Metropolis in Ruins. Berlin's Interval of Time, 1943-1947
Lecture by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Lily Leveque Eichhorn wrote the following reflection on the October 30th lecture given by Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, Assistant Professor of History.
Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann’s work focuses on uncovering a new perspective on people’s experiences in Berlin before, during, and after World War II. In introducing his work, he comments on the enormous amount of attention the World War II period has received from historians and scholars. He explains that despite people’s fascination with this point in history, little is known about the urban experiences of post-WWII. Hoffmann suggests that much of what we know about the daily experiences of people in the summer of 1945 is skewed or outright false. For example, people tend to understand this period as a time dominated by military control, restricted movement of people, and mass genocide of Jewish people. However, Hoffmann paints a different picture. His work reveals that many “tourists” traveled to and from the city during this summer, creating a sense of movement and excitement within the city. Hoffmann comments on how there is a unique conflict within the city’s landscape post-WWII— in one way the city is bustling and alive, yet in another way it is scarred deeply by the signs of war and destruction. Hoffmann uses different people’s accounts of Berlin during this time to trace this duality. While some accounts reflect the shock and tragedy of the war, other verbal and visual representations focus more on the vibrancy of the city and indeed, the “hectic gayety” that seemed to sweep over the city (Hoffmann). Furthermore, movie houses, nightclubs, and other social gathering spaces were among the first to reopen, which contributed greatly to a general bustle in the city immediately after the war.
Hoffmann goes on to draw a comparison between pre-WWII and post-WWII urban experiences. Focusing his argument on the famous picture depicting Café Josty on Potsdamer Platz, Hoffmann talks about the widespread feeling that Berlin was in decline after WWI. As a result of the 1920s Wall Street Crash in the United States, the German economy, which was reliant on American loans, took a turn for the worst. The economic struggles of this time led to great unemployment and a concentration of homelessness within Berlin. In this context, people believed that the vibrant city they had once known was on a downward spiral.
Ironically, the Nazis made Berlin their target for anti-urbanism sentiments, destroying much of the city’s infrastructure during the war. Yet, the city miraculously made it out of the war more alive than before. As part of their regime, the Nazis rejected the idea of urbanization and instead, advocated for a countryside lifestyle. However, it seems that if we trace people’s experiences in Berlin across this time period we find that despite the massive amounts of damage caused by the war, the city thrived in the following years.
Overall, Hoffmann uses this understanding of urban experiences through time, specifically from the WWII period, to comment on the theme of temporality, especially with regard to “historical events of rapture”. Theodor Adorno, a German Philosopher, wrote in 1944 about this temporality referring to it as a “timeless succession of shocks”. Hoffmann suggests that instead of limiting our understanding of this period to a linear succession of events, we must think of this time as a series of plural experiences.
The work Hoffman does exposes the question: how do we learn about history accurately when we are so fixed in our modern perspective? In order to capture the facts and events justly we must suspend are linear perception of time and dig into how time is experienced differently, especially in moments of great disturbance and shocking realities. Perhaps, for every past there are two histories: one which outlines events chronologically, and one that is more chaotic, reflecting how people experienced these events.
Image caption: Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz as Seen from Café Josty (c. 1930). © Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo
Associate Professor of Art History Lauren Kroiz published a new book on the American Regionalists titled Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. She also has an essay in the Ashmolean catalogue America’s Cool Modernism: O’Keefe to Hopper that was informed by her work with the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. Read the abstracts and find the books below.
Kroiz, Lauren. Cultivating Citizens: The Regional Work of Art in the New Deal Era. UC Press. March 2018. Find the book here.
During the 1930s and 1940s, painters Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry formed a loose alliance as American Regionalists. Some lauded their depictions of the rural landscape and hardworking inhabitants of America’s midwestern heartland; others deemed their painting dangerous, regarding its easily understood realism as a vehicle for jingoism and even fascism. Cultivating Citizens focuses on Regionalists and their critics as they worked with and against universities, museums, and the burgeoning field of sociology. Lauren Kroiz shifts the terms of an ongoing debate over subject matter and style, producing the first study of Regionalist art education programs and concepts of artistic labor.
Kroiz, Lauren. "Leaving the Body: The Empty Spaces of American Modernism." In America's Cool Modernism: O'Keefe to Hopper. Find the catalogue here.
(about the catalogue) As some American artists began to eliminate people and remove extraneous details from their compositions, they often employed neat, orderly brushwork or close-up, unemotional photography. Artists as diverse as Patrick Henry Bruce, John Covert, Georgia O'Keeffe, Paul Strand and Arthur Dove navigated European and American avant-garde circles, picking and choosing new ideas and methods. Inspiration ranged from cubism and machine parts to new technologies, and they found ways to bring order to the modern world through extreme simplification. For them, abstraction involved absence and presence - the evacuation of human beings but also the desire to depict something that would not otherwise be visible or to render visible unseen natural processes like the passage of time, sound waves, or weather patterns. Their artworks provide a new context for the precisionist works in the subsequent sections and point to modern ideas about what art could be. How does a crisp painting technique relate to an aesthetic of absence?
New Orleans: Historical Memory and Urban Design
Lecture by Anna Brand and Bryan Wagner for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Sharmaine Toh wrote the following reflection on the September 4th lecture given by Anna Brand, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, and Bryan Wagner, Associate Professor of English.
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Levees and floodwalls meant to protect New Orleans subsequently failed, rendering most of the city underwater and stranded. Hurricane Katrina is the costliest natural disaster in U.S. History, with $135 billion in damages and almost 1000 lives lost (Plyer, 2016).
During her lecture, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Anna Livia Brand shared about planning praxis and the White Spatial Imaginary, vis-a-vis, racist practices within the housing industry in post-Katrina New Orleans. This resulted in racial segregation in post-Katrina New Orleans. During the redevelopment of New Orleans after Katrina, a general phenomenon in racial geography ensued – the displacement of Black neighbourhoods, thereby enabling white supremacy and privilege. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had the rare opportunity to fix centuries of housing policies that produced extreme racial inequality in the city (Siobhán, 2018). However, it failed to do so.
New Orleans’ opportunity to rebuild with racial and social inclusion was forgone. Instead, neighbourhoods like New Orleans East and Gentilly on lower ground with predominantly black residents before Katrina, saw the number of Black residents increase significantly after the hurricane. The proportion of Black residents living in New Orleans East increased after rents rose drastically in the rest of the city and forced them out. Areas like Bywater, Treme, St. Roch and St. Claude, which were predominantly black before Katrina and on high ground, are now mostly white (Williams, 2016). Areas with a higher proportion of Black residents typically have less access to good neighbourhood schools, affordable housing, public transportation and other opportunities (Williams, 2016). This lack of access to opportunities further exacerbates the racial and social division in New Orleans. Both the government and the private sector are the reason for these trends. Financially at-risk neighbourhoods, majority of which were Black dominated, found it harder to attain loans. Federally-funded home grants were given based on home values, putting Black residents at a disadvantage, hence limiting their ability to rebuild after Katrina (Siobhán, 2018).
Associate Professor of English Bryan Wagner then asked a question during his lecture, “Will New Orleans be able to stand up to another Katrina?” In my opinion, given current trends, the city might be able to better withstand another powerful hurricane physically, but socio-economic favouritism might erode its spirit and history in the face of future natural disasters.
Sara Ahmed, a British-Australian scholar whose area of study includes critical race theory and postcolonialism, once said, “whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history.” Unfortunately, racial segregation is not unique to New Orleans, but it also continues locally and globally. Perhaps Katrina only revealed an accelerated version of what was always going to happen to New Orleans with its centuries-old discriminatory housing policies. Even well-intentioned federally-funded home grants meant to help residents ended up putting Black residents at a disadvantage. This brings up the question of what other policies from the government can hurt certain groups of people at the expense of helping the majority as well.
Hurricanes are only going to become stronger in the future (Holthaus, 2017). It is ultimately up to governments, communities and neighbourhoods to make a conscious effort to build an inclusive society in the face of higher frequencies of climate change disasters.
Holthaus, E. (2017, September 11). Harvey and Irma aren't natural disasters. They're climate change disasters. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://grist.org/article/harvey-and-irma-arent-natural-disasters-theyre-climate-change-disasters/
Plyer, A. (2016, August 26). Facts for Features: Katrina Impact. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/katrina/facts-for-impact/
Siobhán, M. (2018, April 24). Report reveals New Orleans missed opportunities to solve segregation. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://www.loyolamaroon.com/10017570/worldview/city/report-reveals-new-orleans-missed-opportunities-to-solve-segregation/
Williams, J. (2016, September 03). How it happened, how to fix it: Plan set to combat New Orleans segregation, gentrification. Retrieved September 8, 2018, from https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_2f808d8c-7132-11e6-beab-4f97e85a2e90.html
Recently, the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) appointed GUH alumnus Sben Korsh as an Emerging Curator for 2018-2019. The CCA is an international research institute located in Montréal, Quebec, while Korsh is currently an MPhil candidate at the University of Hong Kong. He studied architectural history and theory at UC Berkeley from 2014 to 2016, and while here, was an active member of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative. Since writing his MS thesis on the Transamerica Pyramid, Korsh has focused on the social making of financial spaces, and is currently writing a history of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. He has presented this work at the Society of Architectural Historians, the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, the International Planning History Society, and the Financial Geography Research Network.
How were you involved with the Global Urban Humanities Initiative (GUH)?
In a few ways. I participated in the research studio on Art + Village + City in the Pearl River Delta, led by Professors Margaret Crawford and Winnie Wong. And afterwards, helped work on the exhibition that came of it. I was on the GUH Student Advisory Board, and that let me be part of the larger Steering Committee discussions, including a planning retreat after the initiative got its second-round of Mellon funding. I also attended lectures put on by the initiative, and got to learn from friends in other GUH courses.
What compelled you to join GUH?
I submitted the application out of interest to go to China again. I studied Chinese in high school, and had visited before on a typical class trip to Beijing, Shanghai, and the Yangtze River. But the premise of the Pearl River studio was vastly different from seeing the Great Wall or the Bund. We studied and met with residents in small neighborhoods (urban villages), which have distinct and varying levels of autonomy from the state. Within this we tried to understand how art practices contributed to (and sometimes are co-opted for) urban change in South China’s mega-cities. How could you not join?
How did your experience in GUH help you with your current research or career?
The initiative exposed me to professors and grad students from across the social sciences and humanities interested in “the urban.” Through coursework, exhibition, lectures, and discussions, I benefited deeply from the GUH confluence of people, disciplines, and ideas. It was a big part of my time at Berkeley, and it’d be hard to just point out one or two things.
What is your most memorable GUH experience?
There are two. One, a bumpy ride on the back of a farmer’s flatbed trailer in Guangzhou! The other, going to Luohu Commercial City in Shenzhen with Professor Winnie Wong. The mall is 5-stories of fake goods. Winnie is deeply knowledgeable about the idea of the fake, or copy, and how it’s entangled with social conceptions of authorship. So the trip to the mall was just that, but overlaid with talk about industry, originality and judgement. She touches on these ideas in her recent article for Current Anthropology.
What is your favorite global city you have traveled to, and why?
Not sure I can say. But I’ve found myself in a dizzying number of “global cities” over the past year. New York, Paris, Tokyo, London, Brussels, Washington D.C., Hong Kong / Shenzhen, my hometown of Minneapolis, and now, Montréal. This is of course, a lot. (Especially on a grad student budget!) But I’ve found it’s rather small in comparison to friends with jobs at international corporations, who seem to travel every other week. Part of this is from living in Hong Kong, which is a hyper-connected city. But part of this is also from a growing global culture of travel and voyaging, fueled in part by social media, mobile phones, cheap tickets, and Airbnb. Much of GUH’s work has looked at the thickness of city making and how “local” people are deeply embedded in cities, but it's also interesting to see how these seemingly superficial travels are rapidly changing the “global city,” even from what it might have been ten or twenty years ago.
Soo Ok Han studied architecture in Canada and United States and received her Master’s degree in Architecture at UC Berkeley. She currently practices architecture in San Francisco, where she designs arts, communities, and education programmed buildings. She also teaches architecture and writes books for young students. In this essay, Han discusses how the Spring 2015 GUH course Public Space: Placemaking and Performance influenced her classroom lessons on architecture to young students.
Dérives are for kids, too. Although dérives were developed as a sophisticated technique of city exploration by the Situationists, these engaged city walks are also accessible and valuable for children. With my teaching partner Sun Kwon, we lead architecture workshops for elementary school students, helping them create cognitive maps and use all their senses to move through a neighborhood with a new mindfulness.
Paying close attention to place and space is a learned skill. I honed this ability--and learned how to teach it-- in an unusual Global Urban Humanities course taught by Erika Chong Shuch (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies) and Ghigo DiTommaso (Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning) in Spring 2015 when I was a M.Arch student at CED. The course was named Public Space: Placemaking and Performance. The course was about investigating the existing normative framework that surrounds public space, and intervening this notion through various techniques. The first part of the course was Theory of Practice, where we reviewed an extensive selection of theoretical writings and works on urban public spaces. The second part of the course was called Practice of Theory. We had a series of assignments asking us to engage with public space in the Bay area through mapping, writing, intervention, and performance that was thought-provoking and sometimes uncomfortable.
The two most memorable assignments were in the second part of the course. In one assignment entitled Drifting and Mapping, we were asked to explore the public space through the technique of dérive, a Situationist technique of exploring the city guided by the subconscious cues of sensory experience. My project was ‘Berkeley through others’ lives’ in which I chose the first stranger who passed by my house as my “guide” and followed secretly behind him. I went down streets and shortcuts I would never walk, and got more and more curious about what he was up to. After about a half an hour, we ended up at Tandoori Nite on University Ave., an Indian restaurant. I stopped following at that point. The other assignment consisted of performances in downtown Berkeley and Costco where we as a class engaged everyday spaces in unconventional ways such as placing our heads against the pavement and ‘listening to the ground’ that made other people in that space amused, uneasy, and curious.
I realized what I was looking for in both assignments. It was about the stories related to the space they were in. This was the beginning of my interest in storytelling, and how story can be a tool to engage people with the architecture and the places they are in.
Sun Kwon (M.Arch 2018) and I(M.Arch 2016) have been running architecture workshops in schools where we use story and storytelling to relate places to kids. We ask them to come up with a story and imagine buildings in the story as freely as they want. They also construct stories for existing buildings to bring the real beyond what it is. We don’t necessarily hope that they will grow up to be architects. We hope that our classes can give kids a chance to explore, imagine, and learn that space is not just about physical form but is a combination of the narrative and the activities and engagements that happen within. I asked the young students in my class to explore the vicinity of the school using the same dérive technique and make a map as freely as they wanted. It resulted in unexpected rich series of mappings and documentations, foraged materials, and memories, and stories presented in class.
I continue to ask these questions and teach young students to discover together how we see and interact with the space and architecture around us.
If you are curious about our work, please visit our website and instagram!
Infrastructure Imaginaries: Informal Urbanism, Creativity, and Ecology in Lagos, Nigeria
Lecture by Charisma Acey and Ivy Mills for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Rachel Cook wrote the following reflection on the October 9th lecture given by Charisma Acey, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning, and Ivy Mills, Lecturer in the History of Art.
Charisma Acey (Assistant Professor of City & Regional Planning) and Ivy Mills (Lecturer in History of Art) shared their research on urban development and contemporary arts culture in Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos—the fastest growing city in Africa—epitomizes many of the challenges and possibilities that come with rapid urban growth. Home to an estimated 14-20 million residents, the city has become the cultural and economic center of Nigeria. It is the capital of the country’s film industry, and the center of the nation’s literary production, launching writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie onto a global stage.
But this growth is not without challenges. According to Acey, the legacy of the colonial encounter has had long-term impacts on the urban landscape in Lagos. The city’s history was founded on deep racial and social inequalities which can still be felt today. The story of Lagos is really “a tale of two cities”: on one side is the State’s vision for elite-centered, foreign investment-driven urban development. On the other are the blighted areas with informal settlement and residents living on less than $2 per day. These spatial and social inequalities are rooted in the city’s colonial past; displacement of economically disadvantaged populations began under British rule with widespread slum clearance done in the guise of public health. The same type of displacement continues today, as foreign speculators and the State take over public swampland (often the site of informal housing settlements) in order to realize their vision of Lagos as an international megacity.
The disparities between different social groups in Lagos have manifested not just in terms of land, but also in terms of access to infrastructure and essential resources. The Lagosian population is growing exponentially, but sewage and water systems are not pacing with that growth. In some cases, a single pipe might serve hundreds of people, leading to unpredictable access and dependence on a privatized water market. Some researchers have suggested that the intermittent water supply in some cases could be due to a deliberate withholding of water intended to drive certain populations out of areas speculated for development.
The competing visions of Lagos’ future have carved deep divisions in the city, but the conflict has also mobilized local arts advocates, NGOs, and artists—all of whom are responding to the crisis with creative forms of protest and more inclusive visions for Lagos’s future. Ivy Mills pointed to a 2018 exhibition sponsored by the Justice & Empowerment Initiative, which showed photographs of the displaced Otodo Gbame community. The images were displayed in an upscale hotel lobby in the hopes of raising awareness about displacement in Lagos. This turn towards visual activism is just one of many exciting phenomena emerging from the city’s ‘art renaissance’. In addition to NGO-sponsored art activism, a variety of creative cultural centers are cropping up throughout the city in the form of public sculptures, state-sponsored festivals, privately-owned art galleries, and contemporary art spaces.
Image caption (left to right): L) City Planning Professor Charisma Acey presenting at 2018 GUH Colloquium; R) Picture of the controversial Fela Kuti statue in Lagos, Nigeria.
Jason Luger from City and Regional Planning has recently published two essays. In August 2018, his article “Digital Geographies of Public Art”, co-written with Martin Zebracki, was published in Progress in Human Geography. He also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries. Read the abstracts and find the articles at the links below.
Luger, Jason and Martin Zebracki. "Digital Geographies of Public Art." Progress in Human Geography. Find the article here.
Responding to geography’s digital and political turns, this article presents an original critical synthesis of the under-examined niche of networked geographies of public-art practices in today’s politicised digital culture. This article advances insights into digital public art as politics, and its role in politicising online public spaces with foci on: how digital technologies have instigated do-it-yourself modes for the co-creation of art content within peer-to-peer contexts; the way art is ‘stretched’ and experienced in/across the digital public sphere; and how user-(co-)created content has become subject to (mis)uses, simultaneously informed by digital ‘artivism’ and a new global politics infused with populism.
Luger, Jason. "Digital urban imaginaries." In The Routledge Companion to Urban Imaginaries, edited by Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner, 147-158. Find chapter here.
In a paradigm where urban theorists are re-mapping the concept of “urban” as a planetary phenomenon (Brenner, 2014), both rooted to place and dynamic/relational in scale, scope, and process, cyberspace emerges as a crucial site of encounter and transformation (see Rose, 2016). “Space-time compression” (Massey, 1993) and the “network society” (Castells, 1996) have given rise to a new digital public with instant, real-time, social, cultural, and political networks forming and relating across diverse contexts, assembling into hybrids and temporary, yet powerful, linkages to material urban space in different cities.
Meanwhile, populist cultural wars have erupted and ricochet around the planetary urban-scape in digital and material forms, linked in theme yet varied and highly contextualized. The cyber-city offers a lens to explore these cultural contestations and the ways that hybrid understandings of identity (gender, sexuality, race, religion) as well as class and ideology are formed by these cyber-encounters, and thus, transform the urban and expand the discussion on the digital urban imaginary.
Engaging with the themes of the digital encounter, populism and the new authoritarianism sweeping the globe, this chapter highlights one example of the complex relationship between the built environment, cyberspace, and contested politics. The “Pink Dot” LGBTQ gathering in Singapore, and accompanying “Wear White” campaign, demonstrate the way that the political encounter occurs in and out of territory, and the power of populist imagery and symbols in material and immaterial forms. Substantively, this chapter explores the way that the urban cyberspace is crucial to negotiating, performing, and realizing transformative politics at scales much larger, more hybrid, and more planetary in nature than the territorial city itself. In cyberspace, the populist cultural encounter becomes a global conversation with a powerful capability to remake space, place, and politics.
Lineages of the Global City
Lecture by Shiben Banerji for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Jolene Lee wrote the following reflection on the October 2nd lecture given by Shiben Banerji, Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The idea of the 'global city' suggests a certain interchangeability through converging similarities in economic activity, spatial organization and to some extent, social structure. The 'global city' is hence necessarily one which is bound by a certain aspirational order, where the concluding act of becoming indicates a 'belonging' to a larger, global economic network. The status of a 'global city' in contemporary terms is one which is coveted as it represents an arrival of sorts amongst a network of urban spaces that are at the forefront of economic globalization. Banerji posits that this status of a 'global city' is one which is predicated on function based on the distribution of capital and the control of labor, yet at the same time behind these necessary functional networks are other less studied historical transnational links.
Drawing upon examples of interwar globality, Banerji introduces the work of the Theosophical Society, a worldwide heterodox religious movement. The ideological underpinnings of theosophy brings forth the conceptualization of a universal brotherhood, where the attainment of spirituality is predicated on social improvement. He draws the link between theosophy and the meanings of a Global City, where the transnational reach of religious and spiritual teachings shapes how the globalization of capital could catalyze new ways of thinking about urban form. Using the example of designs by Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier and the Belgian writer/lawyer and pacifist Paul Otlet for a Cité Mondiale in late 1920s Switzerland, he draws parallels with Le Corbusier's work a few decades later in the 1950s India (eg. Plans for Gandhi's Memorial). It mattered not that these plans were never realized, as their associated artifacts, such as drawings, could also do the work of creating a global imaginary. Banerji suggests that urban form is a mode of transformation of the imagination and not merely concerned with the 'thingliness' of the city. The circulation of these visual materials lends itself to the noble idea that urban form as suggested in these plans were sufficiently a prompt for hope, and imbued within them was a script that transcended geographic contexts.
This lecture is a facet of Banerji's continuing work on the global formation of landscape, urban and architectural design. Extending from his first forthcoming book Lineages of the Global City which focuses on the work of the Chicago architects Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin, Banerji draws together a transnational cast of characters including pacifists and anti-colonial thinkers who tapped upon the collective imagination of city design and planning in shaping a new democratic subject - one which is necessarily spiritual and yet situated within the framework of modernity. The geographical distribution of capital and labor lends itself to imagining links with international cities and this theosophical fraternité was envisioned as a means to global peace during those interwar decades. In this lecture, he argues that this desire for a spiritual and conceptual brotherhood and the pursuit of financial capital are concomitant with the manifestation of the global city and its associated imaginaries. This interwar, transnational discourse of the global city, as articulated in the examples presented, posits a new conceptual dimension to the boundaries of what 'globality' could represent in contemporary discourse of the 'Global City'.
Image caption: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Cité Mondiale, axonometric,1928.
Choreotopias: Assaulted Desires in Asaltodiario’s Street Choreographies in Mexico City, 1985–1994
Lecture by Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz for Fall 2018 Colloquium The City and its People.
Fall 2018 GUH Colloquium student Nolan Boomer wrote the following reflection on the September 11th lecture given by Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz, PhD Candidate in Performance Studies.
Following the aftermath of the devastating 1985 Mexico City earthquake, choreographers Miguel Ángel Díaz and Jaime Leyva founded the performance group Asaltodiario in 1987. The group’s first choreographies raised money for local earthquake relief efforts (as well as for those persecuted by the Nicaraguan dictatorship). Following these early performances, the group developed ambitious programming that spanned nearly a decade. In the spirit of the Theatre of the Oppressed, each performance was unannounced by the group, was performed spontaneously in public space, and was cleaned up without a trace. Each was created in collaboration with the local community, often using actors from the neighborhood itself.
Performance studies scholar Juan Manuel Aldape Muñoz positions this history through the framework of choreotopia, a term he defines as art-political assemblies created by bodies and ideologies that circulate to describe the past, present, and future of marginalized peoples. Muñoz adapts the idea of “utopia” and Foucault’s term heterotopia to a framework that centers on the politics of exchange and circumstance rather than place. By focusing on the city as a site of circulation and movement, the city is no longer a static location.
Movement and change underpin Asaltodiario’s work in Mexico City. Muñoz points out that the term asaltodiario can be translated to either “by the daily jump” or “daily assault,” indicating the daily impact of movement and its violence. Each performance was called an asalto (assault)—part theater, part dance, and part performance art. In one piece called All who are surprised, all who are under arrested, two boys tussle with one another, alternating the roles of friend and enemy. This dance of masculinity looked at the local community’s own issues, invoking site-specific concerns and histories. The actors even used street-side objects in their performance like trash cans, a feature common throughout Asaltodiario’s oeuvre. This allowed the group to use the city’s material surplus and explore what Muñoz calls the city’s “corporeal dimensions.”
Each of their performances blends the roles of audience and performer to reveal the power imbalances in public spaces. In a later performance, actors in a public park played an affluent couple, a homeless person, and a police officer. Before the scene could be acted out, a real police officer interrupted the scene and began harassing the actor playing a homeless person. Passersby viewing the scene stepped in to mediate the conflict and protect the actor from the real police. It brought to light the community’s fraught relationship with state power and raised questions as to what it means to perform in earnest.
While there were other guerrilla performance groups at the time, such as Barro Rojo, Muñoz argues that Asaltodiario is worth paying attention to because this group in particular formed its own voice and remained dedicated to working with disenfranchised communities throughout its practice. While Muñoz spells out Asaltodiario’s grassroots practice, there are other questions of ethics at play. In what ways are neighborhoods benefited and harmed by public performance? Is it ethical to play the part of a disenfranchised person in public space? Who benefits from performative play and humor, and who does not? Muñoz’s lecture convincingly positions performance as an invaluable framework for understanding the city, and further research may begin to answer these questions.
Image caption: Jaime Leyva performing in All who are surprised, all who are under arrested. 1992. Photo: Salvatore Salerno. Source: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Apology and Commemoration: Memorializing the World War II Japanese American Incarceration at the Tanforan Assembly Center
2017 GUH-Townsend Fellow Valentina Rozas-Krause has published an article on "Memorializing the World War II Japanese American Incarceration at the Tanforan Assembly Center" in the Fall/Winter 2018 Issue of History & Memory. A series of on-site historic plaques and a photographic exhibition at a nearby train station serve as background to study the development of a new memorial to remember the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans at the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno, California. The design and iconography of the future Tanforan memorial are analyzed alongside the motivations of the main actors that have shaped it: a group of memory activists, a transit agency and a shopping mall developer. The article concludes that these past and future commemorative interventions reveal the relationship between an unsettled memorial landscape and the Japanese American community's ongoing demands for apology.
You can read a preview of her article here.