Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

(de)constructing university spaces

By Edith Frankzelia Otero Quezada


Today, education is still conceptualized or related to categories such as development, neutrality, autonomy, progress, etc. However, how many of these concepts challenge or reflect on what is education itself and how it has been historically constructed?

Taking account these problems, authors such as (de Alba, 2002; Arnove, 1995; Freire, 1975) have strongly questioned the so-called "neutrality" or consensus in the field of education. Pointing out two essential aspects:

  • Education is not an isolated field of society and should, therefore, be understood in its interrelationship with politics and other spheres of society. In other words, every educational project, no matter how autonomous it wants to be, will always find itself in constant tension between society and the demands of the market or of specific sectors (which also work under the logic of the project of modernity-coloniality). An example of this is the construction of the educational curriculum, which is the culmination of consensus, dissent, interests, and impositions of different groups of power.
  • If education itself has not historically been neutral, neither can the university, since it responds to power structures that must be transformed. This last aspect poses severe problems of the very purpose of liberal education, which has always been framed for the freedom of the subject. However, here it would be essential to ask ourselves why or for what subject(s) were these educational projects constructed? And paraphrasing (Spivak, 1988) which subject(s) can speak in these projects?

In connection with this idea of non-neutrality of the educational field and trying to make an exercise of historical genealogies using photovoice 1, for me it was and is very important to ask myself and ourselves the following questions: How are materialize the structures of colonial-modernity-patriarchal power in the physical spaces of the university? And where are the resistances within these spaces? What subject(s) speak from these walls, buildings and what locus of enunciation (Mignolo, 2017) are heard?

Many will wonder why I choose physical space as a way of analyzing power structures? I do it for two reasons. On the one hand, spaces themselves are catalysts/expressions of collective memories and therefore of particular histories and second because authors like (Said, 1979; Ortiz i Guitart, 2007) among others remind us that spaces (in our case the university space) are not neutral, instead they are socially constructed and therefore the way we interact and perceive the other and ourselves within them contains specific intentionality and social frameworks.

Considering the above. For this photovoice, I selected three photos that in my opinion represent how the physical spaces of the university contain certain historical power structures 2. In, I analyzed three topics: subject(s), urban art and identities and how these are intertwined with the dynamics of power-resistance.


„The man in the room.“

Photo no.1: Mette, Veit (2006) Location: Main Hall of Bielefeld University

Physical spaces, photos or any spatial-cultural production are devices that contain certain social representations and specific cultural memories (Assmann, 2011), in other words, they are not constructed or placed arbitrarily, they carry intentionality (conscious or unconscious), they present certain subjects (and therefore exclude others) and they possess a cultural-political-historical framework that is passed on to the next generations.

The photo no.1 that I have decided to call "The man in the room" exemplifies certain problematic aspects of the interrelationship between education and gender inequalities and that also form part of what (Quijano, 2000) calls the modernity-coloniality project.

At first glance, what can be seen in this image are three highly symbolic elements: a) a man, b) a book, c) a classroom in a vertical position. Although, this picture could be understood as a "simple" portrayal of "a classroom at Bielefeld University" it reflects the dichotomy between the public and the private where "the feminine is the opposite sphere to the masculine that corresponds to public life, in such a way that the role of the woman is mainly associated with the house" (Páramo & Arroyo, 2011, p.63).

On the other hand, the book has been considered the element of excellence that transmits knowledge nevertheless as (Patel, 2016) reminds us "all texts [...] have a genealogy, a conduit through which some meanings have been protected and privileged for specific purposes" (26). In that sense, the book (beyond the educational field) has a strong interrelation with the colonial-modernity project since it is through this that, for example, in the Americas from the colonization to the present day, visions of the world and dichotomic narratives are imposed, such as sacred-mundane, civilization-barbarism, developed-underdeveloped.

Also, there is a potential danger of privileging the book as a form of knowledge, and it is that other types of knowledge such as orality are left aside. Orality cannot be materialized in concrete artifacts since their vision of knowledge is built in the communication between subjects and/or collectivities.

One aspect that reinforces the gender dimension in this image is that it is a white man who rests on the book and therefore has the "rational" capacity to possess it. Hence, the dichotomy between the public and the private sphere is directly-indirectly reinforced, and specific subjects are (in)visibilized.

Finally, the verticality of the classroom shows a classic (positivist) view of education in which the teacher contains the knowledge and the students lack of it and must, therefore, be instructed "correctly."

Urban art:

Art as counter-narrative: "...but the lobster stays here!

Photo no. 2. designed made by a team of three around Timo Bödeker. (2017) Location: Audimax of Bielefeld University

When we think of art, we usually think of renowned artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, Dalí, among others and although these have marked significant moments and even transgressors ones in the history of art, these artistic expressions have created themselves discourses about what is beautiful, aesthetic and what is not. Consequently, it is these artists and not others who have the cultural and symbolic capital of entering in art museums.

In the opposite sense or as a counter-narrative to the mainstream, muralism, and graffiti have emerged as political-cultural expressions that seek to (re)appropriate the spaces (especially public spaces) and from these construct new individual-collective memories. As (Rojas) explains

The mural goes into the streets and is an active part of the political propaganda linking its iconography to governmental programs, opposition or ideology of its creators. Its function, far from the decorative, illustrative or narrative; is communicative. By being used as an agent of change, as a means of diffusion and collectivization of painting. (2015, p. 3)

In other words, urban art, as the photo no.2, is a political and cultural expression where the creator seeks to give a message through her or his creation. Also, is it important to point out that this individual action (the graffiti) is linked to an entire cultural movement called Hip Hop (collective dimension) that pursues to create new forms of discursive and resistance from its different elements (Rap, breakdance, DJs, and graffiti)

It is interesting that these forms of urban expressions are found in spaces institutionalized3 as the university. In this specific case, the graffiti located in the audimax was painted in the Graffiti-Festival "x hoch 2 where around 30 artists from Germany were invited to paint the walls of this space of the university. This graffiti made by group of artists caught my attention because of its strong criticism of the food industry and consumerism. The upper part of the graffiti says "Brot für die Welt...aber hummer bleibt hier" which means: Bread for the world...but the lobster stays here".

The phrase "bread for the world" contains an extremely Christian connotation since it connects with the passage on the miracle of the distribution of bread and wine done by Jesus. In other words, the notion of bread is related to images and concepts such as abundance, the absence of hunger, God, miracles, etc. Another interesting element is that "bread for the world" is the name of a Protestant organization in Germany that aims to help in the fight against world hunger.4

Following this phrase, the artists introduce an ellipsis, which is grammatically indicative of pause, silence, omission or suppression of certain words within a sentence. In other words, there is a discursive intention to make the spectator notice that the message is not finished but rather reformulated with the phrase "but the lobster stays here" which makes a strong criticism of the overproduction of food and the life of luxury that is lived in Germany as a "developed" country while from other spaces of this country the idea of humanitarian aid in the world is promoted. That is, there is a kind of paradox or contradiction between how development-modernity and humanitarian aid are constructed and perceived. In an article made by Neue Westfälische they explained the meaning of the graffiti:

The idea for the sea animal figure came to them when they looked at a spray can named "Lobster" which called itself the exotic color, what is a shimmering rust brown. The artists also gave their work a name: "Bread for the world - but the lobster stays here." It is an allusion to food overproduction in an affluent society. Those who leave the Audimax cannot ignore the socially critical work (Rother, 2017).


Football and (no)senses of belonging.

Photo no. 3. Mette, Veit (2006) Location: Main Hall of Bielefeld University

Without a doubt, football is one of the most popular sports in the world. Especially the World Cups or Olympics often bring a certain sense of belonging about a group or community. The teams from different countries that go to these events wear allegorical clothes of their countries, on the benches are the fans who exemplify through their gestures and songs the emotions of the game itself. The same we can see in the photo no.3 that is in the main corridor of the university, we can see: furor and nation...about Germany in particular.

Now, why is the nation, or rather nationalisms, intertwined with football? The Costa Rican sociologist Sergio Villena offers us the following explanation:

I referred to football as a nationalist ritual in the sense that a match is an extraordinary moment that has the capacity to gather the whole of society, even those who don't like it and, becomes a space to strengthen the feeling of belonging to the nation.

The media interpret this game from a nationalist point of view: when the national team plays, it is said that a match is a moment to make history or defend national honor. Football is a game, a media spectacle and is configured as a nationalist ritual (Villena, Sergio in an interview with La Nación, 2007, 28 of February).

In societies such as Germany, which has been marked by two world wars and National Socialism, it is complex to make public demonstrations about nationalism or what it means ?to be German?, because on the one hand this is immediately connected to its past as a country, and on the other hand the claiming to be something is always done in opposition/oppression of other identities. This same logic of inclusion-exclusion of identities are part of the subjectivities that were installed since the colonial project of which Germany also has its history that is often denied5.

Also, football contains a discourse of inclusion-exclusion that co-occurs:

Football summons everyone, although not everyone responds to the summon. The summon is inclusive, but on the other hand, there is a whole discourse where heroism and patriotism are linked to male honor. The selection has a trap in the sense that what it is finally calling is the professional male football. (Villena, Sergio in an interview with La Nación, 2007, 28 of February).

In the football discursive it is interpellated the integration of specific subjectivities, typically masculine ones, that are constructed as hegemonic as Villena points out. A current example of this male center discourse on sport is what happened in the presentation of the 2018 Golden Ball. This award was given for the first time to a woman, Ada Hegerberg and, what must have been one of the most significant moments of her career was overshadowed by the frustrating intervention of DJ Martin Solvoeig asking if she knows how to twerk.

In conclusion, football, as well as this photo, are part of these micro-macro nationalist rituals that although they pretend to be integrators, this integration takes place around certain bodies and identities such as the men's soccer team.


Throughout the analysis of this photovoice, I have tried to make an exercise of (de)constructing some university spaces. In the photo no.1, "The man in the room", the coloniality-gender relationship is quite visible since the figure of a man resting on a book in a classroom that is still structured within positivist frameworks is enhanced. Likewise, presenting only one man reinforces the idea that he is the primary educational subject and therefore the woman is relegated to the background.

Concerning this topic (de Alba, 2002) reminds us that we are subjects when we know that we are part of a particular social project and our actions are inscribed in a specific social directionality. In the case of this photo, the university itself as a subject is framed in one particular political-cultural-educational project that selects specific masculine subjectivities as ideal types of the Bielefeld university student.

In the case of the photo no.2, "Art as counter-narrative: "...but lobster stays here", we can see that even in highly institutionalized spaces there are expressions of resistance and (re)appropriation of public space where aspects such as overproduction of food and consumerism in "developed" countries are openly criticized. This is also a manifestation that education is far from being space of consensus and it is a field of conflict where subjectivities and ideas about society itself are frequently disputed.

The photo no. 3, "Football and (no)senses of belonging", reminds us that events that may seem casual like a football match are continually appealing to particular colonial, patriarchal, national, etc. subjectivities. And therefore, they create recurrent practices of inclusion-exclusion.

Finally, it is central to mention that this analysis was not made as an attempt to depoliticize the university or to criticize its lack of impartiality. On the contrary, it was done to detect the colonial-patriarchal structures and from there to try to think new social imaginaries and critical educational projects. As (Ellacuría, 1990) says:

It is often said that the university must be impartial. We don't think so. The University must pretend to be free and objective, but objectivity and freedom can demand to be partial. And we, we are freely partial in favor of the popular majorities because they are unjustly oppressed and because in them is positively and negatively the truth of reality (p. 2).


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Assmann, J. (2011). Communicative and Cultural Memory. In Cultural memories: The geographical point of view (pp. 15-27).

Community Tool Box. (2018). Section 20. Implementing Photovoice in Your Community. Retrieved March 20, 2019, from https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/assessment/assessing-community-needs-and-resources/photovoice/checklist

de Alba, A. (2002). Currículum: crisis, mito y perspectivas. México: Centro de Estudios sobre la Universidad: UNAM.

Ellacuría, I. (1990). Filosofía de la Realidad Histórica. El Salvador: UCA Editores.

Freire, P. (1975). Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin Education.

La Nación. (2007, February 28). Sergio Villena: 'El futbol nos convoca a todos.' La Nación. Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/ciencia/sergio-villena-el-futbol-nos-convoca-a-todos/LEGOGXCWIJBSRPYUX5VXVEWZUY/story/

Mignolo, W. (2017). Local histories/global designs: coloniality, subaltern knowledges, and border thinking.

Ortiz i Guitart, A. (2007). Hacia una ciudad no sexista: algunas reflexiones a partir de la geografía humana feminista para la planeación del espacio urbano. Territorios, (16-17), 11-28. Retrieved from https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=2924331

Páramo, P., & Arroyo, A. M. B. (2011). Género y espacialidad: análisis de factores que condicionan la equidad del espacio público urbano. Universitas Psychologica, 10(1), 61-70.

Patel, L. (2016). Decolonizing educational research: From ownership to answerability. Routledge.

Quijano, A. (2000). Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America. International Sociology, 15(2), 215-232.

Rojas, M. (2015). Pintura mural callejera en Chile?: usos y funciones en el Santiago centro-sur del siglo XXI. Retrieved from http://repositorio.uchile.cl/handle/2250/134335

Rother, D. (2017, October 21). Graffiti-Festival "x hoch 2": Sprayer gestalten Bauwände an der Uni BielefeldTitle. Neue Westfälische. Retrieved from https://www.nw.de/lokal/bielefeld/mitte/21954818_Graffiti-Festival-x-hoch-2-Sprayer-gestalten-Bauwaende-an-der-Uni-Bielefeld.html

Said, E. (1979). Imaginative Geography and Its Representations: Orientalizing the Oriental. New York: Vintage.

Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? Basingstoke: Macmillan.

1 „Photovoice is a type of participatory action research in which people - usually those with little power - use photographs and/or video to picture their environment and experiences and to express their thoughts about them“(Community Tool Box, 2018)

2 It should be noted that although I am analysing a formal educational space or more precisely some parts of the main hall. These in themselves express issues that are tendency at the global level, in other words, the local and the global are intertwined.

3 For institutionalized spaces I mean formal spaces of education as school and universities that have already formulates specific programs, curricula, etc.

4 For more information see the following link: https://www.brot-fuer-die-welt.de/en/bread-for-the-world/

5 To know more about this topic consult: El-Tayeb (1999) „'Blood is a Very Special Juice': Racialized Bodies and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century Germany.