No one dons the moustache like Fernando Llanos. He's a video artist, a musician, a writer, a blogger, a curator, he makes drawings i'd like to steal, he's the über macho-looking Mexican guy who walks around the city with a chihuahua in his bag. He also produces tv shows, works on Animasivo --a festival of animation in Mexico, and the moto of his own radio programme is: "Porque no hace falta hablar de arte para hablar de arte" ("There's no need to talk about art in order to talk about art"). When he's not performing Fernando Llanos is always impeccably dressed. Come to think of it, he's probably the one and only media artist whose sense of style i admire. Fernando is from Mexico city but we met in Brazil. Women were offering him drinks, men were trying to trade shirts with him. We saw each other again a few days ago in Mexico where i was staying for the Transitio_mx festival.
Fernando gained fame with the films and messages he projects over public spaces around the world. He carries all his equipment on his back, on a bike or on a skateboard. His projections are site-specific. For his first video performance, he projected airplanes crashes on the airport of Porto Alegre in Brasil. He built a superhero aura and mythology around his performances. When he screens, he's not Fernando Llanos anymore, he is Videoman. He's got the posters, the figurine, the attire, the cool gadgets, he even has the superpet. As he says: Just like Batman has his robin, Superman has his dog Krypto, Videoman has Chamaco!! Recently Videoman was at the Mapping Festival in Geneva and introduced the crowd to the Videohuahua, a chihuahua screening angry chihuahua barkings outside an art gallery in the center of the Swiss city.
I'm glad i'm gettting back on the interview road (the last one dates back to March) with Fernando Llanos:
I read somewhere that one of your moto is "Se feliz: consume vídeo". Which kind of video could make us happy? And how?
The slogan of my website has been, all along those 9 years BE HAPPY CONSUME VIDEO.
Ten years ago or so, when i was starting to do some widespread cultural spam in order to promote my video exhibitions, i was looking for a sentence that i could identify with and that people would remember easily. There are slogans in Mexican publicity that promote the consumption of vegetables or water (healthy things): "Eat fruit and vegetables", for example. So i decided to create mine, right from the start i wanted it to kick off with two concepts that are important to me: To BE (to be something in life, whatever you like as long as it enables you to exercize your existence) and HAPPINESS (i see myself as a hopeless eudaimonist).
The slogan contains two intentions. The first one is to underline with humour the consumption of what i produce: video, and i do it using the same sentence tone as advertising, at least the one legally handled in here. Here slogans such as "eat fruit and vegetables" can only be part of some advertising campaign.
But the real motivation is also a more complex one, or at least one that is more refined, it is the one i mention in the conclusion of my thesis "Video online: New Spaces, New Narratives" where i summarize the work i made with video and internet. I do it this way:
"The video format online becomes more flexible and participatory, and this concerns as much the artists as the public itself.
I'm looking for new strategies that would connect my production with people, it seems to me that the abyss between the sacred art of the museum and the oi polloi is getting wider. I think that art needs to connect more directly with all kinds of people or at least that art should be looked at with new eyes, and to achieve that we need new, less complacent and less passive strategies.
Mi battle cry has been so far "Be happy, consume video". If the word "video" takes its origins in the first person of the indicative present of the latin verb and means "I see", the proposal is therefore that everyone consumes what they want to see and share online their own iconosphere. Besides, in a country without memory, we should make our own history and show it online to the whole country and to the rest of the world. Let's stop importing references and which medium is more adapted to that than video?
I'm interested in shared reflections. Over the past four years i found confirmation of my belief: over 1000 persons, of any type of profile, from every part of the world, have received video each week by email. And over 3 millions visits on my webpage make me think that there are ways to achieve this.
The future cannot be only for artists, nor can thesis be solely for university graduates or members of ecclesiastical councils."
The funny thing is that i wrote this text just as i was working on the first drafts of Videoman. Somehow i see similar intentions and common grounds.
During one of your presentations at the festival arte.mov in Brazil you defined your video performances as 'urban acupuncture.' Can you explain us what this involves? Do cities really need to be submitted to acupuncture?
What i do is indeed a performance but i would rather call them Video-interventions. They consist in the projection of moving videos in the city. I chose specific location where a dialogue between the space and the screening can take place. I've done over 30 video-interventions in 5 different cities in 3 yeas. Each of them aims to be different from the others, to show a peculiar way to interact with people or with a specific zone, you can watch the videos online.
This is how i describe them in the catalog:
The content of the projections can be linked to the history of the place, to recent events related to it and/or local reflections of popular interest. Involving passersby is part of both the action and the art piece through a 'closed circuit' system (recording of the video, manipulation, editing and projection in real time).
These video-interventions and their recording create new materials that, in their turn, become into the raw material that starts to process, exhibit and broadcast online in order to give way to a shared reflection with people who may or may not be related to the art world.
I called Videoman's video interventions "urban acupuncture" because i thought it was a good metaphor of the way they work in the city. They are short, sometimes they are disturbing and are a bit incisive. I believe that in some way they can help to make public space a "healthier" place through a brief catharsis. This "cure" can be a very subjective apreciación but it seems to me that it can be applied to anyone who works in public space and believe that they can contaminate the public with something of their proposal.
The term was inspired by one of Guillermo Gómez-Peña's performances, the Mad-mex. We met in the Bienal de Mercosul in 2005, when i was presenting the first version of Videoman, he was 'de-colonizing' the body of a woman who was holding the flags of the countries that invaded with acupuncture needles. That's where i first thought of calling my interventions that way.
Let's remember that the original and full name of the project is:
[ vi video ]
Later on, however, the project was more closely related to the terms Videoman and urban acupuncture.
Obviously i believe that cities need this sort of urban acupuncture. Graffiti, sticker guerrilla, radio pirate, etc. Each of these manifestations that co-exist in a city and that take place without asking for the permission of the authorities are, in my view, necessary to the development of a healthy cultural life. If one only relies on the established channels and spaces, where and how can new discourses be inserted that are likely to refresh the existing ones? I believe that our megalopolis needs some kind of participative cure. How can we appropriate spaces and make them ours if everything is left in the hands of the government or of corporate advertising? As i explained in one of my talks, i believe in the sentence of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: "The Land Belongs to Those Who Work It". That's how public space should be understood, at least as far as people who dedicate their life to art and interested in sharing it with new audiences are concerned.
One takes some actions, even if they scandalize or make people feel uncomfortable, that's a sign that something is happening and it is better than to resign yourself to the indifference or the polite silence of the public who visit museums. I think that the punk voice, the voice of denunciation, of the DIY spirit can help understand the nature of that acupuncture.
Our cities are overwhelmed with visual stimuli: billboards, neon signs, information boards, etc. How do you compete with that and get passersby attention during your video performances?
The starting point is not to regard them as competition, artists use other elements such as physicality or movement to attract the attention. Sometimes even the outfit or the means of transport can be used to leave an indentation in the memory.
We can not discuss in terms of competition because the advertising world always has had much higher budgets. One has to be able to turn things upside down. Unlike publicity, Videoman's video projections are site-specific, they tie in better with their context and exploit scandal better. A publicity is most often visible in many places and they will eventually be replaced by others. The projections i make attempt to attache themselves and explode within a very concrete space.
Besides, as far as attracting the attention is concerned, i have an advantage. I can be politically incorrect and show things that publicity can't show. For example, i can project pornography in the street or a kiss on the prostitutes working in the red district of a city, or the planes that miss their landing in the airport. This is a discursive luxury, not anyone can use it, you have to be cynical and have guts to do something like that. You have to embrace the challenge and very often even risk your body in order to create an action so deeply poetical that it will remain in people's meme, turn into a myth and almost become word of mouth.
The most fascinating characteristic of Videoman for me is all the mythology you build around it: the figurines, bicycle, posters that end up in movie theater, etc. Is this part of a larger strategy?
Exploring this mythification of the character has been extremely fun and constructive, i was able to broaden the imagery of Videoman's field of action. The project is in fact based on highlighting ideas, it's not as if i'd spend my life projecting images. I do the projections and then document them (both on line and off line) and that's what gives a sense to the whole research behind the project, but i've enjoyed very much the possibility to lucubrate and expand myself further in the mythification of a super-hero.
Besides, working along these principles has enabled me to copy marketing strategies that help superheroes maintain their image.
In reality, as i said in the talk, i always wanted to be a superhero. When i was a kid i used to collect the comics of Superman, Batman and Spiderman, my first drawings represented this kind of warriors, a mix between super-heroes, Mad Max and the luchadores. When i was 9, i was selling at school the reproductions of drawings i was making of He-Man and the Transformers. If you analyze Videoman, you will see that he was be as basic as Batman, he's a guy with tools, discipline and a lot of guts.
Therefore i already had the fascination for these stories, those media, those objects when i was just a kid. Expanding the project using objects that respond to this sort of marketing strategy has enabled me to broaden the spectrum of fascination and empathy that the character can generate.
I think that's the reason why people associate the project more with the word VIDEOMAN than with its original name, it is easier to associate the whole project with the images of the character in action than with the interventions themselves.
Or are these declinations of your persona just ideas you get 'on the spur of the moment'? My favourite were the moustache and the figurine episodes. Would you mind elaborating on those two?
As i explained you in the previous question, when i started working on this project, i was convinced that the most important element was the projection of the video in the street, but i gradually realized that the character of VIDEOMAN was taking the lead role, that many of his intentions could be summed up in his harnesses and his equipment, that's how i started thinking i should give way to the desire i had always had to be a superhero. It was very simple, as a kid, i used to read many comics and i always aspired to be a superhero. As time passed i realized that in the art world one can invent whatever they want and as one generate their own bubble and enjoys staying inside it, why shouldn't i create my own superhero?
But that was a slow and gradual process. The first version just coined the name VIDEOMAN, and it fits the postcard quite well. After that i started working more on the idea of a garment and attire that would befit a superhero, borrowing from the strategies of the superheroes i found most interesting: the poster, the figurines, a comic to explain the project, etc. I would like to keep on following along those lines. I'd like to shoot a trailer in 35 mm of a film that doesn't exist and keep on building fiction around the character.
In the beginning, the moustache was a tribute to Felipe Ehrenberg, the first conceptual artist in México, i was curating his 50 year retrospective for the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City and it seemed to me that after 3 years of work, it was high time to come up with an action that would draw attention to the complicity we had together. His moustache is a key characteristic of his personality. I kept it and shaved it only the day after the inauguration.
One day i read that his moustache was a tribute to Emiliano Zapata, then somehow I also felt it had some similarities with the character of Videoman. I therefore decided that for some versions, the character would wear this kind of revolutionary emblem, as the majority of Zapatistas wore moustaches and fought in guerrilla.
The figurines of Videoman that we issed were commissioned to someone whose sole occupation is to make superheroes. He sells them at the exit of Metro stations or on the main square, he has Superman, Batman, but also some Mexican superheroes such as El Santo, Chapulin Colorado, etc. I asked the sculptor to adapt in figurine the pictures in which i appear as Videoman, i loved the way he enlarged my features and misinterpreted concepts. I think that there is some beauty in the way knowledge or concepts can be adulterated. A + B does not always equal C, it can be Ab or aB. I like to see the subtle conceptions that an unofficial expert of heroes can have being reflected in an object that reminds me of the cult we raise to those characters. The ones of Starwars, the Marvel or the Manga. People do not collect figures of saints anymore, nowadays they almost pray to these new icons.
You collaborate also with commercial brands. Can you give us a couple of examples and explain the kind of limit(s) you impose on those collaborations? When do you accept a purely commercial commission and what makes you reject another one?
I do a lot of commercial works, i call them creative exercises, they help me stay in shape. Making a DVD for a client like ABSOLUT requires a rigor and technical ability that i might not look for otherwise. Creating a tv programme that both the producer and the channel will like is a big challenge, because in the art world, people tend to answer only to themselves, no matter how good or bad that can be. I think that making exercises that start with limits is always healthy from a creativity point of view, and the world of advertising is full of those limits, themes and contents.
I have a video production company that allows me to undertake any type of commercial work, designing web pages, shooting video clips or making of for movies. I don't put the Fernando Llanos firm under these works. I don't want to associate any brand or commercial project with my name nor with my artistic projects. Nike wanted to hire me to use Videoman as part of a strategy of guerrilla advertising. I obviously declined. I don't think these things and worlds should mix up. Instead, i sold them a videoclip and everyone was happy.
Of course the main reason why i accept these work is the budget they give me access to. It feels like going to school and being paid huge amounts of money so that i can learn and train. Making this kind of concessions allows me to increase the competence and freedom i have for my own artistic projects. Working one week on a commercial project enables me to live well during 3 months while working full time on my projects as an artist or cultural producer. The most important thing is that you never lose sight of your priorities, that you are aware that your production as an artist is above everything else.
You are preparing a book on Ciudad Satélite. Can you tell us what the book will be like? How you came to be interested in this suburban area?
Satélite, the book (Historias suburbanas de la Ciudad de México - Suburban stories of Mexico City) is a publishing projects that touches upon themes of architectural, artistic and scientific popularization. Its aim is to investigate the destiny of an emblematic suburb for the middle class, a pioneer at its origins but which grew more conservative over time. It seeks to crystallize the history and memory of its people, places, idiosyncrasies and identity. This is illustrated with the collaboration of artists who live in that area.
The publishing projects hopes to contribute to the awareness of an urban phenomenon, the middle class suburb, created as a progressive and modern challenge by one of México's most famous architects. It did however evolved into a serial and uniform city, based on maximizing the rent and on a conservative social project with a dose of political innovation.
It aims to enrich the visual, architectonic and cultural landmark that is the Ciudad Satélite for Mexico City. Ciudad Satélite, almost 50 years after its construction, features a peculiar wealth that has been scarcely identified and valued: its architectural legacy and its complex urban planing, the iconography of the so-called "spatial era" that lead to its foundation, its aesthetic that blends modernism and consumer kitsch.
The idea is to crystallize the memory of the area, through the story and history of the life of its inhabitants, but also the advertisements that promoted the communities at the end of the '50s, as well as the narratives of "external observers" of this new suburban culture. All of that will undoubtedly contribute to the promotion to the enrichment of local cultures.
Eight years ago i decided to propose the realization of an experimental documentary about the Satellite City, as a thesis project, in order to graduate from the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Fine Arts. My interest for the theme was at first to get to know my roots and reconcile myself with my origin. But i was also fascinated by the fact that in a city of something like 20 million inhabitants, one of the biggest on the planet, there is a specific way of being that can be identified, mythified inside and by Mexico City. It is something that, in my view, reveals a cultural contribution that many Chilangos are not ready to acknowledge yet.
I was born in D.F., but from zero to 10 year old i was living in Valle Dorado, a satellite city of Satélite. I grew up, as some say, inside the aegis of the satellite culture. Before i started investigating the issue, satellite was for me a symbol of the promises of development that were never realized (the beginning of the famous post-modernity), exquisite ambassadors of the kitsch and the suburban aesthetics, the part of Mexico City that most aspired to be yankee and the characters with their provincial aura who go through the capital as satellites.
I had a series of abstract beliefs that did not really fit into the picture, the only thing i knew for sure was that inhabitants of Satellite city were among the few easily recognizable people in this big city: the way they dress, talk, even their hair was peculiar, different and identifiable, just like people from Tepito or Coyoacán (other neighbourhoods with a strong personality in DF.) A 'being' distant from the omnivore and homogeneous fauna of Mexico City.
In order to realize the documentary i mentioned i worked on a little book i called "satellite logbook". It's a booklet where i wrote down the information i was gathering: cuttings, drawings, statistics, drafts, ideas that would help me unfold the mysteries of Satellite City. A mere depository of information without any form nor pretense.
I interviewed some personalities living in the region. I managed to get fragments of documentaries and tv programs in which Satellite City appeared. I read in the Hemeroteca Nacional all the Ecos de Satélite (Satellite's Echo), the mythical newspaper of the area. The investigation grew so much that i never shot that video and graduated with another project.
Four years later the start of the investigation i met Uriel Waizel and we founded Satelín Torres, a project of urban renovation using the enhancement of local culture, a space within which unravel and promote everything about Satellite, an initiative which, in some way and 8 years later, has triggered this editorial project.
I must admit that what i admire the most among your artworks are the drawings. Can you select 3 of them and comment briefly each of them?
Thank you Régine, i'm happy that you like the drawings. I've been drawing as far as i can remember and i love to "think with the hands", as Ehrenberg called the act of drawing. Even if i've always drawn, it's only recently (and thanks to the publication of Cursiagridulce) that i've been invited to do exhibitions of drawings and not only of my work on video or online.
I'm going to comment three drawings from two different projects. The first one is a drawing about Videoman, it's called "Mapa mental" (Mental Map), the second and third one are from my book Cursiagridulce, one is called "Corazón" and the last one "Software included".
The first one, Mapa mental, is a drawing that helps me explain what comes into play in the version 4.0. of Videoman, the one i presented at Madrid Abierto. Drawings help me in my projects because i like fluid sketches and diagrams, they help me see all the information in just one look and help me give space to the complexity of the idea to be developed. In this specific case it helps me communicate with the rest of the team with whom i developed the harness. The engineer and the stylist rely on this drawing, it explains the concepts and the functions it should embody and from there they can make a proposal to me.
This drawing has three parts: the central one shows the breakdown of the equipment and the way it connects to its electrical electrical autonomy or dependence. On the left side, at the bottom, there is a proposal about how the system, in particular all the devices, can fit into the bicycle. On the right side are notes related to the outfit over a lucha libre doll.
This version in Videoman is particularly ecological, the electricity is generated by a dynamo activated when i pedal which, in turn, charges the battery. For this and with the intention of engaging further the public, a microphone enables people to talk and an open Bluetooth network enable the sharing of videos, speech and thoughts bubble appear just like in comics.
This is a large format drawing, the first drafts of the project were small but because the booklet had to move to the exhibition space, i decided to give more graphical formality (technically they are more sophisticated than a draft made with more spontaneity) and a larger dimension. In this way, the drawing kept its function, but it looks much better.
The drawing "Corazón" (Heart) is one of the oldest of Cursiagridulce, i made it while i was still at college. I decided that during one year i would stop to use big framed formats, and that i would focus on developing ideas that would work on the format of a book or notebook. It was the beginning of the 13 booklets i made over the course of 7 years and from which the book Cursiagridulce was born.
The blue and green marks are the impression of my nipples. Therefore the representation of the heart aims to be more or less at the 1:1 level. That would be the real size of my heart and above my breast-notebook float the women whom, until that day, i had loved the most. These are very synthetical drawings that where lights are contrasting on their faces and profiles.
Finally "Software included" is a drawing in which Ana Lucía is seen sleeping, she is the woman i have loved the most in my life, i was in love with her for 9 years, in a series of ups and downs i kidnapped her in France (where she was living with her boyfriend) and brought her to Barcelona to spend Christmas with me and then New Year's Eve in París, it was in 2001. The drawing represents a moment when she is sleeping and i feel deeply in love. I could not stop looking at her, i could spend hours watching her. I think that my way of misunderstanding love, the act of never being tired of contemplating is a ritual goes further than the intellect and it brings us up to the most basic of the world of encounters. The divine perception, in the communion with the other, and the unexplainable surprise they arise in us, a suspended sigh.
Because the theme of love and sex is a constant in my work, Ana Lucía appears in probably 70% of my works, not only in the Cursiagridulce drawings, but also in the videos of Videomails and Videoviajes. I should add that i immediately apply ink, without ever making any draft with a pencil. What is in the process of being built exists. That's why i like it, it's like video, raw, without rehearsal. Life doesn't allow a second take.
Your project Videoman has toured the world, not only because you were invited to show your work in many prestigious museums and cultural venues around the world but also because Videoman has inspired other works. Could you tell us something about the projects that owe so much to Videoman? Do not omit the naked version of your performances, please, please!
I like to share. The reason for that is very simple: i feel like i'm the result of other people who have shared with me. While growing up, i believe i acquired moral debts to other personalities and i'll probably never repay them enough. When i made the Videomails in 2000 several artists copied the model and referred to me in their websites.
With the Videoman project several artists did indeed ask for our advice, others just copied the model, not only the model of the device but also the structure deployed when selecting some spaces (as in the case of the Spanish naked "Videoman", see the newspaper cover below). We uploaded online right from the start all the information about the way to prepare the harness and how it works. Several people suggested i should patent or copyright it, but i always thought that the best thing that could happen would be that other people would copy and improve the model. After all, what matters isn't mostly the technological novelty but rather to be able to make the most of technological goodies that are already there. My contribution or stamp had more to do with the situations and contents generated than with the equipment only.
Mexico city is North America's oldest city. Nowadays, foreigners like me associate it with lucha libre, pulquerías, the Metropolitan Cathedral, traffic jams, etc. But why should we put the city on the new media art map? Can you name us a couple of events, galleries, institutions that support media art?
DF has a very vibrant life in terms of creation just like in any other megalópolis on the planet. The reality is that we have to fight for every square centimeter with the effect that the production has maintained a remarkable vitality. I'd say that as far as media art is concerned, we have key actors who keep on raising interests well beyond our frontiers. Arcangel Constantini has just been awarded the support of VIDA, Gilberto Esparza obtained it last year. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Manuel de Landa are other examples of key figures in new media, they are Mexican but have spread their wings in other countries.
There are spaces such as Laboratorio Arte Alameda that weaves wonderful links with other latitudes (for example the Video Game exhibition that Laura Baigorri curated for Laboral), and it acts as a space to get to know the local scene.
The Festival TRANSITIO is the strongest event of art and technology that we have and it seems to me that it is growing and improving with each editiion, let's see what they will propose us in 2010.
But most of all what i would like to highlight is that in general the technological discourse of the peripheries seems to be more critical and intertwined with real necessities of protest or almost survival, because one starts with lack, rather than with the excess. To give you an examples, Arcangel Constantini's famous Atari-noise which won the Festival Interference in France in 2001.
And more importantly can you think of other artists (using technology or not) from Mexico that i should add to my 'interview candidates' list?
Arcangel Constantini. Our most famous net artist.
Hector Falcón. Excellent multidisciplinary artist who works mostly with his body.
Rogelio Sosa. Great sound artist who likes noise.
Ivan Abreu. Cubano-Mexican artist who works fantastically with data and cables.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. You already know him, maybe you've even interviewed him. You can't go wrong with him :-P
Any upcoming project you could share with us?
Yes, this year i'd like to make a record with my band, mi:reyna. We've been rehearsing for a year and we want to start playing live. It's a challenge because i can't play the guitar and i'm learning how to while we are getting ready and rehearsing the songs. I want to believe that i can build something interesting and nice from my limits. I'd like to end this interview with that because i believe that this profession is full of freedoms and it's both fun and healthy to enjoy them. That's how i jumped from being a painter to being a video artist, that's how i started a book but ended up publishing 3 (two others are scheduled to be published.) I started doing video because it was the medium that joined image and sound and i want to see how far i can go with music. It's going to be one of my creative priorities in 2009.
The show closed a couple of days ago. So why am i telling you about it? First because that's exactly what i tend to do these days, it takes me ages to get exhibitions online. But more importantly, the gallery was screening a lovely documentary: Temporal : The Art of Stephan Doitschinoff (aka Calma).
Having this dream of painting a whole town, Calma traveled to Lençóis and started asking villagers if he could paint murals onto their houses. He soon ended up painting the inside of a chapel and even tombstones in the cemetery.
Just a quick video that will hopefully inspire you merry ways to end 2008:
Daniel Eatock spent two months in 2007 living and working in Vilnius (Lithuania). He noticed that car alarms were constantly interrupting the peace. The alarms were so sensitive that even a whisper would set them off. One day, out of sheer frustration, Eatock left his desk, found the car whose alarm had been interrupting his peace every five minutes, and waited patiently for the siren to switch on. When the siren sounded, he started dancing like a madman. He made videos of several of his car alarm dances, never touching the car, only dancing to the sound pollutants.
I arrived yesterday in São Paulo and i still have to recover from the shock. This is the new Berlin, the new New York, the new 'i've never seen such an exciting place before.'
Fernando Llanos, his shirt with dancing skeletons and i went to visit the very disputed 28th edition of the São Paulo Biennale. There are so few artworks to see that the 2nd floor of Oscar Niemeyer's Bienal pavilion has been left completely empty (the pleasure of seeing the interior architecture of the splendid building is such a treat i'm not going to complain about the strikingly poor offer of art.)
Instead of the usual plethora of artworks, Curator Ivo Mesquita has organized a cycle of conferences focusing on the place and meaning of biennials not only in São Paulo but also around the world. According to Mesquita, the Biennial model is ill and must be quarantined. This is why the 2008 Biennial lasts only 42 days long, the normal length of a real quarantine. This is a brave and radical gesture, one that certainly gets tongues wagging. Everyone in town seems to have an opinion about the biennial, its future, biennales in other countries, the way this one should have been handled, etc. I think Mesquita marks a point here.
A few hours before hitting the biennale, we were walking along Avenida Paulista and stumbled upon this official statue wearing a life jacket. What looks like a prank has actually received the blessing of the government. Eduardo Srur did a total of 16 similar interventions all over the city, targeting XXth century monuments glorifying the heroes of national history.
The life jacket invite passers-by to get a renewed, fresher look at the city landmarks.
By creating a situation in which the city turns its gaze inwards again, Srur proposes a reflection on the connection between the citizen and city space and the possibility of recreating the collective landscape.
REACTIVATE!! is a two-fold exhibition which runs until late August, at the Espai d' Art Contemporani de Castelló, near Valencia in Spain. The first part, which i covered earlier this week (see REACTIVATE!! Part 1, Urban reanimations and the minimal intervention and Retired priests have all the fun) engages with recent architecture projects which makes the most of disused, outworn or inadequate urban spaces and buildings to create striking new edifices. On the cheap and with jaw-dropping results.
The other half of the exhibition is dedicated to contemporary urban interventions that appear to put into practice that which the Situationist International developed as radical urban critique and theory.
Borrowing from Situationist strategy of détournement, the temporary and modular architecture projects presented in this section of the exhibition use existing structures and buildings to generate new scenarios and redefine the city as a site for play and appropriation. Interestingly, the way they regain control over space is totally at odds with the current 'no loitering' trend.
Dozens of projects were selected for the exhibitions and the first one i'd like to mention is 'parasiting' one of the walls of the Espai d' Art Contemporani de Castelló itself since 2005.
Called Institutional Prosthesis, Santiago Cirugeda extension of the contemporary art center represents an attempt by both the architect and the EACC to foster a reflection on the construction of public space, citizen participation, organization strategies and new urban scenarios emerging from artistic practices.
Two cells of approx. 50 m2 each sprout above the square in front of the art center. Access to it is independent from the rest of the museum and anyone in the city can rent the space for free to organize discussions, workshops, meeting, conferences, etc.
A quick selection of other projects that visitors can discover at EACC:
The installation by Ali Ganjavian, Key and Maki Portilla-Kawamura, with the collaboration of artist Tadanori Yamaguchi, consisted of a free call centre to Latin America located in Plaza de Colón in central Madrid during February 2006. The idea was to encourage this square to live up to its name (Colón refers to Cristóbal Colón, the Spanish name for Christopher Columbus) and be characterized by transatlantic communication made possible by Colombus five centuries ago.
Microutopias, by IaN+ with Marco Galofaro, proposes the recycling of architecture and aircraft carriers to create moving landscape. The idea evokes Hans Hollein's 1964 Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape, the concept of an aircraft carrier dragged in the middle of the fields to create a new city. But instead of remaining anchored in the landscape, the war machines of Microutopias are moving fleets that host humanitarian and cultural activities.
Atelier Bow-Wow also studied the possibility to re-purpose existing structures. Their Made in Tokyo project suggests a greater understanding and respect of authentic local development. Rather than demolish areas of the Japanese capital to construct new skyscraper districts, the architects propose to be inspired by the resourcefulness found in the city and add new functions to existing buildings. A map details the examples of the concept they found around the city: tennis court, lake and Japanese garden on the rooftop of a plant, a shrine on top of rented commercial spaces, an apartment house with the role to hold up billboards one can see from airplanes landing or taking off, etc.
The Bar has been sunk 1.2 metres into the ground. Outside, an 'orange pool' links a sunken terrace, a mini-amphitheatre and an entrance to the café with wheelchair access. The roof provides an unusual setting for a basketball court which features a middle circle made out of glass.
Conceived in 1996 by Austrian artist Friedemann Derschmidt, Permanent Breakfast is part game, part reality show and part gastronomical event. Its rules are very: one person invites other persons to breakfast in a public space. The guests commit themselves to organize another public breakfast with different persons in a different place as soon as possible, and so on and so forth. Following the snowball principle, there would be 1.6 mio. people publicly breakfasting no later than on the tenth day.
Urban Nomad Shelter, by Los Angeles based Electroland, is designed to 're-brand' a category of city dwellers in need of visibility: the homeless>. Electroland's shelters have therefore all the characteristics susceptible to appeal to the cool crowd and stop anyone willing to brush them away from the streets, they are stylish and come in a bright range of colours. The homeless will find them easy to move around, inexpensive, light and transparent (apparently when you are out of view of the police and other people, anything could happen to you).
The inner courtyards of the Museumsquartier in Vienna host several cultural organisations, museums and cafes. By designing and installing all over the place 116 over-sized furniture elements, Popelka Poduschka architekten turned it into a playground. In summer they wander in herds through the yards, every year in different colours and formations. Come Winter they are piled up and transformed into building-like structures, inside one can enjoy punch and DJ-music.
REACTIVATE!! is on view at the Contemporary Art Centre of Castellón, ESPAI, until August 31, 2008.
Back in November i was at Medialab Prado in Madrid to visit the Visualizar workshop and i had the pleasure to hear the talk that Juan Freire gave there. I was really looking forward to know better about the thoughts of someone whose keen observation on open knowledge, digital culture and everyware'd city i was following with interest for some time. Juan Freire is one of the very very few people who keep track of what is written in the field of ubiquitous computing, free software and technology but who would also hang around with media art curators and mingle with the hackers and the urbanists. And his everyday job doesn't have much to do with all of the above. He has a PhD in Biology, he is Associate Professor and Coordinator research group at University of Corunna. As a leader of the research group in Marine Resources and Fisheries, he was involved in several R+D projects. He collaborates with businesses, public organizations and NGOs in topics related to sustainability and environmental management. He is CEO of Fismare, an environmental consulting firm. There's more but i'm starting to be convinced that there are hyper-active clones of Freire all over Spain.
His blogs are in spanish: there's Piel digital (Digital skin), nomada and Ciudades enredadas (Networked cities). And obviously his talk was in spanish as well but i found it so inspiring that i've dutifully spent a few hours translating it. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as we all enjoyed listening to it in Madrid.
That November evening in Madrid, Juan Freire shared with us his thoughts about public space, whether it is obsolescent or necessary, what is the meaning of the expression in the 21st century, and what could happen should public space as we know it disappear.
The issues he made us reflect upon that evening were:
1. What are the commons?, What is the pro-common?
2. Do public spaces suffer from a Tragedy of the Commons or from a Tragedy of the Anti-Commons?
3. Post-modern public space
4. Do public spaces still exist?
5. The hybrid public spaces of the net society
6. The future of hyperlocal networks
7. The hidden face of the hybrid public spaces.
Freire started with a tour of what the term Commons means today. The term sounds rather old-fashioned and probably most people wouldn't feel comfortable defining it today. It's something that comes right from Medieval Times but do the Commons still play a role in our life today? Is it limited to natural resources? Couldn't internet be also part of the Commons? And digital knowledge? Public Spaces? What happens when we put side by side a series of elements which seem to be distinct but are getting increasingly connected such as internet, knowledge and public spaces? Juan Freire's talk tried to explore some of those issues and bring a few answers.
What will the future bring? There are two scenarios, two alternatives of a possible future. Each of these scenarios will be more or less viable depending on many circumstances, one of them being the way we regard our role as citizens:
- we behave passively and accept the future as it comes.
Besides the Commons, exists another key concept: the Tragedy of the commons. The concept was born in the context of natural resources. Years ago, you could fish many big species in the sea. Today, we have to face an over-exploitation of the resources of sea. Many people have explained that the problem lays in the fact that these resources are for everyone to use. That's the Tragedy of the Commons. The expression was coined by a biologist whose work had a big impact on sociologists and economists (while biologists have just started now to discover his thoughts).
Some 40 years ago, Professor Garrett Hardin described the Tragedy of the commons using the hypothetical example of sheep in Scotland in the 19th century. Local herders share a pasture. The wool and meat from their sheep is selling well, they wish to increase their herd size and maximize their yield. More animals means more profit but each additional animal further degrades the pasture which is bad for all herders using the same pasture. However, the rational choice of an individual is selfish and stimulated by short-term gains, they won't let themselves be worried by what is best for the whole herder community and their behaviour will eventually lead to the destruction of the resources on which they all depend.
The solution Hardin proposes to the drama of open access is to impose an external governing structure to manage the fields. What started with a few sheep in Scotland had a big impact on our vision of the world and on the way to manage the commons.
The story doesn't stop there, the government having shown his lack of competence to manage the commons, the ideal solution would involve privatization of the Commons.
Fortunately, some people saw the glitches in Hardin's stark statements and they started to analyze other systems. The case study of a farmer-managed irrigation system in Nepal proves the unreliability of Hardin's view. Farmer-constructed canal which seem rather simple and primitive were actually much more efficient that the ones built for efficiency with a greater expense of money by the Nepal government. The traditional ones irrigated more crops than the newly constructed, government-owned ones. The infrastructure was old-fashioned but they were better managed. The problem didn't lay in the engineering but in the way the canals were managed. The new infrastructure that came with government ownership had the effect of destroying the traditional rules established over generations to manage common resources.
The Nepal example and many other have shown that the Commons can also be managed efficiently using methods which do not have to involve privatization or government-ownership of the resources.
An excess of regulations actually leads to another tragedy, the Tragedy of the Anticommons. The term was coined in 1998 by Michael Heller, a professor at Columbia Law School. In his papers Can Patents Deter Innovation? The Anticommons in Biomedical Research and Do Formal Intellectual Property Rights Hinder the Free Flow of Scientific Knowledge? An Empirical Test of the Anti-Commons Hypothesis, Heller argued that patents are an obstacle to innovation and sharing of knowledge in science. Biomedical research is one of the key areas where competing patent rights could prevent useful and affordable products from reaching the marketplace.
Heller also observed public spaces as his paper The Tragedy of the Anticommons: Property in the Transition from Marx to Markets demonstrates. His essay wonders why many storefronts in Moscow are empty, while street kiosks are full of goods? Heller observed that in post-Communism Moscow there were a lot of open air kiosks, but also a lot of empty stores. He concluded that in the transition from Marxism to capitalism, those commercial spaces had been over-regulated making it difficult for a startup retailer to successfully negotiate for the use of that space.
Lawrence Lessig mentioned and commented on Heller's paper and even transfered the discussion about the commons from biomedicine and public space to internet and knowledge. The concepts of Commons and Anticommons are thus far from obsolete and internet has revived their relevance.
What happens to today's public space? Do they suffer from a tragedy of the Commons or of the anticommons? Are we over-exploiting them or are they paralyzed by an excess of regulations? Have good old public spaces stopped to be useful and functional, do they still bring an added value to the life of citizens?
We often wonder why people attend a particular space rather than another one and how they use that space. Public spaces are often designed from top down with little attention on how citizens will eventually use them which will obviously lead to yet another example of the tragedy of the anticommons.
The first image Juan Freire used to illustrate his point was made by Nicolas Nova in Amsterdam. It shows a street that "defends itself" with elements that prevent people from using the street. This is a case of anticommons.
On the picture below, congested traffic in the streets of Bangkok. This looks like an example of the Tragedy of the Commons. The excessive use of a road that everyone is free to ride makes the road useless, annihilates the public space.
The problem is that we haven't progressed much since the 19th century, which is when an article published in the magazine of the Franklin Institute showed up. Titled On the Best Arrangement of City Streets, the publication(image) gave an example of excessive planning which forgets the role and needs of the citizen. A drawing and two pages of text describe a mathematical formula, an urban science, that ensures the "right" agency of the streets. Such magical formula can lead to an under-used public space. Unfortunately, on a certain number of aspects, we haven't found a method that improves the 1877 drawing.
There's another problem:
Can the ineffectiveness of the "analogical" public space, which we can also call the analogical procommon, be explained by privatization? Many people complain that public space is useful and well designed but because there is a Wal-mart or a Carrefour in the neighbourhoud, we desert public spaces and go to Carrefour (or Wall-mart). Freire believes that that vision needs to be nuanced. Such vision is the one of someone who looks for someone else to blame, does not assume any responsibility and does not even try to solve the problem.
Why is that so? Despite the fact that we live in a capitalist system, there are antagonistic concepts of capitalism but there are also models of capitalism which, although they are very antagonistic, coexist in the same space: the oligarchic model, the State model, the bureaucratic model. They don't really follow the rules of the market. There's a whole structure that prevents the market economy to function properly or that allows it to function only for a few entities.
But there is now another form of understanding the market and it's brought to us by internet. "Markets are conversations." The market here is seen as a deliberate form of aggregation of information, debate, decision making, deliberation between individuals. This is of course an ideal vision of how the market should function and it takes life when a series of barriers of access disappear or when a system enables information to flow freely and be accessed by everyone.
See Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism, and the Economics of Growth and Prosperity, by William J. Baumol, Robert E. Litan, and Carl J. Schramm.
The solution is not only to eliminate "bad" capitalism but the alternative is "good" capitalism, the one that envisions market as a conversation. That's where internet plays a key role, it eliminates those barriers and when it functions properly, it enables this idea of perfect markets with information that goes both way. This model is hypothetical but we are getting closer to it.
The public spaces we inherited from the 19th century can be called modernist. They were designed from top down, by an elite that cared for the wellbeing of the citizens yet, they have failed under several points of view. Those public space have given way in the 20th century to what we can call the Post-Modernist Public Spaces (even if the expression is questionable). They emerge as an answer to the obsolescence of the previous ones. If people are not going to the public spaces anymore, new -and this time private- opportunities are created for them: the shopping malls, the perfect example of post-modernist public space.
Many people believe that cathedrals have been substituted by shopping malls. For many they are only simulacra of the city. The acme of this idea is Las Vegas. A project of creating a new Las Vegas in Los Monegros (Aragón, SP) could turn out to be an interesting experiment. The shopping mall is the mirror of the society of spectacle. Shopping malls are the new public spaces but not all evil comes from them: in many cases we use them because we don't have alternative or because they represent the best alternative at our disposal. Private initiative, in some cases, has managed to provide us with what public spaces designed by the State have not offered us.
The next question is therefore: How can we take back those old public space and update them? What is left of them?
Berkley University urbanist Christopher Alexander has written: For centuries, the street provided city dwellers with usable public space right outside their houses. Now, in a number of subtle ways, the modern city has made streets which are for "going through," not for "staying in.
The traditional public space, made of squares and streets, have become what anthropologist Marc Augé calls the "Non-Places". Rem Koolhaas goes further by christening them as Junkspace. In the post-modern vision, we move from private space we have to pay for and, as they are often located outside city centers, we have to drive through junkspace, non-places, spaces which have no immediate utility. The problem in the scenario is that interaction seem to have vanished. Social networks have shrunk to our own family circle or to shopping malls. A huge part of social interaction is missing. Are we ready to loose it? If we translate the scenario to the internet we have to imagine an internet where we can only find a commercial space and all the rest will just be junkspace.
To put the finishing touch to the panorama we cannot leave aside the issue of publicity. The spaces between the private spaces we shop to, those junkspaces, are getting filled with advertisement. The vision about publicity is usually very critical and negative. When the Mayor of Sao Paulo in Brazil decided to eradicate any kind of advertisement in the city, his move has been welcome with not only wonder but also praise. Sao Paulo is the third city in the world. It counts almost 11 million inhabitants. Citizens, foreign observers, the press applauded the measure. Those who live from the revenues of publicity were less enthusiastic about it. But to which extent isn't publicity part of our genome, of our ADN today? If you look at photos and videos of Sao Paulo without its billboards and advertising posters you get a slightly deshumanized vision. The structures that supported advertising are still there but they are empty, switched off. The buildings do not seem to be complete anymore. It seems that a crucial part of the city has been lost in the process. Maybe this effect is only transitory.
The following question is:
To what extent can we say that publicity is not part of our public space? And of ourselves?
The answer is not clear of course.
Do public spaces still exist? Or are we left with only post-modernist spaces, connected between themselves by non-spaces or junkspaces?
Freire illustrated the point by making an exercise of inverse engineering. The case study is the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit which took place last year in Sydney. It shows clearly what remains of a city when access to all public spaces is prohibited. All the security measures were taken to ensure that the event, the most impressive gathering of Heads of State the city had ever witnessed, would unfold without any glitch. Two blogs such as Subtopia (Fenceland and Subverting "Military IKEA") and City of Sound (The Anti-Fun Palace: APEC Fence, Sydney lockdown) documented and analyzed quite shrewdly what happened in a city where access to public space was negated to its inhabitants, where extreme measures of security bring a whole city to a standstill with, for example, a 5km fence surrounding the Opera House area and Google Earth/Maps images of the area (and others) being blanked out or blurred. Important zones of public use where most of the city life was usually concentrated were militarized, closed down or saw their access strictly restricted.
Streets, bike lanes, jogging tracks were closed, spaces where people would go to meet and chat were unaccessible. Fences had taken over the city. What is interesting is what you cannot see in the pictures collected by the bloggers: a way of living in the city being destroyed. When the public space and even the junkspace are eliminated from urban life, the city changes radically. Although we tend to be very critical of the way public space is deteriorating, is becoming useless, etc. reality is that public space is still a fundamental part of the city and not only as place of transit from one shopping mall to our house. By making this forced exercise of inverse engineering, we discover the value of places and things we have stopped to pay attention to.
What is a public space? It depends on the capacity of auto-organization but also on market and community management
A fascinating exploration of public space is Burning Man. An outsider who attended the Fallas in Spain compared them with the Nevada-based festival. The former is organized by the State. Just after the party, the streets are filthy, there are traces of chaos all over the city. Burning Man instead is built and de-constructed by the community of participants without any top down supervision. After the party, the desert is left to its pristine state. No trash is left, the space is clean. The process is totally self-organized. The Burning Man community is able to create a public space which is not only dynamic but also ordered.
Burning Man is a public space that lives at the margins of Hardin's theories.
Another example is Quartzsite (Arizona) which functioning and dynamics have been described in Kazys Varnelis and Robert Sumrell's book Blue Monday: Stories of Absurd Realities and Natural Philosophies (i'll join Juan Freire in his enthusiasm about the book, it's a gem.)
Quartzsite is a desert town of some 3,000 people that every Winter swells to over a million residents (making it the 15th-largest city in the USA) as a horde of modern nomads descends upon it in their motorhome. With very little planning, they create a city which works perfectly, it has its own dynamics, its own market (unlike Burning Man, there is a money-based economy), exchanges of goods and services, etc. It is spontaneous, yet very efficient.
As Freire added, this is not the future of our cities but, making once again some exercises in reverse engineering, there are a few lessons that can be learnt from the Quartzsite experience. People as a group have far more intelligence than most would suspect. Sumrell and Varnelis call it 'swarm intelligence' - a human version of the behaviour often seen in ant colonies and the like.
Juan Freire then illustrated how hybrid a public space can be by showing us the main square of his city, A Coruña (Spain)
Public space functions quite well, it's a very active area of the city. The secret to its success is the mix of private, community and public initiatives which take place on the Square. To be lively a square needs bars and there are plenty of bars here. There is also some space for people to self-organize and develop freely their own activities in a way that neither a bar nor a shopping mall can provide. The other requirement is some entity to think and design the whole experience and to create some urban furniture and other elements susceptible to foster all those activities.
Internet is the element missing from today's equation. We cannot leave the internet aside anymore when we discuss public space. We live in a networked society. Many people say that we live both a physical life and a virtual life but Freire thinks that these two realities are getting more intertwined every day.
We should see beyond the modernist vision of a traditional, well-planned public space. Today we are living a reality which is quite complex, hybrid and multi-faceted. Freire calls it an hyper-reality (in the "hyper-link" sense). Our public space today is hybrid in two ways:
Freire believes that we can achieve this hyper-reality through a re-appropriation of public space. 4 key elements will help us get there:
1. free knowledge,
2. free electro-magnetic space,
3. a post-spectacular architecture,
4. a digital skin layered over tarmac and concrete.
A few words about Free Knowledge, starting with a quote from Stephen Downes: The greatest non-technical issue is the mindset. We have to view information as a flow rather than as a thing. Online learning is a flow. It's like electricity or water. It's there, it's available and it flows. It's not stuff you collect....
Many people are horrified by the fact that knowledge flows continuously. They wouldn't have any qualms about electricity flowing around us freely but they find the idea of a never stopping flow of information highly disturbing. They would like to be able to control it, to store it on the shelves of a library. But that's a lost battle because information is going to increase more and more every day. An you know what? That's a good thing. Especially if we manage to become curators of information. "We", the users, not the so-called experts. We must become "digital chefs" and cook delicious dishes of information. The ingredients are out there on the web, the kitchen is packed with instruments which are free, or very cheap even when they come from some private or commercial initiative like Yahoo! or Google.
The second element we need is what Jose Luis de Vicente calls the "free spectrum", we need to reclaim the use of the electromagnetic space. We need these electromagnetic infrastructures, no matter how intangible they are. As JL de Vicente wrote: "The radio spectrum - the electromagnetic space through which radio and TV broadcasts, mobile phone and GPS signals and WiFi networks circulate - is the real estate of the information society." We can't guarantee the freedom of information if we can't control the structure that gives us access to it.
Thirdly, we need those architects whom Freire calls the "post-spectacular architects". Sure, we like the architects of the "spectacular", we like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim, Moneo's addition to the Prado, Jean Nouvel's extension of the Reina Sofia, etc. But these spaces have not been designed for physical nor digital interaction. We need architects who think from the perspective of the people who will "use" the spaces, not just the tourists. But how should we design with a perspective of participation? The focus should be less on the aesthetics and more on the efficiency and on the functionality (what are we building for?) These ideas won't lead to an anti-aesthetics but to a new form of aesthetics. This aesthetics will not only be better suited to our requirements but it will also start adopting something of the open source philosophy, by sharing designs, methods, etc.
Besides, this architecture will be cheaper and faster. The main problem is that cities change very slowly. We live in the same Madrid as centuries ago, even if society is not the same as centuries ago. Physical changes are way slower than intangible changes. We'll never manage to keep pace with society's changes but we can do something about it.
Freire gave a few examples of the kind of projects that he would like to see bloom over the cities, adding that some of them start to get out of the "workshops ghetto" and appear in glossy magazines:
- Santiago Cirugeda's Recetas Urbanas (Urban Prescriptions). Cirugeda hacks the legal code. Because his home town would not authorize him to build a playground, Santiago Cirugeda obtained a dumpster permit and installed a playground that looked like a dumpster. He also built and occupied a rooftop crane that passersby believed was there only to move building materials. There used to be a video on you tube where the architect used Playmobil toys to demonstrate how to build a temporary flat in your rooftop. The solutions Cirugeda proposes are cheap, fast, accessible to everyone and the key ingredient is to find out the gaps in administrative structure and official procedures, to intervene where the law falls short.
Is Cirugeda doing art, architecture or activism? Probably the three of them but does it really matter?
- Vicente Guallart whose work is more often found in museums than in the streets, probably because his vision is still too futuristic. His Sociopolis project is a neighbourhood designed with a mind set on efficiency, functionality, digital networks,
- Jose Perez de Lama, a member of the Sevilla-based collective hackitectura, believes that we need to build layers of digital information over physical spaces. Architecture, in its traditional definition, is relevant but not central. The space is built using mostly intangible elements: electronic flux, interfaces, audio, projections, words, bodies, landscapes, etc. We need to combine the tectonic with the electronic.
Hackitectura has illustrated their concepts with a series of interventions in public space. The most famous of which being the wikiplaza project in Sevilla which regards public space as multi-layered: there are bars, grass, cements and tarmac but there's also the digital space.
Finally a bit of futuristic speculation. Future is in the hyperlocal networks. Paradoxically, internet has allowed us to be globally connected but it doesn't help us enough when we want to be connected with what is in our own neighbourhood. That's mobile telephony that we use (intensely) for local connections. The development of hyperlocal networks is a big opportunity, a double opportunity: both from the commercial and the citizen point of view.
In the 20th century appeared the Situationists. Among their ideas was the Dérive, an invitation to use the city in a new way. The Situationists failed in their attempt to radically change the world but they manage to predict what the future would bring. We use more and more the city like they said we ought to. This concept of the city as a space for exploration is getting more and more appealing.
The hyperlocal networks are made of elements which are already existing around us but they still have to be connected one to another. However, every day new initiatives appear that tell us that the situation is about to change. Here's a rapid list of projects which Freire find as thought-provoking as inspiring. They might seem to be disconnected but if you put them together in a broader picture, you'll see glimpses of a new reality emerge.
- hyperlinks with physical space, like google maps.
- mobile internet, ubiquitous connectivity (ex. urban tapestries).
- new initiatives like Semapedia to hyperlink the whole world.
- new possibilities to visualize people and the flux of information in urban space. One of the most famous example is Real Time Rome, the MIT SENSEable City Lab's contribution to the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale.
- collaborative cartography. Geographical information is still private and is often submitted to copyrights. People can view the database but they are not allowed to take the data and use them as they wish. Fortunately some initiative are attempting to put an end to the geo-monopoly. E.g. the open and collaborative OpenStreetMap.
- the mash-ups which use google tools to propose more personal visions of space. Besides, these mashups enable users to monitor what is happening in physical space right here and right now (to track fires in California for example).
All these initiatives demonstrates that we have the opportunity to layer a digital skin over the city. The skin is not just a fad, it will make the urban experience more meaningful and useful. E.g. Urban Tapestries, a research project born in 2003, Dodgeball, Outside.in which aggregates, tags and structures local information available online, using thus individual activities to build instruments useful for everyone.
G. Orwell place, Barcelona
Freire, being the astute and realistic observer he is, also pointed out the darker face of public spaces by quoting Stephen Graham who wrote in Subtopia:
The real architectures of control already are algorithms, software, databases and microelectronic tracking systems, satellites and sensors, linked intimately to physical spaces, infrastructures and bodies, rather than the obvious architectonic brute force of walls and ramparts.
The future might be of the Orwellian type or it can be the one that Freire described in his presentation. It's in the hands of citizens and whether they will adopt an active or passive role. Today we have the opportunity not only to protest but also to take things in our hands and push changes.
However, there's another danger: the one created by people who do not understand internet. German philosopher and sociologist Juergen Habermas wrote that ... in the context of liberal regimes, the rise of millions of fragmented chat room across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics.
Freire believes that instead of just creating fragmentation, internet enable us to go beyond fragmentations.
Facebook, for example, counts many advantages but also many downsides. It's a network you can close and keep for your friends exclusively
LifeAt creates private online communities for residential properties. It's closed and "secure" with control over who has the right to use it and what can be published or not. There's an absolute control over people and content. The model can be interesting for commercial companies or for facebook but in the context of public space, it would do more harm than good, it would mean applying post-modern concepts to new hybrid space.
As a conclusion, Freire quoted an article that urbanist José María Ezquiaga wrote for national newspaper El Pais. He adopted the Mai 68 moto "Sous les pavés la plage" (Under the cobblestones lies the beach) to tell us that we have to see beyond the ugliness of cobblestones and uncover the beaches that exist beneath them. Freire added, this time quoting Jose Pérez de Lama, that above the tarmac there is a digital layer. Although that layer is neither tangible nor visible, it set to fulfill a crucial role. If we use this additional layer intelligently and openly, then the future might indeed be appealing.
The Q&A which followed was almost as fascinating as the presentation itself but i'm done with the translation.