Thoughts on “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967 – 2017,” an exhibit at CAM STL

In one scene a pair of female dancers, one black and one white, stand sideways ready to begin choreography. Costumes—black shorts and sleeveless black tops—suggest this piece as hip and abstract. As they begin to dance, so does the position of each of their arms, angular in front and bent at the elbow as if to engage in a sort of cooperative, artistic combat. As the dancers continue, they often twin their iterative movements in both angular and lyrical motions, with encircled arms and bent knees and twisted torsos, positions in tension with how their legs often stay planted in a stationary place.

Image from Liquor Store Theatre

What distinguishes this choreography are not just these movements but also the location. Staged in front a liquor store in Detroit, MI, this dance is from Liquor Store Theatre. Conceived of by Detroit native Maya Stovall (who performs in much of the choreography) Liquor Store Theatre, is according to her website, “a four-volume, thirty-plus episode meditation on city life in Detroit … a four-years-running series of documented performances and conversations with people in the streets, sidewalks, and parking lots surrounding Detroit liquor stores.” The work includes both video of the choreography (set to atmospheric, rhythmic music) and videos of interviews with residents inside or in front of the liquor store. Some residents talk about changes in Detroit: tearing down abandoned residential buildings and development to existing abandoned commercial structures. When I watched the video, one interviewee, a young black man, talked about how tourists often likely mis-perceive him and his friends as up to no good when they are in fact just hanging out and spending time together.

I learned of Liquor Store Theatre at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as part of the museum’s “Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” a group exhibition with work by 24 artists; the exhibit opened earlier this month and runs through August 13, 2017. This past weekend I visited, watched Liquor Store Theatre, and engaged with the exhibition’s other works. (Earlier in May, the museum hosted Critical Spatial Practice St. Louis (CSPSTL). I attended “Performance and the City,” a panel with Maya Stovall, other exhibition artists Abigale Deville and David Hartt, and the curator Kelly Shindler.)

Literature for the exhibit thematizes much of the work as either “photography as a tool to document a rapidly changing nation,” sculpture, or “several moving image works.” In my interaction, I thought of three more takeaways.

First, although other cities are referenced, most works consider one of three cities: New York, Detroit, or St. Louis. It is useful to pause and ask why the focus on these three cities, especially in the last 40 years? Planning and development in New York City—from the 1916 Zoning Resolution, to the late 20th century and early 21st century loft laws that legalized illegal occupation of artists in commericial buildings, to the 2005 Greenpoint-Williamsburg Land Use and Waterfront Plan that transformed the neighborhoods’ skyline and displaced many residents with market-rate high rise buildings and scant affordable housing options—not only changed the function of buildings and skyline in the city, but also set rubrics for other local and national conversations and policies on density, zoning, gentrification, displacement, and “renewal,” and the racial impact of these urban planning efforts.

I particularly thought about zoning and race in Glenn Ligon’s Housing in New York (2007), which curator Shindler describes as “expos[ing] gentrification as an assault on African-American neighborhoods.” In the series of five silkscreens, Ligon narrates the story of each place he has lived throughout his life all in New York City. Ligon’s story is one of growing up in housing projects in the Bronx; living in brownstones with no-heat and flooded ceilings in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and later, as he became a more established artist, living in converted lofts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Glenn Ligon, Housing in New York (2007)

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 1

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 2

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 3

Ligon, Housing in New York (2007), Frame 4

Ligon, Housing in New York, Frame 5

As of 2010 New York City had a population of more than 8 million that was about 25% black (with Harlem no longer majority black); St. Louis City had a population of 319,000 that was about 49% black; and Detroit had a population of 713,000 that was about 82% black. Detroit and St. Louis are also the cities with the two largest shrinking populations (2015 estimates situate the population of St. Louis at 315,000 and of Detroit at 677,000).

But some art revealed the sociality and life beyond this “decline” and beyond how black urban areas are often demarcated in policy and discourse as in ruin. There was a through line of liquor and inebriation in much of the art, such as Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75.

Closeup of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75

But other works revealed a rich sociality to where alcohol gets bought and consumed as a way to tell the story of those often ignored by urban planners. In Maya Stovall’s Liquor Store Theatre, for example, the commercial place to buy liquor becomes a backdrop for residents–mostly black–to tell stories about their home.

Second, some works articulated the role of the rural in the making of the urban. Images from Juan William Chávez‘s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010) situated an imaginary of turning the land in the Pruitt-Igoe forest in St. Louis City into a bee sanctuary.

Images from Juan William Chávez’s Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary (2010 and 2011)

In Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield–A Confrontation, the artist documents the wheatfield she and others planted at the Battery Park landfill in May 1982; in August 1982 she and others harvested more than 1000 pounds of wheat delivered to 28 cities. As Denes wrote in her artist statement: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.”

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982)

Third, the exhibition particularized attention to art about urban space and planning, rather than art (such as public sculpture) that exists within urban space. There is much overlap between the two categories and the exhibit attuned to how art about urban space often focuses on urban aesthetics and imaginaries. Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012) “create[d]” according to the curator “ghostly etchings, a palimpsest of merchant posters sourced around Los Angeles that refract the area’s crucial informal economies.” Note how his articulation situates the sparse and novice-esque aesthetics of the block letters alongside messages of “Homeless Prevention Program” and “We Buy Houses Cash.”

Closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Another closeup on Mark Bradford’s Untitled (2012)

Ultimately and collectively the works in this exhibit re-orient how we might study, document, and analyze urban space by situating the aesthetics, narratives, and sociality of, and imaginations for, the city.

Urban Planning: Art and the City 1967-2017” runs at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis until August 13, 2017.

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UCS 010 Feinberg on Theater, Labor and La Tabacalera in Madrid

UCS 010 Feinberg on Theater, Labor and La Tabacalera in Lavapiés, Madrid

Conversational interview inspired by scholar Matt Feinberg’s article “From cigarreras to indignados: Spectacles of scale in the CSA La Tabacalera of Lavapiés, Madrid,” published in the International Journal of Iberian Studies (26.1-2, 2013). Approached simultaneously at the urban, regional and national scales, topics include the interconnection between economy, labor, protest, culture, and selling urban space. Discussions also fold in notions of produced authenticity centering on the figure of the tobacco-rolling cigarrera, zarzuelas, and tourism during the Franco dictatorship.  [LINK TO ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]

006 – Madrid – Afinoguénova on Public Protests and the Prado Promenade 1760-1939 – Urban Cultural Studies Podcast

006 – Madrid – Afinoguénova on Public Protests and the Prado Promenade 1760-1939 – Urban Cultural Studies Podcasts (18 August 2013)

Conversational interview inspired by scholar Eugenia Afinoguénova’s article “Liberty at the Merry-Go-Round: Leisure, Politics, and Municipal Authority on the Paseo del Prado in Madrid, 1760-1939,” published in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (1.1, 2013). Topics range from the contemporary Occupy movements and 15-M in Spain to the historical legacy of the Prado Promenade and the popular festivals known as verbenas – discussion centers on the relationship between city authority and state authority, commerce and public assembly.

T2M Conference–Transportation and Mobility (Madrid 2012)

The 2012 T2M Transportation and Mobility Conference was held in Madrid — since this was my first time attending I would have to say I would definitely go back. It was a very cozy and even intimate conference with a conversational feel, sessions were well attended and discussion was lively. Each year they take what I would call a ‘class photo’ above you can see the photo from this year. Usually there are optional excursions highlighting the theme of the conference — the one I went on was a tour of the ‘ghost station’ Chamberi in Madrid that is open to those interested, now as a museum of sorts–not to be confused with the Railway Museum / Museo del ferrocarril, which was the conference’s central location (Delicias). The session comprised by Susan Larson, Araceli Masterson and myself was framed as a way of blending trains/transportation with culture in general terms, and the discussion was quite interesting indeed, (thanks to those who made it so worthwhile!), and even though most of the other sessions were not as ‘cultural’ (in humanistic terms) there was a great talk on intermodality in Anglophone film as well as some fascinating airport talks (the phrase “airports are about cars” is now etched in my memory). Anyone who attended the excursion to the ghost museum should take a look at Araceli’s paper on that very museum, which can be found with some other excellent articles in this book (ch. 8) – Trains, Culture and Mobility: Riding the Rails (2012). See the full program below… Continue reading

Grand Opening Party for the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space

Grand Opening Party for MoRUS (Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space) History Museum Saturday, November 17th, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
MoRUS’s Storefront in C-Squat 155 Avenue C, NYC (on the west side of the street between 9th and 10th Streets)
Come help us celebrate the opening of our very own community history museum with a party on Saturday, November 17th. We will be opening to the public at 3:00pm on Saturday the 17th and having events throughout the day, including a chain-cutting ceremony, tours, slide-shows by Seth Tobocman, and presentations by community organizers. Later in the evening, we will have music, dancing, Marching bands, food, and drinks to kick-off the opening of this innovative museum. Please spread the word and come join us at our grand opening party!
About the Museum:
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) is a living archive of urban activism. The Museum chronicles the East Village community’s history and grassroots activism. It celebrates local activists who transformed abandoned buildings and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and community gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since pulsed out to the rest of the city and beyond.
The Museum provides access to an often untold version of NYC’s history through photography, videography, and authentic artifacts and documents. Committed to a mission of open community-based action, the museum is an all volunteer-run organization. With the space, we invite visitors to learn about and engage in grassroots activism of the past, present, and future.
In addition to our space in C-Squat, the Museum will be offering sustainable community workshops throughout the City and daily neighborhood tours accenting our rich activist history.
Press link: http//www.morusnyc.org/about-us/press
Visit the website at: http://www.morusnyc.org/

stillspotting nyc (from 2011)

Last week we asked you to submit questions for David van der Leer, the Guggenheim architecture and urban studies curator behind stillspotting nyc. The two-year project calls on architects, artists, and composers to create “stillspots” throughout the five boroughs, and this time around, legendary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has collaborated with architecture firm Snøhetta, the designers of the museum pavilion at the World Trade Center site. The current edition of stillspotting nyc runs September 15–18 and 22-25.

How does a museum step out of its iconic building for experimental, off-site urban studies projects? Isn’t stillness the antithesis of the city? And why include an improv comedy group? Read Van der Leer’s response Continue reading

[Museum Exhibit, Paris] The Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine takes on Urban Mobility

Fellow Readers/Bloggers:

If you are heading to Paris before the end of August you might want to check out the current temporary exhibit at the Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine. This museum used to be known as the Musée des monuments francais [c cédille] and is situated in the Palais de Chaillot, which sits across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower.
The exhibit is called “Circuler. Quand nos mouvements faconnent [c cédille] nos villes,” or “Flow. When Movement Shapes Our Towns,” (their translation). By way of introduction, the museum’s website offers the following short text, of interest as it shows the ambitious nature of the ideas the exhibit tries to get across to visitors:

[begin quote]

Our lives are made up of moments of activity and inertia, comings and goings, arrivals and departures. Space within towns and between towns is organized to support this constant movement. From the earliest days almost, towns were structured to allow for both the gathering of men, and their accumulated wealth, and, at the same time, to facilitate movement and encourage meetings and interaction.

The exhibition offers the visitor the opportunity to follow the development of urban design through the ages and explore the urban spaces and buildings which are a consequence of man’s movement across the land. The exhibition incorporates both real-world movement, dating back thousands of years, together with today’s virtual movement. Streets and squares, roads, motorways or railways, ports, caravanserail, stations and terminals, compact cities and sprawling towns – these are just some of the places and concepts, born out of our desire for movement, which punctuate the history of our land. The exhibition takes the visitor on a playful and sensory journey, presented as a theatre set. Reconstructed roads, computer generated images, films, soundtracks composed by Louis Dandrel and Bernard Lubat, transport the visitor through time and space, leading him to reflect on his environment and future. While the 20th century was characterised by a sort of “transport war” strongly influenced by the myth that progress equalled speed, the start of this century represents a time to question our travel and movement patterns. The exhibition makes numerous novel suggestions about how man can organize his life of motion. In this exhibition, Jean-Marie Duthilleul illustrates how town development should achieve a subtle balance – a balance that needs to be constantly adjusted – between movement and stillness, between places you stay in and places you pass through. When you design a town, you are designing a system to accommodate groups of people and allow for interaction. Thus the town is the result of a constant dialectic between mobility and immobility.

[end quote]

As has become common for temporary exhibitions, a celebrity of sorts has been designated as ‘commissaire’ of the exhibit: not really curators, they lend their prestige, fame, or institutional gravitas to the exhibit, in addition to any design input or writing they may contribute. For this one, architect Jean-Marie Duthilleul, who has an interesting professional connection to the subject: he has had a hand in designing dozens of train stations, both new and remodels. (A partial list of his projects can be found on the French-language Wikipedia, here.) For this reason, one of the stronger points of the exhibit is in fact the material on French train stations near the beginning of the tour. Another strong point worth highlighting here has nothing to do with train stations: near the end of the tour, the curators have prepared some very interesting ways to map how often, where, and when Parisians use their cell phones using data from Orange’s cell network (a corporate sponsor of the exhibit, btw). Visitors can observe mappings of cell-phone use in the city on certain important dates like New Year’s Eve, during the Fête de la Musique, etc. Adjusting some parameters the same data can be used to trace the routes and distances inhabitants take through the city–which, if one had more control over the datasets, would allow for potentially very rich ways of visualizing how urban spaces are used by various subsets of users. (Including mappings that would be akin to the bubble-map of Budapest bicycle use posted below).

Does the exhibit work, in the sense that it might successfully convey important observations and assertions from mobility and urban studies to a mass audience? Meh, in my view it’s a mixed bag. It’s certainly an interesting exhibit for visitors who go in with a particular affinity for the topics and in seeing how they handled, but it may not generate much excitement or enthusiasm in those who don’t. At times it’s too abstract and misses opportunities to engage the visitor, and at others it’s too focused on gadgetry and downright naively utopian. Still, I think it’ll be of interest to readers of this blog–check it out and post your thoughts here!