Cultural Activism and Occupy Movement: Contemporary Methods for Communication of Socio-Spatial Discontents?

“Cities—including their sub-urban peripheries—have become increasingly important geographical targets and institutional laboratories for a variety of neoliberal policy experiments, […] urban development corporations, public-private partnerships […] The overarching goal of such neoliberal urban policy experiments is to mobilize city space as an arena both for market-oriented economic growth and for elite consumption practices.”1

As the above string of ideas by Brenner and Theodore describes, the relationship between today’s capitalism and urbanization raises concerns on issues about justice regarding the right to the city2. Legal-economic drivers of neoliberal urbanization—such as global investment pressure, privatization, and prioritizing profit rather than people’s actual needs—together with its socio-spatial consequences—such as uneven development within and among cities, gentrification, and formation of a privileged fraction within the society—seem to be the origin of motivation for people to occupy (and eventually to eat and sleep at) public spaces that are already theirs, be it a park, a street, or a square, since the very first gathering in September 2011 in Wall Street. When the major Occupy events in the global North and South are analyzed, it can be argued that the Occupy Movement addresses the aforementioned struggles between policies and practices of neoliberal urbanization as well as its consecutive limitations on individual’s right to the city.

Since the causes and outcomes of Occupy Movement have already been discussed from many different perspectives so far, I rather want to focus on cultural activism in this regard and I choose to approach it as a precursor of new forms of expression of socio-spatial discontents. As authors Buser, Bonura, Fannin, and Boyer argue in their article Cultural activism and the politics of place-making4, the spatial role that—temporary, humorous, oftentimes informal—creative practices play is a powerful means towards motivating social and political change (Buser, et al., 2013). For instance, prior to its strong expression in May 2013 during the Gezi Park protests nationwide, socio-political tension in Turkey has been an inspiration for numerous creative practices in the form of cultural activism in general and street art in particular, as it has also influenced the intensity of the tension in a reciprocal relationship.

Several provocative installations of a street art group called Avareler (Turkish word for Tramps) started to appear in the urban core of Turkey’s capital Ankara, emerging as spatial reflections of the aforementioned rising tension. Blended together with black humor, these street art implementations have been in the form of indirect occupations of public space elements—such as billboards, abandoned buildings, empty walls, or even trash containers—as an unexpected way of practicing one’s right to the city.

Below images are from one of the street art implementations of Avareler in the form of an indirect occupation, from February 2012. Several doll puppets with placards occupied the façade of an unutilized building at a very central location. The building was formerly affiliated by LGBTI community; therefore already having a symbolic meaning as a center of attention.


Left: Doll puppets and placards at the façade of an abandoned building in central Ankara.

Right: Informality resulting in immediate tearing down.

The messages on the placards can be regarded as a critique on the monotonous urban life of citizens of Ankara, neoliberal individuals3, as the doll puppets criticize: ‘your today is just like your yesterday, Ankara,’ and as they advise: ‘go see some concerts, museums, movies Ankara,’ ‘go have some fun tonight, Ankara’.

The overall impact of the act of occupation at a global scale is of course debatable, but it seems that there is always something to learn from these incidents, as they are the indicators of dissatisfactions at a societal scale. Put in other words, they carry clues of where socio-spatial discontents are located. In order to improve socio-political circumstances for the net benefit of the society, better policies and practices should be implemented. And in order to determine these strategies, the key element seems not to shoot the messenger, but to understand the message it carries.

Pınar Bilgiç

Image source:


1 Brenner, N., & Theodore, N. (2002). Cities and the geographies of “actually existing    neoliberalism.”  Spaces of             Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America         and Western Europe, 349–379. p. 368.

2 as conceptualized in:The Right to the City, referring to the descriptions of Henri Lefebvre        and David Harvey.

3 as conceptualized in: Erman, T. (2016). “Mış Gibi Site” Ankara’da Bir TOKİ-Gecekondu          Dönüşüm Sitesi (“Wannabe      Neighborhood” A TOKİ – Gecekondu           Transformation Neighborhood in Ankara) (1st ed.). İletişim.

4 Buser, M., Bonura, C., Fannin, M., & Boyer, K. (2013). Cultural activism and the politics of     place-makingCity17(5), 606-627.


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