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Art and culture in public spaces 
– in Denmark and in the Middle East

In the wake of the Arab Uprisings a window of opportunity has opened in many cities in the Middle East. This goes for a city like Cairo where the urban population since the start of the uprising two years ago has started to reclaim the city’s public space. The same trend applies although in different ways in cities like Ramallah and Beirut. In order to explore and expand on some of these new trends a two day programme with site visits and a workshop was held in Copenhagen on the 25. and 26. of February. ‘Superkilen’ in Nørrebro and ‘The Wall’ at Dronning Louise’s Bro were among the attractions/sites visited.

To put things in perspective let’s start with a rather paradoxical statement from the workshop quoting an official urban regulation: ‘Use of public space is forbidden as it is considered a public benefit’. In other words ‘Keep off the grass.’

In line with the huge changes that have taken place in the Arab world over the last few years artists and cultural actors from the region are conquering and intervening in the public space in new and different ways. In order to explore and delve into the possibilities and challenges offered by this new situation a group of 15 people from the Middle East had been invited to Copenhagen. The invitees were from Beirut, Cairo and Ramallah, all with a professional profile within the field of art/design, architecture and urban planning.

The visiting programme and workshop for the group presented examples of permanent, mobile and temporary public projects within the following five dimensions: Culture in Urban Structures, City space for the socially marginalised, Street Art, Culture and History and Interaction of Children and Youth. These dimensions are described in brief below:

Culture in Urban Structures

This category covers open and more permanent structures, such as, cultural parks, playgrounds, squares, port/harbour environments, and so on, fashioned in close interaction with the landscape/cityscape. Such facilities used freely by everybody provide an interesting opportunity for creative expression. One good example is ‘Superkilen’ in Nørrebro, Copenhagen by BIG Architects, Topotek1 and Superflex. Superkilen is an urban park designed to beautify and renew a once neglected corner of the city by planting trees, and infusing colour and light, while at the same time lauding cultural diversity by dotting the park with objects from around the world. The park is divided into three areas: A Red Square designates the modern, urban life with café, music and sports; a Black Market represents the classic square with fountain and benches and a Green Park is a park for picnics, sports and walking the dog.

Art and Culture in public spaces

Superkilen was among the sites visited by the invited guests from the Middle East.

One of the invited participants at the workshop was Mohamed Elshahed. He is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. His research focuses on architecture and urban planning in Egypt from the 19th century to the present. He is the founder of Cairobserver.com, a blog dedicated to Cairo’s architecture, urbanism and cultural heritage. In his view something similar to ‘Superkilen’ would fit in well with the development of urban space in Cairo. According to Mohamed Elshahed there is already a widespread popular tradition in Egypt to fill the numerous empty physical spaces between roads, buildings, industrial and housing complexes with ‘social life spaces’ in the form of small gardens, playgrounds for children, picnic spots etc. A project similar in nature to Superkilen could provide a more structured framework for such random initiatives by offering a new formalised platform for dialogue between municipal authorities and local residents relying on a bottom up urban planning approach.  


City Space and the socially marginalised

Urban planning and design of city space is traditionally carried out by resourceful professionals to cater for the needs of the more resourceful citizens. Existence of socially marginalised people is often either ignored or considered a problem, and the design of city structures are often trying to limit the presence of such groups in the public space. One of the pioneers of working against this trend and creating physical settings which are inclusive and user friendly – and based on the needs and wishes of the socially marginalised people themselves – is the Danish artist Kenneth Balfelt. Through extensive processes which involve and engage the users of the space, Balfelt is fighting stigmatisation by insisting on the value of their voice and thereby making disadvantaged groups visible as equal citizens. Concrete examples are Café Dugnad, a drop-in centre for drug users and Men’s Home, a hostel and shelter for homeless men.

Street Art

Street art involves independent artists working with alternative forms of art in any media
(installations, graffiti, happenings etc.) in public spaces, often within a particular conceptual
framework, promoting a specific social, cultural or political idea or theme. Projects from Palestine with Hanne Lise Thomsen and HuskMitNavn (RememberMyName) serve as great examples of Street Art. Another example is the Danish artist Thomas Dambo, who aims to create new and useful things out of second hand material. His vision is to make more space for nature inside the cities. He has worked in Beirut with the Birdhouse Project focusing on sustainability and the value and importance of older, classical homes in the city.

Culture and History

A new and exciting initiative in this field is ’The Wall’, curated by The Museum of Copenhagen, The Wall – included as one of the sites visited by the group - is a giant twelve metre long mobile structure with a built-in interactive multi-touch screen, which provides access to 20,000 pictures depicting Copenhagen’s history, sourced partly from the museum’s collection, but with some exhibits donated by the public. Users of The Wall can upload their own personal city maps, pictures, and videos of the city landmarks they find interesting.

The original Wall is set to grow an exciting new form in Cairo - and has been selected by The Danish Egyptian Dialog Institute to serve as a role model and inspiration for a new interactive wall in the city, to help celebrate the cultural, natural heritage and history of Cairo. The project entitled Sanduq al-Dunia (meaning Cosmorama/loosely translating to 'Box of the World'), draws together a growing consortium of Egyptian, Danish and international partners who together will build on the core technology and concepts of the original Wall, with the Museum of Copenhagen as advisers and mentors.

Interaction of Children and Youth

Initiatives in this category create structures which facilitate and promote the active involvement of children and youth in cultural activities. The guests from Cairo, Beirut and Ramallah visited ‘StreetMekka’, which is a street culture venue unfolding at 2,200 indoor square meters in Vesterbro. At StreetMekka children and young people are invited to engage in street sports as well as street culture such as street basket, street soccer, street art, street dance and DJ-ing. StreetMekka has more than 5,000 members and approximately 220,000 visits a year. It is initiated by the Danish non-profit organisation GAM3 and funded by The City of Copenhagen with additional support from other trust funds.

The workshop

The workshop was held on the 26. February at Danish Architecture Centre.

The Workshop

The presentations and discussions at the workshop were far-reaching and the few impressions from the workshop presented below are in no way conclusive.

Speakers included Tine Saaby, City Architect, City of Copenhagen, who spoke about ‘Creating vibrant public spaces in Copenhagen’ and Omar Nagati, an architect/urban planner from Cairo who spoke on the theme of ‘Art and public space in post-revolution Cairo’ with a focus on informal urbanism.

In Egypt the Arab Uprisings has taken the form of an urban revolution resulting into a new urban citizenship where people feel they own the city. In Cairo citizens/artist have re-appropriated public space using it for debate and expression. People are exploring, expressing and realizing their cultural identity through new public space practices. The main challenge is to move from temporary to more permanent social and user-inclusive urban space for the public.

The underlying theme of the day was bottom up democracy and how art, architecture and urban planning through more innovative uses of public space can facilitate a process towards more democracy. Where urban regulation and planning have often been tools used by authorities to create a controlled environment thereby demarcating and separating different categories of people the trend may now be reversed by the people living in the cities. Public space can be turned into platforms for expressions on different views on democracy and allowing people to dream. The idea is not to erase conflicts but rather to create space for disagreements that can lead to ‘conflictual consensus’. 

One proposal brought forward was to arrange ‘Carpet Days’ where citizens are invited to take to the streets with carpets and to use the space provided by the carpets for commercial or artistic purposes - in different colours depending on the function. The space covered by the carpets should be the equivalent of a car parking space.

With ‘The Wall’ in Copenhagen as a source of inspiration ideas on ‘interactive grafitti’ were debated as a way of entering into a dialogue with authorities.

Another rather mindboggling ‘interactive’ proposal was to set up a video/audio-link (video-conference) between a street in say Copenhagen and another street in Cairo (or Beirut or Ramallah) allowing people walking by on the streets to view and talk to each other directly.

The event was a collaborative undertaking between The Danish Agency for Culture, the Danish Centre for Culture and Development and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute. The purpose of the event was to share ideas, experiences and best practices in order to stimulate creativity and inspiration between artists, activists and town planners from Denmark and the Middle East and to promote future cooperation.