AWC x BERLIN QUESTIONS 2021 - METROPOLIS: THE NEW NOW
Answers from Medelin and New York.
In the framework of Berlin Questions, a conference for the immediate present held with mayors and empowerers of the world, and in the spirit of our upcoming reedition of the 2038 issue for the German Pavilion at the 17th Venice Biennale, Arts of the Working Class has invited artists, creatives, students, and thinkers from its global network to respond to the urgent problem of urban development.
These are some of the questions directed to the guests of the conference and which we attempt to tackle this week. From tropical megacities to laid back alpine localities we are all facing intense change and cultural upheaval due to the intensifying climate crisis, renewed social struggles, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the global economic crisis following in its step. These changes will manifest in the urban structures surrounding us, from the macro level of our infrastructures to the microscopic plane of our deepest social interactions. How will we shape these changes? What do we want for the future of our cities and our societies? Berlin Questions & Arts of the Working Class open up a horizon of possibility by gathering potential answers to these pressing questions.
For the second round of this mini-serie of questions, we collected the thoughts of María Isabel Arango Velasquez (MAV), artist and researcher from Medellín, Colombia and Francesca Altamura (FA) independent thinker and Delegate for the New Museum Union, New York, US
If you could envision a ‘New Now’ for your city, what would that look like?
(MAV) Cycles of exit from and return to Medellín have long marked my life and artistic production. I have continually fled, in search of another emotional landscape away from latent fears back home. Hence my emotional disposition towards the idea of imagining a ‘New Now’ for the city of my youth, a city I see as an unbearable entity, one that dwells within me constantly. It becomes complicated and almost unmanageable, as I have to deal with the ambivalence of its poignant forces, as it both conceals a declaration of affection and harsh condemnation.
The act of re-imagining Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, at present seems almost impossible because it derives from my concerns, disillusion and frustration with the social and political upheaval that the whole of Colombia is undergoing at present. A series of protests and riots in Colombia started first in the cities of Bogotá, Soacha, Medellín, and Pereira after the killing of Javier Ordóñez while in police custody on 9 September 2020. His death has been compared to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests in the United States. Since April 2021, many collectives, organizations and citizens have gathered on the streets to raise their voices in a legitimate claim: to condemn an economic and sociopolitical system that does not respond to the minimum needs of a large swathes of society, to oppose a status quo that does not offer opportunities. People are raising their voices at a time when the conditions of exclusion, marginalization, social injustice and appalling historic inequalities, not to mention the violence that accompany them, have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. President Duque’s extreme right-wing government – which has been unlawfully committing appalling state crimes such as detaining, torturing, gender-based assaults and using lethal weapons against these mostly peaceful protesters – has created a dystopia, destroying the possibility of imagining a ‘New Now’. However, the protest that has been happening on the streets has shown the power and beauty of a courageous and vital manifestation of a huge portion of a nation’s inhabitants coming together in unison. This is both moving but also terrifying because terror itself should not continue to prevail.
This social protest that the country has been experiencing exposes the government which subjects its people to live in conditions of poverty and exclusion as unviable and unjustifiable. If we are to envisage not a New Now but something that I prefer to call a Possible Future for Medellín and every single city, village and town in Colombia, it is fundamental for me to emphasize that this implies a hope for a social democratic configuration. Such an arrangement may be the only one capable of reaching a breaking point, the threshold of change, in order to imagine a New Now, a place where the historic social fragmentations and the problems of the current system can be processed. Paradoxically, this route already exists in the Colombian constitution (created in 1991), but it is mostly unknown by its citizens and is under constant attack by the current party in power. The question is then whether this new configuration would be able to accomplish what is already on paper and become a reality, enhancing a sense of community, solidarity and yielding a path to healing.
(FA) New York’s colloquial motto is the ‘city of struggle.’ Being broke is a way of life. In preparing to leave your apartment, get ready to spend at least $40. A ‘New Now’ for New York City could only mean alleviating this struggle: providing workers with dignified, living wages, ensuring workers have appropriate paid-time-off and sick leave, and making sure employment levels are on the incline.
During the pandemic, did you feel disconnected or isolated in your city?
(MAV) I am actually a very solitary person. At the end of 2015 I was forced to return to Medellín due to a visa issue after living in London for almost eight years; that made me feel not only devastated but also extremely disconnected from my life as I knew it. Most people felt like this during the Covid-19 pandemic, so in a way I had years of preparation for the lockdown. However, I have always been in touch with my friends on a regular basis whether by chat or phone calls, and the pandemic surely made us closer. But I also felt that the pandemic strengthened the ties to the very few friends I have in Medellín and Colombia and this was very touching and important for me since I am now based there.
(FA) Strangely enough, true isolation was not an experience I suffered through. I was surrounded by the characters in my books, TV shows, and a tight pod throughout my pandemic experience.
Is there a moment from the past year that you will never forget?
(MAV) The moment when we refused to be silenced any longer and raised our voices in unity, no matter the consequences. Hence the social protest that grew out of the courageous utterances that were mobilizing the national strike gained momentum because of the voices of the young, female voices and the fundamental presence of la MINGA indigena. As I have mentioned above. I was deeply moved and will never forget the urban graphics that people were making, which with great power and on a large scale, were saying what many did not dare to express out loud. This printed graphics, posters, pamphlets, banners, graffiti etc., gave voice to that which was more urgent, the yearning to transform the world we were living in. These diverse graphic arts were a cultural catalyst for ideas, shouts, dreams, rhythms, conversations, discussions and surely confrontations that were impossible in any other way and which reveal the way social relationships should be configured. I was part of this protest with a project I created at the end of November 2019 for The Museum of Modern Art in Medellín titled Sobre Paisajes y Premoniciones, a series of posters that were placed around many neighborhoods of the city of Medellín. These posters were also placed around the city of Cali by the invitation of Alejandro Martin, director of El Museo La Tertulia in 2020. Medellín and Cali share historical and present similarities, they are both extremely unequal and violent cities, with divided societies marked by two opposite poles. On the one hand, a small upper class locked in their ultra-security protected enclaves, and on the other, a vast population suffering immeasurable poverty; and, in between, a huge middle class largely impoverished by decades of economic crisis, which worsens with the Covid-19 pandemic. My project gave a glimpse of a future that is simply the present, stretched out further. A future that at that time was unthinkable. Yet here we are, thinking it now. Many of these posters are still around both these cities, slowly decaying, yet a present reminder by the poems written in them like: Este azul es el cielo que hemos perdido, Esta señal te ordena a cantar o aullar, Tenga cuidado, aquí las fauces están abiertas or Desde su sombra este árbol ha divisado el porvenir. Most of these posters were taken down because many right-wing individuals thought their premonitory content was not appropriate.
(FA) On a personal level: Loss of smell and taste. Life became truly joyless for ten days. On a social level: Collective organizing. The power of convening truly persevered.
What challenges do global cities currently face?
(MAV) As a global city the main challenges a place like Medellín faces are, of course, to maintain an equilibrium between the external-global and the internal-local cultures, to nurture the strengths and vibrancy of its youth without alienating them in the turmoil of the international economic ups and downs. This in turn issues another enormous challenge: the current backlash against globalization that, ironically, has become a common position around the world after the initial enthusiasm for it in the last decade of the 20th century. Like many other cities, Medellín has to solve problems with infrastructure caused by the demand to accommodate huge waves of migrants trying to escape rural violence and poverty in Colombia and other parts of the world. (There is a huge migratory crisis right now, with thousands of people from Africa and Asia stopped at the Panama frontier, not far from Medellín, on their way towards the United States via Central America.) The extreme inequality that derives from the inability to respond to those demands, and all this during decisive shifts in power in a democratic crisis and the losing fight against corruption. But there is a bigger challenge in the case of my home city: Medellín is fact a very global city according to economist Joseph E. Stiglitz definition from the nineties, i.e., with “capabilities for global operation, coordination and control of the flows of capital and of a transnationalism workforce’’. However, it is a “global city’’ in the matrix of a parallel dark economy that has been proscribed by and excluded from the international hegemonic centers of power with the absurd and arbitrary (and totally futile) “war against drugs’’.
(FA) The struggles of the working class poor: housing, healthcare and dignified work and working conditions. Wealth disparity. The opioid and fentanyl crisis. Transphobia. White supremacy. Among many other imperative challenges to address.
Dive the full program of Berlin Questions METROPOLIS: The New Now here.