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Opening open spaces

By Jai Sen

The concept of ‘open space’ has come to be used in many fields, from urban planning, education and multipolar media such as the Internet, to social and political practice. Given the religious, economic and imperialist fundamentalisms that have intensified over the last two decades, we need to understand the struggle to open spaces as a struggle against enclosure by either State or market corporatism and/or by fundamentalist forces within societies, such as religious, caste, ethnic, and/or nationalist powers

If you remember that one small action, it symbolised the decline of the British Empire. We should safeguard the smallest of actions, the most open of spaces, and try and make as many open spaces as possible. We have to stand guard. We have to keep the space open because all the guards have proved to be useless.

-- Ashok Vajpeyi, referring to Gandhi’s Salt March 

What is open space? 

An open, uncluttered expanse of space, in theory available to all? Or is it a culture, a way of doing things, a cultural practice? (But in this case, is it a noun -- a thing --, a concept, or a practice, an action? Or are noun, idea, and verb interrelated?) Social practice. Political practice. Networking. Horizontality. Structurelessness. Democracy. Anarchy. A way of relating. Uncertainty. Transparency. Openness. Closedness; closure. Enclosure. Public space. The commons. Property. Intellectual property. Copyright. Copyleft. Common property. FOSS -- Free & Open Source Software. Safe space. Autonomy. Equality. Freedom. Fair trade. Free trade? Freedom. Liberty. Tolerance. Discrimination. Inclusion and Exclusion. Boundaries? Policies? Rules? Democracy? Hierarchy? Open access. Open Source. Open plan. Open door policy. Open systems. Open society. Chaos. Clocks and clouds. Determinacy and indeterminacy. Randomness. Open-endedness. Movement. Not object but subject: Opening space? 

The concept of open space arises in many fields. For those in these professions (such as myself, by background), it belongs to urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture, but it is equally used in the disciplines of office and workspace planning, education and knowledge systems, social management, conflict resolution and transformation initiatives, and now also social and political practice.  

It has come into increasingly intensive use in social and political practice in recent years, along with related concepts such as horizontality and networking, and has gained special currency by virtue of its use since 2001 in connection with the phenomenon called the World Social Forum (WSF). In some cases, there are also crossover applications, such as in the case of the WSF, which declares itself as an open space and where to help people understand this concept, one of its founders refers to it as a ‘square’ in a city, or praça, in the original Portuguese. The WSF has also adopted the slogan ‘Another World Is Possible!’, which itself signals, and symbolises, an openness to the future.  

Perhaps especially on account of and through the extraordinary proliferation of the WSF that has taken place over these years, this idea -- and its related concepts -- seems to have widely caught the imagination of people and organisations across the world. On the surface, this has happened as a result of both the polemical challenge that this sustained and successful proliferation itself has represented to neoliberalism and its mantra of TINA -- There Is No Alternative. Initially, this was symbolised by the World Social Forum always being held to coincide with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (and where, at a mediabyte level, the WSF was even given this name to highlight the fact that the social was more important than the economic). But in time, as is evident from so many testimonies that are now on record, the WSF has caught the imagination of people across the world as a function of the very special quality of celebration and freedom that it embodies -- and in particular because of its embodiment of the idea of open space. 

On openness

In order to enter this discussion, I want to suggest that it is vital to reflect on the possibility that of all living beings -- indeed, of everything that we today know in the universe, animate and inanimate -- only ‘man’ is capable of seeing ‘the open’; and that the open is a key part of humankind’s relationship to its environment. Citing the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s discussion of the relation of animal and man to their environment, Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben explains this uniquely human capacity:

    Only man, indeed only the gaze of authentic thought, can see the open which names the unconcealedness of beings. The animal, on the contrary, never sees this open (1).

He explains:

    The guiding thread of Heidegger’s exposition is constituted by the triple thesis: “the stone is worldless (weltlos); the animal is poor in world (weltarm); man is world-forming (weltbildend).” Since the stone (the non-living being) -- insofar as it lacks any possible access to what surrounds it -- gets quickly set aside, Heidegger can begin his inquiry with the middle thesis, immediately taking on the problem of what it means to say “poor in world”.

In these terms, a crucial further difference that Agamben draws between the animal and the human is that whereas for animals, their environment is open but not openable, humankind has the capacity to open up the world; we can actually disconceal it

A short history of open space 

The concept and the practice of ‘open space’ in social and political movement -- and especially in autonomist movement -- are not new. There have been similar practices in movements since the 1960s, though not called this then. For instance, in many ways the feminist movement in North America, and elsewhere, practised something very close to this idea back in the late-1960s onwards: a free, unstructured, and non-hierarchical movement. This attempt to create and practise such a movement then however became the subject of intense critical reflection within the movement in terms of what one participant, Jo Freeman, famously called “the tyranny of structurelessness”. Reflection is an integral characteristic of the practice of open space, and Freeman similarly wrote this essay in response to the frustrations of trying to organise non-hierarchically and as a critique of masculinist forms of organisation. 

There have been equivalents and expressions of this idea in many parts of the world and in many fields. Another vital expression was its exploration in education, best known through the work of Paulo Freire and his theory of conscientisation and a pedagogy of the oppressed, starting in Brazil but having impacts in much of the world. And of central relevance to the WSF was the parallel articulation of liberation theology in the 1960s and ’70s, which had profound influence on the evolution of social and political movements in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and through this history, also on the ideology of the WSF. 

This experimentation continued right through the 1980s and ’90s, when there were waves of struggle within these and other movements. In each of these instances the concept of openness was rigorously practised, debated, and critiqued. And as I see it, the emergence during the 1990s of PGA and of Direct Action in the US, and of the organisational culture underlying the direct actions at Seattle 1999 and then in the series of ‘global actions’ that took place during the early-2000s, and the WSF -- all of which were manifestations of a new politics founded on ideas of horizontality and open-endedness -- were a natural outcome of these stirrings, experiments, and movements.  

In other words, I am suggesting that the idea and practice of open space in social and political activity is actually a generalised, widespread, and non-centralised political-cultural phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century, and one that is only continuing to widen and deepen in our own times, the early-21st century.

As Rodrigo Nunes argues, and as others have argued before him in terms of related phenomena such as transnational advocacy networking, the recent intensification in social networking and in networked politics as a common social practice is (and must be understood as) a function of the major changes that have taken place in recent decades in the material means of information exchange and communication and also of international travel. Nunes’ argument is that the “…large-scale massification of these media, and (the emergence of) a multipolar medium like the Internet in particular, is… the chief material cause behind the ‘renaissance’ of openness and horizontality”. 

It is not as if the concept and practice of open space is not being intensely contested and challenged in specific contexts, including within the WSF, but taking a step back it is perhaps fair to say that networking, the horizontality of social relations that goes with this, and the openness that is required as a characteristic of networking, have now become, in many parts of the world, the ‘natural’ and normal way for ordinary people -- including but not only activists -- to behave and to organise things, and to build social relations. It has come to be widely accepted, even if the term itself is not used to describe the practice. And in organisational terms, these new practices have opened new doors, new ways of thinking and acting. 

Social movement activists have perhaps made among the most active and imaginative use of these new possibilities, but this is a generalised situation and not restricted to social movement and politics. Many fields, including the military, industry, entertainment, and other big business, have also found strategic value in using this approach, and where it today also fundamentally informs contemporary debate on science, knowledge systems, and intellectual property; and, of course, this is the basis of the phenomenal expansion of everyday social networking in our times. And in turn, the WSF’s slogan and philosophy, ‘Another World Is Possible!’, with its emphasis on what is capable of happening rather than that which works on the basis of an inexorable and linear logic, is fundamentally consistent with this emerging social practice and with the philosophy and concepts that underlie it. 

New horizons of the open 

It is also important for us today, in the early stages of the 21st century, to recognise three realities: That the conventional visualisation and conceptualisation of ‘space’ fundamentally changed during this past (20th) century in several major ways; that this has especially happened only in the very recent past, in terms of human history and evolution; and that this visualisation and conceptualisation is continuing to rapidly evolve and change in our times, and at an accelerating pace. 

At one level, this has been simply a function of ‘space’, and of new dimensions of space and of ‘openness’ becoming a more everyday experience, and in a way, it has come about because of the popularisation of space and of understandings of space in many spheres of life -- art, music, science, and even everyday consumption. 

The first major steps were taken in the first half of the 20th century. In the visual arts and then the plastic arts, the emergence, articulation, and then exploration of cubism fundamentally challenged all previous and more fixed conceptions of both space and time in western art. Completely new representations and explorations of space and time, took shape. Similarly, in music, the emergence and articulation of jazz from the early-20th century onwards, with its traditions of improvisation and, in John Brown Childs’ words, of “…organised ambiguity and ambiguous organisation” -- opened up new dimensions of time and space: 

In the words of the great African American artist Romare Bearden, and focusing on his comments about the role of the horizontal in his work, and where he was influenced in part by jazz and also by Chinese art, Indian art, Renaissance European art, ancient Greek art, Mexican muralists, African art, and African American culture:  

“When an artist decides on a space, we get a certain kind of space. When I say space, I am not talking about, let’s say, distance; I’m talking about relationships… When you get that, it doesn't matter what you’re working on… 

It seems to be that verticality detests surprises, but, assuming a communally shared framework, horizontality surprises and enlivens… It is a question of collage… The thing is that the artist confronts chaos. The whole thing of art is -- how do you organise chaos?” 

These ideas then continued to be developed and explored in literature and art from about the 1940s onwards, and perhaps particularly in the course of the school of magic realism during the 1960s onwards -- the exploration of a sort of heightened reality where magical elements, elements of the miraculous, or seemingly illogical scenarios appear in an otherwise realistic or even ‘normal’ setting, and where through the playing with (or ‘distortion’ of) both time and space, new understandings emerge. 

These developments in art and literature paralleled -- and sometimes preceded -- developments in science, especially through Einstein’s discovery of relativity in the early-20th century where time and space were revealed as one, and the subsequent explorations and development of these ideas right through the 20th century; including in terms of theories of uncertainty, indeterminacy, and chaos. 

But arguably, and where the relevance of all this lies for this essay, it has perhaps been only in the second half of the 20th century that we have seen the decisively more generalised socialisation of these perceptions, to a significant degree led by developments in science and technology; and that it is during this same period that the practice of open space in social and political movement emerged. 

The first development has been through the exploration of extra-terrestrial space. The idea of humankind actually reaching out into and travelling, and existing, in what has come in English to be called ‘space’ -- the apparently infinite openness that exists beyond the confines of our planet -- has been around since at least the 19th century, but in material terms, this vision came to be realised by humankind as a whole only from 1957 onwards, with the launching of the first space satellites. This had two impacts: one, while specialists and professionals have imagined and conceptually understood -- and mapped -- the globe for several centuries, it was only in 1961, with the first manned satellites, and in 1970 with the moon landing, and given the by-then fairly widespread availability of simultaneous transmission through television, that it became possible for ordinary human beings, with our own eyes, to -- for the very first time in our history as a species -- directly view and comprehend planet earth not only as a whole but -- crucially -- also as an object within a much larger universe; aside from also seeing and having a direct virtual experience of other worlds such as the moon; and since then, also of other planets in our solar system. 

And two, from this point on the meaning for ordinary people of ‘space’ -- the vast and apparently infinitely and utterly open, so-called ‘outer space’ -- also changed fundamentally. From the remote and mysterious it suddenly became familiar, a part of everyday life; entering and visiting it became part of direct human experience; and as space science and astronomy have come to be popularised, people all over the planet have progressively become aware on an everyday basis of the vastness of space and of our place in the universe, not only in a physical sense but also cosmologically and existentially; and indeed, even as consumers.  

Again, while some of this perception was available before this to specialists -- adventurers and explorers, astronomers and other scientists, religious thinkers, philosophers, artists, writers, and poets -- it now became a phenomenon, perception, and virtual experience available to the species, and as a result of rapidly changing information and communication technologies, to human beings and cultures all over the world, to be variously comprehended, internalised, imagined, reinvented, and domesticated in terms of humankind’s widely varying cultural contexts. 

The second development has been in terms of the realisation and articulation of the interconnectedness of everything. As a function of the progressively widening recognition during this period of the earth as one whole and as a ‘spaceship’, we have also begun to become aware of the Gaian nature of the planet as one -- as a system and as a living organism; where everything on this planet (every thing, every action, every process) is connected to everything else. In popular consciousness, this is a consequence of the growing awareness not only of the multiple environmental crises that the planet is facing but of the systemic ecological crisis we are today facing, as a species, where life systems themselves are breaking down. 

One crucial aspect of the articulation of this radically new Gaian perception has been the recognition of the function in earth’s ecosystem of open spaces on the planet -- such as the oceans, the Siberian tundra, and the Amazonian basin -- as organs that are essential for the life of the planet. (This organic, systemic conceptualisation, incidentally, is radically distinct from the colonialist tendency to define the Amazon especially as part of ‘humankind’s patrimony’, thus also laying claim to it.) Open space, locally and globally, has thus become more than something one can create/enter/use/inhabit; it has now come to be popularly understood as having an organic, ecological, and systemic function, fundamentally interconnected with its surroundings.

Third, our visualisation and conceptualisation of open space has of course also been dramatically expanded by the invention of the worldwide web, with all its apparent open-endedness. Again very suddenly -- in historical terms -- yet another (and fundamentally new) dimension of ‘open’, seemingly unbounded space has been added to our cognitive vocabulary. And beyond the openness, it is now common to see references to the Internet as the model on which social movement organisation is increasingly based, and “…common to point to the practice of Free and Open Source Software communities as the ‘vanguard’ of this democracy-to-come”. 

Another related new and crucial understanding of openness has also come about in recent decades, in terms of the fundamental role that systems, networks, and emergence play in all physical, natural, and social processes, and where openness and open-endedness are essential and intrinsic qualities and characteristics of these concepts. This new comprehension is today beginning to inform and influence all sciences, and through this is likely over time to influence and shape our thinking in all areas of life. Given its newness, it is perhaps premature to include this as having already contributed to our new consciousness of open space -- but its influence is growing even as you read this essay.

Finally in this sketch, we need also to locate the concept of open space, and the new visualisations, in a longer political history of cyberspace -- of so-called ‘virtual space’. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta has argued, the invention of the printing press, and with this the invention of the idea of artificial media by which human beings could exchange ideas with each other at a mass level (and also create more permanent archival records, ie memory) marked the first radical opening of virtual space in human history. At one level, each successive step in this process -- the appearance and distribution of leaflets, books, journals, and newspapers, and then radio and television, and most recently the web -- can be considered to have been steps towards opening space and opening new spaces. And significantly, and just as with physical open space, each of these steps was taken first by individuals, working ‘locally’, autonomously, and ‘randomly’, and in each case the steps have been subject to challenge and (en)closure by either State or market corporatism and/or by fundamentalist forces within societies, such as religious, caste, ethnic, and/or nationalist powers. 

All these developments have also intertwined, and they have, individually and collectively, and in many ways perhaps especially as a consequence of processes of popularisation that are now so commonplace, profoundly shaped -- and continue to shape -- our thinking and perceptions. Equally however, attempts at planning, control, and enclosure are today as true of these new dimensions of space and openness as in the old and more familiar; think of the ‘conquest’ of space, the growing attempts by corporations and the military to control the web, and the juggernaut of genetic modification and the control of natural life processes.  

The nature of open space 

There is an open space in language and literature that exists despite the most adverse circumstances. As I say this, I am reminded of Boris Pasternak’s famous poem: “The night is dark and it is bitterly cold, but we must at least keep a candle lit.” -- Ashok Vajpeyi 

As a consequence of the history sketched out above, and as is evident from the cluster of terms given at the beginning of this essay, open space is today a term that belongs to an extensive community and vocabulary of related contemporary concepts, ideas, and practices, and where some of the terms are also used interchangeably. 

But beyond this, there is also the question of context. At a quite fundamental level, what does open space, and the open, mean to fisherfolk and to sailors; to the Inuit or to people living in deserts? Or to nomadic peoples, for whom motion -- through space -- is constant? What does open space mean to people living in deep valleys? To a sculptor in front of a rock? To someone composing a piece of music? To a dancer on a stage? To the physically or visually challenged? And to people dying of a terminal disease, or to someone on death row? To a choreographer? To a physicist? 

Are each of these different meanings? Or is there, and can there be, a common meaning across different subjectivities? 

Unlike openness, which we can perceive, open space exists only when we construct it -- and whatever we construct will necessarily be a function of the conditions that prevail where we construct it. As Wangui Mbatia expressively put it, our construction of -- and struggle for -- open space may, at one level, be compared with a spider’s spinning of her web. Necessarily, the web she will create is a function of the space and opportunity she is working within.  

Partly therefore, as a consequence of being a member of a community of like terms and practices with much overlap, partly because of quite different interpretations and uses of these terms in different fields and contexts, and partly because of very different social and material conditions that prevail in different contexts, there is perhaps no one definition of open space. As Nunes points out in terms of horizontalities, there are many open spaces -- and many meanings of open space. 

This plurality, and the ambiguity that goes with it, is in the very nature of open space, which is essentially a social and cultural construct -- in all the fields it is used in, and in all its meanings. It is therefore important to root and/or understand the use of the term in particular contexts and conditions. 

The fundamental nature of the concept of open space, in all the fields that it is used, is not only that of something that exists, or can exist, but also that of a symbol of possibilities; a metaphor. Its existence, and the possibilities of its existence, is as important as actually practising or experiencing it. As de Sousa Santos has argued in terms of the WSF and its slogan, ‘Another World Is Possible!’, which -- by its flagging of the possible and therefore of the ‘not yet’ -- points not to an existing reality or definite singular future but to its immanent potential. 

It is also crucial to recognise and read the contemporary political-ideological meaning and potential of open space. Especially in the conditions of closure that have so deeply afflicted the world over the past two decades, as a function of the synergistic interaction of religious fundamentalisms, economic fundamentalisms, and an imperialist power with its so-called ‘war on terror’ post 9/11 and all its outfalls, every practice of open space and horizontality must also be recognised as being a significant polemical challenge to empire and to hegemonic politics, whether in social movement, art, or everyday social relations. In many ways and at many levels, the idea and concept of open space is deeply interrelated with human rights, democratic freedoms, civil liberties, and cultural expression. It is as relevant to science, education, literature, and art, and to faith, and to the conditions of everyday life, as it is to politics and social movement.

The politics and meta-politics of open space 

In the field of urban planning the term ‘open space’ carries a physical and apparently apolitical connotation, of being a relatively large, relatively open, unbuilt/‘undeveloped’ space, usually but not always made available either for recreational or (in some particular contexts) agricultural purposes.  

This however, is radically different from the tradition of a commons, or common property, that still prevails in many rural and agrarian communities in the world. The commons is not residual space but an integral part of the local and wider social ecology and economy, where such property and the rights of access to it is a function of traditional communitarian decision (though also subject to local social segmentation). As Massimo DeAngelis argues, for every commons, there is a community. 

This is very different from planned open space. On the one hand, planned space does not have a single, defined community, but rather is -- in theory -- a public space, open to everyone; and on the other, the commons was not and is still not today referred to as being ‘open’, by locals. Indeed, the commons was and is not in fact open but rather available primarily to locals and then too, only within locally determined rules of custom and of customary law. The kind of open space that is created through planned intervention is therefore not a commons, and should not be confused with this. 

Beyond this, in the contemporary world planned open space not only does not have a defined community that owns and manages it but, to the contrary, is by definition centrally planned, managed, and owned. 

Even though, therefore, the creation of planned open space in urban areas is often seen (and populistically portrayed) as a normative commitment to ‘the social’, and even to anti-privatisation, a more critical look reveals such space being only a part of larger regimes of centralised control, property, and the State.  

Second, looking at these conditions historically, the ‘open spaces’ that our planners construct in fact refer to contexts where under conditions of both capitalism and state socialism, agrarian or forest land -- both private and common -- has been ‘enclosed’ and taken over for urban or industrial uses and its previous occupants or users displaced and scattered; and where the ‘open spaces’ that we now know have been specially kept aside as part of social planning for the new occupants of the general space within which the open spaces are located -- and not for their original inhabitants, who are in effect usually excluded. Planned urban ‘open space’ therefore, though appearing to provide amenity to city inhabitants, in reality involves appropriation, expulsion, enclosure, exclusion, and control, usually centralised.  

All this holds lessons for us as we attempt to explore and understand the politics of open space. Similar to but radically different from the tradition of the commons, open spaces are thus not open by themselves, and it is not their apparent physical reality that matters; they become open -- or tend to become open, and/or are made open -- only when those who use them take part in decisions regarding their creation, planning, design, maintenance, and use. As John Holloway has argued, we need to understand ‘open space’ not as a passive concept but as an active concept and construct; and secondly, not as a positive concept but as a negative concept, as a struggle against enclosure. And in this sense then, open space and the commons become, under existing conditions, complementary concepts and strategies. 

One key further point: Under contemporary conditions this process of appropriation of what was historically the commons -- land -- within processes of urbanisation is being dramatically widened. It is today being extended from a control only of land (including forests) to include water, air, and cyberspace, and also -- in yet another dimension -- genetic knowledge; and under current conditions of neoliberalism, this is also no longer a question of expropriation by the State for socially planned use but a process of privatisation and enclosure, for hand-over to private commercial interests. 

Open space as opening space 

The notion of open space undergoes a fundamental change if one shifts from viewing it as something one simply gains ‘access’ to and uses to something one creates or expands, and crucially, that is created as one acts and that gains its life from our acting. When, drawing on the work of Buckminster Fuller, open space moves from being a noun to being a verb. At another level, the shift also reflects moving away from seeing open space as being provided by others, to something one gives shape to oneself through one’s actions. Nothing is open by itself; it is open because we make it so, and also because of how we make it so -- what the social relations of the space are. 

Indeed, it could be said that open space does not exist by itself; it only exists, and has meaning (and openness), because we create it.

Towards a definition? Outlines of some organising principles of open space 

In this final section before concluding, I offer -- drawing on the discussion so far -- certain formulations as suggestions towards developing a vocabulary and grammar for the practice of open space. I will not even begin to attempt a singular definition of the concept or practice, or put forward a suggestion of a common meaning. In the belief that it is more useful for each one of us to define our own frameworks for critical thought and action rather than depending on singular, universal prescriptions, and moreover that while definitions have their value, for complex and syncretic concepts such as this, frameworks that allow for multiple interpretations are more powerful -- and appropriate. 

As Nunes points out, while all of the arguments cited and developed in this essay may be true and relevant, the problem is the tendency to make these positions -- for or against the concept -- absolute and to fetishise the qualities of open space and of related practices such as horizontalism. It becomes a question of all or nothing (and all too often, of them and us), and when the ideal is not achieved, it tends to lead to paralysis and alienation. To the opposite, we must recognise that open space is inherently ambiguous, as are networks: 

…on the one hand, they are what we perceive as the conditions of possibility of horizontality, the means by which it can be achieved; on the other, they are only partial actualisations of the idea they make possible. 

The first principle would thus seem to be accepting, and respecting, both partial achievement and also the need for sustained struggle in order to attempt complete achievement. 

The fundamental problem here is of conceiving of open space as an object and as a fixed state of being. To the contrary, open space needs to be understood both as a tendency (as in openness, open-endedness) and also as an activity (such as dialogue), and not as a fixed state. This seems to have the makings of a second primary principle of open space. 

Beyond this, we must accept that open space is not inherently open, neutral, or equal, let alone progressive; it can only be so if we struggle for it to be so. The idea that an open space -- in the sense of a space declared open by someone -- is inherently or necessarily open, or is permanently open, is, even if alluring, illusory. Indeed, an uncritical and closed approach to open space is liable to lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Equally, we tend to perceive (and are often led to perceive) open space as being neutral (in the sense of a ‘level playing field’), and equal. It is not. It is subject to all the same forces as exist in life in the society within which it is created or practised, of segmentation, marginalisation, and exclusion, and of resource concentration, power play, and privilege. Again, it can only be open and equal if we constitute it to be open and struggle for equality within it and in relation to it, and take affirmative actions in support. 

As a consequence of the above, another basic characteristic of open space -- of space that is made open and is to be kept open -- is reflexivity on the part of participants. Precisely because of the inherent presence of the intense contradictions and paradoxes that we have discussed, and because of the organically dialectic nature of the phenomenon, open space can only be open when we actually practise openness in a critical and reflexive manner and when it is a conscious, sustained critical practice. Open space must be conceived, perceived, and practised as struggle; as critical action. 

In turn, opening space -- the creation, existence, nurturing, and protection of open space -- needs to be seen as an intensely human act, of recovering and/or uncovering our freedoms, our power-to, and our humanity. It is, as above, and as life itself is, full of contradictions and paradoxes, and -- as above -- we can only begin to achieve its potential if we struggle for it; but the struggle for openness is by definition life-creating. It is a struggle for life itself. 

But it is not the absoluteness or completeness of an open space alone that is important; it is also its very existence and the energy that it radiates, and the influence it has on that which is around it -- such as stimulating replications, reactions, or refractions -- that are as important as what takes place inside. As much as anything else, open space is a symbol of what is possible, and especially in contexts of relative or absolute closure or of closing spaces, such as the times in which we today live. 

A further principle is that even while recognising the above, we need always to be aware that openness and closure are two dimensions of the same movement; twin, related, and inseparable aspects. To act is to open and also to close, and to define both openness and closure, simultaneously. 

Equally, we need also to perceive that open space, and openness, has a skin, and is alive, and that it exists -- like all live things -- in dialectical tension with its environment; and we need to be consciously aware of and work with this reality. The skin is alive and permeable; but more, the skin is the point at which the inside not only meets and contaminates that which is ‘outside’ but also becomes the outside, and vice-versa. Open space is fundamentally emergent and autopoietic. 

Moving on, open space perhaps ‘works best’ when there is a multiplicity of spaces and possibilities available within or in relation to the space, allowing participants maximum freedom of opportunity; and when it is large enough, and complex enough, to allow participants to be anonymous and therefore autonomous and free. Conversely, the smaller and more particular or singular the space, the less likely it is to be open and the more it becomes necessary to consciously aim to overcome this and to act in terms of all the other organising principles of open space. 

The WSF is again a good example: Whereas the larger world meetings have tended to be the most open (and uncontrollable), particular ‘national’ and local fora have usually been somewhat more mono-ideological and monocultural, being more controlled and ‘run’ by particular ideological groupings; where anonymity and autonomy tend to become reduced. 

Open space, and openness -- as tendencies -- also need to be perceived not as ends but, like networks, as the means by which horizontal politics can be practised and relations established. I would argue that it is only in open space that we can begin to achieve what John Brown Childs has urged -- moving from a politics of conversion to an ethics of respect. Indeed, creating an open space is one of the first steps in such a shift and in the practise of this ethic. 

Further, although to speak of open space as structure and organisation might seem contradictory -- because these terms are associated with hierarchy -- this is precisely what open space does: It challenges and subverts the idea that structure and organisation are necessarily vertical or programmed. It offers an alternative; a horizontal structure, a web. It contaminates and subverts conventional structure -- and conventional conceptualisation. It gives us a new, more organic vocabulary for structure and form. 

The concept and practice of open space challenges conventional organisational thinking in the civil world, at local, national, regional, and global levels, and conventional ideas and practices of organisation and association. This is not to assert that it is superior; only that it challenges other practices. It frees -- and challenges -- us to think and act freely. By virtue of its nature, it is, moreover, not just an organisational form. As I have earlier written in terms of the WSF, it 

…places a demand on us that we keep the space free of control and resist temptations to try to control it. This poses a challenge not only to mainstream, orthodox, and conservative thinking and practice but also -- and perhaps even more so -- to all those organisations and initiatives that consider themselves to be ‘progressive’ or claim to be working in terms of ‘alternatives’ but that are doing so through forms and relations that remain conventionally bounded and territorial. It therefore represents a radical challenge to most existing organisations and movements at a very basic level. 

The fundamental participant in open space would seem to be, ultimately, the individual; as an individual and not in terms of communal identity or in representation. Open space, indeed, when open, tends to subvert communal and organisational identity -- though equally, communal and organisational identity tend to subvert open space. 

On the other hand, if open space only becomes open space if we make it so, and if we progressively define principles and practices for helping to keep it open, this indicates and requires a community that becomes defined and constituted through the very act of opening space and of defining the relation of open space. Both individual and community are therefore fundamental to open space, and the emancipatory potential of open space moves from the individual to also embracing the collective. 

We need also to recognise that as a consequence of the material conditions and general culture within which we today live, at least in many parts of the world, we are in the midst of a major process of reculturalisation. We are moving from a belief in linear, programmed, clockwork movement and politics (and life) to a far more open-ended culture, with a far higher degree of reliance on autonomy, self-organisation, and responsibility. We need therefore to reflect on our programmed tendencies to believe in linear programmes and organisations, and (for instance) our tendency to see only ordered spaces as beautiful; and to consider a willingness to open ourselves to critically embrace the outcomes of openness and of open-endedness -- of clouds; of the beauty of clouds of society; of history; and of life itself. 

Finally, while there may be no one definition of open space being dependent as it is on particular contexts, it seems possible that it can achieve a common meaning across different cultures the more that different communities, from different contexts, enter and share the same spaces. Perhaps this too is the magic of the World Social Forum, and what it is doing and offering to the world today.   

(This is an edited excerpt from Jai Sen’s paper entitled ‘On Open Space: Explorations Towards a Vocabulary of a More Open Politics’, and drawing also from an earlier version of this paper, ‘Opening Open Space: Notes on the Grammar and Vocabulary of the Concept of Open Space’. The complete version of the current paper, with notes and references, is available at    

(Jai Sen is an architect and researcher based in New Delhi. He is a Director of CACIM [India Institute for Critical Action -- Centre in Movement])

Infochange News & Features, August 2009