Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

2. Philosophical Reflection of space and aesthetics

Of interest is here an experience made by Herbert Distel when he created the smallest museum of the world, namely the museum of drawers (http://www.schubladenmuseum.com/). He started collecting art works from artists of the sixties and seventies on the premise that artists always claim that they need space, but they never say how large a space. Hence he asked them to contribute one art work for a little compartment in a drawer similar to the sewing drawers used in the past by grandmother. Picasso, Rothko, ManRay, Beuys and others contributed. Then he used technology of Channel 4 of the BBC to simulate the possibility of him walking into these spaces as if large gallery rooms to explain the art works. Alone that can give an experience of how space can be used to make something very explicit. Beuys grew a toe nail over months and after having cut it off, it became like a half moon piece pinned to the back of the small compartment. To this piece he added a letter in which he explained how many socks he had ruined to grew such an art work.

Herbert Distel won the first prize for sculpture in St. Pauli. Often his sculptures entail an egg resting on the water surface to create a contrast between what lightness is above and what heaviness below. When the sculpture boulevard was created in Berlin when European Capital of Culture in 1988 (http://ecoc.poieinkaiprattein.org/european-capital-of-culture/berlin-1988/), he was very critical on how artists use space.



Likewise sculptures can frighten people especially if it seems as if they take space away or else occupy too much space. This might be the case of the spider in front of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, Canada although located on a large square and quite aloof from the ground.



There is a lot involved in what it takes to use space in a wise way. It includes the wisdom to leave some things alone or untouched just as there is the general ecological demand to preserve nature characterises the twenty-first century. It says something about what is happening in terms of space, or to use another term, in the environment surrounding people living in and out of sprawling cities. In both cases the demand to leave things alone or how they are can be interpreted as space should not under all circumstances be revamped just to suit certain, indeed artificial purposes (aesthetical, security, local tradition etc.).

There prevails, for instance, in Canada an unwritten law of the bush that no one should leave a trace behind. This means also to destroy and to erase any sign of a fire place used the previous night before leaving a camp site. The next ones coming to the site should still experience what it means to set up camp anew. Given even mass tourism on white water rivers, that is no easy task. However, it does make sense to retain a natural sense of space.

To preserve natural beauty in space is but one important component, another is to what extent there is freedom to move through space at ease. Here it depends upon the function of the space. An open square where the pigeons settle near the fountain, this might be a mere invitation to stroll over the square in order to enjoy the afternoon sun and to be, as is the case in many Southern cities, to be amongst people strolling themselves, in order to see and to be seen. Public viewing can be perceived as well as social introspection while more or less on the gossip trail. For who is seen with whom makes people curious enough to suspect all sorts of things. After all, everyone knows everyone else as the intricate relationships in a small town give way to a more set pattern of established relationships. Accordingly the space is dominated by certain features which may serve a definite identity, but which can be oppressive at one and the same time. Then the choice, or rather decision, has to be made how to escape this use of space so as to continue to be creative in another way than what society demonstrates. If the creative use of space is nearly impossible, then it becomes a matter of looking out for alternative space(s).

In Ancient Greece, stories about space are numerous, the most famous one being the Agora or market place which can be described as the heart of the Polis. While the market was used for trading, all citizens had to go after closure to the assembly where they would discuss the laws which affect their behaviour in the market place. Thus another space was needed to reflect the lawfulness of life. From there to the theatre it meant to implement law within the sense for measure or 'metron', in order to uphold in everything a sense of proportionality. Vincent Van Gogh would call it later the highest of all art. The small in relation to the large would not allow the going to the extreme. In terms of space, what it meant was to give the human being dignity, if not self pride or the conviction that the measure of all things is the human being. It determined not only the use of materials but also how life was regulated in the spaces people move about. And therefore the public space was far more important than any private one.

Interestingly enough in mythology space is linked to the labyrinth. The writer Ernst Schnabel describes in his novel 'I and the kings' how the engineer Daedalus built the labyrinth for King Minos. Typically the king ran during construction out of money and Daedalus could not attach as originally planned mirrors in the dead ends of the labyrinth. Yet it did not matter. For once people confronted the wall at the end and were forced to turn around, they came out all changed, most of them older and only a few younger. Space was extended then in the Minoan culture to what became a different kind of steer fight since the athlete had to vault in between the horns over the steer, only Minotaurus as portrayed as well by Picasso learned the anger of the bull once he saw a red cloth. Space in that sense became a common spectacle which the Romans perfected in the colosseum where the gladiators would fight for life and death to the amusement of the masses. Space meant then to be trapped in a deadly fight with no route to escape.

Much later in philosophy, Hegel would extract out of all of this, the term of 'turning around'. It is a key to making an experience. You enter the space but you turn around and leave it as well, for only then the full experience of the space can be reflected upon. Moreover experience can only be made as long as within space the human being turns towards life. The same applies to masses of people who tend to follow a leading figure, and consequently are constantly at risk like the whales which follow the one heading for shallow instead of deeper water. Thus to avoid certain death, there has to be initiated an ongoing learning process not only on how to use space, but how to do it creatively without succumbing to a self destructive drive. Freud had called it the death drive which is reinforced by a coercion to repeat the same mistakes. Like insects flying into light, at times there exist such an irrationality of mistakes being made over and again. The dysfunctional order of society may be politically motivated or else is clearly a cultural failure. The latter is the case when society has given up a search for truth, and therefore especially public spaces are no longer receptive for public truths.

It follows that space is not at all innocent while in its finite sense seeks to circumvent the infinite. If society is to survive, the culture of democracy must prevent people from wishing to gain immortality before their natural death. That insight has deep and far fetching implications. The poet Dileep Jhaveri has captured this dilemma in his poem called 'democracy':


Some fishes decided to die

and become immortal

Unseen, they climbed the steps

to reach the palms of men dressed in white

They were encircling a tall and balding man

gazing far in future

with clear and almost cruel eyes

His white robe was shinier

Suddenly the fishes leaped upon his body

that collapsed and crumbled, losing blood in spurts

His breathless, broken last words

were addressed to someone stained and startled

like a brutal beast heavy and dull

without the knowledge

that the dying man had already decided

to give away his all to us, the beggars

The immortal fishes find their lodging in such generous souls

Sometime or other

wounded on wooden blocks

or shot and slipping away from the supporting fragile girls

Calling upon men’s precious past

and giving away paltry gifts

to prove

that neither divinity nor humility nor the length and colour of the clothes

make any difference to the fishes

Dileep Jhaveri Feb. 2016

(*For which Caesar, Christ, Gandhi and many others lay covered in blood)



Especially public space is known what it retains in terms of collective memory. If people continue to belong to humanity, then they need to be reassured to remain in the memory of the others even after they have passed away. One way to do that is a poetry project in Antwerp where poets write a poem for someone who has passed away all alone. This sense of not being forgotten is also conveyed in newspapers printing obituaries of lesser known people. Likewise poets such as Gabriel Rosenstock engage themselves for lesser spoken languages to prevent them from dying out, and that includes the Irish language. Thus it matters what languages are spoken in space to make clear what tension field there exists between past, present and future.

Therefore, space became known through its limitations imposed by various means upon its possibilities. The question is, therefore, if space can define itself through the mass of being? Here the perception of man within space as made explicit in the Renaissance becomes a visionary exception. In many other cases, man as the human being is literally and even nowadays virtually crowded out by all sorts of gadgets and other things filling space. That may begin with a cafe having put out chairs and tables for people to enjoy coffee even though this passive, time consuming passivity reflects in turn a society having turned to idleness as form of leisure. Beyond any sign of real and meaningful activity, it has solicited the response of street artists, portrait painters, balloon sales men, ice cream sellers etc. who seek out of normal ways of earning money their opportunities to solicit some support for their way of life. It means, however, space has been largely reduced to passive consumerism and to commercial uses of all kinds, including a parking lot demanding a certain fee.

Consequently there are usual and unusual associations with the notion of space, hence it might be handy to take into consideration some philosophical considerations.

Lesson of materialism: the physical quality of space


Example: Sound / Soundscapes

The Violin of the Bushman


is resonance of the sound
a one stringed bent stick
on an empty
ostrich egg. 
Not an instrument for greater glory
of whoever.
Nobody else hears
what the bushman fiddles
in the steppe wind - 
a pair of bow strokes long
to his own astonishment
hearing himself.

Rainer Malkowski(Germany 1932-2003)
Translation: Germain Droogenbroodt


Die Buschmanngeige//Schwach/ist der Resonanzkörper/auf den einsaitigen Krummstock/ein leeres/Straußenei./Also kein Instrument für den Beifall./Vielleicht kein Instrument/für höheren Ruhm/von irgendwem./
Niemand sonst hört/was der Buschmann geigt/im Steppenwind -/ein Paar Bogenzüge lang/sich selbst/zum Erstaunen/vernehmlich


The problem of confined space – topology (set of references)

One example of space being confined, is what trucks create when parked side by side, or else in what narrow spaces people have to work in.




Source: ROAD*REGISTERS. Takes of mobile living spaces, exhibited at Academy of Arts, Vienna and in 'Stop and Go' Project room in the North-West train station.

Curated and produced by Michael Hieslmair and Michael Zinganel within the WWTF-Researchproject Stop and Go.




With time people risk to lose an overall sense for space, when living and working in such confined spaces. This is especially the case, if everything is covered or a built-up area, so that no breathing space so to speak is left. That may be one of the problems of Malta. The island appears to anyone living and working here to be confined in space despite the open sea and the big harbour. Alone the fact that people wake up two hours earlier, just to make sure they will get a parking spot in Valletta, says something about what practical problems there exist when living in a crowded space. Another but important detail can be observed when driving. Many houses near these semi highways are abandoned due to the air and noise pollution. It means there is a lot of space being wasted due to a road system which entails in itself many problems when relying solely upon the car. Public transport is not sufficient in this case when it relies solely on buses which have replaced the original ones and are in many tight corners clearly to large to make easily the turn. In turn, the bus blocks the other traffic and therefore many people take hours to reach work or their homes especially during rush hour. Thus use of space is of practical relevance for Maltese people.

Philosophically speaking, space is always confined to something specific, even when we refer to outer space but then the confinement is the infinite. This is the outcome of coordinates having been set so as to define space. It has been a long struggle to go from a two dimensional to a three dimensional image, when in reality space has multiple dimensions or layers of meaning.

Already Kant abstracted time and space from any concrete location, in order to to define the experimental space as a possibility to make experiences which can be verified. By relying only on two coordinates, namely time and space, he left behind the important concept of 'topos' or τόπος .

Topos was known in Ancient Greece as a special location where the mind opens up to outer space, and, therefore, allows a connection between the inner (subjective) and outer world. In search of such special locations, it can be compared to an expert using wishing rods to locate source of water. Connected with the question where to build a temple, the location to transform space was chosen precisely where thoughts would open up to the outer world. This concrete notion of space has many consequences till today, but such ancient wisdom is often ignored.

Over and beyond that, it is well known that geo-political space plays a huge role in history, and circumscribes where villages, castles, towns etc. are located. It is connected with the taking of territory, and with which laws have been imposed so as to explain as well the outlaw territory or how Sherwood forest became known thanks to Robin Hood. For a long time, cities defined their space as to what prevails within their walls, while outside the territory was not considered to be unconditionally safe. Impressive is, therefore, the sculpture by Rodin called the “Citizens of Calais” who sacrificed themselves for the sake of saving the city from destruction by the approaching invader.

Today we speak of a city's footprint when wishing to refer the space such a settlement needs to sustain life within it. There are also no longer clear borders as to where urban space begins or ends. That has also altered use of space in an overall sense whereby European countries differ in whether or not they succeed to safeguard, for instance, the rural landscape like in France, and which has become fragmented urban and semi-urban space in the case of Greece. F or the latter the poet Brendan Kennelly coined at the conference “Myth of the City” (1995) the special term “rur-urb”: a mixture of rural and urban features.

Already at the Fifth Seminar, Cultural Actions for Europe held in Athens 1994 (http://poieinkaiprattein.org/conferences-symposiums-workshops/cultural-actions-for-europe/), the keynote speaker Andre Loeckx (http://poieinkaiprattein.org/conferences-symposiums-workshops/cultural-actions-for-europe/second-plenary-session/urban-place-and-flow/) called the city a fragmented space with many obvious and hidden contradictions. One street can be well off while just around the corner the poorer area begins. That is typical, for example, of Brussels. It leads to loss of neighbourhood or as Andre Loeckx put it, people get in their car and drive two hours to reach their favourite restaurant while they have no notion as to who lives across the street.

Of interest is that topology has been adopted by mathematics and means the following:


In mathematics, topology(from the Greek τόπος, place, and λόγος, study) is concerned with the properties of space that are preserved under continuous deformations, such as stretching and bending, but not tearing or gluing. This can be studied by considering a collection of subsets, called open sets, that satisfy certain properties, turning the given set into what is known as a topological space. Important topological properties include connectedness and compactness.[1]

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topology


It appears that this conference in Valletta about the 'creative use of space' is also grappling with the problems when referring to the city as a common space. Rather than leaving space to be an abstract concept, it would be crucial to heed locality and meaning of place especially for the locals who live there. Moreover due to experience, the locals have a notion of their space which differs greatly in use from those who simply pass through either on foot or by car. It makes defining the common space ever more difficult.

The problem is connected with space being confined. For instance, when referring to peace, we think as well of human values such as human dignity and the Right of everyone to unfold his or her creative potential. Yet people find hardly the space to unfold their creativity. Too often they are confined to very narrow and limited spaces; at home, in small rooms, while taking a crowded bus to work they have to stand and at work they spend hours in some kind of hole or else in a huge common office space offering no privacy. The lack of space can become an obsession, and a source of aggression, if not violence.

For instance, in Malta, everyone knows about the scarcity of parking space which forces people to get up two hours earlier in order to secure a space close enough to their place of work in Valletta.

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