Feminist Performative Architectures: Making Space in and with Public Space

Helen Stratford | Artist and Lecturer in Architecture, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Bringing together concepts of performativity from feminist theories and methods from architecture, performance and art practice, this paper develops methodologies that examine how particular public spaces are performed. Led by an enquiry which stems from and includes my own interdisciplinary practice research, itself located in-between architecture, performance, socially engaged art, ethnography and civic action, it investigates in what way this research might interrogate public spaces situated within regeneration frameworks, in order to address how dominant power relations are reproduced in, by and through these spaces.

Central to this research is a critique of the current context of undertheorised notions of performativity in architecture alongside a ubiquitous neoliberal glossing of public space. In order to address both concerns, this enquiry reframes performativity as both feminist research methodology: an emergent, performance-based yet situated practice, and research subject: a way of thinking critically about or through the place of public space.

Focusing on The Day of the Duck, an artist’s book that evolved out of a 6-month artist residency gravitating around a small patch of council managed ground by the River Great Ouse in the city of Ely, Cambridgeshire UK, this paper builds on feminist posthuman, ecological and multispecies perspectives, including those of Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway, to question who might be considered active participants in the social and material infrastructures of public space. In this context, rather than designing solutions the practice research methodology deploys parody and humor to play with the collision of the ducks’ visceral presence with the structures of public space. Here, ‘feminist performative architectures’ generate topological spaces; ‘situations’ developed through dialogue and in provocation with other people, places and politics that include the non-human.

Ultimately, this paper expands the spectrum of practice-led research and modes of researching public space. It critiques objectified accounts of placemaking by extending understandings of public spaces through making visible their performativity in ways unavailable to conventional architectural research methods. In creating relational, yet situated, spaces that embrace difference, it argues that public space is at once performed and produced by many bodies together; pointing towards more fundamental ecological, ethical and political questions about how we relate to ‘nature’ and public space in the city.