Milano Segrate, ph. Jacopo Targa

Milanese Universities and Mystery.  (In) Visibility: What We (Don’t) See When We Observe the Urban

September 21 2022

As part of the in-depth study of the themes of Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries, 23rd Triennale International Exhibition, since June 2021 we have involved researchers, PhD students and undergraduates from universities in Milan and the network of foreign communities in a series of meetings and seminars organized and coordinated by Pupak Tahereh Bashirrad, architect and PhD.

Aesthetics and politics

Unknown unknowns: what we don't know about the unknown. It is an omnipresent dimension in everyday urban life:  we walk through streets, shops, squares, and gardens that we recognize and where we feel at ease. But we ignore them—because we don't know them—or we decide to avoid them because we have known and "disapproved" them, the other spaces in the same city remain out of our visual as well as experiential field. What we don't know about our environment is what we don't see or what we don't want to see?

We live in an oculocentric society: human experience has never been so visual and visualized as today. We see the universe with satellite images and our bodies with ultrasound probes. We are submerged and hyper-stimulated by an infinity of images that we process at an ever-increasing physiological speed. Yet just seeing a lot and quickly doesn't automatically imply that we understand the world. Sometimes we understand it only with a certain and singular point of view: seeing and sight are not mere biological phenomena, but complex cultural constructions that allow us to read and interpret reality. We not only see, but visualize objects, spaces and people with a socially constructed mental eye. Jacques Rancière wrote in this regard that at the basis of politics there is an aesthetic, a system of implicit and a priori cultural codes that define what is given to be perceived, and how, according to the canons of visibility and language. Not everything can be said, not everything can be seen.

"The citizen, writes Aristotle, is the one who has a part in government and in being governed. But another form of distribution precedes this: the one that determines who can have a part. [...] The partition of the sensible makes visible who can have a part in the common according to what he does, the time and space in which his activity is exercised. [...] which defines the fact of being or not being visible within a common space, of being or not having a common language. At the basis of politics there is, therefore, an aesthetic". (Rancière 2016, pp. 13-14)

The aesthetic underlying the polis is a social order. But the sharing of these codes creates a division within a "community of the sensible", which "shares a system of rules composed of mutually recognizable visual criteria of order and disorder" (Ghertner, 2015). What to do with what goes beyond these limits? Where to relegate what one does not want to see or hear? How to behave in front of what is seen but should not be seen? Is there a space for new political aesthetics?

To answer, Nicholas Mirzoeff's claim of the “right to look” (2011) can be very useful: the right to look, understood as awareness and freedom of both the right to look and the right to be looked at. It is a question of “a right to the real. The right to look is not just a question of seeing. But it begins on a personal level with the gaze in someone else's eyes […] The right to gaze claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but it is the claim of a collectivity and a political subjectivity” (Mirzoeff, 2011).

Training the right to gaze means expanding our ability to see also to what is usually not seen, displayed or represented. The right to look could allow us to see something within the unknown unknowns that surrounds us in our cities, and thus discover the possibility of alternative aesthetics.

In this whirlwind of images, seeing is more than believing. It's not just part of everyday life, it's everyday life itself*

Invisibility, housing and urban regeneration

The social production of urban space proceeds by fragmentation, with processes that materialize in real estate speculation, privatization of services and infrastructures, gentrification, discrimination and marginalization. These result in the creation of fragments. Some are very visible and of great importance for the image and powers of the city, while others are ignored, left behind and invisible to the 'right to the city' (Lefebvre, 1968). These social spaces are always political, signs of partial or denied citizenship, of something that should or could be, but is not; a continuous negotiation between aesthetic schemes with which these spaces are perceived, conceived and experienced.

In our cities in constant transformation and fragmentation, new “citizenships of dissent” (Rancière, 1998) claim the right to be visible and heard in public space. Let's think about the housing issue: many people are excluded from accessing an adequate housing solution and their voices and needs are structurally invisible. The places they live in tend to be hidden, peripheral, then destroyed, "redeveloped" and therefore delocalized, forgotten: invisible to the aesthetic-social order of the city.

Milano Lambrate, ph. PostHumanUrbanists

Urban redevelopment processes are often public and private operations that invest in stigmatized neighborhoods deemed to be improved above all from an aesthetic point of view, with the aim of renewing their image according to a dominant model of "decor", leaving out fundamental issues such as accessibility and inclusion, social participation, autonomy of individuals, etc. Urban regeneration processes thus tend to domesticate the aesthetics of the Other, recalling us to an intersectional dimension of class, gender, age, ethnicity and, in part, based on sexual orientation. In this way, marginalized minorities - including people with disabilities, who are too rarely given visibility - are further “invisible”, in an implicit, normalized process of exclusion, which does not need to be justified because it is assumed. In other words, the invisibility rate increases the more there are elements that escape predictability, normality and the expected, due to an underlying fear of the different.

Milano Rovereto, ph. PostHumanUrbanists


It is necessary to become aware of the processes that make the reality of our daily life invisible, to regain possession of the places we pass through every day but also of those we avoid, recognizing ourselves through the whole city, in all its fragments. What are the spaces of visibility and invisibility that you have experience? What do you see and what do you not want to see in your city?

Today in the showcase city the only thing that matters seems to be its individual aesthetic consumption. We therefore invite you to a collective action to re-appropriate the city, recognizing the processes of invisibility as a fundamental part of those of exclusion, claiming the right to the city through the right to look, in order to be able to re-appropriate all reality.


- Ghertner D. A. (2015), “Rule by Aesthetics: World-Class City Making in Delhi”, Oxford University Press, New York;
- Lefebvre, H. (1970), Il diritto alla città, Padova: Marsilio (Interventi / [Marsilio], 7);
- Mirzoeff N. (2011), “The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality”, Critical Inquiry vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 473-496;
- Rancière J. (2016), La partizione del sensibile: estetica e politica, Derive Approdi, Roma.

*(Mirzoeff 2021 (2002) p. 41)


Article by:
Laura Abet, Pietro Agnoletto, Sebastian Felipe Burgos Guerrero, Senzio Sergio D’Agata, Giulia De Cunto, Francesca Lacqua, Carlos Alberto Manzano Moran, Laura Raccanelli, Michela Voglino

With the scientific supervision of:
Marianna d’Ovidio, Lavinia Bifulco, from the PhD URBEUR-STUDI URBANI, Università di Milano Bicocca

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