This city has raised more questions than it has answered. Its history is one of strife, of Robin Hood criminals with more power than the state, and extreme, bold moves in directions of self-survival and destruction. The socio-economic disparity is extreme, but there is strong work being done to remedy these situations. Ethical stances are taken and stuck to, people debate and argue, there is an energy and vibrancy to discourse. People listen to one another without the typically New York urge to move quickly to the next topic. Here people will simply keep hashing it out until no one feels like talking anymore. There’s a patience to discourse that is refreshing.
As someone who doesn’t speak Spanish (I’m working to remedy that) this has been a particularly big wake up call. There’s something a bit absurd about living in the United States at this time and not speaking Spanish. And unlike Japan, where you are constantly complimented on speaking Japanese even if you’re not particularly good at it, here people really expect you to speak their language. And it is their country, after all, of course they should.
But a characteristic this country does seem to share to some degree with Japan is the extreme politeness of its residents. Wherever one is, there are nearly formal inquiries as to your day, your time so far in Medellin, and so on. One rarely spends money on anything without a heartfelt thanks.
And another shared characteristic with Japan is that there is a nearly neurotic self-awareness of this country’s image to the rest of the world. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked about what I thought of Medellin before arriving. People are positively obsessed with their reputation abroad. It’s understandable: how many movies have been made about Colombian drug lords at this point? And knowing that things are rapidly changing now, they are highly motivated to correct this reputation, the first step being to inquire where they currently stand.
I’m leaving Medellin tomorrow for further travel throughout Colombia. I’m going to miss this city, it has been nothing but a pleasure to have my own assumptions challenged. To be honest, I did have some anxiety before coming here. And I know there are still very serious problems, particularly in the neighborhoods between the city and the jungles. FARC is still alive and have not renounced their policy of kidnappings. But at the same time, I have found an amazing group of creative people, artists, administrators, hackers, philosophers, and designers, that are determined to take hold of this opportunity and meld it into the best outcome they can. Many of them have been educated abroad and have consciously decided to put their energy back into their city recognizing this rare opportunity to tangibly make a difference. How often does one get a chance like that? I wonder what I would do?
Yesterday we went on a field trip.
I and a few of my comrades from the LabSurLab conference, hailing from Spain and Mexico, went exploring. Juliana Restrepo, a native of Medellin, led the way.
We went to the Medellin Botanical Garden, a very lovely and open park full, to my eyes, of exotic tropical flowers, tress, and vegetation.
Eventually we found the Orchideorama, an amazing modular structure by Plan b architects.
Completed in 2006, the collection of “flower trees” can be moved and reconfigured as need be, to facilitate public events like readings, concerts, group meetings, and so on. A flower tree grows in Medellin.
Here is a good overview from an architectural perspective from Arch Daily.
Gliding above gorgeous mountains, altitude counting down through decadently sculptured clouds, I literally lost my breath at the beauty of Oriente Antioqueño (west of Medellin) as the plane was landing. The pilot seemed preternaturally talented in making the touchdown as smooth as a caress. OK, a bit hyperbolic, but the natural beauty of Colombia is so unique and tender I am at a loss as to how to describe it differently.
Only 10 years ago, says Juliana Restrepo, director of Museo de Arte Moderno Medellin, we wouldn’t have invited you. It wouldn’t have been safe. It was dangerous for us, can you imagine for people like you? The top politicians made a decision, not for political gain but because it just had to be done, the violence in the city had to be stopped by any means. The police cracked down and it was war. But more than that, the politicians started pouring money into cultural and educational projects with vision enough to understand that these are at the core of a healthy society. Now urban planners from all over the world visit to learn more about their methods.
I’m in Medellin, representing Eyebeam, at the invitation of Alejo Duque, an unbelievably energetic artist and organizer. He seems to know everyone in the world but maintains a natural air of kindness. LabSurLab is a “seed” he is planting in Medellin, his city. He can’t predict its outcome but he knows the city is ripe for this conversation. If there is anywhere in the world that is ready for art based on process, discussion, encounter, and social interplay, it must be South America. The air is full of ideas and big plans, with Brazil leading culturally and economically. Unlike cities that continually promise to grow into something new and unexpected, like Berlin, but honestly never really change, things are, in fact, changing here. Talking to Oscar Abril Ascaso, he said, and I agree, that South America is the new cultural laboratory. Maybe not the technical laboratory like Asia, but as a place to develop new forms of the social, this is where it’s happening.
What a beautiful idea! I am here to learn.
I’m making weird sounds and strange gestures in the performance group Kunsole (with Deric Carner) tonight at Louis V E.S.P. in Williamsburg. Everything will be recorded for broadcast on Manhattan Cable Access. Fun all around, and a pretty nice lineup of performers, including Kate Gillmore and Katrina Lamb + *lots* of others.
The days are crammed full with work on the Smart Pill project with Stefani Bardin, preparing for a Kunsole performance with Deric Carner (to be broadcast on Manhattan Cable Access, details soon), as well as prepping for my trip to Tokyo in February. On top of that, we have an amazing group of residents and fellows starting at Eyebeam. 2011 feels like a busy and good year.
I was invited by an artist to build a sound component for a project she’s currently developing. It’s an installation built around gastroenterology. The more I learn about it, and the fragility of any sort of stasis in this complex system, the more I am in total awe both of the scientific marvel and its aesthetics. I’m constructing sound pieces, small gestures for now, from data and recordings made from a pill that passes through the intestines making recordings the whole way. Eventually the sound work built from data recorded by the pill will live in installation form within the final piece.
After discussing the project with Stefani Bardin, the artist, at our first meeting, I was intrigued by her nonchalance in describing the ins and outs, so to speak, of how our bodies deal with ingested food. And there is a lovely balance between the way she relays her earnest desire to educate and a simple aesthetic awe of, say, the hairs that live in our intestines and pass food through it like a crowd surfer riding the audience at a punk show. I’m also struck by the scientific community’s lack of interest in understanding how foods interact once they begin passing through our digestive system, typically labeling anything they don’t understand as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe).
I did have a few kind of “this is, like, totally gross” moments when first learning about it. But the beauty of the mechanics of it all, and the visual beauty too, ultimately outweigh those juvenile moments. When writing, now, I was reminded of J.R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip” (described by Truman Capote as “One of the greatest books ever written by anybody in the world”) which recounts in vivid detail the many ways in which Tulip, his beloved German Shepard given him by a trick he picked up, would relieve herself on the street. And his philosophical appreciation of that act, and his reverence for the directness of animal contact. Ease with what is deemed unclean and perverse in Anglo-puritanical culture is to this day a very rare characteristic.
At the end of the day, I reckon, we’re all animals with bodies that drip, circulate, pump, and run internal hydraulics. It’s healthy to be reminded of that sometimes and maybe, in the process, learn to see the beauty of it.
An illustrative example of Ackerley: