Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Legal “Good” and That Which Is Necessary

I fell into this website, “Good,” which promotes forward looking projects, sustainable city initiatives, new technology, new economy, this sort of thing. We could call it a part of the sustainability movement – it was so named in 1990. I haven't followed it, but it's what schools of design are teaching, and what artists worry about. Yes, everyone who thinks worries about the cliff our human world is rushing towards. “Good” was featuring a Madrid project. Some folks had gone into the streets of the city center and put little sun umbrellas and plastic dinosaurs over plants growing through cracks in the stone-paving to protect them. These artists observed that their project was “noticed” the next morning.
This in a nutshell sums up what is wrong with the “Good” approach. The problem in Madrid isn't too few weeds in plazas, it's too many cars. Walk around this city and you smell it. Bicycling seems suicidal. There's a group working on that problem called the Critical Mass. Next week Chris Carlsson from San Francisco is coming to Madrid, a guest of the “Bici Critica” group here. (I'll blog about that when he comes.) Chris is one of the founders of this mass bicycle ride through the excessively grand highways that pierce our modernist cities. It interferes with the sovereignty of motorized traffic. It's a viral form of direct action that's gone global. In New York City the Critical Mass led to years of nasty confrontations with police. Now, finally New York has bike lanes. Coincidence? Well, it's like Bill Di Paolo said 25 years ago, the “Time's Up” on waiting for governments to act.
Now, after the sad showings in the Bonn climate talks and Rio+20, the director of Greenpeace is also fed up. “We have to ask ourselves what history teaches us in terms of how change happens when humanity has faced a big challenge, such as civil rights, apartheid or slavery,” Kumi Naidoo told the Guardian in Rio. “It is only when decent men and women said enough is enough and no more, and were prepared to put their lives on the line and go to prison if necessary, and that is where we are. We have to intensify civil disobedience. I keep thinking of what [Nelson] Mandela said decades ago, which is, this struggle is one that I am prepared to live for and if needs be to die for, and that is what the leadership challenge is for us.”
Greenpeace does not want Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic. Shell has obtained a global injunction against Greenpeace. (Didn't know about those? Ah, well – even the right doesn't like the newly proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.) So Greenpeace plans to break some laws. A Shell-bought country may send out their navy to stop them. Who's good? Who's bad? What is necessary?
So back to “Good.” I linked there from the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Berlin. They emailed me that they're having a contest, which Good is arranging, to send in your ideas for improving public spaces. (There's a blog contest too, but “Occupations & Properties” can't be entered because it reports on activities that are illegal – it's in the rules.) The BMW Guggenheim Lab was born from the partnership of the mega-German car company and the entrepreneurial modern art museum. By the project's own flack, it's a “a think tank, a community center and a public space,” and it opened first in New York just before last year's Occupy fall. In August of 2011, some of the old-time Lower East Side squatters and their friends came to the lab and got loud, staging a “Let Them Eat Cake/Eat the Rich/No Comfort Zone street party.” The BMW Lab's theme is “Confronting Comfort.” So then, whose comfort is being confronted?
When the ex-squatters descended, blogger EV Grieve writes, “The Lab itself greeted the protest with a mixture of appreciation and utter annoyance, sympathizing with its cause but finding its aggressive tone objectionable. 'This space is meant for dialogue,' said Lab team host Kristian Koreman, who has roots as a squatter in Rotterdam. 'If they had acted in a way where they wanted an answer to their questions, we would have answered.'”
Well, that's promising, I thought, that an ex-squatter is working with them and is willing to take questions. But it seems these questions should not be ontological: the entire basis of the project is not up for discussion. Still, they could have answered – but what was the question again?
The NYC Lab was used most regularly as a presentation venue for young experts-in-training, architects, planners, and assorted urban geeks. When the Lab was packing up, EV Grieve asked what its readers thought of the NYC gig. One commenter wrote: “I live nearby. I had to pass by to get home many nights. Imagine white hosts in their twenties with lazy, nasally, monotone speaking voices peppering the word 'urbanology' over loud speakers to a mostly fedora and calf-high black-boots-over-black-tights-wearing crowd.”
Urbanology – that's the study of cities. And that is who is working in and curating the Lab. (Except for those who shift chairs and scenography, cook and serve the $10 hamburgers, etc.) While they did invite in a number of old-time resistance oriented people to talk and present, finally it was as history, not as possibility or critique.
They invited me to talk, and I would have if I could have. That's my old neighborhood. The NYC Lab was sited directly across the street from Whole Foods, a giant expensive supermarket developed on city-owned land. Thirty years ago I ate for $1 in a sunny breakfast cafe which stood on that land, next door to a bum's bar open almost 24 hours. (The customers were often allowed to sleep under the tables.) Ten years before I lived there, Jane Jacobs' tribe of activists pitched tents along Houston Street to protest the city's plans to displace low-income residents. The battles this neighborhood fought against gentrification were lost long ago. A local boutique recently did a sarcastic victory dance on the photographic remains of the Mars Bar, the last bastion to fall. So if I had talked at the BMW Lab it would have been in terms of reminiscence, an old geezer sharing his fond and bitter memories...

And Now It's Time for Your Questions
Now the BMW Guggenheim lab is in Berlin, “confronting comfort.” They are “focusing on citizen participation in the future of cities” from June 15 to July 29, offering “free programs designed to empower residents to change the city they live in.” They had planned to plop the Lab in Kreuzberg, along the River Spree. Kreuzberg in the former West Berlin was the epicenter of the squatting movement in the 1980s. Long slated for the massive redevelopment campaign of Mediaspree, this area is on the front lines of the struggle against gentrification in Berlin. The city has been bumping squats and alternative projects out of there one by one. So folks are steamed, and very well organized. The cops got the willies, citing “threats of violence by ultra-left groups.” (The favored weapons of the Mediaspree Versenken / Sink Mediaspree campaign at its height were paint bombs and water pistols, but never mind.) So the Lab was relocated to Prenzlauer Berg, the plush neighborhood of aparatchiks in the former East. Even there they are having trouble – with the police!
They are being over-protected. “If someone makes a presentation in the lab, I do not want visitors to feel they are surrounded by police,” said Maria Nicanor, the curator of the Lab. But they are. A competitive citizens' event for children was interfered with by police. Because that is more or less what the BMW Lab has been reduced to, holding events for children. (P'berg is full of breeding couples.) Which is kind of what the “Good”/BMW Lab collaboration is, finally, an invitation to submit your idea, to ask your question, to make your suggestions. They will judge them, and you might get some publicity, maybe even some kind of prize, like a chance at geekdom yourself.
This is a far cry from what political squatters have traditionally resisted for, and what their contemporary allies envision – a full-scale participatory planning process. “Good” won't do. “Good” is a cartoon for children. Although, just as all those talking animals make a lot of grown-ups into vegetarians, we may hope that our “Good” kids may wake up before we're all in free fall over that cliff. Time's Up. We can't just be “Good.” We must fight the evil, including the evil that results from doing nothing and refusing to look.
Although the times so often seem to demand it, I don't like to write cranky or canty. So let me add, as a kind of coda – the info about the resistance to the BMW Guggenheim Lab was sent to me by a member of the SqEK group who is following the action. His email subject line was “FUCK THE BMW LAB.” In Germany, as the website of the anti's makes clear, there are plenty of reasons to feel enmity towards that company for its past, its political role, etc.. In the USA they are simply known for making expensive cars which get exhibited in museums like the Guggenheim.
I have devoted my life to seeking and disseminating knowledge, so I have respect for the “laboratory” process that BMW Guggenheim Lab pretends to embody. But the way that SqEK is doing it is in the model of militant research, and we don't have any money. This is rather the opposite of the embedded institutional and corporate knowledge that the Lab seeks to produce and disseminate.
Corporate knowledge, even in its tutelary mode, does not advance according to a model of “criticism and self-criticism.” At best, it will answer your questions. (In some way; speak after you have spoken; or maybe say nothing.) It rests securely on its monetary foundations. Those talking are paid to talk. Those listening may pay to listen so that they in turn may become the ones paid to talk.
There is a great deal to be learned from the inhabitants of a city which you are seeking to redevelop. There is much of value in the institutions they have created, especially those that they have formed with great effort and solidarity in resistance. If you don't talk with them instead of at them you will never learn. When you are surrounded by the police, it is clear that the position of your investigation is corrupted. Then you are not a listening post but a sound truck. You present as a potential victim who must be protected from the discourse you wish to understand. The knowledge you gain will, of course, be shared with your protectors. So why should anyone talk to you? Talking to the police can only get you in trouble.
It isn't that the people running the BMW Guggenheim Lab are bad – they aren't. They come from an enlightened corporate sector. They mean well, and they are trying their best to do something meaningful amidst difficult circumstances. It is that at this very late stage in our planetary devolution they are still trying to make a business out of doing “Good.” It's certainly too late for that.

images -- from, "Walkout from Rio+20"; PowerShiftCanada2012
police around BMW Lab from
“Good” – it's registered in Iceland(?), although it is U.S.A.-centric; there's also a journal
Bici Crítica -- Every last Thursday of the month, at 8pm in Cibeles, Madrid.
Chris Carlsson speed raps for 30 minutes on his book “Nowtopia” – our necessary future
TIME'S UP! is a New York City-based not-for-profit direct-action environmental group that uses events and educational programs to promote a more sustainable, less toxic city.
Jo Confino, “Furious Greenpeace moves to 'war footing' at Rio+20 -- Pace quickens at Rio summit, as NGO director responds to weakened oceans proposals with promise of civil disobedience”
15 June 2012 at
EV Grieve blog – August 9, 2011 anti-gentrification protest at the BMW Guggenheim Lab – “(The comments section is still smoldering.)” EV Grieve blog – “Packing up the BMW Guggenheim Lab”
“Hamptons boutique Blue & Cream mounted a 'Tribute to Mars Bar' photo exhibit in their Bowery location.”
“Confronting Comfort: BMW Guggenheim Lab Opens” in Berlin
“The project's overarching theme, Confronting Comfort, spans the first two-year cycle of the six-year project”
Christopher Cottrell, “Berlin's Gentrification Row – Locals Rage Against Rising Rents”
about the monster that is “Mediaspree”
Nicanor and other quotes are from “BMW Lab Verhindern” (prevent BMW Lab) blog in German, via Google translate
“City Forward” competition – good luck!

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