suddenly: where we live now
January 24 - April 12, 2009
Opening Reception: Saturday, January 24, 5-7 PM
- Marc Joseph Berg |
- Zoe Crosher |
- Michael Damm |
- Molly Dilworth |
- Hadley+Maxwell |
- Fritz Haeg |
- Elias Hansen |
- Frank Heath |
- Michael Hebb |
- Michael McManus |
- Mike Merrill |
- Mostlandian Citizens |
- Shawn Records |
- Storm Tharp |
- Oscar Tuazon
- Stephanie Snyder Essay
- Matthew Stadler Essay
- WHERE WE LIVE NOW an annotated reader
We don't really know what a city is any more than we know what art is, except that we think we know it when we see it, or buy it. The historic, bureaucratic city, the city that organizes, absorbs, and expends our resources because it has been architected and planned for permanence, that city is only one tiny piece of where we live now. We think it begins and ends, automatically. The shack interrupts the historic city’s nostalgia for permanence. A portable commonality, it reveals origin by nature, cannot be franchised or replicated. It is the humblest, most universal of singular dwellings. The shack is the future of common space. Suddenly artists are building shacks, domes, underground dwellings, caves … temporary urban spaces that can awaken us to hope through playfulness and contingency. Temporary semi-urban spaces will populate where we live now in patchwork spontaneity … aesthetic trading posts—sites for the exchange of information and materials on terms of our own making. I will give you three kisses for that bouquet. We will deconstruct commerce as we crumble the institution of fixed sexuality, shacking up.
Stop catering to the art world, stop sucking up to the money/power relationships that constitute it. Money has nothing to do with taste, except that, as Greenberg argues (circling his wagons around Kant), taste requires time—aesthetic experience is the product of leisure. If we’re selling our labor to survive, we have less time to ourselves. So do we invest more of ourselves in our work? What if every moment actually did count, no matter how we sold our labor? It has to be more than daydreaming at the Xerox machine or in line at the Baja Fresh. Some stop signs: Live only where your friends can find you at leisure. Do not codify your leisure time with documentation. Stop documenting your life, burdening the future with so much unwanted information. Make a simple, durable, and beautiful object and give it freely with affection. Kiss the Cy Twombly painting, over and over again. Even if you make art, and the objects of your affection become business to you, give your tithe, the tithe of your subjectivity, the mirror you can afford.
"Notes on art and aesthetics and the where we live now"
In WHERE WE LIVE NOW: an annotated reader
Edited by Matthew Stadler
SuddenlyAwareness catalyzes suddenly. We turn our heads, our ears, our eyes to the world and our desire expresses itself toward understanding. Suddenly we get it, we desire it. Otherwise, what? Otherwise we go blank, anesthetic. Awareness catalyzes acutely when the body mobilizes to the mind, which, brushed into consciousness of its own awareness, converses in turn with the body. Children know, what is suddenly is playful, and what is playful is pleasurable. Kant's notion that the aesthetic is illogical, that it is, instead, part of the sensus communis, suggests that aesthetic experience has the potential to inspire us toward an enlightened commonality. "Kant emphatically suggests that we must arrive at a broadened way of thinking, to reflect on our own judgment from a universal standpoint. According to Kant this is what enlightenment is all about: to liberate ourselves from prejudice and even superstition" (Antoon Van den Braembussche, 2008). If the common potential of art is taste, let us taste art. The objects and discourses that circulate through the history and commerce of art are now a depressed set of tools for aesthetic invigoration. It is time for other possibilities, for art to reclaim an independent, newly imaginative identity, not subjective in the philosophical sense, but driven by the embrace of our subjectivity. We must believe in our ability to generate life through the humblest of words and materials.
To liberate aesthetics from the pressure of artistic capital, to welcome aesthetics back to everyday life, let us walk and construct without permission. The human body is automatic or it dies. The human body is the autoerotic vehicle that will seed the places where we live now with aesthetic velocity. Every space, every communication system constructed and reserved for the automobile must be reconsidered and invested as aesthetic inventory—portals for the body in motion, spaces for taste. Suddenly, every gas station, every franchise restaurant, every housing development, and every highway will be re-walked—re-charted, re-invested with new surroundings, and where we live now will be turned, like compost, with the motion of the body. City planners thought larger expanses would organize our health, our growing numbers. Suddenly we realize that we are by nature fragmented, that we must reorganize the semiurban/sprawling "city" into a patchwork of "not necessarily temporary/not necessarily permanent" spaces and walks that simultaneously enact and reflect our desires. But an entire system of corporate legalities exists to distract this from happening. An entire media monopoly exists to anchor our desires to commerce. Automobiles will drive us deeper into schizophrenia if we don't start walking again. Within this mutually assured destruction, at least now, we must parade and feast and bare our breasts around what we cannot destroy without repercussions.
We don't really know what a city is any more than we know what art is, except that we think we know it when we see it, or buy it. The historic, bureaucratic city, the city that organizes, absorbs, and expends our resources because it has been architected and planned for permanence, that city is only one tiny piece of where we live now. We think it begins and ends, automatically. The shack interrupts the historic city's nostalgia for permanence. A portable commonality, it reveals origin by nature, cannot be franchised or replicated. It is the humblest, most universal of singular dwellings. The shack is the future of common space. Suddenly artists are building shacks, domes, underground dwellings, caves … temporary urban spaces that can awaken us to hope through playfulness and contingency. Temporary semiurban spaces will populate where we live now in patchwork spontaneity … aesthetic trading posts—sites for the exchange of information and materials on terms of our own making. I will give you three kisses for that bouquet. We will deconstruct commerce as we crumble the institution of fixed sexuality, shacking up.
Because you believe in erotic hope, explore the city within this intention. Change direction suddenly, as suddenly as erotic hope. Encountering the suddenness of your subjectivity, consciously pursue the pleasure of art on its own terms. Really look at it. Find it everywhere. Enlighten your neighbor to joy, forgiveness, and fiction. Automatically make shit up.
Stop catering to the art world, stop sucking up to the money/power relationships that constitute it. Money has nothing to do with taste, except that, as Greenberg argues (circling his wagons around Kant), taste requires time—aesthetic experience is the product of leisure. If we're selling our labor to survive, we have less time to ourselves. So do we invest more of ourselves in our work? What if every moment actually did count, no matter how we sold our labor? It has to be more than daydreaming at the Xerox machine or in line at the Baja Fresh. Some stop signs: Live only where your friends can find you at leisure. Do not codify your leisure time with documentation. Stop documenting your life, burdening the future with so much unwanted information. Make a simple, durable, and beautiful object and give it freely with affection. Kiss the Cy Twombly painting, over and over again. Even if you make art, and the objects of your affection become business to you, give your tithe, the tithe of your subjectivity, the mirror you can afford.
Ancient leisure, value
In his Erotic Essay, or I should say, at the first reading of his Erotic Essay, around 340 BCE, Demosthenes, citizen of Athens, delivered a public oration the heart of which was an expression of his deep appreciation for a particular young man, cautioning this beautiful and modest object of his erotic desires to be careful of the destructive wants and desires of others. Study philosophy, Demosthenes wrote, and others cannot devour you. The essay was written as a gift to one young man, but delivered publicly, to the assembled thousands. Demosthenes' erotic oration was nothing less than civic discourse, a love letter to the public good. Imagine us writing to one another in public, expressing our affections and arguments directly, openly. Demosthenes' oration is in epideictic form, which as described by Aristotle is a construction of language designed to "arouse affection and admiration" for the subject. Art possesses a boundless epideictic potential to shape civic awareness. Imagine even the art objects that you know, that already exist, populating the most unlikely of places. Imagine the museum collaborating with you to curate (i.e. care for) its collection. Why should works of art remain rigorously isolated from the bonds of human affection, sealed within the invisible walls of the historic city? The liberation of art where we live now begins with a reversal of fortune—with the collapse of artistic value into aesthetic passion.
In WHERE WE LIVE NOW: an annotated reader
Edited by Matthew Stadler
The French historian Fernand Braudel makes the astonishing claim that any city “has to dominate an empire, however tiny, in order to exist at all.” For Braudel, a commonplace that we witness every day—the boastful preeminence of cities—serves as a categorical definition. Braudel got his definition from Marx, who put it even more sharply: “The antagonism between town and country begins with the transition from barbarism to civilization, from tribe to State, from locality to nation, and runs through the whole history of civilization to the present day.” For both Marx and Braudel, class division and domination are the origin, even the constitutive element, of urbanism. The city has always been a jealous hero, the lead actor in the story of the nation or the globe. Rome, London, New York, and, in every region, little subempires … Cincinnati, Denver, Portland. All of them, despite their dynamism, geographical imprecision, and collective nature, stubbornly stride around history’s stage as if they were autonomously acting individuals. Their stories are of ascension through hardship to dominance. The city cannot live without boasting.
The boasts of cities fill whole libraries and Web sites, shape university programs, and drive an economy whose boundaries are unknowable. From civic boosterism of the sort that every chamber of commerce and regional think tank turns out, to the more deeply considered global inquiries into the history and future of urban forms, our economic and cultural investment in the story of the city is immense. We care deeply, and are willing to spend tremendous cultural, political, and financial capital on the working out of this story.
Increasingly, that story is a tragedy. The tale turned up by think tanks and planners in every part of the globe, by pundits and aggrieved neighbors alike, is one of threats and struggle. Blighted downtowns become subsidized sites of high-end investment; the remnants of a dying farm economy become the treasured focus of advocacy groups pursuing costly, often divisive legislation to save farms. Wanting better lives for ourselves and our children, we place these twin ideals, the city and the country, at the center of our politics. And yet everywhere we turn, the glimmering image of the dense urban center ringed by green farms and countryside is erased by eruptions of growth (or, equally, neglect) that are so far beyond our ken that we can only paint them all with the same broad brush: that shapeless word, “sprawl.” This unspecific threat—this failure to find language—is the sharpest evidence we have of our helplessness.
Sprawl has no autonomous history or ontology; it is a negation, the absence of something else, the failure to build city or countryside. Sprawl is the disappearance of an idea. So how can we go on speaking of the city and the country, yet not remain fixed in the downward spiral of loss?
Raymond Williams believes the terminal expression of the story of city and country “is the system we now know as imperialism.” Charles Mudede sees that same global system come home to roost in the proliferating landscapes of sprawl. Observing the lively dereliction of strip highways, Mudede finds “a monstrous, zombie form of colonialism” that “looks from a distance much like a medieval or small city (an early form of colonialism) with an immediate urban shadow.” In Mudede’s landscape, the “rural idiocy” once decried by Marx takes up a new home address in the suburbs. The tragedy of city and country provides a stage for our struggles on which the curtain need never fall.
But the story of the city has other modes. It can be used as a battering ram to justify political change, or it can thrill us and quicken our attention, like celebrity gossip. Champions of urbanism, such as Lewis Mumford or Peter Hall, describe a city that resembles one vast, collective celebrity, a glittering hero whose every fortune and misfortune compels our deepest feelings. Consider, for example, the excited, voluminous reports of the new Asian mega-city. As with celebrities, we measure the importance of our favorites against the puniness and offenses of lesser stars. We readily project our own fates, our failings and triumphs and potentials, and watch them play out in the fates of cities. These are the dominant modes by which we talk about the city. While gossip is preferable to tragedy, neither mode offers us useful tools for living here now. Their stories can only delight or terrify us with dreams and memories that enchant exactly to the degree that they are in fact absent from the landscapes where we live. We need new language, new descriptions, and, in Thomas Sieverts’s words, “a new subject for our politics.” This book is an attempt to find them.
Where We Live Now has two purposes. First, to introduce the work of Thomas Sieverts in an acceptable English translation. Second, to make the case that indigenous settlement of North Pacific America (see the discussion below) ought to be studied as urban history, a suggestion that follows directly from Sieverts’s observations. It is a simple proposal, but a far-reaching one. I believe it will help change the way we think and talk about cities. Along the way, I speculate about this story’s meanings, what lessons we might learn from it, and what worlds lie hidden behind our failure to pursue it … wild speculations, really, that no responsible historian would ever make. And that is because I am not a historian, but a writer, unconstrained by the niceties of that profession. And I am ready for change.
Change is long overdue. We struggle, as Thomas Sieverts points out, to accept the passing of the old city. Our love for the vibrant, preeminent urban center blinds us to new forms and paradoxically leads us to burden what remains of the old city with functions that compromise its historic role. “Revitalization” turns the center into a planned community of wealthy urbanites feeding an economy of shopping and cultural tourism. Meanwhile, the periphery turns into a battleground pitting development against nature. The city’s need (or at least its tendency) to expand outward becomes the enemy of farms and green space. How did these widely variable elements come to be fixed in such stark, irresolvable opposition? What common ground or common purpose can be found?
Where we live now is a dynamic, shifting landscape of all these things: nature, dense settlement, rich and poor, wild and planned. None of it resembles the old ideals of city and countryside, despite massive investments of money and law to force the construction or preservation of these ideals. The landscapes where we live are obstinate and ungainly, spoiling our ideals at every turn. So how can we live here and understand it, as it is? How can we finally leave the long, divisive story of the city and the countryside behind us? An answer lies nascent in Thomas Sieverts’s text, which describes the hybridity, dynamism, and polycentricity of the landscapes where we live. As he puts it, “they have both urban and rural characteristics. Where we live lies between the singular, particular site as geographical-historical event and the sameness of all space in the global economy; between space as a field of immediate experience and space as a distance measured solely by time; between a still-surviving myth of the city and a countryside just as deeply rooted in our dreams.” In every way, Sieverts says, this landscape is “in between;” that is, the once-solid polarities by which we had organized space and place have collapsed into an entirely new condition. “Following tradition,” Sieverts goes on, “we still call this sort of development a ‘city.’ Or we designate it with such abstract concepts as ‘conurbation,’ ‘metro region,’ or ‘urbanized countryside,’ because we realize how inadequately we grasp these spaces with our concept ‘city.’” Uneasy with any existing terms, Sieverts coined the term Zwischenstadt, which literally means “in-between city.”
Among the many urban historians who have described these landscapes, Sieverts is neither the best known nor the most influential. His neologism, Zwischenstadt, is used by European planners; but, despite retaining the original German in extant English and Japanese translations, Zwischenstadt has not been broadly adopted as a tool by planners elsewhere. Nor has it fueled the popular imagination the way that other terms, such as “edge city,” have. Sieverts suffers from his place in-between, catering to neither planners nor the public, but making a middle ground that beckons both. His insistence that the professions of architecture and planning alone cannot solve the problems of the city does not lend itself to easy adoption by planners. Yet neither does he cede the task to strictly populist solutions. He insists on the value of a specialist discourse but argues that it cannot function apart from the realms of art and literature or the public imagination. As in the built environment itself, these once-solid divisions have collapsed. All of this follows from Sieverts’s central assertion: that the middle ground, the new in-between condition, must be articulated. The popular imagination is the key to better urban planning. If this middle ground, where the work of planners and the popular imagination find a new common language, is neglected, then nothing will shift us away from the tragedy of the city and country and into frank engagement with the landscapes where we live. Sieverts alone seems to grasp the radical nature of this shift. He is not content to help planners revise their understanding of the city, but insists that they rethink that starting place entirely. He acknowledges that while we mourn the passing of old forms, we must also dispense with them. He has no appetite for the tragedy of the city. That drama is done. The negation of the city is terrifying, yet Sieverts insists on nothing less. Better, he turns this negation into an affirmation of something else, a pattern of settlement at once more sustainable, more enduring, and more deeply inscribed.
The shortcoming of nearly every other account of the contemporary city is the unbreakable tether to Marx’s history, to the city as an expression of agriculture and the emergence of markets, class division, and domination—the story of town and country. No matter the landscape, all our thoughts and analyses go back to that narrow model of urbanism. And any path forward is charted by the compass of those lost ideals, obliging us to navigate the future by moving either away from or back toward them.
But what if change does not happen this way? What if competing logics and contradictory stories persist, coexisting through time and space, like the radio signals that fill the ether, silent and unheard until we tune them in? What other histories lie dormant in the night? This book attempts to recover one—the story of urban settlement in North Pacific America before the mid-nineteenth-century arrival of Euro-American “city builders.” It is just one history, and there may be many more. (The discovery of polycentric urban settlement dating back 1,500 years, in Upper Xingu, in the Brazilian Amazon, was announced as this book went to press.) By looking for urbanism where Marx saw only tribes, we hope to recover a useful history of the landscapes where we live now.
“North Pacific America” is the name poet Richard Jensen gives to the west coast of North America, more or less from Sitka down to Brookings, and as far inland as a car can go in a day. His label is meant to replace old names like “the Northwest” (a geographical misnomer that stemmed from the Northwest Fur Company’s early-nineteenth-century monopoly on the region’s furs) or “Cascadia” (an ecological region defined by certain watersheds that are regularly and repeatedly contravened by roads, capital, people, and the crossways movement of nearly everything except fish). North Pacific America was a coherent cultural region, home to immense, complex trading networks (as many as 11 distinct language families that nevertheless shared central trade depots, a common trade language, and a fiat currency that was recognized across thousands of miles), long before the arrival of Euro-American travelers. The several dozen nations that lived here before the British and Americans (and for a long time, with them) shaped an in-between landscape that was a predecessor to ours today.
Here we find an urban history rich with the interdependency of global and local forces; the shaping force of flows; the blurring of time and place; and the inextricable interpenetration of the built environment and nature, of town and country. This polycentric, dynamic landscape was home to a settled population of more than one hundred thousand. Because they lacked agriculture and other tropes of European urban life, these settlements have never been looked at as cities. But the new lens provided by Sieverts and Manuel Castells, among others, brings the history of where we live now, an urban history, into focus in these long-enduring patterns of indigenous settlement.
So, what good will this do? As Sieverts points out, the challenges we face cannot be solved by architects and urban planners alone. If we ask them to continue building our lost ideals of city and country, they can only extend the grim pleasure of our tragedy. Instead, we face the considerably harder work of shedding our ideals and learning new images and patterns. What we lack is imagination—the ability to articulate new patterns—a problem that is better addressed through art and literature than through any catalog of acceptable urban design. History is the scaffold on which art and writing grow.
For the most part, artists and writers have had to choose a nostalgic mode or work against history. Accounts that run counter to the story of the city and the country either organize themselves as reactionary or remain incomprehensible. This is a hard position to work from. So long as we write or imagine against a history—against a shared story of how we came to be—we generate imitative work, a kind of negative image of that which we react against. Writing against history can never change the subject; it can only go on talking about the same thing, negatively.
This book traces a different history, a new history to work from. It follows this with the first fruits of the art and literature emerging from it, work that comes from a positive articulation of a common past. The power of this work, this shared story (as against the hard struggles of reactionary art that critiques and inevitably reinforces an oppressive history) is bracing. It is possible that it could also become liberating.
Tragedy is exhausting. Our spirits need something better. This book is not a work of scholarship—it is a provocation, a call to historians and writers and artists to begin the hard work of showing us where we live now. History and art and literature matter. They are essential instruments for making a better future, a landscape where we all can live, eyes wide open, without tragedy and regret.
Suddenly Sprawl: An evening with the spoken word performance group Voices, a screening in the courtyard of the the 2009 Re-Film Festival, projections, and music from KSPC's mobile DJ Unit. Thursday, April 2 8-11pm
A People’s Ecology of LA County featuring photography by Ashwin Sriram Balakrishnan (09) and Students of the Bright Prospect Scholar Program opens at the Smith Campus Gallery April 8, 2009 7-9pm
A People’s Ecology of LA County featuring photography by Ashwin Sriram Balakrishnan (09) and Students of the Bright Prospect Scholar Program opens at the Smith Campus Gallery April 8, 2009 with a reception from 7-9pm and is on view April 8-19, 2009. Sponsored by the Hart Institute, the Office of Student Affairs, and Pomona College Museum of Art, the exhibition provides members of our community with insights into how students, citizens, and artists experience our surroundings. Too often our real differences in experiences make people uncomfortable and unwilling to consider and cherish difference; A People’s Ecology of LA County attempts to disrupt that by incorporating photography of high school students from the community, Ashwin Balakrishnan’s photographic exploration of the San Gabriel River, and artist Michael Hebb’s Pomona Walk in Pomona College Museum of Art exhibition Suddenly where we live now.
Both the Pomona Walk and the San Gabriel River project comment on human interactions with the environment – built and natural. The desired outcome is for viewers to question how the mapping, partitioning, and social architecture of our surroundings effects how we interact with the people and places in our community. The photography project with the youth of Bright Prospect Scholar Program is also working towards the same goal. Pomona is the neglected city of our district and has been deemed a place of violence and illicit culture by politicians and the media. The youth of Bright Prospects are attempting to disrupt this representation with their photographs.
The Bright Prospect is a non-profit charitable organization headquartered in the city of Pomona. Bright Prospect collaborates with high schools in low-income urban areas to identify and nurture young people who, against seemingly insurmountable odds, are determined to realize their dream of a college education. More information on Bright Prospect Scholars can be found at www.brightprospect.org.
WHERE WE LIVE NOW: an annotated reader
Edited by Matthew Stadler
This annotated reader offers better tools for making sense of the often sprawling landscapes where we live now. It presents the work of urban planner Thomas Sieverts, in a new English translation by Diana George, and uses Sieverts's description of the "in-between landscape" to open our eyes to where we live now. The readings collected in this book inspect indigenous settlement patterns in North America for pre-European examples of sustainable urbanism that is also "in-between" or decentered. For more information about this book, see www.suddenly.org
WHERE WE LIVE NOW: an annotated reader can be purchased at Pomona College Museum of Art for $20.
Digital copies and additional readers can be purchased on lulu.com