All the square’s a stage

Can Ken Livingstone's 'amazing parade of giant giraffe puppets' reclaim Trafalgar Square for Londoners?

Josie Appleton

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‘Be dazzled, wowed and entertained in Trafalgar Square this summer’, promised a Greater London Authority (GLA) press release, announcing a series of entertainments in the new-look Trafalgar Square. These include ‘an amazing parade of giant giraffe puppets’, ‘the country’s only multicultural opera company’ and ‘the UK’s best Brazilian bands’ (1).

At the ‘programme of inspirational new circus performances’ on 13 August, the square was packed. Children splashed in the fountains, families sat at picnic tables outside the new Costa Coffee, and crowds encircled the series of circus performers, African acrobats, Japanese dancers and trapeze artists as they each took the stage.

A pleasant way to spend the heatwave, especially if the kids were getting grouchy. But there is an artificiality to London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s attempt to construct a new public space in the heart of the capital.

The GLA’s Trafalgar Square initiatives amount to little more than presenting Londoners with frenetic, ever-changing activities. One GLA press release said that the aim of the entertainment was to ‘animate the square throughout the year’. Lola Young, head of culture at the GLA, said: ‘The possibilities are endless…. We have a great opportunity to fill the square with world class activity.’ (2)

‘The mayor wants to turn the square into London’s stage’, Martin Green from the GLA cultural strategy team told me, as a team of African acrobats leapt around below us. Bradley Hemmings, one of the organisers of the event, said that the aim was to ‘explore a new fab space’ and ‘open it up to Londoners in new ways’. According to Hemmings, ‘the square has been cut off from Londoners for a long time. It is being reclaimed for Londoners and visitors’.

But filling the square with one set of energetic performers after another is unlikely to foster a new kind of public engagement. We can be sure that it takes more than acrobats leaping around to give public space a sense of dynamism.

There is a desperation behind Livingstone’s desire to connect with Londoners. ‘Come to Trafalgar Square, have fun, please!’ is the plaintive cry. There is also a certain arrogance to the idea that the GLA can give Londoners back their square – that it can construct a new public space just by contracting in a few theatre groups.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was quality entertainment on offer. But this rag-bag of shows are hardly the cream of British artistic life. Some aren’t even accomplished: one of the circus performers I saw nearly dropped the woman she was carrying, leading to a display of flailing legs and expressions of ‘mock’ surprise.

Nor do these shows have much political or moral substance. ‘You can see this on the Lake Shore in Toronto’, a young man from Canada told me – it’s a ‘little bit of circus’.

One of the long-standing aims of Trafalgar Square has been to showcase the values of the British ruling class. Nelson’s column, put up in 1843, was intended to teach moral virtues and foster a patriotic spirit among the public. Regular ceremonies in the square, organised by the military and politicians, emphasised traditional British values. These displays have been rightly criticised over the years – and many a radical demonstration attacked Nelson’s column, putting forward a very different idea of the public interest.

Ken Livingstone isn’t attempting to indoctrinate the public with a political ideology. But nor is he leaving the public to use Trafalgar Square spontaneously as it sees fit. Ken’s attempt to foster public participation works very much on his terms.

It’s not just entertainment: Martin Green says that the show ‘is an act of education’, in the sense that it is ‘a display of cultural richness that is completely multicultural’. Putting on French, Japanese, Belgian, Malaysian and Japanese acts is seen as helping to teach the values of cultural tolerance and respect. The GLA sees the events as introducing different London communities to each other. ‘Everybody sees what everybody else in London has to offer’, says Green – ‘it is a plethora of what’s available in London’.

There is also the sanitised nature of the new-look Trafalgar Square. The north end near the National Gallery has been pedestrianised, quietening the flow of red buses and tooting of traffic. The pigeons are gone, and they are kept at bay by regular visits from a falconer. Full-time ‘heritage wardens’ are on all-day duty, aiming to ‘protect the fabric of the square and deter petty crime’ (read: make sure you are behaving yourselves). Trafalgar Square today might be called a ‘family square’, or a ‘world square’ – but is it a public square?

The public’s role is to sit back and observe the activities put on for it, rather than actively to engage in the public space. We participate less in the GLA’s summer’s entertainments than we do watching street performers at Covent Garden, where at least we can vote with our feet and money. And still less than at celebrations that genuinely emerge out of a community, and express the public’s cultural temper and political desires.

Of course, some of Livingstone’s entertainments will be quite entertaining. On 13 August, one young man performed an aggressive Japanese dance with impressive skill and energy. And thankfully, most of the public participatory ideology will go past people. Most Londoners and visitors in the square seemed to be just relaxing and enjoying themselves on a summer’s evening.

Right now, this is probably the best use for the space.

(1) Press release, 17 June 2003

(2) Press release, 21 January 2003

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