7 Spaces 7 Spaces

In and out of place

In Renaissance Venice, officials kept a record – the Libro Ceremoniale – of exactly how each visiting dignitary was received so that each future visitor might be received appropriately, with more or less or exactly the same degree of elaboration, just as was due to them. This was a question of how many senators must go out into the lagoon to meet the visitor and how far; whether the Doge should get up from his dais in order to greet an ambassador, how valuable a gift should be given, and what other officials should wear. All this mattered, because it was a way of expressing Venice’s understanding of its relation with the state represented by the visitor. Officials’ positioning in ducal processions mattered in the same way, for it expressed their place in the current political hierarchy.

Those flags were particularly fertile symbols. They were visual, dramatic in their movements, and could be described in terms of the proximity of one color (flag) to another: the closer together they were, the more solidarity could be claimed for the Italian people.

Robin Wagner-Pacifici, describing strikes and demonstrations across Italy to protest Aldo Moro’s kidnapping in 1978, in The Moro Morality Play, 1986

When we go to a meeting for the first time, how do we know where to sit? Where we choose to sit is a function of where we think we belong in relation to others in the meeting, as well as our best guess at where others think we belong. Whether we know them or not, we form an immediate sense of who is there. We must literally situate ourselves somehow in relation to them, just as they, too, will be trying to make some assessment of who we are and where we belong. Only by calibrating our sense of ourselves and others in the room with what we think those others’ sense of us and themselves might be can we decide where to sit.

Something of this kind takes place wherever and whenever people gather, and we might think it happens more consciously – and that its implications are more significant – when those gatherings or meetings have some avowedly political function or purpose. That is to say that the meeting is necessarily how we work out relations with one another, implicitly, subtly, intuitively, even before anything is said, and that these relations are constituted and signified in space. The meeting is an enclosed space, because it encloses space. It creates an inside and an outside: even if there are clerks and observers also in the room, everybody knows who is in the meeting and who is not.


Political activity is whatever shifts a body from the place assigned to it… It makes visible what had no business being seen, and makes heard a discourse where once there was only place for noise.

Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, 1995

A Ladies’ Gallery was incorporated into the Commons chamber when Parliament was rebuilt after a fire in London in 1834, allowing women – mostly friends and acquaintances of MPs – to watch proceedings from behind a grille. On the evening of 28 October 1908, suffragettes Helen Fox and Muriel Matters of the Women’s Freedom League unfurled a banner calling for votes for women, padlocked themselves to the grille and threw leaflets from the gallery into the chamber. Similar actions followed: in April 1909, women handcuffed themselves to statues in St Stephen’s Hall, then the main entrance to Parliament; in June, Marion Wallace-Dunlop stencilled graffiti on its walls; in April 1910, Emily Davison hid out in a ventilation shaft, though she was discovered before she could get into the chamber; the following year, she hid in a cupboard on census night in order to be able to give her address as the House of Commons.

Doing politics in this way is transgressive: that is its point. It breaks the rules by which certain kinds of distinction and differentiation are maintained. Women wrote and tied themselves into the fabric of the parliament building precisely in order to expose and override the differences, exclusions and privileges designed into it previously.

A mischievous grin appeared on her face; a look I had seen many times, one that usually spelled trouble of the delightful variety. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I’ve always wanted to dance on the Cabinet Room table’… The first lady removed her shoes, bounced up on a chair, then gracefully leaped onto the middle of the oblong table. She deftly dodged the meticulously placed ashtrays and notepads. The Martha Graham dancer inside her unfolded. Mrs Ford stood dead center beneath the chandeliers, one hand on her hip, the other extended forward. It was a real ta-da! moment… As quickly as she had gone up, she came down, put on her shoes, brushed her hands together and said, ‘I think that about does it’.

David Hume Kennerly, White House Photographer, 2011

The man truly conversant with life knows, against all appearances, that there is a remedy for every wrong, and that every wall is a gate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Natural History of Intellect, 1871

On 24 April 1932, ramblers embarked on a mass trespass of Kinder Scout, an area of high moorland in England’s peak district, as a way of claiming access to open country, an expression of ‘working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands’.

Between Tijuana and San Diego, parts of the US-Mexico border cross canyons running south-north, which means that drains must be built through the border fence to carry rainwater. Some of this is contaminated as it runs through slums on the Mexican side. On 4 June 2011, 350 people crossed the wall through a drain, against the flow of wastewater, and had their passports stamped at a temporary control on entering Mexico. This was to expose a set of tensions the wall creates between the demands of security, ecology and citizenship.


Naisargi Dave tells the story of the emergence of a lesbian movement in India. It’s bookended by two actions: the first in 1987, when two policewomen wed each other, were fired and subsequently disappeared; the second in 2008, when India’s first Gay Pride march took place.

People act from the material conditions of their spaces (for example, banlieue revolts, immigrant rights movements), seeking alternative distributions or organisations. They also act in physical spaces, and make spaces, both topographic and conceptual (for example, discursive or institutional spaces).

Mustafa Dikeç, ‘Space as a mode of political thinking’, 2012

It’s a story of the formation and transformation of groups: informal gatherings of same-sex desiring women in living rooms and cafes took place in New Delhi; in 1989, a more identifiable Delhi Group formed; two years later, some left to form Sakhi, an explicitly lesbian organization with political aims, from which two others separated to form the support group and helpline Sangini. In 1999, the lesbian-themed film Fire provoked a right-wing backlash: counter-protests led to the formation of CALERI, the Campaign for Lesbian Rights; as this dissipated, three members of Sangini left to form PRISM, an autonomous collective of People for the Rights of Indian Sexual Minorities. When the march took place, it was protected by lines of policewomen, while members of Sakhi, Sangini and PRISM each held a piece of a rainbow flag.

[The home of two of PRISM’s co-founders was] an exceptional place, something of a queer halfway house and co-operative. Friends and strangers from across the country and abroad would come and go, seeking solace from heartache, marriage pressures, unwelcoming and abusive families, and all forms of profound loneliness… As these people passed through, they would inevitably, if with some initial reluctance, become active participants in the spirited political debates that formed the center of our lives there—whether PRISM should apply for funding, and what compromises would inhere in doing so; the limitations and possibilities of identity-based politics; whether the ‘Indian’ in People for the Rights of Indian Sexual Minorities made too much of an appeal to nation and culture; whether the phrase ‘sexual minorities’ limited PRISM’s vision to gays and lesbians, rather than to bettering society as a whole.

Naisargi Dave, ‘Activism as ethical practice’, 2011

This politics took place in different spaces, each of which becomes a ‘space of appearance’: the bed, the home, the shared space of meeting, and the public space of the street. These were differentially bounded spaces, each protected and protecting, allowing new forms of sociality to emerge; each in turn generating new kinds of difference, new boundaries to be crossed. They mark a trajectory, from the sexual and marital dyad to the plurality of the group, then to a plurality of groups, and then to the multiplicity of the march.

Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it.

Georges Perec, ‘Species of spaces’, 1974

‘Political activity is whatever shifts a body…’ is Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, edited by Julie Rose, Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1999, p 30, and cited by Mustafa Dikeç, ‘Space as a mode of political thinking’, op cit, p 674

The note on ritual in Renaissance Venice I have from David Kertzer, Ritual, Politics and Power, New Haven: Yale UP, 1988, p 105

‘Those flags…’, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, The Moro Morality Play, op cit, p 107

Women’s assaults on the fabric of the building are again from Nirmal Puwar, ‘The archi-texture of Parliament’, op cit

David Hume Kennerly’s photograph is archived here, at the University of Arizona Centre for Creative Photography; he talked about it in a blog for the New York Times, ‘Betty Ford: gilded cage, meet free spirit’, 12 July 2011

The diagram of the bus showing where Risa Parks was seated is in the US National Archive

The Kinder Mass Trespass is remembered here by the Hayfield Kinder Trespass Group

The Emerson quotation is often given as ‘every wall is a door’, but this seems to be the original source, which is a note to the Natural History of Intellect and appears in a digital edition of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, volume 12, p 442

Crossing the US-Mexico border through a drain is described by Teddy Cruz, in ‘Borderwalls as public space’, foreword to Ronald Rael, Borderwall as Architecture, op cit, Oakland, CA: U California Press

‘People act from the material conditions of their spaces…’: Mustafa Dikeç, ‘Space as a mode of political thinking’, op cit, p 674

Naisargi Dave (2011) ‘Activism as ethical practice: Queer politics in contemporary India’, Cultural Dynamics 23 (1) 3-20; quoted material is pp 4-5

‘Space is a doubt…’ Georges Perec, ‘Species of spaces’, op cit, p 91