“I believe that every generation needs its own spaces in the city”. Emilia Palonen about the relationship between populism and urbanistics

Contestation of discourses is a reality, in which we live. Symbolic politics in cities and countrysides eliminates the borders between historic memory and modern changes in politics. Cultural values are constantly overlooked, and new local projects replace the unfavourable global ones. Researcher and professor of the University of Helsinki Emilia Palonen shared thoughts about how political communication is realised around us and how some actors use crises for their own purposes

Emilia, you are an active scholar of  the University of Helsinki who combines scientific work and participation in social life. I`ve recently read your article “Cultural populism: the case of Guggenheim Helsinki” and became very curious about the relationship between urban planning and populism. Could you explain how you came up with an idea to apply both Laclaudian discourse analysis and cultural populism theory by McGuigan to the case?

Well, I am a Laclaudian scholar because I was raised to be that at Essex: twenty years ago, I went there to study with Ernesto Laclau. I realised that it is a theory that can be used for many different things. I`ve already started working with street names and memorials during my BA thesis, so I continued with this topiс at my Master`s degree. I was actually studying a Trafalgar Square and politics of Ken Livingstone, first mayor of London. During my PhD, I included architecture in Budapest and ultimately moved on to the polarisation in Hungary. Afterwards, I got interested in European identity and the Capitals of Сulture programme in Europe and ended up teaching cultural policy at the University of Jyväskylä. There I got acquainted with Jim McGuigan whose summer course I took as a postdoc. So, these two figures just ended up in my life. I`ve been teaching McGuigan`s work before, I met him, we were talking about populism. It was not my choice.

What I think is interesting about the Guggenheim is that the debate about a particular cultural policy became so divisive. It was really an audience-building debate at the City Council of Helsinki and it didn’t follow the previous lines of cultural policy identities. It actually generated really strong opposition and defence. Checkpoint Helsinki is an example of how resistance became broader.

Which was the role of the alternative Checkpoint Helsinki Modern Art project? Was it an adversary to Guggenheim or a separate project accidentally brought on the arena because of the circumstances?

As usual there have been some reflections and projects before, I am not a great judge of that.  I think there was a great need for counterproject in the alternative hegemony, and Checkpoint Helsinki played this role really well. It was an articulation of the type “We are opposed, so why don’t we think again and propose something else?”. Opposition to Guggenheim automatically supported the new project, so polarisation gave a tone to the debate.

Did the counterproject become successful?

It has been pursued and it continues. I think the Checkpoint project was important in terms of cultural policy because it made people reflect on what they really want. Values, brought with Guggenheim Museum, focused on a commercialised ability of Finish design. In spite of basing on internationalism and global apparatus,  the Guggenheim Foundation, the whole reflection brough up and supported completely different cultural policies, such as the library policy. In some ways the politicisation of the Guggenheim plan became a better grounding for alternative visions on a larger scale.

In the article I really liked your idea about value contestation between the Guggenheim and the Checkpoint. In case of the former you made a strong stress on the internationalisation of the nation, whereas the second project seemed to be more locally oriented.

Yes, of course this confrontation could take quite worrying totalising and homogenising tones, like refuting internationalisation and going back to the roots, essentialising those roots etc. Contestation can be done in many ways. If you consider it as a platform of different projects that came out or were strengthened by the Guggenheim case, we can see that it was not homogeneous, but rather heterogeneous proliferation of “real desires” and of what is really Finnish, Nordic, Helsinki-based. Checkpoint Helsinki was localist and globalist.

What are your thoughts about the future of Guggenheim Helsinki? Will it be finally constructed, or rest suspended?

I think that’s already decided and it is not going to happen in Helsinki. I would be surprised if it came back in, as it has already been done twice. They are planning a new museum now. It was not a problem of money and there are still people who would really like to see Guggenheim here, but it would be very difficult to legitimate public funds for this.

Addressing the topic of legitimation, which you’ve brought, I would like to discuss your article “Building a New City through a New Discourse: Street Naming Revolutions in Budapest”. Both you and your uncle have published thought-provoking works in the book “Political Life and Urban Streetscape”. They create an impression that street names are a source of stability, so naming is irreplaceable without being legitimised. In your opinion, from where this legitimacy derives: from the rearticulations of political elites or from social request?

It is not my feeling that Hungarian population at large wanted changes to the street names and memorials. But there were quite some active people, reversing statues. Back in the day when I was working on this research in Hungary, I was talking with ordinary people in villages and they didn’t even use street names. They were using other signs and local coordinates. The Lenin street in a small village wouldn’t even play a role. Of course, it is more the power holders who want to signal change. It is also true that the vocabulary we walk around leaves some mark. We don’t necessarily actively realise that this is a powerful canon we are subjected to. But when the canon is politicised, then its political value is highlighted. Street naming has also been a tool in Eastern Europe and other places worldwide to signal political changes. However, while making my early investigations in the UK, I noticed that nobody cared about street names. In my hometown as well, there was a Stalin’s street and nobody cared. There was no political will for symbolic politicisation and transformation.  It is not up until recently that statues have been reversed. Only now the Black Lives Matter movement urges to challenge racist figures of the colonial period in the UK. Politicisation is required for protests from below, such as Black Lives Matter. In Hungary, a memory of the 1956 Revolution brought a new type of wooden memorials of mourning, and there is one built next to the shopping centre. In some ways, the presence of difficult memories in the streets enables people to take stands and signal something. It is not a bad thing that there would be some historical layers. If there weren’t any ideological elements in the cityscapes, the city text would be just land, flowers, and trees. There wouldn’t be a chance to experience historical layering of new streets and historical values. There would be no way to contest some past readings and canons that had been established on the streets. I think it is important to have commemorative street names, and we have to be attentive to next generations, critical readings of the previous generations and different power holders.

You have mentioned the integration of memory in city spaces. Indeed, nowadays people become surrounded with commemorative places that cannot be avoided. What do you think about such an overpenetration?

A point about how people are using places constructed for them, or not for them perhaps, is excellent. For whom are they constructed and how do people relate to them? Do people use places in the way expected from the top? All extremely relevant questions. They sort of relate to our other project that we are having since the beginning of the year. It is called “Now-Time Us-Space: Hegemonic Mobilisations in Central Eastern Europe” and is funded by Kone Foundation, one of the main independent bodies in Finland. In the project we are looking at how populists reshape spaces in different countries and how they emphasise certain kinds of memories over the others. Whether you are talking about football stadiums, like in Hungary, or historical rebuilding projects, they are all connected with money and contracts with certain firms. It is not just about the ideological content, but about where something is being built, which spaces are being occupied and who is building. Of course, there are commercialised spaces for the masses, such as fairs, but there is also a political control of public symbols that is taking place. All in all, I believe that every generation needs its own spaces in the city.

My last question is about your cultural populism study calledWhirl of Knowledge”. Could you tell more about it and maybe share some prominent results?

We have been learning more and more about the connection between social media, political communication, and politics. During this COVID period we have been studying the ways in which the COVID-19 was communicated in different European countries. For instance, in Czech Republic it was a very quick turn to the DIY masks, and a kind of spirit from the old days of scarcity pushed everybody to wear masks. And suddenly, because there were not so many cases, people stopped wearing them. This example shows how some identification becomes dominant: wearing masks or not is a part of building identity. Governments also played a role in identification. The power holders communicated information in social media with the symbols of Czech flag and iconic landscapes. I believe, governments have an ability to communicate to us through cultural ways, so that nationalism becomes a key legitimating force in all communication. Militaries in Hungary are currently sneaking to the national mindset, as defence against the COVID-19 justifies the presence of the military in hospitals. We would see in different countries` cases an attention to lowering distance between the government and the people. A soft approach in Finland with press conferences for school kids and a military one in Hungary have a purpose of calming down people. A militarisation of society in Hungary during the crisis allows a polarised debate between the two rocks that will never meet, but there is no effect on the policy from this debate. When we look at how information flows between different groups of people, we can also see how particular debates have been carried out in the countries and whether there was a space for debate at all.


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