Friday, July 5, 2013

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Melanie Boehi
Melanie Eva Boehi is a PhD student from the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her PhD dissertation is concerned with the South African botanical complex in the 20th and 21st century. The dissertation examines how social life in cities is negotiated by defining relationships between people and plants, how floral spaces can be approached as archives and flowers as carriers of historical narratives.

"A city can only exist for those who can move around it": Edgar Pieterse and Teresa Caldeira, Views from the Periphery

Melanie Boehi considers the possibilities of reconfiguring city-space in her response to Teresa Caldeira and Edgar Pieterse
How do city forms influence demonstrations? How do we think about urban forms and citizen engagement? What connects desires and design sensibilities? These and other questions were addressed in a panel hold on Tuesday, June 25, at the Goethe Institute. Teresa Caldeira presented an interpretation of the unfolding political protests in Brazilian cities and Edgar Pieterse talked about the need to better understand the functioning of infrastructure and networks in slum urbanism. 
In early June 2013, the Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement) called for a demonstration in São Paolo that was quickly followed by a series of large demonstrations all over the country. While the first demonstration focused on the demand for free public transport, subsequent demonstrations also asked for changes regarding corruption, investments for the FIFA World Cup, LGBT rights, pensioner’s rights and racism, and highlighted a class conflict between poor and middle class protestors. The police countered violently and politicians and the media reacted to the demonstrations with expressions of surprise and quickly labelled the marchers as vandals. In response to the inadequate reporting, the demonstrations became spaces of dialogue between what politicians and the press said and what people posted on the internet. Demonstrators carried messages on cardboards directed at the TV audience and social media users. The press was constantly contested and the main TV station hindered from covering the events in the streets.
According to Caldeira, the unfolding demonstrations emerged in two contexts. The first one is the demonstrations occuring globally since the beginning of the Arab spring. Demonstrators’ posters frequently express solidarity with other cities of protest. The second one is the prevalence of mass gatherings at cultural events in contemporary Brazil that have emerged over the past ten years and are now increasingly politicised, e.g. music and theatre festivals, demonstrations, gay parades, evangelical demonstrations. In São Paolo, the form of the city influenced the peripheral organisation of the demonstrations. Since the 1940s, migrants who couldn’t afford the city built houses in the periphery. With their social upward mobility, these houses were upgraded and urban social movements successfully demanded the supply of infrastructure such as water and electricity. The city had arrived in the periphery. In the 1990s, a series of negative factors affected life in the periphery, marked by economic downturn, youth unemployment and crime. Crime decreased after 2000, accompanied by an increase of artistic and cultural movements that embraced the notion of the city as a space for circulation. “A city only exists for those who can move around it” became a prominent slogan. Unlike elsewhere, the demonstrations in São Paolo did not focus on a square but were mobile. In a city with 11 million inhabitants, 7 million motor vehicles and an incredible amount of traffic, circulation was issue around which mass protest was first mobilised.
Image: Melanie Boehi
A different basis for mobilization for city changes exists in the slums in which 62 % of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population live, where urban life is marked by low and erratic household incomes, small tax bases and dysfunctional politics. Negative trends accumulate to an urban polycrisis, affecting the ecosystem, supply of water, energy and food, land distribution, employment and violence. According to Pieterse, participatory development is essential but insufficient to tackle the challenges of slum urbanism. Participatory development becomes ineffectual when the scope of challenges is vast, goes beyond urgent short-term concerns and includes high levels of complexity. It is therefore necessary to recognise the importance of city-wide networks, apply systemic thinking and take design seriously. Pieterse emphasised that much work needs to be done to understand the auto-constructions of urban slum citizens – desires, aspirations, affective registers, as well as focus on the understanding of networks, including the ones shaped by religious belief systems.
Image: Melanie Boehi
Melanie Boehi is a PhD student at the University of Basel, Switzerland
A more detailed discussion of Teresa's critique can be found here http://kafila.org/2013/07/05/sao-paulo-the-city-and-its-protests-teresa-caldeira/

Thinking Through Form: Meet the 2013 JWTC Participants

Matthew Omelsky
Matthew Omelsky is a doctoral student in English at Duke University. He works on African novels and films, jazz aesthetics, and science fiction. His work can be found in Research in African Literatures, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, and on the African literary blog brittlepaper.com.

Benjamin and Beckett in West Africa

Matthew Omelsky lingers on the spatial afterlives of Walter Benjamin and Samuel Beckett as traced by Ato Quayson in his lecture on Accra's Oxford Street. 
18 December 1926. Walter Benjamin writes in his Moscow Diary on the circuitous routes of pedestrian life in the Russian capital:
“It has been observed that pedestrians here walk in ‘zigzags.’ This is simply on account of the overcrowding of the narrow sidewalks…. They give Moscow a provincial air, or rather the character of an improvised metropolis that has fallen into place overnight.”
Today, in his lecture “Spatial Practices and Performative Streetscapes: Oxford St., Accra,” Ato Quayson drew from this brief moment in Benjamin’s Diary. Transposing and reconfiguring the zigzagging figure to the streets of Accra, Quayson spoke of the meandering pedestrian on the sidewalks of the bustling Oxford street, in the Osu neighborhood of Accra. But where the narrowness of Benjamin’s Moscow sidewalks necessitated zigzag movement, the sheer density of hawkers and merchandise covering the sidewalk necessitates labyrinthine movement in Quayson’s Accra. For Quayson, improvisatory walking is part of the performative streetscape of contemporary Accra. Figurations of global capital – from cell phone top-up cards, to handbags, to wheel barrows full of coconuts – saturate the walkways, creating obstacles for the Oxford pedestrian to bound around and over.
Oxford Street, Accra. Source: panoramio photos
Later in his talk, Quayson moved to another 20th century European figure, this time situating Samuel Beckett in contemporary Lagos. He likened the “burden of free time” on the streets of Lagos to that of Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But where Beckett’s absurdist protagonists speak to one another to while away time as they wait for the much-anticipated Godot, contemporary Lagosians pass time by remaking themselves and the objects around them. Didi and Gogo recycle language in their free time, Lagosians recycle space, Quayson says. Attempting to access labor and evade the paralysis of free time, the Lagosian moves through a cycle of ad hoc occupations, from shyster to pastor to water vendor. Objects, lives, and occupations are reworked in the Lagosian informal economy. Improvisation becomes a way of sustaining life in one’s perpetual search for work.
Quayson revealed how global capital has shaped the performative and improvisatory landscape of Oxford Street. He showed how we might begin to work through the spatial logics of West Africa via Beckett and Benjamin, but importantly, how West Africa and the work of these European vanguardists are often utterly incommensurable. Reaching outside of West Africa to work through the modern African city demands a contortion of these outside spatial logics, a mutation of thought from other geographies and epochs.
Matthew Omelsky is a PhD student in the Department of English, Duke University.