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03.12.2018

Rise up those Below

Associate Director of the New Museum’s «IdeasCity» initiative, Vere van Gool interviews CALDODECULTIVO co-founder Gabriela Córdoba Vivas about the collective’s work redefining architecture from a focus on people and community.

CALDODECULTIVO + Todo por la Praxis, Arriba los de Abajo, 2013. Barrio de La Perseverancia, Bogotá (Colombia), La Otra Bienal de Arte de Bogotá. Imágen cortesía de CALDODECULTIVO.

Rise up those Below

Where there is power, there is resistance. Architecture, infamously quoted as the will of an epoch translated into space, holds the ability to translate power into culture. Yet, while buildings are inherently dominant, its bricks and mortar immovably occupying land, the discipline barely accounts for any successful resistance movements. While cities globally carry forward a strong Western design-canon of Roman libraries, German modernist rail stations, or Postmodern American Malls, recent power shifts towards decolonizing education and institutions, alongside rising emergent economies have brought forward a call for a non-Western architecture– and thus resistance. One that operates beyond established modes of power, beyond style or shape, beyond government or finance, and beyond the West. A resistance that directly engages with the sole, bare-naked purpose of buildings: people.
Meet CALDODECULTIVO, a Colombian collective that takes as point of departure architecture as a necessarily conflicting and contradictory space, as a ground of political struggle and poetic proposition, as a place for insurgent creativity and resistance. With its literal meaning breeding ground or hotpot, CALDODECULTIVO has established itself as a significant, emerging Latin American voice devoted to redefine architecture and its resistance today.
This conversation follows an initial meeting in 2016 as part of the New Museum’s IdeasCity residency program in Detroit, which Vere organized and CALDODECULTIVO participated in.

Vere van Gool: In early 2016 we met in Detroit—a charged city confronted with post-industrial urban and financial austerity. In Detroit, we asked ourselves how to learn from a city while simultaneously reimagine new ways to inhabit the city. What were your first readings of Detroit, even prior to going there?
Gabriela Córdoba Vivas: We were originally interested in Detroit because of all the expected things: the iconic ruin city and its beautiful, abandoned buildings. As a collective from Latin America you don’t really hear about poverty and inequality in the United States, so we tend to think disparity and inequality only exist back home and we were curious to learn how “Detroit” could happen in a rich and first world country.
When I speak of Detroit I start by telling the story of the first person I met there, Halima Cassells, artist and community advocate. Upon introducing myself as “from Colombia” she responded with sympathy, saying how it must be hard to be from there. I replied that it was actually the same as in Detroit. We understood from that point onwards the importance of representation of both Colombian and Detroit perspectives. For me it was so beautiful to stop thinking of the US through a stereotype of violence and consumerism, and to learn about the similarities it has to the multiple contexts in Latin America.
VvG: In Detroit we spent a lot of time talking about what it meant to be a Detroiter, and how the city has suffered from its superimposed representations like “the New Detroit” or “The Ghost City” even as a “Capital of Crime”. How did your time in Detroit change your reading of the city and how did conversations with Detroiters influence your perspective of the city?
GCV: With Detroit as this ultimate consequence of how representations can damage a city and people’s lives, we had to radically change our mind on our own stereotyping—which was a visceral experience on its own. Coming from a so-called third world country “torn by war” that’s actually a place where creativity and resistance are a driving force, we are well aware of the negative effects this city or culture branding can have on you. It was exciting to get to know Detroiters, creators that are leading change through their practices and produce more complex narratives than the obvious stereotypes, such as the Oakland Avenue Artist Collective and writer and musician Marsha Music.

VvG: During the New Museum’s IdeasCity Detroit program you started developing a short documentary named DETROITERS, which has recently been shown at Palais de Tokyo. Can you elaborate on how the film came into being?
GCV: All our projects require a long period of site-research in which we reflect on local contexts, people and insights. This process of getting to know a place usually takes a few months, but the IdeasCity program and its network allowed us to do this in a record time.
What we learned in Detroit is how its people talk so passionately about their city, with such strength and beauty. Words really do hold power. Simultaneously, we learned that Detroiters were sick and tired of the negative image of their own city. So, we thought: why don’t we build a collective representation of the city rooted in spoken word and collect the power of their voices to develop a new way in which the city is portrayed through citizens rather than its demolished bridges or abandoned buildings? As urban design and public policy continue to address the city in terms of infrastructure and buildings, and not as people, the film argues that Detroit is thriving specifically because of its people.
VvG: Cities evolve drastically different globally, yet, urban discourse is dominated by a Western gaze. How do you all as a Collective of the South, with experience working in different European and US American contexts, tackle the architectural stigmas about cities?
GCV: When we visited Detroit, it was during the election-cycle and I remember us thinking “be careful” because in Latin America, we know and have experience a person like Trump can win. Maybe it is new to the US that this rise of populism results in this type of political dinosaurs, but we in Latin America are used to it. 
First world countries hold this idea that consuming buys happiness and a quality of life. But that’s just a marketing story and America is really good at marketing. With Trump in power one can see the profound inequalities of power disrupting people’s lives. And it’s been fascinating to see how the United States and Latin America deal with inequality in drastically different ways. In Latin America, we have a strong sense of community that’s rooted in centuries of survival. We know that the state or the market is not here to serve you, so we hold an independence from government and commerce, which consequently translates into our cities and architecture. What that means is that we collectively feel a responsibility for how our community lives. So as neighbors, we will work on one person’s house this Sunday and next Sunday we will work on another’s house. Painting fences, cooking, helping each other out. This is how we build our roads, houses, and cities. This strong sense of community is needed when crisis comes. Simultaneously, in Latin America there is a strong sense of family. Family beyond the nucleus, it includes your auntie, your grandma, and your cousin. This concept of both the family and your neighborhood as a community lacks in the US—with exception of Latino and Chicano neighborhoods— which makes it much harder for one to live independently and self-organize. But one of my fears is that new policy in Latin America is designed to exactly tackle this independence of people from the state. 

VvG: Architecture is never innocent. Every territory has value, making every brick political and every inch of cement geopolitical. Nowadays, the fields of architecture majorly perpetuate the hegemony of the real estate resulting in segregation, exploitation, and inequality. Can you elaborate on how this reading of architecture is influencing your practice?
GCV: My background is not in architecture but is in social sciences, so I always try to understand what is going on locally in spaces. But while I was at University in Colombia and studied the works of US American and European architectural critics, I realized their theories did not apply to Latin America and that my city was different and consequently needed different things. That said, the work we do isn’t really “architecture” in Western formalities. Yes, we work with the city, the built city, but also with the informal city and with all elements that developmentalism is not capable of recognizing because it is obsessed with reading cities from the perspective of buildings and infrastructure. Not as a human place. 

Developmentalism is obsessed with reading cities from the perspective of buildings and infrastructure. Not as a human place.

VvG: How do you define architecture?
GCV: Architecture is not about erecting nice buildings or beautiful structures, it is about context. It is a discipline that deals with constructed and symbolic space, and thus has been pivotal in the domination and segregation of people and communities. Critical theory and practice of architecture is crucial now, in a moment where right-wing governments are justifying racist, xenophobic and nationalist policies. But we also need to realize that social problems in China are not the same as in Europe or in Colombia. And that “putting in a nice park” never fixes a social issue. The problem in cities is really never about the lack of parks; it is perpetuating inequality through policy.

VvG: Your work ranges from design interventions towards public art installations, filmmaking, and curation. Can you elaborate on the interdisciplinary nature of your practice as a type of “expanded architecture”?
GCV: Firstly, we are an interdisciplinary group of people ourselves. Unai Reglero is an art director and curator, I have a background in visual arts and social sciences, and Guillermo Camacho is a photographer and filmmaker. We started working together as we share a common obsession with cities. Originally, we just started collaborating on one project, but somehow here we are, still working together.
We share a belief that cities are more like experiences than infrastructures or built space. In projects we often use marketing tools to subvert and confront neoliberal narratives that are used to legitimize itself. This is similar to the process that the Situationists called Detournement. So rather than “expanded architecture” we would describe our practice as an Anti-Advertising or an Agit-Pop Agency.
VvG: Your project Arriba los de Abajo addresses gentrification in Bogota by using architecture to dismantle power and patriarchy. Can you share more about the project and what lessons you have learnt from it?
GCV: Arriba los de Abajo, which can be translated as Rise Up Those Below, is a collaboration with the Spanish collective Todo por la Praxis. The project is both a literal, physical statement and a political, metaphorical one. It addresses gentrification due to its location in a neighborhood in the center of Bogota that is currently still endangered by real estate developments. Thus, the aim of the project was to materialize its history of struggle and at the same time actualize those struggles in terms of urban and spatial justice. So people of the street are invited to rise up, by going up using the staircase of the scaffolding, and take power from the people in power. To accompany this project, the band Todo Copas developed a hip-hop song that articulated our project and discourse and explained it to local audiences. What we learned was the necessity of appealing to languages that speak to the people on their own terms.

VvG: Can you please elaborate on how your belief in architecture as a human place is embodied in recent projects?
GCV: One of the key ways in which our practice started is by doing public installations and activism, but we quickly realized that one actually does not need an object or architecture to convene people and create situations in which important architectural issues are addressed. So, what we do is use visual, sound, advertising and performance-based strategies that respond to concrete situations. But every project takes on a specific materialization depending on its context. For instance, in Detroit we developed a film because it was the most suitable media to respond to the negative stereotyping about the city and it did not imply just another outsider intervention by a non-Detroiter—something most Detroiters were sick of.
For our most recent project El Coliseo del Pueblo [The People’s Coliseum] in Cali, we transformed this Brutalist sports arena from this site of Eurocentric history rooted in slavery, into a place where political activism is trained like sports. Through an assembly of social leaders, community organizers and general public, we discussed the current state of affairs in Colombia focusing on the war on the people and the assassination of prominent activists (after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels in 2016, more than 300 social leaders have been killed), and to ultimately think of possible ways to protect resistance leaders. And while it seems like we transformed the sports arena into something new, we actually did not include a material intervention. All we do is facilitate for a new kind of conversation.
VvG: What’s next for CALDODECULTIVO?
GCV: Surprise! We are moving to the US and want to continue our work on how to build meaningful relationships between North and South America.

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