[-empyre-] on re-thinking our practices

Teddy Cruz cruzroe at earthlink.net
Sat Mar 17 08:31:14 EST 2012

Dear Ana,
Thanks for inviting to be part of this conversation! I had not been able to participate until now. I have been reading the postings and also have been taking notes, so wanted to share a few thoughts in response to a few issues that have come up. I have delineated them as a series of fragments and provocations below.  
Thanks again for making part of this particular topic's discussion.

-We are all aware of how the institutionalization of greedy capitalism in the last decades not only widened the gap between wealth and poverty so dramatically, but also defined a radically conservative socio-economic agenda, impacting urban planning policy and legislation.
-We are all aware of how this situation ultimately has incrementally yielded the erosion of public culture, infrastructure and education, polarizing communities and jurisdictions everywhere.  
-We are all aware of how the many crises of the last decades recur and recur, and while these crises have always prompted the search for fundamental institutional ‘change,’ we now know how that ‘change’ only sought the status quo, yielding more of the same.
-While all of this is obviously clear, the question remains: How are we to re-organize as artists, communities, to perform a more effective project that can enable institutional modifications? (I will get to this later- because you might ask: why modifications? If, in fact, comprehensive change is what we are clamoring for). 
-And yes, I underlined -effective project- because what we need is a more functional set of operations that can reconnect art to the urgency of the everyday and the re-thinking of the institutions. Or as Tania Brugera said to me a while back: This is the time to restore Duchamp’s urinal back to the bathroom.
-Can conflict itself become a tool to enable a more critical debate beyond our clichés and the clichés of the other, as well as the retooling of artistic practices?
-What I mean is that while we debate the ‘differences’ between ‘resistance’ and ‘resilience,’ capitalism has stolen those terms from ‘us’ already, a long, long time ago.
-And I say ‘stolen’ because those and many other terms in the last two decades initially emerged from the ‘left,’ in our attempt to ‘resist’ binary thought: ‘fluidity,’ ‘multiplicity,’ ‘hybridity,’ ‘self-organization,’ ‘anti-centralization, and beyond. But, as Micah White pointed out a while back, soon these concepts were instrumentalized by digitalized capitalism itself, as the devices for installing the hegemony of a borderless and wireless ‘new economy.’
-Now we weep! We let ‘them’ steal them is because those concepts remained sheltered statically either as symbolic representations or simply as academic categories inside our cultural institutions; either wrapped as ‘poetic’ devices or metaphorically isolated; i.e., I cannot help but to think of the performance described in one of the postings last week: artists staying in their beds as act of resistance!
-So, while we debate the ‘meanings’ of those terms, or the incorrectedness of ‘using’ them because we might be risking sounding like the ‘enemy,’ capitalism has enabled them operationally, defining a different set of strategies to camouflage and re-deploy itself once again, muddling the distinctions between resistance and complicity.
-Much has been written about this, so I just wanted to bring the topic back to our conversation: The urgency to re-take those terms and uphold them not metaphorically but ‘performatively,’ as ways to infiltrate ourselves into existing institutional protocols. In other words, I am less interested on what those terms ‘mean’ to us and more on what they can ‘do’ to the institutions.
-So, as a gesture of self critique: we need to transcend our self-entitled position as artists, pretending to exist outside the institutions. The institutions have in fact defined our practices and the roles we play in the world in the last decades.
-In my mind, this has been extremely problematic: to think that the ‘avant-garde’ project has always needed a ‘critical distance’ from the hegemony of the insitutions in order to critique the institutions. Today, more than ever, we need to engage a project of ‘critical proximity,’ to these institutions; in fact, re-organize ourselves as we infiltrate the institution’s own logics of organization. As Jean Genet’s posting reminded us through Zizek: ‘Let’s look at how hegemoic response organizes itself’ –as a point of departure.
- in this context two references come to mind: One is Zizek’s statement that it is easier to imagine the end of the world by a climatic disaster or a cosmic collision than to imagine modest changes in Capitalism. Even if I am pissed right now and  I also demand comprehensive change, I am coming to reflect that the most persuasive change is incremental, small, tactical and agile. I am interested in this idea of ‘modest alterations,’ not only in terms of the city, but of existing institutional processes. With this thought he also points out the need to re-imagine ‘utopia,’ less idealized as a ‘promised land’ and more as an emergent set of conditions that can only be engaged by the present sense of urgency. Only an urgent imagination –not a free imagination- can push us to construct alterations of the existing real, the now. It is within this immediacy where utopia dwells.
-The other reference is from Chantal Mouffe. Her notion of ‘agonism’ has transformed reductive ways of thinking about public space. Public space for Mouffe is a battle ground where the hegemony of institutional power is exposed and visualized. An ‘agonistic’ model here opens a different role for art in engaging interventions in the ‘debate’ itself. By amplifying its mediatory role to advance a more critical conversation across polarized actors and institutions, an agonistic model of art complicates the facile relationship between ‘friend and enemy.’ These ideas begin to forward a new way of facilitating critical urban pedagogical models that intervene directly in the gap that has unfortunately divided urban policy and a collective imagination in our time.
-In fact, this is how one of the most critical sites for artistic investigation and practice today is the gap itself that currently exists between institutions and publics. How to produce critical interfaces with the public to debate the conditions that have produced environmental, economic and social crises in the first place? How to reconnect public policy, social justice and civic imagination?
-Finally, through my own interests in terms of my work at the Tijuana-San Diego border, I am realizing the need to take ‘detours’ from architecture in order to contact the domains that have remained peripheral to design itself, namely economy and policy. Only the knowledge of the protocols embedded in stupid urban policy and discriminating economic models can give ‘us’ the ammunition to present counter models.
-Only by understanding –very well- the conditions that produced the current crises can we advance the conversation: those conditions themselves must be the material for artists today.  
-With this, I am suggesting that 
-‘We’ need to be the developers of our own housing (the site of intervention is the developer’s spreadsheet), 
-We need to be the producers of new political processes and economic models (the site of intervention is the very politics and economics that have perpetuated a selfish urbanization in our time), 
-We need to be the enablers of new models of political representation and participation (the site of intervention is education itself and the very notion of community: who represents who during this period of transformation)
-We need to be the ones who visualize and expose institutional conflict (the site of intervention is educational processes themselves, at the scale of the urban)
-This does not mean that we will ‘escape’ the city into an autonomous ‘alternative village-commune’ where we will compost ourselves to death. If we retreat like this, we will end up being another enclave in the compendium of enclaves that have atomized the city into isolated and fragmented parts. At this moment this means that our work needs to complicate itself by infiltrating existing institutional protocols, negotiating modest alterations, and being persuasive enough so that stealth, bottom up urban resiliency can become the agile device to transform top down policy and economy.
-We need to re-think our practices, our procedures, not only to enable such bottom up creative intelligence to scale up but to also participate more meaningfully in the retrofitting of existing political and economic systems.

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