[-empyre-] from rural upstate NY: Re: on re-thinking our practices

Renate Ferro rtf9 at cornell.edu
Sun Mar 18 03:39:47 EST 2012

Dear Teddy, Ana and all,
I have been lurking silently this month overwhelmed with the
bureaucracy of university teaching and the admissions process.  I was
so moved by your post Teddy that I sent it to my graduate students who
are very interested in bringing everyday life back to their practices
in a political and social way.  For the past twenty years or so I have
working within  local political grassroots organization. IN fact right
now we are working hard on getting New York State legislation passed
that will place a moratorium on hydro-fracking which is a toxic
process of mining natural gas with water. Hydro-fracking is staged in
remote, rural areas where many of the poor and lower-middle class
residents live and is advertised as a promise to incite the local
stagnant economies. Historically the poor and lower class residents
have been driven away from living in the urban centers because the
cost of living is too high. In upstate New York there is a huge
economic disparity between upstate and downstate but most residents
agree that hydro-fracking would rape the local ecosystem. A few years
ago a large landfill was opened also as a promise to encourage
economic growth.  The waste from the urban centers about five and half
hours away are carted by tarped garbage transports that dump garbage
in rural Seneca Falls, the home of the suffrage movement in the
1860's. If you travel on the upstate Thruway between Syacuse and
Rochester passersby can see the reflective expanse of the monstrous
waste site.  How strange that the site of the women's movement is
adjacent to a landfill. My political work I see as always separate
from my day to day teaching and art practice but perhaps it is not so

Ana thank you so much for shepherding this month's discussion. Your
nurturing spirit yet insistent and urgent political and social point
view is very welcomed within our soft-skinned space.  My apologies to
all of you for not being as vocal as I should be but please know that
I have been reading all of your posts and am truly thankful to you Ana
and to all of your guests and I look forward to two weeks more.

Warmest Wishes, Renate

On Sat, Mar 17, 2012 at 12:49 AM, Ana Valdés <agora158 at gmail.com> wrote:
> Teddy, wonderful post, thank you for it! It made me think hard and to try to
> back to myself. Yesterday on a military base, a human body was recovered.
> Bones and clothes, nothing more. Today the remains are being examinated by
> doctors and judges. It's not CSI, it's reality for the whole South America,
> for the Balkans, for Rwanda. Massgraves are not longer exception but the
> norm.
> Last year I was in Guatemala, your old homeland, and met Rigoberta Menchu
> and leaders for indigenous communities in Quiche, in Chichicastenango, in
> Huehuetenango, the Cuchumatans Mountains, in Yalamojoch. Every village had
> massgraves and people walk around when new graves were found to identify
> some missing relatives. A DNA proof was more common than an pregnancy test.
> This days Montevideo is hosting the big meeting of the BID, one of the
> international bank organizations responsable for apply the newliberal
> measures demanded by the capital.
> It's a irony to see all the bureaucrats travel around in shiny limos greeted
> by ministers and dignitaries and we, the rest of the country, waiting for
> the name of the recovered body.
> We all have people there, still unburied. Friends, relatives, teachers,
> neighboors.
> How should we do to make all these parallel stories converge?
> Ana
> On Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 10:31 PM, Teddy Cruz <cruzroe at earthlink.net> wrote:
>> 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.
>> Abrazos,
>> Teddy
>> -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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>> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
>> http://www.subtle.net/empyre
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Renate Ferro
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art
Cornell University
Department of Art, Tjaden Hall Office #420
Ithaca, NY  14853
Email:   <rtf9 at cornell.edu>
URL:  http://www.renateferro.net
Lab:  http://www.tinkerfactory.net

Managing Co-moderator of -empyre- soft skinned space

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