities exist not only in the physical environment of the urban, but also in its material imaginary. In other words, urban space can be seen as an entanglement of physicality and symbolism that interweaves various stories, memories, imaginings and experiences.

invisible Zürichs was a two month-long curatorial, developed by zURBS as part of a residency for independent artistic collectives at the theatre Gessnerallee in Zurich in the autumn of 2013. The theatre provided zURBS with a small but significant budget, as well as one of the main theatre stages for two months, in order to create an urban laboratory that would engage the residents of Zurich in rethinking and rediscovering their city. This project forms part of my doctoral research on the ways in which socially-engaged artistic practice may produce new understandings of how we inhabit and think about cities. I define socially-engaged artistic practice in line with Bishop’s (2006, 2) definition of participatory art, which marks an artistic orientation towards the social:

“the artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as an ongoing or long-term project […] while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’ is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant.”

In this regard, socially-engaged artistic practice can be seen in relation to the “social turn” (Bishop 2006; Jackson 2011) in contemporary art practice, as well as “relational” (Bourriaud 1998), “context” (Lippard and Chandler 1968) and “dialogical” (Kester 2004) practices.

As a researcher, curating invisible Zürichs an opportunity for me to experiment with the possibilities presented by socially-engaged artistic practice to facilitate an open process, enabling participants to co-produce their city. Co-production here points to an open process in which the participants could articulate the experiences of the city in their own terms. This means that instead of focusing on pre-defined and indisputable matters of fact (“a clean city is good for us!”) as promoted at public hearings or citizen’s panel, this open process would rather focus on voicing personal matters of concern (“for me a clean city is not so much about removal of waste as it is about the removal of cars”). The aim in this regard was to raise people’s consciousness about what Rancière (2004) refers to as the “distribution of the sensible,” or a given order that directs how we think about cities and live in them by establishing what and who should be visible, sayable, hearable. In providing a platform for residents of Zurich to question this “distribution of the sensible”, invisible Zürichs aimed to facilitate a process in which multiple, embodied and marginalized experiences could be expressed (see Tolia-Kelly 2007) and this way potentially subverting the dominant urban sensory order or pointing to alternate orders.

The workshops conducted as part of the project invisible Zürichs have evolved from “a place between” theory and practice (Rendell 2010). In this process, I took on the role of both organizer and facilitator of the workshops, as well as researcher carrying out participant observation and post-workshop interviews with participants. The development of theoretical ideas in this paper draws on particular experiences with my own curatorial practice, and at the same time, my practice asks questions of theories of participation and socially-engaged artistic practice. In line with Rendell, I thereby wish to illustrate that the relationship between theory and practice is not one of continuity; theoretical concepts do not necessarily provide “answers” to practice, and practice, in turn, should not be seen as an application of or inspiration for theory. Rather, the relationship between the two is reciprocal: theory suggests paths into practice, which then, conversely, asks questions of our research methodologies and approaches. In the following, I will discuss participation as a mode of enquiry that illustrates this reciprocal relation between practice and theory.

invisible Zürichs

invisible Zürichs consisted of weekly workshops (thirteen in total) that zURBS organized in different neighbourhoods in Zurich. Participants were recruited through a method we called “netwalking” – a form of networking involving walking around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors and establishing contact with specific organizations, institutions, individuals or groups that were located in the area, and inviting them to take part in the workshops. Accordingly, the participants varied from social workers to school children, from a group of recovering addicts to a book club, from elderly people to youth, from activists to urban planners (and so on). During the course of the workshops, the participants were sent out in their neighbourhood in small groups of three to four persons. Their “task” was to search for envelopes hidden in places that the participants might not normally frequent in their day-to-day movement in the city (including backyards, underpasses, staircases, run-down pubs, corner shops etc.). Inside each envelope were various questions that encouraged the participants to look for “invisible” aspects of their present surroundings. This included prompts about elements that might reflect the social and material “layeredness” of the city or that restricted their access to the city, that made the city feel like a nightmare, that manifested the connections between people in the city and so on. The question of how to enable the participants to communicate these “invisible” experiences of the city to each other and other residents of Zurich, so that they would emerge as “visible” and “salient,” was the next challenge.

Figure 1. Participant out in the streets looking for “invisible” aspects in their surroundings, invisible Zürichs, photo: zURBS

This challenge pointed to the need for facilitating a process that acknowledges and makes explicit the many ways of knowing that exist in relation to how we understand, perceive and act in the world (Haraway 1988; Latour 1987; Shotter 1993; Thrift 1996). Important in this regard was to recognize that participation is not mobilized with specific aims and outcomes in mind, but rather as a situated process produced from a specific context. In order to facilitate such a process, the workshops were oriented around articulating what I call a “multiplicity of knowledges”.

Articulating a multiplicity of knowledges

The notion of “multiplicity of knowledges” is inspired by Leonie Sandercock’s conceptualization of an “epistemology of multiplicity”, which she develops in her book Mongrel Cities. As Sandercock outlines a planning imagination for the 21st century “that is utopian and critical, creative and audacious”, she emphasizes the need for planning for multiple publics, based on an “epistemology of multiplicity” (2003, 2). This epistemology acknowledges the many ways of knowing and doing that exist in addition to scientific and technical modes. Storytelling is here an important tool for it is a form of knowledge production that enables people to appropriate the story of the city for themselves, distinct from the dominant narrative, and to also potentially imagine themselves in multiple different stories. This form of storytelling is not a given in participatory practice. Often multiplicity and difference is seen by facilitators as something that must be controlled in order to arrive at general, fixed and reproducible results. Accordingly, the process is guided by particular norms of deliberation that may impede an open form of storytelling. Facilitators may, for example, favor norms that “implicitly value certain styles of expression as dispassionate, orderly, or articulate”, excluding participants who do not conform (Young 2000, 6 – 7). Or they may enforce norms that antagonize participants, compelling them to speak of the issues at stake in polarizing terms—framing all difference as “conflict” (Innes and Booher 2000). This points to the need for a participatory approach that frees participants from their usual sedimented patterns, creating opportunities to act on other possibilities for being (Gibson-Graham 2003).

Figure 2. Participants and workshop facilitator discussing the found material documenting the “invisible” aspects of Zurich, invisible Zürichs, photo: zURBS

In order, then, for invisible Zürichs to facilitate the creation of a multiplicity of knowledges, it was important for us as facilitators to find storytelling “tools” that would enable the participants to articulate and communicate their stories of being-in-the-city on their own terms. This concern led us to focus on the role of found objects as communicative tools: the different aspects of “invisibility” were to be documented and expressed through found artifacts and objects, drawings, photographs, sound clips, scribbled stories, samples of smells in laboratory glasses (and so on). The participants would bring this found material to the theatre stage at Gessnerallee. Here, it would be discussed and subsequently “archived” through a process in which each object or artifact was meticulously labeled with date, finding place and description. Finally, the participants would place the objects and artifacts in “the alternative city archive”, named the stadtARCHIV, which comprised the whole room. The material was hung from the ceiling, placed inside cardboard boxes or nailed to the walls. The participants were encouraged to relate their objects to the material that was already present in the archive. This way the openness of the process was emphasized, pointing to a process in which various “actants” - workshop participants, artists, objects, - were brought into relation with each other with no sure sense of what the outcome would be. The multiplicity of knowledges was here emphasized by the plurality as well as the many loose ends, missing links and uneven, conflicting, unassimilable but related elements present in the archive. For example, a story connected to a collection of shiny colourful stones from a public park, referring to the hidden beauty of the place, was juxtaposed with a photograph of the fence around the park, referring to the ugliness of its exclusivity; a story based on a photograph of surveillance cameras, referring to the feeling of being constantly controlled, was juxtaposed with a story of the loneliness of the city, as the photograph had predominantly blue colours. This openness of form and these dissident voices recognized the simultaneous coexistence of many possible stories, experiences and perspectives on Zurich.

Order vs. chaos

The stadtARCHIV was open to the public, so that people not taking part in the workshops could also follow its development and gain insight to the workshop process. People who encountered stadtARCHIV often remarked about the “chaos” or “messiness”. Two female art students discussed the archive:

Student 1: I am sure, when people see this archive, they would say that it is not Zurich. Zurich is not crowded and messy they would say. But they are wrong; Zurich is really crowded.

Student 2: And I think this archive – made in this way – has to look like this. Like, the official archive in the city needs to be “tidy,” it needs to be categorized so that you can easily find what you are looking for. But this archive is not made like that, and so it has to look like this. I think any archive made like this, by the people of the city, has to be messy and chaotic like this.

These comments are reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s notion of “trash aesthetics” (Highmore 2002, 60). “Trash aesthetics” pay particular attention to the marginal, infinitesimal and overlooked materiality of urban space. This way, “trash aesthetics” can be used radically and critically to attend to the everyday; focus on the detritus and backsides of modernity provides an alternative to the modern capitalist focus on growth and progress, and its celebration of the new. As INURA (2008), the international network for urban research and action, points out, Zurich has, for the last decades, pursued a politics of growth, struggling to maintain or improve its role as a global city. As part of its strive for international prestige and recognition, the city government of Zurich promotes an image of a clean and orderly city, promoting an urban realm of new, perpetually replaced, classified, pristine, smooth, polished and glossy commodities. The main downtown street, Bahnhofstrasse, happens to be one of the world’s most expensive and exclusive shopping avenues. Along with most of downtown, Bahnhofstrasse is constituted by a host of designed spaces, such as shopping centers and heritage sites, which seem to produce familiar and homogeneous sensual experiences. Here, harsh, uncanny and ambivalent sensations are kept at bay by the regulation of extraneous sensory intrusion and the production of moderated urban scenes.

Figure 3. Participants “archiving” an iron board found in the Jewish neighbourhood of Wiedikon, invisible Zürichs, photo: zURBS

Edensor (2007) points to how a relationship with society sustained by a desire for perfect materiality has resulted in an entrenched form of urban habitus that has inured city dwellers to sensory overload as well as the vast complexity and speed of everyday interactions. Hence, the contemporary feeling or sense of urban space is grounded in predictable routines and reduced sensory experience. Any signs of use of urban space are seen as signs of aging, breaking down, decline, deterioration and vulnerability. Accordingly, visible usage is looked upon as a problem that must be avoided at all costs (Boniver et al. 2010). As a consequence, the city is systematically interpreted within the peculiar framework of “problems”. A telling example in this regard is a campaign that was initiated by the police department in collaboration with the city government of Zurich relating to the safety and cleanliness of the city. The campaign was based on a series of black and yellow posters that from 2000 – 2005 stated certain rules of conduct (e.g. “do not pee here”, “use the bin”, “keep order in the tram and bus”, “silence!” etc.) under the umbrella slogan “Erlaubt ist, was nicht stört” (“Permitted is what does not disturb”). This campaign can be critiqued for promoting a conception of a calcified urban space that is “pre-treated with a calculus of defined-in-advance geographies of thought and action” (Woodward et. al. 2010, 277). As a result, the idea that there is a predetermined and rational way to how we act in and engage with urban space is emphasized. Multiplicity and difference is here seen as something that must be controlled for the sake of social order.

This approach to urban space is taken further by the city government of Zurich’s focus on the notion of “quality of life”. In 2012 Zurich was ranked first on Monocle’s “Quality of Life Survey”, after featuring in several surveys naming it the city with the best quality of life in the world. However, as Deutsche (1996, 276) points out, the slogan “quality of life” “embodies a profound antipathy to rights and pluralism”:

‘Formulated in the singular, "the quality of life" assumes a universal city dweller who is equated with "the public" -identities that the phrase actually invents. The universality of this urban resident is called into question when we note that those who champion a better quality of life do not defend all public institutions equally. While conservative journalists routinely seek to protect municipal parks, they do not necessarily support public education, for example, or public housing.’ (Ibid.)

Deutsche is here pointing to how urban public spaces are endowed with substantive sources of unity. Certain uses of space are deemed self-evident and uniformly beneficial because they are understood to be based on some absolute foundation, such as the ’public good’. INURA observes a similar approach in Zurich: Today, large parts of the inner city areas are becoming privileged spaces for a well-to-do urban middle class, following a strategy of “upgrading of distressed neighbourhoods” implemented by the city government as an attempt to strengthen the social fabric by luring “stable” and affluent residents. These “distressed” neighbourhoods are areas with a high concentration of migrants and a high level of fluctuation and transience. Hence, although Zurich celebrates diversity and many urban spaces demonstrate integrative potential, the upgrading processes often results in the exclusion of the very groups that created these spaces in the first place (INURA 2008).

The focus on “quality of life” can in this regard be seen to assert a language of common-sense in which urban space refers unequivocally to intrinsic uses and contains an inherent meaning determined by the imperative to fulfil needs that are presupposed to be natural (Deutsche 1988). Space is here seen as a physical entity and an independent object that has got a predetermined function, in which spatial orders appears to be controlled by natural, mechanical or organic laws. It thus appears to exercise control over the people who produce and use it. Accordingly, there is little or no space for producing a multiplicity of knowledges in which urban space is seen as predicated upon the simultaneous coexistence of many possible stories and thus also opportunities to act accordingly. Within this context, participation is activated merely as a reaction to what is already there, rather than generative of new conceptions of urban space. In this former approach to participation knowledge risks being seen as a static and inherent knowing from within, as a pre-existing resource that has to be tapped into, rather than as a process that is constantly produced in the circumstances of a specific situation (see Haraway 1988; Latour 1987; Shotter 1993; Thrift 1996).

Situated knowledge

In the context of invisible Zürichs, we, as facilitators, were painfully aware of the risk of instrumentalising participation by seeing it simply as a tool to uncover a perceived pre-defined and static local resource of knowledge. Hence, we emphasized that the alternative city archive should explore the always-unfinished process of making and remaking ourselves through the stories told with the help of the found objects and artifacts. This way, we would be able to “access” the participants’ experiences and perceptions of the city, and hence provide insights regarding people’s engagement with the urban spaces through which their lives are constituted.

However, when these considerations were applied in practice, it turned out that the findings gathered in the city did not work as mediators and storytelling tools in the way that we had intended: on several occasions we realized that the objects and artifacts were assigned new meanings and stories to them as they were brought into the archive. Rather than, for example, connecting a particular object to the place it was found and telling the story of its (urban) context, the participants would be more occupied with making up new stories in relation to the objects that were already in the archive. As one of the participants – a middle aged woman - explained to me:

“I just got more into the own story of the objects that were there [in the archive]. Like I didn’t relate them back to the city necessarily. You know, it was not a stone that was found somewhere, like a trace of somewhere… but for me it became more this independent world (…). And it made me, kind of - how to say it? - create small stories in a way (…) not really a narrative in a linear way, but sort things into an atmosphere and (…) small stories that I would make up in assembling the things.”

Based on similar reactions and statements from the participants of the workshops, we drew the conclusion that the findings brought back to the archive assumed a new meaning in the context of the stadtARCHIV, different from the meaning they had assumed in their initial location in urban space. For example, a group of young history students had found an empty wineglass, a broken piece of a car bumper, a discarded crutch and a concert ticket. One of the girls in the group explained that all these things somehow related to social activities and events that had passed; the wine was drunken, the concert had ended, the car had been in an accident, the leg had healed. However, instead of a further reflection on what these traces of the past meant for her own experience of Zurich, she and the group made a new story around the objects. The story was about broken dreams and futures gone wrong: Unfortunate Hans was supposed to go to a concert with the girl of his dreams, but she dumped him. Instead he then went to have a glass of wine on his own. He got drunk, and as he was biking home, he crashed into a car and ended up having to use crutches.

These and similar events led us to the conclusion that the stories of the participants’ genuine and direct experiences of the city were lost. This discovery raised important questions: if this local knowledge developed in intimate familiarity and social interaction with urban space disappeared in the act of materializing, and thus could not be communicated to “outsiders”, was the participants’ experience of urban space then unavailable for questioning and critique on their own terms? And if so, were participatory tools aiming to question and criticize a programmatic and simplified vision of the world futile?

Figure 4. The stadtARCHIV, the alternative city archive of Zurich comprised by found material from different neighbourhoods in Zurich, collected by the workshop participants, invisible Zürichs, photo: zURBS

In asking these questions and, while doing so, re-thinking the participatory process of invisible Zürichs, I realized that while we had been focusing so much on “accessing” situated and embodied knowledge, we had in fact stumbled into the trap we were struggling so hard to avoid: we had tried to tap into some form of pre-existing knowledge and in the process neglected its very situated and embodied nature. As several episodes within the workshops illustrated, the archive was not simply a recorder of knowledge, but a producer of knowledge in its own right. This became perhaps most clear when one of the participants commented on our use of the past tense when we asked them about their experiences in the city; she experienced things here and now, while actively working with the archive. So for her, it was not solely about the past, but also about creating something new for the future.

This comment made me aware that I had failed to see knowledge as a process – that is, something to be produced, always becoming or emerging. In doing this, I had seen knowledge solely as some form of transmission, in which there is something in one mind or body that must be transferred into another mind or body. However, in order to position the multiplicity of knowledge as an alternative to the concern with tapping into local knowledge, knowledge should be seen as something performative, made intersubjectively within particular sets of social relations, times and places (Jupp 2007; Pain 2004; Van Herzele and van Woerkum 2008). In facilitating this form of knowledge production and storytelling, socially engaged artistic practice avoids being merely reactive to what is presumed to be there already, and thus being “predicated on the belief that a particular site/place exists with its identity-giving or identifying properties always and already prior to what new cultural forms might be introduced to it or emerge from it” (Kwon 1997, 108). Instead, socially engaged artistic practice may be generative of new identities and histories. In this regard it can be seen as a medium for enactment, rather than as a medium for representation.

The storytelling by the participants was therefore always in the process of being made. Thus, the alternative city archive could not “capture” certain pre-existing experiences, but should rather be imagined as a simultaneity of stories-so-far, to use Doreen Massey’s (2005) term. Hence, it was not so much about the findings in themselves and what they represented, as it was about the discussions, observations and stories they generated. For example: a glass splinter from a broken window in the red light district was transformed into an excerpt of the air in “the frozen state” of Zurich, commenting upon the city’s perceived conservatism; a shopping receipt that reveals clear intentions by listing dinner ingredients for two and lubricant prompted conversations about dating and isolation among singles in the city; and the various alcoholic beverages stemming from a newly-built business district lead into on-going critique of these areas as purely being of “work and play” for expats and business men. These stories did not merely recount events and descriptions of Zurich; they endowed the city with meaning by commentary, interpretation, and dramatic structure. As a student pointed out in explaining her experience of the workshop:

“It made me think that to see a place means not only to see a place and going around finding something, but also to interact with something and fill it with yourself and your ideas. (…) by participating in that project you go into the research of what space means to you.”

Urban space was here made legible by translating it into collective narratives that help people shape an idea of how they want to live together and what they would like their city to be like. As a middle-aged male urban planner pointed out after taking part in the workshop:

“It gets me in a perfect mood because I see how beautiful the city is and how many secrets it holds (…). What keeps me thinking (…) is this question: what is the urban? What is urbanity? And when do I feel positive and well in an urban environment? Somehow, it is when I see evolution and many layers of things grown in the physical structure of the city. So this possibility to grow and change over the years, I think is one of the most important things to create urban space.”

The importance of the “layeredness” and the many small (secret) details of the city was emphasized by many of the participants as well as visitors to the archive. These reflections point to an understanding of urban space in which the authority of any one representational mode is challenged. Furthermore, our interaction with urban space is here seen as not relying on its physical form alone, but also through a social interchange that is open-ended and exploratory. In other words, urban space is seen as in a constant process of becoming. It cannot be fixed through endless maintenance or careful design.


invisible Zürichs can be seen as what Purcell (2014, 149) defines as an act of reorientation: “It reorients the city away from its role as an engine of capital accumulation and towards its role as a constitutive element in the web of cooperative social relations among urban inhabitants”. The notion of multiplicity of knowledges is here closely linked to the idea of potentiality and transformation, emphasized by an aesthetic where the world is in the making. However, the openness of this approach is also vulnerable to critique. If all knowledge has no foundation other than personal and individual interpretation, we risk falling into the trap of relativism. By creating a dichotomy between liberatory multiplicity, promising a vision from everywhere, vs. an oppressive authoritarian representation, imposing a vision from nowhere, one may deny responsibility and critical inquiry. To avoid this, it is important to locate and situate the production of knowledge and the knowing subject. In this regard, invisible Zürichs was concerned with scrutinizing the material, social and political conditions that enable knowledge production, by facilitating a participatory process in which the knowledge that was produced was seen as on-going interventions in social and material relations. The value and necessity of engaging space in discussions on participation is here put to the fore.

Looking at participation in relation to particular ways of representing space may generate processes and outcomes that are open, fluid and sensitive to the multiple and often competing narratives, practices and actions that shape different ways of being in the world. My take on participation in this paper, then, has revolved around this interplay between the explorations and questioning of urban space within socially engaged artistic practice and its relation to spatial imaginaries produced through socially engaged artistic practice. By offering this distinct view on the relation between participation and spatial representations, I hope to contribute to the wider discussions in this publication, in terms of how we can expand our understanding and use of participation within participatory urban projects.


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Author Bio

Cecilie Sachs Olsen is a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London and co-founder of the social-artistic urban laboratory, zURBS. Her research revolves around how art can be used as a framework to analyze and re-imagine space and politics. Cecilie studied Urban Studies in Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen and Madrid, and Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She has been working as a research assistant at the Institute of Critical Theory at Zurich University of the Arts, as well as at the research project Urban Breeding Grounds at the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design, ETH Zurich.

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