A story was given to me when facing a challenging work environment. In this story, the wind and the sun were debating which of the two was stronger. Strength would be marked by power, established by a race to tear the coat off a man on the street below. Taking the first turn, the wind blew and increasingly howled to unwedge the coat from the man—who more tightly gripped the coat around his body as the gust grew. Next the sun poured its rays on the ground warming the earth. The man removed his coat.
Change is not a factor of force. Individuals make change.
Enrique Penalosa is credited with effecting massive change for Bogota, Columbia. As former city mayor, he realized numerous planning changes. There is a new bus rapid transit system, TransMilenio, that is internationally revered. More than 250 km [155 miles] of bike paths and numerous sidewalks were initiated under his reign. What is interesting is that his model for change did not come from a focus on transportation. His vision was grounded in a notion of social equity.
A lesson from a developing nation, and a country without access to stimulus funding: Penalosa realigned policy and planning to focus on the provision of equal access for all people. Nurseries, schools, libraries, newly planted trees…the list of changes the city experienced goes beyond transit. Public space equals public good was akin to throwing sunshine instead of wind at the problem of urban reform. “High-quality public pedestrian space…[is] evidence of a true democracy at work,” Penalosa is quoted in a biography. Sunshine is beating the windy odds.
Alfredo Jaar, producing a lifetime of serious work, has, from the power of one, elevated social consciousness for change. Absorbing feelings, thoughts, and realities of everyday living – that which exists in-between the built environment’s gaps and open spaces—he retrieves a thread of social construct to re-weave that which is broken.
Catia, a barrio in Caracas, Venezuela, was to receive a museum from their government. It was a neighborhood of little means where most, if not all had never set foot in a museum. The community had ‘won’ this new building without want. For two decades they had requested the closure of a prison situated on their only park. If anything, they desired a sports centre instead. Jaar was to curate the inaugural show in this new museum. His first obstacle was to transform an unwanted building into a community place of pride.
Jaar consulted the people. He presented an idea to town gatherings and at kitchen tables that would require their participation. The people of Catia approved. 1000 disposable cameras were distributed. They could steal or trash the camera if they wanted. Those returning a filled camera [over 75% returned them] would receive prints of their photographs. Each chose their best image for the exhibition. Camera Lucida opened in 1996 as the people set foot in their new museum, most entering a museum for the first time but returning often.
In Montreal, Quebec, Jaar peels back a veil of the homeless quandary: the delicate balance between everyday invisibility and the desire for privacy to shield from the stain of relying on the street. He cunningly expresses this duality through a single cupola of a red light.
Lights in the City (1999) connected three nearby homeless shelters to a cupola in the Marche Bonsecours, a landmark building and former home to both the United Canada Parliament and municipal government. In a gesture to announce presence while preserving anonymity, the homeless entering their shelter could push a button to illuminate the interior of the cupola bright red, for an instant. [This was done with approximately 100,000 watts of red light].
It was a photograph without a print. Jaar’s preliminary meetings with the homeless had revealed a subtle underpinning of ‘no photographs’ and his solution is ingenious. As Jaar described this project in a talk, I realized how often I had seen an outsider approach to fixing homelessness, child poverty, etc…and in raising awareness for each concern, how often ‘the fix’ involved photographs of the subjects themselves. The illuminating cupola allowed individuals anonymity and a collective social presence. A building employed as town crier calling attention to a weak link.
I believe that Alfredo Jaar is also applying the strategy of sunshine over wind…
mind the gap by amery calvelli is licensed under a Creative Commons License.