SpontaneousInterventions presents merely a small sampling of the informal, improv-isational urban projects that are proliferating around the world today, a number that is expanding almost exponentially. These activities represent a movement where thousands of artists, activists, architects acting outside of the profession, and  many different kinds of citizens are imagining and trying to create a more humane,  just, and creative city. Responding to the excitement and energy they create, observers have attempted to conceptualize the larger implications of these projects.

Along with the proliferation of these acts of spontaneous urbanism come abundant theoretical readings. Unfortunately, many scholars and activists have imposed preexisting frameworks on these initiatives, falling back on a vocabulary of 20th century ideas rather than trying to understand what is innovative and unique about them. These conceptual misunderstandings—with actions evaluated according to tired categories, such as progressive or conservative and public or private, which have been predetermined to be good or bad—restrict a promising arena of political possibilities. Thus, offering alternative concepts that can accommodate and encourage these activities without prematurely judging them is more than an academic question—it can help shape these activities’ creative potential going forward.

One important concept is rights, perhaps most commonly discussed with reference to Henri Lefebvre’s idea of “the right to the city.” Some critical scholars see these “rights” only as a response to the evident “wrongs” of capitalism, deriding everything from urban nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activist groups to individual DIY practices as ineffective political practices because they do not constitute a unified and coherent approach powerful enough to oppose global capitalism.

Lefebvre’s concept is far more emancipatory. He saw the city as composed of two interdependent and equal elements, one consisting of the material reality, the other consisting of a social reality. In specific situations, the interaction of these two elements can produce unexpected and paradoxical outcomes. This idea then highlights complexity, ambiguity, and contingency as key conditions for urban politics. And Lefebvre identified these rights from the urban subjects themselves, emphasizing human subjectivity and agency. For him, rights to the city are never predetermined but are always produced by particular groups with specific demands shaped by their circumstances. This open-ended concept acknowledges the political possibilities of a multiplicity of urban imaginaries, representations, and interventions. It empowers artists, architects, cultural activists, and ordinary citizens to become key players by inventing new practices, strategies, and tactics to claim their rights to their city and to freely project alternative possibilities for urban life.

What kinds of principles can put these rights into action? Looking at the selections in this year’s U.S. Pavilion, we can start to identify urban counter-dynamics that suggest what some of these principles might be. Rather than reacting against capitalist imperatives, they respond to opportunities; as much as solving problems, they offer possibilities. This short list of principles is only a starting point for an extensive catalog of ideas. Collectively, these ideas produce a very different view of capitalism, not as the all-powerful machine that Marxist theorists describe, but more like a tattered fabric, with many openings that can be occupied by practices that are not so much anticapitalist as they are noncapitalist.

The first opening is defamiliarization, the modernist cultural practice of “making strange.” Applied to the urban environment, unlikely insertions or juxtapositions of uses can unsettle our existing perceptions of urban life and space, opening up new possibilities and invigorating the idea of what a city can be. After seeing what is a normally car-filled street instead packed with Critical Mass bicyclists or with parking spaces transformed into mini-parks on PARK(ing) Day, the city will never look the same.   »   Refamiliarization then inverts defamiliarization, by making urban spaces more familiar, more domestic, and more like an interior. Inserting private activities and qualities into the public realm encourages people to sit, eat, and converse in unlikely places. This can dramatically alter urban situations, making what were harsh places feel more like home. In addition, refamiliarization, by colliding two realities that are usually opposed, can itself be a form of defamiliarization.

Spatial actions can also reconfigure economic processes. Hijacking or borrowing urban spaces for unintended uses, substituting use value for exchange value, can temporarily remove land from its market context and question its status as a commodity. We have seen the appearance of multiple alternative economies: recycling, bartering, gift exchange, methods of redistributing and remaking goods, information-sharing, and experiences based on generosity, usefulness, and pure play.

Finally, a new politics of collaboration underlies many of these efforts, and it is not based on preconstituted subjects or roles. Instead, the new politics involves particular groups and individuals emerging in response to highly specific circumstances, and it takes innumerable forms, ranging from crowdsourcing to intimate personal encounters.

Lefebvre proposed building “experimental utopias”—imaginings given concrete form—as the first step in acquiring rights to the city. Doing exactly that are the projects featured in SpontaneousInterventions, all of which are grounded in actual cities yet are expansive in their reimagining of urban life. The projects’ divergent goals, varied methods, and multifarious participants should be seen as strengths rather than weaknesses. They are openings towards a new urban politics, still to be discovered.