see the video excerpt
SASKIA SASSEN - RAINER GANAHL
EL MUNDO or Why was there a Classical Music Concert at an East Harlem Super Discount Store Two Weeks Before its Eviction Date ?
Screening and conversation at White Columns, June 21, 2014
- not cleaned of typos and gramatical, mistakes
From the very beginning I conceived this EL MUNDO concert as a living film set. Having had almost no resources I simply relied on members of the audience for help with filming and photographing since I myself could only operate one camera at the time. First, I installed two cameras on tripods and handed some to various people including some I hadn’t seen before. With all this diverse footage I decided on a two screen version of the work which allowed me to feed various views, alternating times and materials filmed days before the concert happened while the shop was fully operational and patrons present. The only professionals hired were a 16mm camera man for black and white footage to evoke the past and a sound engineer since I also planed a vinyl record.
Most of the digital film recording that filled the left screen was filmed with the help of a tripod and a friend who operated the camera with simple instructions to just cover the musicians and the singers. The right screen presents all alternative views and pre-recordings including the black and white footage. The 16mm footage opens and closes the film on both screens. When I am visible on the left screen filming with a hand held HD camera the right screen offers what my camera records. This rule applies strictly throughout the film. But when no camera was seen the right screen presented all other available footage including pre-recordings from the shop. These pre-recordings allowed for camera travelings over commodities on display for sale. In two instances one sees also patrons shopping. Aside of pre-recordings, all views were synchronized and edited to the music. That was just a little idea of what we just saw.
Besides the question of inequality, our cities are threatened by the over determinacy of these urban spaces. You capture in an extraordinary way this indeterminacy like an enactment, of the material elements that constitute an indeterminate space. I bet you that some of these people – the audience and the players - can shop at these places. You need toilet paper and it’s there. It’s a wonderful thing. Of course many parts of NYC capture that at the neighborhood level. But many parts of NYC that used to capture that have become mega projects. Final point: on the non-X vector, I cannot say to most urban planners that a city is a city. So I need to go back to the non-x, that version which forces me to revisit citiness sufficiently remove from the actually thing, I have to rediscover the city.
A city is a complex but incomplete space. Those are constitutive elements. Coming back to that building with so many histories – a good city, a real city, both complex and incomplete, makes it impossible for a city to actually live a very long life and outlive the formal institutions which have or had far more power. Think of any good old city around the world. Even New York has outlived political regimes, powerful corporations, financial firms. In other places we’re talking about republics, kingdoms. Take Instanbul, Beijing, etc. and many old elements and old histories are embedded there. It keeps being reinvented. But then there is that city. What that building captures in its multiple histories is precisely that. Something that belongs to citiness. It has outlived many epochs.
Audience: What do you mean by “complete” and please elaborate on why we need “indeterminacy” for the city?
Saskia: Because the history of that building says a lot. It’s because of its incompleteness that the city can keep reinveting. If it were complete it would also mean it would be a closed system. And so you need indeterminacy. When I try to give you an algorithm of the city, I cannot say “the city has a lot of people” etc. And so I try to find what are the critical variables and components and it keeps changing. The algorithm is an open structure. It comes in, comes out. The city has the capacity to talk back. Stuff comes in, stuff comes back, and the city transforms it.
So I am a critic when people say “a city is about density”. You can have very dense built up terrain – endless rows of office buildings, office parks, high rise housing complexes. That’s not a city. That’s density. It’s simple and complete. And when it decays, that’s it. A city must handle obsolescence. One of my arguments about the smart city debate is that when you plop too much technology into a building, it’s subjecting it to a high rate of obsolescence. The rate of obsolescence of a lot of the technical is much faster than just say a building made of wood or stone. There are multiple elements.
Final point, the reason why I really care about marking the city in this kind of way and not collapsing with such variables as density, built up terrain, population, an so on, is that without indeterminacy is that the powerless can make a history, politics. The same people, in a very different space like a plantation, the powerlessness is elementary. What Rainer captured so well is that the mixes of things, the space for making, and any of our cities have them. It’s a place that can attract the outsider, no matter the prejudices, racisms, etc. that are always there.
One project I’m doing now is called “Open sourcing the neighborhood” in the sense that every neighborhood contains within it – grandmothers, children, homeless, whatever- is that these people have forms of knowledge that are different from the center of the codified codifiers. We’re losing access to that knowledge. I’m not sure if they are going out of business or another building will still be there.
Rainer: Yes, there are people in East Harlem who are organized and resistant to these kinds of changes. The El Mundo building on 3rd Avenue and 103th street will be most likely subdivided into 4 or 5 floors. A New York Times article addressing the occupancy rate in Spanish Harlem helped me to open my eyes to the various histories of my neighborhood. Between 100th Street and 120th street on Third Avenue you can find my buildings that are unoccupied above the street level, a condition I was told dates back to the 1970s and that is how it looks. I made a 16mm color film on that strip addressing this particular issue entitled “Haunted Houses,” a term used by one of the persons interviewed in the Times article about these empty or under-occupied East Harlem buildings.
Think of a great car made for any kind of terrain, like a Ferrari, and put it in a crowded downtown. All those capabilities die and may not even be there because the car is crawling like the others. That’s an elementary image of how the city talks back. I’m interested in recovering the most complex forms. Think of all the struggles against classism, racism, etc. Some places enable that, others don’t. New York City, Birmingham in the South, the space of the city has been historically a space where those without power have fought battles. It doesn’t mean that they’ve eliminated injustice and inequality. This matters. We make nostalgia. That’s ok. A bit is ok. Let it all be there. I love a good city. I hate office parks, I hate suburbs because that messiness is not there.
Saskia: I want to now put on the table my book “expulsions” which documents these kind of horrors. We live in a terrible period. We are losing our capacity to make. When I see these semi-dead neighborhoods which are not making it, I think this is a bad period. I’m not a romantic. I look at it with clear eyes but I have done enough research to be convinced that across time, I ask myself the question “Do the powerless get to make history?” My answer is yes. But it takes them much more time than it takes power to make history. Look at Women’s rights, Black people’s rights – families and careers are destroyed. Entering into historiographies of a particular moment and it would seem hopeless. I’m not saying solutions are there for everything – it’s not – but I do have this transversal notion that the powerless do get to make histories under particular conditions and temporalities. In this country, we have this notion that if you don’t have power, you need to be “empowered” in order to make a difference, but that doesn’t happen often. I’m interested in the between zone, a penumbra, between “powerlessness” and “empowerment”. I think this is the zone which remains under-mapped, under-recognized, and this is when we can see complexities in their powerlessness. Art, music, may be places where they are flapped into powerless like plantations, to use an extreme case. The city is an important place for making even if you are not empowered.
When I first got to the University of Chicago, I wanted to know the South Side ghetto which is huge. A dear friend wanted to organize a car pool, I said Hell no! I wantd to take the bus which goes from the ghetto to a fancy place, the University of Chicago. It took 2 hours. The most elementary standardized vessel, as it moved through the ghetto, and there are many ghettos. It changed completely – every place imprinted itself in that standard vehicle. This is the city with its capacity to have speech, there is something. We have forgotten that language. Those streets, neighborhoods, they have speech. Let’s recognize it.
When Rainer brought in the musicians, audience, etc. the neighborhood mattered. The building is pregnant with much. I’m tired of “we”. “We people”, “we, our brilliant ideas”. “we, our projects”. There are other realities. Now I’m doing that with the biosphere where “What does the biosphere know how to do much better than we do at factories?” I want the biosphere to talk to us. There’s a whole world out there. I’m working with biologists and scientists – there’s a whole world out there. It’s a theoretical stance with empirical rationalities. The space itself made by people – who knows when – I’m interested in recovering these other presences which are not just “us”. But there are other presences – so I’m interested in biology and how they have “speech”. I’m interested in exiting the anthropogenic version of it all when we still have something left.
Edited but not copy-edited transcription of a discussion that took place at White Columns, June 2014. Moderater Kai Matsumiya.