Hypothèses d’insertions

Few steps toward a playful activation of urban spaces
Luc Lévesque

The Hypothèses d’insertions (Insertions Hypothesis) project was performed, during the summer 2002 in the urban centre of Hull/Gatineau, the French side of Ottawa Metropolitan area. The city centre, strongly destabilised by over-ambitious governmental “urban renewal” interventions in the 70s and 80s, is a strange mixture of office towers, parking lots and commercial strip colliding with the leftovers of a very modest popular urban fabric. The resulting urban landscape, full of underused spaces, is commonly considered an eyesore in the face of the Canadian capital.

The first phase of the Hypothèses d’insertions project consists of exploring and occupying this urban landscape with a moveable and playful element : a ping-pong table. The main action of the project is thus simply to look for new urban territories on which to play, various spaces appearing potentially available for that purpose in the urban centre of Hull/Gatineau. The apparently simple action generates a whole series of questions. Does the apparent opening of urban voids really allow non-programmed urban appropriations? By inserting themselves in the trite substrata of daily life, can unexpected playing activities generate new ways of relating to the immediate environment ? Can the images of these playful and ephemeral actions transform perceptions of the space where they took place? These are the types of questions raised by Hypothèses d’insertions. In five days of urban walks with a rolling ping-pong table, nearly twenty sites (parking lots, institutional urban plaza, roads and highways, residual spaces, etc.) have been thus experimented and archived in a downtown territory of about three squares kilometres. At the end of the drift, the table is installed for about two months in Hull main art centre (AxeNeo7) into a room visible to the street. Two video monitors fixed on walls at both extremities of the table show parts of the previous explorations and actions while selected soundscapes (rumbling table, ping pong play, surroundings, interactions with people) are diffused in the room from three sources (the monitors, headphones on a bench, speakers fixed under the table). The ping-pong table in the gallery is available for the visitors/players who, while playing indoors, can listen and see outdoors urban contexts where the game has taken or could take place. In the same way, postcards of the different outdoors ping-pong “situations” are disseminated and inserted in various places of the metropolitan area as invitations to look and use differently the existing urban spaces. After the exhibition, the project ping-pong table finds its final place in a social reintegration centre while the drifting postcards may inspire other urban practices of play.

Various observations can be drawn from this experiment. Among them, the acknowledgement that the problem of urban space in Hull, as in most of the western cities, is not so much a problem of aesthetic or functionality but one of openness toward uses that the various private and public administrations are willing to tolerate or encourage in the spaces they manage. Huge parking areas fully occupied during business hours become absolutely empty during the night or the weekend. These often-criticised asphalt spaces become, in many cases, fabulous esplanades from which to view the city and thus particularly pleasant areas to occupy. On the contrary, other spaces that have the aspect of public spaces are in reality cosmetic voids where actual occupation provokes suspicion when it is not subtly discouraged by design choices.

What is at stake here is the importance of offering space for different practices and temporalities that activate the urban landscape. The danger is to limit the status of public space to one of a static image. The challenge is, on the contrary, to find modes of interventions that can integrate an open management of the urban indeterminacy. The playful activation of underused spaces in the city fits in with this perspective.

Luc Lévesque, 2002-2003.


This project has been supported by the art centre Axeneo7 (www.axeneo7.qc.ca) in Hull/Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. It took place during the House boat/ Occupations symbiotiques event organised by Axeneo7 during the summer 2002.
The concept of “situation” as “a moment of life deliberately built” and related to experimental forms of play. See : Internationale Situationniste, no 1, juin, 1958, p. 12-13.