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.

UCS 009 Klausen on Urban Geocaching in Copenhagen

UCS 009 Klausen on Urban Geocaching in Copenhagen (8 June 2014)

Conversational interview inspired by scholar Maja Klausen’s article “Re-enchanting the city: Hybrid space, affect and playful performance in geocaching, a location-based mobile game,” published in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies (1.2, 2014). Based on ethnographic research conducted with geocaching players in Copenhagen, Denmark, topics range from a basic introduction to the theoretical underpinnings of geocaching, from the notion of the “magic circle” of play and the reinterpretation of urban spaces as enacted by players in specific urban sites. [LINK TO ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]

Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds (and prezi)

My new book Antonio López García’s Everyday Urban Worlds: A Philosophy of Painting is entering production with Bucknell University Press – it should be available in August 2014 (appearing on amazon at present for pre-order).

It represents rather a new form of writing for me – inspired by the meandering and philosophical style of Spanish author / civil engineer Juan Benet’s El ángel del señor abandona a Tobías (1976) where he mixes a range of disciplinary questions together, using the famed painting of the same name by Rembrandt as a point of departure.

Here I’ve devoted a chapter each to specific paintings (Gran Vía, Madrid desde Torres Blancas, and Madrid desde la torre de bomberos de Vallecas…), which I use as points of departure to fold Spanish literature, film and urban planning together with larger interdisciplinary and philosophical, geographical questions.

If you CLICK HERE you can see a ‘prezi’ that I’ve used with a lecture focusing on an excerpt of the second chapter’s Madrid desde Torres Blancas (visuals only).

UCS 008 Masterson-Algar on Ecuadorians in Madrid’s Retiro Park

UCS 008 Masterson-Algar on Ecuadorians in Madrid’s Retiro Park (8 October 2013)

Conversational interview inspired by scholar Araceli Masterson-Algar’s article “Juggling Aesthetics and Surveillance in Paradise: Ecuadorians in Madrid’s Retiro Park,” published in the International Journal of Iberian Studies (26.1-2, 2013). Mixing ethnography on the ground with Ecuadorian immigrants to Madrid with cultural analysis and discussion of urban planning, topics range from urban parks (the Retiro Park [the section known as La Chopera now home to the 11-M memorial and Forest of Memory], the Casa de Campo…) to Manuel Delgado’s urban anthropology and the dynamics of migration as tied to urban processes of tourism and capital accumulation. [LINK TO ORIGINAL PUBLISHER]

Gezi Park Events: Various Shades of the Opposition against the Authoritarian Rule

I dedicate this piece to those who lost their lives, limbs and loved ones during the Gezi Uprising in Turkey…

     Turkey was in the frontline of news in June 2013, due to a series of unpredicted events, in a country with a tradition of obedience culture, summarised by the well-known proverb “Let the snake that doesn´t touch me live a thousand years”. The events started with a very naïve sit-in in the GeziPark, a public park in the midst of Istanbul nearby Taksim Square, where large left-wing demonstrations were held during the 1970s. The sit-in was organised through Facebook and Twitter to invite people to gather and camp there. The sit-in aimed at protecting the park from being regenerated, one of the few green areas of Istanbul covered with grown trees, which later transformed into large-scale street demonstrations aiming at freedom and equality.

Taksim and Beyoglu: The Western Face of Istanbul

        Before I explain how we came to this point, I will provide the reader with a sense of the spaces which will be mentioned in this piece, being GeziPark, Beyoglu, and Taksim Square, all located in the largest city of the country, Istanbul. Until the June 2013 uprising, Gezi Park, instead of a place of destination, was a neglected and in-between place connecting work and education amenities. Its neglect was also fuelled by the proximity of Beyoglu, Cihangir, and Galata, old neighbourhoods with a cosmopolitan city life, including night clubs, cafes, restaurants, exhibition and art centres. Istanbul has always been a city of neighbourhoods segregated on the basis of a particular identity and way of life. In this respect, Taksim and the main district to which it belongs, Beyoglu, have been known for centuries as the western face of Istanbul, due to the non-Muslim and Levantine populations who lived in the area involved with trade and especially banking during the Ottoman Empire. These people were early adopters of a bourgeoisie lifestyle in the Ottoman Empire who brought a westernised way of life with particular consumption habits. Beyoglu has various non-Muslim places of worship (synagogues and churches) and is characterized by a built environment reflecting a European taste. After Non-Muslim populations gradually left Turkey during the Republican Era, Taksim and Beyoglu experienced periods of neglect, leading to the inflow of migrants from Anatolia. However, the area is still dominated by beautiful buildings and a mixed population of tourists, locals and passers-by, becoming more popular due to its gradual renewal and gentrification since the 1980. Similarly, Galata and Cihangir also experienced gentrification, and are preferred as a place of residence especially by artists, intellectuals and academics, being two neighbourhoods famous for their night life, arts and cultural events, cosmopolitan way of life, and old built environment. During the Republican period, the secular nation builders were clever to transform Taksim Square into a symbol of modern Istanbul. Taksim Square, where GeziPark is located, is also home to the AtaturkMonument, erected in 1928 to commemorate the Independence War and its heroes, including Ataturk, the founder of the TurkishRepublic. Since then, it has become the symbol of secularism and later of socialism during the 1970s, hosting large left-wing demonstrations, to commemorate 1st of May, Workers’ Day. The area was closed off to the public for left-wing demonstrations by the 1980 coup d’etat starting a neoliberal period of oppression. The Square’s modern identity was complemented by the Ataturk Cultural Centre, built in 1969 and then rebuilt in 1977 after to a fire, as the main centre for classical music concerts, opera and ballet performances until its closure in 2008, all of which make Taksim Square the “door to the modern Istanbul”.

                        Image

The Taksim  Square: AtaturkMonument is located in the round area, with GeziPark in the upper right of the picture, the green area. The large block to the right is the Ataturk Cultural Centre, closed to the public since 2008. The Square is in the middle of the picture which became the site for left-wing demonstrations during the 1970s. The picture is taken from Google Earth.

Justice and Development Party: From Aspiration to the EU into a Society of Fear

         Here a couple of sentences are needed on the Justice and Development Party, the ruling party of Turkey since 2002 which adopts neoliberal economic policies but uses populist and conservative discourses to win over the masses, discussed also in recent blogs written by Taskale (2013) and Dikec (2013). The party can be regarded as the melting pot of different right-wing ideologies and is supported by the Islamic capital and denominations (Tanulku, 2012a).  Its main supporters are the immigrant masses living in large cities lacking in cultural capital, and unconcerned about the arts/culture (high culture) and the protection of heritage and environment. The Justice and Development Party’s populist discourses identify with the masses, who felt isolated and exploited, economically and socio-culturally in the face of an established secular urban culture. The party also Continue reading

Stephen Vilaseca’s Barcelonan Okupas [new book just published]

Barcelonan Okupas book cover

Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! is the first book to combine close-readings of the representations of Spanish squatters known as okupas with the study of everyday life, built environment, and city planning in Barcelona. Stephen Vilaseca broadens the scope of Spanish cultural studies by integrating into it notions of embodied cognition and affect that respond to the city before and against the fixed relations of capitalism. Social transformation, as demonstrated by the okupas, is possible when city and art interrelate, not through capital or the urbanization of consciousness, but through bodily thought. The okupas reconfigure the way thoughts, words, images and bodily responses are linked by evoking and communicating the idea of free exchange and openness through art (poetry, music, performance art, the plastic arts, graffiti, urban art and cinema); and by acting out and rehearsing these ideas in the practice of squatting. The okupas challenge society to differentiate the images and representations instituted by state domination or capitalist exploitation from the subversive potential of imagination. The okupas unify theory and practice, word and body, in pursuit of a positive, social vision that might serve humanity and lead the way out of the current problems caused by capitalism.

[Click here to listen to a podcast interview with Stephen Vilaseca]

[Click here to go to the book’s Amazon page]

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.