The Production Of The Public Media Essay

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Public. Experiences from
Prasad Shetty & Rupali Gupte
The idea of public is central to urban planning. Most decisions in planning processes are taken in the name of the public. Public infrastructure, public spaces, public amenities, and so forth, are commonly used terms in the planners' vocabulary. Public here is agreed as all people or everybody. There is an entirety promised in the idea of the public, which is understood to be a clear entity. As any ambiguity or complications in the idea of public would destabilize planning, conceptual discussions on this subject are taboo for the discipline. Hence there is a conceptual closure of the idea, where the public explicitly means a definite entity. The messy urban conditions of Mumbai provide a clear
illustration of how opening up the idea of public would destabilize planning processes.
For instance, in the design of streets, a certain width is considered to accommodate pedestrians
and vehicles. However, a street in the city of Mumbai is often used and claimed
in multiple ways – by hawkers erecting their stalls, by shops extending their boundaries,
by new shops opening, and so forth. Slowly, the street converts itself into a shopping
place (fig. 1). Being unable to accommodate the new activities, the street becomes congested
and becomes an instance of the failure of the plan. While making the plan, the planner
assumes the street to be a public space (infrastructure) – to be used by all people – but
only for walking and driving. The planner further assumes the public to be pedestrians
and car drivers who have no claims over the road, but use it to pass through. The planner
can only handle such clearly defined and closed ideas of the public (without claims) for
designing the street. Any attempt at a conceptual opening-up of the idea would make
the situation unmanageable for the planner. Closer material examination of how streets
are worked out as public spaces would clarify the difficulties arising from handling the
conceptual opening up.
Planning uses the language of cartography to define and recognize property using points,
lines and polygons, which represent positions, edges, and bounded spaces respectively.
In defining and recognising property, polygons with clear boundaries are used along with
a record of rights (that connects each polygon with a name of the owner). Any change
in the polygons (and hence property) can only take place through elaborate administrative
and legal processes of amalgamation and subdivisions. Property defined through cartography
needs clear polygons with stable edges. The street is typically defined as space
between polygons, which is not claimed by anyone (other than the state). The clearly
defined public of the planner is supposed to use this space to pass through and do nothing
else. But if the idea of the public is to be opened up to include the claims of hawkers,
informal occupiers, and other claimants, then an unstable condition is expected where
positions change, edges mutate, and spaces morph as these claims are not fixed and clear.
The clarity of cartography has an inherent inability to deal with such instabilities of
positions, edges and spaces – and, by further implication, planning is hence also unable
to deal with it. While it takes years to change the polygons of property on the cartographic
map – on the street it happens every hour. Recognizing such unclear claims hence
becomes unmanageable for the planner as there is no language for dealing with such a
scenario. The idea of the public is also not opened up to include the claims for another
reason: this would mean recognizing the claims and installing a degree of formality to
them. This would be in contradiction with the property regimes in the city and the state
will be unable to deal with such contradictions. Hence in many ways, the planner is forced
not to recognize such claims and to use a closed idea of the public for making the plan.
In the above discussion, the imagination of the planner forges a public which includes
only pedestrians and car drivers. The entirety promised in the idea of the public is
not possible on the ground. Hence, the idea of the public is not an established entirety,
but rather a production (in this case, by the planner) for a specific purpose (in this
case, the making of a plan). We argue that the idea of the public is a production/imagination
rather than an established condition. It is produced for various reasons – as
an object for consumption, as an ethic, as a space, and also as a strategy. We start from
this claim, and aim to discuss the multiple ways in which the public becomes produced.
012 Issue # 11/11 : Public Issues
1 — Road
2 — Public Art
7 — Bandra Open Space 8 — NGO-Board
013 Issue # 11/11 : Public Issues
Public as object
A conceptual closing of the idea of the public produces the public as an object – for
easy consumption. In the above discussion, the planner produces the public as a homogenous
mass (of pedestrians and car drivers), with singular needs (of passing through).
This public is an object – to be consumed to make plans. The production of the public
as an object is best captured in the practices of public art.
There is a recent surge in the art practices concerned with the public. There are typically
three ways in which these practices work out. The first one is where the artist takes
up the cause of the disadvantaged, the oppressed, and the exploited. The typical modus operandi
is to bare the facts about the disadvantage, exploitation, and oppression, and
to present it to the world in creative ways expecting the arousal of large-scale outrage
against the advantage-takers, the exploiters, and the oppressors. In this case, the whole
purpose of art is to make it useful for a cause. The second one is slightly different
in its intentions – these are the practices that become fascinated with material that is
so to say unusual. The modes of operation in these practices include entering the depths
of such material, knowing about it, and doing something with it. Here the question is
not how art becomes useful to the cause but rather how the unusual material becomes useful
to art. Various kinds of archiving practices are examples of this category of practice.
However, the most vulgar form of this kind is the engagement with remote communities
(tribes, for instance) and then work with them and bring their art to the city to be shown
in the gallery space. The third are works that expect public engagement. These could be
in form of objects installed within the gallery or outside in the city; or could even be
performances and workshops involving the public. Intentions here include provoking the
public, sensitizing it, or even simply expecting a response from unusual interventions in
urban spaces.
The interrogation of relationships between the artist, the art object, and the public cast
light on the problems of this kind of art. Various questions – Who is the public? What
is the relationship of the artist with the public? What does such art do to the public?
Does the public require such art? What happens when this art is sold? – emerge when such
an interrogation is undertaken. Such questioning also reinforces the contention that the
public is produced as an object in these kinds of works. The public is either represented
in the art, or engaged with it during the production process, or is expected to engage
with the art as it is produced or after it has been produced. The public, however, remains
external to the artist and the art object. The art is either for, about, or by the
public. The artist becomes a representative, interpreter, employer, or curator of the
public, but seldom part of it. This externalization of the public turns it into an object
to be consumed – by being represented, spoken about, employed, or curated. While these
works claim to be public art, they end up producing the public as an object (fig. 2).
Public as ethic
The 1974 Bollywood blockbuster ROTI (directed by Manmohan Desai) contains a song on
the idea of the public. Written by Anand Bakshi, the song is sung by Kishore Kumar
and enacted by Rajesh Khanna. The opening lyrics, 'yeh jo public hai, ye sab jaanti hai,
aji andar kya hai, aji bahar kya hai, ye sab kuchh pehchaanti hai' (This public, it is
aware of everything, whatever is inside, whatever is outside, it recognizes everything),
themselves bestow upon the idea of public an almost eternal all-knowing characterization.
In the video, Rajesh Khannna walks along with a large crowd of people, but looks out of
the screen talking to the audience and explaining the concept of the public. The song is
shot at three locations – a street with a procession, a public meeting, and a park, clearly
identifying with the popular understanding of the public. Along with the image and
notions about the idea of the public, the song also encapsulates the power associated with
it – namely, the power of encompassing knowledge about everything. The video of the song
suggests the source of this power, which is the crowd. Rajesh Khanna acts simultaneously
on behalf of the crowd and as a part of the crowd. Throughout the song he is involved
in exposing many secrets of people. The suggestion that nothing escapes the many eyes of
this crowd is amply (though simplistically) clarified. Here the public is produced as a
watchdog, a guardian of truth, the bearer of knowledge, and a magnanimous whole above an
individual. The individual is not only being watched by the public, but is also accountable
and answerable to the public. The public here is produced as an ethic.
The production of the public as an ethic could be best described through the activities
of the media. The high-decibled and aggressive television anchors of Indian news channels
are generally seen pushing the politician/bureaucrat by repeatedly stating, 'today the
public wants an answer…'. Although annoyed, the politicians/bureaucrats offer defensive
responses to explain their position. However, they never ask the question, 'Who are you
to ask that question?' or 'Who is the public?' The public here is not only produced as a
set of people, but more as an ethic that cannot be challenged. In another instance, a few
years ago, the government banned women dancers from the bars of Mumbai, stating that they
were creating an immoral condition in the city. A small group of people opposed the ban
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by arguing that the bars provided livelihood to the women and that such a ban would force
the dancers into starvation or prostitution. The media conducted opinion polls asking
people if they supported the ban and continuously flashed the results of the poll – an
overwhelming majority of the people who took the poll supported the ban. Using the form
of an opinion poll, the media had produced a public that was for the ban and which corroborated
the government's position of bar dancing being an immoral activity. Here again the
media produced the public as an ethic.
Public as space
The trains of Mumbai carry about six million people every day (fig. 3). The basic unit of
a train is a seat. Three seats make a row. Two rows are arranged facing each other. The gap
between the two rows is efficiently designed such that when people sit there is just
about a three-inch space between the knees of persons sitting opposite each other. Four
such sets of rows are arranged to make one bay with a gangway between the rows. The doors
of the compartments are located between the bays. Three bays make a compartment. Each train
has nine to fourteen compartments. Each twelve-compartment train with a seating capacity
of about eight hundred and sixty persons carries more than four and a half thousand
persons during peak hours (fig. 4). A recent transportation survey by the Mumbai Metropolitan
Region Development Authority recorded that during peak hours, the highest density
spot in the Mumbai local train has sixteen persons per square meter floor area (fig. 5).
While this occurs between the two bays near the doors of the train, the inner areas with
seats have better conditions. Rigorous discipline is followed to manage the crowd. Four
persons sit in a row with three seats. The fourth person cannot sit on the seat upright
as there is no space so he/she sits perpendicular to the direction of the seat such
that only a part of his/her behind rests on the seat and the remaining part of the body
spills out into the gangway. People carefully occupy the spaces between the legs of the
seated passengers to stand. Three such persons generally occupy the spaces between the two
rows of seats. Getting on and off the train is managed with utmost discipline such that
one part of the door is left for people to board and the other part is from where people
disembark. As spaces between the bays near the doors are extremely crowded, some people
have to travel standing on the doorway (the train's doors are never closed), such that
they have only parts of their feet inside the train and rest of the body hangs out (fig. 6).
They hinge themselves with their hands gripping some pole or rod of the train's interior.
However as this is the best spot to get fresh air, a lot of people prefer to occupy the
doorway. These people get off and on during every stop of the train to allow others to
exit and enter. Persons not familiar with the disciplines of the crowd are first rebuked
by others for their ignorance, but later helped to become accommodated. Men and women
travel in different compartments.
Journeys generally vary between forty five minutes to one hour and a half. As journeys are
long, people make friends on the way. These friends meet and prefer to travel together
at the same time every day. A group forms like this, which follows a definite time to board
the train. Such groups board only specific trains coming at a specific time. For example,
the group travelling on the 08.57 a.m. train will not only travel by on 08.57 a.m. train
every day, but it will also use the same compartment or sometimes even the same bay.
People belonging to a group find it easy to board the train as they are generally helped
by others. Seats are exchanged between people sitting and standing after half the journey.
Throughout the journey, these travelling companions talk, tease each other, share food,
and sometimes also sing songs. Today every train (and sometimes more than one compartment
in a single train) between 06.30 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. in the morning has an organized
singing group that sings devotional songs. These groups also return in the same manner in
the evenings, but in the evenings they sing all kinds of songs – usually from Bollywood.
The compartments with such singing groups attract more people as they provide a good
source of entertainment and are significantly more crowded than other compartments on the
same train. The group has its own dynamics – leadership is assumed, conflicts are resolved,
problems are addressed, etc. New social configurations come into existence. These configurations
make spaces in the journey livable and even enjoyable despite being extremely
uncomfortable. These are spaces where an important part of social life is lived – this is
the most important public space of Mumbai. Here it is not the physical place that produces
a public space, but it is the travellers and their journeying which produce a public
as space – to be occupied by themselves and others. Their songs could be considered
public art – being produced by the public for itself. The artists, the art, and the public
are all one here. This is public as space.
In the production of public as space, the idea of the private is not in traditional
opposition with the idea of the public. On the other hand, many private individuals contribute
to the making of this public (as a space). In fact, such an idea of the private
(as a subset of the public and not as a contrast to the public) seems more relevant to
affirming the idea of the public as an entirety and meaning everybody.
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Public as strategy
In mid 2003, leading Mumbai newspapers carried articles stating that the government had
allotted a piece of land in Bandra (a suburb of Mumbai) to certain developers. The newspapers
also mentioned that the developers intended to develop commercial and residential
real-estate on the site (fig. 7). This land was marked as a recreational ground in the
Development Plan (the Master Plan) of the city and belonged to the Housing Authority. Due
to its location, this piece of land was prime property and was valued at Rs. 200 Crores
in the year 2003. Disturbed by the news, the Residents' Association of the neighboring
apartments decided to approach the Bombay High Court with a plea for maintaining the use
of this land as a recreational ground. The members of the Association were inspired by
the case of Oval Maidan (another recreational ground in South Mumbai). The Oval Residents'
Association had fought a court case, where they argued that the Maidan (large open space)
was under severe threat of abuse and misuse as the Municipal Corporation was unable to
maintain it. They also insisted that the responsibility of maintaining it should be handed
over to the Oval Residents' Association. The Mumbai High Court had instructed the Resident's
Association to prove their capacity in a pilot period of one year to organise
resources and improve the Maidan. Subsequently the Residents' Association, with the help
of several private groups, upgraded the open space. They made several small interventions:
the area was fenced, the open space was levelled for efficient drainage, areas for
different purposes were demarcated and several private agencies were appointed to use and
maintain the area. Following the success of the first year, the court asked the Municipal
Corporation to hand over the maintenance of the Maidan to the Oval Residents' Association.
The Residents' Association from Bandra approached an urban research group to help them
with their intentions. They asked the research group to prepare a two-part document – the
first part containing arguments for the court case towards keeping the space open and not
allowing the government to hand it over to a private developer; the second part comprised
designs for the improvement of the open space and (organizational and financial) plans
for its maintainance. This document was not only prepared for the court, but it was also
for the private parties who were to invest in the development of the area as well as
for the various state and private institutions whose blessings were required for the development
of the space. The Residents' Association wanted to prepare itself to take over
the open space like the case of Oval Maidan.
The research group strategized the first part containing arguments for the court case
around the ideas of public space. It made a detailed report, empirically proving the
shortage of public open space in the area and the need to keep this place open for public
use. So far this was simple. However things became complicated in the second part. The
research group started the project with a detailed survey of the space and the community
that was going to use it. They found that a part of the space was being occupied by a
small informal settlement. Also, the open space was used by the dwellers of this settlement
as well as other informal settlements in the neighborhood. There were also other
users of the open space like occasional hawkers who sold their wares around the open space.
Part of the open space was rented for exhibitions and other community activities like
marriages. On the other hand, interviews with the members of the Residents' Association
of the apartments indicated that they wanted to enjoy the benefits of open space for
environmental reasons (ecological balance, ventilation, and breathing space) and also for
cultural ones (recreational purposes, social and cultural gatherings). They were specifically
concerned about the elderly and the children. A number of them did not have a
problem with the land being developed into congruent activities like a Gymnasium, Sports
Centre, Exhibition hall, Community Hall, Library, Swimming Pool, Theatre, etc. The entire
group, however, was unanimous about its dislikes: it did not like the slum-dwellers and
hawkers using the open space and felt that parcelling the land for other activities
like exhibition and marriages was a public nuisance. The Residents' Association insisted
that the space be developed as a public space and that non-congruent activities (like
informal settlements, hawking, community activities, etc.) should not be allowed. They
wanted the research group to develop the project with all these demands.
The research group found itself in a dilemma – while it was the research group itself that
had produced the idea of the public as a strategy to save the open space from predatory
developers, the idea of the public was highjacked and reproduced by the Residents' Association
to evict the informal settlers from the open space. The idea of the public was
produced as a strategy, but it was double edged: while it was useful against appropriation,
it was also problematic when used as an intolerant and indiscriminate instrument (fig. 8).
While we have identified a few ways in which the idea of the public is produced, there may
be many more ways in which this production must be taking place. We have not aimed to list
all the ways in which the public is produced – there cannot be such an exhaustive list. Instead,
we have first sought to explore the idea of the public as being the result of a process
of production; and secondly, we have operationalised this idea by tracing some of the
conceptual trajectories in which the production of the public takes place in urban Mumbai.
016 Issue # 11/11 : Public Issues
4 — Train (Vinita Ghatne)
3 — Mumbai Local Train
Photo Courtesy of Ranjit Kandalgaonkar
5 — Local Train, Mumbai
6 — Mumbai Local Train, Photo Courtesy of Ranjit Kandalgaonkar
017 Issue # 11/11 : Public Issues

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