Late in the last decade, demographers declaimed that the majority of the world’s population exists in cities. The inexorable winds of world markets are blowing humankind into centers of commerce where they can best serve modern forms of production, and most experts think this is a good thing. If you believe in any form of political dialectics, however, this phenomenon cuts both ways. Cities are prime sites of resistance against the power of capital. The extended fame of public squares from Tahrir Square, to Zuccotti Park, to Plaza del Sol indicates that such spaces are ever more central to unsanctioned politics.
This kind of public dissent takes place on the world’s most unattainable land, temporarily retaken by outsiders otherwise relegated to less pricey areas. These tensions are often the subject of exploration by artists and curators, as they are in MoMA’s recent 9+1 Ways of Being Political: 50 Years of Political Stances in Architecture and Urban Design.
Cities are rapidly expanding their cultural production in a raucous competition for global influence. The Guggenheiming of inner cities suggests a merger between culture and capital centered on the old goal of senseless accumulation. More and bigger museums puncture cityscapes in their bids to stand out in the urban archipelago, spurring exclusion via neighborhood gentrification. Meanwhile, actual cultural producers are increasingly critical of the whole enterprise. Only in these strange times could we walk into the MoMA on Target Free Fridays and see a socially engaged artist like Barbara Kruger declare “I shop therefore I am,” graphically illustrated on a proverbial brown bag. Kruger worries that patterns of consumption threaten to subsume individual identity. This fear is not unwarranted given the fact that entire cities are subject to ever more elaborate forms of branding. The sensual soup-can marketing of the last generation was one thing, but cities are impossible to escape (to where, the countryside?).
These subtle regimentations surround city life in countless ways, from inescapable commercialism to draconian policing in so-called public squares. The archetypal global city has been recreated to enforce cultural conformity, social segregation, and economic apartheid. Lest you balk at that last sentence, understand that New York City has a level of inequality approaching that of South Africa. That is part of our lived experience. Maintaining such a flagrantly unfair urban ecology requires a propagandistic aesthetic order beating us down with consumer culture while creating the happy illusion of inclusivity. Unlike traditional forms of repressive space, places under the yoke of free-market globalization can be fun.
9+1 was about the various ways urban thinking overlaps with the political. This is delicate turf. By taking on politics, it dealt with a concept that implies a genuine plurality of voices. Perhaps for this reason politics is a dirty word, a strike against an artist looking to say something that might be offensive to anyone who can capitalize a grant, another exhibition, or a review in a major newspaper. True politics engenders a dialogue that is unafraid of addressing matters of visceral social substance, no matter how uncomfortably introspective.
This means politics is a cut above the superficiality of Times Square neon, or the tired patriotism of city monuments. The more political a locality, the more we can truthfully define it as democratic. Unfortunately, political space is shrinking in the world’s leading global cities. Take the image of Michael Bloomberg, painstakingly self-styled as apolitical and anti-ideological. In substance he is the exact opposite. Only one set of political ideologies matters: that of Bloomberg and his narrow constituency. The Bloomberg model of mayor-as-class-enforcer may well exemplify the gradual rollback of urban democracy at a time when cities are most central to the means of production. If you don’t believe me, spend some time following the bizarre trysts between Bloomberg and London mayor Boris Johnson, his star-struck acolyte.
Contrast this with the words of courageous Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, who said, “Liberty is about our rights to question everything.” Are architects and urban planners up to the task? Curator Pedro Gadanho wants to show the various ways in which they have addressed political values from beyond the mainstream, or at least at the most conceptual of design stages. When 9+1 showed us Ai giving the finger to the White House and the Forbidden City in juxtaposed photographs, it revealed a genuine act of bipartisanship. Ai is refusing to march in lock step with the Manichean constructs of either side in an increasingly competitive Pacific; at the same time he finds himself in confrontation with overt symbols of obsessively concentrated power.
If that were all, I could imagine visitors getting the message, but walking out into midtown Manhattan unable to recognize the power concentrated there. Why would they when ubiquitous advertisement in public spaces spells consumer choice, the most palpable source of personal liberation according to neoliberal sensibilities? Yet 9+1 thoroughly walked us through alternative urban forms. It forced the viewer to ask how things might be different if cities embodied different sets of political values, using dystopian images to interrogate the present. Master architect Rem Koolhaas mingled storybook fiction with foreboding design principles, a method comparable to that used in his classic study Delirious New York. His 1972 montage “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture” (created with Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis) conjures a wall separating rich and poor, intended to deal with migratory problems on both sides.
Other installations told the story of boundaries. Designer Teddy Cruz took us through the oppressive social geography separating Tijuana and San Diego. A physical barrier apparently stretching well into the ocean illustrates how far governments go to enforce political exclusion. None of this can be resolved with the usual architectural sleight of hand. 9+1 asserted that glass walls shielding private spaces in the popular steel-and-glass mold does not equal transparency. Walking further you found yourself in a dark room gazing at the incineration of middle class life. I think the point is clear.
ContributorJoshua K. Leon
JOSHUA K. LEON is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies at Iona College. He writes on poverty, development, global health, and urbanization, and lives in Manhattan.