Refusing the Past, Imagining the Future

Nick Cave's Joy Parade; Uphams Corner, Boston. photo by Hakim Raquib

Imagination is a contested field of action, not an ephemeral afterthought that we have the luxury to dismiss or romanticize, but a resource, a battleground . . . We should acknowledge that most people are forced to live inside someone else's imagination. 

Ruja Benjamin, Sociologist, Professor and Author 

In our paper Spatial Justice, DS4SI frames spatial justice as the rights to be, thrive, express, and connect in and across public space. For BIPOC artists, the interconnectedness of spatial justice and their role as visionaries and imagination warriors is critical. As legendary artist and musician Sun Ra once said, “Space is the place.” For this pioneer of Afro-futurism, the scale of the nation—or even the world—wasn’t big enough. He was cosmic. He was futuristic. He could not even be contained by the present. And that is another critical role for artists right now. On the most basic level, it means that BIPOC artists are both fighting for spatial justice in their own lives and leading the way in reclaiming their imagined futures. As we think about this in relationship to public space, it means:

  1. Spatial justice includes BIPOC artists’ rights to literally be in public—to go about their business and pleasure without concern for violence. Just like the experiences of their families and communities, they face constant challenges to their movements through space, risks to their health, and indignities to their humanity. This is important to remember as many white arts donors think to themselves, “Hmm, maybe this is not the time to support the arts. Maybe police reform or affordable housing is more important right now.” This false dichotomy acts as if BIPOC artists aren’t facing the violence of police or the risk of being priced out of their homes and communities. 
  2. Spatial justice includes BIPOC artists’ rights to express themselves in public—to paint, dance, sing, build, perform, carve, drum, etc. These expressions of life, joy, pain and imagination have always been a part of their communities’ ability to not just survive but thrive. And their rights to express themselves beyond their neighborhoods, to be in public on their own terms at the heart of our towns and cities is also spatial justice. We must consider what resources need to shift to invest in BIPOC artists at the scale of the town/city, the state and the region.

As we look at the role of public art in spatial justice, let us look first at our contested present. In this moment of both Covid-19 and the constant display of deadly police violence against the Black community, we are seeing BIPOC folks leading the refusal to return to the “old normal.” Among other things, this includes an outcry against the monuments that symbolize that old normal.  The physical toppling of these statues is an embodied refusal of the past and of whites’ acceptance and immortalization of that past into shared common spaces. It is an act that says, “We refuse to live (or die) in someone else’s imagination.”

It is one important thing to literally and symbolically tear down the old normal, but it is a whole other thing to imagine a new one to take its place! While people across the U.S. are taking our respective places in demanding change—from tearing down statues to marching, voting, funding, etc.—it is artists who can truly help us see, feel, taste, smell and hear the world we want to build around us.

We at DS4SI believe that this next step in a spatial justice imagination project must be led by BIPOC artists. If monuments and statues serve as inanimate celebrations of a racist past, what will BIPOC artists dream up as living—loud, human, delicious, vibrant, beautiful—monuments to a collective, thriving future? And for white folks who are ready to take down monuments to our racist past, we must also resist our inclinations (and authority) to privilege our past and present white notions of what is “appropriate” to take their place.

As we all begin to come back out to join each other in public, this extraordinary moment calls for a plethora of opportunities to collectively imagine. Led by BIPOC artists in and across our communities, let us step into imagining and activating what a spatially just world can be. Let us create a scale of engagement that says back to our institutions—our schools, health centers, funders, governments, police, etc.—that they must live in our imagination. We at DS4SI can’t wait to see what BIPOC artists dream up!


Lori Lobenstine, Co-founder, Design Studio for Social Intervention

At DS4SI, Lori Lobenstine has helped design social interventions such as Public Kitchen, Social Emergency Response Center (SERC), and inPUBLIC, as well as engaging the public through creative placemaking.  Her new book (co-authored with DS4SI) is “Ideas-Arrangements--Effects: Systems Design and Social Justice” (Minor Compositions, 2020).

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