Participatory Culture, Placemaking, & the Umbrella Movement

Henry Jenkins lays out the main characteristics of participatory culture:

  • Affiliations — memberships, formal and informal, in online communities centered around various forms of media, such as Friendster, Facebook, message boards, metagaming, game clans, or MySpace).
  • Expressions — producing new creative forms, such as digital sampling, skinning and modding, fan videomaking, fan fiction writing, zines, mash-ups).
  • Collaborative Problem-solving — working together in teams, formal and informal, to complete tasks and develop new knowledge (such as through Wikipedia, alternative reality gaming, online message forums).
  • Circulations — Shaping the flow of media (such as tweeting, podcasting, blogging).

Overall, participatory culture has called for a hightened sense of participation, transparency, and ethics. But while all of these characteristics are truly revolutionary for what it means to be a consumer and a producer in the west (and countless examples from western fanfiction can be found in published articles), I think there are many more instances of participatory culture throughout the globe that do not seem to be recognized as participatory culture through this western understanding.

In this little blurb (more like note), I’ll try to argue that placemaking is possibly the most powerful characteristic of participatory culture. If we could consider a diagram, for a moment, I think it could be stated that affiliations, expressions, collaborative problem solving, and curculations are all actions that result from an overarching process of placemaking. For this example, I like to think of placemaking as an umbrella, with each of the other characteristics of participatory culture falling underneath. If an online space, users connect across geographical and geopolitical borders, assert a degree of control in that space, and make that place theirs for cultural production, engagement, and building communities with shared causes. This same process occurs in physical spaces, too.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong presents numerous examples of placemaking. The pro-Dmocracy Movement, which utilized the symbol of an umbrella as an icon of defiance and resistance to th Hong Kong government, began with September 28, 2014 and continued into mid-December. The protests began in reaction to a Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) decision that gave more Communist Party control of the Hong Kong electorate. During this time, primarily students took part in the peaceful protests that gave an incredible visibility to this movement.

The streets of Hong Kong became a temporary canvas for activist art. Notes, origami, remixed police and street signs, sculptures, and even entire workspaces were etched onto the streets during the months of the protests.

For instance, a makeshift work bench was created using a concrete barrier and salvaged wood. This barrier helped make the streetways a space for both continuing schoolwork and for making materials. Ad hoc temples were built on street corners, workers depicted on construction signs were affized with umbrellas, umbrella origami were tied across streetways, mock memorials were held for Cy Leung, and a sculpture of a man holding an umbrella was constructed (which is modeled after a photograph of a protester sheilding a police officer from the rain).

All of these examples of peaceful, activist art speak to the ways that placemaking occured in Hong Kong streets. The art was later removed, violently, once the protests came to a close and order was restored (the Umbrella Movement Visual Archives and Research Collective is trying to recover and archive the existing materials). While the streets become a temporary canvas for art activists, social media provided another way for protesters to archive this event and circulate images of the art, thus creating even more visibility and global reach to the movement.

In a recent class with Stuart, he told us about how Buddhist monks spend countless hours creating mandalas in the sand, which are then blown away in the wind. The mandalas are created with the understanding that they are temporary; it is the process, the patience, and the symbolism of making is important. I believe the Umbrella Movement worked in a similar way. The collaboration, working with physical materials and circulating them via digital means, the process of asserting a degree of control and establishing a sense of place presented both temporary and long-term ways that social movements can have an impact on political and cultural order.

So I guess, after writing this and thinking through these ideas, I’m not entirely sure if we can assert the term “participatory culture” to the phenomenon that uccured in Hong Kong last year. It might very well be my own agenda in thinking that a primarily western-centric term can apply to this situation, and I’m hesitant to assert that here. I do think that elements of participatory culture can be found in many different contexts – especially with the truly global reach of the Internet – yet I also think it must be understood as a phenomenon that ought to be carefully revised for different movements, actions, and cultures. I also think that more work needs to be done to understand participatory culture as a phenomenon that involves entire networks on physical materials, physical spaces, and of course digital spaces as well. The interrelations between the physical and digital and the possibilities/phenomena of placemaking are more areas that need to be explored.