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.

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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. *

Call for Papers 2019 MLA

The Modern Language Association’s Forum on 20th- and 21st-century German literature is proposing a series of panels for the 2019 conference in Chicago that may be of interest to the readers of this blog. The series is entitled “Monuments and Monumentality. Museums, Media, Memory”.

Description:

In 2019, the Humboldt Forum is slated to open as a multiplex museum in the city castle, reconstructed as a monumental marker at the heart of Berlin. By virtue of its scale, this project joins a contested history of museums, monuments and counter-monuments, through which Germany has negotiated questions of patrimony from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first. This series of panels interrogates forms of monumentality across the media of film, literature, museums, and architecture, and asks how these have shaped the discourse on memory in turn.

How have curators, film and visual artists, writers, and architects in German-speaking Europe engaged with, countered, or reinforced monuments, museums, and their histories? How do particular media and genres (re)mediate monuments? How does monumentality negotiate temporal and spatial boundaries? How do the histories of colonialism, fascism, and war challenge contemporary notions of monumentality?

Papers are invited from a variety of disciplinary perspectives: literature, film and media studies, museum studies, art and architecture.

The MLA Forum “Screen Arts and Culture” is co-sponsoring one of the panels of this series.

Please send your abstract of 200 to 300 words to Kerstin Barndt (barndt@umich.edu) on or before March 15, 2018. The MLA will be held in Chicago from January 3-6, 2019.

JUCS enters year 5 of interdisciplinary research on the culture(s) of cities

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Thanks to all who have helped the journal through our first four years – editorial team, editorial board members, our new assistant editor team, authors of all types (research articles, short-form articles, blog posts), the team at Intellect publishers, and especially our peer-reviewers and readers!

We’re thrilled to have published four special sections to date and more are on the way (already published:”Urban Soundscapes” in vol 2.1-2; “Cinematicity” in vol. 3.1; and both “Imagining Ground Zero” and also “Cities in the Luso-Hispanic World” in vol. 4.1-2).

Araceli, Stephen and I are pleased to be entering year five with the publication of issue 5.1 (going through production) – and therein you’ll find an editorial (“Urban Cultural Studies, Behind the Scenes: Notes on the Craft of Interdisciplinary Scholarship”) where we review the first years of the journal and emphasize the need to continue to forge places for both interdisciplinary scholarship and reflections on critical urban practice.

Here is a sneak peak of what we discuss in that editorial – regarding the percentage of published material that deals with certain forms of cultural content:

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Era o Hotel Cambridge (2017) / The Cambridge Squatter: A Fictional Documentary on Urban Okupation

I again revisit issues of homelessness and housing evictions, this time focusing on a different cultural production from Brazil. The film Era o Hotel Cambridge (2017) is a recent fictional documentary on occupations in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, that analyzes some of the issues in urban housing and private accumulation of interest to those working with urban studies and Latin-American Studies. Translated as The Cambridge Squatter, by the Brazilian cineast Eliane Caffé, the work narrates the period after the bankruptcy and closure of Hotel Cambridge, when rooms and common areas were occupied by homeless individuals from all over. The documentary combines professional actors and real occupants of the building. A prominent feature is its gaze on the lives of immigrants and refugees inside the hotel, as well as an empathetic look on the lives of families and the elderly.

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A initial shot establishes the center of São Paulo as the physical space where the occupied building is located. In it we see constant reference to Human rights of housing, and a discussion of specific issues affecting immigrants. There are several scenes of foreigners communicating with their families back home. It also documents some of the ways these occupants try to make a living in the informal economy.

In the constant references to the negotiations of urban space, there is clear defense of the political movement “Frente de Luta por Moradia (FLM)” (Front of the Fight for Housing), a collective of different social movement groups seeking fairer urban development and more prompt solutions for the issue of homelessness in urban centers in Brazil.

We should revisit the study by Vilaseca (2013) on the impact of Okupas on global urban activism, focusing on the Barcelona movement dating back to 1997.  There are similarities to consider, showing the power of capital in creating spaces of exclusion in unoccupied areas of urban speculation. At the same time, both examples show new ways of resistance, giving that space new social signification.

As affirmed by Merrifield (2014), “Every Revolution Has Its Agora,” pointing out the concern that revolutionary political acts need to have space for public discussions. In the Spanish context, in the aftermath of the financial crisis there were generalized acts of protest and a general understanding that the political situation had to change, not only from marginalized peoples, but with support from a large fraction of the middle-class. In that context, we witnessed a series of anti-eviction platforms created due to the generalized feeling of helplessness. what we see in this case in São Paulo is the existence of overlooked groups of people: those occupied buildings are ignored, while the legal precautions are fought in a judicial, often invisible sphere. Most urban population, not involved in political activism, will consider those situations as best left ignored or handled by the government without interference. São Paulo is, as a matter of fact, a city with an intense history of gentrification: despite its high rank as a South-American economy, it is a urban space that puts a lot of pressure on low and low-middle classes, evidently serving a transnational financial and corporate elite.

 

Works Cited:

Merrifield, Andy. The New Urban Question. New York: PlutoPress, 2014.

 

Villaseca, Stephen. Barcelonan Okupas: Squatter Power! Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2013.

Dreaming of Japan’s Urbanscape

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I had the pleasure of making a first visit to Japan over the holiday break – Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Kobe, and the small mountain town of Takayama. Japan and its somewhat mythologized urbanscapes are one of the places often represented, symbolized, and stereotyped in film and popular imagination – the great economic competitor to America’s post-war boom; generator of ‘better’ cars, electronics, games, and cartoons; and succumbing to the nuclear-monster Godzilla’s destructive whims. The disconnections, contradictions and synergies between US and Japan have been perhaps carelessly portrayed in films like ‘Mr Baseball’ (the failed USA baseball player finds fame in Japan, and a love interest to boot); or more recently, Sophia Coppola’s ‘Lost in Translation’, featuring the actor-playing-the-actor Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (wife of a travelling businessman), largely cloistered in their Western-enclave Park Hyatt hotel, overlooking a vast city they lack the skills (or desire) to engage with.

These, and many other portrayals, have a somewhat imperial / colonial bent – the United States was, after all, an occupier of Japan from the end of World War II to 1952 and still maintains a heavy military presence. And follows in the older tradition of orientalist portrayals of ‘the East’, which typically feature Western-male (macho) characters interacting in a subjegative and misogynistic manner with feminized and passive Asian characters (both male and female) (see ‘Madame Butterfly’, ‘Miss Saigon’, among others).

In approaching Japan – the world’s third (nearly second) largest economy, and Tokyo – the world’s largest urban region, at approximately 37 million people – I was conscious of my own formative views of Japan partly based on these tropes; and of the urban literature on Asian cities and ‘comparative urbanism’ which both falls back upon, and departs from, myths, stereotypes, and assumptions.

Rem Koolhaas mused that ‘A skyline rises… in the East’ (in Roy and Ong, 2011), a fairly common ‘otherized’ view of the unapproachable, vast, and super-scaled East Asian metropolis, a place of envisioned strange, hyper-modern processes; buildings too-tall to scale; populations too vast to count.

However, Roy and Ong (2011) caution that “the vagaries of urban fate cannot be reduced to the workings of universal laws established by capitalism or colonial history” (2011, introduction). Aihwa Ong suggests moving away from an assumed comparison of cities like Tokyo with any one model or trajectory toward / through modernity, proposing that:

“alternative modernity,”…suggests the kinds of modernity that are (1) constituted by different sets of relations between the developmental and the post-developmental
state, its population and global capital; and (2) constructed by political
and social elites who appropriate “Western” knowledges and represent
them as truth claims about their own countries.’ (Ong, 1999: 35).

In our 2015 paper (Ren and Luger, IJURR, 2015) we navigated the ways that approaching Asian urbanism through a ‘cosmopolitan’, comparative lens is a necessary, but fraught process: how to chart and define observations from places like Tokyo without reference to parallel modernities, patterns, systems? How to engage across language and cultural barriers, looking down at a city from a hotel room, without remaining trapped in the ‘observer, outsider’ lens – is there in fact value of reconciling ‘outsider’ perspective in making valid observations, connections, assumptions? How to talk about a place like Japan without exoticism, orientalism, imperialism, tokenism?

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Am I therefore wrong to say that Tokyo’s neon canyons – vast, confusing and beautiful; the trains, gliding like ice dancers with perfect precision; the food, universally outstanding and artistic; and the general pace of life I observed – measured, methodical, process-oriented, are unique and inherently “Japanese?”

Must we always speak of alternative, multiple modernities, or can there be a sort of middle-ground between a distinctive ‘Japanese’ urban modernity (a unique blend of ancient Japanese textures, 20th-century destruction and reconstruction, largely American-financed; and 21st century Pan-Asian blends) and a global, urban, 21st century modern form?

This seems to remain the key tension between urban theorists striving to form a unified urban ‘model’ in which urbansim assumes a ‘planetary’, modern form and exists at once, in all places – (see Brenner and Schmid, 2015; Scott and Storper, 2015) and those who reject this, proposing that site-specificity may be incomparable, incommensurable, impossible to reduce or universalize. Logan, 2011 asked, ‘to what do we compare China?’

My observations were complicated further by living where I do, in the polyglot and cosmopolitan California Bay Area, home to not only one of the largest Japanese diaspora populations, but huge Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino and Taiwanese communities as well. The food I eat on a regular basis, and elements of daily culture in San Francisco, take on bits and pieces of traditional ‘Japanese’ characteristics, blended uniquely with the broader Northern California melting pot. It is not, therefore, foreign to encounter those who do not speak English; to be asked to remove shoes when entering a home or business; to eat green tea ice cream; or queue for 2 hours for sushi or ramen (as is common in Tokyo).

Perhaps, it is the land itself – the earth, mountains, soil – that are incomparable and most uniquely situated to a place, most uniquely Japanese. People, ideas, foods, cultures, religions and technologies move, blend, and replicate; mountains like Fuji (holy in the Shinto religion) do not. It was in the zen gardens of Buddhist/Shinto temples that surround Kyoto that Japan seemed to present itself in its purest form; unique formations of rock, trees, moss and soil charged with spiritual and symbolic significance. At one garden, pebbles formed the shape of Mount Fuji itself. This was, I thought to myself, Japan, and nothing is lost to translation. 

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Brenner, N. and Schmid, C., 2015. Towards a new epistemology of the urban?. City19(2-3), pp.151-182.

Logan, J. ed., 2011. Urban China in transition (Vol. 60). John Wiley & Sons.

Ong, A., 1999. Flexible Citizenship. Durham: Duke University Press

Ren, J. and Luger, J., 2015. Comparative urbanism and the ‘Asian City’: Implications for research and theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.145-156.

Roy, A. and Ong, A. eds., 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global (Vol. 42). John Wiley & Sons.

Scott, A.J. and Storper, M., 2015. The nature of cities: the scope and limits of urban theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research39(1), pp.1-15.