Thursday, 6 September 2007

Global Shitties more like, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

Something that didn't get in to the Weekly Worker, thanks to the bastards closing the exhibition before we went to press and thus negating the point somewhat. Oh well...

Global Cities: The Suicide of Empiricism

Given that the abiding tenor of exhibitions in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall is towards monolithic and consummately single-minded displays, exemplified by Ólafur Elíasson's Weather Project with its permanent hazy sunset, it is a surprise to find in its great expanses so muddled and contradictory an entity as Global Cities, which fills the gap between two such spectacular displays. The form of the exhibition, such as it is, involves large wall displays and videos pronouncing (apparently) detailed statistical analyses of the lives of ten major cities in the world – London, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Tokyo, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Johannesburg, Cairo, Istanbul and Shanghai – in terms of size, speed, density, diversity and form. In addition, there are displays of video art adding “anecdotal” flesh to the bones of “hard” statistical evidence. In a largely separate area, one finds a series of installations commissioned specifically for the exhibition.

A crisis of method
There are serious difficulties at all levels here. Firstly, the presentations of statistics are the ultimate in bourgeois empiricism. Beyond the standard usage of statistics as a descriptive tool, they become, in a bizarre twist on the Romantic Will, a kind of pseudo-divine creative and motive force in the lives of the cities themselves. One may first, for instance, look at the obviously arbitrary choice of the cities themselves – does Sao Paulo have more to tell us about urban existence than Rio de Janeiro or Caracas, Los Angeles than New York, etc? What, furthermore, makes the 5 holy criteria – density, speed and so on – the appropriate “thematic lenses” for such a study of urbanism? (For a Marxist, there is at least a silent sixth in “class”, but one would not expect such an inclusion in an exhibition with a raft of corporate sponsors.)

This specific issue is brought out most sharply in a particular set of diagrams illustrating the arrangement of buildings in selected square kilometres of five or so of our chosen cities. In a moment of delirious self-parody, these selections are openly arbitrary – we have a suburb of Los Angeles, a group of high-rises in Shanghai, a crowded sprawl in Cairo...why have these square kilometres been chosen? The answer is simply: because we say so. Dig beneath even the most superficial signs of “objectivity” and “science”, and one finds what the great French philosopher Jacques Derrida would call a “moment of madness” - a stubborn and utterly irrational imposition of an agenda. The method distorts the result, which in its distortions acts as a justification for the method.

Similarly, we find statements such as “15 children are born in city X every minute; by 2015 this will rise to 20”. Will it? What is entirely erased from this question is human agency, whether defined in the traditional liberal individualistic way or in theories of class and other group agencies. What is the subject of history for the curators? The numbers as such, it seems – moving themselves...

A crisis of identity
This disavowal of agency sits uneasily with the scattered video exhibits, obviously designed to paper over the cracks by “humanising” the urban experience. The best of these work by undermining, or reflecting the absurdity of, the project of the exhibition as a whole. One video shows worshippers traversing the perilous walkway over rough seas to the Haji Ali mosque off the coast of Mumbai. The camera is fixed on a particular 50 yard stretch. We cannot see where they are going or from where they are coming. This activity, rendered into a completely meaningless and masochistic action by the lack of context, is an excellent parallel for the erasure of origins and agency perpetrated by the statistical evidence.

Elsewhere, we have banal interviews with Londoners conducted by an artist sketching them, some overly worthy shots of Mumbaikars lacking in basic sanitation systems, and so on – it seems, really, that since the exhibition is in Tate Modern, the curators felt they should probably get some art in there somewhere.

Then, we are left with the specially-commissioned exhibits – most are conspicuously banal. The wooden spoon for the whole show, without a doubt, goes to Nils Norman's severely misjudged and gratingly didactic “reclaimed” street furniture, whose satirical bite – such as it is – would barely pass muster on a slow news day at Adbusters. At the opposite end of the scale, we have two redeeming features: Nigel Coates' “Mixtacity”, a diorama of the proposed Thames Gateway developments with household objects, toys, mantelpiece ornaments and even faintly surreal pseudo-organic forms as an alternative skyline; and the architect Rem Koolhaas' displays in the “new urbanism”. The former is playful without being self-conscious, and if it pushes the characteristically post-modern enthusiasm for kaleidoscopic diversity a little too obviously, it offers, through its magnification of the objects of everyday life, a critique of the exhibition's obliteration of agency.

Koolhaas, meanwhile, delivers a simple three-wall collage of photographs and adverts from around the world, acting as support for a thoughtful text on the relationship between contemporary architecture, public service and private capital. His ideological framework precludes any thoroughgoing solution, but the problems are posed intelligently. It is, furthermore, just about the only mention capital gets in the entire show.

Global Cities suffers because it does not know what it is for. The statistical and artistic elements are clearly intended to complement each other in some way, but the mechanicist, self-justifying empiricism of the statistics leaves no room for anything else. The rest of the exhibition, therefore, simply grates against it. Where it succeeds, it succeeds against the pernicious ideology of the statistical displays. An illustrative but frustrating fudge of the problems facing the urban world.