CITIES, how the world works

'We Are the State': fighting Putin with urbanism

After dropping out of three different academic programs, [Maxim] Kaz became the Russian poker champion. He is considered a rising star of the non-parliamentary opposition.

His poker career has made him independent. Kaz’s company seeks out talented players, lends them the fees for major tournaments and, in return, collects a share of the prize money. Kaz earns about €250,000 ($320,000) a year, enough to keep his head clear for future political plans.

Kaz gave a much-noticed speech at a major anti-Putin rally, and on March 4, when Putin was elected president for the third time, he captured a seat on the district council of Shchukino, a bastion of Putin’s United Russia Party. The district is home to the Kurchatov Institute, the cradle of the Soviet atom bomb, and the streets still bear the names of Soviet-era generals.

He is currently spending a lot of time attending meetings on kindergarten budgets and building renovations. He is also scrutinizing the activities of administration chief Yeremeyev. Is it corruption when he only obtains the approval of the district council for construction projects after the work has already begun?

Kaz has learned to write petitions and read laws. "We have to understand the system so we can change it," he says. In Shchukino, he pushed for the purchase of park benches so that retirees could sit down and rest. He has the district council meetings videotaped and posts the videos on the Internet.

But Kaz achieved his greatest success last year, when city officials turned sidewalks along Tverskaya Street into parking spaces. He found 50 volunteers who spent a day keeping track of how many drivers benefited from the parking spaces and, conversely, how many pedestrians had to squeeze past the parked cars. The results were so clear that the city quickly imposed a stopping restriction along the street.

It is small victories like these that he talks about in the McDonald’s restaurant on Pushkin Square as he picks French fries from a tray. It’s a new and different way to make life difficult for the Kremlin. In the long run, it could be more of a threat to Putin than any Coordinating Council.

via 'We Are the State': Small Victories – SPIEGEL ONLINE.

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CITIES, how the world works

Das Weiße Band

Either I am choosing my friends more and more wisely, or men are just getting better in general, but each year more and more of my male friends are making explicit statements against violence against women.

Thank you so much for that. It is some kind of manifest sign that the ratio of violent men in my life is decreasing. It may seem like an abstract thing to some of you, but, when you’re a woman, it’s often very real.

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CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics

With all the money we need to buy guns…

This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it – that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car selesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

– Hunter S. Thompson

I was cleaning up my Google Docs, when I found this quote, sitting solitary on an empty page. I no longer know why it was so important to preserve it, however many years ago, and whether it related to some specific US event, or some relationship I felt it had to the aggressive entitlement of Australians to keep comfortable, no matter what harm it did to others. The younger self is another person. Still, it is like getting a message from someone who used to be important to us, even if they no longer are.

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CITIES, how the world works

Grizzly Bear defining 'middle-class' living…

…as an aside, in an article about independent music lifestyle…

Droste doesn’t expect a middle-class living, but he wouldn’t mind one. “I’d like to someday own a house, and be able to have children, and be able to put them through school, in an urban environment that one enjoys living in,” says Droste.

via Grizzly Bear: Indie-Rock Royalty of 2012 — Vulture.

… and accidentally painting a terrifying picture of the contemporary world, at least the Anglosphere, at least the USA. These used to be considered something like working man’s rights. Not privileges, certainly never luxuries.

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CITIES, how the world works

Moral Order of a Suburb vs Critical Dialogue

Dear reader, please bear with me while I am having German hayfever (in mid-summer, also, due to the endless cold we have had here when we were supposed to have spring and summer) and am incapacitated from all writing.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some research on something called ‘suburban mentality’, trying to find out whether it exists or not. I have compiled lists of ‘crazy NIMBYisms’. All this was done with another goal in mind, something urbanism-related and not directly theatrical. But, while finding out that ‘suburban mentality’ is (at least in sociology) a Really Existing Fact, I have also found vast swaths of material on how it shapes attitudes to conflict.

How? Badly. According to one classic text, M. P. Baumgartner’s The Moral Order of a Suburb, it fosters avoidance at all cost (not merely conflict avoidance, but person avoidance). If this does not make the conflict disappear, the next tactic is ‘waiting for someone to move away’. If there is a stranger involved, the next step above is calling the authorities; if it is a neighbour, an anonymous report (even if the anonymity reduces the chance of successfully solving the conflict); if it is an intra-family conflict, bereaving the person of something important (such as grounding the child). If the conflict has not been solved by now, the remaining two measures are both extreme and non-confrontational: “A party to such a dispute may show signs of emotional distress, such as depression, agitation, poor performance in school, or self-destructive behavior.” Or, the ultimate sanction, the ‘permanent avoidance’: the spouses divorce, the child moves out of home.

The other text I found looks at how this suburban space provides no public space (what it provides is ‘common space’, a utilitarian, aesthetically neglected, affectively poor, space for getting in an out, collecting rubbish, etc), and, in turn, no ‘public reasoning context’ – the lack of which shapes a non-discursive culture, which leads to a non-conflictual culture.

The importance of conflict in social as well as individual ego-development cannot be overstated. When I use the term ‘conflict’, I do not mean violent or in some way threatening forms of confrontation but forms of sociation where individual interests and world-views confront one another. Conflict is generally seen as dividing segments of any population, but this is generally not the case. More likely, as Georg Simmel pointed out in his analysis of the phenomenon, ‘Conflict (Kampf) itself resolves the tension between contrasts. The fact that it aims at peace is only one, as especially obvious, expression of its nature: the synthesis of elements that work both against and for one another’ (Simmel, 1955: 14). In this sense, conflict gives the individual a stronger sense of self; it develops in tandem with challenges to the way he thinks, reflects, and forms his identity. Lacking conflict, one seeks privacy in order to avoid the public realm which can be a place of conflict. Therefore, conflict performs an integrating task: the individual becomes more integrated into social life through certain forms of conflict and antagonism. In avoiding these forms of conflict, the individual becomes detached from the pulse of public life (Baumgartner, 1988; Greenhouse, 1992). He does not wish to engage it, to enter into it, but rather to shun it creating a more atomized society as well as a deeper sense of anomie within
the subject himself (Sennett, 1974).

Michael J. Thompson, Suburban Origins of the Tea Party: Spatial Dimensions of the New Conservative Personality, Critical Sociology 2012 38: 511

With a relevance and incidental accuracy that is absolutely fantastic (considering that Thompson is theorising about the Tea Party in the US, and I am applying his theories to the Australian theatrical debate), Thompson concludes with the concept of ‘anomic provincialism’:

This detachment from others is not absolute; rather, what happens is that individuals form narcissistic senses of self where their social relations also become linked by what is familiar to them – closed structures lead us not only to avoid public life, but also to forms of self which are alienated from public life and become under-socialized, lacking the capacities needed for public life.

This has an important impact on group-affiliation. These forms of self will seek protection but also a reflection of themselves with others who share similar world-views. As a result, group affiliation becomes tighter, limiting itself to the known. Relations need to be personal; the impersonal (i.e. public) is shunned and feared (Sennett, 1971). The maintenance of certain world-views can therefore be maintained by homogeneous kinds of group-affiliation. Disruptions in the ways of life, in the world-views held in common by such communities, will be seen as existential threats and, many times, provoke strong personal and communal reaction. When individuals are prevented from diverse forms of interaction, unaccustomed to conflict and challenging the self and its predispositions, and relate to one another in ways shaped by anomie and alienation, we begin to see a more genuine picture of the self that emerges within suburban space.

Suburban life can erode the democratic capacities of citizens because they contain, or better yet, are specifically designed around the notion of closed social space. This is very different from mid-nineteenth-century urban planning which placed a primacy on public space. The result of this is a set of spatio-structural constraints upon forms of interaction and intersubjectivity which then lead to a limiting of interpersonal consciousness. The specific character of interpersonal consciousness, as I argued above, therefore leads to an under-developed or mal-developed reflexive consciousness thereby rendering public consciousness either non-existent or so underdeveloped as to be almost practically useless.

Lacking these forms of public consciousness, public reason too becomes impossible and, with time, democratic capacities of open discussion, public debate, toleration, and inclusiveness are all
undermined.

I have been observing the strange trajectory of the Queen Lear debate, and it seems to me too many speculations from above apply, for sociology not to be relevant.

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CITIES, how the world works, policy & design

BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin: PR English, asking the wrong questions, and the festivalisation of urban planning.

It so happened that last Tuesday I attended a meeting with the BMW Guggenheim Lab curators, organised by the students of the TU Berlin Masterstudiengang Historische Urbanistik (or Historical Urban Studies). I was invited ad hoc, and had no intention of writing about it, and would not have, were it not for the strange and indicatively unsuccessful nature of the encounter.

Some background: according to BMW’s own head of branding, the company decided to engage in some image-cleaning and reach out to “those people who currently don’t have any particular affinity to the BMW brand and might even view cars with ambivalence”, thus joining with the Guggenheim Foundation and funding an enormously expensive, world-touring, well, 6-year event, a sort of festival of urban planning and design. A temporary carbon-steel building by Atelier-Bow-Bow (very vogueish Japanese architects) is erect for 10-or-so weeks, each time in a different city, and a series of events, from lectures to workshops and tours, takes place. The general theme? Urban problems, challenges, opportunities. The cities? New York, Berlin, Mumbai.

Having had its 10 weeks in NY, the Lab was on its way to Berlin when the trouble started. The site chosen to erect Bow-Wow’s temporary architectural work was an abandoned site in Kreuzberg, in the Wrangelkiez, right on the river Spree.

If you know a single thing about Berlin, you know that Kreuzberg (specifically, the smaller area within it known as Wrangelkiez) has as enormously strong, politically radical community, and a history of resistance to top-down planning. Here is where Berlin’s (and to some extent Germany’s) squatting started, with 160 apartment buildings occupied at once in 1980, around half of which became legalised housing communes soon after. Here is where the residents’ opposition to inner-city demolition led to a wholesale change of the Senate redevelopment policy from greenfield construction of new estates to careful urban renewal of existing neighbourhoods: careful to the historical building form, careful to not displace any residents, and careful to involve them in the planning process. The squatting movement in Kreuzberg led to financing programs that allowed housing communes to renovate the buildings they occupied, to almost every existing social housing policy in Berlin, to the squatting culture that opened up the city’s empty spaces to art and music in the 1990s, and, subsequently, to the image of Berlin as Europe’s party capital, an image that is today Berlin’s only relevant export. Kreuzberg today, again particularly the Wranglerkiez, is struggling under increasing gentrification (the rent-controlled contracts signed in 1980s have largely run out in the past few years, and the rents have risen under the pressure from tourist and temporary residents lured by Kreuzberg’s allure of cool), and there are almost constant meetings, protests and initiatives to come up with new policies that will protect the rents in the neighbourhood, and the rest of Berlin. In a city where 85% of citizens rent, with no industry and the highest unemployment rate in Germany, sharply rising rents are a social catastrophe.

No wonder, then, that public resistance to a Guggenheim vanity project in the area was huge. An anti-project blog appeared; there was a protest against Guggenheim; letters were sent to papers and the police ascertained that vandalism would be a serious threat (this is an area in which new apartments and expensive cars are regularly vandalised, too). Guggenheim responded to the threat of vandalism by renouncing the Kreuzberg location, and moving to the much nicer, already-mellowed-down Prenzlauer Berg in the former East.

The media largely welcomed Guggenheim Lab as a good investment and media project, but even then with reserve. Berliner Zeitung:

“It all seemed a bit ridiculous, as it’s only about a six-week project, and not a permanent establishment. The coming weeks will reveal whether the debate blows over, or continues with ideological posturing. But the city-state’s politicians can no longer ignore the agitated atmosphere in the inner-city neighborhoods. And the Guggenheim organizers are burdened by high expectations. They want to address the issue of urban living, but so far there is no convincing program. They will need to prove that they want to build more than just a talking shop.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Still, the protesters hit a nerve in the city. For their blackmail they used widespread fears of rising rents, the displacement of the poor into outer districts, and the specter of ‘gentrification.’ … The Senate has yet to find a politically convincing answer to this. As correct as Klaus Wowereit’s rejection of intolerance is, the fears and worries must be taken seriously.

Non-mainstream commenters were openly critical. Berlin Art Link commented on the choice of location thus:

An uncontroversial choice in the Wrangelkiez area where rents have increased by 20% last year, and about half the locals had to leave. One wonders whether anyone from the BMW Lab bothered Googling “Berlin” “Urban problems” or “gentrification” or the like before settling on this spot.

Intercultural Urbanism (a blog) commented on the new location:

The area has been undergoing gentrification, however, and that might not send the best message to citizens in Berlin and elsewhere who worry about what corporate-sponsored “pop-ups” portend for their neighborhoods.

But the most interesting critique came from Despina Stokou in Bpigs, who went to a community meeting in Kreuzberg at which the Guggenheim project was presented to residents, and who analysed it through its use of what she terms ‘PR English’ or Art English. (“The surface of the sentence (and it’s meaning as we know it in the English we have learned or natively speak) is often miles away from it’s actual meaning as used in the PR/Art context.”)

It got hot in the Guggenheim Lab event too. What started off in an already negative atmosphere got worse with the power point presentation. I had to double check, as I could have sworn it was in English and that would make no sense in an 90% German speaking audience in Kreuzberg. It was in German but it really felt like English, with program titles like: Confronting Comfort, Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization, FeedForward 2: Co-opting Place, Urban Yoga… People started booing and they were absolutely right. This use of language is common in media circles, (it would not have caused a stir in Pfefferberg, I would have shrugged it away myself) but it is void of meaning, it is constructed only to impress, not to inform. This became very evident in this non-art context, where people just wanted to know how this project would affect their everyday lives. As somebody graphically put: Ich versuche jeden Monat die Miete zu bezahlen und Ihr macht eure Kunstkacke. [I try to pay rent every month, and you’re making your art turds.]

I wish, in fact, I had read Stokou’s article before our meeting with the Guggenheim curators at TU Berlin, because it would have prepared me better for what was going to happen.

Instead of a discussion, we were given a PowerPoint presentation of the project, organised by four curators, each one programming roughly a week of events. Jose Gomez-Marquez, an MIT-based engineer, would be running workshops on how to make stuff from everyday stuff (e.g., a solar-powered coffee grinder). Carlo Ratti, another MIT-based engineer and architect, had a program on the new technologies for sensing the urban. Corinne Rose, a psychologist and artist, the only German and the only person of the four with any experience of living in Berlin, was presenting many small projects with local artists and designers, all around her interest in the aesthetic experience of the city. (To her credit, Rose will put on one event of relevance to Berlin right now: a discussion of the role of Liegenschaftsfonds Berlin, the public body responsible for selling public land, exclusively to the highest bidder. The current discussion in the city has focused largely on whether they should be legally forced to consider other criteria too, such as cultural or social merit.) Finally, Rachel Smith, a Brisbane-based transport planner from AECOM, had a series of events about participation and sustainable transport (cycling, largely). Only Smith and Rose were there to talk, and the focus of the discussion was on their part of the program, not least because the presentation contained very little on the actual Berlin program (and a lot about the many institutions and people involved in making it, as is usually the case with vanity projects of this kind). There would be walking tours. There would be a workshop to teach Turkish women how to ride bicycles. (The program has since been found on the website: buried deep in the ‘Press’ section.)

In a city whose urban renewal policy has been shaped by mass squating of the 1980s and 1990s, a city in which, on any given weekend, about half the programmed events are illegal, a city in which trespassing is a collective sport and commuter-train parties normal, Smith asked: “Imagine if you didn’t need a permit to do whatever you want, what would you do?”

In a city in which everyone rides bikes everywhere, a city with fantastic cycling infrastructure, and a culture of utmost respect for cycling, Smith was posing questions relevant only to cities, such as Brisbane, trying to deal with chronic car-dependency and related health problems: “How can we get more women and children on bikes?” “How do we negotiate between the lycra cyclists who hate parents riding bikes with their children, and vice versa? Could we establish 7-metre-wide ‘cycling superhighways’, fenced off on both sides, for safe cycling to work?”

You only ought to have spent a day cycling around Berlin to understand why the local students’ eyes glazed over at these ‘exciting’ proposals. In this city, one is allowed to cycle both on the (very wide) footpaths and on the (very wide) roads, and the continuous network of paths and crossings means that one genuinely has about 7 metres of cycling space in most parts of the city. The fencing off, a typical example of monofunctional urban-design thinking, would make no sense in a streetscape dotted with shops, apartments, things to get off one’s bike and do. In fact, the only place where having fences on both sides of a bike path would not be a nutty idea would be in the middle of a freeway. But this is not that kind of city…

Finally, Smith programmed an event in which we establish a “No Excuse Zone”. This deserves some explanation. If a group of AECOM urban planners meets in the centre of a CBD, each rides their bike in a different direction for exactly 20 minutes, then stops, maps their position, and draws a circle connecting them all, the resulting zone around the CBD is the “no excuse zone”: if you live within this residential area, and don’t cycle to your CBD work, you have “no excuse”. This is an excellent example of a moralistic, guilt-inducing, feel-awful approach that is so often used in Australia, that costs money, solves no problem and serves nobody. Just like desire lines trod through lawns, people queuing at wrong ends of a bar, or accident-prone intersections, non-cycling-friendly cities are a design problem, not a behaviour problem. People cycle in cities that have low car speeds, pleasant and safe cycle lanes, good street lighting, high residential density, and high density of shops and services on the street. Otherwise, cycling is unsafe, boring and impractical. Berlin has all of it, and there are quite probably more bikes on its streets than cars, at any one point of the day. Furthermore, Berlin has no CBD: it is a polycentric city. Where would you begin your 20-minute radial ride? In Alexanderplatz, a low-density wasteland? To watch Rachel Smith talk about cyclability in Berlin, apparently completely uninformed about any of this, was about as strange as it would be if she gave a speech in Italy about how to make pasta.

The first glaring problem was pointed out in one of the early questions. Smith and Rose insisted on having met with many Berliners, involved as many as possible, and shaped the program around urban problems facing Berlin. “Can you go back to your list of Berlin issues, please”, asked one student, “and explain how you are going to address each one in your program?” Well, there it was. Gentrification? “We have one whole day devoted to it.” Lack of industry and jobs? There will be one event on the day themed ”. Berlin’s over-reliance on tourism as an export industry? “One Planet Tourism, the world-leading tourism consultancy, will be working with local tourism businesses, to teach them how their businesses can be made more environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable, in the current climate of crisis.” (I hope you don’t have to be an urbanist to notice that this does not address the problem of ‘over-reliance on tourism’.) Rising rents? “Oh, I don’t think we’re doing anything specifically about that.” “So”, said the student, “the most important issues facing Berlin, gentrification, rising rents and unemployment, you are going to address all in one day?”

Begging the question was: how in the world do they think that, whatever is said or achieved in that one day, will be relevant for Berlin? Relevant to the point of justifying the stress on the existing neighbourhoods that the Lab would bring, relevant to the point of making up for the insult and injury of having an international mega-corporation orchestrate a supposed discussion about the city, bypassing all existing channels of communication and community and government groups? I was going to ask, simply, how they understand the benefit this would make to Berlin. But the questions kept coming, and they were not generous. The curators responded: we are hoping we could create a platform for a dialogue. “But there are already many platforms like that here!” the students responded. The fact that the event was corporate image-cleansing was brought up a few times: how does this not compromise the event?

“How did you decide on the location?” Apparently, they thought that Berlin was not using its riverfront enough, so they rented a boat, sailed down the river looking for an empty lot, and then found one. “I think that’s quite insensitive, actually”, recapped the student. Rachel Smith seemed genuinely confused about why their chosen location caused so much stir. “I come from Brisbane, and they would have done anything to have such an event in their city. Any Australian city, Sydney, Melbourne, would have done anything to host BMW Guggenheim Lab. We have marvelous speakers coming to speak for free. We have One World Travel, the world leader in tourism consulting! We have the man who founded Surfers Against Sewage! We have the people who run Copenhagenize website! In Brisbane, when Richard Branson gave a talk, the tickets were selling for AUD$2,000! There are some really cool people coming here!”

This was, finally, when it all descended from satire into farce. It was perhaps terrible enough that we were greeted to an expensive program that posed no questions of any relevance to the city. But to be there, concerned about the influence that such globally-visible vanity project will have on rising rents, and be told that this is about seeing some “cool people” speak, was not even offensive; it just showed what a gap there was between Guggenheim Lab and Berlin. To have a talkfest programmed, with the large majority of speakers either coming from international consultancies or media, bloggers and dispensers of internationally diluted best-practice, and call it engagement, city-building, anything but festivalisation of urban planning, would be believing one’s own lies; one’s own PR English. Brisbane perhaps can’t tell the difference. But Berlin has had a history of good planning; it can.

In the end, many of my questions were simply too cruel to ask. How can BMW Guggenheim be useful to Berlin? It won’t, and that’s not its intention. Berlin, the capital of European cool, will be useful to the Lab. It will add to its image of relevance, real grit, and internationality. It will cost money, be another tourist attraction for a few weeks, and then move on leaving little behind. As some German media have commented, it is the same stuff as usual, only much more expensive. But, if the meeting we had on Tuesday is anything to go by, the Lab curators might be completely clueless about the feathery weight of their work.

Further reading:
Frankfurter Rundschau, Guggenheim Lab startet nach Protesten
RBB, BMW Guggenheim Lab – das Program steht fest

NY Times, Amid threats, BMW Guggenheim Lab withdraws plan for installation in Berlin neighbourhood
Der Spiegel, German press review on Guggenheim Lab relocation in Berlin neighborhood
Der Spiegel, Guggenheim Lab cancels ‘high risk’ Berlin project

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CITIES, how the world works

On the difficulty young Americans have with using the language of moral evaluation, rather than entrepreneurialism.

The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.

Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism consulting and finance while good students in red states go into production capitalism Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone.

The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.

Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.

People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.

Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.

via The Service Patch – NYTimes.com.

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CITIES, how the world works

Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats

I have said a few times that European cultural journalism of the sort published in free press is generally better than what Australian ‘elite’ media publish. This is not because am mean and/or hate Australia, but because standards of cultural journalism in Australia are held very low.

To demonstrate what I mean, here is an interview from Electronic Beats, a magazine I picked up in a bar a few days ago, here in Berlin. The interviewee is Chris Dercon, the director of Tate Modern:

You’re known for using interviews as platforms to make people aware of such societal developments. To quote you: “There are millions and millions of people […] who don’t know what social class they belong to and who can’t identify with any particular political agenda. And they’re becoming more and more. Those in power are hoping they don’t realize how many they’ve become; they’re hoping that they just continue to exploit themselves . . .” Do you think the art of modern governance lies in the skill to make the millions of members of the freelance “precariat” believe they’re only struggling for themselves individually?
I am completely aware that broaching sensitive topics like that is probably not something that’s expected from the director of a major art institution. A director’s job in the twenty-first century is not only to assume responsibility of a space for art, but also, and maybe even more so, to supposedly create a “time-slot” for art. That’s not my interest and never has been. I want to institute an institution, and this means to really create a space, to establish the conditions that fulfill particular needs and allow for certain experiences, and to make possible events in the future. This shouldn’t be equated with simply celebrating art’s “time-slot” within the larger scheme of socio-political events. I think most politicians see art as entertainment, as an expression of consensus of thought and taste, not as a form of critique. To make the impossible probable, and to celebrate the demos—that’s what I see as my task at Tate Modern, and that’s why this job is so intriguing. The Tate Modern is both sexy and democratic. You see celebrities and famous thinkers, but also groups of school kids and tourists who just arrived in London with the Eurostar . . . not to mention the twenty million visitors who use our online tools every year. And they all want something different. An exhibition like Gerhard Richter: Panorama is just one thing people want to experience amongst a host of other offerings. Curating exhibitions, selecting artists and art works; that’s one thing. Getting a message across is another. That’s why I like talking about small-scale organizations and what they can achieve.

OK, let’s talk about it. How do small-scale organizations fit into the picture?
Enthusiasm about being creative is a key aspect of self-exploitation nowadays, and that’s one of the biggest issues in an era where millions of people are freelancing. Today’s inequality is indeed unbearable. The art world is an ecosystem made up of art schools, art fairs, auction houses, galleries, museums, art publications, et cetera. And within this ecological mix, small-scale organizations become more and more important because they’re forced on the one hand to deal with so many other parts of the ecosystem and to adapt, while on the other hand still being absolutely unwavering about their mission. Most of them operate under almost impossible—I would even say unbearable—conditions. And yet they continue to operate.

You mean they are forced to operate in the face of failure?
That’s exactly why I’m interested in them.

via Interview: Chris Dercon | Electronic Beats.

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CITIES, how the world works

On Elite Education (w/ Néojaponisme)

In his 2005 article The Myth of Japanese Universities, Marxy of Néojaponisme penned a short, but biting critique of the supposed ‘elite’ Japanese universities (such as Tôdai; I’ve met girls professing to simply want to marry a graduate thereof).

I quote in some length, because Marxy (himself a graduate of, as alleged throughout Neojaponisme, Harvard), compares the liberal arts education there and yonder through meaningful criteria, and draws sensible implications. This is not only relevant for the Japanese ‘elite’ universities, but also, very much so, for Australian ones, and its culture in general.

As a disclaimer, I am a graduate and occasional employee of an ‘elite’ Australian university, and I have written before on the very low levels of education enforced by the institution, the cynical discourse around it, and the emphasis on immediate profit and financial growth above all else.

But, here Marxy:

Graduating at the top [of an elite Japanese university], however, does not take so much effort — mostly just perfect attendance and taking the final exams. There are very, very few papers or long writing assignments, and reading is kept to a minimum. Students enrolled in elite zemi (seminars) are expected to write a thesis and do other substantial research projects, but mostly they do work as part of the zemi group.

I’ve seen nothing compare to my own undergraduate Junior Tutorial in East Asian Studies where we read 200-300 pages on a given topic, discussed it with a professor one day, discussed it with a graduate student the next day, and wrote a seven-page paper almost every week. This particular class was my trial-by-fire that whipped me into much stronger academic shape with writing, reading, and general knowledge. Japanese universities — in their current institutional role as “fun time” before a life of backbreaking employment — would be somewhat malicious to assign such a curriculum. The students may be able to do such a task, but this sort of demand breaks the trust between educator and educatee in what McVeigh calls “simulated education”: We all pretend like we’re studying and you pretend to not notice we aren’t [emphasis Jana’s].

[…] I do think there is a connection between the anti-intellectualism (well maybe, a-intellectualism) of Japanese universities and the a-intellectualism, a-politicism, and general social apathy of Japanese society. Most Western students may get a taste of social understanding in high school, but universities are where we get a chance to get a deeper knowledge and broader perspective on the world. […] There are some positive society-wide benefits to having a college-educated populace: higher understanding of social issues like racism/sexism/class discrimination, deeper interest in artistic endeavor, a greater social discourse. Frankly, huge swatches of Western societies lack a certain amount of these “ideal” effects, but we do have many institutions that are fueled by academic maturity (for example, The New Yorker and National Public Radio).

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