(CTS) Design Activism: 3 – Space, Disobedience and Control

Write a rationale of an intervention in public space, based on group work, academic and spatial research

When discussing the idea of an intervention in a public space it was necessary to first decide on an actual theme or issue to respond to with that intervention. For an intervention to be effective it needs to be staged in a space relevant to the issue itself. As the university campus is essentially a public space that we are all familiar with, discussion quickly turned to issues around surveillance, social sorting, public/private space, consumerism and housing that effect us as students within that space and how we could use that space to stage an intervention.

Several ideas were leading into the subject of wealth and the assumption that, because of the student loan system, university education in this country is accessible to all regardless of wealth and background. While the assumption may be true in other areas of academia but the hidden fees associated with studying arts courses at UAL creates a situation where those from poorer backgrounds are at a distinct disadvantage to wealthier students. A particular incident came to mind of students being offered the opportunity of an exchange program in California but applications would only be considered if the student could show at the time of application that they had at least a particular five figure sum of money in their bank account. While we recognise the cost involved in certain aspects of education, this was a clear example of students being denied opportunities unless they were of a certain level of wealth. In essence this was a kind of social sorting.

To consider how we might intervene in a public space to respond to the issue, we considered four key questions;

Why?

An assumption exists within our society that university education is accessible to people from all levels of wealth and background. The hidden costs associated with studying at UAL dispel this assumption for the student yet it’s an assumption that persists within society.

Who?

If we can highlight the problem to students, institutions and the public then we could potentially dispel the assumption throughout society. Those who are not affected by the problem are unlikely to even be aware of it. As several of UAL’s campuses are located in areas that are not considered wealthy or affluent, the issue may be particularly relevant to local residents who could perhaps not afford to study at the type of institution that exists in their locality.

How?

Although they are spaces that are attended by many people from many backgrounds, UAL campuses are still private spaces and, as Anna Minton (2011) recognises, ‘the owner can decide who is or is not allowed to enter and what they are allowed to do there’. Although we as students pay vast sums of money to attend the university, it is a private space that we have no ownership over and therefore we do not have an unchallengeable right to protest in these spaces. Although a banner drop can be a useful method of clearly communicating a particular message, it needs to be well considered and well executed to achieve its means. If a banner drop was executed at the university it would be at risk of removal very quickly.

A more creative idea to respond to the particular incident mentioned previously took the form of a pop up exhibition in which people would be denied entry if they could not prove a certain level of wealth, satirising the fact that many opportunities are only open to students with the wealth to afford them.

Where?

The LCC campus is a unique space in that it exists in an extremely busy junction, passed by thousands of people an hour and visible from quite a distance in most directions. This abundance of human traffic that passes by and the high visibility of the tower block mean that a banner drop can communicate a message to a large number of people no matter how quickly it is removed.

As for a more creative idea of an exclusive exhibition, LCC’s campus is a less appropriate space as it is only privately accessible and the general public have little reason to engage with the space surrounding the buildings. However the Central Saint Martins campus sits behind a public space that is used by both students and the public alike, creating a more engaging space in which to stage such a protest.

Points of intervention

In terms of both space and message, this type of protest intervenes at two different points: the point of assumption and the point of decision. The aim of the protest is to dispel the societal assumption that access to university education is not dependent on wealth and to force the decision makers – the ‘heads’ of UAL – to acknowledge and act upon the issue.

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