Think-Tank Hypotheticals: New Cities, Future Ruins
New Cities, Future Ruins is a four year arts initiative “re-imagining the explosive urbanism of Western Sun Belt cities, catalyzed by SMU Meadows School of the Arts’ Meadows Prize.” Founded by SMU Meadows School of the Arts, Arizona State University Gammage, and the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at the University of Texas EL Paso, and led by independent curator Gavin Kroeber, the project had its first convening November 12-14, 2016 at SMU in Dallas with related programming at sites and venues nearby.
The convening, described as a hybrid conference-festival developed under the auspices of local partnerships and collaboration, adopted the popular arts and culture multiplex event model: roundtable discussions, presentations, exhibitions, performances, city excursions, communal meals, and the rapid fire info-sharing format Pecha Kucha. Within this model, New Cities, Future Ruins organizers gathered together a cross section of practitioners in an attempt to address the complex topic of urban growth under the premise that “the cities of America’s Western Sun Belt are fast-growing symbols of opportunity and entrepreneurialism, sprawling agglomerations in delicate ecosystems, marked by resource overuse, dramatic demographic change, and political struggle that particularize and illuminate global crises of rapid urbanizations.”
Kroeber, who grew up in Northern California just outside what is now known as Silicon Valley, is interested in issues of urban development because, to him, “the dominant forms and crises of global urban life seem especially legible in the Western Sun Belt.” Galvanized by these ideas, he approached Noah Simbilist, Chair and Associate Professor of Art at SMU Meadows, with the idea for New Cities, Future Ruins in Summer 2014.
“There are important commonalities between the cities in this political geography—and important ways their defining challenges resonate with mounting planetary crises of sustainability. That said, there are a lot of distinctions we risk sweeping aside by making these emphases,” he says. “Diversity is important to me, and I expect we’ll be addressing it project-by-project and city-by-city as the initiative moves into the residencies and commissions of its second phase.”
These sentiments informed the focus of the November convening which featured projects and research findings from an international roster of artists, architects, and scholars who explore ecological and social sustainability in Western Sun Belt cities and beyond. Presenters included Andrew Ross, social activist, author, and professor; Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz, Directors of the UCSD Cross-Border Initiative and Principles at Estudio Teddy Cruz + Forman; Naima J. Keith, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the California African American Museum; conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll; Sydney-based design organization otherothers (Grace Mortlock and David Neustein), to name a few. The convening also forefronted artists such as Postcommodity, Autumn Knight, and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, among others, who gave performances about identity and identity politics, called out the racial divides and absurdities in arts administration and funding structures, and lay bare contemporary colonizing forces.
The range of conceptual and geographical perspectives illustrated a broad spectrum of urban growth—in and as they relate to Texas, primarily. As such, it’s worth emphasizing that the initiative is in its infancy with three more years of its own growth to negotiate. In the initiative’s stated intent, these developments will come to encompass different local contexts framed by the partners and changing political dynamics over the next four years – coincidentally, perhaps, framed by a new presidential administration.
In the New Cities, Future Ruins curatorial statement, Kroeber writes about the Western Sun Belt cities as ones that “often seem to be mistaken for their public image: a banal succession of box stores, cul-de-sacs, and retirement communities ignored on the way out of town to land art sites and desert utopias—too new and too manicured to merit engagement.” In an email interview, he explained further that, for him, this initiative is also about challenging these kinds of inherited biases.
While the idea of future ruins is not new (undoubtedly known to J.G. Ballard readers and studied urbanists alike), the convening exemplified its perceived lack of familiarity within the general public. From an attendee’s challenge to Kroeber about the meaning of the initiative title to a late night “Roast of Dallas” wherein local artist-comedians chided the organizers for their continuing use of obtuse terms, the rather academic approach to global crisis felt, at times, out of step with the immediacy of these questions within communities.
Major moments throughout the weekend presented communities as statistics, lived experiences as academic fodder, and dynamic challenges and successes as static images. For example, Cartographies: Visualizing Emergent Urban Forms, a small display of maps including a “game” wherein players contribute directly to the (arguably detrimental) growth of a virtual city; break out sessions with little to no time for discussion; and a bus tour with no printed map or information about the sites. Granted, much of this is inherently problematic in art and academia conference models but, being familiar with the work of some of the initiative organizers, I had higher hopes for more deeply considered public interfacings.
Weeks after the convening, what has stayed with me most about New Cities Future Ruins is Qatari-American artist, writer, and filmmaker Sophia Al-Maria’s somber pre-recorded presentation, peppered with her dark and honest humor. In a blog interview on the New Cities Future Ruins website, Al-Maria talks about Doha, the capital city of the state of Qatar, and her self-coined term Gulf Futurism. “How the world of extreme weather, ecological destitution, social inequality and an increasingly inhospitable (inferno-like) environment that already exists in the gulf is what everyone has to look forward to in all but the most northern of places…,” she writes. “It might seem the stuff of think-tank hypotheticals but we already live in a place where climate refugees end up in a line-up of laborers being fed to the machine of our Metropoli by a hovering white-clad 1%. And so for these and many other reasons it might be argued that this moment in the gulf is the place where the future is being defined, really just the eye of a great and spreading storm.”
Within the context of New Cities, Future Ruins, Gulf Futurism is positioned as a case study in which we (Americans) have the privilege of measuring and defining a collective future that could be “better” than the harsh realities of life in a different region. The language around the initiative is worth noting: frontier, pioneer, re-imagine. Living in New Mexico, a Western Sun Belt state of important historical, cultural, geographical, and artistic complexities which the initiative has not yet addressed, I have grown increasingly aware of the de-humanizing, marginalizing effects of designers’ “transformation” and experimentation. Despite efforts to the contrary, the initiative’s fetishization of the legibility, imagery, and symbolism of the Western Sun Belt results in overlooking the individual, defining characteristics of not only each state, but the cities and diverse communities within. And, perhaps a subject of a different review, the relationship(s) between urban growth and rural decline.
Image credit: Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Technotopia 3.0: Notes from the “Creative City” Gone Wrong, performance view at New Cities, Future Ruins. The MAC, Dallas. November 13, 2016. Photo: Kim Leeson.