The End of Public Space (Redux?)

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Don Mitchell (1995, 2016) has debated the nature public space, and why under late capitalism, public space has a tendency to both ‘end’ and be produced again. Mitchell suggests that on one hand, capitalism (under neoliberal urbanism) destroys ‘real’ public space due to market pressure, while producing ‘abstract space’ (such as digital space). On the other hand though, and simultaneously, contestations and teritorrial struggles surrounding the ‘death’ of public space produce new ‘real’ public space (for example, as local governments are pressured into reaching agreements with developers to develop new public parks or urban plazas, or are forced to scrap development plans completely). So, as a space for publics is destroyed in the name of market-led development, a new space for publics is often born out of resistance to the destruction.

For Mitchell, there is no substitute for tangible, physical public space. The ‘homeless cannot live in the internet’ (1995), and therefore, Mitchell is somewhat disparaging of extending public space into the digital, or into the many hybrids formed by neoliberal partnerships and state-society-market interstices. Geographers like David Harvey (2012) are quick to note that resurgent activism around the world continues to be anchored to urban squares, parks and plazas, despite (and due) to the advent of a networked digital public.

Peoples’ Park, Berkeley (above) is a frequent referent for Mitchell, who has portrayed Peoples’ Park as both embodying what a true public space must – an open place for encounter, occupation and representation – but also, as a recurring site of struggle. Peoples’ Park is a 2-plus acre urban green in Berkeley that is technically owned by the University of California, but since the 1960s has been a site of homeless assembly (during the day) and also a symbol of the American free speech movement, which has its origins in 1960s Berkeley radicalism. Therefore, the site has taken on a larger-than-life meaning for free speech advocates, homeless advocates, and for anyone mythologizing the Berkeley ideal (and 1960s activism in general). Mitchell has argued that Peoples’ Park has faced challenges on several occasions over its 50-year lifetime (various threats and plans to develop and secure the site), but each time has generated activism in one form or another which has (until now) saved the park and retained its ‘public’ status. Some of these tensions have been dramatic, such as the riots in the 1990s when renovations (including more lighting and volleyball courts) were proposed for the park. These plans were scrapped.

However, faced with a severe housing shortage for students and with lingering (and growing) complaints over drug use and antisocial behavior in the park, the University of California decided in May 2018 to develop the park into student housing (1000 units) and also, permanent supportive housing for the homeless. A small amount of green space would be preserved. This decision came after extensive consultation between the U.C. Regents and the local community, and is viewed by some as a compromise – addressing the needs of both the student community, increasingly priced out of Berkeley – and also, providing supportive care for the homeless residents who use the park.

If Peoples’ Park – which has symbolized for decades the true nature of public space – is developed, then is public space truly dead? Was it ever a public space at all? Is there, or can there be, a definition and theoretical understanding of the nature, texture, scales, and forms of public space, suited to both the residual neoliberal urban era and the age in which digital technology has re-shaped socio-spatial relations? Is the dominant understanding of public space too tempered by dominant / Western frames of what constitutes the ‘public’ v. ‘private’ spheres? And whose / which public, anyway? Public space, even in its truest and most democratic form, has never been equally produced or accessible (for example, by women; people of color; the disabled or elderly; LGBTQ persons, the homeless; the poor; other peripheralized groups over time).

These questions do not have a quick answer, but certainly deserve further discussion by spatial theorists who often fall back upon Lefebvrian and neo-Marxist interpretations of the nature of ‘space’ under late capitalism and time-space compression. These explanations and arguments have done little to produce new space for the marginalized.

There is a dearth of literature (though it is now emerging), on urban ‘gray’ spaces – those informal spaces neither public nor private, with use that is pop-up and informal, away from institutions, structures, and policy (see for example Kimberly Kinder’s ‘DIY Detroit’, 2016, or Gordon Douglas’s ‘Help Yourself City’, 2018). There deserves to be a more cohesive and central ontology of black public space, given the absence of black bodies from literal public spaces but also from spatial theoretical discussion; on queer public space, given the oft-foretold ‘death’ of queer space (really?); a better and more humanist discussion on homelessness in contemporary public space and different forms/understandings of ‘home’ and belonging; and finally, a more fully-linked discussion on scale and the networked nature of contemporary public space as imminently local and fixed while also global, fluid, and temporal.

These tensions and debates have long existed, but are as of yet, unresolved.

Meanwhile, the standoff at Peoples’ Park continues – reactions to the university’s May 2018 announcement have been mixed, but in true Berkeley style, there is unlikely to be decisive action soon. Until the bulldozers arrive (or even after), public space lives.

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JUCS issue 5.1 available!

Volume 5 Issue 1

Cover Date: March 2018

Contents
Cultural studies, behind the scenes: Notes on the craft of interdisciplinary scholarship

Page Start: 3
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Writing around Paterson: Critical urban poetics in Williams, Olson and Ginsberg
Authors:  Nate Mickelson

Page Start: 15
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Borders and trajectories: Remapping cities in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films
Authors:  Xiao Cai

Page Start: 35
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‘Kerist I wish I was a skyscraper’: John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, skyscrapers and the predatory modern city
Authors:  Adam R. McKee

Page Start: 53
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An interdisciplinary look at metropolitanisms

Page Start: 73
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Los Angeles is Latin America: Art, driving and the city

Page Start: 81
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Digital personal space: From the plaza to the global canopy
Authors:  Silvio Carta

Page Start: 91
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Vibrant’s Dossier on Urban Peripheries

Vibrant is an online journal published by ABA, the Brazilian Anthropology Association, that just released a dossier specifically on Urban Peripheries that might be of interest to readers of this blog. It offers academic research in English, French, and Spanish, besides their translations to Portuguese.

The themes will be divided as such, with thematic axes I and II already published in Volume 14 number 3 (Dec. 2017).

  • Axis 1: Public Security, Crime, Violence
  • Axis 2: Gender, identity, sexual orientation
  • Axis 3: Leisure, Artistic Expressions, Cultural Consumption
  • Axis 4: Urbanization, Management, Relations with the Public Power
  • Axis 5: Rural-Urban, Migration
  • Axis 6: Generation, Youth

The first axis includes discussion on Pacification Police Unit programs in Rio de Janeiro, which has been stirring debate around the country. Also worth checking is another previous Dossier published in Volume 8 Number 2 from 2011 on Urban Anthropology.

This open-acess journal went through some financial problems back in 2015, but has managed to continue publishing open-source research specifically focusing on Brazil for an international audience.

‘Disagreeable Mirrors’: Reflecting (and Complicating) the Urban in Uncomfortable Ways

 

“I have often wondered, and it is not a pleasant wonder, just what white Americans talk about with one another. I wonder this because they do not, after all, seem to find very much to say to me, and I concluded long ago that they found the color of my skin inhibiting. This color seems to operate as a most disagreeable mirror, and a great deal of one’s energy is expended in reassuring white Americans that they do not see what they see… People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (James Baldwin, in Ebony, 1965).

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Scene 1: ‘Walking Backwards’ in Singapore (Singapore Art Biennale, 2009) 

The artist (Amanda Heng, pictured), walks backwards against the tableau of Singapore’s glassy, neo-gothic and modernist towers of finance. She walks past the colonial-era churches and administration buildings; some re-purposed as posh hotels and museums. She walks past the tropical landscape and the taxis passing, passengers inquisitive. She holds her shoe in her mouth, biting and eating her high-heel, occasionally drooling. She is barefoot. In her hand, she holds a mirror: the mirror reflects the cityscape and at once Singapore is elongated and shrunk; bent and refracted; reversed and upended. An alternative city is presented; another path is traveled, another script is written.

The authoritarian city and its designated imaginaries are interrupted, reconstructed.

A crowd of observers follows Heng. Some drift away, others join. The crowd is at times confused, enthused, perplexed, bored. The reflected Singapore, barefoot and backwards, shoe in mouth rather than bought at the mall, is an uncomfortable and disorienting place. The hyper-planned City-State is unplanned, unlearned, unfocused. What does this other Singapore look like – the upside down; one in which the racial hierarchy (CMIO, or “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Other), long convenient for colonial rulers and now entrenched in daily life – is scrambled and re-framed?

For more on Heng’s intervention, and theoretical linkages to De Certeau, Walter Benjamin and Debord / Situationist Internationals, see Goh (2014), Luger (2016).

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Scene 2: The Story Told by Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC, March 24th, 2018

I stand in front of the memorial on a sunny Spring day in Washington. I see in front of me the names of thousands lost to this vain war, fought in the name of someone’s ‘Domino Theory’ and the promise of American export markets. I see myself, reflected. Who am I, this visitor to Washington? I see the city reflected. The masonic monolith to Washington in front and behind me; the trees a duplicate of themselves.

Being at the Vietnam memorial, designed by artist Maya Lin, is a process of becoming. Its reflective nature differentiates it from, say, the World War II memorial nearby, grandiose and monumental in scale. As Cheryl Krause-Knight (2011:27) explains, ‘Viewer reactions to the memorial, even beyond the artist’s intent, attest to its ‘publicness’.” Miles (2004:103) notes that the memorial, as a mirror of collective mourning and imaginary, was quickly embraced “by an unusually diverse public.” Lin’s own impulses, in which she stated that her goals in the design were to avoid sensationalism, invite personal interaction, and trust the viewer to “think without leading her to specific conclusions” (Lin, quoted in Finkelpearl 2001:116 ,119), are, according to Krause-Knight (2011), “consummately populist ones.” Young (1993:6-7) observed that “in the absence of shared beliefs of common interests [memorials such as this] can lend a common spatial frame to otherwise disparate experiences and understandings of a fragmented populace.”

But what of this fragmented populace, and its populist voices? I look again at the mirror / monument, and see reflected a different kind of image – a visiting school group, numbering at least 50, waiting behind me in the queue to process past the memorial. They hold flowers, reverent facial expressions, and each wearing the red “Make America Great Again” hat. Populism reflects populism, and the memorial continues its becoming.

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Scene 3: The City Yet to Come? (Berlin 1931 or Anywhere, Anytime)

Berlin, 1931, as reflected at the Kit Kat Club in the imagination of author Christopher Isherwood; later adapted into John Van Druten’s 1951 play “I am a Camera”, and later, the critically-acclaimed musical and film “Cabaret”. The film’s final scene is one in which, rather than the audience viewing the cabaret stage, the viewpoint is reflected in a mirror to the audience. No longer the bohemian and libertine Weimar-era party-goers: the audience reflected is now a blurred representation of the Nazism that would consume Germany and the 1930s in fascist fire.

As always, the mirror reflects the city that is, and the city yet to come.

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Port Urbanism, Blackness, and the Shipping Crate in ‘Collapse: Works by Dewey Crumpler’ — a conversation with curator Sampada Aranke

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 3 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

“He would do these walks along the port, and see these shipping containers come in and out, and became particularly interested in the way that was shaping his relationships to the walk, to these meditative zones that are supposed to be about taking in nature and enjoying the stunning views of the Bay. It’s in the shadows, these giants cranes.” –Sampada Aranke

Scattered everywhere are green bananas. In the foreground, bunches of the unripe fruit iteratively sit upright and lie sideways on the damp, cold sand of a beach. Snails and crabs also reside on this beach. Their burnt sandy color almost camouflages the shell creatures within the sand as they move among the bananas: this fruit is their feast now. A large gold-yellow shipping crate sits centered, mid plane and suggests this feast was intended for human beings. But now shipwrecked, the looming crate sits stuck in sand, broken with an horizontal fracture at its side, with its goods—the tropical fruit from elsewhere—spilled in this location where the sand meets the sea. Something has broken this crate, this beast, this large, heavy symbol of global trade and consumerism. In the distance, three other crates meet worse fates. They, too, are even more stuck in the low-tide beach, almost submerged in the damp, dense, heavy sand water. They, too, are broken with cracks that empty out their contents: more green bananas. Hundreds of the green bunches line the sand as it turns into the sea. Some bananas have a hint of ripeness—a hint of yellow—that echoes the yellow color of the crate, and hints at the global processes, and people, that have imperfectly brought these goods from someplace else to here.

I viewed Untitled 3, 2017 (acrylic and mixed media on oil canvas) last month as part of Collapse: Recent works by Dewey Crumpler at the Hedreen Gallery in Seattle, WA. Dewey Crumpler is a Bay Area-based artist and Associate Professor of Painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. A description for the show reads:

Collapse considers the beauty and terror of financial systems and their ecological, social, and aesthetic impacts. These works take on the disturbances of potential catastrophe, rendering the container as the locus of awe, wonder, destruction, and fear. In these works, Crumpler asks us to consider how goods transported globally via ships and ports might open up other histories of destruction and creation. By citing aesthetic practices that range from religious iconography to dreamscapes of ruin, Crumpler lays bare the connective tissues between past, present, and impending futures of collapse.

The shipping crate centers all works in the show; the crate acts as a concrete signifier of port urbanism and an abstract lens to the processes and aesthetics of global capitalist processes and of blackness. To learn more about the exhibit, I spoke with its guest curator, Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 1-5, 2017, installed at Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

JASMINE MAHMOUD: A main motif throughout the exhibition is the shipping crate. In Untitled 3, the gold yellow crate sits centered, midplane and endlessly surrounded by unripe green bananas. In Untitled 4, stacks of crates in red, green, purple, yellow, blue, grey—stacks that appear like rectangular bunches of yarn—sit piled in rows in a ship sinking a stormy sea. And in Untitled 5, perhaps an aftermath of the previous work, crates of blue, orange, and brown splash and sink (and perhaps float) into the sea. How does the motif of the crate dialogue with urban, spatial, and geographic claims that Dewey Crumpler makes in his work?

SAMPADA ARANKE: I call the show Collapse, and the series actually doesn’t have a unifying title or a kind of gathering conceptual umbrella except for the crates that keep coming up. That really comes up with Dewey … taking these walks along the bayfront in Oakland and Berkeley, and the port being this really dominant place. Dewey writ large has always been … he’s within the Black Radical Tradition, he’s has a really engaged critique of capital and of commodification, and that’s been a vibrant tenor in his work for years.

These crates, for me, the reason why they’re so compelling when I first saw them is they’re an immediate signifier, they mobilize a very vibrant, understanding: we know what it is. But they also, in different paintings, vary in their legibility. Some, in the bananas Untitled piece, it’s very clear what we’re looking at. And then in the gold foil pieces, it’s a little bit more abstract.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 1 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

I think that really does characterize how, in these works, I think Dewey is making certain kinds of claims around place and placelessness, groundedness, the ways that global financial systems and the moving of goods; the commodification of pleasure, desire, and food systems—these big, systemic questions, how all of these questions actually rely on a force of transport. We could ship bananas, which we can’t grow in a particular place, to places that can’t grow them.

In terms of geography, in terms of the question of place, I think Dewey’s always been kind of concerned with groundedness and placefulness or placelessness in his work, and this is a way that those two interests around capital and place come together.

The container becomes a mobilizing factor for both of those things. On the one hand, it’s an object that is meant for stacking and carrying and transportability. One shipping port in San Francisco has the same system for packaging and moving goods as a shipping port in Los Angeles. The container is the thing that everything is organized around. It brings a real sense of consistency. On the other hand, the container is this portable fluid object that can move with ease globally. I think that kind of ambiguousness about the container is precisely why it is such a rich motif, a rich subject in all of these works.

MAHMOUD: That’s great. Tell me about your curatorial process. How did you come upon Dewey Crumpler’s work and decide to curate this exhibition? What aspect did you focus on in your curatorial process?

ARANKE: I had the pleasure of working with Dewey when I was at the San Francisco Art Institute. I’d come across Dewey’s work actually because I started to take on a research project that was thinking about Black West Coast Abstraction, particularly American. Right before I got the job at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2014, and I was eager to work with Dewey. Dewey came up in the 1960s and 70s with figures like Raymond Saudners and Jay DeFeo (who isn’t Black). I was thinking about this milieu in the Bay Area, mostly painters and some sculptors in the 70s and 80s. It really struck me that there wasn’t a lot written about Dewey.

So when I went to the Art Institute, Dewey and I became fast friends also because we were both … He is incredibly well-read, incredibly well-versed in the very kinds of aesthetic questions, cultural theories, theories of capital. With Cedric Robinson and his call to Black Radical Tradition really loosely, we had these conversations that just kind of were so seamlessly enfolded in what he was doing.

I asked him to give this artist talk for this event I was doing on campus, and he gets kind of shy about presenting his work in that way. He was like, “I have some new work, can I add that in?” I was like, “Of course.” I remember seeing this new work and just asking Dewey, “What the fuck is this? This incredible work!” It was incredible and he was just doing it in his studio, he’s just so dedicated to making the work.

When I saw this work, I started talking to him about it because it’s so striking and yet it’s still compositionally and formally … it makes sense in relation to his broader practice. I became really interested in an artist who has dedicated his entire life and practice teaching at an art school, continuing to make work, and now kind of switching up the game in terms of his practice, really working right at the intersection of abstraction and figuration. Whereas before, so much of his work was really working in abstraction more clearly for the audience. I think Dewey would probably push against that, but I think that’s my assessment. We’d built this trust between us, and I was like, “Dewey, I want to curate this show!”

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 4 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

By the time I started doing the research process around this—talking to Dewey, doing studio visits, looking at some kind of major questions that come up globalization in the early 2000s throughout the idea of a fourth iteration of global market systems—I couldn’t get Dewey’s work out of my head.

So when Molly Mac called me and was like, “I just got this position at the Hadreen here in Seattle and it’s the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party” because that’s my area, she was like, “I just wanted to know if you had any ideas about shows that you might want to do here?” I was like, “Ding ding ding,” because Dewey also has this really incredible political history, where he was in conversations with Emory Douglas and the Black Panthers, but of course he worked in abstraction and he didn’t want to follow the revolutionary representational mandate. He’s made all these murals all around the Bay area, he was a social realist muralist, and I was like, “He’s the perfect kind of figure, and the perfect person.”

I’m also interested in a late career artist, somebody who’s making work, continuing to do work in a consistent way. So all three of those things really converged around these works for me. So in terms of what aspect I focused on, I really thought a lot about this critique of capital that keeps emerging in these paintings, but also the use of religious iconography, the humor and playfulness that’s operating, and of course the question for me that’s always going on in the back of my mind is, “This is a kind of Black aesthetic critique that’s being mobilized, and yet in these works, Blackness as we’re used to seeing it isn’t in the foreground.” To me, it just made the most sense.

MAHMOUD: This is brilliant. I’m curious, you talked about West Coast Black abstraction. I’m curious how you’re thinking about Dewey Crumpler’s work in dialogue with his geography, as Black artist who grew up and continues to live in the Bay Area?

ARANKE: Dewey was born and raised … He’s lived his entire life in the Bay Area. He has been in the Art Institute for I think close to 30 years. He’s at the Art Institute, he got his MFA at Mills [College in Oakland, CA] and worked with Jay DeFeo. Actually she was like, “You should come to Mills, get your MFA,” which is incredible. He has continued to make work in the Bay in a way that’s really remarkable. I was so humbled when I first got an invitation by Dewey to do a studio visit with him, and the amount of work that he has is just illustrious.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 2 (2017). Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

The Bay is always in his person. It comes out in the work, but I do think that his latest fleet of work really does imbed the Bay Area in the DNA of the work in a different way, and so much of that I think is about Dewey’s … like I said, he would do these walks along the port, and see these shipping containers come in and out, and became particularly interested in the way that was shaping his relationships to the walk, to these meditative zones that are supposed to be about taking in nature and enjoying the stunning views of the Bay. It’s in the shadows, these giant cranes. And that really does make its way into the work. I think not just with the local of the container, but also the idea of these goods that are spilling out on these landscapes, or the making of these landscapes that are stunning and they’re just overflowing with these objects.

MAHMOUD: I am curious about this show in Seattle: the city has become so expensive and many dialogue the high cost of living with the political economy of Amazon and other corporations headquartered in the area including Microsoft, Starbucks, and Boeing. I have been thinking about Seattle as this late capitalist, neoliberal, even austere city with so much wealth and also so much unaffordability and homelessness. How did you think about this show in dialogue with the city of Seattle and the political economy and other global networks that take place in Seattle?

ARANKE: That’s a great question. What’s interesting for me is, I lived in the Bay before I moved to Chicago, I lived in the Bay for about nine years. And during that time, everybody is always … the word on the tip of their tongue is gentrification. Another word on the tip of their tongue is tech, or the Google bus, or the work campus, or whatever the thing is. That makes me very sensitive, not only to your own financial precarity, but also the ways that that dominates the cultural atmosphere. There’s all these ways that every cultural institution in the Bay is trying to feed after Facebook, or Google: invest in us, give us money, invest in artists. There’s a disconnect there, it’s not happening. Tech people don’t want to give money to artists. I don’t know else how to say it. They want to spend $500 on their meal.

I’ve always had a little bit of a cynical, at best you could call it a pseudo-feminist Marxist critique, at worst you can call it a cynicism. I’ve always been kind of cynical about the relationship between these big giant global corporations, and the way that they acculturate, not to be ironic, but the way that they acculturate or don’t to local places that they’re in, and how cultural institutions should re-think how we posit value, and the kinds of ways that we make critiques.

In terms of Seattle, what became really interesting for me is the way that that conversation that I was having today was totally vibrant and happening, has been happening in Seattle for a long time, too. It was a perfect pairing to put this—what I think can be read as a Bay Area conversation—into a context where it’s so relevant. But I think that it’s also a bigger vision for me that I’ve been thinking about with this show, in an ideal sense, I would love to travel it to all port cities on the West Coast that are facing similar things. Seattle, to me, was a tipping … the perfect first place for the show, and I would love to see it go to Portland, I’d love to see it go to the Bay, I’d love to see it go to Los Angeles, because there is something about port cities as—

MAHMOUD: —even Vancouver [BC].   

ARANKE: Totally. The content of this show is modeling the ways in which these questions are so urgent and relevant, and yet so familiar. You can actually drag that history all the way back to a post-WWII moment, and having to relocate this port relationship to the economy, to shift it from a war-time economy towards a goods place economy. I think Dewey’s work really shines the light on the way that that shift is indicative of all the things that we’re living with now.

MAHMOUD: I’d love to hear more about your own research. How does your work engage with urbanism and with geography, especially in dialogue with how you think about and think through Black aesthetics?

ARANKE: It’s a great exercise for me to think about. I focus on post-1960s Black American art. I’m thinking specifically of the intersection between abstraction and figuration in re-shaping and re-thinking the political. I think there’s such a way that in my own work, I take the question of place for granted, but in some ways I’m really trying to reconfigure that.

Dewey Crumpler, Untitled 5, Untitled 1 2017, installed at Hedreen Gallery, Seattle, WA. Photo by Yosef Chaim Kalinko, Seattle University.

I’m working on this project right now on David Hammond … He did this performance in 1981 where he pissed on a Richard Serra sculpture in New York City. I’ve been thinking about that work as a kind of intervention around place and placelessness. That being this very deeply embedded Black American critique. By activating an abject, corporeal relationship to this monument, I think that what Hammond is getting us to—and Glenn Ligon has really opened the door in a lot of ways in his writing about Hammond—getting us to re-think how we consider bodily proximity in relation to Blackness, and how that is very much entrenched in relationship placelessness.

That’s one area where I’m really dipping my toe in to see what that relationship might be, and really devoting myself to becoming a student of people like Katherine McKittrick, Rashad Shabazz, and Kemi Adeyemi who’s working on this in such a radically incredible and imaginative way. I feel like I’m just dipping a tiny little bit of my toe into it.

MAHMOUD I think that’s really rich is how you conceptualize Black aesthetics in dialogue with these questions of place. In some ways, you might not directly be thinking about urbanism or placelessness, but your focus on aesthetics gives us a different way to think about place, if that makes sense.

ARANKE: That’s really humbling.

**

COLLAPSE: Recent Works by Dewey Crumpler Guest Curated by Sampada Aranke runs March 15, 2018 to May 19, 2018 at The Hedreen Gallery in Seattle, WA.

On April 12, 2018, the following event will take place: COLLAPSE in conversation with Dewey Crumpler and Sampada Aranke at Seattle University. Public Conversation 6:30-8pm, Publication Release Reception 8-9:30pm. In collaboration with Capitol Hill Art Walk. Visit the gallery’s website for more information.

Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie

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Photo by Robert Katzki on Unsplash

On January 11, 2018, the Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Hall), the concert hall located in the HafenCity area of Hamburg, Germany, celebrated its one year anniversary. Though now widely touted for its architectural beauty and near perfect acoustics, the hall also garnered considerable criticism. The cornerstone was laid in 2007, with an anticipated completion date of 2010. It took seven years longer to build than planned, and the price tag exploded from an estimated 77 million Euros to 789 million Euros.

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By –Nightflyer (talk) 22:14, 29 August 2016 (UTC) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The concert hall’s popularity has boosted tourist interest in Hamburg, and according to Hamburg Tourismus GmbH, some 6.8 million visitors visited Hamburg in 2017. Indeed, much of this tourist traffic is attributed to the opening of the new philharmonic hall, which attracted world wide attention.

 

 

Theater of the Oppressed: A Generative Method for an [Authoritarian / Populist] Paradigm?

This week, the renowned ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ (ToTO) practitioner Jiwon Chung generously led a workshop in my UC Berkeley ‘Populism, Art, and the City’ course. Chung has had a long career studying and applying Agosto Boal’s methods of  ToTO / ‘forum theater’, in which the human body embodies power and oppressor / oppressed through movement, dialogue, and metaphor.

Through several curated exercises, Chung illustrated different power geometries – some that were physical, some emotional, and some more situational and dialogue-based. Through the practice of assuming certain shapes, uttering single words and making sounds, participants were able to embody and perform interpretations of power dynamics and different tactics / methods for resistance, subversion, and co-opting.

20180319_164538In the exercise above, Chung (pictured) asked participants to arrange the chairs (pictured) in ways in which one chair was more powerful than the others. Hinting at Foucault’s (1980) ‘circular’, rather than hierarchical view of how power operates, Chung noted the multiple ways of reading power in any given architecture. If one chair is placed ahead; it has all the power and yet none. If the chair is placed on top of the others, it has power that can be removed if the base becomes precarious.

20180319_161552In another activity, (pictured above), participants played the roles of student (facing) and teacher (back turned). The student was asking for an extension on an assignment; the teacher was attempting to stand firm on “no”. The difficult negotiation of playing (even non-deliberately) the role of ‘oppressor’, and the many contradictions inherent, made this challenging for both players.

20180319_161138Other activities involved movement only:  a participant in the center of a circle, hands outward, led two others, who then led two others, and so on, until the whole room became a swirling mass of human movement which was more chaotic at the circle’s outer edges. This, explained Chung, represents the power dynamic of a society, an institution, a capitalist economy, or a State (a school of fish? A complex adaptive system? a digital network?). The point being that the individual at the center can dictate a mass of related actions / reactions by relatively small movements; those at the outer edges must fight harder to stay with the circle.

Where, within these power dynamics, are the spaces for resistance – for upending, for changing the dynamics and erasing the boundary between oppressor, oppressed? Participants had differing ideas and creative visions, from slight variations in movement, to ‘tickling’ to induce laughter, empathy to disarm, strength to make weak, taking photos to expose (Wikileaks exposes tyranny!). Through the 3 hours of activities and conversation, the group of participants came to understand not only Foucault; but the nature of power; institutions; and resistance in practical and applicable ways not possible in a normal theoretical discussion.

The afternoon left me thinking about the tremendous generative potential of such theater in today’s divided paradigm; one that is increasingly re-shaped and re-framed along both authoritarian and populist lines. Digital networks circle around the guiding hand of powerful ‘tech’ titans. Yet, micro-interactions online are capable to ricocheting upwards to transform the tech companies themselves.

Groups divided along partisan lines – red state, blue state, green state – come together in populist fervor around shared sentiments of oppression, even if “the oppressor” is not always tangible (globalization? the EU? immigrants? the police? the gun lobby? the tax collector?). The ways that solidarity can both unite – and liberate – deserve broader exploration in the age of identity politics and neoliberalism’s fetishizing of the individual.

What potential is there to use ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ – long treasured by activists, mostly on the left, as a mainstream tool to bridge these divides and further conversation, facilitation, cooperation, transformation? The power of such theater has been recognized by governments such as Singapore, who first banned the practice after it was associated with Latin American Marxists but later re-instated the practice as a useful tool of nation-building. This brings up further questions – can ‘Theater of the Oppressed’ be used to coerce, to solidify, to divide, and to reify oppressive power systems and structures?

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Above – Forum Theater in Singapore (Courtesy of the TheOnlineCitizen). 

What is the implication of a center-right, authoritarian government like Singapore frequently deploying forum theater to help build nation and national harmony – is a fascist state a sort of macro-scale performance of Boal’s theater? Can the ‘Alt-Right’ use such methods to gain solidarity around white nationalist causes, twisting conceptions of oppressed / oppressor?

Larger questions such as these generate intrigue for further study, or further performance-based dialogues as we (as a society) continue to reckon with, and struggle to define, a global landscape of power that is rapidly shifting in both emancipatory and repressive directions. *