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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.


BioRegion

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.

Flood

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.

Barranca Myths and other murky means for “understanding” Buenos Aires

Tuesday, September 12, 2006
What happens if you put in a room (or renovated water tower) together for ten days….aging Italian professors, a smooth Swedish starchitect, Japanese researchers with language insecurities, shy Mexican landscape architects, a thoughtful social activist from Hong Kong and a Berkeley faculty member more interested in tango than planning tools (among others)? The first ILAUD workshop in ‘nicely neurotic’ Buenos Aires (after thirty years in Italy), resurrected after the death of its founder, Giancarlo de Carlo, and on an expansion experiment beyond North America and Europe, in terms of both participants and subject. Lubricated with bottomless espressos and carne empanadas, the cocktail produces a lot of conversation, some half-hearted drawings and an academic fistfight for good measure at the end.

Taro Despairs

It wasn’t always inspiring but I can say that I have a different perspective on this city, renowned more for its music (tango) and literature (Borges) than its architecture, to any I would have just wandering the streets as I did in my first couple of days here.

The ILAUD philosophy is rooted in understanding and expressing the ‘biography’ of cities as a means for informing their future developments. They like to talk about identity, cultural memory and lost meanings. They moan about developers, skyscrapers and global sameness. Our energies coalesced around the hazy phenomenon of the ‘barranca’, the old river bank along which the city first developed. It is the edge at which the Pampas (the eternal stretch of flat land between Buenos Aires and the Andes) once met the Rio del Plata, and which has now been more or less masked by the continued development of the city into the reclaimed floodplain of the river. The barranca remains however the only sloped piece of land in an otherwise flat city and many parks and historic civic buildings are located along its edge.

Barranca Maps

Barranca Images

So does the ‘barranca’ have a role in the contemporary life of Buenos Aires?

Given that the term means nothing to the average porteno (citizen of Buenos Aires), you could forgive us, the students, for wondering how relevant this question was. But by the end of the workshop I believed that its strength was in fact its ambiguity. That it could be interpreted as a physical or conceptual phenomenon gave rise to a number of different approaches to the ill-defined question. That it is a ‘black hole in the memory of the city’ meant we could explore it as ‘outsiders’, and for a short amount of time, without treading on toes or reiterating the obvious.

My working group boasted Japanese, Argentinian, Mexican, English and Italian participants and a crucial translation gadget that was whipped out every now and then to provide the Japanese equivalent of ‘conceptual’ or ‘phenomenon’. Communication was slow, painful, sometimes hilarious and occasionally productive. For us the ‘barranca’ became a way to rethink the relationship of the city to its water. It is a small example of a larger absence of the river from the daily life of the city. The industrial port, domestic airport and now skyscrapers stunt visual access to the river in terms of views and actual access in terms of waterfront recreation, bathing and small-scale fishing. You are hard pushed to find a seafood offering on the meat-ecstatic menus of the city’s restaurants and tributaries of the Rio running through the city were buried in concrete pipes after flooding in the 1930s (exacerbating rather than solving the problem it seems). Ironically the city only comes into direct contact with the water once or twice a year during the annual floods.

We proposed a public program for beginning to “imagine the water back into the city” in three overlapping ways – through memory (the marking of and storytelling about hidden rivers in the city), through tactility (outdoor pools at the edge of the Rio, recalling the recreational activities that once happened there) and through gaze (the preservation of certain views of the river from the barranca as future development continues). We suggested that these events be coordinated by the national library, a giant sixties hulk on the barranca, to make visible on the streets its repository of the city’s stories and histories.

National Library

River Image

Sketch

In a broader context it was mildly interesting to witness the ideological tensions between faculty of different generations and cultures. Jill Stonor, our Berkeley professor, was a breath of fresh air, breezing in with Borges and others tucked under her arm, and the only one to pick up a paintbrush during the week! She took to task the conception of nature in the city as ‘green space’ pointing out that the barranca is better understood as a geological wedge of sand. Wallace Chang who owns and runs this gallery inspired me with his gentle and evocative urges to mull over ‘collective personalities’, ‘reconstructed stories’ and ‘urban acupuncture’, rather than pursue a plan-driven, classical ‘site analysis’. Meanwhile the Italians fought fiercely and internally over their various all-compassing masterplans which solved all the problems of the city in one neat package. I imagined I was getting a glimpse into the culture that Stalker (see June) were reacting against when they set up their practice in Rome.

Jill Paints

Fortunately the water theme dovetails neatly with both the work of m7red (who engage with the flooding problems in the city) and Ala Plastica (who deal with river pollution). So I am interested to see how my reflections change over the course of my stay here.

And to recover from the strain of playing at serious academia?

…..the highlight of the workshop was a party in our apartment that Jill had rented on Plaza Dorrego, complete with mezzanine and barrel vaulted brick ceiling and 15 ft high windows. We hired a jazz band from our favourite bar down the street, Del Tiempo, and free flowing red wine helped loosen up relations considerably.

Band Plays

………..and then this weekend a trip to the country……to an ‘estancia’ (Argentine farm), courtesy of family friends of Toben’s, the other Berkeley participant. It was just as I had read about certain chapters of Imagining Argentina. A handsome pink house in the middle of endless flat, with grazing horses, warm winter sun, green parrot-like birds circling overhead and a full moon that illuminated the landscape for miles. I rode a horse for the first time in six years and revelled in the sense of well-being that it released. We knelt in the middle of a field and allowed the horses to gently sniff along our arms, shoulders, necks and hair. The poetry of the moment was only momentarily interrupted by a giant horse sneeze which sprayed me with black equine snot.

Estancia

Yesterday we took a rickety train to La Plata, a suburb of Buenos Aires an hour away to see the only Corbusier house in the Western Hemisphere and the first that I have visited. We enjoyed a tour by a local architecture student and admired the spatial tricks of the house, generally feigning half ironic/half genuine awe. The famed dinosaur museum where we should have been able to see the six story gigantosaurus from Patagonia was closed. So the train ride to La Plata may well happen again after the short pedalo ride around a pond of plastic bottles failed to satisfy as an alternative.

Final Corb

Toben is on a plane back to the States as I write this so my Spanish crutch has been knocked out from under me. I call in at m7red later this afternoon. A new adventure begins.