Urban art: reflecting on the reART:theURBAN conference (Zurich – October 2012)

MacGhillie by Knowbotiq – conference attendant taking part in the performance

How can we define urban art? Art that is performed in urban spaces? Art that questions, challenges and addresses urban issues? Or art that originates in the city and is distinctively urban? It is perhaps all of the above, but more importantly, urban art is about encounter. Performative and embodied encounter. It is about participation. It is also about uncertainty, awareness, reflection. It can trigger political action, social interaction, or play. Or it can just sit in the background, waiting for someone to wear it (see video above), trip on it (see video below), pick it up or sit on it.

Its outcome is contingent on the unpredictable agency of the city and the subjectivity of participants, who might interpret it in significantly different ways than envisioned by the artists or the institutions that have commissioned it. By moving outside of the controlled environment of art galleries and museums, it is subject to performative ‘failures’, although, as Judith Butler puts it, performance must fail, as the failures of performance can bring new affordances.

The reART:theURBAN conference showcased and discussed the many facets of urban art, including its discrepancies, missed potentials, contradictions and failures. During the open plenary, Charles Landry pondered why there is so much red public art around the world. Is it because it needs to make a point by ‘shouting out’ its purpose by standing out against the chaotic backdrop of the city? Can urban art not make its point discretely? After Landry’s talk, Erik Swyngedou highlighted the contradictions in the employment of urban art as a promotional tool for cities that market themselves as creative/sustainable/eco cities.

Swyngedou’s warning call can be seen here:

He replies to the question: “How can we bring divergent approaches to the table?” by arguing that it forces us to mistakenly think that we can actually all come together and agree in the city. Instead, we must understand the city’s most important quality as being exactly the ability to cater for an assemblage of individuals with divergent opinions, desires and ways of living. IN this case it is worth pondering the following question: how does the city support the development of the commons through urban art without succumbing to the rhetoric of the ‘cultural city’?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Zurich, performed during the conference, attempts to sketch out such commons in a two hour performance: 100 citizens on stage representing a statistical selection of the population of Zurich take part in a staged performance that shines a torch on the city through a lens that highlights its people and their ways of living rather than the infrastructure fabric. These ‘experts of the everyday’ tell their individual and collective stories, opinions and wishes through a semi-rehearsed performance, while multiple questions are posed to the 100 members, who scramble around the circular stage (that doubles as a sort of giant whiteboard filmed from above) to indicate statistically their answers. At one point, the narrative states: “We are a body with 100 heads”. This statement summarises the role of the city as a stage for a commons through dissensus, according to Swyngedou’s argument.

Slavoj Zizek’s keynote lecture – When Art is Dangerous – also questioned the totalitarian aim of the cultural city rhetoric. During his entertaining and engaging talk, Zizek elaborated on the ‘poetic military complex’. He argues that “authentic poetry, authentic art is used in crimes of poetic military ideology”. He referred to the justification of crimes against humanity through the use of poetic rhetoric – from Hitler via Karadzic to contemporary African dictators. The poetic military complex. These crimes, according to Zizek, are perpetrated through the use of language as a totalitarian weapon. Instead, he argues, “language should be tortured to tell the truth” so that poetry can be redeemed. He mentioned as an example Eisenstein and his ‘torturing of language through montage’.

I think Zizek’s point must be taken seriously especially when the focus on technology as effect/technique/theme in urban art foregrounds spectacle and an action/interaction effect molded on cybernetic predictability that affects participation, the important role of embodiment and reflection. It is a refreshing challenge to the myth of unimpeded information flows that help us find our way in the ‘concrete jungle’, (think Robocop, Minority Report, Google glasses…), or, as Katherine Hayles puts it, the belief that, in our posthuman condition, the body is redundant. Zizek’s point sheds a light on the need to be less prescriptive on the outcomes of urban art and forgo the rhetoric of cultural city in favour of a multiplicity of participatory modes and of foregrounding embodiment.

A better understanding of the multiple ways in which participants engage with urban art helps to overcome the urge to categorise it and pre-define its outcome as political, leisure, social. While many projects might have a specific agenda to start of with, the outcome is always unpredictable. I agree with Hilke Berger’s argument in her presentation about participation during here talk at the conference: “citizens attach their own value to things”.

A work of urban art can be interpreted in many different way by participants. During his inspiring and innovative presentation, artist Manos Tsangaris argued that “the urban is inside of us”, and that “if art says: I have to do this for x-reason, it fails”. According to him, we must focus on the punctum, the ‘leaping point’. Or in other words, we must pay close attention to sudden moments of displacement, of social potential, of renewal of what the term ‘urban’ stands for.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was taking part in a workshop on Urban Games ran by Jakob La Cour and Sebastian Quack. Through an iteration process, we adapted and played two ‘urban games’: Surveillance Roulette and Tetris Smuggling. Surveillance Roulette consisted of a typical roulette game where, instead of gambling on numbers, participants bet on the future actions of selected passers-by entering the designated space. In Tetris Smuggling, two competing teams had to recruit passers-by smuggle physical representations of the pieces of the famous electronic game into a designated security space and attach the pieces to a magnetic surface while avoiding two security guards patrolling the space.

Both games are remarkably simple, cheap to reproduce (no digital devices involved) and cleverly draw in passers-by into the game playing by reinterpreting traditional games (roulette and Tetris) and situating them in an unfamiliar space (transport hubs, bars) in a simple but challenging way. They raised questions about participation. Some participants felt uncomfortable engaging strangers to ‘smuggle’ pieces of Tetris past the ‘security personnel’ (a participant with a bright green safety vest). Passers-by were drawn into both games with unexpected results. During the enactment of the Surveillance Roulette game, many passers-by realised they were being observed and were puzzled by the excitement on the table inside the conferences bar where participants were assembled around the improvised roulette table. Sebastian and Jakob argues that urban games can “make you more aware of other participants” and to “observe and learn more about space”.

One of the important outcomes of these games is to allow adults to engage with urban space in a playful way, outside of everyday life routines. But they also fulfill other important roles, and therefore categorising them simply as playful interactions does not do them full justice. Through rule discussion, play and post-game analysis, the potential of embodied participation and reflection triggers disagreements that must be worked out through a democratic process. Therefore a temporary commons emerges through participatory dissensus.

La Cour and Quack’s workshop summarises what I liked most about the reART:the URBAN conference: it reassures me of the importance of participation in the creative re-appropriation of everyday urban spaces where the outcome is open, rather than an attempt to narrow the focus of urban art towards pre-defined categories (social, political, cultural, play) or prescriptive outcomes.

This, I think is an approach that can help us avoid the use of art, in Zizek’s words towards “providing an aesthetic screen to make us blind and indifferent”.

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Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – Cork Midsummer Festival, June 2012 (part 1 of 3)

Experiencing Ciudades Paralelas – overview
The following is a series of three post blogs describing my observations of Ciudades Paralelas, a project curated by Lola Arias and Stefan Kaegi (from Rimini Protokoll) that was performed during the Cork Midsummer Festival in June 2012. Previously, it has been performed across several cities worldwide, including Berlin, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, Zurich, Utrecht and Singapore. Lola and Stefan invited eight artists to create interventions that reinterpret the topology of eight ordinary/functional spaces – factory, court, shopping centre, house, library, hotel, train station and the rooftop of a building – transforming them into performative spaces and changing our perception of these spaces. In Rimini Protokoll’s website, the artists state that Ciudades Paralelas’ aim is to “make theatre out of public spaces used every day, and seduce the viewers into staying long enough for their perception to change” (http://www.rimini-protokoll.de/website/en/project_4677.html). Ciudades Paralelas unleashes powerful narratives onto these taken-for-granted spaces of our everyday lives, raising our awareness of these spaces and their users/inhabitants while in some occasions suggesting alternative realities and possibilities through performative acts.

During my short visit to the Cork Midsummer Festival, I took part in four of the eight events of Ciudades Paralelas – Hotel, Station, House and Shopping Mall. The events invited the audience to engage in manifold ways: talking to hotel staff, engaging with a public information display, observing and listening to residents and taking part in a public performance. In the Hotel event, by Lola Arias, the public took part by taking an individual tour of five rooms in the hotel that were transformed for the performance. In the Station event, by Mariano Pensotti, passers-by unaware of the event were incidentally drawn into the performance, as three screens displayed in the train station hall attempt to establish a dialogue with them. In the House event, by Dominic Huber and Blendwerk the audience were situated in the middle of the street and the facades of two opposite buildings become the stage. And in the Shopping Mall event, by Ligna, participants actively engaged in a slightly transgressive manifesto-driven act inside the mall.

Ciudades Paralelas: Hotel: Chamber Maids

I arrived in the Maldron hotel and was given five key cards for five different rooms. I was told to enter them in a specific order and to exit them as soon as I heard the phone ringing. A festival volunteer guided me to the first room and said that I would thoroughly enjoy it. I was then left on my own.

I apprehensively entered the first room, and was directed to some notes left on the desk and some photos inside a pillowcase. They told the story of one of the chamber maids that worked in the hotel. I spent some time looking for other clues. The phone rang. I made my way to the second room. On entering, I was surprised to see a massive pile of sheets and towels on top of the bed that nearly reached the ceiling. It was rock solid. I sat on the bed, leaning against the pile. On the TV set in front of me, the static image of another chamber maid suddenly started talking to me, knocking on the TV screen to get my attention. while it was a recording, it was quite engaging. She was quite confident, and eager to tell me about the hard work she undertakes on a daily basis, making me slightly guilty of all those hotel rooms where I stayed before (“I clean 20 rooms per day, that’s 600 rooms per month”). Her image freezes, the phone rings, and I am off to the third room.

The third room seemed to have been customised by a chamber maid from Ghana, including photos of her daily routine from her home to the hotel, and several references to her home country: colourful bed sheets, sculptures from Africa, a Ghana flag hanging over the window. In one of the photos, she is portrayed praying. The legend says that she attends the Adventist church. There was an MP3 player hanging over the door. I picked it up, and as I walked around the bedroom looking at the photos and reading the legends, I was also listening to the chamber maid’s voice describing her daily routines. She was studying hospitality at a university in Cork and working part-time. So far, the three different stories, despite pointing to different origins and countries, all depicted stories of humble origins, hard work, and determination to persevere.

The fourth room was the most amazing! On opening the door I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I encountered a real forest! This was quite a surreal and unexpected experience. Pine trees, an overpowering smell from the earth covering the carpet, loudspeakers playing forest sounds, carps swimming in the bath tub, and a soundtrack with a voice-over of a male chamber maid from Poland. Also, a meter-high sculpture of Jesus on the window sill and a bible over the sink. The Polish cleaner’s voice spoke of his strong opinions: he thinks the recent death of the Polish president in a plane accident was a conspiracy, and he said he had proof of that. He also said he wrote edited content for a Polish radio programme that attempted to provide an alternative political discourse. He also spoke of his religious beliefs.

After the intense experience of the forest, on entering the fifth bedroom, I was invited to lie down on a bed and watch a detailed video projected onto the ceiling. The images was reflected from a small projector located under the bed through the use of a mirror. It portrayed and Irish cleaner that worked sometimes as supervisor. She said she hated the hoovering, but didn’t mind cleaning the toilet. Her skill making the beds and pillows showed her experience working as a cleaner, she worked really fast and with perfection. She said that every time she entered a room she feared the worst, such as rooms that were destroyed by hen parties. But the worst was when she encountered a dead lady in one of the rooms, after being asked to check out because a lady had the do not disturb sign up for days. Apparently the lady had overdosed on drugs. Worst of all, the cleaner had to keep working on that day.

The five stories together provided an amazing journey through the lives of these ‘invisible workers’, with a crescendo of emotions and experiences that brought you right into their lives. But that wasn’t the end.

After hearing the customary phone call to exit the room, I was surprised to open the door and encounter the chamber maid from Ghana! This was a slightly distorted experience: meeting a stranger after her daily life was described in reasonable detail in room three. It felt like meeting a character from a book in person. She introduced herself and took me on a quick tour of the hotel, showing the room where her boss worked, where they kept the cleaning equipment and sheets and towels and asking if I had any questions. I nearly felt I should offer the same question, wondering if she would be curious about her guests. But instead I was just happy to listen to her. Strangely, it felt like she was performing yet another daily chore, but she seemed to be interested enough as I asked her about her studies.

All of the stories were very engaging, and the blurring of the functional space of the hotel room, the narratives of the hotel workers and the physical objects inserted into the room triggered in me awareness, curiosity and surprise. Rather than simply trying to make you feel guilty listening to the hardship of the hotel workers (“hen parties are the worse, the stains from fake tan are hard to clean”), the narrative brought you quite close to their personal worlds, interpreted through the room furniture and decoration, and the addition of audio and video in different ways. I said goodbye to the chamber maid, and as I walked through the hotel lobby, I felt like I was crossing a line back into the mundane, the banal and the unconscious everyday life of being a hotel guest. If only every hotel provided such experiences…