City/Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America

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In City/Art, anthropologists, literary and cultural critics, a philosopher, and an architect explore how creative practices continually reconstruct the urban scene in Latin America. The contributors, all Latin Americanists, describe how creativity—broadly conceived to encompass urban design, museums, graffiti, film, music, literature, architecture, performance art, and more—combines with nationalist rhetoric and historical discourse to define Latin American cities. Taken together, the essays model different ways of approaching Latin America’s urban centers not only as places that inspire and house creative practices but also as ongoing collective creative endeavors themselves. The essays range from an examination of how differences of scale and point of view affect people’s experience of everyday life in Mexico City to a reflection on the transformation of a prison into a shopping mall in Uruguay, and from an analysis of Buenos Aires’s preoccupation with its own status and cultural identity to a consideration of what Miami means to Cubans in the United States.

Contributors delve into the aspirations embodied in the modernist urbanism of Brasília and the work of Lotty Rosenfeld, a Santiago performance artist who addresses the intersections of art, urban landscapes, and daily life. One author assesses the political possibilities of public art through an analysis of subway-station mosaics and Julio Cortázar’s short story “Graffiti,” while others look at the representation of Buenos Aires as a “Jewish elsewhere” in twentieth-century fiction and at two different responses to urban crisis in Rio de Janeiro. The collection closes with an essay by a member of the São Paulo urban intervention group Arte/Cidade, which invades office buildings, de-industrialized sites, and other vacant areas to install collectively produced works of art. Like that group, City/Art provides original, alternative perspectives on specific urban sites so that they can be seen anew.

Contributors. Hugo Achugar, Rebecca E. Biron, Nelson Brissac Peixoto, Néstor García Canclini, Adrián Gorelik, James Holston, Amy Kaminsky, Samuel Neal Lockhart, José Quiroga, Nelly Richard, Marcy Schwartz, George Yúdice

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Professor Biron, and the international colleagues whose work she has collected in City/Art, admirably aid in the effort to move nortamericanos' view of Latin America from the trivial to the substantial.” - Michael R. Mosher, Leonardo

“This is a fascinating, if rather fragmented, book. This fragmentedness is intentional, and is due in part to the multidisciplinary, open-ended
orientation of the collection. . . . [T]he book challenges us to approach and understand the complexity of ‘Latin American’ cities in new, productive, and
inspiring ways.” - Kristin Norget, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

City/Art includes ten provocative chapters spanning a variety of topics
within the urban cultural studies field. From architecture and city planning
to more ephemeral artistic manifestations embodied in graffiti, film,
fiction and everyday life, the distinguished scholars assembled here provide
a thoughtful assessment of what is otherwise a vast, nearly incomprehensible,
hyper-dynamic subject.” - Andrew Grant Wood, The Latin Americanist

“An insightful and suggestive collection of approaches to creative practices that produce and are produced by Latin American cities. City/Art offers a multidisciplinary collage of ways of studying and interrogating meaningful imaginaries of some of the most vibrant, amicable, violent, passionate, unequal, sensual, and intriguing cities in the contemporary world.”—Daniel Mato, Universidad Central de Venezuela

“Urban planning in the world's most chaotic megacities? Flamboyant creativity in the planet's slums? The breathless pace of change in Latin America has left us both fascinated and confused. City/Art creates an exciting space for real interdisciplinary dialogue between culture studies and urban planning scholars on the new challenges to urban life in some of the world's largest cities, and helps us in the urgent task of rethinking the cultural with respect to the social and political spaces in which it is imbedded.”—Debra A. Castillo, author of Re-dreaming America: Toward a Bilingual Understanding of American Literature

Andrew Grant Wood

City/Art includes ten provocative chapters spanning a variety of topics within the urban cultural studies field. From architecture and city planning to more ephemeral artistic manifestations embodied in graffiti, film, fiction and everyday life, the distinguished scholars assembled here provide a thoughtful assessment of what is otherwise a vast, nearly incomprehensible, hyper-dynamic subject.”
Michael R. Mosher

“Professor Biron, and the international colleagues whose work she has collected in City/Art, admirably aid in the effort to move nortamericanos' view of Latin America from the trivial to the substantial.”
Kristin Norget

“This is a fascinating, if rather fragmented, book. This fragmentedness is intentional, and is due in part to the multidisciplinary, open-ended orientation of the collection. . . . [T]he book challenges us to approach and understand the complexity of ‘Latin American’ cities in new, productive, and inspiring ways.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822344704
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,538,906
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca E. Biron is Associate Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of Twentieth-Century Latin America.

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Read an Excerpt

City / Art


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4470-4

Chapter One


What is a City? / Néstor García Canclini

Let's begin with this basic question. Current urban studies literature does not answer it very clearly. Many scholars address the question of the city without ever providing an adequate definition. The literature typically offers a range of approaches to this question, but ultimately leaves it unresolved. I would like to revisit some of the more oft-cited answers from different moments in urban theory in order to arrive finally, and with some historical grounding, at the problems we currently face in our attempts to study cities, especially big cities.

One approach to defining cities opposes them to the rural, conceiving of them as that which is not the countryside. This focus, quite popular in the first half of the twentieth century, led to an overly sharp contrast between the countryside, seen as a communal space where primary relationships dominated, and the city, understood as a space of secondary associations that produces more divisions among social roles along with a multiplicity of social connections. Given the prominence of this model in Argentina, by virtue of the influence of one of that nation's world theorists, Gino Germani, there is little need to belabor this point. Germani spoke of the city as a nucleus of modernity, precisely because it is there that we can dispense with mandatory, primary relations of belonging-those intense personal, familial, or neighborhood contacts found in small towns or small cities. From his functionalist point of view, Germani studied the anonymity of freely chosen, associative relationships in larger cities, where roles are more separated and defined.

Among the many critiques that have been made of such a strong opposition between the rural and the urban, I would like to point out that the distinction is limited to superficial traits. Such a descriptive differentiation explains neither the structural differences nor the similarities that sometimes arise between what happens in the city and what happens in the countryside or in small towns. Additionally, we often describe our Latin American cities as having been invaded by the countryside. One often sees campesinos traveling through the city in horse-drawn carriages, or the urban space used as if it were rural, as if it would be difficult to imagine a car passing by there. Such literal intersections between the rural and the urban show the insufficiency of defining the urban through opposition to the rural.

Another kind of definition, which has enjoyed long usage since the Chicago School, uses spatio-geographic criteria. Louis Wirth (1938), for example, defined the city as a relatively dense, expansive, and permanent settlement of socially heterogeneous individuals. The problem with this spatiogeographic characterization, however, is that it does not take into account the historical and social processes that create urban structures, dimensions, densities, and heterogeneities.

A third approach sees the city through a specifically economic lens, defining it as the result of industrial development and capitalist concentration. Indeed, the city has favored a greater rationalization of social life and has, to a point, more efficiently organized the reproduction of the workforce by consolidating production and mass consumption. Authors like Manuel Castells, whose book The Urban Question (1977) continues to hold great interest because of its historical vision, argue that these economic criteria omit important ideological aspects (which Castells himself treats only rudimentarily in his book). Later, it became commonplace to question this economistic method of analyzing the city, the daily experience of living there, and the urban inhabitants' representations of the city.

Other authors claim that we can define the city based on the experience of living there. Antonio Mela, for example, published an excellent article in Diálogos (1989) that isolates two key characteristics: the density of interactions and the accelerated pace of the exchange of messages. Mela explains that these are not only quantitative phenomena; they also exercise a sometimes contradictory influence on the quality of city life. The increase in communicative codes requires residents to gain new skills, as is evident to any immigrant who arrives in a new city, gets lost, and has trouble making a place for herself in this density of interactions and this acceleration of the exchange of messages. When this issue starts to gain visibility, especially with the mid-century migrations, the question of who can use the city comes to the fore.

This line of analysis, which expresses the urban question in terms of the tension between achievement and expressivity (Mela 1989), has led to a rethinking of urban societies as a type of language. In other words, cities are not only physical phenomena, modes of occupying space, or types of agglomeration; they are also places where expressive phenomena enter into tension with rationalization, with the goal of rationalizing social life. More than any other social force, the cultural industries of expressivity, insofar as they are constitutive of the order and experience of urban life, have addressed this question.

To the extent that we are seeking a definition of the urban, all these theories fail in some way. They do not offer a satisfactory answer. Rather, they offer multiple approaches that are all necessary, that currently coexist as credible aspects of a certain sense of urban life. The sum of all these definitions, however, cannot be easily articulated. It is not possible to shape them into a unitary, satisfactory, more or less functional definition with which to continue studying cities. This uncertainty with regard to the definition of the urban becomes even more dizzying when we try to speak about megacities.

What is happening in the megacities these days? A recent book by Paolo Perulli (1995), Atlas Metropolitano, el cambio social en las grandes ciudades, opens by pointing out that the crisis of contemporary cities, which was one of the truisms of urban studies until the 1980s, is now seen differently. Perulli argues that, in reality, we are in a phase of returning to the cities, what another Italian author, Aldo Bononi, calls "a renaissance of the city" (Bononi 1992). There are metropolises in full economic recovery, grand urban renovation projects and large-scale physical transformations in the cities.

While the 1970s saw urban crisis and territorial dispersion, there has been much discussion of the 1980s as the decade of return to the city centers, of urban recentralization. Perulli cites Paris and Berlin as prime examples of revitalization. Paris is currently reaping the fruits of large-scale urban policies established decades earlier, while Berlin has benefited from German and European unification processes. But other metropolises in the region are taking steps in this same direction, especially along the southern European band: Barcelona, Munich, Lyon, Zurich, Milan, Frankfurt, Stuttgart. In all these cases, we can see a resurgence of the cities. They are improving employment rates-and not only tertiary employment, but also industrial employment, which had been in decline. They are setting up new networks for intangible infrastructure, and they are starting or bringing to completion large-scale public works.

It is not necessary to belabor the point that Latin American cities are beginning to experience similar changes. We already see emerging signs of it. In Mexico City and São Paulo, of course, the same characteristics are evident. The Mexican capital, for example, which had 3,410,000 inhabitants in 1950, exceeded 20,000,000 by the beginning of the twenty-first century as a result of massive migrations and the incorporation of twenty-nine peripheral municipalities. We can also consider other regional cities, or inter-urban axes like Mercosur. One thinks of the new highways as well as other types of connections, including electronic ones, between São Paulo and Buenos Aires, or among Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. Obviously, Mercosur's emphasis on regional integration is contributing to these developments, but I believe other, equally globalized processes are leading us in this direction as well.

In this context we should rethink what is happening in the cultural dimension of our cities. In the current situation, even with very limited prospects for renewal, we are finding a dynamism that ten or fifteen years ago we did not expect to see when we considered the crises of cities like Mexico and São Paulo. These crises have not disappeared. In fact, some indicators show a worsening of the situation, as with pollution, for example, or the absence of solutions to strategic and structural urban problems. But on the other hand, we also see the undeniable presence of quite dynamic processes grounded in cultural movements.

Imaginaries as Urban Heritage

Mexico City looks more like a contradictory and chaotic video clip than like a city. Instead of their being hyperconnected, "information" cities, one sometimes has the sensation that our cities actually make communication more difficult. The contradictions one faces in Buenos Aires and Mexico City can also be felt in other, younger, Latin American cities. In Rio de Janeiro or in São Paulo, where optic fibers are only recently being installed, telephonic communications can be so unreliable that university professors and business people sometimes have to wait until nine or ten o'clock at night to log on to their email because there are not enough open lines during the day. Of course there is email access-the number of computers multiplies continuously-and there are thousands of new users all the time, but infrastructural deficiencies impede those users' attempts to establish themselves as serious competitors in global networks.

By "video clip city," I mean the city that brings together at an accelerated pace an effervescent montage of cultures from different epochs. It is not easy to comprehend how such diverse ways of life interact in these huge cities, but it is even more difficult to understand the myriad urban imaginaries that they generate. We have a physical experience of the city, we travel through it and we feel in our bodies what it means to walk for a certain amount of time, or to have to stand while on the public bus, or to get caught in the rain before we can catch a cab. However, we also imagine while we move through the city. We draw conclusions about what we see, about the people we come across, about the sections of the city with which we are unfamiliar and that we have to traverse in order to reach some specific destination. In other words, we invent ideas about what happens to us with the others in the city. A large part of what happens to us is imaginary because it does not derive directly from real interactions. Every interaction has an imaginary element, but even more so in the case of those evasive and fleeting interactions that are particular to the megalopolis.

Different imaginaries have fed all of urban history. Writers and literary critics make that fact particularly evident. In her article "La ciudad en el discurso literario" (The city in literary discourse), published in Buenos Aires in the journal SyC, Rosalva Campra asks where cities are founded, and she answers thusly: "On top of a mountain, for better defense, or by the sea in order to have port access, or-as myths typically explain it-beside a river in order to orient itself and give a sense of identity to the group" (Campra 1994, 21). But, she adds, cities are also founded in books, or they are founded by books. She goes on to explore how cities have been connected to foundational books, books that speak of how to tame a desert, how to distinguish a city from a desert, how to delineate space, or how to build based on one's ability to imagine a city.

This process can sometimes be very dramatic, as we can see in literature and films about cities. In Mexico we study this diversity of urban imaginaries by charting how the city is constituted every day in journalistic discourse, and through radio and television. How have these media multiplied the spaces of urban communication? In general, radio is more participatory, with open telephone lines that invite citizens to express their views, and with its ability to create a local clientele for its market. In contrast, television tends to be more authoritative and more censored.

Armando Silva's research on urban imaginaries considers the micro-spaces within which such imaginaries are produced and consumed. He has focused on São Paulo, Caracas, Santiago de Chile, Barcelona, and other cities (Silva 1992, 1993). The same concerns inform Mike Davis's research on Los Angeles (1998), as well as La cultura de la noche, a book about Buenos Aires by Mario Margulis (1994). In conducting an experiment that was similar to that of Margulis's book, my research group studied dance halls, which are an important space for generational gatherings in Mexico City (García Canclini, Castellanos, and Rosas Mantecón 1996). We also included sites where rock concerts take place, funk pits, and other similar venues. Even as the megacities become less and less articulated, these places mark specificity, and thus they reorganize the public and private terrain. These spaces signal belonging for certain sectors. They are places where one can dance, and "feel at home." These public spaces largely function as if they were private, as spaces appropriated by certain groups. Thus they are simultaneously semipublic and semiprivate.

At this point, I would like to reposition some of the preceding ideas within the more specific frame of the study of the formation of imaginaries in the megacity of Mexico. It may be helpful to explain why I subsequently decided to explore the constitution of the urban imaginary by focusing on journeys through the metropolis, and also to identify the methodological tools my team and I developed in the course of our research.

First of all, we should think about the city as simultaneously a place to inhabit and a place to be imagined. Cities are made of houses and parks, streets, highways, and traffic signals. But they are also made of images. These images include the maps that invent and give order to the city. But novels, songs, films, print media, radio, and television also imagine the sense of urban life. The city attains a certain density as it is filled with these heterogeneous fantasies. The city, programmed to function, and designed in a grid, exceeds its boundaries and multiplies itself through individual as well as collective fictions.

Cities are made to be lived in, but also to be traversed. In Mexico City, millions of people spend between two and four hours each day traveling through the city by metro, bus, taxi, or private car. In the fifteen hundred kilometers that the city occupies, twenty-nine million personal trips were taken every day by the mid-1990s. These journeys through the capital represent modes of appropriating urban space as well as sites from which to launch imaginaries. Visiting zones with which we are unfamiliar, we come across multiple actors and imagine how these "others" live in settings that are different from our own neighborhoods and workplaces.

That is why such trips through the city serve as a productive object of study in visual anthropology. Anthropology, which has always sought to understand the relationship with the other through exploring distant continents, finds in western multicultural cities a similar sudden and intriguing contact with other ways of life. The simple expansion of modes of transport through urban pathways, and the violent interactions they provoke, can be compared to the eruption of modernity in so-called primitive populations. Through direct experience as well as through mass media, we discovered numerous disturbances caused by the construction of new metro lines, or the introduction of huge buses and speeding private cars in the narrow streets of small neighborhoods. Areas originally planned so that residents could walk serenely or even stop to chat with one another, as if the pleasant streets were extensions of their own patios, are increasingly invaded and overwhelmed by speed, noise, and pollution. In the crisscrossing of private cars and public transport, of trucks and pedestrians, of traffic and street peddlers on foot, one sees many of the types of encounters that modern life offers as alterity and difference.


Excerpted from City / Art Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: City/Art: Setting the Scene / Rebecca E. Biron 1

Part 1. Urban Designs

What is a City? / Néstor García Canclini 37

Buenos Aires is (Latin) America, Too / Adrián Gorelik 61

The Spirit of Brasília: Modernity as Experiment and Risk / James Holston 85

Part 2. Street Signs

City, Art, Politics / Nelly Richard 115

The Writing on the Wall: Urban Cultural Studies and the Power of the Aesthetics / Marcy Schwartz 127

Miami Remake / José Quiroga 145

The Jew in the City: Buenos Aires in Jewish Fiction / Amy Kaminsky 165

Part 3. Traffic

On Maps and Malls / Hugo Achugar 185

Culture-Based Urban Development in Rio de Janeiro / George Yúdice 211

Latin American Megacities: The New Urban Formlessness / Nelson Brissac Peixoto 233

Bibliography 251

Contributors 267

Index 271

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