This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naïve: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of the “just as is.” … America is neither dream nor reality. It is hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too. —Jean Baudrillard, America (1988)
Can a country simultaneously celebrate the “just as is” and the “stuff of dreams”? Jean Baudrillard—a short-term visitor hoping to use the vast country of the United States as a mirror that would help him better reflect on his native Europe—struggled with this question, recording the slightly contradictory ideas you see on the left on the same page in his book America.
When we started working on Spontaneous Interventions, I began to reflect on my own attitude toward this country. As a recently arrived European, I was initially shocked, like many of my compatriots, at the cold imprint of American cities. There is a gray, hard quality to so many of America’s urban landscapes. Most of these cities lack the sort of exemplary contemporary architecture that can elevate the spirit, and, just as often, they lack the kind of ample public space that calms the mind. In my first months here, American cities struck me as being indecisive and devoid of bold actions. I wondered if the people here realized that if they did not make decisions, others would make them on their behalf?
Then, as we started collecting examples of the urban interventions you see in this issue, and will see more of at the U.S. Pavilion in Venice, I wondered how they might compare to similar citizen-initiated urban improvement projects in Europe. At first glance, there is a strong resemblance: Most are small-scale projects that highlight issues of transportation, ecology, and social justice. As a European-in-denial, I am groomed to be what Baudrillard describes as “a fanatic of aesthetics and meaning, of culture, of flavor and seduction.” That’s why, initially, I did not find many of them compelling. To be blunt: Many of them seemed easy, unpolished, one-liners compared to many of their European counterparts, which tend to be elegant, abstract, and part of a multilayered narrative. (There are, of course, exceptions on both sides of the Atlantic.) So what makes these projects worthy to be a part of something as elaborate as this exhibition?
With healthy exceptions (Jeanne van Heeswijk and Bik van der Pol, to name a couple), many European urban interventions are part of a slightly tired, overly critical discourse that takes place in art institutions and academia and is largely impenetrable to outsiders. Many of these European projects manage to receive funding from municipalities or institutions, or the designers aspire self-consciously for their projects to be included in exhibitions, which are also subsidized by government money. Although often highly participatory in ambition, I wonder if they really connect to the everyday life of cities.
The American projects, on the other hand, are bracing in their honesty: They are often rough, unpolished, and sometimes wild. Many are made by young and passionate urbanites who are not part of any formal art or architecture discourse, and do not aspire to join one. (This being said, many of our featured interventionists are as well-versed in Guy Debord as they are in the latest national transportation policy). Overwhelmingly, however, many of our featured artists simply strive to improve their neighborhoods, and, in so doing, they make a strong critique of American city planning, urban policies, and, most importantly, the ways in which Americans operate in urban space. Their projects amplify a renewed decisiveness from ordinary individuals who feel as though they can—and will—change their cities.
It is my hope that these creative thinkers and urban activists will help shape the urban landscapes of the future—not only through small-scale interventions or institutionalized creative projects, but by being invited by the gatekeepers of city halls and developers’ offices, and at federal policy desks, to inspire a rethinking of what the American city can be at its grandest scale. What does it mean if we let these seemingly radical ideas take center stage? American urbanites—and their cities—can become decisive as they find a balance between a confident state of “just as is” and a reality of dreams.
Co-curator of Spontaneous Interventions, David van der Leer is curator of the BMW Guggenheim Lab and assistant curator of architecture and urban studies at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.