Gestures of Disruption:

Exercising Agency in Public Space

Michalina Gradzik

‘Public space is the opposite of private space, it is the opposite of privatised space.’ 1

This sounds like a logical statement, yet it is not obvious at all in the modern city. Public squares and plazas are being gradually taken over by café gardens where sitting has a price, lawns are regularly trimmed so that no ‘undesirable’ weed can peek above the vibrant green grass, and pedestrians stroll while security cameras silently watch. Everything looks great, everything is under control. Within the context of extremely formalised and supervised public space in the centre of The Hague, through my own actions I tried to find out how to regain a feeling of spatial agency, instead of accepting the role of obedient visitor.

1 Wim Cuyvers, ‘Musea voor actuele kunst, van het bordeel via de school naar Ikea’ in De Witte Raaf, edition 128, July–August 2007, accessed through:

Over the last few months, I have been developing accessible ways of altering public space using broadly available materials and solutions. I came up with three categories of actions:

  • poking a hole in the framework as a way of loosening the rigid design ties from the inside (e.g. removing a paving tile, planting an edible plant among flowers and grass, painting the pebbles to stand out from the overall gravel surface),

  • disrupting the edge, questioning whether the strict boundary was ever necessary (e.g. swapping soil and gravel on two sides of the curb), and

  • appreciating the depreciated, challenging what is considered wanted and unwanted (e.g. taking care of the nettle bush and planting more, feeding and inviting the pigeons rather than chasing them away).

The list works as a proposal and is open to expansion and alteration by viewers of the work.

The installation presents a maquette of a public square, near to Hofvijver in The Hague, which is designed to let visitors try out the interventions without exposing themselves to the consequences this would have in real life. The maquette aims to show that many small, seemingly ‘invisible’ actions, when accumulated together, have the capacity to tangibly change space. In addition, the video documentation of my actions in-situ enables viewers to understand the dynamics of performing those interventions in public. The takeaway tools and the 'practice ground' of the maquette aim to encourage viewers to take the actions from the exhibition space out into their own local areas.

Seeing some of my family members struggle with access in public space made me understand how a city can be an obstacle course for pedestrians, due to inconsiderate design decisions. When it comes to objecting to the current conditions, it turns out that there are limited channels for expressing disagreement and suggesting change, because of the intentionally complex bureaucratic framework imposed by municipalities. This leads to passive social consent and tolerance of discomfort. Despite occasional participatory workshops, institutional stakeholders decide to what extent local people will be invited to join in spatial design processes, but true co-design happens only when all voices have equal power and agency. All of that leads to systemic exclusion of those with atypical needs or wants, a lack of a sense of belonging and ownership over public space, and, in many cases, a loss of social relevance of public space as a welcoming platform of self-expression.

Through this project I want to address the need for trust, from the institutional and bureaucratic realm, that people know best how to make use of their space. In Gestures of Disruption, the word ‘gesture’ represents a small, simple, but meaningful action, which, when repeated and recreated by many individuals, can alter both the materiality of and general discourse around public space. During the process I understood that a feeling of agency doesn’t necessarily only come with the final visible change, but already while performing the action. Within this work, I want to re-think the way in which public space is demarcated, designed, and maintained. While I do understand the need for broader systemic actions, this project focuses on a small-scale approach to re-gain the feeling of individual agency. I practised using DIY methods in the design process, which was important in making those solutions universally re-creatable.

At the Master of Industrial Design department I understood the importance of the broader context in which my work exists. I learned how relevant it is to specify where I am coming from as a designer, to avoid oversimplifying and generalising complex issues. Trained as an architect and industrial designer, I am constantly driven by witnessing spatial injustice and I want to keep learning to recognise and effectively stand against it though my practice.