Negative Space

For our Space issue, Megan Wallace explored the politics of public and private space. Illustration by Nadia Akingbule.

There exists an image by the Instagram artist Audrey Wollen that has been circulating recently on the theme of emptiness, or rather, male entitlement to the theme of emptiness. Various photos depicting nothingness (bare trees, a barren desert, the empty corner of a room, a book of music by John Cage) lie against a white background, amongst upper-case text declaring: ‘Beware male artists making artwork about emptiness/ Nothing does not belong to you/ Girls own the void/ Back off fuckers!!!!!’. 

The piece undoubtedly makes reference to the fact that within the gender binary, women are coded as ‘0’ while men are coded as ‘1’. The gender binary is built on this fundamental opposition, with men defined as action, presence and strength and women, conversely, being passivity, absence and weakness. By Wollen’s reasoning, it is illogical that male artists should be thematising emptiness in their work when the state of being a woman is defined emptiness.However, there is a profound irony to the statement ‘Girls own the void’. While the metaphorical void may very well be up for grabs, empty spaces in their most literal sense are becoming more and more scarce. Indeed, in western societies where the price of urban property never ceases to rise, social inequalities, gender inequality amongst them, are inscribed in space. 

In fact, you could easily suggest that it is not hunger but overcrowding which best reflects the gap between rich and poor. Walking into any supermarket, you are immediately affronted with aisles upon aisles of food, much more food than anyone really needs — indeed, one fifth of all supermarket food bought in London is wasted. That 26,000 people in the same city went without regular food in 2014 has nothing to do with lack of supply but rather with inequality of distribution. While it has historically been a scarcity of food which has reflected class struggle — we need only think of the bread shortages which triggered the Russian and French Revolutions — nowadays one is more likely to imagine city-dwellers rioting over paying in excess of £700 a month for the most basic accommodation. 

In the modern context, space is allocated in degrees, depending on your social class and your spending power. Not only does this entail more space than is necessary for the wealthy and in-creasingly crowded accommodation for the poor, it also means that space varies in quality as well as quality. For example, urban areas in which rent prices are lower tend to be blighted with a range of problems varying from the infrastructural to the criminal. Furthermore, segregation and marginalisation is mapped onto the urban landscape. Historically, minority ethnic groups and the LGBTQ+ community were enclosed in specific neighbourhoods away from the societal majority— famous examples including the gay neighbourhoods of Chueca in Madrid and Le Marais in Paris and Hell’s Kitchen and Little Italy in New York City. Thanks to rampant gentrification, rent prices in areas such as these have risen significantly in the past few decades, with residents being forced out to the edges of their cities. Moving from these neighbourhoods generally does not entail escaping from the social problems associated with metropoles, especially as it is often the case that the quality of life and infrastructure degrades the further one goes from the centre. 

In addition to the rift which exists between city-centres and their peripheries, on a smaller level, the social bonds which help us to relate to one another are put under pressure through city-life. Isolation in the city has been thematised by countless authors and, indeed, there is something particularly devastating about the sensation of being completely [alone?] yet simultaneously surrounded by people. One might suggest that the chronic loneliness of urban life stems from the fact that such close living quarters deprive relationships of the necessary room to develop and breathe. 

Personally, I would suggest that lack of space in which to be alone, combined with an accelerated pace of life makes urban life particularly overwhelming and as a consequence, finding the energy to form meaningful connections with new people becomes significantly more difficult. For example, when have you ever struck up a meaningful conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus on the way to work? Isn’t it more likely that at 8am, when you’re tired, harried and not in the mood to talk to anyone, you’ll stick in your earphones and deliberately avoid your neighbour’s well-meaning gaze?

Perhaps this has more to do with the fact that the journeys to and from work can serve as the only time to yourself or even the only time to be yourself in a busy city. Not only is your class inscribed into space, but your identity too. In the office, you don your most sensible shoes and assume your professional identity, ready to file, email and generally get things done. For those with a partner or children, the flat or house is the ‘family’ space — yes, a personal space, but not necessarily a private one. If both identities are well-managed then there shouldn’t exist much overlap between them. By this logic, the journeys to and from work become a time of transition, where one identity has been shed and the other is yet to be assumed. Indeed, a seat in the tube can be the only space where you can sit and read a few pages of a new book or just simply experience a few minutes of peace in which you don’t have to put on a front for anyone. 

Finally, let’s return to the sentiment that ‘girls own the void’. In a more literal sense, when referring to the empty space that has been commodified in urban settings, it is truer than it has ever been before given that female purchasing power is steadily on the rise and more are becoming the owners of homes and businesses. It is not so much women, but ethnic and cultural minorities, and lower-income households who are systematically barred from owning space, with the consequence being overcrowding and poor living conditions. Contrastingly, when referring to it in the metaphorical sense, it seems more accurate to say that no-one owns the void and that, rather, the void owns us. With anxiety and depression on the rise and opportunities to meaningfully connect with others becoming more and more scarce, the void hangs over us, at all times.