It would be funny if it weren’t so sad: humans invented cities so they could live safe and self-determined lives together and fend off assaults from outsiders—and now they find themselves conned and disempowered in the heart of their cities and hustled to the peripheries. By neo-feudal mega-schemes, global corporations, real-estate speculators, and other trojans. And, lest we forget, the true local patriots, the nationalist street sweepers, have gotten in on the hustling.
The city is no longer safe for its citizens. Not because marauding gangs of refugees roam the streets after midnight; they aren’t. But because big business, ever in search of profits, is descending on neighborhoods with a fleet of behemoth projects to pillage the resource that is the city and remake it in its image. One would think that political leaders and parliaments are tasked with protecting the city’s residents from these villains. And in many respects they do protect us. They have been derelict, though, on one core issue: who lives where and how in the city and who owns it, both in fact and symbolically. These questions have emerged as the crux of a deregulated fight for survival in which the political process is losing and capital is winning.
Is that an overly polemical portrayal of the situation? It’s certainly painting with a broad brush; the reality is more complex. But if we look at the art of the past years and decades, it turns out that polemical simplifications of complex issues have often hit the nail on the head, taking stances and building momentum for critical views. Some of this art has been dead serious, formulating a trenchant critique of changing realities and even actively denouncing key players. Some of it has been more mischievous, standing athwart history and whistling a different tune. And some of it has dreamed of another world, of the city that belongs to the people who live in it. It’s a dream that has allied artists with the urban social movements of our age.
These tendencies make art a good indicator of what the city has turned into and what it will (or may) yet become. The exhibition showcases selected positions—some of them by now almost historic, others still shimmering in the bright light of the present—that articulate critical perspectives on developments on the urban scene and voice objections and dissent. The neoliberal economic phantasm has been a slick operator, gradually infiltrating the urban community’s social DNA to alter its blueprint. Many artists have responded with trickery of their own, devising stratagems to counter the rationalized roguery and contesting its hegemony over the public debate.
They’re all city tricksters: the ones who insert themselves into organic neighborhoods whose distinctive historically evolved structures their investments and deals have or will soon have obliterated, overbuilt, and transformed. And the ones who throw a monkey wrench into the works and—without harboring any illusions as to art’s ultimate political impuissance—show us how we can understand, and how we might change, what is happening to the city and to ourselves.