Heterogénesis - Magazine of Visual Arts- 2006 nr 55-56

Shipa Gupta (India) - Intervención - PHOTO: Ximena Narea


José Manuel Noceda

One of the peculiarities of the Biennial of Havana has been that of constructing a continuity of discourse among its various editions, thus succeeding in achieving some sort of thematic dialog between them in such a way that one almost always identifies in the previous encounter premonitory details of the subject of study of the next biennial.

From this causal assumption, the antecedents of some of the thematic, linguistic and processional postulates that the ninth edition attempted to demonstrate are far older and complex if viewed from its previous encounters and can be traced back to such early dates as 1986, at the Julio Le Parc Workshop organized during the second biennial. On that occasion, Le Parc worked together with young Cuban artists at CODEMA (Consejo Asesor para el Desarrollo de la Escultura Monumentaria y Ambiental) with a series of structures later to be “exhibited” at the nearby park – an imaginative, ludic-interactive display of artistic objects in the public space. With a similar spirit, the participants in the Chinese Kite Workshop of the Fourth Biennial (1991) ended up flying beautiful kites on a winter morning in front of the capital’s breakwater, at the Maceo Park. As part of this story, it would be worth to mention other preceding signs, such as the scale models of the Mexican Gabriel Macotela (1994) or the archaeologically-based experiences on deterioration of the Cuban Carlos Garaicoa (1994-1997).

But those were isolated experiences amidst an alternative to the blockade imposed by the artistic mainstream on the artistic production of the then, more properly defined, Third World, focused on debating transcendent issues related to the tensions between center and periphery, tradition and contemporarity, with works conceived to be exhibited indoors.

Only during the last two biennials, a systematization of some reflections on the urban context and its socio-cultural multiplicity has been attempted. Among them on should highlight the communitarian initiatives implemented by Monica Nador (Brazil) at the neighborhood of San Isidro on 2000, or the project Mover las Cosas, at the Alamar quarter in East Havana, and Isaroko, an original idea of the Cuban artists Rodrigo Diago, Choco and Manuel Mendive on the La California ground at the Centro Habana, both during the Eight Biennial (2003). In this edition, among the dichotomies that can be placed among the connections of “art and life”, not few guests dealt with certain aspects of the city, hence works such as those of Artes No-Decorativas S.A. (Ecuador), Federico Herrero (Costa Rica), Daniel Lima y Bijari (Brazil), the Nómada group (Colombia), Nelson and Ljudmilla, or the Department of Public Interventions (Cuba), these guests put forward from various distinct perspectives some topics to be dealt with in more depth in this ninth edition, dedicated to the Dynamics of urban cultures.

Cities today constitute a huge cultural laboratory. Denominations such as “entertainment society”, “mass-media society”, “de-urbanization”, “schizophrenic society”, etcetera, attempt to describe the great questions posed within them, or to conceptualize the need to modify the way of looking at what is happening at their interior. Understanding the texts inserted in the urban culture implies firstly to identify how the architectural and urban tissues have evolved up to the present day, and then to understand how they determine its socio-cultural processes.


Elisa Strada (Argentina): Despertares
PHOTO: Ximena Narea


Something similar happens to cities as to identities: for a long time they were considered structures with closed orders, with stable and unchangeable physiognomies. Only modernity in architecture attempted to transform the spaces of the cities through “more or less Utopian innovations”. However, the post-modern impact on structures inherited from that modernity, the displacement towards the orbs of increasingly large in numbers and diverse populations, the acceleration of the pace of life, the hegemony of publicity and the overwhelming density of traffic, transformed them into complex cartographies, not only topographical but also social, administrative, habitational and cultural.

More and more people leave the rural areas and decide to face the adventure of settling down in the cities. Such a demographic overflow generates an intense and irreversible cycle of urbanization. In a process whose scale and vertiginous pace no one has ever dared to imagine before. Some statistics illustrate that growth. Recent facts published in connection with the World Environment Day (2005) estimates that, about half of the population of the planet lives in urban areas today, but by 2030 the number will increase to 60 per cent. At such a pace there will be 23 megalopolis by 2015, with more than ten millions inhabi-tants each, and 19 of them will belong to the developing world, with little chance to successfully face the serious problems posed by such a growth.

At this moment, 75 % of the populations of the developed countries live in urban areas. In them, urbanization has to a high extent coincided with the growth of wealth and the economy. But the situation is quite another and much more disturbing for the countries of the South, considering that more than half of the euphemistically called “developing” nations will live in cities by 2020. Today, about a billion people, especially in Asia, Afri-ca and Latin America live in shantytowns or illegal settlements.

Considerations of this nature locate the subject of the city and the urban culture in the epicenter of contemporary studies. Lately the city, and everything taking place in it, is in the focus of attention of social sciences and also an element not to be misestimated by the Arts, being the subject of innumerable actions and curatorial practices. It suffices to remember for example, InSITE 97, at the US-Mexican border (in the cities of Tijuana and San Diego); Iconografías Metropolitanas at the 25th Biennial of Sao Paulo, 2002; Todo Incluído. Imágenes Urbanas de Centroamérica, Madrid, 2004; P.R. 00 and P.R. 02, in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Ciudad múltiple, Panama City, 2003, and La ciudad Ideal, Biennial of Valencia, 2003, among others.

One could state that the structural and social agony of the cities is not new. Since the decade of the 80’s in the last century, the globalizing policies and the de-territorialization of the economic, financial, and market structures rooted in neoliberalism accentuated the differences and inequalities between the different geopolitical areas of the planet. Such disproportions favored the sudden flight of large human masses towards the most well-off settlements of the industrialized north or towards the best qualified ones in the Third World – human displacements that were fed by the multiplication of poverty, the resurgence of the international or regional conflicts, ethnic-religious disagreements, or environmental problems and the changes in the climatic behavior at the global level.

The Caribbean is a good example of such large displacements. Five years ago, the Venezuelan artist Ricardo Benaím emerged in Havana with the emission of a Caribbean currency functioning as monetary unit for all the region and having financial equivalences with the exchange tokens of the world’s strongest and most widely used currencies.1 Presented like a street performance, he installed a small stage scene in the guise of a portable exchange office whose appropriation of the banking procedure of exchange of bank notes was a meddlesome gesture from the Arts in the international mechanisms of economic and financial power. That act connoted the preca-riousness of the tourism industry dependent, or resource scarce Caribbean economies forced to devise common subsistence strategies in front of an adverse panorama governed by mechanisms of pla-netary articulation, by the conformation of competitive interregional geopolitical and economic blocks, willing to face the new rules of the game of globalization. Such disadvantages upon which Benaím reflected condition the migratory exodus of the populations of the area.

So, the “mirage of the progress”, the idea of the big city portrayed as an earthly paradise, with better job sources, services, housing facilities, and quality of life, contributes to the overwhelming physical and social impact of the invasion of insufficient spaces by huge human conglomerates, who bring along an exaggerated deterioration of the main urban centers by an uncontrollable population overflow. The definition of the problem formerly known as the phenomenon of “capitalness”, circumscribed to internal movements towards the capitals, no longer describes the syndrome of the cities objectively.
The unfinished modernizing efforts enhanced the hypertrophy of the urban constructs. Years back, Néstor García Canclini summarized some of the consequences of that modernizing effort for Latin America, pointing that “without houses, neither sanitary services, nor sufficient schools, nor works, and above all, without regulating plans nor adequate investments, the disordered growth of the peripheries and the degradation of the downtown areas of the large cities engendered huge metropolis (...) and average cities in rampant overgrowth, whose predominant traits are the opposite of the modern project: instead of a rationalization of public life, the chaos produced by the privatization of the urban space made by millions of cars and tens of thousands of traveling salesmen; the industrial development, the formal and informal commerce were aggravating year after year, the contamination of the soil, water and air”2, something that reminds us of the almost subliminal background of Ridley Scott’s dark city in the film Blade Runner.

Translating all these arguments, one could speak of those problems in relation to the evident, ultramo-dern, organized great cities of the industrialized world, but it would be very different to identify them in the South of the world, and it would be actually naive to compare, in spite of the formal analogies, Chirs Burden’s “futuristic metropolis” with the “architectonic simulations” of Bodys Isek Kinguelez (Congo), critically loaded by the colonial history of Africa and their fiduciary role in the economic prosperity of the West.

The nations of Latin America, Asia or Africa mark the antipodal of the wealth; among their extensive realms of exclusion the marginalization of the habitat prevails. The ample belts of poverty surrounding the capitals, be those favelas of Brazil, the hills of Caracas or the new towns of Lima, defined dark zones full of social conflicts, segregation and insecurity conveniently hidden from indiscreet glances behind advertising campaigns and governmental policies, so that they never dim the seductive pages of tourism brochures. A good illustration in this case could be the Central American isthmus. Sold like a paradise of ecology and bio-diversity, the history though is very different ; one of many metropolitan enclaves, true paradigms of chaos and absence of planning.3 The prevailing insecurity in them forces their inhabitants to live “behind a fence”, or to contract the services of protection agencies. Years ago, the Costa Rican artist Federico Herrero made, perhaps tangentially, refe-rence to the subject in a series of interventions in monitoring booths in San Jose, whose functionality he modified by turning them into “public toilets”, etc. His project documented the proliferation of this new architectonic typology that already is a distinctive trait of some Latin American cities.

The agony of the concepts relative to the modern city imposes a challenge to the normative will of the states, tearing to pieces the Utopian conceptions about the social organization of life and expectations and making the capacity of architects and city planners unusable to design spaces and territories appropriate to its various functions, among which excels the fragmentation of its structure and functions. Perhaps, the last totalizing project upon this space was the one designed by the architectonic rationalism in the Chart of Athens, with an attempt to separate the four basic functions, and whose failure is well-known to all.

Several derivations exemplify the morphologic complexities present in the landscape of the urban. One of them is the alienation of the postmodern building, described by Fredric Jameson when he pointed out that the traditional or mo-dern city is replaced by the postmodern variant of self-contained, isolated minuteness. Jameson mentions examples such as Beaubourg, in Paris and the hotel Westin Bonaventura, of Los Angeles, prototypes of a hyperspace that aspires to be a substitute or an equivalent for the city itself, without pretending that these affect the transformation of the surroundings or articulate with them.4

Another set of problems point at the blur of the borders between centrality and periphery, the assimilation of the old margins and other nearby communities that turns cities into over-populated metropolises. Some authors (among them, Robert Segre and García Canclini) have drawn the attention to how in this process it is very common to observe that a given habitual matrix takes over surrounding spaces in such a way that the spaces end up juxtaposing the architectonic and urban inconsistencies of various different enclaves.5 The mega-city, or the most complex version of the present large city: megalopolis (a term coined by the city planner Jean Gortmann), defines the totally new operation of “co urbanization”, the latter understood as the fusion of great co-adjacent habitational nuclei that dilute their edges indefinitely, articulated around the main graticule of the city, something that can be seen in the groupings of big cities of the West and Atlantic coasts of the United States – something to that will happen in other latitudes, such as in calm regions of the Central American isthmus, like Heredia, San José and Alajuela, in Costa Rica.

Without pretending to exhaust such a complex subject, other questions present an alternative like the Generic City, an Asian postmodern correspondence to the rationalist Brasilia – a consequence of the devastating power of universalizing formulas6, or the new prolongations of the “plaisir” city, modeled after Las Vegas or Disneyland, in the present versions of the thematic parks and the new structures of leisure.

The urban territory becomes spongy, of a never before imagined porosity. The contemporary discourses on the nomadic and the displacements give a turn to this subject that goes beyond its dramatic human or affective effects, as was the focus back in the 80’s and the 90’s. Seen from this perspective mobility acts like a destabilizing wedge in the good sense, because it generates changes within the established sociocultural strata. The artistic readings on trans-territoriality can show very diverse nuances. The “ubiquity” of the “global actors” lie at the base of the ambiguity of meaning strategically projected in some of the experiences, for example, of Gabriel Orozco7, one of the paradigms of the “de-localized artist”. The systematic use of nomadic codes also influenced deliberately in the Ciudad Transportable de los Carpinteros (Cuba) displayed during the Seventh Biennial of Havana in 2000. That installation created with tents reproducing some of the architectonic symbols with which diffe-rent manifestations of power in the island were represented, from the politician to the monk, insisted on that provisional state of the contemporary experience, at the same time that it connoted the instrumental or idiosyncratic symbolic value what is dragged along with each travel.

The collapse as a socially homogeneous or foreseeable space, subordinated to the introduction of new individuals and social groups, to the inter-crossing of the lives, memories and histories of men, affects the new human and social relations, and the construction of new identities. 8 Their consequences are observed in the contemporary “Babels”: London, Berlin, New York or Los Angeles, but they are also acting in an incisive way in other, less cosmopolitan contexts, such as Lima in Peru, whose identity structure continues to thrive at the intersection of inha-bitants from the coast, the mountain range and the forest. This implies also the disappearance of the centered subject defended by canons of modernity. This modification of the individual dramaturgy depends on the characteristics and conditions of each particular experience, and interprets the instability of a subject devoided of its sense of location in space, who cannot identify its own position in the new urban totality and must redraw its orienting coordinates according to new practices of insertion in the collective corpus and the urban mesh. This cognitive and cartographic incapacity is subordinated to the difficulty - pointed by Jean Baudrillard - of safeguarding the self-identity at a time in which the old aspiration “of looking like the others and to losing oneself into the multitude” has been replaced by the obsession “of just looking like oneself”.9
Such disorientation leads Fernando Castro to metaphorize the public context with an abyss by which we ramble. Perhaps because of this, the situationists went to the opposite end of what was understood by the architectonic modernism, enunciating the drif-ting away in terms of mobility and interrelation, or a reading of a space subordinated to the fragmented landscapes that the human being configures along his usual journeys10, an undoubtedly influential perspective in some contemporary artistic practices, of performative character, interested in exploring art like an everyday process or experience, in the style of the urban journeys of Francis Alÿs (Belgium-Mexico).

The temporality generated in the culture is one of the most attractive consequences of this situation. When having access to cities and the creation of new communities, the new social subjects upset the composition, the character and the diversity of the urban surroundings. It could be said, in addition, that this is one of the scenes where the straining contaminations between the global and the local are prolonged. These new subjects carry with themselves their customs and their habits; they are carriers of the new cultural sensitivities and traits, and they penetrate the crevices of the context that assimilates them, orchestrating enriching intercultural experiences. I do not refer to the worn out multi-cultural axiom, justly defined by Gerald Mosquera as a “prison without walls”, but to another type of “transaction”.

In the cities, many realities coexist simultaneously. The visual culture channels in some ways the ecstasy and the fascination for the objects; it responds to a promiscuous coexistence of images of various origins, fundamentally ordered by means of hegemonic and homogenizing strategies of mass-culture and the transnational companies. The photographer Walker Evans can be a forerunner in the early recording of that crowded universe of signboards, advertisements and comic books with essays like Habana, 1933, where the voracity of images was already perceived as ac-ting upon the individual. But it would be the New Dada and the Pop who legitimized the popular ima-ge, the serial products and the trivial object obsessively stereotyped in the urban life. The difference between their transcriptions and the present time lies in the hallucinating level of global circulation reached today by products like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, at the level of communicative effectiveness of posters, the huge advertising fences, the neon ads, the giant TV-screens, the TV-commercials or the soap operas, that saturate all the corners of the planet and stimulate operations of simulation among a population historically familiarized with the means of the cultural industry. This reproduces the dualities between the lived reality, full of unsatisfied shortcomings, and its mediatically consumed transcription - a virtual replacement for the existential emptiness of necessity created and imposed by advertising means, and by a more and more ephemeral cultural system of values.11 The hegemony of the high-tech sign has drawn the longest straw, and it substantially modifies the ways of life, the social behavior, the customs, the beliefs, being of interests even to the religious practices of the common human being.

At the same time, one of the resulting products of that mechanism is the two-way cultural interchange. Although the apparent universalization of the experience of consumption in non-developed contexts gives new leases to collective projection, which solves these dichotomies by means of cultural assemblies and hybrid products 12, the accumulation of images and sounds stemming from the popular imaginary, propelled by the spontaneous initiative of people, it structures a new meaning for that visual culture facing the passer-by. Also, they actively influence the new identity- or cultural expressions being basically constructed in urban scenes, whose referents stem from an iconography already present in public transportation, in the advertisements of the small and medium companies, in the crowded stands of the street markets and other scenes of the informal economy, and in the traits of the ethnic minorities or gay communities.

Other manifestations exist not to misestimate in that symbolic polyphony, such as the street speech, the background noise, the performance dimension of human activity, the everyday gestures or bodylanguage of the people, or the sonorities of popular musical expressions like hip hop, reggaeton or the Andean techno-cumbia. All those being very complex phenomena appealing to the youngest sector of the population.

On the other hand, while the guidelines of a postmodern conception draw a map of new, randomly scattered hierarchies, the most novel typologies supplant functions once entrusted to traditional spaces of the public and domestic life. A new order of symbolic indications, territorial po-wers and mutations replaces, and in fact makes the traditional notions of centers, of parks and squares, on which most of the articulation of the public space and social communication rested useless.13 What Jacques le Goff defined as “places of memory”, that is, the historical or religious archetypes, have been forced to coexist with the glamour of the mall, with the big boulevards, the omnipre-sent visibility of companies and trade marks, all those short hands for the “society of the spectacle”. Their old seat of honor is occupied by the fenced residential areas, the condos, the transnational emblems of urban progress, banks, corporations, the towers of steel and glass, satellite dishes or the great shopping malls, declaring dysfunctional churches and cathedrals (their domes and bell towers), monuments and the pillars of government power, referents that until then acted as significant landmarks in the urban landscape.

Logically, all of them affect the redesign of the landscape concept nowadays, oxygenating the contemporary practices of the genre. In the middle of the 90’s the artistic scene largely moved towards the recovery of the files of the personal or collective memory, locked up in the impasse of the document or of the so-called “archive disease”, this domination is now replaced by the re-formulations of the landscape, their recent re-orientations - where the archaeologically grounded ideas and the psycho-social constructions or photographic records stand out -, largely articulated around the changing potentialities of the urban text, that is, the radical transformations of the image of the city, their new cartographies, the chaos, the fragmentation and their inherent disorder, the tensions between tradition and unfinished modernity, the contradictions between the rural and the urban, as well as the new media mar-kers spread around its vast territory.

Finally, it is necessary to consider the emphasis in the productions destined to the urban space, known indifferently as public art, urban art or other denominations. According to García Canclini, the art for that context is no longer conceived from the simplistic or romantic formula of moving the works out of the museums with the purpose of “qualifying” the realm of the urban neither is it achieved through the commemorative transcendentalism that filled our cities of statues, obelisks and monuments.

The increasing interests in expanding the frontiers of art beyond the sacrosanct inner enclosures of the museum or the gallery moves along another path, in connection to the peculiarities of the surroundings, their meaning and their history, with the inhabited communities crossing it or daily modifying it. The production of meanings in this case revalues the “appropriation and the use” of that public space by anonymous beings, and directly affects the image of the city; its actions have a very volatile, process-orien-ted, social, cultural and political reason to exist that is reshaped in everyday life.

Many are the artists whose proposals have the open spaces and the architecture as a fundamental scene, where they create experiences of identity-oriented, cultural, or social repercussions, establish links between the existential and the urban and social structure. They explore often hidden or completely anonymous communicative mechanisms, they articulate their actions or interventions camouflaged with the passer-by and they are more interested in “living” the experience of art than in documenting it or turning art into life experience. They accept the codes imposed by the city to deconstruct the daily rituals, to place objects in it, to generate mechanisms of social insertion or to scatter imperceptible or disturbing performative quotations within the landscape, always returning to the fractures between the artist and the public, the inside and the outside, the public and the private.

Among the practices designed for those spaces, there are experiences of de-institutionalization aiming at giving back the voice to the inhabitants of the urban communities, to open alternative radial, journalistic or medial interstices, in function of broadcasting their lives, their histories and their memories. The space of the museum or the gallery can also be submitted to an operational de-construction through ambulant museums or fictitious vernissages conceived to interact outside those enclosures, on the sidewalk or the street.

Also, the quotations of the informal variants of the market place acquire the form of kiosks or ambulant simulations of vendor stands, in these cultural cases. One of them, the Colectivo Cambalache (Carolina Caicedo) makes a parody with its name as a kind of ancestral, fetishist barter in order to displace it towards the realm of the artistic.

These and other reasons make us look towards the conflictual character implicit in the city, towards the impact of today’s urban cultures, from an open, plural position that takes the benefits inherent to the city as well as the various unsolved contradictions inside it as much into account. It equally explains the primacy that this space acquires within the contemporary artistic or curatorial practices. The city is presently a compulsory point of reference; it has become a territory to explore new visual potentialities, to find other possible ways to expand the reach of art beyond the walled enclosure of the gallery or the museum, of the wicked space of the commercial, to disassemble its restrictive alibis. It is very probable that the museum, the gallery or the market will never die, neither paintings nor history, but the city and the public space are without a doubt a new alternative and their greatest competitor is the place in which, as Harald Szeemann predicted, the unforeseeable art of the future will occur.


Limber Vilorio (República Dominicana): Mufle Man.
Installation / 2006
PHOTO: Ximena Narea


Laura Messing (Argentina):
Entre medianeras, 2005
Photograph on canvas/
PHOTO: Ximena Narea

Lucy Orta (Reino Unido - France): Nexus Architecture
PHOTO: Ximena Narea


Luis Enrique Camejo (Cuba)
Paintings from the series Dreams and Gas
Mix technic 100x130 cm c/u
PHOTO: Ximena Narea

Betsabé Romero (Mexico): workshop Isaroko

Yennyferth Becerra (Chile): Housing solucion / 2006. Installation
PHOTO: Ximena Narea
Dolores Cáceres (Argentina): Installation
PHOTO: Ximena Narea


1 The artists whom I mention here were not invited to this Biennial. Some of them, Benaím, Los Carpinteros or Federico Herrero have participated in previous editions.
2 Néstor García Canclini: “Arte Desurbanizado, desinstalaciones fronterizas”. In: InSITE, 1997.
3 I recommend consulting the texts of Virginia Perez-Rattón and other authors in the catalogue of the exhibition Todo Incluído. Imágenes Urbanas de Centroamérica. Madrid, Centro Cultural del Conde Duque, 2004.
4 Fredric Jameson: Teoría de la Postmodernidad. Madrid, Editorial Trotta, 1996, p. 57-61.
5 Roberto Segre: Arquitectura y urbanismo modernos, Ciudad de La Habana. Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1988, p. 358; Néstor García Canclini. Op. Cit.
6 Roberto Segre mentioned the Generic City, anticipated for this XXIst century, as a derivative of the processes of westernization that devastate the memory in the name of progress “with a multinational character where the free style predominates, as well as the idea of the post city”. “Memorias y olvidos en la nueva Babel”, Sixth Biennial of Havana, Center Wifredo Lam, 1997, p 66.
7 See Christopher Miles, Gabriel Orozco, Art Nexus (Miami-Bogota), (38): 43-48, oct. - dec., 2000.
8 I suggest to consult Gerardo Mosquera: “Memorias y olvidos en la nueva Babel: Esferas, ciudades, transiciones”. ArtNexus (Bogota-Miami), (54): 84-89, 2004.
9 Jean Baudrillard: El otro visto por sí mismo. Barcelona, Editorial Anagrama, 1988, p. 36.
10 See Marlo Trejos, Circuitos de desplazamiento, in Todo incluido, Op. Cit., p. 45-48.
11 See Jose Carlos Mariátegui and Miguel Zegarra, Vía satélite. Panorama de la fotografía y el video en el Perú contemporáneo, in: Vía satélite. Lima: Centro Cultural de España, 2005, p. 9-21.
12 Ibíd.
13 Carlos Osa, Santiago de fin de siglo: retazos de identidad y ciudadanía, Revista de Crítica Cultural, Santiago de Chile, no. 19, nov. of 1999, p. 10-14. Segre: “Memorias y olvidos en la nueva Babel”, op. cit., p. 65-69.




Magazine of Visual Arts
Box 760
220 07 Lund - Sweden
Tel/Fax: 0046 - 46 - 159307

e-mail: heterogenesis@heterogenesis.com