With a shelf-load of books dedicated to the contested spaces and collaborative practice, Markus Miessen's body of research expands further in his recent edited volume, 'Agonistic Assemblies: On the Spatial Politics of Horizontality' (Sternberg Press, 2024). Gathering contributions from more than twenty-five critical voices — from Giancarlo de Carlo to Zahra Ali Baba, this volume interrogates the role that urban space plays in democratic conflict, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the COVID-19 pandemic — and now, as people in their millions turn out to protest genocidal atrocities in Palestine. In this short extract by Mirjam Zadoff, the notion of Utopia is traced from Thomas More's idealised vision, through to the growing pressures of climate-related urban migration.
Thomas More’s sixteenth-century vision of a utopia was that of a world we can trust in, a world devoid of unexpected threats. The term utopia, deriving from the Greek ou-topos, can mean either utopia, a good place, or outopia, nowhere. According to Zygmunt Bauman there are two preconditions for a utopia to be born. First, the world must be so utterly out of joint that a major revision is needed and, second, people need to trust in the fact that humanity can fix the problem.1 And, one might add, people need to trust in the fact that their cities offer the space to assemble and fix the problem.
Today’s cities function as contemporary platforms where global and local identities meet, clash, and look for some sort of exchange.
Today’s cities are different from the urban spaces of the 1920s. They function as contemporary platforms where global and local identities meet, clash, and look for some sort of exchange. In these laboratories, and on a daily basis, ways and measures are to be found, tried, and memorised that mitigate difference. The exchanges that happen here have the capacity to overcome conflict and meet in satisfying, friendly encounters.2
The pandemic, no doubt, has made these encounters more difficult. During the years 2020 and 2021 city streets were deserted for weeks and months, until they were finally occupied by anti-vaxxers and right-wing extremists. Theirs is a different version of the protests during the early 1920s. Racism and antisemitism are central elements of their ideology, and so is the aim for a homogenic society that leaves no room for otherness, queerness, or neediness. They have claimed the public realm in a moment when, due to the pandemic, these spaces of democracy were devoid of the vivid exchange on which they are built. Not by coincidence the actual goal of these movements has been to reach the houses of parliament itself. Attacks on these buildings’ immunity include the storming of the Michigan capitol and the German Bundestag in 2020 (the latter followed by a prevented coup of the Reichsbürger movement in 2022), the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the most recent Brazilian Congress attack on January 8, 2023, during which furniture and art in the Palácio do Planalto designed by Oscar Niemeyer were willfully destroyed. The images associated with these violent events have left a strong imprint on our world, reflecting the vulnerability of democratic spaces during the current neo-authoritarian age.
As a protest movement that is at the same time global as it is local, new spaces of assembly are needed, for it is crucial to strengthen the connection between parliamentary debates and the democratic protest happening in the streets.
The violent attacks on democratic assembly halls reflect how eager a globally aligned extreme right is to end the age of democracy. This urge seems to grow parallel to the actual need for solidarity and togetherness, which is necessary to meet the challenges ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Europe, the energy crisis, a growing necessity to relocate and seek refuge—all these problems are associated with the climate catastrophe, shrinking resources, and habitable space, and the new ultranationalist ideologies and their nihilist approach toward humanity. Although 2022 has brought a beginning of change in the use of fossil fuels as a result of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine, the frustration about political hesitancy is growing, mainly but not only amongst a younger, digitally connected generation. Climate crisis protesters, again, are employing the politics of spectacle and display, gluing themselves to streets, highways, or to the frames or glasses of priceless artworks, whose future they want to secure. Many of the protagonists of this new, anarchist form of assembly are currently serving prison sentences in democracies across the globe. As a protest movement that is at the same time global as it is local, new spaces of assembly—digital and geographical ones—are needed, for it is crucial to strengthen the connection between parliamentary debates and the democratic protest happening in the streets and, among others, the opencast mining fields of Lützerath.
To demand a future for humanity and to work toward this goal, we must overcome the deep fragmentation of the city, which is inhabited by people with local interests but also by elites with little to no connection to where they live.
These protests, which still must prove their relevance to many, produce a new utopia, according to Bauman’s definition. Yes, our world is in fact so utterly out of joint that it needs a major revision and, yes, we must trust in the fact that humanity can still fix the problem. To demand a future for humanity and to work toward this goal, we must overcome the deep fragmentation of the city, which is inhabited by people with local interests but also by elites with little to no connection to where they live. Climate change demands new forms of local engagement, especially for global elites, whose inner exile is being produced and maintained by their virtual connectedness.3 What forms and shapes—architecturally or digitally—will these assemblies take, or (in a more sustainable vein) which existing structures can they occupy or employ? And how will they affect the traditional democratic assemblies?
The postwar order has been structured by global formats, such as the G+ summits, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, or the Munich Security Conference—temporary assemblies which should help solve the world’s problems together and in solidarity. Considering that the WEF in 2023 brought hundreds of private jets to the Alpine resort hosting the event, where at the same time participants debated climate change, these formats seem utterly outdated. A temporary assembly discussing the most acute economic problems ahead should therefore assemble in a city such as Jakarta, whose inhabitants are already feeling the full force of ecological breakdown. In early 2022 Indonesia’s government announced it will be relocating its capital from the rapidly sinking city of Jakarta to the newly built city of Nusantara, more than eight hundred miles away. Many of the ten million people living in Jakarta will not be able to relocate there, and rather will face the destructive reality of climate change and sink with the remnants of the city. Other places come to mind that could facilitate spaces of transformation in creating agonistic assemblies, whereby democracy as an exceptionally flexible form of government will play a crucial role. The democratic table is historically the most successful form of assembly—even if flawed—and therefore a hopeful point of departure.
Mirjam Zadoff is Director of the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, and a lecturer at the University of Munich. Previously she held the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair for Jewish Studies and History at Indiana University Bloomington. She was visiting faculty at ETH Zurich, UC Berkeley, Humboldt University, Berlin, and Augsburg University. She is a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and the University Council at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. She has co-curated, among others, the following exhibitions: “Materializing: Contemporary Art and the Shoa in Poland, More Important Than Life: The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto” (2023 – 24), “To Be Seen: Queer Lives, 1900 – 1950” (2022), and “Tell me about yesterday tomorrow (together with Nicolaus Schafhausen she was editor of the accompanying catalog; 2020). Her recent publications include Gewalt und Gedächtnis. Globale Erinnerung im 21. Jahrhundert (2023); Four Years After: Ethnonationalism, Antisemitism, and Racism in Trump’s America (2020, edited together with Noam Zadoff and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum), and Werner Scholem: A German Life (2018).
1 Zygmunt Bauman, Flüchtige Zeiten. Leben in der Ungewissheit (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2008), 140 – 44, my translation.
2Bauman, Flüchtige Zeiten, 118 – 21, 137 – 38.
3Bauman, 109 – 10.