Category Archives: guess what I’m doing

Them or Us: Matters of Concern

 

The ambivalent idea of ‘them or us’ eloquently reflects some of the matters of concern that have occasionally propelled my past curatorial projects.

When asked for a contribution to an exhibition‘s catalogue of that same title, I proposed a walkthrough through some of those matters of concern.

Originally written in 2017, these arguments have since been lying dormant in another curator’s dream of a yet unpublished book.

Now, it felt urgent to spurt these stories out.

For one, because their timeliness may wane. There is a precise moment for everything, and our minds will certainly and hopefully fly away from our darkest considerations at one given moment. And for the other, because perhaps my own curatorial path has come to an interesting turning point.

After four blissful years at one of the most prestigious museum institutions in the world, and after another four schizophrenic years in Lisbon launching a museum at the intersection of contemporary art, architecture and the impacts of technology, it certainly feels like the sucked-out, turned-to-entertainment cultural arena is no longer the place from where one can address some of the matters of concern that affect our world today.

Perhaps writing is one good platform to address such matters of concern– and so perhaps I should again cherish this outdated blog format.

Or perhaps I should work harder on that plan to bring curatorial knowledge to those few cities and philanthropic institutions that have already come to realize they must redirect their resources in preparation for coming emergencies – but are still lacking the connections to the appropriate art and design intelligence.

For sure, in a society that has proclaimed itself capitalistic to death, one can also perhaps take in and accept Regine Debatty’s ironical intuition: we (must) make money, not art.

Maybe business and profit are indeed the ill-fated answer to emerging problems – as the words below may hint at.

As I land in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another blissful year immersed in the expansive intellectual environment of Harvard University will tell.

So, before everything becomes so last year, in this last Sunday* of our beloved month of August, here is my farewell gift to the country where I’ve spent the last four years.

I was seduced back to Portugal by that sort of sentimental appeal to which one eventually caves in for more personal and less obvious reasons.

These included the rare opportunity to launch a new institution, but also to provide your kin with a wider net of resources, including a few years of a (barely) still humanistic European education – i.e. giving your kids a second language in which they can properly express other ideas.

But now, it is time to leave again. Who knows if it is for good?

As expressed by a 17th century thinker that came to my mind during this last year of turmoil: “To be born, Portugal: to die, the world.” The son of a mulato woman, Padre António Vieira, travelled extensively around the world before he died in Brasil.

That is the Brasil that is now burning and was once the destination of a substantial part of Portuguese society, the aristocratic court included. Many Portuguese moved there, en masse and for good, two centuries ago. This became a quite unique, little known colonial history – a tale of ‘metropolitan reversal’ and substitution of a country by its colony, which is still to be unravelled and deconstructed in all its implications – especially for those left behind…

Meanwhile, today, in its desperate, ridiculous measures to lure emigrants back to Portugal, the current government may be realizing too late that one day in the near future this ever-after impoverished place will desperately need everybody that is still being systematically and viciously driven out of the country.

PublicoAs announced on Público these days, a program of millions to bait emigrants back to the country, decoyed only 71 sentimental and ill-informed individuals.

Madonna or Philip Stark may come and sing idiotic praise of Lisbon, but they will do only while they are bribed with 20% tax rates on their international royalties. Or until they quickly realize in what kind of bureaucratic nightmare they have landed – as Madonna did after only two years – and quickly promise to fly to the next fiscal paradise.

On the other opposite, what talented emigrant needs a 50% tax discount on incredibly low salaries? No ‘talent’ will be easily contented in a country in which the median salary is 950€ – but where a privileged, self-maintaining economic-political chaste diverts millions to offshores while a so-called leftist government coalition cracks down on the basic rights of the less affluent.

The logic of the local, nepotistic mafia, as I’ve heard it put by an insightful and exiled Portuguese researcher at Brown University circa 2012, is still basically the same: let them emigrants go eat cake somewhere else, so the less of us are left behind to fight for the remaining bread crumbs.

But if the day comes when all this exiled talent is needed, ties might be severed for too long for a comeback to be possible.

Think of the Portuguese names inscribed in the walls of the first synagogue ever established in New York, a few streets away from where I used to live in the Upper West Side. As Marx wisely put it, history first happens as tragedy, then as farce. Diaspora is diaspora.

So, in a mood of exorcism and cancellation, I offer you, and the world, a long weekend read: the previously unpublished and completely open-source English version of “Them or Us: Matters of Concern.” (Portuguese original essay here).

 

The Zombie Middle Class

In old John Carpenter movies, as again in the unstoppable awakening of the living dead in recent popular culture, one could already discern those allegories that evoke the indistinct and repellent forms to which the ‘others’ tend to be abridged, and ultimately turned into a ‘thing.’

Alas, when I was preparing the Uneven Growth exhibition at MoMA, in New York, it was the first time in my life in which I started to consider on which side of the fence I wanted – or could – situate myself in this dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘the others.’

In a city and a country where class stratification is carefully obliterated from any debate – but where economic inequality is as expressive as in a regime of apartheid – we are inescapably driven to reflect on a daily basis about the pole where we might find ourselves, or where we aspire to be within a dual social scheme.

In Europe, while economic stress does not spread from South to North, one still endures peacefully with the imprecise comfort of a middle class generated by the post-War Welfare State.

In the United States, and in a city like New York, the idea of the social elevator associated to the American Dream has long been broken, reduced as it is now to a random social lottery. This is the place where we seriously start to consider if we may be contented with a falsely idealized ‘us’.

zombie-decayImage from Business Insider: The Global Middle Class is in a State of Decay

With the rattle of a middle-class increasingly squeezed between opposites, we discover a socio-economical niche slowly compelled to choose if they adhere by all possible means to the top 1%, or if, without true choice, they let themselves slid into deprivation.

Even if ideologically or culturally one does not want to embrace the 1% – and thus contribute to a growing asymmetry – who in their perfect mind would choose the second option?

 

I’d Rather Not

Although ultimately everything may depend on the difficult art of maintaining all options open, the ‘us’ of an urban(e) middle class in risk of extinction will eventually have to choose between the two ‘others’ that increasingly and radically polarize in globalized cities.

It is certainly not per chance that the biggest growing ‘urban typologies’ in recent years are ‘gated communities’ and… the slums.

The ‘choice’ between these two –or the rising loss of such mirage– is what pervades a metropolis such as Rio de Janeiro, one of the megacities examined and portrayed in Uneven Growth.

UnevenGrowthBlogUneven Growth’s blog, with tactical urbanism contributions from around the globe.

As in other metropolises of Asia or Africa for which we’ve harnessed some top critical thinking, the social strata that corresponds to a lower, worthy middle class –comprised of qualified workers and services employees– is now bound to inhabit the city in ‘informal conditions.’ This is the only regime that ‘favelados’, or those condemned to the slums, manage with their meagre earnings.

One should always correctly underline that, globally, millions are escaping extreme poverty. But what is usually and conveniently forgotten, is that such an escape does not necessarily translate into a palpable and dignified access to the ‘formal city’ that fits with the Western definition of middle-class.

More alarming is the fact that, given the evolution of the planet’s ecological crisis and the gradual depletion of its resources, we should not expect this tendency to reverse. On the contrary, it is not difficult to predict that this tendency will rather spread to contexts where until now prevailed the formal regime of a broadly established middle-class.

One should only remember the cautionary tale of Detroit, once the capital of the American auto industry. Or be reminded of how, in the wake of the Katrina storm, New Orleans made evident that urban ferality – or the potential of a city to regress into chaos and a previous evolutionary stage – is always lurking closer than one imagines.

As in other subjects, the research of American military intelligence has already long ago registered these facts with a cold, calculating, sort of mild anxiety.

 

A Lapse in History

When we remember that, in Europe or in cities such as New York, substantial parts of the urban population only gained access to a ‘rightful’ city in the beginnings of the 20thcentury, we realize how the ‘us’ of the middle-class as we know it today can one day be studied as an ephemeral reality, a brief and exotic instant in the long history of humanity.

As we have discussed throughout Uneven Growth, the slum eradication programs in big European and American cities were sustained by rapid industrial growth – as well as, let’s face it, by the wealth resulting from colonization and the increasing devastation of fossil fuels and the extraction of other natural resources.

Today, however, we will hardly have the resources to control and counter the expansion of new, fast-spreading informal urban developments. The tactical urbanisms addressed in the MoMA exhibition predicted bottom-up solutions for adaptation, more than an impossible eradication.

In this context, it is not hard to anticipate scenarios that align with much science fiction recently produced in Hollywood –from Elysium to Ghost in the Shell– in which informal regimes, radical inequality and generalized poverty fuse and hybridize with advanced, mass-produced technologies.

elysium1 The global slum in Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium. Image from solidarity-us.org.

This is the everyday steampunk that has been portrayed by the likes of Margaret Atwood or Bruce Sterling, but was first glimpsed at the level of popular culture in films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Now, after movies have made it distortedly glamorous, it really is the time to welcome the technologically-enhanced slum.

 

Rat Tribes and Other Contemporary Humans

The more dystopian scenarios facing humanity in the near future – as opposed to the 500-year dream of utopia that brought us to the present –  was the theme of the Utopia/Dystopia book, as well as MAAT’s first manifesto exhibition reuniting artists and architects.

Given the sudden turn from utopia to dystopia, it is unsurprising that so many artists today look at the decline of basic human rights in different contexts, often related to the growth of urban informality in an age of ecological distress.

The informal is back, also as an aesthetic pursuit. 

And amid the broad return to a plastic and visual informality, some artists focus particularly on emerging hidden social realities so as to make them visible to the general public.

During the 15thIstanbul Biennale, led by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset under the theme A Good Neighbor, some 10% of the 56 invited artists decided to work on the emergence of new, dismal realities of the urban informal habitat.

Originating in different geographical contexts, a few artworks portrayed individuals that some years ago would be happy to be born in societies where slum living had been or was being abolished.

In The Fascism of Daily Life, British artists Morag Keil and Georgie Nettell reveal the degrading shared-housing conditions of young London professionals who, in the heart of Europe’s financial capital, confront the harsh reality of being the first European generation that on average earns less than their parents.

Chinese artist Sim Chi Yin, on the other hand, discloses the tight, unhealthy subterranean dwellings of what Chinese media call the ‘rat tribe’: youngsters who are forced to live in dire conditions to guarantee proximity to their jobs in downtown Beijing.

SimChiYin-RatTribe-1_1200px

Image from The Rat Tribe series, circa 2012, courtesy Sim Chi Yin.

During the research for Uneven Growth, similar situations of ‘invisibility’ were found in the neighborhoods of Queens, New York, where incoming immigrants share slum-dormitories by the dozens, in anonymous converted terrace houses.

The difference regarding the past is that the new tribes own smartphones and, beyond their unavoidable fiscal contributions, they willingly play their share in the system of consumption that drives the global economy towards its logical disaster.

As a member of the public wittingly responded to one of the proposals in Uneven Growth, “if you can’t give them bread, give them wifi.”

 

Them or Us

Even in a periphery such as Portugal, the notion of ‘us’ is progressively identifiable –to the extremes of political correcteness and its opposites– with those who have a certain economic or social power, who have come to achieve a certain level of knowledge, those who ‘understand the world’ (including understanding ‘the other’), those who have supposedly deconstructed and overcome their colonial symptoms.

The ‘us’ is also identifiable with those those who still proudly self-classify as middle class, and those who, well, are convinced that they are definitely beyond the evolutionary stage of slum living.

The ‘them’, on the other hand, encompasses all those who are not framed within such diffuse ontological categories.

These include the usual migrants and refugees, the indigenous, those of ‘other races,’ the ‘poor’, but also those who came before us, those who don’t agree with us, those who in one form or another dominate us, and also all the non-humans who, in a forthright Anthropocene age, seem to have suddenly ‘reappeared’ to share the planet.

And it is true that the ‘or’ that sits in-between these two interchangeable realities has a character of radical exclusion, which again and moreover comes down to a Darwinian survival instinct.

If, anthropologically, this instinct has always been present – the survival of ‘our’ group depends on the annihilation of the ‘other’ group – such impulse accrues whenever a generic menace pops up.

If racial and ethnic differences serve to spark the conflict, factors such as the scarcity of resources, not to say the endemic poverty of a region or a nation, as well as the yet only barely perceived effects of climate change, are some of the threats that sharpen the mutually exclusive character of the ‘or’ that sits between ‘them’ and ‘us.’

In the midst of this terse dichotomy, full of inevitable belligerent contours, it is convenient to be reminded that ‘we’ are always the ‘they’ of another ‘other.’

In Southern Europe, as we well know, we are the ‘them’ of Northern Europeans. And vice-versa. In the streets of Luanda, I occasionally felt an entrenched racism penetrating the surface of my phantom-white skin, as I’m sure that all Angolans who do not resemble affluent oligarchs have occasionally had the same exact feeling in the streets of Lisbon.

As another curatorial project came to investigate, one of the less discussed impacts of the climate crisis is precisely the radical increment of socio-economic inequalities.

The investigation for the Eco-Visionaries exhibition and book may well have started with the idea of combining ‘the pessimism of the intellect’ with ‘the optimism of will.’ But, early on, the latter was easily submerged in the former.

After all, it is necessary to state that, contrary to how the news of the day non-challantly put it, the growth of global inequity will not so much occur because the ‘poor’ countries who less contribute to climate change will be the first ones to be affected.

Even in a country undergoing severe drought and increasing desertification, such as Portugal, this is the kind of factoid that seems to have little effect on ‘us.’

We conveniently assume that this new imbalance affects only some distant ‘them’ – a few small island-nations that will sink into oblivion, or, on the other side of the scale, a few African countries whose populations are beginning to fall prey to hunger and thirst.

No.

What is seldom discussed –and only a few dare to suggest in writing, most notably Bruno Latour in ‘Down to Earth’– is that the slow evidence of a 6thMass Extinction on planet Earth will trigger first famines and war, and then a technological rat race to determine who are the 66 to 97 or 99% of the human population (have your guess) that will face extermination, so that any number from the ‘other’ third to 1 or 3% will comfortably join the new Noah’s Ark.

In preparation to such an event, these cold probabilities imply, first of all, that inequalities must be accentuated beyond recognition, as governments around the world seem to have already quietly assumed.

And secondly, one must actively and furiously create the biggest number possible of ‘others’ that are destined to be erased, so as to start fast reducing the numbers of those who will be able to integrate the privileged group of the surviving ‘us.’

The ease with which, as I write, Donald Trump announced at the United Nations –to no visible indignation– that he was more than ready to eradicate 25 million North-Koreans is, of course, only a bitter aperitif to the coming decades.

If those 25 million humans are merely guilty of the unfortunate fate of living in a mad dictatorship, the less affluent in the United States should start to shiver.

 

EcoVisionáriosMadridAn Instagram view of Eco-Visionaries at Madrid’s Matadero.

 

The New Normal

The probable event that scientists designate as the 6th Mass Extinction, is nothing else than the logic and objective corollary of a thorough analysis of five previous such events. As research shows, along the history of our planet these events have led to the disappearance of most species then existing.

We humans are left with the doubtful comfort that our ancestors were one of the species that survived the 5thMass Extinction. But we may also cheer with mixed joy that, given the current status of our technology, we may be one of the few species that will also survive the next extinction event.

Even if we are not guided by principles of divine justice, we may lament everything that is already disappearing. (What was that piece of news that seemed so impactful the first time we read it? Ah, yes, finally it is only one million species that are facing extinction. Phew!)

We may also furtively commemorate that there is a strong and perverse possibility that we survive that ugly moment in which the planet will naturally regurgitate and vomit all the garbage that we have produced since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

Meanwhile, out of the pure need to maintain our mental balance, we will adamantly ignore and repress this seemingly unstoppable progression towards planetary readjustment.

In fact, this extinction phenomenon may occur anytime between 50 to 250 years ahead, according to the degree of optimismof each potential scenario.

As such, ‘we’ may, once again, take comfort from the probability that we will no longer see the worst – even if, with this psychological resource, we are actually (and indifferently) putting our sons and grandsons in the despicable category of ‘them.’

Put in other terms, the emotional readjustment to what is coming will necessarily translate in a need to adapt the human perceptive system to a ‘new normal.’

And this is a ‘new normal’ which is pretty more radical that the one that still inflates the discourses of politicians and economists.

This is not the ‘new normal’ of the economy’s secular stagnation after the great recession of 2008. And this is not the new normal of slowbalization.

This is not even the ‘new normal’ of the rebirth of nationalist and populist base instincts. This is the ‘new normal’ of the long, bumpy road to a potential total annihilation.

And, in this respect, contemporary art and culture may hopefully still have a role that goes beyond a necessary political activism – as I’ve once suggested to the architectural field in MoMA’s exhibition Ways of Being Political.

It may have a role that goes beyond the occasional unveiling of what remains invisible in today’s society, as put to evidence in the video works shown in MAAT’s exhibition Tension & Conflict.

Jorge Macchi, 12 Short Songs, 2009Jorge Macchi’s 12 Short Songs, at MAAT’s Tension&Conflict, Video Art After 2008.

J.W. Turner and the Impressionists have helped us get acquainted to a new industrial era, and transformed atmospheric pollution in a new motif for the Kantian sublime – a notion that, let’s recall it, was itself triggered by the idea of catastrophe, and in particular by the lasting echoes of the Lisbon 1755 earthquake on the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Futurists and Cubists, on the other hand, helped us getting used to the modern distortions of visuality and culture, ignited by the rise of new technologies that both fed the vertigo of speed or the complexification of urban life, as well as the massacres of World War I.

In face of the new normal’s most superficial signs, many in today’s art field find immediate consolation in the humble idea of ‘resistance.’ In a polarity that since the heights of Modernity is already traditional in cultural production, the illusory attraction of ‘resistance’ orients art towards autonomy, but also more dangerously to an effective refusal to take the bull by the horns.

Yet, while the uselessness of art, usually hiding in such arguments, may still be considered a silly advantage, such uselessness may effectively come to assert art to its own inconsequential mass extinction.

Indeed, in face of the new normal’s deeper character, what would be the advantage of art’s uselessness? Temporary comfort while one sinks? Food for thought while one starves? Or is it just a market strategy to guarantee the symbolic values of an increasing inequality while we fight for the last resources?

On the contrary, I still want to believe that art can again assume the role of an avant-garde in dissecting a yet poorly understood global war. I still want to believe that cultural production, as cultural mediation, will still have a role in that opposition of ‘them’ or ‘us’ that ultimately is the quintessence of the ‘new normal.’

The ‘new normal’ – the expression we now use to express resignation to an era in which nothing will be as before, or as Naomi Klein put it, to a condition that ‘changes everything’ – is surely a good theme for a future curatorial endeavor, wherever that may happen.

I do believe that, vis-à-vis ‘our’ and ‘their’ long path of psychological adjustment to the ‘new normal,’ artistic practices in any cultural field – think of Darren Aronofski’s Mother – are once again called upon to make us cope with the inevitability of living on an everyday basis with the new paradigms of the unequal, the informal, the ugly, and the monstrous.

 

This text was commissioned for the yet unpublished catalogue of “Them or Us: um Projecto de Ficção Científica, Social e Política”, an exhibition curated by Paulo Mendes at Porto’s Municipal Gallery, from June 2 to August 13, 2017.

*Here you find the soundtrack for this post.

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On Fire

firesBBCThe Walking Dead? No, Portugal circa 2017. Via BBC.

The country is on fire, in some kind of vivid anticipation of a fictional climate warming. There are also fungus-ridden trees that fall vengefully and brutally, and kill several people during some innocent religious celebration. Dry places get drier, with 80% of this land (and a good part of Southern Europe) now classified as under severe drought. So, with Barcelona just hit by terrorism, local people go to the beach, and masses of tourists roam around Lisbon 2.0, as if jointly commemorating the last global peaceful resort in a bright Ballardian tale.

It seems as good a time as any to share here my curatorial essay on the uncomfortable transition from 500 years of utopian ideals to a situation of permanent dystopia.

Alas, this is the subject of the fairly successful exhibition I’ve curated with João Laia and Susana Ventura, which is now just about to close at maat, Lisbon’s Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology.

As I’ve tweeted earlier to those who will probably miss the show, the book will always linger on, available through Mousse Publishing — and with its original contributions by Franco Berardi, Rosa Braidotti, Keller Easterling and Antoine Picon, this is indeed a publication not to be missed.

mousse_cover

Meanwhile, in a recent text for DAMn magazine, I have already offered some personal reflections on the more unexpected outcomes of this curatorial endeavor. As I’ve also stated in the intro to the book:

The final juxtaposition of artworks and texts offered us the evidence that utopia may effectively be giving place to dystopia. If some works revealed that boundaries between one term and the other were increasingly blurred, others jumped straightforward to the notion that dystopia has become prevalent and is the concept that requires examination. And this is an important assertion: it makes us shift the ways in which we address society and its ideal self-representations; it makes us again question the role of cultural producers in face of a broader, unescapable political situation.

To the joy of many, including the politically correct, utopian ideals are definitely dead. This is a fact at least since the great recession of 2008 – the theme for Tension & Conflict, the upcoming international group show at maat. And with bad global jokes such as Trump, dystopia is no longer a thing of literature, or science fiction.

Just get used to it.

Which brings me back to the most powerful text I’ve read over the last weeks – even if I must disclose that, while preparing for maat‘s next “manifesto-exhibition” on the subject of Eco-Visionaries, I’ve been reading a lot of disturbing shit.

So, here is almost half of “#MISANTHROPOCENE: 24 Theses,” a poem by Joshua Clover & Juliana Spahr. You can find the whole of it hiding in pages 379-384 of this open-source pdf of Art in the Anthropocene.

 

First of all. Fuck all y’all.

Second of all. We would all like to be violet-haired pure honey-smiling Sappho hanging out at all hours of the day and night in the air-conditioned $83,200-a-night Royal Penthouse Suite at the Hotel President Wilson with twelve bedrooms and twelve marble bathrooms plus a wraparound terrace with views of the Alps singing the praises of Anaktoria. The misanthropocene has proven to be a time when this is possible for some and not for others.

Third of all. It keeps busy. It makes deserts bloom. It makes luxury towers just like it makes architects. It makes blockbusters and it makes producers to make them. It makes universities roads conceptual poets it makes oil-drum pyramids it makes ships of a size called Malaccamax. It makes endless small plastic representations of the African jungle or plains animals and fish ingest them and vomit them up or don’t and there they sit in their stomachs and then they die.

Fourth of all. You know: it. The it that seems to be nothing but the doing of the world. As in it’s raining. It’s Raining Men is a moment of happiness within the misanthropocene.

Fifth of all. But then there is this other rain tilting in to soak vast acres of eurodollars and we call this west melancholy. West melancholy is related to but not the same as the misanthropocene.

Sixth of all. When we speak of time we speak of processes. Things going bad. We speak of entropy and the shedding of particles. A cold caesium fountain deep underground.

Seventh of all. The sheer scale of the misanthropocene. Our minds feel small and inert. Once every fragment seemed to bear within it the whole. Now the whole being too large for the mind to see stands before us always as a fragment.

Eighth of all. Fragments. The new Sapphic rage. Fuck Water Garden Condos Camel Garden Condos Royal Garden Sea Garden Garden City Beach and everyone who lives in condos named after gardens. One day gardens will come to get you. If they don’t we will do it for them.

Ninth of all. Fuck the French Revolution the concept of the quintile Burning Man “England is a nation of shopkeepers” capital-L Literature and the citizens of Passy. Fuck Whole Foods sustainability the Piketty craze of 2014 Harvard University Press indie rock and Fight Club. Fuck community policing. Fuck poststructuralism The Universal Declaration of Human Rights the rock banjo. Fuck critiquing the rock banjo. Fuck self-reflexive meta-commentary about critiquing the rock banjo. Fuck cupcakes and/or Park Slope fuck the martini fuck your Noguchi Coffee table fuck the crisis in the humanities Jonathan Safran Foer’s Chipotle-cup literature home ownership HBO and fuck pedantically explaining that “the bourgeoisie” doesn’t really apply to any part of US class structure.

Tenth of all. Fuck the propelling of sand from the bottom of the ocean floor in a high arc so as to construct new islands. Fuck that this is called rainbowing. Fuck any sort of dredge. Fuck how racehorses don’t get to fuck each other but instead the stallion is trained to mount a dummy mare made of plywood and fuck a heated plastic vagina. Fuck the prince of any country ever fuck Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali and atrazine. Fuck everyone who has bought a big bag of ant poison because ants have a social stomach and you are one selfish motherfucker if you can’t let them have the very small amounts of food they want to share equally among themselves. And fuck this list with its mixture of environmental destruction and popular culture smugness and fuck every one of you that laughed at that rock banjo joke and fuck us all for writing it. And fuck not just the Googlebus but the Googledoc this poem rode in on and fuck us for sitting here reading you a rock banjo joke while the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse went extinct. Fuck that this happened two days and twenty hours ago. And fuck that next up is the Sierra Nevada yellow legged frog because we’ve always liked frogs their vulnerable skin our vulnerable skin.

Eleventh of all. And fuck that self-insulating move where you call yourself on your own bullshit to prove you aren’t self-righteous. Fuck it for just being a version of liberal “please don’t hit me” politics. And srsly how did this poem come to revolve around the rock banjo?

Joshua Clover & Juliana Spahr

 

 

 

No Country for Young People

Between the Beach and a Hard Place*

I’ve recently visited one of those summer music festivals in which youth is given a “free zone” to let off steam. Except for the upper floors of the sponsors’ VIP lounges, the beautiful landscape around was hidden from view by way of advertising panels, much like in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Youngsters received a wristband with an electronic chip so as to record their booze consumption. Drones blinked around silently. The sophisticated urbanism of the grounds reminded me of refugee camps in which city life is quickly recreated. One could look at this fenced universe as just another benign festivity, or as an expression of a dystopian apparatus that has been insidiously making its way into the most common aspects of our everyday life.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster typically makes us aware
 of hidden meanings in apparently innocent environments. In the first site-specific commission for the new MAAT building, in the context of an inaugural program addressing Utopia/Dystopia, the artist offers us a fictional setting for an alien species to observe humans. Hinting at Lisbon’s easy-going lifestyle, the place looks like an artificial beach. Yet, spectators are soon caught in a performance that rather suggests the camps in which humans have been regularly amassed. Between a rock and a hard place, the artwork presents a critical dilemma. Between the escapism of a beach and the tension of a fenced camp, several possibilities lay ahead of us – but none seems ultimately tenable.

This is the small text I contributed to the Pynchon Park publication, released on occasion of the large environment created by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster for the opening of MAAT’s new building.

pynchonparkPynchon Park by carlos.h.reis, via Instagram.

In her piece, Dominique captures very well the duality of our times, where dystopic forms of entertainment – from distorted theme parks to recent young adult Hollywood blockbusters – continue to provide the metaphors for our worst fears, as well as a form of escapism to what is now called ‘the perfect storm.’

After 150 years it was first uttered, the term dystopia has become a household companion. That is in itself revealing. However, while being mostly a fictional device, the concept also delivers a theoretical tool to struggle with what is going seriously wrong in our societies.

Coming back to Portugal, I reencountered some of the mildly dystopian characteristics that are now typical of an old and ageing European country – issues that can’t possibly be changed in the course of one political mandate, or the four years I was away.

Amidst the excitement and buzz that make Lisbon 2.0 so attractive – including very lucrative music festivals to which thousands of young tourists flock every year – Portugal is still tarnished by the decaying dominance of a few rich families, the average mediocrity of political and economic elites, the growing social inequality, the low productivity of most labor force, and last but not least, a sort of desperate and overarching nepotism in the face of a widespread lack of job opportunities.

It gives me intense pain to refuse one interesting resumé after the other, even if my small museum team is overworked and, at the rate of 18 exhibitions a year, will be burnt out in one year or two. The most I can offer is a paid internship, which always reminds me of one of the funniest and sharpest artwork series exhibited at this year’s Manifesta.

internsArtwork by my colleague at MoMA, Pablo Helguera, for Manifesta 11.

Look at Tuk-Tuk drivers around Lisbon and not only are they good looking, they also have Master’s degrees. Others, not so lucky to be outdoors, are buried in call centers. Youth unemployment thrives as much as in Spain or Greece, currently at nearly 30%. If novelist Cormac McCarthy suggested the US is ‘no country for old men’, Portugal is certainly not a country for young people.

Alas, the Portuguese state invests heavily in the education of these young people, with university fees as low as $1500 a year. But then, it practically hands out this highly qualified labor force to countries that are already economically ahead. The most educated generation ever in the history of the country is pushed away, forced to emigrate to Germany or the UK. How stupid can that be?

Sure, things must change, and things can change. We can take advantage of a tourist boom, without necessarily falling into the plights of Barcelonization. We have to promote entrepreneurship, although this is difficult in a country where a public service career – and, if possible, the petty corruption that comes with it – is still considered the safe way up and out.

Portuguese authorities must understand that what we are doing to our educated young adults is atrocious. Dystopian indeed.

In face of this, does the country want to be as avant-garde as some of its cultural institutions? Look at the way the world is transforming (art world included), think of the great stagnation coming ahead, and start immediately discussing the 20-hour working week. It’s the only way everyone will get its share of work and opportunities towards a better society.

 

Lisboa 2.0

 

Não há fome que não dê em fartura. Este ano — este mês, este dia — este blog oferece dois posts. Espantoso. É tempo de balanço.

Há um ano regressava a Lisboa e abraçava o meu ‘novo normal.’ Deixava um confortável e prestigiado ‘9 to 5’ para embarcar numa montanha-russa emocional que, como já sabia, me traria dissabores e desilusões, como também doses sobressalentes de excitação e ilusión.

A vida é mesmo assim. Feita de contrastes, esquizofrenia acelerada. E  apenas vale a pena quando se persegue algo maior — ou, como diria o poeta, quando a alma não é pequena. Apenas assim os obstáculos se tornam ínfimos e indiferentes. Até à frase liminar com que o arquitecto de Ayn Rand brinda o seu assanhado detractor em The Fountainhead: “But I don’t think of you.”

No Portugal obediente e servil que nos habituámos a conhecer, o parágrafo anterior  soaria arrogante e pretensioso.* De facto, por entre os resquícios de um país submetido a 40 anos de fascismo, este tipo de afirmações na primeira pessoa soa ainda indizível — “A lata!” — O despudor, mesmo.

Felizmente, agora estamos na Lisboa 2.0. Começamos a aprender que apenas não temos motivos de orgulho, como temos direito a estar orgulhosos. Começamos a perceber que temos direito a moldar uma cidade à nossa ambição e às nossas capacidades. E que, pequeno detalhe, temos Presidente de Câmara com ambição e capacidade a condizer.

Na Lisboa 2.0 começamos até a perceber que, na abertura de um museu, podemos também ter direito a um discurso prime time inaudito por um Presidente de República brilhante. (A eleição de outro português generoso para secretário-geral das Nações Unidas chegou no dia seguinte.)

Como aconteceu noutras paragens, pode acontecer que a economia da capital do país descole da economia do país — e que onde um perde população, a outra a recupera. O Porto 2.0 também lá está para provar que, como já se sabe, as cidades são o motor económico das regiões — mas também o podem ser para um país.

Claro que ainda há pontes por completar. Claro que ainda há situações ridículas em que compreendemos que as nossas ambições — “Vamos revitalizar a frente ribeirinha de Lisboa!!” — são limitadas por infra-estruturas inadequadas.

museudoscoches

Via jornal Público, sample de foto de Fábio Augusto.

Pode ser por real falta de fundos. Pode ser por galhardias partidárias que ainda nos fazem parecer atrasados mentais perante o mundo. Mas a verdade é que, como país pobre que somos, ainda temos muitos desafios pela frente.

Apesar de Portugal ser um país de pequena dimensão, e logo mais fácil de gerir, há dificuldades reais em ultrapassar atrasos estruturais. É difícil recuperar a distância quando os outros não param de correr. E é mais fácil aos outros continuarem à frente quando partiram com avanço considerável.  Mais irritante, porém, é que num país que não é mesmo para novos, permaneça a abundância de velhos do Restelo.

Estes são os que protestam contra o investimento em cultura por parte de uma empresa que foi privatizada pelo Estado — e que, portanto, a partir daí apenas deve contas aos seus accionistas. São os que ficam obcecados com os detalhes mal-acabados e passam ao lado do gesto maior. São os detractores profissionais a quem falta generosidade para exercer a crítica como um estímulo positivo.

Ainda assim, para todos aqueles que ainda não captaram bem o que está a acontecer, aqui ficam (quase) todas as minhas razões para ter deixado Nova Iorque e regressar a Lisboa. Até que, de novo, precise de mudar de ares.

O texto está todinho na UP, aquela revista inflight da TAP que tem um milhão de leitores por mês. Lisboa 2.0 já não é “um segredo bem guardado.”

 

– “Então, mas, conte-me lá… Porque decidiu regressar de Nova Iorque?”

A senhora sussurrava como se me conhecesse há décadas. O torso ligeiramente inclinado como que à espera de uma confidência, sorriso pícaro, o ponto alto da entrevista. As variantes desta cena repetiram-se ao longo de meses a partir do verão de 2015. A outra pergunta recorrente deixava-me mais inquieto:

– “Mas, então, explique-me lá… Quem é que deixa o MoMA para voltar a Lisboa…?”

Primeiro, tentei as respostas superficiais, nem por isso menos verdadeiras.

– “Ah! A qualidade de vida de Lisboa!”

Depois, entediado, ou apreensivo que alguém pudesse ler todas as minhas entrevistas, mudei de direção. As verdadeiras razões deviam ser caladas para sempre, até que mudasse de ideias. Assim, desenterrava coisas vagamente credíveis sobre o desejo improvável de regressar a Lisboa.

– “Sabe? Um dia via a CNN num quarto de hotel de Düsseldorf e ouvi: “Lisbon is now the coolest capital city in Europe!” Imediatamente pensei: “WTF??!! What am I doing here?”, percebe?”

Coisas do género. Cada escavadela uma minhoca. A ausência de humidade. O almoço na praia a 20 minutos de carro, de maio e outubro. A quantidade de major cities a duas horas de avião.

– “Pense em Nova Iorque… Certo? Nada de interessante a menos de cinco horas de voo.”

Pois. A Europa. A minha casa. O peixe grelhado, claro. O estado do mundo. A beleza inacreditável de Lisboa – quando tantas cidades perderam a graça. Farrapo a farrapo, lá se construía um repertório. Finalmente, vinha a resposta profissional, fácil, ou nem tanto:

– “Minha senhora, não é todos os dias que se recebe o desafio de lançar um novo museu.”

Não queria soar pedagógico, claro. Mas, ainda estrangeirado, lá tinha que explicar que isto, enfim, era once in a life time. Mais a mais, enumerava, se o museu tinha ambições internacionais. Se pretendia ser inovador, a intersetar arte contemporânea com arquitetura, cidade e tecnologia. Se significava uma chance ímpar de pôr artistas a refletir sobre o que está a mudar (n)as nossas vidas. Um projeto assim é único em qualquer sítio (acrescentava). Mais ainda em casa própria, onde nunca se é honrado como profeta (coibia-me de dizer). Dá trabalho. Mas compensa o não usufruir tanto da qualidade de vida para a qual, supostamente, se voltava.

pynchonpark

Via Instagram, foto de Pedro Gadanho.

A abertura do MAAT vai trazer um público diferente a Lisboa. Alguns deles, com quem me cruzava em Bienais e eventos internacionais, diziam-me que procuravam uma boa razão para vir à cidade pela primeira vez. Não se apercebiam que lhes ficava mal a confissão. Não percebiam que era como dizer que nunca tinham visitado Roma ou Paris. Ou Londres. Ou Istambul. Ou Nápoles. Lisboa já tinha tudo de irresistível. Há séculos. Mesmo assim, quisemos juntar-lhe água de beber, contemporaneidade, internacionalização. Agora, temos apenas que evitar que a cidade se torne demasiado atrativa demasiado depressa.

– Shhhhh!…

*Para aqueles que ainda não conhecem, no asterisco está a banda sonora do post.

Back to Life, Back to Reality: The ‘New Normal’

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sky

As I get back to Lisbon and Europe,* it would seem almost inevitable that this blog returns to its mother tongue. Now that new challenges take flight, time may prove scarce for the pleasures of the text, but the willingness is certainly here.

A good way to guarantee a certain flow, it dawned on me after my last, distant post, may precisely lie in offering sneak previews — or retrospective extracts — of contributions that I will try to continue providing for different publications around the globe.

As such, the following preview is from“Uprooting Urban Design as We Knew It: The ‘New Normal’ and the Return of Utopia,” a text that I have just delivered for the Shenzhen Biennale.

See you there (and discover the remainder of the essay) in December.

2. 

The ‘new normal’ has been diversely portrayed by various sectors of current thinking. In economic terms, it relates to the potential advent of a ‘secular stagnation,’ as former US Secretary of State Larry Summers has put it. The implication is that constant economical growth is no longer the macro-economic rule. In political terms this has translated —and will continue to translate—  into the imperative to impose austerity as a permanent norm. This imposition, on the other hand, represents nothing but a compulsory anticipation of the need to rethink the use and consumption of our resources, soon clearly insufficient to sustain a world population that is growing both in absolute numbers and relative affluence. This being said, we won’t even address the ‘new normal’ of the increasing number of scientists who report the numbers  of a steady progression towards the eventual mass-extinction of the human race.

The field of architecture and urban planning has done little to accommodate and reflect such notions. The majority of the field is still clinging to traditional notions of practice, thus blindfolding itself to violent massive change. In its mainstream version, it takes refuge in the lack of responsibility that comes with its willing transformation into an obedient, acritical service industry. In its intellectual sectors, it still finds it possible to hide behind the bubble of disciplinary autonomy, including both the infantile embrace of parametricism, or the stubborn clasp of a vaguely minimal and conceptual formalism. 

The ‘new normal,’ however, demands a radical transformation of practice. And the radical practice means a fundamental uprooting of the meaning of architecture as we used to know it, not to mention the faster mutation of the role of design thinking itself. This is where an utopian drive that was dormant during some decades of post-critical numbness kicks back in.

Futuro Desigual, Destino Equivalente

Enquanto Uneven Growth, Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities parece lentamente tornar-se realidade – pelo menos do ponto de vista mediático – lembrei-me de publicar aqui a versão original e completa do “white paper” onde germinaram muitas das ideias por detrás da exposição que agora se anuncia para o MoMA, em Novembro de 2014.

mumbai-experience4

Merece-me comemorar aqui o facto de a tradução portuguesa deste ensaio, que em 2011 viu a luz do dia numa publicação académica da Universidade de Gent com o curioso título de Tickle your Catastrophe, estar para breve.

Pelo menos é o que me diz um desses corajosos editores que, no meio da pantanosa crise portuguesa, ainda insiste em fazer alguma coisa.

Esta publicação junta-se assim a algumas outras, como os catálogos da conferência Once Upon a Place ou da exposição Performance Architecture, que nos últimos tempos aparecem muito a custo, a culminar os últimos projectos que levei a cabo em Portugal.

Lembrando-me desses projectos, ocorre-me quão incrível é que, em Portugal, ainda sobre gente* como a Susana – a figura tenaz por detrás da conferência sobre arquitectura e ficção, que, a propósito, tem agora a sua segunda edição já noutras paragens, infelizmente em versão um pouco mais boring.

Ainda há portugueses que, a partir do seu lugar, resistem a essa mistura de ódio entranhado e inveja encapotada pelos que querem fazer alguma coisa, que infelizmente ainda singra na sociedade portuguesa – mesmo quando a austeridade deveria sugerir maior solidariedade.

No momento em que, por outro lado, a solidariedade de gala começa, por incipiente e bacoca que seja, a substituir o Estado na manutenção do que tínhamos adquirido por básico, torna-se mais ou menos claro que estamos a bater no fundo. (Na Europa e no mundo, os outros também se estão a afundar, apenas ainda não o reconheceram.)

Talvez devêssemos começar a mostrar mais do nosso típico respeitinho por aqueles que ainda se dão ao trabalho de querer fazer – em vez de, também eles, sejam empreendedores, políticos ou agentes culturais, se dedicarem à tarefa bem mais fácil de ir para a praia

Diria com algum grau de certeza que, se há gente que ajuda a manter qualquer coisa à tona, essa é precisamente feita dos que gostam de “fazer” malgré tout.

Para dar algum alento aos que persistem, devo dizer que, como todos os projectos com alguma ambição, também Uneven Growth teve uma gestação longa e difícil – o que, de resto, continua a ser verdade mesmo após o lançamento público bem sucedido da exposição e do primeiro workshop do projecto no MoMA PS1 há duas semanas atrás.

Cohstra@MoMAPS1MoMAPS1, do modo que agora encontramos as nossas imagens… via Twiter.

Por vezes, ocorre-me que a razão essencial porque o destino me trouxe a uma instituição como o MoMA tem precisamente a ver com a necessidade inata, ou a profunda carolice, de querer levar este projecto a bom porto. (Embora, obviamente, não devesse falar antes de tempo.)

Aqui e ali e acolá e outra vez aqui, ainda sob a designação de Emergent Megalopolis, podem ainda ler-se os restos arqueológicos de um conceito nascido numa visita a Saigão há mais de dez anos atrás – num tempo da minha vida em que ainda era possível decidir, de um momento para o outro, que ia viajar durante um mês no Sudoeste Asiático.

Em Saigão, sob o efeito da percepção aguda que as viagens proporcionam, tive uma experiência decisiva e transformadora: atravessar a rua numa realidade urbana que me era inteiramente nova.

Saigon-ViaWithoutBaggageAs ruas de Saigão, a.k.a. Ho Chi Min City, via Without Baggage.

Quando se atravessa a rua em Saigão, o acto tem que ser negociado de uma forma diferente do habitual. Numa cidade sem semáforos e com milhões de scooters (como agora vim a reencontrar em Taipei) a primeira coisa que nos ensinam é que, para atravessar os antigos boulevards carregados de um fluxo de trânsito incessante, também os transeuntes não podem parar.

Quando se atravessa a rua em Saigão, temos que nos munir de coragem e avançar sempre ao mesmo passo por entre a corrente compacta de tráfego. E temos que olhar nos olhos todos aqueles que avançam para nós, para perceber se vão passar à nossa frente, ou atrás de nós.

Foi nesse momento da negociação do olhar com milhares de jovens asiáticos que nasceu a inspiração de que, mais cedo do que mais tarde, teríamos que imaginar novos modos de responder ao crescimento do urbano no século XXI.

Tal como, no inicio do séc. XX, Georg Simmel alertou para a emergência de uma nova consciência metropolitana, agora devemos preparar-nos para o estado de emergência da urbanização completa de um planeta em que os recursos, ao contrário da população, não estão propriamente a crescer de dia para dia.

E por isso vale a pena sublinhar que, depois de querer ter sido programa de televisão e documentário experimental multi-episódios, e para além do desejo de mapear de novas formas de prática arquitectónica, ou a vontade de perceber como substituir estratégias de planeamento obsoletas, este projecto é agora, apenas e só, uma investigação sobre como arquitectos e outros actores urbanos podem vir a lidar com a desigualdade e o empobrecimento progressivo de uma sociedade cada vez mais intrinsecamente global.

Under the Influence

Enquanto, para irritação certa daqueles que em Portugal se tomam como o centro da atenção, a Trienal de Arquitectura de Lisboa se abria ao mundo (aqui, ali e acolá) , eu fui antes convidado para passar pela Triennale de Milão, onde o hardcore da arquitectura portoguesa se mostra mais uma vez aos (seus) pares.

siza3Image via Bea Spoli.

Após silêncio tão prolongado deste blogue, e os inevitáveis boatos de extinção daí advindos, pensei que seria justo brindar os “meus leitores” (essa minoria insondável, entre os fiéis indefectíveis e os google translate new-comers) com o meu contributo para essa exposição que agora se abriu por terras de Itália.

Como, para minha grande desdita, a disponibilidade para o deleite da escrita se tem revelado cada vez mais escassa, também aos organizadores da exposição tive que propor uma revisita a um texto que havia escrito há precisamente quatro anos – e que aqui também deixo à mão de semear.

Felizmente, e como por sorte me sucede acontecer, a revisita não resvalou necessariamente para o plágio em casa própria, ou, em termos mais pós-modernos e legitimantes, para a mera (auto)-apropriação, mas resultou antes numa curiosa actualização da estória e dos personagens que antes inventara.

Assim, mais linkado* aqui do que o papel ou o painel permitirão, aqui fica o meu pequeno texto para a exposição Porto Poetic, para que um dia os exegetas tenham a tarefa facilitada, pelo menos no que diz respeito a descobrir conexões, referências e outras ligações obscuras que, por alguma razão misteriosa, fazem sempre parte do prazer do texto.

Regeneração Debaixo do Vulcão

Quando se fala de cultura, as figuras de referência são o que se pode chamar um benefício contraditório. Essas figuras raras – génios, talentos incontornáveis, personalidades brilhantes – dão lugar a um paradoxo que apelidarei de “debaixo do vulcão.” Quando existem figuras de reconhecimento e prestígio excepcional num determinado campo de actuação cultural, é mais que certo que o valor que se introduz nesse campo é positivo. O capital cultural, como lhe chamaria Pierre Bourdieu, eleva-se às alturas. O campo torna-se mais rico. Sob a famosa “ansiedade da influência,” cresce a exigência e, logo, a qualidade.

No entanto, a situação não é desprovida de riscos. O campo pode “paralisar” devido a um excesso de carga positiva – o que se pode evocar como o “efeito Glenn Gould.” Perante a impossibilidade de superar as mencionadas figuras de referência, o campo cede à lógica da “terra queimada,” à criação de um no man’s land onde nada cresce durante gerações. No campo da arquitectura, este efeito é deveras conhecido, associado a personagens maiores como Le Corbusier, ou Óscar Niemeyer. Após o fulgor destas figuras maiores, parece apagar-se o brilho das gerações que se lhe sucedem.

Entre estas duas vertentes pode surgir também o estado “debaixo do vulcão” – que no passado tive oportunidade de descrever a propósito da arquitectura portuguesa. Como a presença de um vulcão no horizonte próximo, escrevia, personagens como Siza Vieira ou Souto Moura originam um território fértil. No entanto, “perante a eminência permanente da devastação,” podem também gerar um estado de suspensão hipnótica. Assim, a arquitectura portuguesa contemporânea, como o vice-cônsul do famoso romance “Under the Volcano” de Malcolm Lowry, viveria “simultaneamente inebriada e deprimida.”

UndertheVolcano

 …

Perante a dificuldade de copiar Siza, ou a facilidade de copiar Souto Moura, perante a evidência da fertilidade ou a eminência do vazio, as gerações pós-Pritzkers encararam um falso dilema: continuidade ou ruptura? Essa era, pelo menos, a tónica do discurso critico que também crescera à sombra do vulcão. Contribuí para a agitação das almas, propondo que, entre esses dois pólos, duas gerações emergiriam em Portugal num curto espaço de tempo. Essas gerações não eram assim tão diferentes. Mas, como mostrado na Bienal de Veneza de 2004, manifestavam diferentes apreciações das cinzas onde prosperavam.

A geração que levava a “continuidade” para novos territórios – e que é agora re-apresentada em Porto Poetic – fez-se herdeira legítima dos mestres, permitindo-se introduzir novas influências e perspectivas no seu legado. Usufruindo da proximidade geográfica e emocional ao vulcão, pelo menos enquanto aí havia espaço, cultivaram diligentemente o  terreno fecundo deixado pelas magnas erupções do passado.       Trouxeram novos instrumentos e técnicas, importaram referências do estrangeiro ou dos campos adjacentes da arte, e garantiram que a fertilidade dava os seus frutos.

A geração que era acusada do pecado da “ruptura,” não era menos dada a gerir a fertilidade que encontrara no chão onde crescera. Porventura mais volátil e inconstante, como costuma ser apanágio da juventude que pode sê-lo, apenas precisava de mais tempo para dar uso aos talentos que lhe foram confiados. Viajaram para longe do vulcão, pensaram eventualmente em estabelecer-se noutros territórios convenientemente distantes. Voltando ou não voltando, usufruiriam, também elas, do caldo genético que o vulcão deixara nas suas terras de origem.

Revisitada esta estória, é justo dizer que o trocadilho contido no termo “re-generation” é apropriado à descrição das novas gerações de arquitectos portugueses, quer estes sejam aclamados pela “continuidade” ou pela “ruptura.” Entre vulcões e pools genéticas, a importância da herança da arquitectura portuguesa, e de Siza Vieira em particular, é mostrar que a arquitectura se faz por regeneração, miscigenação, renovação.  Como dizia o outro, parar é morrer. Portanto é preciso que cada geração construa algo novo sobre aquilo que lhe é deixado. Uma vez que se compreenda isto, tudo o mais é relativo.

Nova Iorque, Agosto 2013