Art, the City and Collective Action

January 19, 2011

This is an excerpt from our lead essay published in Art India magazine, January 2011.

A Street in Khirkee, by Jose “Cole” Abasolo. Produced during the Urban Typhoon Khirkee, New Delhi, November 2010.

At the simplest level, there is one thing that connects the world of urban practitioners – architects, planners, activists and designers – to that of contemporary artists involved in the messiness of everyday life. It’s the burning desire and audacity to interfere with the arrangements of their own contexts on all fronts. This interference is spiked by an unusual combination of aesthetics and politics, whereby both parties fiercely harness the forces of creativity to push forth their specific agendas. These agendas express themselves in any number of ways – from producing globalisation-fired, speculation-enriched glistening cities to fighting violent battles against apocalyptic injustices; from pushing inter-disciplinary public art projects in a world of faded funding to encouraging the gentrification of dysfunctional streets by promoting fresh art projects.

Often, artists and urban practitioners share common agendas and oppose their own brethren on the other side of the ideological spectrum. Freshly globalised cities thrive on symbolic capital and have more money for art projects, uniting the aesthetics of urbanism across a range of practices, from architecture to design. You also have the rebels, who align over issues of justice and inequality and work together in marginal urban spaces. Political engagement of this more direct kind definitely connects artists and urban practitioners of a certain sensibility, and we see ourselves closest to them, though with significant qualifications.

From neighbourhoods that are ignored by civic authorities to those that face social and economic prejudice: such spaces attract a certain kind of political investment that hopes to transform situations. For us, however, these urban contexts are more than sites of resistance. They represent a powerful counterpoint to those initiatives that today dominate contemporary urban environments, infecting building practices, cultural lives and notions of urban futures all over the world with their sinister capacities. The counterpoint has to be political in the truest sense of the term, where one moves beyond notions of victimhood, the politics of marginalisation and the desire to ‘help poor people’ and ‘save neighbourhoods’, and enters into a realm where contexts are understood and negotiated in finer ways.

The deeper we go, the closer we come to aligning with artists who share the same starting points – an attraction and empathy for worlds that fall outside dominant and mainstream urban ideologies. We can confidently say that the so-called slums, favelas, suburban ghettoes, street corners, urban villages and inner cities are breeding grounds for artists not simply because they are marginal or exotic spaces, but because they embody critiques and counterpoints through their very existence. One has to only look at the musical productions coming out of the ghettos of Baltimore, the favelas of Rio or the suburbs of Paris. Some of the most powerful forms of expression are emerging far from the centre. As architectural theorist and philosopher Yehuda Safran says, “The future is in the periphery.” Of course, artistic and cultural productions coming from the periphery are rarely treated with the respect they deserve. But when they are, what emerges is something we find truly significant as urban practitioners.

Urban spaces inspire artists to use them as subjects or themes. Artistic production that takes the context as a departure point are typically based on collaborations, which challenge the notion of the heroic and solitary artist, driven by a unitary coherence and a deeply personal aesthetic. Co-authored projects often derived their meaning and force from a shared understanding of the context and common sense of purpose. As a result, complex meanings get attached to processes rather than finished products. The making of the object, installation or performance, rather than the object itself, is taking the centre-stage. The process has its own aesthetic and it is something we experience in the world of urbanism too.

Plans and designs as finished products is a limited and limiting idea. Development projects that do not involve the people who will inhabit them often end up alienating them in one way or another. Super-developed urban infrastructure that provides for everything – art galleries, performance spaces, parks – can still produce, within a short span of time, bored and alienated youngsters. Similarly, habitats that are pre-fabricated ultimately come to life only when their inhabitants start to work on them by living in and transforming spaces through their needs. Our engagement with urban worlds has convinced us that at no point of time can one design a finished city – a promise that has been proven unrealistic and false, a countless number of times. What we can do is ensure processes of engagement and participation that are constantly active.

Ignoring this, the world of architecture and urban design finds itself in a creative impasse, banging against a wall of its own making, caught up in a political economy which limits its creativity and hopes to destroy only to rebuild in the same old way. The notion of a neighbourhood – or a building for that matter – as an ‘object’ that must be designed by an omniscient maestro has outlived its time. The modernist impulse, which drove urban planners and designers to produce grand solutions for ‘the poor’, or even for the city as a whole, is still driving ambitious souls powered by an endless supply of capital. In practical terms as well as intellectually, this has been exposed as fraudulent and dangerous. Who can still confidently argue that mass housing will solve the problem of the poor (and the middle classes, for that matter) in, say, Mumbai or Shanghai? We have seen this model fail throughout the world, with the richest countries suffering the most. Today, thousands of buildings less than ten years old are standing decrepit and unmaintained, waiting to be slowly washed away by the forces of nature.

Our generation of urban practitioners sees the city as an animate subject. Not as a dead corpse or mechanical ensemble, nor as a monstrosity in various stages of organic decay – visions that have, for long, populated the imaginations of urban thinkers and artists. The city we see emerging and are working towards is high-tech and rooted at the same time. What moves it are the millions of people, who day after day, make it their own by walking on the roads, running shops, standing and chatting at street corners, painting walls, making and repairing houses and getting involved in local affairs.

Many activists, politicians and urbanists, who have grown up in a world divided into discrete ideological blocks, are still unable to see local businessmen and concerned homeowners as agents of change. This wouldn’t have been the case if self-righteous establishments hadn’t taken supercilious stands or made grand gestures about cities that are ineffective, corrupt and unconvincingly imagined. This is as true of London and Chicago as it is of Delhi and Bangkok.

Artists engaged in seeing neighbourhoods as sources of inspiration and collective expression are leading the way out of ideological trenches towards a world where ‘community’ doesn’t necessarily imply communitarian politics and community art doesn’t have to be about the art of a community, but becomes the art of creating communities across cultural and social divisions. To the Net-generation, a ‘community’ refers to a collection of users with a common set of protocols aimed at facilitating boundless communication. The invention of these protocols is where we feel some of the most potent artistic and urban practices are converging, giving both a new charge.

In the world of art, co-production has been in effect for ages. Certain protocols have been devised explicitly to allow individual expression within a collective. You can see this in art practices in vogue before the age of autonomy of art. The institution of apprenticeship and the mastery of certain skills and methods had allowed generations of artisans to produce artifacts and architectures that bore no signature, yet expressed the highest levels of aesthetic coherence and taste. The object could live a life longer than that of the individual artist, as long as the skills and know-how that went into its making were transmitted to a future generation. This is also the way cities were built in pre-modern days with artisans reproducing age-old construction techniques and priding themselves on perfecting their masters’ styles. Some of these traditions have survived till date. The Compagnons’ associations, born at the time of the cathedrals in 12th century France, are still alive and teaching traditional carpentry techniques to new generations. Japan too has kept artisanal construction techniques alive to build temples and traditional houses even within the most futuristic urban environments.

These practices, however, are largely marginalised in a world that has still not recovered from the modernist revolution. Art forms that emerged most strongly in the 19th and 20th centuries, driven by a heroic sense of exploration and self-affirmation, had reservations about well-developed art practices from an earlier time, many of which were perceived as negating the figure of the artist-as-producer. Stylistic imperatives and technical restrictions were believed to repress the personal sensibility of the artisan. Breaking out of this labyrinth and existing in a world of infinite possibilities was at the same time terrifying and tremendously energising. New paths could be uncovered and explored, making full use of the availability of new materials and technologies, as emerging political ideologies saw tradition as the biggest impediment to social emancipation. Individual signature and innovation became more important than the reproduction of inherited practices and respect for cultural and spatial contexts. New aesthetic orthodoxies emerged to critique traditional styles. Art saw itself at the threshold of several new futures and possibilities, and the urban realm was the inevitable site and location for all of them.

With the emergence of industrial modernity, the notion of the urban took on a new connotation. As a site of cosmopolitanism, growth, democratisation and emancipatory economic transformation, the city was marked out as a unique space in the evolution of mankind. The 21st century has sealed this dimension of our collective future. The future, according to everybody, from social scientists to political economists to environmentalists, is irrevocably urban. However, this realisation is not a continuation of the last two hundred years of faith in the city as a site of all that is desirable, which was based on a clear understanding that the default world was not urban. This shift, from being aware of the urban as a site of progressive, democratising and modernising impulses in a largely non-urban world, to the realisation that the future (and even the present) is, in fact, nothing but urban, is a powerful one. It is definitely connected to the specific technological transformations that 20th century globalisation made possible. It is connected to an increasing awareness that huge tectonic shifts have taken place in our understanding of geography and the inter-connectedness of the world.

This vision, once ironically called the Global Village, convinces us more than ever that the choices for us in terms of habitats are not as unbounded as we once thought. Cities, for better or worse, are really the contexts in which we live and where humanity will probably perish, whenever that happens. For all those anguished souls, us included, who remain dissatisfied with the state of the world – this realisation forces us to look at the city afresh. If only because it is not simply that dazzling confluence of modernity and emancipation but simply, all that there is for us to work with, whether we like it or not. The questions, therefore, change from “Do we want to live in cities?” or even “What kind of cities do we want?” to “How do we cope with this urban reality?” and “How do we improve it?” The context rather than the ideology becomes the starting point for all creative processes.

Revisting the World Class City

January 10, 2011

Shopping Mall in Santa Fe, Mexico City

We  just spent a week at a seminar organized by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, where a group of 60 students, professionals and academics debated the theme of the “World Class City” and its possible re-imagination.

The phrase “World Class City” has become ubiquitous in discussions on urban and economic development in India and other developing countries. One sees it daily in newspapers and hears it on TV and at the dining table. It is also omnipresent in policy circles and academia. Although critical minds get instinctively suspicious of such as term, it is hard to dismiss altogether, and even more so to “re-imagine” its meaning. For a start, the “World Class City” needs to be placed in its urban and ideological context.

The emergence of the “World Class City” in discourses on urban development is linked to the disappearance of the equally problematic notion of “Third World”. When the Soviet block (the “Second World”) disappeared as a distinct political regime, “First World” capitalism spread all over the world as it seemed to represent the only possible model of governance and development. Socialism was relegated to the museum of failed utopias and the world’s political imagination was suddenly reduced to whatever could be done within the frame of capitalism.

Since (almost) every country could now be measured on the scale of its economic production and accumulation (GDP), the political nomenclature of first, second and third worlds was replaced by terms referring to stages of economic development: underdeveloped, less developed, developing, developed, most developed…

In a way, one could say that at that time the world became more politically integrated and economically “global”. Without the Second World, there could not be a Third one. The world had become global again, with international trade networks expanding to new horizons, financial flows circulating freely from country to country, industrial processes realigning themselves along command and control centres and sites of production, and so on. With this relative erosion of political-economic borders, cities were propelled at the centre stage of the world economy. In an integrated global economy, their significance was no longer simply national –they became international entities, with high levels of specialization.

Cities came to be seen as the “hubs” of the global economy and a new nomenclature emerged to replace that of the Cold War era: first tier, second tier and third tier cities. This meant that potentially a developing country could have a second or first tier city. Shanghai and Sao Paulo are perfect examples of that. At this point, the aspiration of many political and industry leaders shifted from a national agenda to an urban agenda. Since cities were engines of growth, it made sense to invest heavily in their development, even if it meant leaving the country behind.

This is the broad context within which the imagination of the World Class City emerges. The World Class City is not simply your “Global City”, since, in a global world, most cities are global whether they want to be or not. World Class echoes the Cold War era notion of First World, since in a world dominated by the First World, World Class really means First Class. First Class as a status is relative by nature. On the one hand, it is based on a certain imagination of what our first tier global cities (New York, London, Tokyo) ought to look like, and on the other hand, it is a statement of superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the country.

The problem is that the cities that really stimulate our imagination when we think of World Class are not as classy when you view them from the ground. London is experiencing a rise in urban violence and unemployment and many neighbourhood shops are closing down. New York is enduring one of the most dramatic bed bug epidemic (of all things!) of its history and Tokyo has an increasing number of homeless people setting up tents and shacks in parks and squares.

The “World Class City” is a slogan that seems to be coming directly from a marketing agency and seems to be devised to sell the latest fashion in cosmetic urbanism. It is a visual narrative made of bits and pieces taken from distant places, which exist primarily as urban spectacles in our imaginations. One never encounters the World Class City in reality. The only places where this vision seems to have materialized are cities like Singapore and Shanghai, where authoritarian regimes can sustain its artificial existence. These are closer to the model of the theme park or the “special economic zones”, which achieve perfect order at the cost of forcefully containing the mess outside their boundaries.

In India the dream of transforming Mumbai into a World Class City has given way to the more realistic ambition of developing world-class buildings and infrastructures in some parts of the city. This version of the World Class City takes the form of firewalled islands of high-security and a world-’classiness’ connected to similar islands around the world. Outside, the Third World  continues to strive.

The World Class City as it is being envisioned and developed nowadays uses speculative projections that would humble the most spectacular of science fiction imagery and is a shortcut for the political glory of corrupt leaders or those without much imagination. The latest in that brand of development is Mumbai’s aptly named World One complex, which is planned to become the highest residential tower in the world, entirely self-contained and unabashedly exclusive. From the twentieth century ideal of “One World”, we have come to the vision “World One”. Real estate speculators and developers have resolutely decided to keep the rest of the city at the door.

Without its second class citizens and third world periphery, the World Class City would have no backdrop to pitch itself against. It uses the label ostensibly to carry the entire city on its merit, but in reality only exists, especially in new urban avatars, as a medieval fortress, an enclave that leaves behind the citizens that do not belong to its globally networked connections. The idea has currency in the business and politics of construction, often tied up with a more respectable sounding infrastructural dimension. These infrastructures function as corridors that connect the periphery to the centre, making the World Class City look like a walled kingdom reigning over a city-region that it is simultaneously exploiting and protecting itself against.

The World Class City is not as much a vision of the future, as it is a reproduction of a model that belongs to the Dark Age with added high-tech features. Our hopes  for the future do not rest in the World-Class enclaves of this world, nor in the regions they dominate, but rather in the spaces that are not yet fully ruled by them, where alternatives to the World Class City vision are waiting to be recognized by architects, planners, developers and policy-makers.

Activism Reloaded

January 6, 2011

Presentation at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements,
Bangalore January 7th, 2011.


1. The Culture of Activism in Mumbai

The traditional culture of activism in Mumbai was broadly nationalist socialist, rooted in the freedom struggle against colonialism. The activism around housing and urban inequality, that blossomed during post-Independence, inherited a similar vocabulary and rhetoric. At best it was proactive and effective, and at worst it became a victim of regional chauvinism or got stuck in narratives of victimhood, charity and the voiceless poor. Across the ideological spectrum it evoked communities and the participation of ‘the people’ through mass rallies, demonstrations  and centralized leadership. The activist often became the voice and representative of the poor and the poor itself became, like the community, a highly rhetorical figure of speech.

2. Knowledge Practices and forms of Engagement

The relationship between the intellectual and the activist has an old precedent in the city while the activist as intellectual and academic opened newer challenges to both, action and ideas. In many cases the activist as academic or intellectual followed a route of bringing attention to her constituency and speaking even more strongly on their behalf. What attracted us, and many like us to the interplay of activism and intellectual work is based on the recognition that knowledge practices are embedded in the world at large and these are the starting points of our political engagement.


3. Contexts, Knowledge and Agency

As we produce knowledge about our immediate urban contexts, this knowledge transforms us into activists. Self-reflexivity about our roles as researchers of urban contexts gets heightened as soon as we raise questions. It is the  moment of articulating these questions that transforms us into political beings and it is this moment that remains the point of inspiration for our activism.  However the relationship between knowledge and politics is linked directly to its accessibility: more people who access it, participate in it and produce it,  the more political it becomes.

4. The User Generated City

Neighbourhoods that have been directly produced by their inhabitants embody knowledge about buildings, construction and urbanism. Incidentally the majority of human settlements around the world are of this nature. And if we believe Mike Davis’ apocalyptic predictions they are growing at ‘alarming’ rates, becoming ever more complex and impenetrable. We would rather see such neighbourhoods, which have grown outside of the formal planning and development paradigm as  knowledge systems, with their own modes interaction and engagements.

5. Community and Participation

Community is about both creating and being created by local modes of communication and knowledge sharing. “It is clearly no linguistic accident that “community” and “communication” share the Latin root communis, “in common.” Communities comprise people with common interests who communicate with each other.” (Melvin Webber, 1964). Participation is essentially about immersing oneself in the process, which in the urban context, means getting involved in its production. There can be no participation without communities and communication systems.