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Listen to the City

 

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Listen to the City, an urbanism, research, and art collective established in 2009, has been challenging traditional norms and sparking important conversations around contemporary cities’ urban and social fabric. The group comprises of a diverse mix of urban researchers, designers, architects, filmmakers, and activists, making it a dynamic and flexible entity. Under the directorship of Eunseon Park, who boasts a robust background in art and urban planning, the collective works with a variety of collaborators, including prominent graphic designers and the Liverpool-based art and architecture collective, Static. In this post, we’ll explore this inspiring collective’s rich history, goals, and ethos.

Challenging the Status Quo: Listen to the City’s Approach

For over a decade, Listen to the City has addressed issues related to environmental and social irresponsibility and the erosion of cultural diversity, problems arising from Korea’s rapid and often reckless development. Starting with critical and provocative questions, the collective aims to shed light on the urgent need for sustainable urbanism, all while celebrating cultural diversity.

Contrary to the conventional gallery-based art scene, Listen to the City isn’t fixated on how their works are displayed or circulated. They don’t merely use art as a means to create visually appealing objects but as an instrument for social commentary and change. This unconventional approach allows the collective to transcend traditional artistic boundaries and formats, employing a variety of media such as drawing, design, video, research, publications, seminars, and even public interest litigation to deliver their messages and catalyze change.

Their activities also extend to producing documentaries focused on urban history and diversity. Their critically acclaimed films, such as City Witness (2018), No One Left Behind (2018), and Loss of Place (2019), have gained recognition at prestigious film festivals like the Indy Documentary Festival, the Seoul Human Rights Film Festival, and the Diaspora Film Festival.

Advocating for Sustainable Urban Transformation

The overarching goal of Listen to the City is to transform unsustainable cities into sustainable ones while fostering a deep understanding of what public territory and common values look like in an urban context.

Listen to the City sees urban space not as a commodity to be bought and sold by a privileged few but rather as a common good shaped by collective intelligence. This view aligns with that of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who theorized the city as a collective “oeuvre” crafted collaboratively by its inhabitants. In this perspective, everything from natural resources like soil, air, and water, to cultural resources like history, language, and knowledge is considered commonwealth that belongs to the community as a whole, the future generation, and all of humanity.

Unfortunately, the commodification of urban space and the rampant privatization of the commons, particularly in societies burdened with corruption, have led to a distorted understanding of these public spaces. Following Martin Heidegger’s emphasis on place as an ontological space that nurtures people and cultures, Listen to the City challenges the reduction of urban space to a mere means of generating profits. The group advocates for the protection of common goods and the right to the city, a concept introduced by Lefebvre that has profoundly influenced the collective’s work.

In their pursuit of sustainable urban transformation, the collective prioritizes:

  1. Highlighting the issue of commons privatization.
  2. Giving voice to marginalized communities.
  3. Documenting and questioning unsustainable civil state systems from the perspective of minorities.
  4. Upholding principles such as the commitment to the restoration of urban areas.

Beyond Modernist Art and the Modern City

Listen to the City’s artistic approach does not conform to modernist conceptions of art, which often consume the periphery as an image. Instead, their aesthetic is dedicated to giving visibility to the voiceless and fostering an inclusive and contentious community.

Some may label Listen to the City’s work as political art, others may describe it as activism, yet neither label fully captures their comprehensive practice. Their work aligns more closely with Jacques Rancière’s conception of the “distribution of the sensible.” The collective rejects the modernist inclination to observe the city from a bird’s eye view and attempts to reduce multifaceted conflicts to a simplistic ideal, suppressing the voiceless.

Instead, the group values the recognition of the embedded value and time in a city and the rights of city dwellers to claim their language. This process, they believe, is itself an artwork—an oeuvre.

The Impetus Behind the Movement: A Short BIO of Eunseon Park

The architect of Listen to the City, Eunseon Park, received her Ph.D. in Urban Engineering from Yonsei University and currently serves as an Invited Associate Professor at Seoul National University of Technology, where she specializes in Digital & Culture Policy at the Graduate School of Public Administration.

Under her leadership, Listen to the City has successfully brought together a versatile team of urban researchers, designers, architects, filmmakers, and activists. Eunseon and her team relentlessly interrogate the environmental and social irresponsibility linked with the excessive development of Korea. They are not merely interested in the display or circulation of their activities; instead, they seek to propose creative questions and solutions within the social context.

At its core, Listen to the City is an example of how art, urbanism, and activism can come together to bring about significant and meaningful change. Their persistent work in transforming unsustainable cities into sustainable ones has laid a foundation for more equitable and resilient urban communities in the future. Their vision, courage, and commitment serve as an inspiration for us all. So, next time you walk through your city, remember to listen—to the voices, the stories, and the heartbeat of the urban life that surrounds you. Through this active engagement, we can all contribute to transforming our cities into more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable spaces.

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