As governments become more authoritarian while technological advances in surveillance at the same time allow business interests to increasingly outmaneuver civilian privacy rights, democracies across the world face ever-growing threats to their viability and in some cases, their very existence. During such a crisis, the vitality of public spaces in city centers becomes critically important.
Parks and public squares provide opportunities for residents to engage with each other: they gather for the purpose of recreation and collective experiences, such as live events and public art, but also for practicing speech and free expression. Not only are these shared spaces part of what makes cities livable and therefore desirable but their usage as forums for the community-at-large to exchange information and ideas is what makes them especially valuable at a time when democratic institutions are under strain.
European cities have a long tradition of cultivating public spaces and recognize them as a vibrant component of a healthy democracy but cities in the United States lag behind.
Here, public spaces are starving, as are many downtown districts. Many of them suffer from neglect, often choking under the strain of a stubborn and sustained emergency in homelessness, and they’re rarely valued in the same way as their European counterparts. In cities across the nation, there are too few parks and squares to begin with, and even fewer resources for under-served, lower-income communities.
Gentrification often makes the problem worse, especially when it arrives with large-scale corporate developments that frequently feature the private encroachment of public space. As a result, local residents are in many instances displaced to the outskirts of the city, especially those who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades and are valued contributors to the community.
Even worse, public art projects are sometimes part of the problem itself, which is ironic because art — none more than public art — is meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Yet some art serves as beacons for wealthier transplants, drawing them into the neighborhood, who in turn gradually colonize the public spaces for their own usage, which contributes both to an area’s growing exclusivity and to the upheaval that accompanies it.
How do we counteract these developments? How do we make public art that’s genuinely for everyone and brings life to underutilized spaces, especially in neighborhoods whose residents badly want it?
The interaction design studio Daily Tous Les Jours creates large-scale, interactive experiences as a way of bringing people together, fostering natural, spontaneous exchanges between strangers that lead to greater usage of the communal space. Their works are popular in their hometown of Montréal and have grown in prominence in cities in the United States.
As the studio often installs their pieces in neighborhoods, which rarely appear in tourists guides and are too frequently overlooked by city arts commissions or private foundations, the team at Daily Tous Les Jours recognizes that public art is meant to be inclusive as well as democratic. That’s the mission their art serves: to bring residents to the square and encourage the exchange of conversation, culture and ideas.
And while their work is rooted in complicated technologies, their art also provides an antidote to the way that tech dominates urban life, as embodied by the explosion of social media usage on phones, which trains its users to stay attuned to their screens rather than pay attention to the world around them. Even while in use out in public, social media encourages people to isolate their physical selves from each other: events on screen, with their set of predictable outcomes, take precedence to the real world, with its potential for anxiety and discomfort. But the innovative work created by Daily Tous Les Jours encourages people to have actual spontaneous interaction by rewarding them for collaboration.
While visiting Montréal, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of the founders, Mouna Andraos, who provided time for a brief sit-down interview. From that conversation, I’ve made a short documentary showcasing several of their projects as Mouna explains the philosophy behind their body of work and their take on technology and design:
As a huge fan of Daily Tous Les Jours, I think their work is so important because it revitalizes parts of the city that are often ignored while reminding us of the urgent importance of interacting with each other in our shared spaces. This is good for all of us and our democracies depend on it. I’d love to see more designers and artists incorporating these considerations into their projects. I hope you enjoy the film and thanks for watching!
P.S. — Immediately below is a brief film from one of Daily Tous Les Jours earliest projects, 21 Balançoires (21 Swings). In my view, it’s a work of true genius.
— Christian Svanes Kolding
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