Culture as Shared Experience (Performance in Public Space)

Lecture for cuhk SoA elective 5731A – Architecture and Cultural Practice

Before we begin this week’s discussion on performance in urban space, it would be helpful to revisit the two types of cultural participation based on the distinctive role of cultural producer (performer) and cultural consumer (audience). Typical participatory art invite the audience “to join” the work as curated by the artist or institution (ref), while in an enhanced mode of participation, the artist/designer assumes the role of facilitator and the participants are the subject who make decisions and create.

The different modes of participatory arts are, in many cases, set in public spaces and often interact with urban conditions. It became a work that creates shared experience for the public, as Catherine Grout suggested “therefore, to encounter with artwork is the meeting with the world, with others, and with everyone who shares the same experience…” (2017)

In this case of this work, the “Cineroleum” created by assemble studio, demonstrates multiple layers of shared experience, not only the enjoyment of finished work but also the involvement of community participation into the production phase. The design idea is rather simple, utilising the structure of an abandoned gas station that is commonly found in urban peripheries, and to turn it into a temporary community cinema. The project itself is creating a place for the community offering occasional screening with minimal one-pound tickets, which is rather a token of participation instead of a money-for-value transaction. This creates a sense of belonging for the neighbours who gather in the cinema space enclosed by a silver drape made with insulation material, which will raise as the movie ends – a somewhat theatrical ending that reveals the audience in and as part of the urban context.

The second layer of participation to create shared experience is the approach of its production. As a self-initiated project by a group of young architecture school graduates, there is not a budget or a supporting agency to build this community project. It is instead designed in a way that anyone could join and contribute any amount of time or money to support. The key that allows this fluid participation is the design of a process that is broken down into small tasks, such as standard units of insulation to be sewed or the cinema seating made from salvaged wood. It is also designed with a simple DIY guideline, so the volunteer to join can work on the project with minimal instructional support.

This small project of making a “cultural place” without the need of an established institution, but a self-initiated project that seek resources in the community. The greatest impact of this story is perhaps not only the resulting place that is built for community activities, but how this shared experience has started from the conception and the making of the project. While this level of public participation builds upon the contemporary idea of crowd-sourcing, it can be traced back to the late 20th century as cultural and architectural practice began to explore the interactive nature with people and urban environment.

Performative Architecture

Architecture discourse in late 20th century began to question the static/aesthetic understanding of modern architecture as an object, with advocates such as Bernard Tschumi who suggest architecture as “events” of non-material nature. In this sense, the building is where events happen instead of the subject to be viewed, with the case such as the Lerner Hall Student Centre designed by Tschumi in 1990 it is further elaborated into the stage where non-prescriptive activities could happen. A performance is produced during the Student Centre’s opening event in 1990, and the circulation space around the transparent hall is transformed literally into a stage with musician and performer, to convey the idea that how the student center is platform of common experience (just as how artwork could do). This contributes to the many cases that associate theatre (or performance) with architecture, which points at the importance of our body encounter space, leading to the idea of cultural participation.

This theme of body-event-space was developed in Tschumi’s work since his early career, from the 1975 exhibition co-curated with RoseLee Goldberg – A Space: A Thousand Words, and the later Manhattan Transcript in the 1980s. The 1975 exhibition brought together 27 emerging artist and architects at the time to provide their interpretation of “space” with one image “that depicted design(s), events(s), object(s) or painting(s)” accompanied by 1000 words. The collection provided an important view of contemporary conception of space, as stated in the invitation the exhibition’s objective was ‘[t]o reveal a change in attitudes towards the theories and the language of space’.

His seminal book, The Manhattan Transcript, expand this idea of architecture as event into the urban context of Manhattan, translated into tripartite documentation of the city through “Event” (photograph) – “Space” (architectural drawing) – ” Movement” (diagram). Based on this documentation architectural space is further manipulated with tactics from film such as montage and superimposition, which can be found in his most well-known work of the Parc de la Villette. In our consideration of “cultural practice” within the space of architecture, this mode of documentation give priority and attention to both the built space as well as the moving body, instead of just a depiction of architecture as an object, and the boundary between architecture and art is not so clear.

Action Art (interaction with the city)

In the last session we discussed Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, besides the spatial aspect of how it utilise the 40m-tall volume to make a place, the work is also conceived as an experience that invite visitors to not only walk through but to gather, to sit or even lay down in actions as they wish. Each visitor would have their own personal interpretation as they interact with the work. Many large-scale installation work is conceived with the visitor and their action as part of the work, creating a “field” for different experience to happen. Another example is Les deux Plateaux by artist Daniel Buren, where it filled the outdoor courtyard at the Palais Royale in Paris with a grid of black-and-white columns of different height, spaced out to allow people pass through but one would have to encounter it. Through the action decided by the visitor, whether to bypass it in an indirect path, or to sit, stand or jump along it, the instance of interaction turns the viewer (passive) visitor into active participants. The field of participatory artwork can extend from museum context into the whole city. The German artist group Matthaei and Konsorten make the street as the stage of street performance and invite citizen to become performers, in the work War – you should have been there. It is a series of 3 editions in 3 different cities that has a history with war, such as the 1st edition in Horve, Denmark, a small town that had the largest draft during WWII. The group recruited 50 residents to participate in a walk through different parts of the city with props and roles to “perform”. The walk is accompanied by fragments of audio narrative that tell the stories of incidents happened in that location, combining the medium of urban space, performance and soundscape.

These are some work cited by Catherine Grout in her book, to suggest how a collective is formed through artistic practice with a concern on a common topic of public affair. Since the late 20th century and popular around 1960s/70s in the US and Europe, somewhat a precedent of later civic-concern participatory art, are the artist-initiated work that often created with a social agenda. The most famous one could be the Fluxus group in New York City, from the direct intervention through graffiti to creation of Street Events as an art form. Hong Kong have our fair share of action art since the millennium, with one of the most well-know work occurs in 2006/7 regarding the preservation of the Central Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier in danger of demolition, artist conducted street performance on site as a mean of civic action. The practice has became a vehicle to raise public awareness to a social cause, began as the action of a few artist and gradually developed into a way to mobilise and visualise agenda during civil protest in the coming decades. Until the very recent social movement in Hong Kong, the role of performative action in urban space has played a crucial role with many examples to demonstrate the power of cultural practice.

Performance in Urban Space

The understanding of “performance” nowadays is no longer the static audience-performer relationship that is confined within the theatre auditorium. Whether in architecture, performing arts or even civic action, the intervention of the artist AND citizen audience has become a crucial part of artistic creation. Through the many cases introduced in this course, the intention is to share another dimension of how we “look” at the city beyond look.


  • Catherine Grout (2017) Pour de l’art dans notre quotidien, des œuvres en milieu urbain
  • Eriksson, B., Stage, C., Bjarki Valtýsson. (2019). Cultures of Participation : Arts, Digital Media and Cultural Institutions.
  • Evrard, Y. (1997). “Democratizing Culture or Cultural Democracy?” The Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society, 27(3), 167-175.


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