Claiming Space

2021 Type: Glossary

Claiming Space as Spatial Production

In contemporary art, the concept of space knows no boundaries. Space has long since transcended its physical extent and has itself become an artistic material; today, social frameworks and power structures are also subsumed under the concept of space—and become the subject of artistic treatment. The historical development toward a dissolution of the boundaries of space and the arts represents a process of spatial appropriation in itself.
In the art realm, the discourse on space emerged in the 20th century; artists explored various ideas of space (including cubism and constructivism), and with Kurt Schwitters’s “Merzbau” (ca. 1923), the real space itself became art. With the conceptual shift away from the representation and toward the production of space, artistic spatial analysis crossed a first threshold.
After the sharp break caused by the Second World War, the 1940s and 1950s saw the beginning of an in-depth engagement with pictorial space and the constraints of painting as a medium, and consequently of the condition of the physical and institutional spaces of art. Shortly thereafter, a new avant-garde abandoned these established spaces of (re)presentation to show their work in their own studios or in diverse public spaces—or even to create entirely new spaces (and places) themselves.
The production of so-called alternative spaces and lofts constitutes a second mode of claiming space. The genuinely new artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s broke down the boundaries between the arts and simultaneously created these novel forms of working/living spaces. With installation art, a space-consuming art form emerged that also implicitly engages the “beholder” physically.
The emergence of these practices coincided with the incipient paradigm shift of the spatial turn, which defines real space per se as social space. The point of departure for this is the processual theory of spatial production by the French neo-Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre. It took until the 1990s, however, for the discourse on spatial theory to first become established in the social sciences, and it then found its way into other disciplines after the turn of the millennium. The central thesis in Lefebvre’s book “La Production De L’Espace” (1974) is that each form of society produces its own space, which, in a continually reciprocal process, conditions the societal systems, such that space (as a kind of meta-space that includes all conceptions of space, from the built and the political to the space of energy flows) must always be understood as social space. Moreover, in the global capitalism of modern societies, space is inevitably urban space.
Contemporary artistic strategies of claiming space encompass both legal and illegal activities, temporary actions as well as long-term plans, grand schemes but also poetic, ephemeral situations, and address interior and exterior spaces. Their common denominator is that they intervene in the reciprocal relationship between spatial appropriation and spatial production. While artistic practices initiate processes, the resulting spaces are temporary and any long-term effects are always the results of negotiation processes that can only be artistically shaped to a certain degree. According to Lefebvre, however, inherent within them is the revolutionary potential to call into question the prevailing capitalist production of space. To be precise, he assigns an almost utopian role to art: “On the horizon, then, at the furthest edge of the possible, it is a matter of producing the space of the human species—the collective (generic) work of the species—on the model of what used to be called ‘art’ […].” (Lefebvre 1993, 422).

Friederike Schäfer is an art historian (FU Berlin; UoW, Seattle; Bard Graduate Center, NYC; HU Berlin; HfG Karlsruhe; COOP Design Research, Dessau) and conducts a postdoctoral researchproject at EXC “Temporal Communities” (FU Berlin) on exhibitions on the Anthropocene. Her dissertation, “Claiming Space(s): Locating Suzanne Harris’ Dance Practice and Ephemeral Installations within New York City in the 1970s” (HU Berlin), will be published by De Gruyter in 2022. She implements interdisciplinary projects (among others nGbK Berlin; Bauhaus Dessau; Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe; Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, Hamburg) and is a co-founder of CoCooN Berlin.