Four modest attempts towards A socially relevant public art

by Pablo Leon de la Barra

Art should not only be about creating aesthetic objects referring only to themselves or to the history of art, but about how groups or individuals can give visibility to that which affects them in order to help us better understand and transform our world. Still, when reality has such a presence it is not enough to document or give visibility to the forces of social, political and economical inequality and injustice. If there is any role to be played by art as a social mediator it consists on how to articulate and engage with the other members of society. The aesthetic act is needed in order to re-calibrate relations within otherwise fragmented societies. It is then that art uncovers its potential as a tool for social, cultural and political change and exchange.

However, questions continue to exist that need to be answered if art is to continue engaging with the social and political realities of a determined context:
1. How to engage with those that exist outside of the world of art without exploiting, exoticising or aestheticising them?
2. How can art production continue to belong within the aesthetic realm without being only denunciation, representation or documentation?
3. How can these tensions be reconciled, while recognising that the artist is not a social worker, a charity, or a politician?

1. El Cerro Museum
Puerto Rico 02, M&M Proyectos, October 2002

During ten days in October 2002 I lived in El Cerro, an informal settlement part of a Naranjito, a small village located one hour from San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. Chemi Rosado, an artist from Puerto Rico, had been working in El Cerro during one year, painting with the community the facades of the houses in different shades of green. The art project served to integrate the community in a town confronted with social problems including small scale drug trafficking as a strategy of economic survival.

During the time there, I visited the houses of El Cerro asking the inhabitants for objects that were significant to their personal or community history that could be borrowed in order to form part of the collection for El Cerro’s Museum to be located inside the abandoned Community Centre. The objects on loan, documented the triumphs and dramas of daily life in El Cerro, and ranged from the historical to the personal, including family photographs, decorative paintings, personal documents, sport awards, plants, furniture and music. The Museum gave the possibility to the inhabitants of El Cerro to negotiate their own history and visibility among themselves and the visitors to the Museum.

2. Chabola
Monasterio de la Cartuja, Sevilla, May 2003

In February 2003 I visited Sevilla to do a site visit to the place where the seminar "De Lo Mismo A Lo De Siempre: Informal Strategies in the Occupation of Public Space" would take place. The seminar would happen in May 2003 and within it I would build an Information Centre/Discussion Platform to be used by the event’s participants. My original idea was to build a space that would be an abstraction of the aesthetics of informality of Mexico City. During the days I was in Sevilla I followed in the newspapers a story about an illegal settlement of Rumanian gypsies living under the Patrocinio Bridge who were being dislocated and their house being demolished by the city’s authorities. I visited the place where I found a series of particularities: 1. the construction technique, materials and aesthetic of the houses was similar to the ones found in informal settlements in Mexico; 2. I was being invited to Sevilla to talk about informal strategies in Mexico, when in Sevilla there existed similar situations which were being eradicated and which ignored at least four decades of practice and research on how to deal with informal settlements. After visiting the settlement and talking with the inhabitants I invited them to collaborate and work with me in the construction of the Information Centre/Discussion Platform, celebrating their construction knowledge, a knowledge that I didn’t have.

When I returned to Sevilla in May, a week before General Elections, the settlement had been totally destroyed, including the houses of those who were in Spain legally. The Rumanians had been displaced and were nowhere to be found. The Information Centre/Discussion Platform then took the form of a “Chabola” (name given to shanty houses in Spain) and was built with the remains, found on site, of the Rumanian settlement. The newspapers with the history of the disappearance of the Gipsy Settlement were exhibited on site.

3. Pablo’s Jogging Tour
Localismos, Historic Centre, Mexico City, June 2004

Mexico City’s Historic Centre (a.k.a. El Centro) was once the centre of urban, social and economical life of the city and the site where the Spanish conquerors founded their capital over the Aztec city of México-Tenochtitlan. The Centre had been suffering continuous deterioration since the early XX century when it had been abandoned by the elite. Today, the Fundación del Centro Historico, is determined to change El Centro’s fate. With an initial investment in 2004 of over $300 million U.S. dollars and a long-term regeneration plan, the Fundación bought 70 buildings in El Centro to be converted into housing units in order to start the centre’s gentrification. In return, the City’s government has invested in urban infrastructure, introduced a new police force, installed high security closed circuit cameras, and been displacing and relocating the street sellers. Fundación del Centro Historico was also one of the main sponsors of Localismos, a residential workshop in which a group of 20 international artists, worked for a month in the centre of Mexico City producing works in dialogue with the context. The presence of the artists within Localismos was seen as an asset by the Fundacion, who understood that contemporary art is one of the determinant factors that ensure an areas gentrification.

It is in El Centro where historical identity is imposed by the elite and where this identity is challenged by the occupation of space by those in less privileged positions. While the elite sees and defends the Centre as a place where it can access past history, for the lower classes the Centre is the place that provides immediate access to the commodities, lifestyle and information of late capitalist modernity in the form of pirate CDs, DVDs of recent Hollywood hits, and clothing and accessories of fake brands like Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap and Louis Vuitton. Jogging Tour exemplifies the battle for the use of private and public space in the City’s centre: while avoiding street sellers occupying the sidewalks as a way of economic survival, the parcourse of Pablo’s Jogging Tour visits selected moments (monuments) of resistance to the Historic Centre’s gentrification, including families in the risk of eviction from their buildings most of them appropriated when they lost their houses during the earthquake of 1985.

4. Songs for Larissa: Moving Musical Procession
with the collaboration of Larissa’s Philharmonic Municipal Orchestra, Director Maestro Jorgos Minas,
Going Public’05, Larissa, May 2005

1. Serenade: a song or the performance of a song used to court somebody, traditionally sung by a man in the evening outside a woman’s window. Also called serenata
2. From the list of songs played by Larissa’s Municipal Philharmonic Orchestra, ask the members of the band what songs they would like to play to the city of Larissa. From the list of songs, ask myself, what songs would I like the band to play.
4. Select 5 to 10 of these songs.
5. Select 5 to 10 public places in the city of Larissa. Select them because they are places of urban or social conflict, because they are abandoned, because they are iconic or representative of the city, because they are where certain groups live there, because they are special, because they need love etc.
6. During a day take serenade to the different places singing the selected songs: a moving musical procession crossing the city of Larissa from one edge of the city to the other.

Songs played by Larissa’s Municipal Philharmonic Orchestra:

1. Love Story by Francis Lai (at Milos/Larissa’s Contemporary Art Centre)
2. Beautiful Maria of my Soul by Robert Kraft (at Maria Papadimitriou’s Motel at Filellinon Street)
3. My Way by Francois (at Fabiana de Barros Peripeton at St. Velisarios Square)
4. Never on Sunday by Manos Hadjidakis (at Larissa’s Postal Square)
5. What a Wonderful World by George Weiss and Bob Thiele (at Larissa’s Railway Station)