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Jess Reia

Assistant Professor | School of Data Science | University of Virginia

Governing the Ephemeral: Street Music and the Contested Realms of Public Spaces

This interdisciplinary research explores the relevance of street music in our cities. It has three goals: to understand the governance of street performance and the conditions in which it takes place in public spaces, during the day and after dark; to analyze what contemporary street performance is, who are its practitioners and how these thrive or are rendered invisible; and to offer a comparative perspective that establishes a dialogue between global cities.

The project covers the efforts to understand why street performance and its governance matters to cities and people. By trying to govern the ephemeral performances happening in its public spaces, municipal governments shed light on who does (and does not) have the right to inhabit specific parts of the city and under which circumstances. It is a matter of access and exclusion, and it states whose voices are heard in the process. Other historical issues permeate these artists’ daily activities, such as legal status, gender identity and expression, race and ethnicity, class, and (the lack of) public policies. In urban spaces, the attempts to govern the ephemeral mean an endless battle against the ever-changing everyday life and specific creativity involved in civil disobedience. It means trying to control something that cannot be easily monitored or put into categories, boxes, or tables, causing the people in charge of the governance to frequently go back to the drawing board.

Looking at cities in the Americas—especially Montreal and Rio de Janeiro—this research project was developed between 2013-2019 and is currently becoming a book. The research methods included in-depth qualitative interviews (with street musicians, government representatives, music associations, and subway representatives), participant observation (in festivals, subways, auditions, and performances), and the use of images as part of the visual approach to the research.