Friday, April 22, 2011

Why foreign policy is a matter for local government in a global city...

Note: this post was submitted as an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, so hopefully that explains the style in which it was written. As it happened, Fiona Byrne, the Mayor of Marrickville who was at the centre of this particular debate, wrote her own piece which was published in the Herald instead. I can't imagine why they would have wanted something from the Mayor herself rather than an unknown academic, but there you go...!  Anyways, it's reproduced here because I might as well not waste the work, and I'm sure this blog will soon have a circulation the size of the Herald's... 

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a loud debate in Sydney over Marrickville Council’s potential participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Santions movement against Israel. The debate has drawn attention not only to politics in the Middle East, but also to the role of local government in Sydney.

In arguing against the boycott, its opponents have frequently attacked or derided the notion that a local government should take action on political issues which extend beyond its boundaries – in this case to the other side of the world. Newly-elected NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell has told Council in no uncertain terms that the role of local government is to focus on roads, rubbish and rates, and has taken the extraordinary step of threatening to sack the Council if the boycott goes ahead. The Sydney Chamber of Commerce and the Jewish Board of Deputies have also both criticized Council’s involvement in matters of foreign investment and policy. More light-heartedly, a Herald editorial made merry at the prospect of Marrickville Council sending troops to Israel if diplomacy failed.

Whatever the merits of this specific boycott proposal, we should reject the notion that local governments should not action on matters that extend beyond their borders. We live in an increasingly inter-connected and globalised world, and local governments have a vital role to play in helping us to take action on a whole range of issues across a variety of scales.

Squeegee guys: Belinda Campbell's 'Intersections'

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of helping Belinda Campbell launch her outdoor exhibition Intersections. The exhibition involved the installation of 6 large and striking portrait photos of some of Sydney's (in)famous street corner squeegee guys on the fence outside Glebe public school, a very busy inner city street in Sydney. Belinda interviewed the men as well as photographing them, and their portraits were accompanied by their account of how they found themselves cleaning windscreens, and what it's like to perform this kind of work.

As Engin Isin pointed out in his 2002 book Being Political, contemporary ideologies of what it means to be a 'good citizen' in large western cities are largely founded on the active exclusion of folks like the homeless, squeegee guys, graffiti-writers et al as the 'anti-social' other. Sydney is no exception. Each of the men interviewed had stories to tell about the regular harassment they face from both police and hostile drivers.

I think one of the reasons squeegee guys can provoke such discomfort and hostility is that their actions disrupt the norms of the road for the car driver. Cars are meant to be self-contained, with communication mediated through horns, blinkers, friendly waves, raised fingers and the like -- if contact occurs with others, this is an 'accident', 'collision', 'crash' etc.. Not only to the squeegee guys attempt to communicate with us in another manner, not only do they want to touch our car, but they also initiate this contact right at the moment when we are most vulnerable as a driver -- when we are stuck at an intersection waiting for a traffic light to change from red to green.

But of course, we can choose how to respond in this situation. As the men also reported, they have their regular customers, and each could tell stories of friendliness and generosity too.

The installation of the photos on the street gave the exhibition a real power -- on the day of the launch, lots of passers-by stopped and lingered by the photos and read the stories. I'm sure this was because lots of people recognised one or more of the men in the photos, and were curious to find out more about them. Belinda's exhibition very explicitly challenges us to think about intersections as places were the lives as diverse city dwellers cross paths, not just as places where cars are forced to wait for others.

Real Estate: Mini Graff and Jason Wing

I just managed to catch Mini Graff and Jason Wing's exhibition Real Estate at the Cross Art Projects before it closed. Small but cool.

I especially loved Mini Graff's Superhero Poster. Quite rightly, Mini has a bee in her bonnet about the City of Sydney's approach to graffiti and street art. As the exhibition flyer tells it:
She parodies and challenges the might of the advertising industry and the brand names that invade and claim streetscapes, parks, and schools. While corporations gloat, artists are forced into humiliations of form filling and attending to overseers of 'official' artworks, a censorship not tolerated by any other professional group. Councils wage a continuous censorship vigil and veto art on our streets, temporary hoardings, nooks and crannies - unless deemed 'decorative' or de-facto advertorial for municipal fiat. Mini Graff champions the paste-up brush of street art as an act of daily civil libertarian heroism.
'Humiliation' might be just a little strong as a description of what it's like to fill in a bunch of forms to be assessed by a faceless panel of bureaucrats to put up a work of art ... but I get her point! The City is Sydney talks a lot of talk about creativity etc, and commissions lots of temporary street art if it's part of some event promoting the city, but its processes are overly bureaucratic, and it simply refuses to allow the streets to be mobilised independently of official place-promotion projects.

With its critique of the Council, the poster also reminds me of another great performative critique of the City of Sydney's street art hypocrisy ... check out this video of the 'Scratching the Surface' performance piece by Beastman, Max Berry, Numskull, Phibs and Roach at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Watch until the end. So brilliant.

Scratching the Surface from [weAREtheIMAGEmakers] on Vimeo.

The right to the city...

A couple of weeks ago, I went along to the Right to the City conference organised by Lee Stickells and Zanny Begg at Sydney Uni. The conference brought together a bunch of thinkers and practitioners to explore the possibilities and promises of emergent forms of do-it-yourself and 'micro-spatial' activism in cities.

The keynote speech on the Friday night by Margaret Crawford from UC Berkeley, who talked about her 'Everyday Urbanism' research, was well attended and generated a lively discussion. The good numbers and energy carried on nicely into the conference the next day. I certainly got heaps out of it. As one of the presenters said, it was great to be attending a conference on this theme here in Sydney, rather than reading about one taking place in some other city ... nice one Lee and Zanny!

Of the discussions I was involved in during the day, there were some interesting common themes to emerge....


I know that we are all suffering from information overload...

And I know that it's 2011 already, and that Bruce Sterling has added blogs to his list of 'dead media'...

But here I am, starting a blog. Cities and Citizenship is going to focus on the opportunities and challenges facing those of us who are seeking to democratise our cities. It'll be Sydney-centric, because that's where I am, but hopefully will have something to interest folks in other places too.

The first few posts are now online. One is a report on a recent conference that took place here in Sydney on The Right to the City. Another talks about the recent controversy over an inner-Sydney Local Council's debate on whether to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against corporations and institutions associated with the occupation of Palestine. Another couple reflect on recent public art exhibitions in Sydney -- Intersections by Belinda Campbell, and Real Estate by Mini Graff and Jason Wing.

Forthcoming posts include an attempt to respond to Adam Greenfield's challenge for us to think about the nature of 'public objects' in the networked city, a review of Mark Purcell's book Recapturing Democracy, and some reflections on Sydney's extraordinary 'green ban' movement in order to mark the 40th anniversary of the first green ban.

Thanks for dropping by!