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Wednesday, November 01, 2006
I happened to read this passage this morning and I thought about yesterday's post.

"Perhaps cities are deteriorating along with the procedures that organised them. But we must be careful here. The ministers of knowledge have always assumed that the whole universe was threatened by the very changes that affected their ideologies and their positions. They transmute the misfortune of their theories into theories of misfortune. When they transform their bewilderment into 'catastrophes', when they seek to enclose people in the 'panic' of their discourses, are they once more necessarily right?"

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Eco-perspectives from South America and other outlooks that differ from popular liberal opinion in North America

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I wasn’t sure what to say. A conversation with Mauricio and Pio about nauseating ‘eco pop-stars’ (Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin were pipped at the post by Thom Yorke who said recently that he would consider refusing to tour 'on environmental grounds') changed tack when they laughed that they weren’t worried about global warming. I probed further. It was quite simple, they weren’t. And they were somewhat scornful of those that are. ‘Are you?’ I stuttered insecurely….was it possible not to be?!

When ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is playing in cinemas across the globe, when a report has just been released in the UK warning of the £3.68 trillion ‘cost’ of ‘ignoring’ climate change, when chief scientific advisers are calling it a bigger threat than terrorism, when we’re being told the ‘debate is over’…….after reading ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ earlier this year, as a subscriber to Resurgence magazine, with worldchanging.com as my homepage…..what options are there but to be concerned?

How to think now about my new Argentine mentors, who had just broken the boundaries of all Euro-American political correctness?

I thought about this in my last week in Buenos Aires and I had to think about my position as much as theirs. Slowly but surely I can feel the firm ground under my feet becoming slightly more marshmallow-like. ‘Global Warming’ may be a worldwide phenomenon with consequences for everyone, but it still looks different depending on where you’re imagining it from.

For example, in the USA, the discussion about ‘global warming’ among ‘those that believe’ is dominated by a kind of moral indignation. The context is a country dominated by oil interests, the world’s largest polluter with a bad track record of associated action. ‘Thinking’ North Americans are self-conscious about their problematic foreign policy, uncomfortable about their car-dependent cities, guilty about their affluence in an asymmetrical world and haunted by Exxon media campaigns aimed at discrediting climate science. To ‘not’ be concerned with global warming is almost unthinkable unless you are a right-wing, head-in-the-sand, Bush-lover (and even his traditional base, the evangelical Christians, are calling for radical changes in environmental policy).

But Mauricio and Pio are not of this latter cut. They are political agitators, self-described ‘humanists’, motivated less by money than by a greedy interest in a sprawling range of topics and are some of the most well-read people I’ve ever worked with. So their criticisms are rather interesting. Mauricio draws parallels between the media-driven fear of ‘global warming’ and the Cold War – a cultivated terror of the ‘abstract unknown’ and the convenience this opens up for self-serving political agendas and Orwellian government tendencies. He despises ‘radical chic’, a description which rather too closely fits a particular brand of Berkeley environmentalism. But most of all what I have come to better realise is that to be Argentine (at least the ones I met!) is to have a robust scepticism of moral certainty, authority, bureaucracy and consensus, a scepticism which has been fuelled by political contexts of military dictatorships and recent economic collapse.

While they might not deny the science of climate change, they argue against what they see as a political monopoly on the discussion of it - you are either ‘pro' global warming or you are in denial (a la George Bush ‘you are with us or you are against us’). I agree that it is quite common to hear it presented in morally simplistic terms ('we, the converted'). m7 resist this ‘fake agreement before the debate has started’, a kind of we know what we need to accomplish, all we have to work out how to get there’ attitude....though they concede that what is interesting is that it’s global - that it can be talked about everywhere ‘is the start of something new.’ Mauricio added “the English spent most of the last century setting up the infrastructure that created it, and now they are horrified, and trying to do something about it.” He stuck his thumb into the air and smiled: “Global Warming….Cool Britannia!” It's true, global warming definitely offers feel-good rebranding opportunities for politicians....and is a conveniently abstract cause for those in search of personal salavation without too many strings attached [The drawing below is courtesy of the Corbalan sketchbook (that means Mauricio)...

Liberal Digest

Interestingly, Ala Plastica, the environmental artists who I visited a number of times outside Buenos Aires did not entirely contradict those sentiments. Their opinion was that ‘climate change’ policies might receive public support in rich countries that are trying to address their emissions, but was less tenable as a political topic in poorer countries struggling with unstable economic situations and hungry mouths. Even if you frame them as interconnected problems it is simply a scale and abstraction of thinking that is viewed as a luxury. At the least, my Argentine encounter complicates the common perception (in my experience) that there are those that must be converted....and then the choir.


[But in case you still want to know just how guilty you should be feeling in hard, quantifiable information, you can rate yourself with this carbon-dioxide calculator. I'll let you know once I've calculated my sins.]

‘Biffabacon’ and other distinctly Bri’ish phenomenon that have wound their way to 950 Moreno Apt 4B.

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Something bizarre. The more time I spend in Buenos Aires the more I learn about English pop culture….while my familiarity with Argentine history and politics remains motley. I only found out the name of the President last week and I know the name of one local musician (…..from the thirties). While this is not something to boast about, the reason is nonetheless intriguing - that Mauricio of m7red is an encyclopaedic expert on all things British. The content of an average conversation ranges from Princess Diana to Brick Lane to James Stirling’s sexual orientation to chavs to the Sex Pistols, the Smiths and Bloc Party. He knows that The Queen drinks Glenfiddich Whiskey and that Richard Branson went across the Channel on some kind of hydro-automobile. And his email address is an homage to ‘Biffabacon’ - the victimised teenager from Newcastle of Viz magazine. It lends a new dimension certainly to the on-going debate of whether Buenos Aires is a ‘European’ city.


When we are not discussing the intricacies of my homeland I am developing ad-hoc techniques in information overload management. A ‘flashflooding’ blog that we set up as a way to share information has morphed into a kind of open-ended ‘cyber-collaging’ experiment. Anything that is loosely connected to the phenomena of floods, complex organisations, games, co-operatives, protocols or logistics, is theoretically candidate for inclusion. What the blog is for is not very well-articulated - it has connections to the development of m7’s next iteration of the Flood! game, as well as material for a future book – but this ambiguity is turning out to be quite productive. The content and format is emerging without a described ‘plan’ and the exercise is guided by intuition as much as anything. Given a potentially endless stream of information, what material to process and how much of it? How to edit, transpose, copy/paste? What two or three themes, personalities or phenomena to wind together? How many links to follow, which fat reports to bother reading, which parts of dense books to dip into? When it goes too far in one direction (too many American academics profiled) it changes tack in another direction (translation of Spanish material about Argentine factory co-operatives currently). At risk of sounding completely abstract I feel like I am working out the river we might be on by developing a sense of where the banks are first!

An integral member of the experiment is Skype, the friendly internet software that sends links, observations and jokes between our neighbouring workspaces so that we don’t need to move - very 21st Century. I even introduced Robie to Mauricio on-line at a ‘Skype party’, complete with ‘emoticon’ pizza and cocktails! They talked about where they are from and what the weather is like, just like it might have been in ‘real life’!

My X Studio

I oscillate between peculiar on-line worlds like secondlife.com and the incredible m7 library, which is bursting with philosophy, art, urban theory, political history, gay architecture zines and primary school textbooks on the military. Some of the most entertaining encounters have been with the seventies architecture magazines which are also a useful ‘eyeopener’ for me in terms of my research project. 'Invisible London’, for example, an issue of AD from 1972, is full of material from the original ‘participation’ debate.


There are a multitude of gems including a particularly acerbic writer by the name of Jeff Nuttall who picks apart the community theatre groups that ‘keep interrupting children’s games’ and the ‘let’s-for-gods-sake-give-decent-people-a-decent-environment’ brigade for their ‘lack of eroticism’. There are also wonderful book reviews by Martin Pawley (still hovering around the UK architectural journalism scene today). Favouring a book by Robert Goodman entitled ‘After the Planners’ he quotes at length his attack on the ‘incestuous private language’ of architects which “encourages debate over the aesthetic appropriateness of a particular architectural project rather than questions about the political consequences”. Read this book, he advises, because "most tragically it makes crystal clear the dimensions of the hideous Punch and Judy show that architectural practice has become in the hands of the technological state”. Meanwhile a lengthy article on ‘Invisible London’ attempts to ‘make visible the invisible structure of the city’ in light of the fact that ‘the definitive attempt to treat the city as a physical thing is now quite discredited’. It includes beautiful thumbnail maps of airport noise levels, possible bikeways, directions of waste disposal, the subterranean city, green space distribution and graphic interpretations by Archigram.


Notes from papers delivered at a Design Participation Conference in Manchester include one on “Value theory and User Participation” which examines means of determining value in biological evolution, philosophy, economic theory, marketing research and psychology in order to help in the "direct specification of value which is the most coherent means of user participation in design”. And last but certainly not least a writer by the name of Victor Papanek poses this rather ambitious question at the end of his article on the industrial design profession: “What is an ideal human social system?” The answer apparently requires “an in-depth study of such diverse social organisations as American Plains Indians, the Mundugumor of the Lower Sepik River Basin, the Priest-cultures of the Inca, child-care in Periclean Greece, modern-day Sweden, the Catholic Church, the Loyalist Regime of Spain..(and many more)”!!

Most importantly, back in San Telmo I am re-housed! In a beautiful apartment, with beautiful artist housemates, Laura and Ignacio. A little blue bedroom in the rafters with a balcony overlooking the red kitchen…coloured glass, tall windows in the studio with shutters and a balcony overlooking the city, a cosy red sitting room, books and plants everywhere and a subtle smell of oil paint. And two crazy cats, Margot and Felipe. Ah, the joy of having a kitchen and somewhere ‘to come home to’!



Rivers as 'quiet dialogues' and other environmental perspectives of Ala Plastica

Friday, September 22, 2006
I took the bus to La Plata on Wednesday, a city an hour south of Buenos Aires, for the second time. There I met Alejandro Meitin, a member of Ala Plastica, a group of artists who I have been ‘imagining’ now for over a year. As usual, it was my friend Hana who introduced me to them. How romantic their work sounds from afar - environmental artists working with local residents to ameliorate the polluted water systems caused by heavy industry….breaking with traditions of object-production and working instead on the scale of ecological systems ….opening up new possibilities for art in a social context.

Alejandro met me at the bus station. He is ordinary-looking, very friendly, almost uncle-like. I spent the morning with him at the Musee de la Plata (where I saw the dinosaurs I missed last week!) and the afternoon driving around, after lunch with his wife Silvina at their cosy house. As Alejandro took me to see the places where they worked I began to realise that I would not be seeing anything in particular, in the sense of a clearly demarcated project. Their work is about the production of connections, dialogues and platforms of shared work in relation to environmental issues (not only with other artists, but with other social and political subcultures), rather than projects in the object-sense that I am conditioned to understand them. Grant Kester, an art critic who writes about their work said this about them and their work in La Plata:

“Ala Plastica developed a set of interconnected projects based on a principle of social assemblage, in opposition to a number of massive engineering schemes that have damaged the ecological and social infrastructure of the region… they mobilized new modes of collective action and creativity in order to challenge the political and economic interests behind large-scale development in the region…. each of them were produced in conjunction and negotiation with activist groups, NGOs, neighborhood associations, and artists guilds in a form of what Wallace Heim has aptly termed “slow activism”… these collaborative and collective projects differ considerably from conventional, object-based art practice. The viewer’s engagement is actualized by immersion and participation in a process, rather than through visual contemplation…”

It was startling to drive around this much poorer area (in comparison with the Buenos Aires that I know), with its big petrochemical factories and open sludge-like rivers. We stopped in an old downtown once populated by workers from a meat factory that exported beef to England. It was the area in which the Peron revolution started. As we drove Alejandro talked about making small negotiations, exercises and workshops over the years to produce 'new points of view', how they weren’t only interested in articulating protest as artists but also in producing transformations.

Their projects in the past few years have taken them all over the ‘bio-region’ as well as abroad. In the north of Argentina they have been involved in the recovery of a salt trail, which was once an important line of exchange for local trade and communication. Led by the founder of a salt cooperative, eleven elders from different places walked the route over eight days. The motivation was to build networks of resistance to the exploitative practices of multinational mining companies and in the intellectual property battles with pharmaceutical companies over the production of traditional medicines. In Paraguay Ala Plastica are working with a network of NGOs, philosophers and anthropologists to produce alternative plans to the intentions of government development in a region where an indigenous tribe have lived up until now without assimilation. Plans for protected areas are being drawn up based on ‘mental maps’ of places and trails of significance for the tribe´s histories and identities. These ‘organic’ plans, which differ starkly from the government imposition of a grid, explore the possibility of the co-existence of two ways of imagining the world, rather than one being swallowed by the more dominant model. I also recognised a project of theirs that Javier of Bordergames had told me about when I was in Berlin, where they worked with fisherman to create a small river bypass on which to rebuild their trade after they were displaced by the workings of a large dam.


When Alejandro talks about their work, many of his verbs begin with the prefix re-. They draw on indigenous knowledge for clues on forging new, complex connections with fragile environments - recovering values, reconnecting people, remaking histories and so on. They wrote about one of their projects: "..we generated a practically indescribable warp of intercommunication with innumerable actions that developed and increased through reciprocity: dealing with social and environmental problems; exploring both non-institutional and intercultural models while working with the community and on the social sphere; interacting, exchanging experiences and knowledge with producers of culture and crops, of art and craftwork, of ideas and objects..."

BioRegion Focus

Interestingly Alejandro was first a lawyer. After university he went to work for the National Parks in Patagonia for three years before being sent overseas for four years to make contact and share experiences with other National Park services in Europe. During this time he worked with various river and pollution issues and when he returned to Argentina in 1991, he set up Ala Plastica with his wife. ‘Rivers are quiet dialogues’ he told me, in reference to their capacity to connect many different people through memories and experience.

Again I drunk up the words they use to describe their work - ‘rhizome’ to describe the multiple levels of connection they strive for, ‘place vocation’, platforms of labor and action based on the specificity of a place (in many ways I was reminded of the founding ideals of the Rural Studio), ‘bio-region’ to describe the connections between their work in different places through large-scale ecosystems, cities as ‘egosystems’. It’s funny in the scope of their limited English what sophisticated words they do know - ‘performative’, ‘dialogical’, ‘organic processes’, ‘complexity’, all from communicating about their work on international art circuits!

Their modesty made an impression on me. There was a sense of commitment and understated radicalism but there was nothing sexy about what they showed me, nothing ‘pop’, as Mauricio might say. Their documentation is very low-tech, with no branding strategy: folders with photos on coloured pages and small pieces of text cut from printed pages, films edited with basic software tools. For me, an architecture student accustomed to viewing glossy portfolios, it wasn’t even necessarily easy to really grasp what it was they did. I realised that to get a sense of the connections they are making demands experience of them over time and participation in their work.

When I was dropped off at the bus station at 5 o clock I noticed how exhausted I was from the effort of speaking in Span-glish all day about these subjects! Next week I will take them up on their offer to return and stay the night, and to discuss the possibility of doing some work together while I´m here.

‘Un-walling the High Modernist Living Room’ and other architectural strategies of m7red

Sunday, September 17, 2006
m7red, also identifiable as Mauricio Corbalan and Pio Torroja, work, live and play in a motel-like space on the top floor of an apartment block in the Montserrat district. The aesthetic reminds of me of both Raumlabor and Beacon Street - colourful, multi-functional furniture installations, odd assortments of lights rigged up in an ad-hoc fashion, boxes of nails stored on bookshelves in the bathroom along with political philosophy and porn. Studios, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom all spill onto an open walkway which boasts an Atelier van Lieshout-esque shower capsule with views over the city and a bathtub filled with thick, dark green water. If you swill it around with the small crabbing net you can actually find some functioning goldfish.

I have an ‘office’ all to myself, a room with high ceilings lined with copies of Architectural Design from the sixties and seventies, an inheritance from a friend’s father. Pio found me one from 1968. The title is ‘Architecture and Democracy’, and it is filled with articles on subjects like squatter settlements, prefab housing and the shifting role of architects. I have spent three afternoons there thus far, browsing the literature they keep pulling off shelves and slowly translating the ‘rules’ of Flood. This is the game that they have been developing over the past few years and which I will work on while I’m here.

Most of their work revolves around creating dialogue structures about urban issues, as a kind of architecture in itself. They potentially differ from other groups this year in that the conversations these generate are viewed as an end in themselves, rather than in service of a specific material outcome. In their own words…. "we work on the implementation of urban political scenarios where everyone can become a decision making agent in the city” and “with the development of architecture which includes social relations and the architecture of groups and networks." They like swarm systems, pop culture and barter practices, as well as how the term ‘architecture’ has been lifted to describe strategic techniques in so many other disciplines. They are also blog addicts. They currently have four in fact: m7explorer, decorama, chat-theater and a photoblog with the same title as this blog post (“unwalling” is apparently an Israeli military term that refers to entering a property by blowing a hole in the wall in order to avoid booby traps around doors and windows)…..and we might develop yet another for Flood!

There are plenty of people around tinkering with similar subjects, but the interest for me is in how their position has been shaped by the political framework of Argentina. “Let’s organise ourselves, the State has left”....grafitti that could be found even in the middle class suburbs after the economic crash of 2001. For them the ‘crisis’, as it is commonly referred to here, was an important catalyst for their work. Collaborative networks exist out of a certain kind of necessity perhaps, rather than because of a trendy fetishisation of all things ‘collective’. For example, an artist-centred barter system they were involved in, Proyecto Venus, actually became an officially recognised informal currency during a six month state of emergency. While Mauricio contrasts the Argentine ‘weak’ State with the powerful sense of the State in Europe (they have done some work in ‘bureaucratic’ Holland as well as with Raumlabor, whose projects are often funded by cultural government organisations), it might not be so far from the post-Katrina atmosphere of neighbourhood organising in New Orleans, which followed widespread disillusionment with the US government response at all levels.

El Jugador

This context is the springboard for their Flood! game, “a de-nationalising of the flood control system”. Their goal is not necessarily to propose an outright alternative to the disaster response system for floods in Buenos Aires. Rather they use the circumstances of a flood, which so dramatically and rapidly changes the nature and relationships of the city, in the context of a game, to generate conversations amongst a wide range of people about new urban possibilities. The key is that you play another character than yourself, encouraging players to think about the city from a different perspective. The game has been through a few iterations, depending on where it has been played – so far, Argentina and Madrid and next, Costa Rica in December. It originally started off as a straightforward website inviting ideas on how the city should cope in times of flooding, the suggestions from which (serious, humorous and fantastical) became the basis of its development into a game.


Like all the people I’ve visited this year, it is always interesting to hear what kind of vocabulary they use. Mauricio explained how they think in terms of creating ‘public time’ rather than (or as a form of) ‘public space’….and of investigating ‘urbanity’ rather than ‘urbanism’. Their references range from books edited by Newt Gringich on conservative strategy-planning, to anarchist handbooks and collaborations with Dungeons and Dragons gaming experts!

So far I have no idea how they fund themselves. I haven´t yet asked.

Meanwhile……..unable to spend any more time reading books in restaurants I ended up in a double theatre/cinema bill this evening – a theatre performance entitled ‘La Cuna Vacia’ (the Empty Cot), which dealt with the military era of the seventies and the ‘disappeared’. Dramatic lighting, haunting music and beautiful visual effects were only upset by my recently purchased four-peso alarm clock, which started to beep loudly and cheaply in the middle of a sensitive moment. Afterwards I went straight into the cinema next door to see Matchpoint, which had been recommended by Pio. Because I am out of the loop as usual on most things cultural and current I only realised then that it was the recent Woody Allen film and that it’s all set in London. Very strange to watch such familiar scenery, social interactions and lifestyles in Buenos Aires. If you haven’t seen it, go tomorrow, it’s excellent.

Meanwhile downstairs at 4 in the morning the cheesy disco beats at the ViaVia hostel are still thumping. It’s time to ramp up the search for my own apartment.

Mi español está mejorando.