Activistic otherness and urban transformation

Urban development is largely dominated by rather fixed ideas about how cities can be developed and how lives are to be led. The potential of otherness (the unstructured, untidy or unplanned) in urban development lies in the ability to create new worlds that although often temporary can mightily influence what we think about as real and desirable – and what we imagine as possible.

In this article I briefly go through 4 concepts that I find exciting and productive for talking about the creation of otherness in cities. Heterotopia, liminality, magic circles and temporary autonomous zones. Each of these concepts that I so bluntly invoke have their own lives and multiple scholars have worked deeply with their meanings and implications.

This article is thus not meant as a deeply theoretical investigation of the terms, but rather as an attempt to relate these different perspectives on “otherness” to urban development.

In practice these phenomena of otherness exist more or less temporarily all around us. In the context of “experimental cities” the important question is how they manifest in and can contribute to the transformation of cities. I have brought in some examples from Copenhagen to illustrate the shapes that “activistic otherness” can take in the city.



The French scholar Michel Foucault coined the term “heterotopia”, describing spaces of otherness. Since then there has been lively discussion about the term and many other scholars (among them David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre) has worked with the potential contribution of heterotopia to urban development.

Some of the examples of heterotopias mentioned by Foucault are: ships, prisons, fairs, cemeteries and many more. They are spaces with their own social codes and ways of being and Foucault calls for a society with many heterotopias – maybe as a hopeful counterpoint to authoritarianism.

Where utopias are unreal or virtual, heterotopias are spaces of otherness existing within social reality. Heterotopias are actual places that reveal the constructed nature of reality as they point to other potentialities and possibilities, with other orderings and rationalities than “normal” space.

The concept of heterotopia points to a more heterogeneous perspective on urban development and opens interesting images of “pocket realities” in the city – a multiplicity of different modes of being and doing in a more radical sense than the “place identity” of modern urban planning. With the heterotopia as a vantage point, human interaction, mobility, consumption, work etc. seems like something that can be done in many different ways – and maybe reveals the blandness and homogeneity of the current urban planning regime.   

Further reading on heterotopia:


The Lighthouse


The Lighthouse is a co-created culture house in Copenhagen, started in 2017.

The Lighthouse is framed a space between dreams and realities. A space that can be used for the individual exploration of dreams (and to challenge current realities), but also to bring dreams into the city and challenge what is possible in the default world. In practice that could mean hosting a dinner because you dream of socializing more with strangers, holding space for morning meditations to bring clarity into the everyday life of people or doing a cuddle party because you dream of more touch in your life.

The foundation of the house is the 10 principles: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation and Immediacy.

The house is thus a non-profit, decommodified island in the center of Copenhagen, enabling anyone who wants to participate to explore and experiment with their dreams of urban life. It is a consent based doocracy meaning that the people who are active in the space make the decisions. Participants and visitors are empowered to make decisions, but also encouraged to talk to others who might have conflicting opinions.

The Lighthouse webpage:



The term liminality was first introduced in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep in his work, Les rites de passage. Van Gennep described rites of passage such as coming-of-age rituals as having a three-part structure: separation, liminal period and reassimilation.

It was however Victor Turner that popularized liminality as a concept during the late 1960s. For Turner liminality is an expression of “anti-structure”, a space where human beings are stripped of that which differentiates them from each other, but in that also set free to be creative and explore themselves and the multiple possibilities of being and relating. They necessarily loose some aspects of their identity, but in this gain the ability to see new perspectives.

“Liminality is the realm of primitive hypothesis, where there is a certain freedom to juggle with the factors of existence.” (Victor Turner)

The “otherness” in liminality is understood as a (ritualistic) phase of transformation, where the individual or community is “in between” situations of social stability. The concept of liminality points to the opportunities of (re)introducing ritual, and thus liminal experiences, in cities.

Further reading on liminality:


Sisters academy


“People ask me – What would a society where the aesthetic dimension is governing – a Sensuous society – be like?

The answer is – We wouldn’t know because we haven’t lived it. But, we can explore it through interdisciplinary, open and courageous one to one experiments. Investigating what it would be and thereby also begin to carve the path from the belief that systems are constituted by people and not the other way around. When we begin to act and behave differently the world changes.

Sisters Academy is such an experiment.”

Sisters Academy is a school in a world and society where the sensuous and poetic mode of being is at the center of all action and interaction. It defines the primary mode of being and is the values on which all societal institutions are building – including the sc

hool. Thus Sisters Academy is the school in what we term a Sensuous society – A potential new world arising from the post-economical and ecological crisis.

Sisters Hope is a Copenhagen-based performance-group and movement with an associated international troupe of performers from various backgrounds. Sisters Hope operate in the intersection of performance art, research, activism and pedagogy. They draw on immersion and intervention when they manifest on the stages of everyday life and beyond and are working proactively toward manifesting a more sensuous and poetic educational system.

Sisters Academy is a performance project, an immersive (liminal) experience and an exploration of alternate realities.

Sisters Academy webpage:


Magic circles

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga coined the term “magic circle” in his book “homo ludens” in 1938 and the term was popularized after Salen and Zimmerman used the term in their book “rules of play” in 2003. The term hos since then been a center of debate, particularly in game- and design theory. Huizingas definition looks like this:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
– Huizinga 1938

The magic circle defines the space in which play or games can take place and is distinguished by the way that events and actions have different meanings than in the “real” world. For example within the magic circle of the boxing ring, a punch to the face is not interpreted as violence but rather as a point scored.

What happens within the ring is thus attributed a different social meaning. It is thus a place where the rules of socio-material interaction are different than normal. You could say that the rules of the game create a permeable barrier between the “real” world and the alternate reality of the game.

There has been much discussion of how valid the clear distinction between play and ordinary life. In some way it could be meaningful to say that we move between different play contexts (or realities) where we play different roles all the time (i.e. home, a public street, work, the library, the gym etc.). The important element in the context of urban development is however the possibility of creating magic circles, that enable new heterogeneous performances in and of the city. In the words of sociologist Erving Goffman (1961):

“Games, then, are world-building activities.”

The magic circle can thus be seen as a design tool that enables us to work consciously with creating playful spaces of otherness in the city.

What is relevant is a notion of the consequences of playing. A positive feature of the magic circle is that it allows for more freedom of action as it provides the players with “alibi” to do something that would not be deemed acceptable in their everyday reality. On the other hand, playing can also have consequences outside of the game – both for the city and the players involved.

It is important to remember that the magic circle is produced not only by the material conditions, but largely by the people who participate in the act of playing. Creating magic circles in urban space can be seen as a socio-material design practices and will in most cases imply the creation of both a designed physical arena and the rules of interaction.

Further reading on magic circles:


System Danmarc


In October 2005, 350 paying participants aged 16-42 experienced a dystopian future of Denmark where the weakest citizens had no part in the welfare society, no influence on the society they lived in and were confined in special low priority zones. It portrayed a Class C zone in Copenhagen, reserved for the citizens deemed useless for the society: A future Denmark, where democracy had degenerated.

“For me, the worst part of it was the acceptance, the stagnation and the indifference that hit all the players. Violence became something that you tried to avoid, but overlooked. The hate was directed to other people in the same situation and anger got expressed to the ones closest to you.”
Player, male, post-larp evaluation

System Danmarc was a political larp, criticizing the contemporary Danish society by giving the participants an experience of a future world with a serious democratic deficit. It was inspired by our personal experiences with the Danish social security system and sought to oppose contemporary political apathy. The goal was to communicate the importance of democracy, participation and to outline societal problems in an exciting fashion. The organizers hoped to leverage the frustration and powerlessness prevailing in the larp to inspire the participants to take action in real life. The game was played in a container city built on a public square in a residential area in Copenhagen. It was only separated from the city by a plastic-covered fence, which served to enforce the feeling of being outside society.

The project embedded an alternate reality within the urban context and thus allowed both participants and onlookers to experience a dystopian vision of Copenhagen.


Temporary autonomous zone

In 1991 the American philosopher Hakim Bey introduced the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ), describing everyday occurrences that refuse, whether by accident or design, to be incorporated into dominant narratives.

“For Bey, the TAZ is a short-lived environment that eludes formal structures of control and which is full of alternative possibilities. It is an experience where participants temporarily free themselves from the restraints imposed by social conditioning and regulation, and experiment in creative events with new codes of behavior. He sees the TAZs as ‘moments of intensity’ that can give shape and meaning to life, or as pockets of freedom that enable the individual to escape the norms of established society and to establish a realm where he or she can briefly experience total freedom.”
– Bishop & Williams, 2012, the temporary city

Based on visions alternative to those of society, the TAZ may also become cradles of ideas for developing products, services and art in many forms. For some, these ideas may develop into new small scale businesses embracing the rules of society and creating an income based on their ‘alternative’ approaches to e.g. problem solving, organization, visions for society, experience with empowerment or re-use of materials. In this way the TAZs – with an inherent almost opposite goal – may become assets in the eyes of the (local) government, due to the ‘creativity’ they add to the labour force and the urban life.

The concept of the temporary autonomous zone offers a perspective on the value of the heterogeneous in the city and also points towards a strategy of immediacy, creating temporary, but radically different realities within existing society.

Further reading on the Temporary Autonomous Zone:


Activistic Otherness

Many scholars work with ideas about otherness in society. Chantal Mouffe writes about “agonism” as a political culture of “productive disagreement” and challenges the consensus ideal of modern politics. Bruno Latour writes extensively about controversy and the move from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern”, which happens when that which was previously taken for granted suddenly becomes a discussion. Pelle Ehn writes about “Things”, which as opposed to “things”, are socio-material gatherings around controversial issues, arguing for co-design of shared materiality.

Above I have sketched out and given some examples of, how controversy and otherness can be and has been opened by different forms of artistic activism in the context of Copenhagen. The importance of these projects is that they create socio-material (and spatial) transformations, which can inspire and encourage urban development by showing that other worlds are possible.


About the author
Peter Munthe-Kaas is a Copenhagen based researcher and designer. He works in the Borderland between research, activism, LARP, performance and urban development. Peter wants to develop new ways of living together in the cities of the future.

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