PRINT September 2015


A barricade during the Paris Commune, boulevard Voltaire and boulevard Richard-Lenoir, 1871. Photo: Bruno Braquehais/BHVP/Roger-Viollet.

CITIES CULTIVATE PROTEST. But the twenty-first-century remaking of urban centers into slickly surveilled and partitioned hubs of global finance has necessitated new ways of contesting those very networks of money and power. From the massive sit-ins that galvanized Hong Kong in 2014 to the demonstrations that swept through Greece’s capitals this past summer, from the throngs packed into Tahrir Square in Cairo during the Arab Spring of 2011 to the congregations of activists that spread the Occupy movement across dozens of cities later that year, we have recently witnessed multitudes establishing their cities as centers of new forms of political representation. The metropolis is not simply a stage for these heaving crowds but the very stuff of strikes. In addition to their own bodies, demonstrators have used everything from garbage to rocks to construction scraps in order to fashion informal antimonuments and elaborately constructed barriers, heaps of trash and huge blockades. These interventions into the urban environment materialize a political will. We might call them protest landscapes—physical incursions that transform our conception not only of political action but of the city itself. Under the paving stones, the beach—but now the detritus of contemporary urbanization offers the material with which to pose another world.

Protest landscape is a new term; it describes a contemporary practice that has so far remained largely unidentified and underexamined. But the idea is not without historical precedent. Indeed, since early modernity, the notion of landscape has existed largely in opposition to the city, and the relationship between the two has long been politicized, whether implicitly or explicitly. The modern understanding of landscape emerged in Western Europe during the Romantic era and is inextricably bound up with notions of the picturesque and the pastoral. Both of these romantic ideals were by definition outside the city’s boundaries. And yet as many historians have argued, landscape as a literary and artistic genre evolved largely to aestheticize the countryside for wealthy city dwellers, making over what was in reality a site of messy material labor into a kind of Eden. The image of the landscapewas nature sanitized for privileged contemplation. Not coincidentally, the Romantic obsession with the pastoral peaked during the Industrial Revolution, the very moment that cities destroyed or remade the nature beyond their borders.

If the city and the landscape have been politically and aesthetically intertwined, the protest landscape has an equally extensive history. In Paris, for example, ad hoc barricades fashioned from whatever was readily available were first built in the late sixteenth century during the public uprisings that marked the French Wars of Religion. Large mounds of dirt and rocks that displayed revolutionary symbols became a fixture of the 1789 French Revolution and the years of upheaval that followed. But the origin of the modern protest landscape, understood not only as an expedient physical intervention in the city but as a self-conscious attack on existing urban iconography, can be found in the actions of the 1871 Paris Commune. The Second Empire’s vision of Paris—famously manifest in Baron Haussmann’s grand campaigns of urban development—emphasized monumental expression of state and financial power and the banishing of agricultural enterprises from the city center. But in the hands of the Communards, the city’s boulevards and squares were transformed into piles of debris that ridiculed and parodied the state’s monuments and networks. For example, Paris’s largest monument to Napoléon—the Vendôme Column—was felled into an enormous mound of soil, hay, and horse manure (the last, ironically, carted in from stables and slaughterhouses on the city’s periphery).

The Commune was one of the first urban revolts to be photographed extensively, and the numerous representations of its landscapes of mounds, barricades, debris, and rubble allowed it to become not just an attack on the iconography of the existing city but a revision of political iconography itself. In other words, the flood of images extended the Commune’s own aesthetics of protest beyond the parameters of the 1871 revolt. Hence the Commune’s historical legacy; photos of the Commune were incorporated into pamphlets of the Situationist International and, more recently, circulated among members of the Occupy movement.

Yet for all this, the protest landscape is a particularly contemporary phenomenon. If landscape historically existed in relation to the pastoral and the picturesque, it is now equally entangled with the territory: a site that is no longer just aesthetic but instrumental, rigorously optimized for resource production or extraction. And as the dual pillars of neoliberalism—privatization and deregulation—transform our relationship to nature by undermining any sense of collective responsibility for environmental resources, the reconsideration of the relations between city, landscape, and territory, prompted by today’s protest landscapes, becomes all the more urgent.

The Vendôme Column in ruins, Paris, 1871. Photo: Hippolyte-Auguste Collard.


The mound as an antagonistic symbol of political contention continues to resonate in France today, providing a far more literal—or, rather, material—precedent for contemporary protest than one might expect. In January 2014, Thierry Borne, the manager of a stable complex in the Rhône-Alpes, parked a large semitrailer in front of the French Assemblée Nationale building in Paris with the words HOLLANDE ET TOUTE LA CLASSE POLITIQUE DEHORS! (Hollande and the Entire Political Class Out!) painted on its side. He then proceeded to release several tons of horse manure out of the back of the truck into a large pile adjacent to the monumental steps of the government building. Borne’s action may have seemed comical, but it was in fact only the highest-profile example in a wave of demonstrations by French farmers and agricultural workers, who have resorted to dumping manure at local administrative buildings in protest of tax and trade policies they claim are devaluing their labor and undermining their livelihood.

Borne’s vaudevillian stunt quickly captured the imagination of the French media, but the ensuing discussion tended to focus on the trite symbolism of his actions—the equation of government officials with shit—and overlooked the very real aesthetic and material dimensions of his protest. In photographs of Borne’s arrest, one sees policemen and guards wrinkling their noses in the presence of the enormous steaming pile. Their palpable disgust captures both the explicitly antipastoral political aesthetics of these actions and their resistance to an aesthetics of nature itself.1

Just as pastoralism historically functioned to aestheticize the labor of the countryside for the enjoyment of city dwellers, a general romance of the countryside lingers within all manner of contemporary urban activity, ranging from faux-naturalistic parks and waterfronts to the new “hipster picturesque” that promotes forms of urban consumption evocative of country life and labor.2 Protests such as Borne’s oppose such trends by creating rural landscape “experiences” beyond the aesthetic: One cannot contemplate but can only, like the revolted policemen, react. Such demonstrations also reverse the dominant relationships between urban and rural ecologies by soiling urban spaces with the physical by-products of working farms, themselves disappearing sites within contemporary service economies. Thus protest landscapes offer more than just an alternative mode of experience; they do not make a political argument about the subject of landscape so much as they literally place the country—in its most raw and uncommodifiable form—within the city.

Tweet posted during protests in Madrid with the hashtag #TuBasuraAlBanco (Your Garbage to the Bank), February 1, 2014.


Despite their visceral materiality, it seems unlikely that Borne’s protest and others like it would have had such an impact had they not produced such sensational images and made such great news. Indeed, as with the toppling of the Vendôme Column, the contemporary protest landscape becomes radical in large part through its relationship to media and representation. This is nowhere more evident than in the hashtag #TuBasuraAlBanco (“Your Garbage to the Bank”), which galvanized recent political protests in Madrid.

#TuBasuraAlBanco emerged from protests staged during the “15M” movement. Beginning on May 15, 2011, millions of citizens took to the streets in dozens of Spanish cities to protest high unemployment and their government’s latest austerity measures. A series of strikes followed, including several by garbage workers that began in November 2012, which increased in intensity the following year in response to the state-mandated layoff of more than a thousand garbage workers and a proposed 40 percent pay reduction as part of a garbage collection privatization measure. As the collectors stopped work in Madrid, trash quickly amassed and overflowed into streets and public spaces. The organizers of #TuBasuraAlBanco called for people to respond to the escalating trash problem by dumping trash at banks—which were blamed for promoting policies that led to the initial economic crisis. The groups posted hashtagged statements accompanying the photographed piles such as “put it in the safe with the rest.” Hundreds of photos of trash piles at Spanish banks emerged across social media in the ensuing days, generating news coverage and eventually penetrating political discourse: The action played a role in the favorable labor agreement reached between the workers and the garbage companies two weeks after the strike began. In February 2013, when garbage workers went on strike in Lisbon for similar reasons, activists used photos of the original Madrid action to call for “#OLixoAosBancos” in Lisbon, where it enjoyed a similar mass appeal and representative power: Again, numerous images of garbage piled at bank entries appeared across social-media networks.

Like the action of Thierry Borne, #TuBasura AlBanco and #OLixoAosBancos simultaneously ridicule and foul urban spaces by bringing the most hidden aspects of urban ecology (garbage and refuse) into the pristine sites of finance that regulate the city as territory and control its networks of labor and commerce. But the photographic aggregation of these piles of garbage suggests additional possibilities for the representation of protest landscapes by exploiting the privileged position of the image in relation to landscape itself. Traditionally, to experience landscape has been to contemplate a painting or photograph that affirms a set of implicit hierarchies: between landlord and land, land and farmer, produce and waste.3 This mode of seeing is transformed by the images in #TuBasuraAlBanco and #OLixoAosBancos. Indeed, one can view them not only as an abject confrontation with finance and a performative act of solidarity with labor but also as a landscape montage that juxtaposes two spaces that would otherwise never meet: the bank and the dump.


Of course, the protest landscape is not limited to the realm of representation. The unique power of this form of political action lies in the fact that it also directly intervenes in the processes of control and exploitation that increasingly define our relation to the environment under global capitalism, in which accelerated urbanism has been matched by unprecedented ecological degradation. This is particularly clear in South America, where, beginning in the mid-1990s, protests have swept through Peru, Argentina, and Bolivia in response to a series of governmental reforms. While they range from changes in government-worker pay to privatization efforts in national electrical utilities to the lack of environmental regulation of the continent’s numerous mining conglomerates, these policies are rooted in the same structures of neoliberal governance attacked in Paris, Madrid, and Lisbon.

One key example was a protest in 2004 by a group of northern Peruvian farmers and towns-people against the US-owned Newmont Mining Corporation, which had been issued a permit to mine the nearby Cerro Quilish mountain, which would have irreversibly impacted the water supply for the surrounding countryside. In response, the protesters placed large stones across the roads in and around Cajamarca, forming barricades only a foot or so high but often fifty to a hundred yards deep, which made the roads impassable by truck and shut down all exchange of goods between country and city. In the face of the intensity and extent of the barricade construction, the government interceded and revoked Newmont’s license for mining the mountain.4

Incredibly, between 1997 and 2002, approximately forty-six hundred blockades were made on roadways throughout Argentina alone.5 Throughout the region, these ad hoc roadblocks emerged as a surprisingly effective tool for negotiation, due to their ability to disrupt all economic activity along the roads. As political theorist Moisés Arce has noted, what made these protests unique was their shift from traditions of striking and street protest to those of barricade construction, extending the activity of protest from the workplace out into the landscape. In this way, the landscape itself becomes a tool of political action, transforming the flowing networks of late-capitalist territory into an obdurate physical reality.

World War I barricade at Porte Maillot, Paris, ca. 1914–15. Photo: Bain Collection/Library of Congress.


The reemergence of landscape as a central term is nowhere more visible than within the disciplines of architecture and urban design. On the one hand, the Landscape Urbanism movement has arisen in response to interrelated shifts in the nature of the city itself. Unchecked urban sprawl has largely erased the distinction between city and landscape, while deindustrialization has simultaneously created new openings for landscape within urban centers. Indeed, the introduction of green space has become a standard strategy for projects that seek to reclaim former industrial sites—New York’s High Line is one well-known example. New large-scale infrastructure projects, too, from transportation hubs to Olympic parks, are now typically approached as problems of landscape design. All this is happening against a backdrop of increasing ecological awareness, with an emphasis on sustainable design and the minimization of environmental impact. In the same South American regions rocked by the recent spate of barricade construction, for example, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design has engaged in an ambitious effort to use Landscape Urbanism concepts to address the same environmental concerns over land use, water, and resource allocation that were voiced in the protests. Such strategies pre-sent a marked turn away from the decorative role that nature has often taken in cities and their surroundings, placing the designers and producers of landscape in a position to have a determining influence on twenty-first-century urbanization.

But the protest landscape suggests that the political expressiveness of the ground might lie in practices beyond such disciplinary self-reflections: farmers dumping manure in a public square, people dropping their garbage at the doorway of a bank. While most landscape projects at an urban or infrastructural scale are inevitably top-down, their size and complexity necessitating high levels of corporate, institutional, or governmental management, these protests appear quickly and suddenly—uncannily instantaneous realizations of landscape. The protest landscape is not just a new material or environmental condition but a new field of thought and medium of exchange, a place of reflection and imagination in which alternative political possibilities might be envisioned. Those makeshift barricades and blockades pose a politics that is not only social, not only trafficked in ephemeral circuits of information and discourse and capital, but made of sterner stuff—as transformative of us as of the ground on which we stand.

Additional research for this article was provided by Samuel García Pérez in Paris and Madrid and Tiago Lopes Dias in Lisbon. The author wishes to thank Fabrizio Gallanti for assistance in locating researchers.

David Gissen is an associate professor of architecture at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, and a visiting professor in the Ph.D. program in history, theory, and criticism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge.


1. For an insightful analysis of the notion of the antipicturesque, see Vittoria Di Palma, Wasteland: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).

2. A coinage of the architect Pier Vittorio Aureli in “Lecture by Pier Vittorio Aureli” (Architecture Lecture Series, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, March 3, 2014).

3. See Ann Bermingham, “System, Order, and Abstraction: The Politics of English Landscape Drawing Around 1795,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 77–101. This type of image has been revived in a form of documentary photography in which one sees scavengers among enormous landfills with glistening skyscrapers in the background.

4. See Moisés Arce, “The Repoliticization of Collective Action After Neoliberalism in Peru,” Latin American Politics and Society 50, no. 3 (2008): 37–62. See also Gastón R. Gordillo, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

5. Ibid.