Thursday, July 22, 2010

A New Grand Bazaar

Years ago I was in Germany acting like an artist, and I took part in a group show at NGBK in Berlin. There a critic observed that my art was kindisch, like Sesame Street. I was a little hurt by that. But now I think it is okay. So also is my theory, like in a playground, observing and learning from what the other children are doing. I like that the Frise Kuenstlerhaus where I visit now backs onto a playground. I especially watch the cool kids, not the ones who are always following the rules and staying close to the teacher, but the kids who have their own fort.
This is only to say that things that happen influence my theory. Since I have been in Hamburg, I have had a few of these kindische theoretical insights. Basically what is going on in cities now is a culture war, a struggle between productive and consumptive culture. This is a struggle between the local and the global, between self-organized, self-sustaining cultural producers and cultural marketers, i.e., culture within capitalism. It is most dramatically exemplified in Hamburg maybe by Gaengeviertel -- productive culture asserting itself, and the opera house monument to classical consumption, an as yet unbuilt tower of babel, reaching for the heavens of parity in signifying global cities' consumptive power, a crystalline crown of pure money. Now this consumptive culture ideal is consumptive in another sense: it is sick because of the economic crisis.
I see these two kinds of culture as exemplified in the movement of occupied self-organized social centers as versus capital markets and their collaborating institutions. To be sure, markets can act independent of the interests of speculative finance capital, just as institutions can collaborate with other actors rather than mainly or only with the speculating rich.
With its rich mix of activities, the SC embodies production culture, whereas the institutions of showing have galleries and stages in them where things are shown to be consumed. Most people only look, but the rich can buy. (Already we have here two kinds of “rich.”)
So, to other kinds of markets: in the Altona district of Hamburg where I stay, there is the Mercado, a vertical shopping center, air-conditioned in summer and warm in winter. Very nice. But inside no one is making anything, except money. In Istanbul there is the Grand Bazaar. It is a famous labyrinth of consumption, shops upon shops, arranged over centuries to make the winding streets of Altona seem like a grid. But among this maze are numerous workshops, called “hans,” where things are made. So the Grand Bazaar, a descendant of the caravanserai, and built to support the great mosque Hagia Sophia, contains both imports and local products in its form. To get into the Mercado, a local producer must start outside, to deal with the capitalist mediators who run the shops, and only then maybe they will be allowed to come inside. That can seem a little strange if you live and work next door.
The huge building that was recently occupied by artists in Altona is an amazing design. It is a department store with a parking garage – very typical for the USA. But there the the store and the garage are separate buildings. I have never seen them squashed together in such a manner. This old department store is gargantuan, but very exciting in its form. Now it is empty. Artists occupied it, turning it into a warren of productive culture with many outlets – galleries, shops, theaters and meeting rooms – forming around its public edges. The artists were evicted. Now it is to be taken over by Ikea, and become again a pure outlet for an archetypical multinational capitalist actor. Not only that, but it will be knocked down and rebuilt.
The form of the Ikea store in USA is invariably a shed, the cheapest form of construction, really like a humongous shipping container in Swedish national colors of blue and yellow. How nice! How simple! And how appropriate for Hamburg. I am sorry, but I think an Ikea shed would be a stupid replacement for the incredible grand architectural construction that sits like an abandoned space station in Altona.
The Frappant project was constituting itself not only as housing, or even as housing for productive capacities (studios and ateliers), but also as a market. But this was looking as if it would be self-sustaining, like a social center. The people who would run and maintain the place would live there, so they would not need to be paid much. The people who worked there would also sell there, like in a bazaar or medieval market. So there would not be any profit. If you are a capitalist, of course, this kind of situation would be intolerable. Where is there any room for you?
Now I see in Berlin there are a number of projects to reclaim Tegel airport, long abandoned, as a public space. This is very nice. Tegel was the site of the famous Berlin airlift. This was a response to a Soviet siege – very medieval, which the USA and western allies responded to by throwing food over the walls. It is a high moment of climate-destroying “air power,” and also of the form of post-war global trade, also really destructive of atmosphere. (Although I can't complain that I am here because of it.) Really the airlift of food falling gently from the air to defeat the brutal siege was the heavenly apotheosis of free trade. When he crowed about it, John Kennedy said, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” a nice bit of Germglish. Many people liked that he claimed he was a pastry. Now Tegel can be reclaimed for making pastries if you like, instead of bringing in things from other places.
So I apply this kind of kindische thinking to analyze the function of the social centers in Europe as I have understood it. The classic squat provides housing. They take an abandoned building – not abandoned in terms of ownership usually, but unused – renovate it and maintain it. There is no profit in that for the owner! But people need housing. This is understood. So finally some of the squats are legalized as social housing. This is good. The modernist social contract requires that the workers get housing in return for giving up their lives to the factories. You can see the same kind of deal in China today with the corporate barracks for the poor peasants who come to the cities to work. But maybe that isn't really so useful in the post-modern city. Maybe that kind of social housing, really a state subsidy for industrial capitalism, isn't what cities need.
There is no profit in making this social housing, to be sure. And finally people who were bold and aggressive when they were young get cheap apartments. That is nice, but.... what is the social benefit?
I think maybe the social benefit lies in what kind of people they are.
And that comes back to Richard Florida's arguments for the creative city, which Hamburg planners were very entranced with. Activists all over Europe (especially in UK) have vigorously criticized Florida's “creative class” ideas as a theoretical blunt instrument for planners of the hypercapitalist city to do what they want while pretending to respect people and culture. And what they want is to knock everything down and rebuild it bigger and more slick, so everyone who was there before falls off onto the edges, away from the new playground of the rich and their workers. Who are the real creative class? Those who can reconfigure everything, the masters of the universe. You say you are an artist? Ha, ha, ha! What do you really make?
So the occupation movement in the global cities proposed as a counter argument their own fort built in the woods of property-as-commodity, built inside large abandoned buildings in the form of the social center. (Hamburg now so far as I know has really only one, the Rote Flora.) Why should a city give these buildings to the activists who take them? Why should a city even give space to artists? Why shouldn't a city just dogmatically enforce all property rights?
Well, the answer to the last question is I think now maybe obvious. If you dogmatically enforce property rights, you uphold only speculative capitalism. And in this moment of crisis, when speculative capitalism has proven that it doesn't lead to uniform social benefit, but instead very efficiently produces mass social disruption and ruin, maybe it isn't so wise to put all your eggs into that one basket. Unless you like to color the ground with them... and egg tempera is a very durable pigment.
But it is less obvious why these aggressive people should get this space in the city. Maybe they should get it because of the social effects they produce. This is some of what Richard Florida says when he responds to the Hamburg manifesto, “Ohne uns.” That manifesto text concerned the hyper-gentrifying city that was being built without us, that is, without the cultural producers who are not rich.
What of this social effect, though? Of what value is that? Or, rather, how does that create value? Let me call that the Ganas effect, after a commune in Staten Island named Ganas, the Spanish word for “desire.” (It is only one letter away from ganar, or “win.”) The Ganas commune is not especially idealistic. They are business people. Ganas produces festivals in the community where they are located. That place is mostly poor, pretty depressed, full of immigrants and many abandoned institutional buildings. Year after year the waterfront festivals were very small-scale but charming events which involve a lot of artists who play for free, and the immigrants who can bring their families and eat cheap and have the kids be entertained. Very modest, really. But the people of Ganas build a kind of magical atmosphere around these events. How? There are about 20 people in the commune working the event, and as they move around they look at each other, smile, wave, interact nonverbally. (Ganas is deeply invested in using a special set of group psychological techniques among themselves.) This interaction spills over to everyone else who is there – every other person there also sometimes gets a direct look, a smile, a nod which has just bounced off another commune member. This is the social glue that makes everyone at the event feel that they are acknowledged and that something special is happening.
In a temporally condensed form, this is the kind social effect that artists and activists have in a community. Artists are always looking for connections and customers, and activists are always trying to organize people. For these reasons they look at people, say “hello,” and interact more than most people. People in the ideal shiny slick hypercapitaliist city are more or less going to their jobs and back home to their families. They can seem like figures in those marvelous toys where everything is on a track, running, running. They are entrancing to watch, but kids get bored with them really quickly. They want something they can move around off the track. Something they can play with. Similarly, the spillover effect from the kinds of social relations activists and artists engage in benefits a community by making people there more social. More social people create more networks, and more new initiatives likely to succeed than do alienated unsocial people.
So this is the primary social value that artists create. And I argue that activists also make it. They have bars, VoKus, cafes, infoshops, bike ateliers, and other primitive anti-businesses. They organize demonstrations. And all of this activity is useful in stimulating people involved in other parts of the city economy to think of what they do differently.
In Madrid a new artist occupation has been legalized by the state. It is called Tabacalera, because it is in a huge formerly state-owned tobacco product factory. (Actually it was first built to make snuff and playing cards for the royal court.) Like a giant cigar, the social nicotine from Tabacalera can stimulate Madrid's neurosystem to make faster connections. This could become addictive...

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