2021 Type: Glossary

One of the most revered and most contested terms in both art and politics is that of autonomy, a notion that has different, albeit inter-linked meanings in the two fields, which only lead to further confusion and complexity. It is, nonetheless, a crucial notion for urban practices, not least as they are precisely placed in the cross field between the artistic and the political.
In the realm of artistic practice (and indeed art theory), autonomy is commonly thought of in terms of the historical avant-garde movements of early European modernism where it designated an artistic production that is independent from Church and State, if not market. Autonomous art had the position to be both formally novel and breaking with tradition, while simultaneously being critical of institutional power, both within art and society at large. In contemporary art, however, artistic autonomy also has negative connotations, referring to how some practitioners defend whatever they may do or say as free speech, regardless of privileges, consequences and contexts. For this reason, the notion of autonomy has come to be viewed as insufficient in any understanding of art’s possibilities and responsibilities in a multi-polar and modular society, leading to the more useful notion of a relative autonomy.
Likewise, in avant-garde political theory and practice, the notion of autonomy has an embattled history. Technically, it indicates self-governance, usually in the sense of a territory that remains outside of the control of the state, and in an urban context, often associated with squatting and self-organised spaces. Autonomy also connotes radical left politics that, crucially, reject the idea of a vanguard party leading the people, as well as the institution of the parliament in favour of the assembly.
Drawing upon these histories, we can thus situate Urban Practice as self-instituting rather than anti-institutional, in the sense of autonomy advanced by Cornelius Castoriadis, who posited autonomy in opposition to heteronomy rather than institutionalization. Autonomous societies are those where its members are fully aware of how they institute social relations by and for themselves, in opposition to heteronomous societies where members ascribe order to an authority outside of society, such as religion or tradition. Autonomy in this sense is the will to self-organise and thus self-institute.

Dr Simon Sheikh is a curator and theorist. He is Reader in Art and Programme Director of MFA Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.