An Exhibition on the City: not what it is but what it could be.
Text by Ethel Baraona Pohl, curator of the exhibition Twelve Cautionary Urban Tales on view at Matadero Madrid between February 13-July 19, 2020. [Matadero is currently closed in response to coronavirus (COVID-19)]
According to Alberto Manguel, “there are cities that begin with a few books,” in the same way that there are cities that become books, stories or fables. And it is in the city, just like in the pages of books, where the collective imaginary is born, where the narratives we have carved in our minds and which guide our behavior are created; where social relations take place and produce fictions and frictions, fantasies and dreams, memories and desires, nightmares and fears too. The fact that it is impossible to give one single definition of what a city is provides a wealth of diverse, even divergent interpretations, which are primarily social constructs. The cities are also the setting of the great contemporary challenges—the seemingly never-ending economic crisis, growing global migration, increasing levels of inequality, the housing crisis, and environmental collapse. This need to find or create tools that will subvert the status quo also calls for different and radical forms of communication, ones that will bring us closer to all this information and allow us to appropriately decode it, analyze it, and make it understandable, to allow us to imagine those cities that could be. With this in mind, the exhibition gravitates around one simple question: what is your ideal city like?
In an attempt to respond to these questions, the exhibition Twelve Urban Fables takes its inspiration from the project “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas,” by the group of radical architects Superstudio, first published in 1971 in Architectural Design. It was a series of twelve short stories, each accompanied by a single illustration, conjuring the image of twelve proposals of ideal cities. A group of contemporary practices, from different generations and a range of professional expertises, have been invited to give shape to these “Twelve Urban Fables” by reconceptualizing the original format of Superstudio’s twelve tales and transforming the exhibition into a tool to help us rethink our role in the building of the city. Each of the practices will tell a fable through an artistic installation, creating a series of narratives open to multiple interpretations. These new fables, as if emerging from the pages of a book, have the intention of questioning what we understand as “city,” and thus, help us to reimagine what the city could become—as that space where relations, nature, bodies, and geographies coexist. The narratives and stories put forward in this exhibition will help us problematize and question the conventional definition of “city,” revealing in their storytelling, new and different ways of inhabiting the world.
Inverted Tents is one of the urban protocols that architect Aristide Antonas uses to propose a range of architectural and regulatory possibilities of occupying empty, abandoned or derelict spaces in the city. It proposes setting out a system of tents suspended from the ceilings of buildings, introducing a new set of regulations to inhabit these small individual spaces. Like a series of beds with no order or articulation, this proposal puts forward a new set of rules or protocols to inhabit the urban spaces that emerge from it. Nevertheless, the most important part of Inverted Tents is not the way these tents are inhabited, but rather the space generated around them, where new ways of collectively satisfying its inhabitants’ basic needs must be found; bathrooms, storage units, kitchens… they will all have to be placed in common spaces, bringing about co-living communities that escape traditional family categories.
The narrative of these “inverted tents” presents a city almost about to fly off, although never quite. Instead of the stories (fictional or not) we have heard about inhabitable flying elements, like zeppelins or the new manned drones, this city flies by parasiting the infrastructure that surrounds it. It is a city fragmented into autonomous pieces (the tents or “sleeping cells”) that make it increasingly difficult to understand the idea of the city as an inhabitable whole.
Inverted Tents is more of a question than an answer about the city. The continuous structure where the tents are placed allows their occupants to move from one to the next with complete freedom. It is an oneiric story where we see a city becoming empty despite being completely equipped for occupation.
Queering the City: A Sono-Orientation
Katayoun Arian, along with artists Angela Anderson, Irene Cassarini, Karachi Beach Radio, and Gayatri Kodikal
As the ecological crisis becomes increasingly evident, the planet is asking us in a wide range of ways to take heed and, among other things, to respond in a discordant way to the multiple undercover and latent conventions that surround the field of human hearing and communication. Dissenting from these conventionalisms implies a collective form of relating to the sequences of vibrations outside the human spectrum of audibility and perception. It is basically by surrendering ourselves that we can begin to be part of the continuum of vibratory forces of the planet, forging radical relationships with a queer political ecology.
Queering the City is a sound installation with a range of works by artists invited by Katayoun Arian. Its content and connections are subject to rhythmic formations and deformations, including everyday sounds, speculative storytelling, variations of what is understood as noise, and even an immersion into the ultrasonic. These pieces can coexist or be listened to independently and, at the same time, they mute, displace, and transform the conventions of a past and present of (not) listening, while they aim towards a future where sound itself is seen as queer.
This group of artists invites us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us, as well as the realities and meanings they create, suggesting that, as well as perceiving our usual hearing systems, we can also understand that it is possible to listen differently, according to a queer political ecology. The installation reveals signs of sound in rocks, like sound archives of sorts; it also challenges the binary logic of the “urban,” which usually implies the existence of some kind of exterior to the city, when in fact these limits between the interior and the exterior of the city do not exist. What will remain of the binary when we begin listening more dynamically to the planetary hum? What are the sound features of a future where sound itself is understood as queer?
The Grand Interior: Towards the Diffuse Home
This installation is a new version of one previously exhibited in 2018 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. MAIO Architects investigate how digital technologies are transforming our lives and everyday environments, looking in particular at the impact of using artificial intelligence systems, collaborative or sharing economy platforms, and other apps for the exchange of goods and services, in domestic spaces. Here, the house is not simply an isolated space but part of a wider system where the boundaries between the public and private sphere, urban and domestic, are blurred.
Today the house is no longer an unchanging space where we have our belongings, but a multi-connected, transient space that can be expanded or reduced depending on our needs, with the use of applications and similar products. Not long ago, the image of a conventional family, sitting together around the television—as they did centuries before around the fireplace—was a familiar one. Nowadays, a new social reality emerges from this atomization through the use of digital devices and the growing demand for services. Television has now lost its central place and the uses of domestic spaces are overlaid, and the ways we use these spaces become more and more fragile and ephemeral.
Under this light, the whole city is part of the domestic realm, redefining and blurring the boundaries of the house and making the domestic generic, a diffuse territory in continuous expansion. This questions and makes a problem of the role the citizens play in the construction of this city of unclear boundaries. Are Alexa or Siri another inhabitant of your home? Which are the limits of your house: the door, the windows, or the reach of your Wi-Fi? Who are your neighbors, those who live in the house next to you or all those you are connected to?
3 Wanders and 2 Strolls
Clara Nubiola’s work is at the intersection of the Situationist dérives, the Enlightenment, writing, and urban critique, resulting in a series of projects that narrate the city in different, novel, and fun ways, born from serious and deep analysis; a way of transmitting knowledge beyond conventional academic means.
With the project 3 Wanders and 2 Strolls, Clara tells us about the Madrid of its infrastructures, the city that has grown from junctions, bridges over motorways, informal paths, illegal camps, and glass office buildings; shaping the new landscape “outside.” A Madrid that stands in contrast and coexists with that of its historic neighborhoods, human flows, urban planning of the past, and the local stores that have been there forever; the old landscape “inside.” The process of recording this city through a literary narrative, playful but no less serious for it, emerges from the practice of contemplative walking, losing one’s way in the city, letting it surprise you and discovering urban fragments never previously encountered. With an ironic allegory to the rural wanderer and the “romantic” view of the landscape, the work uses words to trace five urban paths from its narration.
It is not the path that builds the story, but the other way around. This is a dérive where the story creates the path step by step, metaphorically and physically. In a simple yet immensely poetic way, five rolls of kraft paper, ten-meters-long each, transform into a story, a tale where “the outside” and “that inside” overlap, switch, and form that city without clear boundaries. A city like any other, where the landscape creates the path. Where paths create landscapes.
The Atom People
Traumnovelle is a team that defines itself as a militant faction using architecture and fiction as analytical, critical, and subversive tools to emphasize contemporary problems and dissect their potential solutions. Among their fiction projects, The Atom People is a story that happens in a post-apocalyptic world, where the planet has overheated to the point of becoming uninhabitable. Confronted with this emergency, humanity has created a new underground city, keeping themselves alive thanks to a machine that produces infinite energy, allowing its inhabitants to develop their normal activities. Aware of the ecological, economic, and political disasters that led them to this situation, the inhabitants of this utopian city promise to learn from the mistakes of the past and live in complete balance with nature.
Throughout the excavation process, generations of human beings perfect this machine-city, where social and political structures are simplified. Each human being fits perfectly into this new self-sufficient ecosystem, complex yet optimized. Slowly, the ecological progress of this civilization transforms into the search for the Garden of Eden in the depths of the planet’s crust, where they dream of becoming free of their ancestors’ sins. In The Atom People, the city is a reference to the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno, where each sin is punished with a contrapasso, a kind of opposite action.
This fable, based on the machine-city, questions the paradox of contradictory relations that occur in nature when it is born from the search of ecology through technological means, becoming manifest in a sublime desperation of not belonging to the ecosystems of our own planet.
The Parliament of Plants
Studio Céline Baumann
The Parliament of Plants is the sixth “Queer Nature” project by Céline Baumman, where she proposes an urban environment where the wisdom of plants is highly valued, where the flora is on equal terms as the humans inhabiting the planet. Citizens have a great respect for their knowledge of social and economic biotopes, as well as their deep knowledge of natural processes. The woody, leafy, and flowering beings head the parliament of the sixth city since its founding, becoming the first green democracy known to the world.
The Parliament of Plants gives voice to the botanic world, addressing issues of race, gender, and normativity from an intersectional perspective. By opening a post-anthropocentric space for reflection, this parliament challenges the belief that matter and intelligence are disassociated, considering flora as something more than a mere commodity. It explores the power of trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses as a source of inspiration and it poses alternatives in the way we design and act in our current times of political uncertainty and climate change.
With similar protocols to those currently used in the legislative arena, in this parliament of vegetation, plant legislators from different origins convene on a daily basis to debate current issues. Yet in contrast to the constant confrontation and tension found in “human” political contexts, this parliament of plants usually comes to a consensus and manages to come to agreements—despite having divergent views—because its members are aware of the importance of taking measures and acting decisively in areas regarding ecology, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity, with the understanding that their administration can only act towards the common good, basing their decisions on the principle of mutual care and support.
The Politics of Food: A Radical New Food System for the Post-Anthropocene City
With her project The Politics of Food, the designer and artist Chloé Rutzerveld proposes a new and radical food system for post-Anthropocene cities. For this purpose, she takes us to the year 2050, where the food and the systems of production, distribution, and preparation we know today no longer exist. Now, these systems have stopped revolving around the wants of human beings, animals are no longer killed for protein, nor is exotic produce imported from around the world to create the false illusion of a “healthy life.” In this new era, nutrients are produced using microorganisms. Bacteria, fungi, and yeasts can directly produce the necessary amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, fibre, and aromas with a minimal need for natural resources and space. Scientific developments using DNA analysis make it possible to know what nutrients each body needs.
In previous years, the increase of nutritional systems based on powdered food led to a separation between efficient nourishment and the sensorial pleasure of eating, but in the year 2050, technology allows us to design and experience forms of nutrition beyond our imagination. Human beings are healthier than ever, food poverty and waste are a thing of the past, and agricultural lands have been restored to their previous native ecosystems. The Politics of Food shows six artifacts from a possible future food system based on the intake of microorganisms and poses questions like these: what impact does this new radical food system have on our food, our gastronomic experience, social behaviors, culture, religion, physical evolution, and the economic situation on a number of scales, from the family to the globe?
In December 2017, C. Tangana and Dellafuente publish the music video of the song “Guerrera” on YouTube. The artists unfold the whole repertoire of aesthetic references from the North-American trap scene: branded sportswear, ostentatious fur coats, and shiny gold accessories. The cylindrical setting for the filming of the video is the premature ruins of the Automotive Museum by Eduardo Barreiros. With its demolition approved in 2018, this 37,000 m2 building is just the latest chapter in an elaborate story of tax evasion, lack of building permits, environmental impact, and political prevarication. The story of this building, told ad infinitum in architectural conferences around the world, gradually lost ground in the profession’s discourse until it disappeared altogether, while news about the future of the structure filled spreads in the national media.
Selling Bricks emerges from an audiovisual archiving project started in 2018, which to date is found in the form of an Instagram feed (@kellycorbusier) and a publication. In what we could think of as the third episode of this project, Bartlebooth and Alberto de Miguel (horror.vacui) present a range of ways of visualizing, communicating, understanding, and thinking the city, all through urban music.
The more than 29 million playbacks (to date and rising) of the music video for “Guerrera” are in stark contrast to the continued silence of the cultural press, as well as to the efforts of those involved in hiding these cases from the public eye. This reveals the extent to which face tattoos, twerking, gold chains, spilt bottles, sportswear, sneakers, Auto-Tune, continuous hi-hats, and perreo are, today, one of the best vehicles for the dissemination and popularization of a sidelined architectural heritage, of ways of inhabiting the city that escape conventional narratives. Can anyone think of a better way of visiting the work of Sáenz de Oiza other than to the sound of Ms Nina?
Merve Bedir, Chong Suen, and Sampson Wong
Taking as a starting point the civic protests and mobilizations in Hong Kong, this installation analyses “the city in movement” at a critical moment of protests and uprisings on a global scale, where one can talk about an unstable, restless, and untiring urbanism. In this city, occupations do not only have the aim of sending a message, their intention is rather to cause the immediacy, speed, and effectiveness of relational flows. They organize tactics and experiment with devices, but also with bodies, and they change and repeat on their own accord. There is no place here for heroic plans with the pretense of “saving the world,” the city is of the people and for the people.
Under these circumstances, knowledge is shared and expanded quickly and precisely, technology works because of its capacity to expand social movements from the bottom up, in order to trial, validate, and accelerate them. The city becomes a cosmic space of joint movement, an open and decentralized system which is young, fluid and of undefined form. The city transcends law in order to protect the state of law through acts of solidarity. In this city, the places of institutional power are left like deserted temples, “disbanded citadels;” they are no more than stages. The square is no longer the site of the insurrection, but the shopping centre is.
Here we have three fundamental aspects of a city in movement: technology as an accessibility hub for information, revolving around the use of smart phones, communication apps, and forums; “Be Water” reveals the ways in which the movement of people defines the city and the urban condition; and the analysis of the spaces that are transformed when their use changes with the circumstances, i.e. shopping centers, metro stations, airports, schools, police stations, the house, and the street, among others. Unsettled Urbanism is a call to understand how collective spatial intelligence is produced and the other ways of living the city that emerge.
This installation is a new version of one previously exhibited in 2018 at the US Pavilion at the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. Design Earth is a research office specializing in geographical analysis, creating forms of environmental speculation in the era of climate change. In this context, the project Cosmorama tries to answer the question of how to narrate and address the twenty-first century stories of the “New Space Age,” including the mining of asteroids, life in zero gravity, and space waste. These fictions share space as their common ground, which has recently regained prominence—after the great relevance it had during the years of the space race and the landing on the moon—due to climate change, extraterrestrial urbanism, and private space ventures that speculate with new forms of extractivism.
Now that commercial corporations invest more and more in exploratory missions to map, visit, and conceive ways of living on other planets similarly to how we live on Earth, Cosmorama proposes a series of projects for this ‘New Space Age’ in the form of three speculative fictions: “Mining the Sky,” “Planetary Ark,” and “Pacific Cemetery.” These (geo)stories visibilize issues and actors of great importance that have not been taken into account following the technological triumphalism and mainstream narratives of the space age. So it also suggests controversial settings, using aesthetic practices that re-articulate the political within techno-environmental imaginaries.
In a new space age, where outer space is no longer the “common heritage of humanity,” there is an extension of private corporations linked to Earth’s political economy, called “Mining the Sky.” The “Planetary Ark” is where endangered species are taken during the sixth mass extinction of the planet as well as being a refuge for scientists and environmentalists. The “Pacific Cemetery” is a vortex spiral island where decommissioned satellites and other space debris is processed and put back into orbit. These are our new space cities, welcome to Cosmorama.
The Voice of Children
In her book Deep Play, Dianne Ackerman looks at the field of creativity, exploring one of the most essential aspects of human beings: their ability to play. Around this concept, Assemble use The Voice of Children to explore child play and its potential in cities around the world. Basically a collection of film clips, this documentation of children playing freely, without undue adult intervention, external direction or goals, in environments which have been—or not—designed to enable play, shows us how free deep play is a biological need and a legal right, and is the best conduit for learning. From a colorful chalk-drawn hopscotch on the street to an improvised swing on the branches of a tree, children express themselves through play.
Children can propose radical, imaginative, and diverse visions of the world. At a time of great economic and political vulnerability, we have a lot to learn from their capacity of navigating and participating in the project of “making city,” as we have recently seen with movements such as Fridays for Future, the student movement for gun control in the USA, or the National Movement of Organized Working Children and Adolescents in Peru (NATs), among others. Although it is increasingly common to find city designs that favor a built environment that actively inhibits children’s play by designing over-regulated urban spaces, it is clear that they need spaces that can be appropriated and used freely, where to gather and discuss their problems, their ideals, their dreams. Spaces to play. Children are relevant actors when trying to understand what the cities yet to come should look like, cities of open relations, empathetic, intersectional, and diverse, like their games tend to be.
These film clips attempt to show how important the environment is in making play possible, as well as the creative, complex, and evolving relations children develop with the physical world when given enough space and time.
Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism
Canadian Centre for Arquitecture CCA, Francesco Garutti
Our Happy Life: Architecture and Well-Being in the Age of Emotional Capitalism is an exhibition—organized by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and curated by Francesco Garutti—that in this case becomes “an exhibition within the exhibition,” with the intention of making us reflect on how this new “Happiness Agenda” has huge implications in the way in which we inhabit cities and, therefore, also on the way we conceive the cities of the future.
How do we measure the quality of our lives? What is the data behind the notion of “happiness”? These and other issues have been controlling the livability indexes of our urban environments for a number of years. On a global scale, the consequences of this agenda include the redefinition of the relational parameters between wealth and wellbeing, and the surge of a social science, rooted in new data collection strategies. The documents that underpin and explain these “happiness indexes” are transformed into political and media apparatuses that shape our built environment through their influence on design processes. The ever-increasing number of “happiness handbooks” are a new kind of protocol, from which the principles of traditional design are re-evaluated and reconceived, from sustainability perspectives to security measures, from the actual idea of what comfort is to a new understanding of the relation between work and free time.
Currently, our capacity to track and quantify emotions is key to the dynamic that controls neoliberal economies and to the ongoing phenomenon—often overwhelming—of the immaterial and structurally unstable market of “affections.” Our Happy Life is an anti-handbook of narratives that explore and interpret the recent paradigms shaping our perception of our surroundings, giving a new identity to the notion of private space, reimagining our work environments, and transforming the concept of development itself through the planning of our cities.
Participant Artists and Architects
Aristide Antonas: www.aristideantonas.com
Katayoun Arian: www.bakonline.org/person/katayoun-arian
Studio Céline Baumann: www.studiocelinebaumann.com
Clara Nubiola: www.claranubiola.com
Chloé Rutzerveld: www.chloerutzerveld.com
Design Earth: www.design-earth.org
Merve Bedir: www.landandcc.com
Chong Suen: www.landandcc.com
Monique Wong and Sampson Wong: www.sampsonwong.hk
MAIO Architects: www.maio-architects.com
The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) with Francesco Garutti: www.cca.qc.ca
Curator: Ethel Baraona Pohl
Curatorial advisor: César Reyes
Exhibition design: Taller de Casquería
Graphic design: Naranjo-Etxeberría
Organized by: Matadero Madrid and Intermediae
In collaboration with: The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA)
Dates: February 13-July 19, 2020
Tags: 2020, ARISTIDE ANTONAS, ASSEMBLE, BARTLEBOOTH, CANADIAN CENTRE FOR ARCHITECTURE, CÉLINE BAUMANN, CHLOÉ RUTZERVELD, CHONG SUEN, CLARA NUBIOLA, DESIGN EARTH, ETHEL BARAONA POHL, EXHIBITION, FRANCESCO GARUTTI, MADRID, MAIO, MATADERO MADRID, MERVE BEDIR, SAMPSON WONG, TRAUMNOVELLE, TWELVE CAUTIONARY URBAN TALES