Hey there! Below you can find the catalogue essay for the exhibition The Dialectic City: Document | Context that closed last November at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios. Enjoy!
“To capture a city in an image means following its movement.” Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant
The city is comprised of colliding elements; conflicting mechanisms that through movement create situations and actions. In constant flux and development, these dialectical relationships1 or strategies can be interpreted and reconsidered in spatial or temporal terms. Any given building in a city, measured through its façade and structural components, undergoes constant shifts in perspective defined by social, political or economic changes in the urban fabric. Insofar as social relations are concerned, we can sense a city’s identity, culture and problematics through its streets, collected debris, people, and things. The city is not a place of permanent encounters or exchanges, but a site of temporal conversations, actions and situations. It is always changing, constantly moving. To deny movement in the city would be to deny its very substance and subsistence; movement itself being difficult to imagine without space and time.
The Dialectic City. Design by Dsñotipo
Taking as a point of departure this idea of movement and spatial/temporal transformation, the dialectic city [document | context] gathers a group of works from 11 artists who seize the city as site and catalyst for artistic manifestations. Directly referencing the conceptual artistic strategy of documentation2, the works on display are documents implying very specific contexts, suggesting either explicitly or implicitly an action or situation that occurred in the city. They are context specific as well as time specific (Bourriaud), remnants and documents of the city, real or fabricated, continuously connoting motion, sign, and activity.
The title for the exhibition is taken from the book The Dialectic City by German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers, where he discusses the idea of architecture ‘carried forward as a dialectical process’. Resignified in the context of visual art, the term acquires a different and more engaging signification far from the rationality of Unger’s form and content in architecture. Here, the dialectic city proves to be a spatial and temporal construction. It implies a fiction as well as a reality. It defines and constantly redefines the experience of the city. This dialectic does not imply a Socratic search for truth, but instead it constructs spaces measured by difference and opposition; differences in form which can only be resolved by the mobilization of space (Lefebvre, 130). The artists in this exhibition appropriate the city as their studio. They incorporate a dialectical strategy in their work, thereby establishing social, spatial and temporal relationships where meaning is constantly constructed and redefined.
The Dialectic City. Installation View at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios. From left to right. Ivan Argote and David Lamelas.
When referring to artistic practices that take the city as backdrop and center stage, one can easily look to graffiti and street art as representative forms. In fact, what is frequently defined as ‘urban art’ carries the weight of artistic practices associated with activism and subversion. Elusive street artist Banksy is perhaps the poster-boy for this type of practice and also cause for this widespread misapprehension. However, if one considers a theoretical definition of the ‘urban phenomenon,’ referencing French theorist Henri Lefebvre3, one finds another more inclusive definition:
The urban is defined as the place where people walk around, find themselves standing before and inside piles of objects, experience the intertwining of the threads of their activities until they become unrecognizable, entangle situations in such a way that they engender unexpected situations. (Lefebvre, 39)
The Dialectic City. Installation View at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios. From left to right. Jason Mena, Francis Alÿs, Norma Vila Rivero, Adriana Bustos, Ivan Argote. Forefront. Victor Sosa.
The Dialectic City. Installation View at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios. Victor Sosa, Inverted Resources of Nature (forefront) and David Lamelas, Buenos Aires Time as Activity.
Urban art comes to encompass a wide range of practices that originate in the city, influenced by a network of relationships ranging from walking to object accumulation to accidental situations to unforeseen superimpositions and juxtapositions. Movement and speed are constants in our urban environment, visually apparent by the frenetic motion of people, places and things.
Document | Context
The work as document or text is not by any means a new or innovative term, but one that seemingly best describes works produced in the city, which are often documents of a specific time and context measured in a particular space. Actually, the act and process of documenting the city has developed into a relevant artistic strategy since the inception of conceptual practices in the 1960’s. For many artists, the process of documenting an ephemeral action, an object or a situation produces works that blur the lines between document and artwork, and raises questions regarding the idea of the document as fiction or myth.
The Dialectic City. Installation view at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios.
Photography, video and text are the privileged mediums for these practices. Well before the use of documentative tactics in conceptual art, Walker Evans documented the people sitting in front of him on the New York City subway in the series Subway Portraits (1938-1942). What distinguishes this particular work from other artists who make use of the portrait during that time is that, although deliberate and systematic, Evans captured the images with a hidden miniature 35mm camera, transforming the subway into a makeshift studio. Mediated through the impersonal nature of public transport, the faces become objects of the city; living and breathing documents of a nation enduring economic hardships. Decades later, Andy Warhol and Jonas Mekas’ would employ a documentative approach to artmaking in Empire (1964) through the use of a stationary camera to document a particular time and place in the city: the iconic Empire State Building recorded for 8 hours while shifting from daytime to nighttime. Although Warhol is known for developing a commercial body of work closely linked to the advertising industry, Empire marks an important precedent for conceptual works that incorporate time and context in the city.
During the late 1960’s and well into the 1970’s, artists such as Vito Acconci, (Following Piece, 1969), David Lamelas (Time as Activity, 1969-ongoing) and Ed Ruscha (Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1971), just to name a few, appropriated the city as their studio, performing tasks, documenting them and reworking contexts redefined by time and space-specificity. The city is either backdrop or protagonist, but consistently a crucial element to the development of the work.
Francis Alÿs, Zapátos Magnéticos. Image courtesy David Zwirner
Francis Alÿs, Zapátos Magnéticos. Image courtesy David Zwirner
For the purpose of this exhibition, two videos from two artists whose work emerges and directly responds to the city were selected as a point of departure from which to address the city as a space of conflict: Zapatos Magnéticos (1994) by Francis Alÿs and Time as Activity Buenos Aires (2010) by David Lamelas. Both works or documents imply two very different approaches to the city. Alÿs realizes a poetic performance acting as a Baudelairian flâneur, directly implicating himself in the construction of an urban myth (Medina, 51), while Lamelas employs a neutral and detached approach, conceptualizing the city in terms of time, equally considered as both fiction and spectacle.
From Alÿs’ street action to Lamelas’ fixed representation arise different and paradoxical ideas relating to the city: motion/stillness, fiction/reality, transformation/stagnation. Adriana Bustos’ video Primavera provides a fragmented and turbulent perspective of the city; an anti-spectacle that reveals the hidden and unpleasant social realities of a country in economic distress, offering a close-up portrait of a disenfranchised sector of society struggling with poverty and unemployment. For the video, Bustos placed a camera between the eyes of a horse of a cartonero, waste pickers who emerged in great numbers during Argentina’s economic crisis. As if the darkness of the night provided them with a totalizing invisibility or anonymity, they would go around the city in horse-drawn carriages collecting recyclable materials. The erratic camera angles of the video, which follows the constant motion of the horse’s head, draws attention to the sounds of the city. Only fragments are visually perceptible.
David Lamelas, Buenos Aires Time as Activity. Image courtesy Ignacio Liprandi Contemporary Art.
Time as Activity Buenos Aires shifts our perspective from that of the underbelly of society to a privileged bird’s eye view. Comprised of a 16mm film and three video stills, it documents the city through time turned spectacle. The work is part of a film series initiated in Düsseldorf in 1969 and continued throughout the years in other American and European cities. The Buenos Aires edition, commissioned by Ignacio Liprandi Contemporary Art, like the original German version, reacts to the views offered by the gallery, which is located directly opposite the Argentinian Senate. The film consists of two different perspectives of the Congress Square and one interior perspective of the hall of the senate chamber while in session. Each take is separated by titles that indicate the elapsed time between them. While the film shows the city as a time-based spectacle, the stills present time as a spatial construct displaying the details of the time the image was extracted from the film.
Jose Luis Cortés, Record. Image courtesy of the artist.
A temporal approach to the city is also afforded by José Luis Cortés with his video Record, where the artist runs six times around a city block during a time frame of 7 minutes and 11 seconds while recording his attempts with a stationary video camera. The city block, a basic component of the grid plan, is measured through time and the physical capacity of the artist. As opposed to Time as Activity, portions of the action remain unseen raising questions regarding its veracity. It is a futile act, one that has recourse to the concept of the eternal return. The notion of circular movement with increased speed is evidenced in Inverted Resources of Nature (Cabotaje) by Victor Sosa, an installation of abstract forms comprised of the residues of car tires found on the road. These forms, produced by way of centrifugal force, achieve organic shapes when the vehicle expels a portion of the tire. Some are readymade objects with harsh sharp edges, revealing the ways in which the city produces accidental sculptural forms, while others are repurposed by the artist, with softer, more stylized cuts. They are both found and fabricated, waste and artwork, standing as a metaphor for transportation, industry and nature. A work that strongly relies on the accident and the accidental in the city is Juan Alberto Negroni’s painting Untitled, which shows two vehicles crashing against each other. The work is part of the series Puerto Rico Crash Course, where the artist makes use of images of the everyday as a larger metaphor for the city, describing it as an obstacle course to be run and overcome.
Juan Alberto Negroni, Untitled (from the series Puerto Rico Crash Course)
Norma Vila Rivero, Coyote-móvil
Shifting from the accident to chance encounters, Norma Vila’s photographs transfigure the everyday urban experience into a spontaneous image. Both images, Coyote-mobile and Un vecino robó la tablilla (A neighbor stole the license plate) were taken by the artist while driving. Far from being merely documents, these images unveil the particularities of a culture providing a dynamic experience of the city.
Echoing Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969), Untitled (New York) by Ivan Argote is a witty and whimsical rendering of the city. In the streets of New York City, Argote shouted phrases such as “I love you” and “You are great” while standing behind crowds of people waiting to cross the street. The video, silent and in slow-motion, captures the moment where passersby turn around and look at the artist. This moment of ‘looking behind’ shows faces of distrust, disgust and at times empathy. The reactions of the people and the slow pace of the video dramatizes the action, and similar to Lamelas’ Time as Activity, presents the city as a theatrical platform for both the observer and the observed.
Jason Mena, Crossings. Installation View at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios.
In fact, walking in the city is a meaningful act of urban life. It is only through the physical displacement of the body, as opposed to driving a vehicle or participating in a city’s public transportation system, that one is able to capture the complexities of city-life. Performed in the neighborhood of Cuauhtémoc in Mexico City, where each street is named after a different Latin American country, Jason Mena’s photographic installation Crossings transforms the simple act of crossing the street into a symbolic act of transgression. As immigration, border crossings and the right to land ownership increasingly become a contentious topic in politics and everyday life, this symbolic gesture communicates an ease of passage of nearly utopic proportions. The work is a document and a testament to this act, providing a fictitious visibility to commonplace acts that tend to go unnoticed. In the context of Mexico and current affairs, the act stands as a provocation to US immigration laws. In a manner similar to Francis Alÿs, Mena’s wanderings imply “a political inquiry into the city.” (Bourriaud, 100).
The Dialectic City. Installation View at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios
Alexander Apóstol, Don Carlos. Courtesy of the artist.
Transgression also manifests itself in the city’s infrastructure, as buildings in the city are reshaped and modified, either accidentally or purposefully, to reflect an individual or collective situation. In the video Don Carlos, Alexander Apóstol documents a problematic situation concerning the unpleasant and dysfunctional alteration of a family building’s façade in Caracas, Venezuela. A discussion ensues between a young woman and her uncle when the latter decides to close the balcony of his apartment with bricks. The video is set in a confessional manner, whereby the young woman questions the limits of private/public space, arguing that her uncle did not reflect on the aesthetic implications of his decision. Furthermore, the video is edited in continuous cuts, creating a circular narrative that underscores the city’s constant structural transformation. A more direct register of this transformation is offered by Omar Velázquez with Patches, comprised of xylographies of wood panels used to board up abandoned buildings and a video that documents the process of covering the panels with ink and transferring the residue on paper. The work balances itself between tradition and contemporaneity by claiming the woodcut printing technique and inserting it in an urban context, thereby suggesting a permanent state of hiatus. The work explicitly implies a document, as the composition formed by the different color xylographies proves to be completely subdued to its process.
The Dialectic City. Installation view at Laboratorio de Artes Binarios.
In the first scenes of Charlie Chaplin’s celebrated film Modern Times (1936), Chaplin is a factory worker trying unsuccessfully to keep up with the speed of the assembly line. The film, among other things, is a striking comment on the rapid industrialization and urbanization of space and its dire effects on society. This ostensible need for faster modes of production is still relevant today and provokes constant changes in the urban fabric. The city builds upon persistent structural, social and economic reconfigurations; buildings are constructed, altered and allowed to fall into disuse; monuments are erected as fast as they are demolished; people are displaced and relocated; information is disseminated but also controlled. The city’s development incorporates tradition with contemporaneity, denoting ‘concrete contradiction’. (Lefebvre, 39)
The selection of works for this exhibition function as markers of a particular time and context in the city, where a network of oppositions compose a vast architecture; each component resembling gears in a continuous rotational motion, methodical and systematic, but with the potential for becoming chaotic and entropic.
1 When speaking of the dialectic, I am referring to Heraclitus’ idea of dialectical movement, reintroduced and reworked years later by Hegel. Although Heraclitus never wrote directly about the dialectic, he is known for stating that “all is in a state of flux” referring to dynamic principles of contrasting and conflicting opposites.
2 Conceptual art includes practices where the final work can only be evidenced through notes, photographs or maps.
3 French theorist Henri Lefebvre was one of the first thinkers to theorize on the development of the urban city far from the descriptive methods or earlier urbanists.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. The radicant. Paris: Lukas & Sternberg, 2009. Print.
Lefebvre, Henri. The urban revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Print.
Ungers, O. M., Stefan Vieths, and Luca Molinari. Oswald Mathias Ungers: the dialectic city. Genève: Skira, 1997. Print.
Alÿs, Francis and Medina, Cuauhtémoc. Mark Godfrey, Klaus Peter Biesenbach, and Kerryn Greenberg. Francis Alÿs: a story of deception. New York: Museum of Modern Art: 2010. Print.
Alÿs, Francis, Mark Godfrey, Klaus Peter Biesenbach, and Kerryn Greenberg. Francis Alÿs: a story of deception. New York: Museum of Modern Art: 2010. Print.
Gadamer, Hans. Hegel’s dialectic: five hermeneutical studies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976. Print.
Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual art. London ; New York: Phaidon, 1998. Print.
Hagen, Charles. “Review/Photography; What Walker Evans Saw on His Subway Rides – New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/31/arts/review-photography-what-walker-evans-saw-on-his-subway-rides.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm>.