Urban Scenes (10/26)


Somewhere around the turn of the century, the proliferation of mailing lists, infoshops and other forms of electronic communication, plus the experience - available only to a few - of summit-hopping revealed activist "scenes" to each other. From Berlin and London and Barcelona to San Francisco, Sydney, Hong Kong and Buenos Aires, suddenly it was possible to recognize something similar happening in the streets. That was a superficial similarity, for sure. The most common things between these diverse scenes were the danger represented by capitalist "free trade" and its institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO and dozens of others) and the concrete manifestation of the new class structure in the form of gentrification. Everywhere, activists could see other activists at grips with these two issues. And yet for those who traveled, or looked further through films, articles, books, testimony, mailing lists and live reporting, what became equally clear was the particularity of each regional, national and urban history. Such knowledge is impressive. And who would have imagined that between Chicago and Buenos Aires, we share not only gentrification, but also a much darker secret?


visit the website




Trashing The Neoliberal City: Documents and Reflections


Chicago is the third largest city in the United States with a regional population of over 9 million residents. It is home to the largest futures and derivatives market in the world and is a crucial node in the international circulation of goods. As the largest intermodal transfer stations between truck, rail, air and water in the west it is served by it's distinctly central location in the North American continent as a transfer point between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Politically it is an anomaly because of the longstanding rule of machine politicians alongside the testing ground for the ambitions of a young Barack Obama and other significant leaders.

Unlike neighboring rustbelt cities and cornbelt countryside, Chicago has (in the eyes of the Economist Magazine) managed to "succeed" in neoliberal terms through the privatization of services, resources and infrastructure and remain a stable and sometimes growing economy. Such readings ignore the income inequality critique waged by Occupy Wall Street and organized Labor, yet are worth mentioning because of the disparity between the Chicago economy and the significantly more dire surroundings which have seen the industrialization of agriculture alongside the deindustrialization cities and loss of urban manufacturing.  Despite any relative success there are significant gaps in income that create an intensely racially divided city with white workers often making twice that of African Americans according to Stacie Williams of the Chicago Reporter. In Chicago the abandonment of Detroit and the Wealth of Manhattan uncomfortably co-exist.

These conditions have been uniquely responded to in Chicago with art-infused activism which has tried to critically interrogate the economic and social transformations of the city while also experimenting with new forms of protest amidst the stagnation of activism preceding the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. This presentation will bring together the stories of two distinct collaborative public art projects which took place in Chicago between 2001 and 2005: The Department of Space and Land Reclamation (2001), The CHAos Campaign (2005).

While I will not go into the precise organizational structure supporting each project here, all of the efforts were the result of a diverse group of people's labor, sometimes working formally as a collective and at other times informally as a project group coming together based on time, appropriate skills, and shared interest. Both projects had a central organizing group and numerous participants and collaborators plugging in at different levels. So when I envoke "we" it is a complicated we.

All of this work was produced under the direct influence of the counter globalization movement and the sophisticated media production prominently associated with AIDS activism of the 1980s. Additional influences included our varied individual subcultural experiences with punk and hip hop, and an eclectic art education ranging from feminism to graffiti and experiments with temporary public art and interventionism.  

In order to further contextualize the work in the moment of production, extensive quotations from primary materials produced for each project are reproduced below. In order to encourage critical reflection, statements from the organizers of both DSLR and CHAos have been solicited and presented below. [For further documentation of these projects see the pamphlet Trashing The Neoliberal City published by Learning Site in 2007 and edited by Emily Forman and Daniel Tucker]


- Posted by Daniel Tucker


DSLR_Catalogcover copy.jpg



The original DSLR Call for Participation announced:


“This is an open call to all individuals and groups that are concerned about the lack of say we have in the development of where we live, work, or play. Join the Department of Space and Land Reclamation (DSLR) for a weekend campaign of art, discussions, and networking. Creating a hub, or laboratory, of interconnected events and projects, the DSLR explicitly desires the reclamation of all space, land, visuals and culture back into the hands of the people who create it, work it and live in it.

Out of this campaign DSLR also hopes to generate a strong critique of both artists' subservience to the status quo as well as capitalism's stunting of the growth of a liberatory aesthetics. We anticipate more networking between various space and land reclamation organizations. We want to make demands on both art movements and political movements that a new and autonomous and critical aesthetic be supported and encouraged both through discussion and action. Some results of this could include creating space in radical and community-based publications for art and discussion, the development of non-capitalist networks to help create and display autonomous art and other cultural projects, and political groups making art and culture integral to their campaigns. Great things are bound to happen if we successfully take back what is rightfully ours!”

When April rolled around there had been 70 proposed interventions that would take place throughout the city in neighborhoods, on trains and in vehicles. DSLR was centered around the physical space called "The Hub", a centrally located warehouse space where people came together to actually materially produce the campaign. They collaborated on each others projects, made new connections, attended panel discussions, edited documentation to share with others and had meals and drinks together. It was filled with electric social energy  - the kind that reminds you of how creativity and community can flow more easily in an immersive environment. And consider that this was before people widely used cell phones or used Internet in every facet of life, and so people were not distracted with such gadgets either.

While there were over 70 interventions, too many to discuss, one project I can share in some detail is Flotsam's "Loiter Zone." DSLR was particularly concerned with interpreting the control society theorists discuss in an abstract sense through the lens of specific local examples that affected Chicagoans on a daily basis. One such example was the recently introduced anti-gang loitering laws which made it an arrestable offense for more than two teenagers to hang out in public space because they could constitute a gang  - suggesting that the only possible explanation for hanging out in public (aka "loitering") would be criminal. The art collective Flotsam responded to this by setting up Loitering Zones near Chicago's famous Picasso sculpture and at City Hall, the municipal government building. This project is paradigmatic of the kind of politically infused and often humorous interventions that occurred all over Chicago that weekend under the banner of DSLR.


This event catalyzed the community of practitioners committed to working together - it constituted a community and a scene around an unconventional “issue” area: the changing qualities of public space in the city. Only by invoking such  an unusual common-ground could a group that exceeded former sub-cultural enclaves emerge. On the last day of DSLR a large discussion with all the participants was convened and the theme of housing was repeatedly mentioned as a focal point that could be invested in. Between 2001-2005 there were three large scale interventions developed to address the rapacious real estate market taking over the city. CHAos is the final outgrowth and most developed of that series.


An Interview about DSLR with Emily Forman and Josh MacPhee


Daniel Tucker: Can you talk a little bit about what happened at DSLR.

Emily Forman: Well there was this four-day event. There were hundreds of people who came and participated over the course of a four-day weekend. People who were coming as individuals, artists, activists, community organizations and families. People from many diverse walks of life in Chicago, many different subcultures that generally didn’t share the same space or share the same goals. And I think one of the things that was really genius about DSLR was the way that it was framed explicitly around the politics of public space – that public space was this thing that could be a shared zone of transformation for everybody in Chicago, because everybody’s ability to self-determine their lives and their neighborhoods, was dependent upon the control of public space. And so all of the things that were articulated by different people about public space, whether they were coming from a hip-hop or graffiti background or coming from a neighborhood struggle against coal-burning power plants—whatever background people were coming from, this became this zone of communication and sharing that created a really amazing dialogue.

So over the course of these four days there was a “hub space” that was set up at a warehouse called the Butcher Shop, on the near west side, and in this hub space there were workshops, lectures and community meals. There were people getting to know each other and collaborating. There was a map of the city of Chicago. People would meet each other, they would go out into the city, they would do different kinds of spatial reclamations, which really ranged in variety and scope. The bulk of the spatial reclamations were sort of artistic interventions. People doing strange performances in public space, but there were also reclamations that were more long-standing, reoccurring, or that were actually contestational; and then all these people would come back to the command center-hub space and they would flag their reclaimed zone of the city onto the giant map of the city.

dslrtv1 copy.jpgJosh MacPhee: In the hub representatives of these 60+ projects were mingling, many of them sleeping, eating, and living in this space. Then there were hundreds of other people coming in and out who weren’t directly engaged in a specific project, but who came for a party, a panel, a meal, or just to say hi to people. There was all of the dialogue and relationships that developed in that space and then there was the external, which was the unfolding of all these projects in their specific locations in the city of Chicago—and being marked on the map as Emily said.

At the time—I mean people would be videotaping the projects that were unfolding in the street and then bicycling those tapes back to the hub and editing them onto VHS so they get popped into this giant wall of VCRs and televisions we had built into the space. It’s funny because ten years isn’t that long ago, but our access to technology has changed so much. Everything is so integrated now, with cell phones and cameras in laptops, but back then we had to spend weeks finding enough people that had TVs and VCRs to hobble together this giant wall of televisions piled up on top of each other with VHS decks squeezed in behind them or to the side of them. It was so basic that every once in a while one of us would go and try to restart all of the tapes—the idea was to recreate the sense of a control room with all of us being able to see what was happening all over the city simultaneously.

Emily Forman: Now we would be able to have live-streaming videos, and also to have a live mapping of the city.

Josh MacPhee: I’m sure that the motivation for this came out of our understanding of and experience with Indymedia, which had developed out of WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. Some of the first ideas for the creation of Indymedia actually originated out of a group of people who been involved with media center planning at the Active Resistance gathering and protests that happened simultaneously with the 1996 Democratic National Convention meetings in Chicago.While none of us were super tech people, we were trying to capture that sense of real time that we now take for granted.


Read the rest of the interview at never-the-same.org

DSLR_ahalyamap copy.jpg

Reflections on the DSLR in 2012

by Nato Thompson  


DSLR took place at a time of great social movement in April of 2001. Post-Seattle WTO protests, pre-911, it was a time of global revolution and mass uprising. The city as a fabric to be molded, reshaped, trespasses and ultimately, occupied (before occupy was the word it is now), was hardly some theoretical proposition, but instead a tangible reality to be strived for. The city was mutable and its landscape of power a sort of tension to be played like a string on a harp.

The project itself was, in essence, a follow up to a project I had organized the year before called Counter Productive Industries. CPI was an exhibition that tried to use the tools of the service industry (telemarketing, faxing, fundraising, marketing), in an effort to resist work itself. It was a campaign. And in that sense, so too was DSLR. It was a campaign. This campaign however was in space. Open-ended, participatory, political in that it was situated in the politics of space, political in that we actively recruited across race and class lines, and fun in that, it was fun.

It was also, strangely enough, my graduate thesis project for my degree in Arts Administration. Obviously it extended beyond the bounds of an academic project, but that remains the peculiar truth of it. In order to organize the project, I worked with Josh MacPhee (whom I had worked with on CPI) and Emily Forman who had arrived in a whirlwind of brilliance as an undergraduate student in Chicago.

All told, DSLR worked out incredibly well. It was not a success in that we actually “reclaimed all the land and space of Chicago and returned it to those that live in it, work in it, and create it” as the promotional posters, press releases and stickers claimed, but in that it truly became a building block for numerous projects and personal relationships that were to occur later.

The project was unique. It was pro-trespassing. It was not an exhibition. It was more of a hybrid happening with hints of Che Guevarra, Alan Kaprow, night club, and Burning Man all thrown in. There were house plants and graffiti; collectivized cooking and esoteric conceptualism; wheat paste posters and poetry slams; hippy puppets and arty farty minimalism. The site itself over its only 48 hours of existence became a home for the culturally disaffected. Whether it was the political punk or the political graffiti artist, whether it was the artist or the Maoist. It didn’t matter. Because the site itself, and its task, were so abundantly unfamiliar and the cultural energy surging in the alt-globalization inspired air so palpable, people were eager to let  loose of their baggage and sort of drift into new forms of life. That is what made the project so magical. Yes, it was political. Yes it was arty. But it was also a space of mass becoming. A place where new people were formed. New families. And new political realities.


[For a full archive of DSLR visit Counter Productive Industries]







The original press release:


Chicago Housing Authority Public Relations Campaign Turned Upside-Down

Chicago, May 27, 2005 -

In late 2004, the CHA initiated a public relations campaign to put a new face on their Plan For Transformation, a plan that is drastically reshaping the state of public housing in Chicago.The CHA? PR campaign, authored by the advertising firm Leo Burnett, fused the Chicago Housing Authority's acronym CHA with the word 'change,' resulting in a new brand identity: CHAnge.

There are undoubtedly big changes happening with public housing in Chicago, including massive organizational restructuring within the CHA, and the systematic demolition of all high-rise public housing buildings.While the CHAnge campaign has attempted to put a resident empowerment spin on the Plan for Transformation, in reality the majority of public housing residents have been adversely affected by the massive restructuring. If you are a working mother displaced by the demolition of your home, waiting over 6 months for a voucher to relocate, as your children are shifted from school to school, CHAnge feels a lot more like CHAos.

Earlier today, concerned citizens throughout the city challenged the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) by launching a massive city-wide advertising campaign designed to combat common myths about the state of public housing in Chicago.The ad campaign,?his is CHAos is viewable at various bus shelters, on CTA trains, and at the websitewww.chicagohousingauthority.net


This project signified social movement division-of-labor at its best. There are some people able to do policy work, others direct service, and others can do anonymous media campaigns that risk arrest. All of the work can serve similar goals if coordinated properly. CHAos introduced a new mode of action into a stale and stagnant discourse around public housing. It wasn't conceived as a way to "save" the public housing that was already destroyed or nearly destroyed. It was an intervention into the media space where a public housing agency was claiming to own and positively define the meaning of "change" in line with their narrative of what had happened to the welfare state.


CHAos Revisited in 2012

 In 2005 a group of anonymous designers and activists convened a reading group under the name 3rd Rail to discuss the efficacy of political art. They decided to ground their conversation in an action related to housing because it was the subject matter that linked all of their past work.

Concurrent to this process the local organization charged with maintaining and facilitating public housing, the Chicago Housing Authority, had contracted the Leo Burnett advertising firm to re-brand their agency with the acronym-slogan CHAnge. The accompanying advertising campaign on busses, trains, real estate signs and in their official literature featured testimony from CHA residents describing their positive experience of the recent changes in public housing that made them feel empowered to leave high rise projects for scattered site housing developments or to rent on the private market throughout the city and suburbs using vouchers.

The folks at 3rd Rail decided this CHAnge campaign would be the target of their intervention. Their work was called CHAos and told of a counter-narrative about what had happened to public housing in Chicago through the lens of 5 power-brokers who had in some way benefited from the changes: Mayor Daley, Terry Peterson, Dan McLean, Alphonso Jackson, and Daniel Levin of the Habitat Co. The story of the intervention was reported in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Public Radio, the Brooklyn Rail, Continental Drift, the book Dark Matter, numerous blogs and in the very first issue of AREA Chicago in 2005. After seven years and 13 issues of AREA, the organizers of the CHAos project thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on this ambitious project by asking trusted allies familiar with the work to pose challenging questions related to the legacies of CHAos and CHAnge.


Q&A between Researchers and CHAos Agents:


Brian Holmes: For those who knew about it, "This is CHAos" was audacious and inspiring: a great piece of invisible theater and tactical media activism. What's more, it was pertinent and just, because it revealed the kinds of corruption and abuse that our elected officials have typically engaged in when selling off or destroying public property. It fit into the atmosphere of Seattle and brought those ideals down to earth here in the city. At the same time, it was too illegal to be art and too isolated to be politics. It reflected some of the desperation of the counter-globalization movement which never really succeeded in challenging the American mainstream. Were you able to build on that action during the dark years of Bush's second mandate? Was it somehow a touchstone, or did it seem like a lost utopia? And how does it look now in the light of what at the time appeared impossible, namely a mass movement on the scale of Occupy?

still_5.jpgAgent #1: The CHAos Campaign came and went, with the most lasting impact being amongst public housing activists and advocates who were engaged in a tiring and mostly-losing legal and legislative battle. It was bold, audacious and out of the norm for the tiny sub-section of the population concerned with activism around housing. In some ways it exemplified an activist/designer division of labor where we took risks to do something that most people living in CHA or working on advocacy could never take. We heard that it was energizing and exciting. But inevitably that wore off and the biggest limit to the project was that we had no game plan for how it could serve their work on an ongoing basis. This was only exacerbated by our own internal disagreement on what we even thought should be done with public housing. We had agreed that the CHAnge campaign was egregious, but we didn’t put much work into vision beyond that. Perhaps the division of labor was not that effective after all. Everyone went back to being who they were after only a short time - reflecting the bursts of energy that seem to characterize so much of the energy we call ‘political engagement’ and also ‘art.’

Agent #2: I agree. I think at the time we were all looking for something elemental to latch onto; we thought we might be able to orient those underspecified post-Seattle “ideals” toward something more concrete. Some of us went on to be involved with squats (in other parts of the world, where that was possible), and others with Occupy (which you could say engaged both “public space” and “housing,” particularly in those later anti-eviction campaigns). But none of us became public housing activists. So in the end it does have a bit of that “parachuting” quality.

Agent #3: I would say CHAos was too isolated to be art and too illegal to be political. I’m not sure any of us were invested in CHAos as art. The fact that our partners, long established housing rights activists with much to lose (though it seems less so retrospectively) could not leverage the intervention for fear of legal reprisal was either a huge oversight on our part, or an inevitable outcome of this clandestine way of operating. I remember thinking at the time that it would be, in the words of Critical Art Ensemble, “a temporary reconfiguration of semiotic power relations,” but what this might precipitate, I did not know. It became a one-off. If we weren’t able to build on the project in the “dark years” that followed, it was largely because, as individuals with different lifestyles and (emerging) interests, we were busy with other stuff. I don’t ever remember thinking about CHAos in terms of mass social movements.



Rebecca Zorach: I thought this project was brilliant, but in retrospect I wonder how legible it was to a public largely (I suspect) disinclined to sympathize with CHA residents—whose answer to the question "Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?" is, "well, yes, they are." Was there a target audience? Were questions of legibility, of appeal to reason vs. emotions or both, something you explicitly discussed in the planning or execution of the project? And how do you think about them now?

Agent #1: At the time of producing CHAos we did something rare in tactical media - we had a focus group and showed drafts of the ads to various people who did and did not have direct ties to public housing. The feedback was really important in getting the tone of the messages right. We had originally conceived of something more ironic and then came up with this format of questions (Do Money and Politics Mix?; Should Housing Funds Be Used for Housing?; Do Developers Deserve a Tax Break More Than You Do?; Do You Like Forcing People Out of Their Homes?; and the Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?). This approach was intended to emphasize an open-endness to the concept of social change that we felt was being closed down by the branding of the CHA under the name CHAnge. They were attempting to close the history books on the meaning of the plan for transformation as an inherently good moment of change and we wanted to open it back up.

Agent #2: It’s a good point, though. One thing I remember particularly vividly was a disagreement we had over that line about “the poor.” Like, what does it mean to appeal to these common-sense categories? It would have been easy to interpret the question as a statement there will always be both poor people and (ostensibly privileged) tourists, and that we simply need to balance their interests more justly. There was always a tension between wanting to communicate clearly and wanting to open up the discussion at a really fundamental level. Your question also reminds me of the degree to which the audience encounter happened less with the posters themselves than with their dissemination in the (mainstream and alternative) media. I think we were prepared for this—we had people in place to photograph all the materials as soon as they went up—but I also think we were taken somewhat by surprise at how quickly it all disappeared. J.C. Decaux, the company that had recently privatized and rebuilt all of the bus shelters in the city, had crews out in a matter of hours. To me, that has become fairly emblematic of the whole effort: we were really outgunned. I don’t mean to sound defeatist, but I also think there was a kind of futility to it that would be easy to romanticize. I am glad that the story and images continue to circulate, but I wonder how to make its “isolation,” to use Brian’s word, a productive part of that story.

Agent #3: The target audience was a liberal-minded ethico-normative public that would ostensibly be incensed to learn that the management of public housing was a racket embedded in a bigger racket. I think the answer to the question “Are Tourists More Important Than The Poor?” is basically that it was a throwaway line, though we did argue about “the poor” as a faceless/voiceless signifier a fair amount. I don’t remember explicitly discussing reason vs. emotions. It was important that the text, couched in CHA garb, generate some kind of cognitive dissonance in passers-by, if only for a brief moment, in order to consider the implications of its reason or the fact that it was in that “public” space at all.


Cassie Fennel: Both the CHAnge campaign and the CHAos response mobilized a similar situation -- the intense public visibility of ruined and redeveloping public housing in Chicago's landscape. The CHAnge campaign especially made use of this visibility by concentrating posters and placards along the very public transit routes that ran by public housing developments. In the years since this campaign, our country has witnessed another serious housing crisis. Yet the drama of an underwater mortgage or a vacant single family home seems far less visible, far more private. With the CHAos campaign in mind, how might artists communicate the scale and severity of this latest housing crisis, and prod Americans to think critically about it?

Agent #1: For all of its limitations, the project of having public housing was shared and socialized. In the end, not that many people cared about it besides those who live there, but it still has a deep bureaucracy, activist organizations, tenants groups, and scholars concerned with the health and history of the welfare state.  There are lots of interests bound up in the history and remnants of publicly subsidized housing. As you say, the private sector relegates peoples experiences to the privacy of their home and family. In order to socialize the impact of private sector housing artists and activists would need to cultivate some solidarity that implicates renters and single-family home owners in each other’s lives and livelihood. This is most likely to occur on the level of class-based affinity.


Ryan Lugalia-Hollon: Seven years after the CHAos project, the vast majority of public housing units in Chicago are gone. What role do you feel the city government should be playing in the housing sector today?

Agent #1: When the CHAos Campaign was completed I remember thinking that the most severe limitation of our analysis was that we critiqued the privatization of public housing and that implied that we actually wanted there to be public housing. But there were/are some serious problems with public housing. Did we want that to stay the same? Were we being conservative traditionalists bent on maintaining the liberal social welfare state? Did our analysis extend to critique that system and history as well? And did we have a vision for how the project of affordable housing for all could be realized outside of the market and outside of the State as we knew it?

Agent #2: I know that for many of us, this project was a turning point in the way we thought about radical politics and scale. At one point, as a sort of thought-experiment, we tried to imagine what our alternative to all of this would be. One of the things we discussed was a particular housing project where the residents had successfully petitioned to stay and have the building turned into a co-op. This was a real-world, workable solution, and it appealed to the more or less anarchist politics we were familiar with. But this kind of solution also seemed very close to an individualist valuation of homeownership. For me personally, the years that followed compounded this dilemma: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina the next year were these immense disasters that required extremely organized, large-scale responses. I think that the failure of those responses (particularly in the case of Katrina) must have caused a lot of people on the Left to reconsider what large and centralized (though, of course, much more democratic) structures were capable of providing.

Agent #3: The “mixed-income housing” that was the centerpiece of the City’s housing policy under the Plan for Transformation has essentially failed to materialize. The people that lived in public housing have been scattered all over, decentering and displacing the “problem,” spatially, visually, morally. I think one of the biggest obstacles in city government, and the division of labor in society in general, is that we conceptualize something like housing as a separate sphere of necessity from education, employment, etc. and then technocratically tinker around its edges in the hope whatever happens it has to be better than what we have now. I’d advocate a much more ambitious role, especially in times of “austerity.”