ISSUE #2 THE SQUARE, SPRING 2013
EPISODES
Public Diversions
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Despite the fact that Kuwait’s population is fragmented and its people insulated, the capital’s residents are reclaiming communal spaces for gathering and exchange. Conversations about civic engagement are also taking place through international art and design biennials, on social media platforms, and by way of groundbreaking architectural initiatives.

Not only does the law forbid large groups from convening, but Kuwait’s built environment and harsh climate are also rather inhospitable to public gathering. The country’s outdoor squares, courtyards, and parks are sparsely populated throughout the year. Functional sidewalks are virtually non-existent, and the great distance between places makes it difficult to move around the city as a pedestrian. Residential areas are completely isolated from commercial ones by uncrossable highways, thanks to an urban master plan designed by the British in 1952, featuring impractical roundabouts and a fanning grid system of roads that was merciless in demolishing the traditional mud houses of old Kuwait.

Today, the capital’s skyscrapers glitter, gleam, and flash with lavish lighting on national holidays – a dubious promise of a better future. The concern about this shortsighted vision, which results from an eagerness to build vertically as opposed to horizontally, is that it privileges commercial ventures and foreign investments over the preservation of cultural heritage in Kuwait, to say nothing of the unique diversity of its built environment.

Kuwait’s activists and artists are seeing past this constructed horizon and intervening in the vision for the country’s future. Activists on the ground doggedly persisted in their protests in Sahat Al Erada (Square of Will) as Kuwait’s sky lit up apocalyptically for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its constitution. Pedestrians are taking back public spaces by staging acts of rebellion in them: using parks and exercise walkways to overturn the country’s conservative dating norms, staging flash mobs in the shopping malls, and dancing publicly despite the law against such forms of expression.

Artists, architects, and intellectuals are also asserting their right to participate in public space. By proposing contemporary interpretations of the diwaniya (a weekly forum for political discussion and community gathering) at international design festivals, architects and their creative counterparts are involving the rest of the world in the preservation of Kuwait’s traditions. By the same token, they are also reinterpreting the foundations of political engagement in the oldest Gulf nation. Academics are pushing to archive and analyze the different phases of Kuwait’s urban development as well as the impact of these ongoing changes on the public consciousness. In imagining Kuwait governed by surreal physics and fictional topographies, artists such as Alia Farid and Aseel Al Yagoub propose a world so impossible that it invites new forms of participation in public space.

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