Lilia Voronkova

Lilia Voronkova is a social anthropologist and curator. Since 2003 she has been working in the Centre for Independent Social Research (CISR, St. Petersburg, Russia) as a researcher, and as a coordinator of trans-disciplinary art-social science projects. In 2013 she co-founded Open Urban Lab (OUL) – the interdisciplinary network of professionals working in the areas of urban research and urban planning. Since 2014 she has been working as an assistant to the director of a Master’s program in urban research and design at the Urban Design Institute “Sreda” (St. Petersburg). Lilia Voronkova has realised several art-science projects in the form of public events and exhibitions in the urban environment.

What’s wrong with public space in Russian cities?

(The case of public art festival in St. Petersburg, Russia)

Western debate about urban public spaces usually revolves around the lament on privatization of public space (Sharon Zukin, Richard Sennet). Such privatization is seen and presented as the main danger for public space. Drawing on my research and art-management practice in Russian cities, I would like to shift the focus and stress two other threats that jeopardize public spaces: firstly, the general public’s lack of demand for public life and secondly, the indifference, if not intolerance, of public authorities towards urban public space.

The initial idea of this presentation came from a certain disappointment I and my fellow urbanists experienced in our research and civic practices.

On the one hand, we have Western social scientists raising the alarm when public spaces – parks, squares, even streets – are privatised in a drive towards businesses ownership and private management. They call to cherish communication between strangers and to support it with the infrastructure of “proper” public space.

On the other hand, we have the realities of our cities and citizens who like to build impenetrable (for others) boundaries in urban space, dislike strangers and communication with them, and rather prefer to demolish the infrastructure that can support it. In our reality we also have city authorities that do not allow any life and activities to happen in public space, prefer to restrict it, and do not spend any money or make any efforts to arrange or manage working public spaces. So the only way to organise interesting and lively public events (a public art festival in my case) and arrange a working pubic space, post-socialist Petersburg, for example – is to do it in collaboration with the business community. In other words: public life in post-socialist Russian cities has almost no opportunity to happen neither in a publicly-run (by city dwellers) space nor in a state-run spaces; it can only happen on a private land of a business. This situation shows a contradiction with the dominant Western discourse.

The presentation is based on the case of public art festival “Art Prospect” that took place in Petersburg in September 2014. I will show the problems, contradictions and potential of public art in urban public spaces and will pose some question for further discussion.