2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID-19 Pandemic


Innovative Approaches and Creative Practices in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thursday 13 August 2020  /  Series 4 (August) - Webinar 2

>>> Speakers and agenda
>>> Programme of our COVID-19 initiative


The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture / The Journal of Public Space) and Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong), part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. In every second webinar of the series, artists, practitioners, and scholars shared their creative experiences and approaches in response to COVID-19 and discussed the role of art and everyday creativity in difficult times like the current crisis. This webinar was joined by experts from the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Qatar, Poland, and Brazil.

Recorded video of the webinar produced by Yin-Fen Chen, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Summary of the webinar curated by Stephanie Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong


Insight from Speakers

Professor David McGillivray, Centre for Culture, Sport and Events (CCSE), University of the West of Scotland / FESTSPACE, United Kingdom

FESTSPACE is a collaboration between five European cities, focusing on festivals, events and inclusive public space in the continent. Prior to COVID-19, festivals and events were viewed as being suitable ways of activating public spaces, including underused spaces, making them more people-friendly and places to celebrate cultural diversity, mark historical events and produce significant social and economic value. At the same time, critics pointed out the exclusivity of some events, and that they, in turn, could contribute to privatisation and commercialisation processes, potentially eroding, or diluting, the value of public space. 
David acutely stated that 2020 has become a year without festivals, because most were cancelled or postponed, leaving the usual festival venues empty. With the disappearance of cities’ ‘hallmark’ events such as Munich’s Oktoberfest, well recognised ‘place markers’ were also lost. All of these, in addition to health measures yet to come, add to the challenges faced by the festival and events industry. However, creative responses emerged, self-initiated spontaneous public happenings (e.g. balcony festivals, outdoor street performances), which contributed to enhanced community solidarity. There was a transition to online festivals, representing a digital mediation of already-existing events but also providing increased online access to different art forms. David also observed a trend of adapting current events to a socially-distanced environment, mostly commercially-driven by the key actors in the industry. All of these responses were further supported by the change in the institutional response to the adaptations of public space, festivities were taken outdoors and the public realm further extended, allowing a restricted return to communal gathering, gradually fulfilling everyone’s yearning for sociability.
Reflecting upon the current situation, David shared his version of the future of festivals, events and public space: a move towards smaller, more localised and place-specific festivals making use of underused space closer to people’s homes and neighbourhoods, more carefully selected large events and re-evaluation of venue suitability, development of hybrid models of digital and physical, and financially shifting to membership support models to enable risk-taking. 


Ali A. Alraouf, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar / ISOCARP - International Society of City and Regional Planners

“I have an unlimited belief in human capacity...I would look at history and I will see that humans were able to overcome a lot of severe challenges. So I think the value of COVID-19 is that it’s suggesting new ways of looking at our challenges, a new way to reconsider and revisit some of the components of the built environment.”

Ali started by stating his belief in human capacity and the importance to reference history and human ability to overcome severe challenges in the making of the new normal, and explore new ways to revisit challenges and components of the built environment. Ali also expressed his passion for the trilogy of museum, public space and people, he observed the trend of museums becoming a main pillar in the pursuit of social justice and democracy, the manifestation of human rights, and the contribution to the knowledge and creative economy, in addition to preserving arts and heritage. Referencing museums even in ancient times, Ali pointed out that it was not an institution to only preserve aspects of the heritage, but an area of knowledge exchange like a university. Thus, Ali highlighted the social and political roles of museums and suggested the two-way dialogue of “city as a museum, museum as a city”. On one hand, we should explore the possibility to transform the museum as the new public space, and the “agora of the city”, and its role to be a force for democracy to connect people and provide a safe space for public debates and discussion. On another hand, the city itself could serve as a museum, all public spaces could contribute to the notion of the city as an open museum for urban dwellers. Referring to the case of Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris, Ali highlighted the blurring of the museum’s external boundaries where the lobbies and entrance halls had become an extension of public space and streets.
Interestingly, Qatar, a country that depends heavily on oil and gas, is on a paradigm shift to knowledge-based urban development. Oil dependency and the historical scale of development required an evaluation of the sustainability of unlimited growth of the country. Within such a context, Gulf museums have become a catalyst for city branding. The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) designed by I.M. Pei is an icon of culture, art, spirituality, creating a dialogue between the museum and the city. MIA also stresses on education and places a huge emphasis on physical and intellectual connections with the community and the city, making the museum part of the usual city journey. Ali pinpointed the important social context that people in Qatar are not museum-goers and don’t share the same embedded culture prevalent in Europe. Therefore, instead of focusing on the museum, a dialogue between public and green spaces and the museum was created. Series of events (bazaars, parties, concerts) spilt over the outdoor space and public areas, connecting the public space and the culturally sophisticated venue, going to the museum has become a by-product of going to the public space. Ali felt that we should revisit such an innovative relationship with public space in the post-COVID paradigm.


Clarissa Lim, Malaysian Institute of Art / Hubs for Good program from the British Council, Malaysia

The new Malaysian government was set up in February and the 18 March lockdown followed shortly. In late April, the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture claimed that the arts would be the quickest to recover in an interview, triggering dissatisfaction among the arts and cultural workers as she showed her lack of knowledge of the community and statements such as “Arts for Malaysians, not just for tourists” emerged in response. The Minister also assured that digitalization was sufficient for arts and culture, mixing digital and creative. The government released the short-term economic recovery plan in June and finally acknowledged the arts and culture sectors. 
Parallelly, artists and cultural workers on the ground tabulated 174 events that were postponed or cancelled on a Google spreadsheet since 16 March. The document was circulated in Whatsapp groups, social media groups, and phone books, and was the first instance of the sector coming together. Clarissa suggested the notion of the Internet as public space, and shared individual practices that have utilized this space for their work. For instance, five individuals curated an instant festival from 2nd April to 13th May, raising 20,000RM for COVID-19 relief workers. Festival Duduk Ruman lasted two months and connected musicians online to put on live performances, utilizing the online platform as an engaging medium and fundraising for COVID-19 relief efforts. Unrestricted Stage was another instant effort created by the community for the community, putting up weekly programmes of a great variety of content since March. In addition, there was a series of community catch up facilitated by Penang Art District to allow direct discussions with the government, opening up engagement possibilities. The organizer also shared their Zoom account for everyone’s use as it’s expensive for Malaysians. Lastly, Clarissa highlighted the issue of access to the internet and the quality of the experiences of using online platforms, which in turn affected how we engage each other. Although 80-90% of Malaysians are said to have internet access via smartphone devices, the quality of the access is unknown, and it’s unsure whether they have access to computers or laptops. 
Clarissa is part of the Creative Hubs programme funded by the British Council, which is currently mapping and analyzing arts and culture collectives in Malaysia. 


Laura Sobral, Instituto A Cidade Precisa de Você [The City Needs You Institute], Brazil

“Do what you need with what you have...involving people and the available resources.”

Laura shared how the improvisation mindset of “do what you need with what you have, involving people and the available resources” is familiar in Southern culture and at the same time an essential skill to cope with the pandemic. The Brazilian word “Gambiarra”, or the act of “macgyvering”, is the concept of trying to find concrete solutions in daily life by simply improvising, also known as or connected to the idea of tactical urbanism nowadays, using light, cheap, quick solutions to urban challenges particularly in Brazil given the political situation. 
Both physical and digital solidarity networks are as crucial during the pandemic. Laura gave the example of Paraisopolis, an Islamic favela in Sao Paulo of 70,000 inhabitants who had to improvise to tackle challenges such as basic urban services as the state was not helping. The community elected 420 street presidents, essentially volunteers responsible for monitoring cases, organising food and health care, and fighting fake news disseminations - a serious issue in Brazil. Each street president was assigned a street, taking care of 50 homes, and the system was entirely self-managed. The result was a much lower mortality rate at 21.7 per 100,000 people, less than half of the municipal average of 56.2, proving the importance of solidarity and creativity of the people in face of this situation. Laura also observed a pervasive spread of local initiatives with global reach such as Spanish network Frena la Curva and local neighbourhood network Vizinhos de Aveiro. Applying the same improvisation mindset, “making for emergency” proved to be another significant concept. For example, people self-organized to put sinks in the streets and next to food markets. Brazilian Network for Collaborative Urbanism is a network that connects NGOs across the country, many of which initiated the first wave of actions in response to the pandemic, but the main challenge lies in the maintenance of street sinks and other initiatives, and to become sustainable in terms of time and financial commitments. A wider scale direction is to look at changes in public policy and country infrastructure. 


Magdalena Rembeza, Gdańsk University of Technology (GUT), Poland

Magdalena felt that the pandemic brought anxiety and depression, forced people to isolate themselves and further social atomizations, yet it also revealed more clearly political, economic, ecological and artistic alternatives. New alliances, activist models, initiatives, democratic solutions emerged, creating the possibility for a different model for public space and city. The pandemic also forced us to think about two key questions: How the city and public space will evolve and should change? What is/ should be the new role of art in public spaces? Magdalena saw this as a possibility rather than a lost chance and further illustrated this with cases in Poland. In capital Warsaw, four large murals with messages such as “will be fine” and “head’s up” were put up for several weeks at busiest locations in the city centre, giving hope to people, serving as “a light at the end of the tunnel and hope for a better tomorrow”. Another mural project in the city aimed at expressing gratitude to medical professionals and was a collaborative effort of multiple stakeholders, including the media company who came up with the idea, the design studio which helped with painting, and the housing community who provided the wall, everyone resigned from a share of honorarium.
The case in Gdynia helped raise awareness of mask-wearing as it appeared to be an issue for some, even though it was mandatory in public spaces nationwide. Since mid-April, two buses were driven in the city with large ‘masks’ at their front. Similar acts were found in other cities, such as painted bus with ‘mask’ and thank you messages in Szczecin and masks on statues in Sosnowiec. On another hand, the Design Institute in Kielce organized a competition of public space in times of plague. The winner was a manual communicator that aimed at building and strengthening social bonds, its simple design allowed people to leave their telephone numbers and offer help, facilitating many young people to help older persons via everyday grocery shopping during the pandemic. Magdalena summarized her sharing by stating how art in public space during COVID served as a tool to give hope, strengthen awareness, enhance social integrity and connection, and express gratitude. Particularly, she stressed the importance of grassroots artistic initiatives in public space, the necessity of positive arts messages in public space, and she believed that art interventions could be tools for future transformations of public space.

Roundtable discussions

What do you think about the four key words weaved through your presentations: resilience, solidarity, creativity, hope? How do you think artists and creatives can help to implement new ways of understanding and empowering public spaces in the future? 

David stressed the need to be both critical and optimistic about the potential of art and creative practices, bearing in mind current practices in the sectors. In the context of festivals, there were risks associated with how festivals had developed into institutionalized and perhaps (overly) commercialized activities, the over-reliance on public funding created threats to the type of art and creative practices allowed. David felt that there would be a longer-term review of models and ways of working and a focus on broader social outcomes and localities, which might lead to a greater possibility of accessing public funding.

Clarissa pointed to how the absence of funding for arts and culture in Southeast Asia led to people’s innovative ways of circumventing obstacles. In response to the concepts of resilience and solidarity, Clarissa referred to artists who found ways to give back to medical frontline workers efficiently. Another creative response was the digital fabrications of masks that were given directly to hospitals with transparent use of funds usage displayed online. This act of finding creative notions to multiply the idea of bottom-up by connecting all creative hubs together across South East Asia showed the plausibility of such actions and the availability of tools even without support from institutions and government. Echoing David’s idea of a constant act of making and production of creativity, Clarissa observed a similar emergence in Indonesia with arts and cultural groups spreading hope and creativity. 

Ali tended to subscribe to the keywords creativity and hope, particularly in the current times of pandemic. He echoed Laura’s notion of scale, as displayed in the water sink example in the favela that integrated creativity and hope and thus reassured residents that they were safe to interact with their families. Ali was also moved by Magdalena’s example of participatory mural painting that cost little but was creative, gave hope to the community, and expressed appreciation. 

Magdalena emphasized how she chose to focus on the positive aspects of the projects in her sharing and good sides in the crisis, which included the appreciation of public space and people’s renewed understanding of its importance, so much that these spaces should be further developed and investigated for the people, not as spaces for representation of artistic values, but as a place for people to socialize and share hope.

While the emergence of creative reactions is very important, Laura raised the need to reflect upon situations in which Southern countries are often judged and romanticised when it’s actually a paradox where reactions were a matter of survival that required swift actions. Albeit valuable, it’s also necessary to link such reactions to broader governance and administrative levels and affect public policies. 

David thought that the pandemic showed the importance of locality, of having a space for sociality in one’s neighbourhood, and that the ownership and decision-making powers over these spaces are vital to people’s wellbeing. While more people realize this, we also came to understand that there’s a lack of such spaces in many communities. David felt that government and institutional actors have the responsibility to respond to them by means such as experimentation and relaxing planning regulations.


Ali, what’s your understanding and perception of a museum? Are you trying to make the city (if it’s a slum city or poor city) as a spectacular for people?

Ali noticed a paradigm shift in the way museums articulate their relationship with the community, so that they are not places solely for sophisticated people and artworks, but an agora and a gathering place. The boundaries surrounding museums are blurred intentionally to allow the unintentional flow of people. Ali also stressed that the notion of the city as a museum is one created for the city dwellers instead of tourists, which would, in turn, engender a wider sense of belonging and pride. 


Reading materials 

María Victoria Guzmán (2020), The role of art in times of pandemic, Artishock Magazine

https://shedinburgh.com is an example of a festival reorienting itself and generating revenue to support the art and cultural practitioners of the future.

Festspace reflections on Festivals, events and public spaces during COVID-19. A series of resources (blogs, films and other artefacts) produced by the Festspace team.


Image created by Leonardo Souza.