Saturday, April 04, 2009

Report on The City From Below

A few quick and incomplete notes from last week's City From Below conference here in Baltimore. To call out the one downside of the weekend: this event had too many great things going on, in a schedule that was too densely packed. With four rooms in two venues: the Village Learning Place and the Red Emma Collective's 2640 Space; the hardest thing to do was to decide what to see. Luckily, almost all of the presentations and workshops now have video and/or audio online, looking forward to digging through the rest of those in the coming weeks.

The Baltimore Development Cooperative is an offshoot of the artist group campbaltimore, cheekily named as a nod to the Baltimore Development Corporation, itself a nonprofit QUANGO that exists as the most active and controversial planning agency in the city. The Cooperative presented their work on Participation Park, a multiyear project involving the occupation and use of several vacant lots in East Baltimore near the prison. The project, and the Cooperative itself, is kind of politics and art in action. It produces food, recreation and openspace, in an area that has lacked institutional investment for decades. It also inhabits these gradient layers of legitimacy and permission. It maintains its precarious quasi-official status by presenting itself as different things to different groups of constituents: a gathering place for the neighborhood, a land use strategy to the city, an agriculture project to some funding sources, and an art project to others. It will be interesting to watch how these mechanisms evolve as the project becomes more and more institutionalized.

This method, of creating a subversive project through multiple, overlapping presentations of identity, media, and action, became more explicit at a panel on Resisting Gentrification in the Creative City. The premise of the panel was that artists, or, to use possibly my new favorite term, 'cultural producers' are positioned as unwitting political agents in the Creative Class development strategy. This role, when recognized, becomes an opportunity to twist and even break the Creative Class narrative: instead of softening up neighborhoods that they themselves will then be priced out of, they can use their unasked-for political agency to create new channels for authentic investment and sustainable development in a specific place. Notes to self on other things to look up later: The Change You Want to See, a gallery project in Williamsburg, and Scapegoat, a new journal from the University of Toronto.

Another panel on Urban Sustainability raised other questions about the connection between art production and everyday life. Once a city and a society are recognized as existing at the confluence of various cycles, networks, and flows, how does the work of art become the relative orchestration of those systems to personal and political ends? And what is the relationship between, on one hand, a kind of personal aesthetic of craft, gardening, Doing It Yourself, and, on the other, the larger (or not?) questions of ethics and mutual responsibility? Does a personal commitment to re-use and making scale up to a society wide economic/labor system that makes sense? Is permaculture gardening viable as a societal model when it assumes a kind of lost stasis in an inherently dynamic system? Is it dangerous to tether long term cycles of resource management to much faster cycles of art and fashion?

I am increasingly fascinated by the space implied in questions like this. And increasingly interested in the practical implications of this shift away from the product and towards the network of production, activity, and agency. It was fitting that co-conspirator Eric Leshinsky and I picked this conference to formalize research under the banner of our newly inaugurated Working-group on Adaptive Systems (shoutout to fitnr: "working groups are the new institutes"). More to come about this, and about our presentation on Port Covington as a Baltimore Case Study.

As a coda, a lot of this stuff seems to be swirling around a kind of nodal point in Baltimore and elsewhere this weekend, some related events:

Harvard GSD's Ecological Urbanism Conference
Transmodern Festival in Baltimore
and on wednesday, don't miss Design Convo #7: TOOLS


paul bowman said...

this shift away from the product and towards the network of production, activity, and agency

Fred, a helpful item, to me, for seeing few things I'm aware of in larger relationship — thanks. Looking forward to more on the Adaptive Sys. business.

sevensixfive said...

Yeah, me too. For more on 'from x to y', see Adam Greenfield's Elements of Networked Urbanism:

sevensixfive said...

Oops, here's the link: link said...

Interesting project/park.
I like the idea of the creative class breaking their own narrative of gentrification.

Things like Participation Park are exactly what I want to get more involved with.

Also, the comment; about working groups is genius!!!

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