The Roundabout Revolutions: When Tahrir goes to Gwangju

Architectural follies revisit historic sites to test the potential of public squares in the global political arena.

"The destruction of the central monument at the centre of Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, in effect, cleared it for future revolts," writes Dabashi [AFP]

On November 9-12, I was part of the Gwangju Folly II project, jointly sponsored by the Gwangju Metropolitan City, South Korea, and the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. 

As described by the visionary president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, Yongwoo Lee, these “follies were designed to address the exclusion of citizens from urban planning process” – a concern now shared by millions of citizens in major cosmopolitan centres around the globe, from Istanbul to Liverpool, from Detroit to Rio de Janeiro

Gwangju is a city of some 1.5 million people and the legendary site of the Gwangju Democratisation Movement of May 1980, the landmark uprising that was instrumental in ushering in the democratic turn that changed the political landscape of South Korea.

Provoking follies  

“Throughout history”, as the initial co-artistic directors of this extraordinary gathering Ai Weiwei and Seung H Sang and later, Nikolaus Hirsch inform us, “follies have been used widely in architecture, visual arts, and literature as a provocation, a frivolous diversion or strategic places of madness and satire freed from the constraints of societal norms. Follies have been employed as a critical medium or object, oscillating between aesthetic autonomy and socio-political potential and situated in a field between decontextualised status and contextualised condition.”  

In this particular version of follies, Nikolaus Hirsch (director), and Philipp Misselwitz and Eui Young Chun (co-curators) “developed a curatorial approach… which uses the ambiguities of a folly as a tool of inquiry to address the expectations of public space”. They did so with a particular attention to “public consciousness ever since the ten-day pro-democracy uprising in May 1980, which took place in the streets and squares of Gwangju. Revisiting some of these historic sites, a series of newly commissioned follies seek to test the constitution and potential of public space today in contemporary Gwangju as well as in the global political arena.” 

The objective is to claim the public and the parapublic spaces, to consistently occupy them and thus, on site-specific citations of follies, defy the amorphous power of globalised pacification and occupation of everything and everywhere.

A number of leading architects were invited to construct eight follies around Gwangju for the Folly II project, while in Folly I, eleven follies had been introduced in the city.    

On this particular occasion, eight spatial interventions had been provocatively designed and executed to provoke the people of Gwangju to a heightened awareness of their own city – among them Eyal Weizman and Samaneh Moafi’s particularly provocative “Roundabout Revolutions” – in which the architectural simulacrum of Tahrir and other major Arab squares, made globally famous in the course of the Arab Spring, were spatially superimposed on a major traffic intersection in the heart of Gwangju. 

The indecipherability of a folly

In my own contribution to this gathering, I tried to explore the indecipherability of a folly – that like a ship of fools, it is a floating signifier – to show how it at once, designates and suspends, the contingency of the bourgeois public space. The ten-day pro-democracy uprising in May 1980, connects Gwangju to Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul across time and space – as it creates new questions for the way public space needs to be defined and occupied.

The same way that during the May 1980 democratic uprising, the city centre became an urban stage for public demonstrations that triggered political transformation in South Korea, in Tahrir Square, the revolutionaries declared a liberated republic. It is the undecidability of the folly – now redefined by politically progressive and engaged architects -that defies the instrumental reasoning of capital and its spatial occupation of public life. 

At stake is what Hannah Arendt defined as the very foundational concept of liberty, from tyranny and freedom to practice of public life – or what she called “public happiness”. When the fools say the wisest things, the unreason decides the reasonable, and tall monuments signify nothing; when public space becomes alive, not by virtue of a totem pole in the middle of it, but by virtue of the people who inhabit it; when the transformation of square into circle signifies democracy, we come to the full recognition that capitalism has sought to appropriate the folly as instrumental reason, turn it into its totem pole, without any roundabouts around them, while roundabouts need no central totem to define it but people to claim and inhabit them. Thus the destruction of the central monument at the centre of Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, in effect, cleared it for future revolts.

The same way that history collapses into allegory, formal destruction of history into story, shapes into fragments, and as society degenerates into Panopticon, and a city into camps, the only way out is when we, the people, become a mobile folly, defying instrumental reason, and joining to complete the allegory. Public reason here becomes public happiness, and thus we become fully human, resisting the aggressive transformation of not just the public space, but equally so, the cyberspace and the outer space by privatisations and occupation by corporate and state power. 

Of roundabouts and squares

In an essay on “Cairo’s Roundabout Revolution”, Nezar Alsayyed, a professor of architecture, planning and urban history at the University of California, Berkeley, has argued that, “In fact, the idea of the public square as we know it today did not exist in Egypt or in the cities of the Middle East until colonial times; open spaces were historically situated in front of the main Mosque, to accommodate overflow crowds and religious festivals.” This is not entirely correct, for at least since the 15th century, the Meydan Naqsh-e Jahan in Isfahan, can very persuasively be argued to be precisely this public square – though it is more a rectangle than a square, the two shapes having critical differences in the manner in which they bring people together.

Be that as it may, the roundabout now projects a larger metaphor of connecting past and present, and mapping out the future, as our histories become allegorical. By making the citizen more consciously alert of their citizenship, these follies feed renewed energy and generate synergy in urban renewal. Thus they plot to confiscate the public sphere from the combined forces of corporate and political forces of governmentality. They also feed revolutionary memories from one site into another, in a roundabout away, and thus generate traffic and synergy in the form of transnational solidarity. 

As the ruling powers gather to divide and rule, we need to connect and defy. The objective is to claim the public and the parapublic spaces, to consistently occupy them and thus, on site-specific citations of follies, defy the amorphous power of globalised pacification and occupation of everything and everywhere. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and the author of Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism (Zed, 2012).