The city and its doubles


By Alan Pauls

21.11.2010 / Radar / Pagina 12

A theatre festival which will take different places in the city by storm –shopping malls, railway stations, hotels, factories- in an attempt to submerge the spectator into the creases of the city, where other possible cities live.

In the Parallel Cities Festival concept there is a certain air of 1970s insurgence which no contemporary Argentine can afford to ignore. The idea of converting Buenos Aires for ten days into a target city and putting some of its public spaces under the spotlight already whiffs of aestheticized gunpowder. Every festival piece has its own title: some are lyrical (The Silent Volume, Sometimes I Think I See You); others are as dry as sociological reports (Chambermaids) or tautological as conceptual epigraphs (Factory). But the pieces of Parallel Cities are designated, discussed and most probably remembered by the generic name of the place that inspired them (and which will hardly be what they used to be once the installations have gone): “hotel”, “factory”, “library”, “mall”, “railway station”, “house”, “court”, “terrace”. These places are not stages; they are the targets of an occupational force which has swapped its AK47s for the weapons of installation, détournement and performance.

The reminiscence is not entirely coincidental. Almost simultaneously, the 1970s invented the artistic notion of site-specific (pieces conceived to exist in a specific place) and the exciting practice of urban occupation, a highly popular line of action among the armed organisations of the period. This takes the idea of place as a summary of experience, behaviour and sense, joining together the art of environment and guerrilla intelligence. With a few changes, it is not difficult to imagine project curators Stefan Kaegi and Lola Arias unfolding a map of Buenos Aires with their command cell of artists (two Germans, two Swiss, three Argentines and two Brits) and marking their strategic objectives with coloured drawing pins, the local replicas of the locations they chose a few months ago in Berlin to open the festival, and the precursors of those that they will choose next year, to continue in Zurich and Warsaw: the Hotel Ibis in the Congreso area (Lola Arias), the Suiza wax factory in Munro (Gerardo Naumann), the Palace of Justice (Christian García), four shopping centres (Ligna group), the National Library (Ant Hampton-Tim Etchells), a certain residential building on calle Beruti (Dominic Huber), a terrace in Congreso (Stefan Kaegi), and Palermo railway station (Mariano Pensotti). More than stages, these enclaves were chosen as targets. Everything that is done in them will exist around them, their urban functions, their institutional properties, there rules of play, their everyday uses. But everything that is done in them will transform them, or at least transform the way in which we will start to see them from now on.

The program promises a great deal of interference: occupying five hotel rooms with the life stories of the chambermaids hired to clean them every day; intervening at the law courts with an amateur choir putting into renaissance verse the list of legal cases of the day; a guided tour of the hierarchical structure of a wax factory; upsetting the flow of human traffic in a shopping centre with a repertoire of anomalous behaviour; dropping a few drops of perverse reflexive reading into the silent ocean of a library reading room; viewing like sleep-walking voyeurs the lives of five families who live in the same building; writing live and then screening everything the people do over an hour in a railway station; going into the life of a blind man and hearing how he hears the city from his city-centre roof terrace. Some pieces are more hands-on than others, others more guided, or more threatening, or more political, or more poetic. However, they all reject any shades of that great contemporary artistic operation (also present in the political sphere) which is intervention. From disturbing airbrushing and framing to decided intervention, to “occupation”, including sabotage. In all cases this is a question of producing experiences for the senses, operating in specific public spaces, whose conventions, protocols and norms of operation appear to be stripped bare, distanced or even interfered with (that is, made stranger) through some kind of disruptive operation.

This willingness to touch, prepare, affect places has one essential thing in common: to get the spectator involved. The “audience” –how that word takes me back- is here a support, a material, a fundamental testing ground, in the same way as the geographies of everyday life, the mute world of the library or the circulation of bodies and the display of merchandise in the shopping centre. The first thing that Parallel Cities brings out in its audiences is a regulated gregariousness. Here there are pieces for one person (hotel), for two (library), for groups of eight (terrace + blind man), fifteen (factory), or sixty (shopping centre). This is food for thought about, among other things, that black hole of the theatre: when is there an audience? From what number, or what threshold of inactivity or activity, from what degree of understanding or participation, from what rituals, what margin of freedom or slavery? Apart from that, the pieces of Parallel Cities are not made to be seen. In this they look less like plays or spectacles than performance experiences which are not necessarily artistic –tours, esoteric or therapeutic trances, athletic practices, jogging, role plays, brainwashing, bird-watching, parkour- and vary always between the intrinsic conceptualism of cultural tourism and the psycho-socio-geographical experiments of the situationist program. So there is no sense in asking “Have you seen the Ligna mall” What you should ask is “Did you do the Ligna mall?” “Did you do the factory, the hotel, the library?”

But the question is: what kind of “doing” is this? What is the particular nature of that activity that suddenly characterises that new spectator who Parallel Cities dreams of? There are undoubtedly things to do at the festival, such as moving, going from one place to another, visiting, going through, following instructions, opening doors, searching, reading letters, following texts with your fingers, sharing readings, watching videos, listening to recorded voices... And it is also necessary to assume the informal, borderline statute, on the fringes of a certain illegality, which confers us with the practices in which we are wrapped up when we do the pieces: squatting, prowling, spying, infiltrating, violating privacy... There is an obvious clandestine element, in broad daylight, which is sustained by a certain disjunction, a splitting in two, a kind of internal schism which makes the existence of this new type of spectator possible.

Transplanted to the context of the shopping mall, the hotel, the railway station, the spectator is a souped-up subject and behaves like a double subject: he or she is at once a user (of a hotel, a station, etc.) and their ghost is lightly hallucinated; someone who recognises and uses the space as a familiar, everyday environment, and who at the same time, disoriented, cannot cease to observe it from the outside and sees it as a material frame of life, a “game” with rules that can be altered and even replaced by others. It is thus that the name of the festival, Parallel Cities, can finally be understood. Not only as a global project, rooted in a certain contemporary consensus over those urban non-places which are reproduced more or less identically all over the planet, but as a program that seeks to make us see, and experience, those other cities that are hidden in the everyday city, those parallel worlds popularized by science fiction, which live and lie in wait in the world without being necessarily opposed to it, confused with it although, up close, they hardly distinct. But in that hardly lies everything. There lies the utopian dimension of a project that does not seek the same in the other (every large city in the world has its hotel, its factory, its courts, etc.) without seeking, at the same time, the other in itself: the other hotel that crouches down in the hotel, that other law muzzled under the Law, the new life that throbs in the life of every day.


Ciudades Paralelas - Parallel Cities