Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture, by Justin McGuirk.
Publisher Verso Books writes: What makes the city of the future? How do you heal a divided city?
In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of the activist architects, maverick politicians and alternative communities already answering these questions. From Brazil to Venezuela, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers the people and ideas shaping the way cities are evolving.
Ever since the mid twentieth century, when the dream of modernist utopia went to Latin America to die, the continent has been a testing ground for exciting new conceptions of the city. An architect in Chile has designed a form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, formerly the world's murder capital, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over the forty-five-storey Torre David skyscraper; and Rio is on a mission to incorporate its favelas into the rest of the city.
Here, in the most urbanised continent on the planet, extreme cities have bred extreme conditions, from vast housing estates to sprawling slums. But after decades of social and political failure, a new generation has revitalised architecture and urban design in order to address persistent poverty and inequality. Together, these activists, pragmatists and social idealists are performing bold experiments that the rest of the world may learn from.
It's mid July and this might already be my favourite book of the year 2014 (unless Jo Nesbo publishes a new one before December.) It is lively, daring, insightful and it might actually be one of the very few books about future cities that make sense to me.
While we (in Europe) are still proudly exhibiting in biennials 3D printed visions of what the city of tomorrow might look like, cities in South and Central America are already experiencing elements of our future urban conditions. Countries in Latin America have not only gone through mass urbanization long before China and Africa, they've also given rise to a new generation of architects who believe that architecture can be used as a tool for social change. These men (who are not only architects but also in some cases squatters and politicians) have had to respond to housing crisis, traffic congestion, segregation, lack of political participation and other effects of rapid unplanned urbanization.
The urban experiments described in Radical Cities should teach European and North American urban planners and architects valuable lessons about conceiving and managing the mega cities of the future. Such as what happens when you value adaptability over perfect order, acknowledge the informal city as a vital part of the urban ecosystem, include the citizen into collective efforts of imagination and construction or embrace and work with the dynamic force that is precariousness.
Among the cases explored:
Alejandro Aravena created social housing for a poor community living in the north of Chile. He simply provided families with half a house and they built the rest, within a defined structural framework. The project was self-initiated and the final dwellers of the houses were involved in the design process.
In Colombia, it's a new radicalized political class that took the initiative of improving the quality of life of all urban dwellers. The movement started in the 1990s when Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá used tactics of performance artists to tackle violence and instil a new civic culture. He reduced road accidents by hiring mime artists to mock bad behaviour on the road and to direct traffic, he set up a scheme allowing people to exchange their guns for toys and he dressed as Superciudadano (SuperCitizen) to urge his fellow citizen to take care of their urban environment. The results of his unorthodox social experiments included homicide rate dropping by 70% and traffic fatalities by more than 50%.
Torre David which the author calls 'a pirate utopia' is the third tallest skyscraper in Caracas. Built in the business district to host luxury offices, the building had stood empty for 13 years until 2007 when squatters moved in. Some 3000 people now live in "the tallest squat in the world.' Inhabitants managed to organize a legitimate electricity distribution, they enjoy spectacular views over the city and live in apartments that range from the barely inhabitable to well furnished flats with all commodities. The building has developed its own community rules and even houses convenience stores and bodegas every two floors. On the other hand, there is no elevator so going to the top floor with the grocery can quickly turn into a fitness challenge. There are open facades and holes in the floor and accidents happen if you don't stay away from the edge.
The Oaxaca Valley in Mexico is regarded as the heartland of corn diversity. Not only can cultivation of the plant in the region be traced back to over 6000 years ago, it also presents the highest genetic diversity of corn in the country.
Yet, this rich and ancestral biodiversity is threatened by the introduction of genetically modified seeds in the region. In November, 2001, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela from the University of California, Berkeley published an article in the journal Nature in which they reported that some of Oaxaca native corn had been contaminated by pollen from genetically modified corn. Unsurprisingly, the essay was heavily criticized by academics who had suspicious ties with the biotechnology industry.
An exhibition at the MACO, Oaxaca Contemporary Art Museum, reflects local attempts to preserve Oaxaca's rich genetic heritage. The 'corn issue' cannot be reduced to a fight against the transgenic industry, it is also a battle to preserve a whole culture, an identity and a certain vision of the world.
Bioartefactos. Desgranar lentamente un maíz (Bioartefacts. Slowly treshing corn) presents 9 installations which highlight the 'artefact' nature of corn. The plant is a biological artefact because it is the result of a human domestication that took place thousands of years ago and it has in turn shaped the whole country over as many years.
The works exhibited include a robot that 3d prints then plants seeds made of a biopolymer created from corn (PLA), an installation that monitors and visualizes the breathing of corn as well as a series of corn plants connected with electrodes to record the interaction between plants and humans.
I haven't visited the show but the theme, the works selected and the political undertones deserved to be further investigated so i contacted María Antonia González Valerio, curator of the exhibition and director of Arte+Ciencia (Art+Science), asked her for an interview and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.
Hi María! Could you explain the political and economical context of the exhibition?
The exhibition faces a difficult political and economical context in Mexico. Political decisions, in general, are being taken without including the actual living conditions and opinions of Mexican people. This makes us ask how is a community organized, how is it build. Which, of course, has no easy answer. It depends not only on the cultural context of the community, but also on the economical context. Diversity of possibilities of organization is something that we want to stress with the exhibition. Given the political context, that is very artificial and faraway from everyday life, and given the economical conditions, that in general terms and related to politics are benefiting the big and international enterprises, we need to find a way to preserve cultural diversity and biodiversity. This is not an easy task. But if we can show that there are many ways to dwell in this world, and that the capitalism-Western style is still not the only one, but a possibility among others, then we are making a strong point. It is then very important to highlight the complexity of the problems, the many perspectives, the way in which they are related and co-dependent, that is, that economical and political context have a lot to do with cultural diversity and biodiversity.
Why does the exhibition focuses on corn, rather than any other cereal or edible plant?
Corn is a special plant for Mexico. It has many layers for us. Corn is related to cultural identity, land, food, religion, mythology, rites, family, economy, animals, etc. By stressing the ways in which corn is produced, grown and used in different contexts, we want to meditate on the different aspects that constitute also different worldviews.
Corn is still the basis of Mexican nourishment. What is the relationship that we have to our food? We can at least point to the industrialized way in which it is being produced in the north of the country, the traditional way like in rural Oaxaca, and the indigenous way also taken Oaxaca as an example. From the very much-mediated relationship to food that we have in the cities where everything comes from markets and supermarkets, to the self-subsistent system of corn growth and consumption in rural Oaxaca, we can think about the different ways in which we build our world. Instead of thinking of opposites, I believe that people from the cities have a lot to learn from the countryside, not only in respect to food consumption, but also from the different ways of life. In the same sense, the city has a lot to teach to the countryside.
We cannot face the problem of corn, food, GMO's, biotechnology, etc. only thinking about economical, biological or scientific issues, the cultural aspect is very important. When we talk about different ways of producing corn, from rural to industrialized, we are not talking only about machines or monocultures, but really about cultural diversity.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of "bio-artifacts". Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
In Europe, GMO are submitted to very strict regulations. The U.S.A. are notoriously far more favorable to GMOs. How is the situation in Mexico and what is the state of the debate about 'native' corn vs transgenic corn?
For the moment, there is a prohibition in Mexico to continue with the planting of transgenic corn, not even for experimental purposes, because it has been demonstrated that all our country has corn biodiversity, not only the south, and that therefore all the territory must be protected from contamination. Being also the center of origin of corn, puts us in the special condition of watching for biodiversity.
But it is very important to say, and we have previously demonstrated this, that we are importing corn seeds from the USA, some of them are transgenic and germinal. Non-human animals are being fed in Mexico with transgenic corn. There is not an adequate surveillance from the Mexican government in regard to the importation of these seeds. And since we are bound to buy corn to the USA, because of the NAFTA, and the USA is producing transgenic corn, we are very worried.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
The example of high fructose corn syrup allow us to see how things are related to each other in more profound and complex ways that what we usually are seeing. The production of this syrup has signified for Mexico a financial crisis regarding the sugar cane industry. The consumption of these products is also a health problem. Why are we eating everything so sweet? How and why have we changed so profoundly in the past century our relationship to the land, the planet, our bodies, our cultures, etc.? What does technology means seeing from this perspective?
How can art contribute to the discussions around the issue?
The nine pieces that we are presenting are dealing with many of the topics afore mentioned. BIOS Ex machinA: Serán ceniza, mas tendrá sentido ligeramente tóxico/ It will be ashes, but will make sense (slighty toxic). Is an experiment to detect contamination of transgenic corn in seeds in Mexican soil. We test the resistance to the herbicide glyphosate or Roundup produced by Monsanto.
BIOS Ex machinA: Polinización cruzada/Cross-pollination is a video documental that presents interviews to different actors in the current debate regarding transgenic corn in Mexico. It exhibits the capacity of the discourse to say true or to lie.
BIOS Ex machinA: Desde adentro. Experiments in situ to teach the reaches and limites of DIY biology.
Arcángel Constantini and Marcela Armas working with BIOS Ex machinA: Milpa polímera/Polymer milpa. Is a robot-3D printer that prints PLA in form of
Lena Ortega's La dulce vida/La dolce vita deals with the problem of high fructose corn syrup, the way in which families are fed nowadays, and the transformation from the rural world to the cities.
Alfadir Luna's Containers reflects about the problem of transforming corn into a commodity that is being transported in containers along with fuel, concrete, steel, etc.
Collective MAMAZ. Códice del maíz exhibits textiles that tell the story of what corn represents to local women in Oaxaca and in other places of Mexico.
Collective Zm_maquina Media Lab: Installation that senses the respiration (production of CO2) of corn plants and engraves a copper disc with this data.
Minerva Hernández and Héctor Cruz: Zea mays. Installation that reflects on how the corn plants are altered by the presence of humans.
I read in an online article that visitors will be able to work with scientists to determine whether a corn is transgenic or not. Could you tell us more about the setting and the participation of the public?
There are two possibilities for actual interaction of the public with the exhibition. The day of the inauguration we set a lab of DIY biology. We wanted to show to the public how to extract a DNA molecule out of a corn seed. Also, we wanted to show how to do a process of electrophoresis and of replicating DNA with a PCR. For this we used DNA from E. coli.
The exhibition seems to feature works in which artists have collaborated with scientists and engineers. Was this art/science collaboration one of the main thread of the curatorial process? How did you select the artworks that participate to the exhibition?
This exhibition has an important antecedent in a previous one, Sin origen/Sin semilla (Without origin/Seedless) that we presented in 2012-2013 in the museums MUCA Roma and MUAC at UNAM in Mexico City.
We have been working with scientists, engineers, artists, scholars, students, editors, designers, etc. We strongly believe that the interdisciplinary work is the way to approach complex issues, because it permits a wide perspective that can relate different layers. This is how we have been working on the issue of corn, and so far we have very good results.
All images courtesy of Arte+Ciencia.
In the second half of the 19th century, the Mexican government partnered with British companies to built the railway line that would connect Mexico City with the Atlantic Ocean. This iconic railway infrastructure now lies in ruins, much of it abandoned due to the privatisation of the railway system in 1995, when it was decided that transporting people was simply not profitable enough. Many passenger train lines were thus cut off, the infrastructure was left to rot and communities became geographically and economically isolated as a consequence.
Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene, aka Los Ferronautas (from ferrocarriles which means railway in spanish), wanted to travel along the ruins of the passenger railway system and investigate the remains of what they consider a misuse of common resources and therefore a political issue.
But to drive around the rusty lines, they needed to build their own light vehicle. The result is a half car half spaceship hybrid called SEFT-1 (the Sonda de Exploración Ferroviaria Tripulada, in english Manned Railway Exploration Probe). But SEFT-1 is much more than a vehicle. Los Ferronautas call it a research tool because it allows them to investigate notions and promises of progress. The vehicle is also a transmitter of non-eletronic stories, it enabled the duo to visit and interview communities which the privatization of the railway has been left behind.
As they traveled through the country in 2010 and 2011, the artists shared their discoveries online, mapping their trajectory, archiving objects found by the tracks, writing down anecdotes, uploading photos and interviews with the people they met along the way.
I've been following the work of Los Ferronautas ever since i read an article about them in the always excellent blog Arte en la Edad del Silicio so i'm really happy that they finally have their first London exhibition, SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220, thanks to The Arts Catalyst and Furtherfield Gallery.
The show opens tomorrow 20 June between 6 and 8pm and there's a tour of the exhibition with the artist on Saturday. The vehicle will be on show of course but there will be more:
For this new exhibition, the artists are inviting British expert model railway constructors to collaborate by creating scale reproductions of specific Mexican railway ruins, originally built by British companies, exactly as they are now. One gallery becomes a space for the process of model ruin construction. The room's walls will show the pictures, documents, plans and other materials used as reference for the meticulously elaborated ruin construction. With this action a dystopian time tunnel is created.
I'm really looking forward to discovering what Los Ferronautas will do in collaboration with the model makers. Already, they have reproduced in photo and using their own vehicle a scene painted by José María Velasco in 1881. During a presentation they gave on Saturday at a London LASER04 session, they announced that the whole landscape would be recreated by British model enthusiasts.
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe
SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe: Modern Ruins 1:220 is at Furtherfield in Finsbury Park from 20 June until 27 July 2014.
For some reason No Lone Zone is not listed in Tate's 'current exhibitions' page. It's not even on the one of Level 2 Gallery. I wasn't allowed to take any photos of the exhibition and Tate's press office wasn't able to send me any, just photos of some of the individual works taken out of this exhibition context. So you'll have to take my word for it. Or the one of the reputable Time Out.
No Lone Zone finally gave me the opportunity to see some of the works i had lamentably missed at the Venice Art Biennale in 2009 when Teresa Margolles was selected for the Mexican pavilion.
Her works took the form of mundane and 'luxury' objects that embody the trauma of violent deaths in Mexico, more precisely in Sinaloa. The Northwestern state is the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, a criminal organization regarded as "the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world." Every day in Sinaloa people are victims of drug related violence.
Margolles and her assistants went to the scenes of the crimes and collected the traces of violence and social suffering: they soaked pieces of cloth with the mud and blood left on the site of executions, they picked up fragments of windshield glass that had exploded after a shooting, and they copied narcomensajes -the messages left by drug lords over the corpses of beheaded victims.
The artist used these remnants of gun violence to create jewellery, embroidery pieces, or colour fabrics and Level 2 Gallery is showing some of these works.
The flag at the entrance of the exhibition space was dyed using the blood found on the site of shootings and decapitations.
The glass fragments, collected from shot-out car windscreens, are exhibited at the back of the gallery. They have been fashioned like precious stones into ostentatious bracelets, rings, necklaces resembling that typically worn by the narcos responsible for these killings. Each piece of jewellery is accompanied by a text detailed the circumstance of the victim's death in a dry police report style.
The exhibition takes its name from a military term designating an area where the presence of just one person is not allowed. Implying mutual observation, this two-person rule is often used in highly sensitive or unstable places for reasons of safety and security. Along with the works of Teresa Margolles, it shows videos, photos and sculptures by Cinthia Marcelle, David Zink Yi and the collective Tercerunquinto.
The exhibition is curated by Iria Candela, Tate Modern and Taiyana Pimentel, Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, Mexico City. It remains open at Level 2 Gallery through May 13, 2012.
Before going through the series of winners of World Press Photo, i had never heard of narco cinema. But then again each time i've discovered a cinematographic (sub)genre recently it was thanks to photography. In late 2009, i found about Nollywood cinema through Pieter Hugo's work. This year Fabio Cuttica brought me to Narco Cinema.
The name says it all. Narco cinema churns out low-budget, action-filled B-movies that star drug dealers, corrupt cops and politicians, strippers, explosions, blood baths but also plenty of trucks and those vehicles that are twice the size of my flat. Although they are fictional, the films mirror and glamorize the stories of the real battles that oppose police vs narcos or drug cartels vs other drug cartels. The more brutal the real conflicts get, the more violent the scenarios of narco movies.
Making a 90 minute movie is an experience as fast-paced as the action in the film itself: most of the time only 2 weeks separate the writing of the scenario from the distribution of the film. The films never make it to the big screen, they go directly to DVD case. VICE went to the shoot of a narco movie last year and came back with a long article and a short documentary.
But let's get back to the winning entry at the World Press Photo 11:
Tijuana is a focal point of real-life drug wars raging in Mexico. The wars have inspired 'narco cinema', a B-movie genre dating back to the 1980s that has become increasingly violent in recent years. Formulaic and action-packed, the films have been accused of glamorizing the drug lords' way of life, but reflect a world much of the audience recognizes. Narco cinema is enormously popular both in Mexico and with Mexicans living in the USA. Over 30 such narco movies are shot each year in Tijuana alone, and many actors achieve star status.
Fabio Cuttica speaks about the project:
The winning picture, which is one of a series about narco cinema, was shot during the filming of the movie El Baleado 2. It was one of the last scenes, before the main character, actor Fabian Lopez in the role of Saul 'El Baleado' was shot to death. I worked on the set of El Baleado 2 film during a week. In the scene, 'El Baleado' leaves his office, shooting at the enemies that want revenge. In the background, a cloud of cocaine fills up the room. His face, drug crazed, is also cover by cocaine-like powder. That day was the last day of filming. It was a 20-hour, non-stop journey, at a set inside a house in Tijuana. It was a very tiring day, but really lucky, I will not forget it!"
In an interview with The Independent, Cuttica explained that narco cinema may even be a way to make sense of the violence. As he suggests, "it is something happening today in Mexico and the people feel somehow involved with this, they want to know, suffer, and - why not? - also laugh about it."
Remember i was telling you about "Anti Anti Utopia", the talk that Vicky Messi gave at the FILE festival symposium a week ago? She was highlighting media art projects from Latin America that 'look beyond anti-utopia.' The first work she presented was Arcángel Constantini's Nanodrizas, a fleet of "flying" saucers deployed in polluted waters to clean them up.
A second brilliant project she mentioned was Ciudad Nazca / Nazca City, a land art project in which a robot draws a true scale map of an imaginary city onto the surface of the Peruvian desert.
Artist Rodrigo Derteano's autonomous robot plows the desert ground to uncover its underlying, lighter color, using a technique similar to the one of the Nazca lines, the gigantic and enigmatic geoglyphs traced between 400 and 650 AD in the desert in southern Peru. Guided by its sensors, the robot quietly traced the founding lines of a new city that looks like a collage of existing cities from Latin America.
Because of the city would extend over several squared kilometers, the map can only be appreciated as a whole from certain a height by means of airplanes or satellite imaging. Just like the Nazca lines.
The project invites to reflect upon the explosive urbanization of the deserts of the Peruvian coast, taking place since the middle of the last century, and its consequences on environmental sustainability and the quality of living.
I asked Rodrigo to talk to us about Ciudad Nazca:
Hello Rodrigo! What is the motivation behind the project? During her presentation at FILE, Vicky mentioned the spectacular growth of the city of Lima and the need to find new ways of designing and envisioning cities, maybe by building them in the desert. Can you expand on this?
I live and grew up in Lima. About 60% of the city today lies within the desert, most of it grew without any serious urban planning. It's a self-made metropolis, the second largest city built in the desert after Cairo. It grew from 1 million to 8 million people in less than 60 years. There's a lot of problems derived from this development in terms of sustainability and living standards which exacerbate the huge inequality of our society. The desert plays a big role in this regard. People living in desert areas of the city are usually poor and often have to pay more for water than those living in more centric (richer) areas. They also lack proper infrastructure and have much less public places and parks. For a long time, these areas were not considered part of the city by the ruling class and the authorities until they became the majority.
By drawing a gigantic map of a city onto the desert, the project not only seeks to draw attention to this facts, but questions our very concept of city, specially in regards to its environment. Lima is a sort of negation of the desert. Our model and ideal of city is very occidental, and does not adapt very well to its context. The desert is seen a kind of non-place, not a part of our living environment. In this sense, there's a sort of irony in using a robot to draw a city onto the desert, as if it would be drawing it on the surface of Mars (exploring the outer space for the possibility of urban life).
I'm also fascinated by the Nasca people and their lines (200 BC - 600 AD). Studying theories about them, I found their notion of desert as ritual space, and therefore an expansion of their living space, to be in sharp contrast to our notion today. Some see the Nasca lines as cult to fertility and life in the desert, trying to communicate beyond. In this sense, Nasca City is kind of a cult to urban life in the desert today, not communicating beyond, but within our society...
I was also interested in the cities you selected for the final collage. How did you chose them? Why Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro rather than Sao Paulo? Why Bogota rather than Medellin for example?
The project required an interdisciplinary group of people working together to make it happen. In regards to the design of the city we worked together with the Latin American architecture collective Supersudaca, represented by the 51-1 architecture studio in Lima. The collective proposed to do a real scale collage of pieces of the 10 largest cities in Latin America (Sao Paulo is included). They would overlap at the borders creating new urban forms and zones of conflict. The idea was to create a map of mixed references, city patterns already charged with meaning, that people would be able to recognise, compare, and understand the scale of the drawing according to their own real life experience.
Why 10? Well, they like to put up simple rules. The cities pieces were put together conserving their relative geographical position and original orientation.
The city drawn in the desert is ephemeral is that correct? Isn't it disheartening to dedicate so much energy and see the city being slowly erased by the wind and other natural elements?
Sometimes I also find it disheartening, but most of the time I think it is ok for it to be slowly erased by the wind. The lines loose the sharp contrast with the surface in a couple of weeks, but the relief will be visible for years. I don't know if I would find the drawing and whole action equally meaningful in, let's say, 20 years. The desert is quite a special place for me, and I had my thoughts about leaving permanent marks that large on its surface.
For it to stay forever, we would have had to do it in a terrain with almost identical conditions as in Nasca, which is a protected area classified as world heritage by UNESCO. We would have ended in jail for sure, if we had done it over there. Which brings me to question number 5...
How long did it take to draw the whole city and did you have to stay near the robot constantly to monitor its work?
The drawing took 5 days (4 under ideal conditions). We had to rescue the robot sometimes and had some problems, but most of the time, it would do fine by itself.
Did you need to obtain special permits to do this piece of land art or can anyone do anything they fancy in the desert?
In theory, you can't do what you want in the desert (in Peru), unless you own it. And even then, you'll have to do an official and quite expensive study certifying the absence of archeological rests. In a protected area like Nazca, it would be a serious crime (to destroy national heritage). We certainly could not buy up that amount of terrain (!!). But it is permitted to drive around in non protected areas, which also leaves marks. So there's kind of a gray zone. In practice, people exploit the landscape in all sorts of ways, but we wanted to go public with it. We had to make sure we could do it, or at least be prepared for the consequences. The local authorities were sympathetic to the project and we got an unofficial permit...
Are you planning to repeat or show the project elsewhere in the near future?
The project is not completely finished, because there are lots of follow ups. Maybe I'll take on the topic in further projects or exhibitions. Maybe someday we repeat the drawing process, but it's quite a production and I have no concrete plans. There are no exhibitions planned at the moment, but I have a lot of material and would like to show it again.
And if you speak spanish, check out this interview that Vicky did with Rodrigo:
All images courtesy of Rodrigo Derteano.
Previously: Nanodrizas, "flying" saucers for polluted waters.