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A conversation with Saskia Sassen // Paula Alvarez

By: Vibok Works12/03/2013A conversation with Saskia Sassen // Paula Alvarez
Tags: CollaborationsPhoto: Saskia Sassen

We are pleased to share this fragment of the conversation between Saskia Sassen and Paula Álvarez, included in the chapter 'The Wishes' of the book Collective Architectures published by Vibok Works, 2010. © CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0.


Paula Alvarez: You have mentioned that certain projects exercise political power on urban spaces, such as the occupations Santiago Cirugeda has been carrying out for the past thirteen years, which, despite their humility, are compensations for the alienating experience lived in cities. Many of these projects unfold within the framework of urban art festivals and similar events. Do you think they could be considered options for constructing cities above and beyond contingency, exclusion or the extraordinary? Do you think these projects compromise critical capacity when they become part of circles that are in one way or another "commercial"?  

Saskia Sassen: I don’t feel that this type of work is exclusionary or extraordinary. Rather, it's an added component that takes place within an assemblage* of conditions. What’s important is that the elements are dynamic and capable of bringing about change and transformations.

To that effect, I’m interested in identifying areas that can escape the usual practices of commercialised design or even areas where practices that are not strictly commercial can be inserted… In order to explain this, I’m going to make somewhat of an artificial distinction between “design” and “artistic practice: design is a mediation between creating art and working for a profit, whereas the artistic and cultural practices that concern me here are more appropriately interventions that somehow destabilise this mediation. If we focus on the practices themselves instead of on the individuals responsible for them, then we are left with one sole individual who could develop both artistic as well as commercial practices. However, the subjectivity of each of these is specific and often tends to be quite different.  

Explaining this undefined intermediate space located between these two poles is an undertaking that could be described as political, however not necessarily in the strict sense of the word; such is the case of explicitly criticising the formal political system. Rather, here I deem “political” the possibility to “make something known”, to voice something. This strongly contrasts with “design” whose objective is to provide an increased utility, which today in age means to obtain higher profits and increasingly ever so. Instead of strengthening ties with the business world, I understand “political interventions” as explicative strategies that spring up from the daily urban world.  

P. A.: Keeping in line with the topic of “struggles”, one of the most outstanding traits of Camiones, Contenedores, Colectivos is that it encompasses a small multitude of micro-social struggles. By promoting this project, Cirugeda sought to link the work of Urban Prescriptions with that of activist collectives because he claimed to recognise a social force in them that was capable of tackling inequalities and pressure brought about by globalised capital. In order to exercise a critical cultural practice —from areas such as art and architecture— do you think it's necessary to establish links with citizens? 

S. S.: The relevance of links with citizens varies depending on the type of artistic practice, but without a doubt, they are important when it comes to architecture and urban practices —here I'm including those that belong to what is called “direct action art”. Of course, there are multiple ways of approaching challenges confronting architecture and urbanism as a practice and as a theory. More often than not, what is seen as the wisest stance is largely intrinsic to the specific problems of an architect's profession and doesn't reach the social field in which it operates.

However, we are experiencing a strategic era for urban practices. The connotations of architecture and urbanism, which are still focused on older traditions, (with a permanent calling) are irrevocably unstable in complex cities. In other words, these cities are characterised by the existence of digital networks, massive transportation infrastructures and phenomena such as acceleration and economic workings; these are cities in which a growing insanity is being produced.  The oldest connotations haven’t disappeared. They continue to be crucial, but they can’t easily respond to these new situations which include the growing importance of networks, interconnections, energy flows and subjective map-making. Architects need to face the enormity of the urban experience, the overwhelming presence of massive architectures and dense infrastructures in modern-day cities and the irresistible rationale of income and mega-income which most city investments organise. 

It’s an extremely complex field. Capturing the aloof reality that cities produce and make apparent is not easy to do, and the income rationale doesn’t help us capture this ambiguity. I can’t help but believe that direct action artists are part of the answer. Whether in the form of public representations, ephemeral installations or architects such as Cirugeda, they are capable of navigating in spaces and possibilities that aren’t part of the habitual repertoire.

P. A.: Amongst the collectives involved in Camiones, Contenedores, Colectivos, we can distinguish between two attitudes. Both claim difference and access to "de-normalised" lifestyles but from very different ideological stances and practices. This is well represented by which enclave each group decides to settle in. Most seek isolated places, hoping to create political subjectivation focused on opposition. Others settle in the city with hopes of creating civic spaces.  For the former, isolation means freedom, impunity and greater chances for survival. However, the latter seek exposure as an opportunity to plant a critical seed in their surroundings, although this makes them more vulnerable (in fact, some have seen their projects disappear). Could the initiative become stronger if it was to lean towards one of these poles or perhaps this bipolarity encompasses a strategic advantage?    

S. S.: Yes, you have captured the general dynamic well, and it’s true that many projects of this kind end up being destroyed. Regarding the polarity you bring up, in my opinion, both strategies are important and different types of projects and subjectivities will always prefer one or the other. Often, projects set up in marginal neighbourhoods with the hopes of mobilising and making them more dynamic tend to want to directly help the neighbourhood- helping in the sense of supporting, producing critical narratives to empower residents and marginalised artists, etc. And projects that choose to interfere in the neo-liberal space of the city, so to speak, seek public confrontation- and I believe that both confrontation (of the conflict) and the will to operate on what is public are worthy aspects.

It must be said that the practices and projects opting for the second option have been gradually changing their methodology in order to avoid an over-destruction of their projects. And this destruction occurs with such growing speed and violence that sometimes interventions go unnoticed: they are erased so quickly that nobody even realises they were there. That’s why temporary practices are more and more frequent or projects that operate in both welcoming neighbourhoods and in hostile spaces. In addition, they take place in cities with transition zones such as Berlin, London, Barcelona or Brussels. By “transition zones”, I am partly referring to areas affected by processes such as gentrification which greatly brand these cities. However, I am also referring to the situation that arises when some of the large construction projects are put at a standstill.   

If I’m not mistaken, what Cirugeda is doing is quite courageous because he’s taking it a step further, if you will, in relation to everything. These interventions represent the first steps of a wider trajectory, and when it comes down to it, what Cirugeda is doing is backing this impulse. 

P. A.: Cirugeda believes in the possibility of creating a city which is self-managed by its inhabitants. This conviction led him to establish connections among different collectives. With the support of Straddle3, he created a process that goes beyond the collection of individual cases. As the different spaces take shape, a far-reaching network of mutual help is woven. This network is associated with a swarm of temporary and mobile constructions each with their own agreements of occupation, the transfer of all kinds of materials and resources and the flow of activities. As occupations become reproducible and the process continues to get new projects involved thus broadening and strengthening ties (so far Cirugeda has contacted around thirty collectives), would it be too bold to say that we are witnessing the creation of architectonic and experience-based infrastructure which, at the same time, is also a type of political body?

S. S.: I think the point you bring up is an extraordinary project: weaving aspirations into the construction of infrastructures where different residents, actors, programs and objectives can take action. The term you use “architectonic and experience-based infrastructure” captures such a high degree of meaning and breaks barriers between terms that are rarely put together…

When it comes down to it, the reality you are trying to describe is a new assemblage that combines old and new elements. In fact, it contains many old elements which are now configured according to a new organisational logic. For me, this is very important practical work which must be done. However, this is also an important analytical frame that allows us to understand and use different methods to make a change, a transformation. Following this line of thought, this type of organisation is capable of making a radical change if many pre-existing components are present (components of reality which are the object of change) in the infrastructure. Thus, applying a new assemblage also produces a new organisational logic for pre-existing components. 

P. A.: Organising this infrastructure doesn’t follow a perfectly outlined plan, but rather one that is flexible and susceptible to improvisation. However, each collective, while enjoying freedom in its own space, has influenced and configured infrastructure without definitely determining it. In short, we are dealing with neither a hierarchical structure nor a strictly horizontal and self-organising network. Could an infrastructure of this type reach a consolidated and strategic urban dimension? Could it contribute to a new way of understanding the complex phenomenon of cities?

S. S.: You have presented a complex way of thinking. Above all, it’s crucial and still very rare that the least fortunate sectors of society can obtain this type of organisation, one that is a project and yet a material and organisational infrastructure at the same time. I think this aspect is very important. And although there are similar situations around the world, they are still very unusual and unheard of because of the level of organisation reached and the temporary duration of the project  thertatnrial and organisational infrastructure at the same time. d id many preexisting — which if I’ve understood correctly, begins with Cirugeda's first works thirteen years ago. That’s why I find it tremendously extraordinary.

Having said that, many challenges do exist. One of them is how to maximize the capacity of this “infrastructure” in order to mobilise the multi-scalability of cities. I mean, a city is a complex system made up of many different ecologies —the infrastructure promoted by Cirugeda is also an ecology— and thus the totality is charged with dynamism and tensions. In other words, it’s a living organism that can’t be completely controlled or centrally planned. Furthermore, the challenges this infrastructure faces will always change. Therefore, it’s crucial that it have the capacity to respond, and on a more complex level, the capacity to change assemblage, or the organisational logic which makes your “city” run, because deep down it's your city. This is something that will vary from city to city and from era to era...


Collage de Alice Attout / Recetas Urbanas.

This interview is part of the chapter 'The Wishes' included in the book Collective Architectures, edited by Esta entrevista forma parte del capítulo 'Los Deseos' del libro Arquitecturas Colectivas, edited by Paula Alvarez and published by Vibok Works, Seville 2010. You can buy the book and read the complete interview aquí.

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