All squares are (as if) before … something. We know we are ‘on’ some place, yet somehow also feel that we are ‘before’ something… As if, as we stand upon such spaces, we stand (sit, lie, kneel or otherwise find our presence) before something (…find our presence in relation to another presence, our role defined by our mode of experiencing some event, a defining with… or against…). Is it that as we stand in the square we offer recognition to something (and so the recognition of ourselves as being among those who are able to do such)? Is it that there is present in squares a sense of witness, an added sense of community, of totality, of completion as the present of such spaces? An option to be taken on the experience of such space. And if the option is not taken? Then there may be a sense of isolation, of insignificance in space, of being dwarfed by place. Even amounting to an allergy to the presence of others, of being drowned in the sea of a crowd; the harrowing feeling that comes with the apprehension of total loneliness, the onset of alienation and of anomie. Part of the reason for such (opposite and conflicting) responses could be that when in a square, when on the square, we are often in the presence of some form of sacred building, representative of a higher order of being, of the presence of ideals, of institutions with a important role to play in the constitution of the social. Part or not-part, taking part, or not; our response comes accordingly. Partly because such places can be filled (or appear as if filled even in their emptiness). Filled then, either with people or their ghosts. Presences, or part of a presence.
(And inside too, in inside-places, such a sense of presence, such presences, can be found: in effect such interiors can be read as covered public squares, roofed over public spaces, spaces of mass gathering, mass witness, vast auditoria dedicated to a crowd and its collective point of attention. For all such buildings have a focus: from the centre stage of the sports hall, ground, or field, to the theatre as viewed, ‘in the round’, to the choice of a single side for the focus, the attention of the audience, the place where all expectation finds its home, the place of its reward - be it the minimal mirab of the mosque or the colossal altar piece of a Baroque cathedral. Or, in a more secular vein, the stage of our theatres and cinemas - also places of hushed darkness and discrete zones of eye-leading illumination. One such case (stronger for not being a traditional sacred building) is that of the concert hall where not only do we face the stage, focus of a collective auditory anticipation further gathered by visual cues, but moreover there are often to be seen strange, illuminated presences situated within the back wall and the wings. Outcrops and cave-like opening are often found eerily lit in a manner that suggests some sacred corner of a cathedral or ancient ziggurat. The focus of aural attention is now also the focus of visual attention (in a visual display that may, by its very effectiveness, distract the audience from the finer points of the music…). For this presence (articulated from around the building by light) has become a site of occult meaning, replete with mysteries, further calling upon the same (aesthetic) function as that found in the aura of public buildings on the square…or rather present in ourselves, present as we face the buildings, the buildings we find ourselves… before.)
A background effect? A given? A gift (from elsewhere)? A focus for the background noise of the sacred. Scene of an awaited event. Stage for a play. Our play. The background before which we play… The backdrop before which (and against which) we play…
Public squares often owe their existence to the presence of sacred places, to the establishment of churches or mosques (the sacred places of many religions, however, also often occupy their own closed spaces, as did Christian cathedrals, within the confines of their ‘close’). For the origins of many squares lies in their becoming the site for markets serving these places and their populace. Sites functioning at once as sacred and as secular public space. A space watched over.... Whose secular exchanges are overseen by a sacred edifice, calling into question their claim to secularity (a recent claim disavowed by previous generations that would have claimed their activities as blessed). Blessing the events that take place in its shadow. That bask in the shadow of its light. The market before the cathedral. The fair before the cathedral (the carnival before the cathedral…). Public events, entertainments, concerts, all taking place before …in the presence of… the invisible inspiration of whatever it is before them (whatever it is that is to come, that will arrive, a face turned to the future, of events taking place in the face of the future, or of that which maps its horizons) something more than just the buildings themselves. The space too plays a role (the square ‘on’ which we are…) in the gathering of crowds, peoples, communities. If only by virtue of their gathering in one place, to make one, as if one – temporary yet profound act of witness.
A collective act of witness that may move from affirmation to revolution as the institutions of power are no longer approved, affirmed or applauded, but denied and overthrown. A witness to power which returns again to affirmation. On the ebbing of the tide of change turning again to a ritual affirmation of the place itself as witness (as witness to…).
Whatever it is that is there, before (that was there before…).
(And how easily the geo-positional ‘before’ becomes, in a typical ideological, ideo-rhetorical, slight of hand, the temporal indicator, ‘before’; offering out to us the hope, wish, and myth of origins, as source of the mystique of place, the ghost in the earth, the spirit of archeology, the return of the interred, that something other, elsewhere as being (safely and foundationally) located beneath the ground, place of an event before us in time, whose emanation is before us in space… the sense of place that possesses us, a ghost returned to haunt the living, sacralisation of space as the mode of its gift to us, now. Corpse sanctified as giver of gifts. A ghost in the house. A gift from the past. The spirit of the square).
Just as space becomes personalised in every particular, in the course of every particular perception, as place, so all place is at once there and their (their space, theirs). Space belongs to the cartographer or to the absentee landlord with the title deed. Place belongs to a perspective, a community, a culture… a given horizon of expectations, a view upon the world that is itself a world, world-making, world-constituting, world-projecting (as in a cinema of the self); world-unfolding (as in the case of the reader before an ancient scroll). Bestowing meaning upon the space before us, transforming the empty quantitative co-ordinates of space into the felt and meaningful sense of place (for it would seem that space as such does not exist, as the very act of our experiencing the particular physical make-up of a given space immediately gives it the character – culminating in the personification that is genius loci- of place, the kind of place it is…). Home or other. Our place or someone else’s. Possessors known (another social group, another community of identification, but not one’s own). Or of a possessor unknown… Or unknowable… In this latter case the orientation that takes place on the square is metaphysical, we are given direction by the compass of the sublime. Strong sense of place as a possession, as in possession of, as well as possessing, a sense of the sublime (in whatever regional form it may take). In which case we may all, in finding our position in space in such a place, our place in such a place, participate in sublime possession.
In possession of whatever it is that is to be found there (that will be found there), before us…
A future made safe by what came before, and what waits still, before before… elsewhere, before, outside of time…(or its rhetoric). Before a set of guarantees. Promises. Certainties from the cradle to the grave. And before… This is what we stand before, what was before us, what lies before us - and before which we are as a row of open mouths, agape either with awe or with hunger…on the square.
If you do not know which way to face then the space you inhabit is as empty as the vacant square of a chessboard. If you know which way to face then you are participating in a network of meanings, ‘thick’ as the air around you blows thin. Felt meanings that steer the inner intentions and find you expecting ‘you’ to take up a certain role or stance (interior and exterior). For a physical position is also a metaphysical position - on the square.
Copyright, 2006 Peter Nesteruk.