To See and Be Seen: Brief Notes on Looking at a Public Space

By Alfonse Chiu

In his inaugural piece for GRC, Alfonse Chiu observes public space, and the public’s place within—or without it. Drawing lines of sight between the visible and permissible, the democratised street view and the panoptic eye, to map attitudes towards the ostensibly public and subtly private.

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In the realm of spaces, the distinction between what is public and what is private is first and foremost a visual one: the amorous teen couple’s bid for privacy in a public park begins not with convenience or proximity to amenities, but seclusion, hopefully inaccessible to the potentially voyeuristic gaze of an imagined audience; the easiest way of demarcating occupancy at your favourite table in the food court—in Singapore at least—is with a packet of tissue paper, a water bottle, an umbrella—a small but noticeable visual cue innocuous and banal enough to just register as a signal that the table is taken and not prompt any other response apart from going to look for another table. Even in its definitions, one notion of public-ness is something that is “done, perceived, or existing in open view,” a conception which naturally situates the antonymic private as something which would thus be hidden or exclusive—behind closed doors, as one may say.

Given that open visibility is one of the necessary signals designating a space as public, it is thus logical that how a space is visible and other aspects of its visual elements should also determine the way we interact with or inhabit it; a lived fact that we understand intrinsically. A public garden without gates and fences is infinitely more inviting than the version with them, because we can see how the latter is closed off tangibly from a larger spatial context, as well as understand on more abstract terms what the presence of fences and gates imply with regards to access. We might posit a couple of conjectures based on our observation: that something which is contained, is ostensibly something of value but also potentially of hazard; that the presence of a physical barrier is either to keep things out or to keep things in; that such a space might not be entirely welcoming, but perhaps only to certain segments of the population.

Beyond immediate visual access, the other discernible elements of a space are equally important—how big it is, what is in it, how to navigate it, etc—when we are trying to figure out how best to use it, or avoid it. For example, taking the namesake (and impetus) of the larger programme that the GRC is part of, a public square is an accessible, spatial entity that engages with the idea of a public on multiple levels, each with its own visual implications.

The first, and most obvious, is that a public square is a space for public gatherings and civic unions—mass functions which require an expansive and reasonably hard surface to support a huge volume of bodies; in this regard, the most efficient visual organisation of the space is thus a flat, plain hardscape, which levels the sight line and provides a malleable and blank environment that can be occupied easily.

The second is that a public square is a square used to show something to the public, such as monuments and statues, where a towering feature’s juxtaposition against a wide, empty, and flat area can provoke both a sense of austerity and awe for the grandeur of the feature itself, as well as be imposingly visible from all corners of the space; this symbolic occupation of both physical space and social psyche is especially expedient for the formation of triumphant, nation-building narratives, where granularity is often sacrificed at the altar of the grand creation myth.

The third, and easily the most alarming, is that a public square is a space of heightened surveillance. Commonly formed with the bracketing of an empty area by civil infrastructures and buildings, a public square’s ease and capacity for gatherings is matched by the facility with which it could be observed from any point of higher elevation. This draws into sharp relief the supposed freedom of assembly that such a space implies, against the constant, training gaze of the state on such congregations, and thus illustrating a uni-directional power dynamic that these ambivalent interactions insinuate between the state and the public.

In the wake of these three implications, a public square in Singapore—Hong Lim Park, and its mistaken facsimile of the Speakers’ Corner and accompanying security cameras; the freshly renamed Armenian Street Garden, and its forcibly transplanted Peranakan identity, courtesy of the also forcibly transplanted Peranakan Museum; or even the Padang, recently gazetted as a National Monument, to name some examples—could be seen as clear demonstrations of the tensions that arise between civic activations of/by the public and the civic notions of the public as lovingly prescribed by the state, which takes the tabula rasa nature of a public square at face value and imposes on it either the panoptic presence of official supervision (Hong Lim) or a manufactured past that toys with the historicity of public discourse and disorientates one’s bearings (Armenian Street Garden).

Too often when we think of looking at a public space, the first framing that comes to mind is of the expansive, masterplan-esque urbanscape, lensed by drones and helicopters, hovering above the city looking downwards, and the little pockets of space marked by the absence of a building that may indicate a park, a street, or a plaza. We forget that the true view of a public space is at street level; the same as a pedestrian on the pavement glancing over as she rushes to a meeting, or the tired father with a stroller looking for a place for his overactive toddler to exhaust her seemingly boundless energy.

In this sense, the street view is the only truly democratic way of perceiving the built environment because it is a view—barring slight differences in elevation owing to height or accessibility issues—that is both universal and individual. However, this is also a presumption that comes with a caveat of purely physical occupancy; it is democratic in the sense anyone can be there, but the true markers of civic freedom remain bracketed by the quotidian and ubiquitous presence of surveillance and self-censorship, which is a reason why incursions touching on public ownership of public spaces remain so neutered in states such as Singapore, where an official dogma goes unarticulated yet clearly understood—that public spaces are meant for transit, and rapid ones at that; anything else, get a permit.

Loitering ‘for…immoral purpose’ is liable to fining (Note the ambivalences of such a word as ‘immoral.’ Whose working definition are we using?) and at least one person now has been arrested for putting on a procession with just their own presence; these occur amongst other sanctioned intrusions and ownerships of what is ostensibly public by private corporations. The irony runs high here.

Public spaces may become private, and private spaces may become public. What determines it is not state ownership—think of all the State Land signs stuck onto empty plots of land earmarked for future development, posturing against the occasional strolling dog and owner—but the capacity for it to embody the fundamental conception of democracy: the ability to question power, and the power to do it. To make a space visible, to make it public, is to challenge and contest, is to proclaim a citizen’s inalienable rights to answers. Do you hear the people sing?

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