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Defensive Urbanism Public Art Public Infrastructure

Hostile Hospitality in Bruges

Of all the creative disciplines involved in public space – industrial design, (landscape)architecture, urbanism – the arts hold a special position. An artist can operate relatively free of the constraints imposed by the demands of a client or institution. For they are their own client, their views and obsessions are both the brief and the program of requirements of the project.

One could argue that since artists can pursue their own goals when intervening in public space – more so than other creative professionals – they are even obliged to do so in a critical way. To question public space by disrupting it, with the objective to bring about an unusual experience, a shift in perspective.

Considering the above I was curious what the Triennial Bruges had to offer, so I headed to Belgium. Staged in 2015 and 2018, the Triennial is a series of temporary installations and artistic interventions in the public spaces of the historic city of Bruges, arranged around a theme. This year’s theme is TraumA. Their website states it represents “a dive into the ‘uncanny’ history and reality of Bruges…It explores the thin line between dream and trauma, between paradise and hell. It appeals to the imagination, to the pomp and circumstance, but also to the ‘uncanny’ that is present underground. For although Bruges seems to be a dream destination for many, poverty, loneliness, pollution or fear also lurk in this picture-perfect world.”

Following an art trail through a city allows you to wander. You experience its urban spaces in a different way, much like a ‘route dérive’. It is a guarantee for surprise encounters and serendipitous experiences, even more so if you have resisted the urge to preview the works online. Usually I try to avoid the tourist traps in places like Bruges but to see all the works I had to venture into the centre of this tourist-mecca. The so-called ‘Venice of the North’ is flooded by tourists year ’round.

Right in the middle of the historical ‘Burg’ stands Inner Circle, an installation by Nadia Kaabi-Linke. The work consists of a perfect circle of street benches, covered in shiny spikes.

According to the explanatory statement “The installation is based on a study of plaques or marks on façades that refer to exclusive clubs or associations, which often use the circle as their basic shape… With Inner Circle, Kaabi-Linke seeks to put these elite groups, but also other social circles, where the line between hospitality and exclusion is often fragile, into the spotlight. Her shiny sculpture draws attention to what is usually kept inside and accentuates the emptiness that remains at its centre.”

So far so good, but the installation triggered many more connotations. To begin with, the schizophrenic contradiction of it. The street bench, a public amenity that stands for hospitality is deliberately made inhospitable, using the same means as defensive urbanism or hostile architecture. This strategy is aimed at adapting public infrastructure to intentionally guide or even restrict behaviour or use. The stainless steel spikes are usually installed to ward off pigeons. Now, they are put into use to make the bench unfit for its original purpose – to sit, rest and meet other people.

This unusual combination of generally ordinary objects, benches and spikes, renders a whole new meaning. In that sense it is much like a readymade, the art form conceived by the Dadaist movement which included as notable members the brilliant Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.

‘The Gift’, readymade by Man Ray, 1921

Furthermore, the bench is surrounded by a defensive ‘do-not-cross’ line, which makes it even more ambiguous. It made me wonder; is this barrier part of the installation? It is in fact installed by the municipality, to prevent potential liability claims made by people getting hurt by accidentally tripping and falling against the pins. Ironically, the extra defence line ads another unintended layer of meaning, transforming it into a doubly defensive object. As if the spikes are not enough to send out the hostile message – do not approach, touch, or sit on the object. The medium is the message, loud and clear.

Finally, the artwork can be read as a critical comment on hyper-tourism. It evokes an associative parallel between pigeons and tourists. Both are species abundantly present in cities – considered a fact of urban life by some people, perceived as an invasive nuisance by others.

The installation touches upon the issue how hospitable touristic hotspots really are – places like Bruges, Venice, Amsterdam, or any other historical European city for that matter. Places where you are welcome as long as you stick to the tourist script and follow the (un)written rules on how to behave in its public spaces. Yes, please come to explore and stroll, to consume and spend. But move along, no loitering here.

Cover image courtesy of Kaabi-Linke Studio.