The Magazine

Building Blocs

An exhibition at the intersection of politics, art, and urban design.

Feb 11, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 21 • By EVE TUSHNET
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What we see in action are the marginal uses, the repurposings. In “Occupying Social Borders,” we see David Goldblatt’s color photos of Johannesburg in 2001 and 2003. Here are people using the spaces—but not using them as they were envisioned. Instead they sit on the curb reading the newspaper while waiting to wash cars. They set up a tent tied down with rocks and construction debris, sitting on mismatched stools and chairs to make a barbershop out of broken things.

The most purely satisfying piece might be Didier Faustino’s 2002 photo and scale model, “Stairway to Heaven.” Faustino took a creepy, zigzagging concrete stairway from a public housing project—the thing is recognizable from across the room, it looks so exactly like what it is—and removed it from its depressing setting. He stood it by itself, with a single basketball court at the top in a kind of cage. You can watch someone shoot hoops, as he looks down and watches you. It’s the fantasy of escape through play. It’s a revolt against the housing-project aesthetic; it’s subversive and, in a sad way, hopeful.

We also see one smaller project go from start to finish, in raumlabor-berlin’s 2011 “Centiere Barca (Boat Yard).” In this video we see a German political art collective go to a poor Turin neighborhood and, through “a building workshop with the underprivileged population,” using a “bottom-up design process and recycling tactics,” transform a depressing public space with vulgar graffiti into a bright, pretty place with nice art. The sequence showing the actual building of the wooden artworks and structures is exciting and inspiring: There’s music, dancing, lots of kids playing, the joy of creation and of neighborhood solidarity. 

The sequences showing what happened after the art collective left are much too short. It’s impossible to tell from this video whether the new structures were actually accepted by the community, or whether they were abandoned and graffitied in their turn. The construction sequences show so much energy and optimism; but why don’t the videomakers let us hear more of what the people are saying? There’s a fast construction montage using lots of closeups of hands, which is pleasingly cinematic but serves to obscure faces and thereby hide any conflicts, discussions, or undisciplined emotions. Even in this ideologically human-scale project, the individual gets lost.

The opposite occurs in the powerful video that closes the show, Reynold Reynolds and Patrick Jolley’s 2002 “Burn.” This is part of the “+1” segment, which gets the title “Politics of the Domestic.” It’s an emotionally intense video of several people living in a house on fire. The colors are dirty, reddish, and grimy. The people’s expressions are recognizable from our own moments of willful self-defeat: the angry half-smile of a man, the messy bun of a woman who leafs through charred and burning notebooks. A man pours gas over a sleeping woman in a bed, then over his own head. When the burning man flails into the living room and falls on the coffee table, right in front of a couple seated on the couch—they just loll back and look at each other wearily. On the couch, her thumb strokes the back of his hand, and their heads touch tenderly, or exhaustedly, as they sit in a snowstorm of plaster and ash.

That’s domestic, all right; but the only political message I can discern is “This is who you’re designing for. This is human nature and you can roll with it or you can reject it, but it isn’t going to change.”

There’s a contradiction near the heart of secular, postmodern leftism. If our understandings of the world are created and imposed by power in the service of power, then change only represents the triumph of one power structure over another. A new, gentler, more egalitarian understanding of the world can itself only succeed when it’s imposed by a powerful elite on the ungentle masses. 

9 + 1 Ways of Being Political is a heartening attempt to recognize and evade that trap. Its most hopeful work suggests a low-rent, humanist kind of anarchism. In these works the small dreams—a library, music, work and ownership, freedom to play and imagine, knowing your neighbors—are the most beautiful ones.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers