see the video excerpt


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


Kai Matsumiya:
Rainer, could you first say something briefly about the context of this film production.

Rainer Ganahl:
EL MUNDO was a classical low income neighborhood discount shop where I’d been shopping since 1997 for stuff like toilet paper, detergents, and so on. Over the years, I started to realized that the location was once a theater or opera house. The sign GOING OUT OF BUSINESS IN TWO WEEKS signaled everything. Immediately, I got the idea to recreate for one night an imagined past glory of a classical music performance amidst all the mess El Mundo contained. I knew I had to act fast. I succeeded with the help of some amazing people: my friend Rachel Koblyakov who attended Julliard School of music invited her colleagues, Ken Okiishi, an artist friend and an accomplished musician and Matthew Higgs who is hosting us this evening at White Columns. Later covered the one night rent and used his mailing list that got us quite some amazing public to attend – and as in my Seminar/Lecture photographs, I am always very interested in documenting audiences. Thanks to all of them.

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.

Saskia Sassen:
Let me just say first that it’s an astounding. It’s truly magical, disruptive, original. I love the juxtapositions. Second point that struck me – it’s profoundly an urban event. You cannot do this in a suburb or an office park. The fact that the making of it entailed access to all of these different worlds, it’s truly an “assembling of”. An “assembling of” the people places, instruments, cameras, everything you were saying, lies a kind of making that cities enable. My third point is that while these cities, global cities are really places of power or kinds of production sites where powerful actors meet, ranging from financial powerhouses and also big cultural-entrepreneurial types, but these are also sites of places without power. They produce a whole lot of low wage labor but can gain a kind of complexity in their powerlessness. I think that you capture some of that. This is a shop that sold toilet paper, low cost suits, all of the left over things. There are also these wonderful musicians, all of them from Julliard. This is to me what a city should be. They should have extraordinary intersections of these amazing different worlds which would normally do not run into each other in other settings. The fourth point is that it marks a space of indeterminacy. When you are there, when the musicians are there, mucking around with a camera, the thing that strikes me is that I’d like to operate a “non X” which is what it suggests – indeterminacy. That indeterminacy is critical for cities and for us. And it’s at risks. What we see in these cities are mega projects, luxury hotels, luxury residential housing, luxury this and that which eliminate the indeterminacy of these spaces – a critical element for us. Cities are threatened by these determinate projects which eliminate the messiness, the indeterminacy.

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.

Let me ad here one detail about EL MUNDO which goes in the same direction and underlines the involved complexities in light of the current political madness. The shop owner while selling a lot of Christian kitsch was an Iraqi Jew who spoke Arabic in this East Harlem neighborhood where the current demographic is Latino, hence very Catholic or at least Christian with an abundance of churches that mushroomed during Harlem’s hardest times. But that wasn’t the case, when the building was constructed over 100 years ago. I found an old New York Times article of 1902 which identifies mostly Italian, Germans, Jews and only about 10 % African Americans in this part of Harlem. Also, there was an elevated train on 2nd and 3rd Avenue which connected to the Lower East Side. This allowed East Harlem to replicate the Manhattan Lower East Side with a similar demographic profile after it got crowded down there. Hence I was very happy to present this film project first at Kai Matsumiya’s space on the Lower East Side which already has been undergoing a dramatic economic and demographic transformation – say gentrification -  the way it is slowly starting now also in Spanish Harlem. It should be stated that East Harlem is most likely the last ignored space for the real estate industry in Manhattan and about to be targeted for redevelopment with a newly built 2nd Avenue subway line and planned rezoning for high rise buildings, which is the latest face of mega capitalist luxurious housing elevated a notch closer to the sun. 

The way you marked it was brilliant. The classical musicians entering that space and time as if this were the “normal”, it captures a certain urbanity.

The pianist was born in Beijing, the violinist in Russia, the soprano in Korea, the baritone in small town Midwest America, the shop workers in the Middle East and me in alpine Austria. Now, we all live here in New York City.  

Even if it were all local New Yorkers, it doesn’t matter. Worlds were getting mixed. I don’t want to emphasize the spectacular mix of nationalities. They all belong to different worlds. The musicians were doing their thing. So to me, it captures a lot of dimensions that often get lost.

The musicians came from one performance and had to ran off to yet another event right after their great performance. I was surprised by how quickly they moved in and out. They hadn’t even seen the space before, laughed out loud their surprise and just started to perform. The shopkeepers too had not really understood what was going on until it happened. They warned me about the police station next door. One Arab employee expected a strange party and asked me with a certain spin whether women would attend as well. There was a very interesting mix of expectations in the air. Already the delivery of the grand piano wasn’t easy and the leasing company called me to the spot asking for explanations and whether I am sure I want the piano delivered to this dilapidated uncharacteristic l place. I had to do a lot of explaining. Once we had it set up inside – amidst all the very cheap stuff for sale -  the grand piano became a strange object and was in strong contrast to its low cost surrounding that was all for sale or destruction. People were shopping and used it immediately to place some soft drinks, coats and bags on it. Kids came in and hammered around until they were stopped. We all got somehow nervous. I didn’t know to the very last moment whether they would let me even do a concert and keep the store open after its designated closing hour. The store manager took the agreed money and took off. He gave little directions and explanations to its store workers who didn’t see any of the rental fee I paid which explained why they pressured me for money and wanted to close the shop down already half into the one hour long event and just go home. They were also a bit concerned the contrasting down town audience could shoplift.  

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.

That’s right. In fact there’s a lot of unoccupied land in Manhattan. It’s quite interesting to see.

How would you explain that East Harlem has been so resistant to gentrification and redevelopment since there is no fundamental difference to other parts of Harlem of which most is really in a process of massive transformation?

I would need to know the site in order to have an answer. However, real cities have that anarchic quality into it. It’s unlike an office park where it’s unacceptable that contingent elements are put into it. That’s part of what it is.

There’s hardship in the city. It’s brutal. But it’s true, there’s a lot of non-structured realities. What Rainer does successfully is that he brings in high brow types from the art and classical musical worlds into this kind of space – it brings to life a larger picture of the city.

Kai Matsumiya:
You mentioned that sites in the city are assemblages of power but in fact we have to carefully observe where the powerless sometimes have agency. How can we identify these moments and what happens?

Good question. Capitalism has always been brutal.  I am writing an article entitled “Does the City have Speech?” I want to recover at the ground level the particular features, the mixture of elements, where brutalized people have speech. Also does the city talk back? I say yes it does but we’ve forgotten that language. I’ve documented  a lot of the brutalities but yet I won’t allow the brutalizing forces to have the full power of narrating the histories. I want to recover other voices. Put a group of people in a plantation, not an office park, the powerlessness is elementary. They do not get to make a history. Think of Harlem. It was a situation of enormous inequality and racisms, but Harlem and the Blacks became makers of music, arts, culture. They inhabit. That doesn’t mean that there were victories which overrode the brutalizing forces. No. The brutalizing forces are there. This is a tough world. The city makes that visible. We cannot have that romantic notion of the pretty suburb. You continuously see that in New York. I think there is power in that, it’s a kind of speech.

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.

I love differences between people and their affairs. I am interested in heterogeneity of all sorts, economic, educational, social and cultural. In the case of El Mundo, it was great bringing all these with diverse people together to work and participate as audience in a completely unusual atypical setting. Even the content of the work itself varies strongly since opera today is associated with a luxurious form of cultural consumption whereas the original content  - lets say in Carmen which we also staged – refers to an exploited early factory female worker of colonial products under duress and gender bias.

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.           

I’m not sure if I understand your concept of when the “city talks back”. Who is talking back? Can you please elaborate?

The city enables. Here you have Julliard, here you have gentrification, you have that shop that has existed for so decades, so the city contains all of this. You cannot have this event in a neat suburb. Here the city has so many diverse worlds and capabilities, and it enables mixing up. When I say the city talks back, we tend to think of the city as a kind of space where things are plopped in and out. I want you to recognize that the city has its own way of being present. I used the example of the fancy car being in a crowded downtown center which reduces it to a little crawling thing.

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.

Matthew Higgs:
Thank you so much to Rainer, Saskia, and Kai. This concludes our discussion.  


Edited but not copy-edited transcription of a discussion that took place at White Columns, June 2014. Moderater Kai Matsumiya.