António Ferraz de Oliveira and Mara Duer reflect on the ‘Contested Political Spaces’ postgraduate conference held at Warwick University last week.
Last Thursday and Friday, a few months of learning-as-you-go intensive teamwork coalesced into a successful conference that made all the effort involved seem more than justified. Over two days, over twenty people gathered in Warwick to present an exciting range of papers around a broad common concern – that of understanding how physical and social space is entangled with political contestation of various kinds and contexts. The panels organized were thematically arranged around the issues of borders and mobility, the play between spatial arrangements and certain subjectivities, productions of territory (materially and semantically), contestation in cities and the struggles which attempted, theoretically or in practice, to establish alternative concepts of space and politics, alternatives relations between place and power. The conference had been set up to ask difficult and daring questions, challenging engagements with very present and pressing political concerns of our time such as those instantiated around the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Ukraine protest and now war. What was the relevance of thinking about space as a part of political jigsaw for all these issues? The question might have remained unresolved, in a way that was a known, but the more than twenty voices that rose to meet it generated a friendly and energetic dialogue that distinguished itself by its humility, intelligence and audacity.
By the combination of each presentation, we were reminded of the many vantage points through which to engage with the role of spatial elements in political contestation. On the one hand, a very clear concern emerged with paying attention to the physicality of space and the role that different materialities play in political contestations. This was for instance shown by a focus in Spain and Gibraltar’s various acts in the seas and skies around the rock and in how through different materials and mediums the different contestants tried to establish or revoke political claims (Rachael Squire). These materialities, however, seemed to matter either if natural or man-made. This was made clear through a discussion of how fake tanks fooled the Peruvian army into judging the Chilean regime to be much stronger than it was during border tensions in the seventies (Cordelia Freeman). This was only one of several themes to emerge however.
A second theme to connect a variety of papers was that of how different spatial arrangements play into different forms of political contestations. This was notable in a variety of presentations which reflected on how planning, grassroots identities and policy narratives clashed and wrestled to create different embodied political orders. This was reflected for instance in the case of the planning interventions on Jakarta slums, where logics of grassroots community, links to villages and proximity to labour markets were counterpoised to governmental logics of satellization and rigidity, and eventually resulted urban renovation matched to the logics of slum-dwellers rather than planners (Lisa Tilley). Other instances reflected on the importance of spatial arrangements in public spaces and how different protests sought to re-appropriate this, only to be in turn met with governmental responses that opposed their experimental politics through spatial re-arrangement (Çetin Gürer, Gulcin Lelaindais).
The effects of such arrangements seemed not to be only tactical or practical but also symbolical and semantic. This was shown by papers on struggles on how to memorialise the Jewish Quarter in post-war Amsterdam (Bert van de Wiel and Sarah Miellet), Japanese efforts to deal with a growing migrant population through urban renovation projects (Paul Capobianco) and efforts (and counter-efforts) to mark out different ethnic historiographies into the landscape of Skopje in Macedonia (Ophélie Véron). This brought to focus how the re-arrangement of space – be it urban or not – is today the focus of great symbolical battles where different people struggle to establish different identities, behaviours and memories which are oriented are largely different ends such as democratic renewal, grassroots localism, place branding or the redress of discourses on the nation.
A last theme that joined many exchanges throughout the conference was the issue of how to enact or conceive of alternative politics through a re-appraisal of spatial questions related to it. Thus people reflected not only on the practical experiences of the Zapatistas communities (Jan Smolenski) and the relation between their institutional structure and the fluidity of their border but also on the history of the autonomist Rote Flore in Hamburg (Ali Jones) and how the activists praxis of seeing their space as outside law and sovereignty came not only with the statement of ideas so much as with certain acts which could be much understood with an attention to space. On the other hand, the conference also radically engaged with the question of which spaces to pay attention to when searching for ‘eventfulness’, for ‘popular politics’ (Arnoldas Stramskas). In certain contexts, such as post-socialist Lithuania, it would seem that political affects could not be fully understood with reference to spectacular public politics, but only rather through other registries, private and personal spaces, much less clear to academic language.
Many of these themes were wonderfully linked by our keynote speaker Alex Jeffrey during his address as he explored the contested politics of law in post-war Bosnia – audio available here: “Legal Lives: The Contested Political Spaces of Law“. In this address, Jeffrey explored both conceptual question to do with the relation between politics and law but also the institutional framework of Bosnian/International judicial systems and, perhaps most interestingly, engaged with a fine-grained attention to the conditions of trials in Bosnia – in a certain way, the basis of this edifice. When analysing these trials, Jeffrey called particular attention to the materiality of the process and how different objects were deployed to symbolize justice (its core values and power relations), how testimonies were subject to decay (a material reality of evidence not well accounted for by the courts). Perhaps most importantly, Jeffrey’s talk reminded many of us that even the Law – an institution widely seen as stable and beyond the realm of politics – is in fact a completely political question. This is because its formulation and enactment bear to create spaces, rhythms and relations to the material that trace normative ideals with no correspondence with the realities of these dimensions for those who seek justice through law. This inevitably leads to a situation of contestation were the institution of law and its participants are torn between normative ideals and socio-material realities.
The conference was also privileged by the participation of several Warwick scholars from PAIS who maintained the high tone of academic rigour, friendliness and curiosity throughout the event (Stuart Elden, Michael Saward, Marijn Nieuwenhuis, Vicki Squire, Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Jon Coaffee, Nick Vaughan-Williams and Maria Koinova). For this, as well as for each and everyone’s intellectual contributions we are immensely grateful. The concluding panel by PAIS academics both synthetized concerns but also took them further. The issues of space, symbolism, materiality and politics thus seemed to be recast during Marijn Nieuwenhuis’s first delivery of his forthcoming ‘Manifesto on Air’ – a poetic and political vivid engagement with the question of what it means to see politics from a metaphilosophical position inspired from a conception of air – rather than earth.
A recording of the closing roundtable is also available, with contributions by Charlotte Heath-Kelly, Marijn Nieuwenhuis, Maria Roinova and Stuart Elden.
All in all, this year’s political geography graduate conference left us proud, happy, inspired and mulling over many ideas, as well as the manner and the people who contributed to this being such a rewarding experience. We are most of all thankful for the energy and kindness that so many people chose to colour this event with. In this spirit, we wish the best of luck to all participants and hope that next year’s conference organisers will be as rewarded in their efforts as us!
You can also read Rachael Squire’s reflections at the Royal Holloway Geopolitics and Security blog.