When the Argentinian architect duo m7red (Mauricio Corbalán und Pío Torroja) describe how they got to where they are now, they see it as a development “from scale modelists to environmental monitors”, from an architect’s office that made plans and carried them out to a discursive and operative interface for various social and political protagonists from fields such as city ecology, land-use planning, activism and information technology. This concept of networking is in their name, as the Spanish red means network, and points to a practice that brings together the competencies of professional and non-professional experts and intertwines them with classic forms of research and performative models of knowledge production. They look for strategies, and use collective imagining to describe concrete town planning or ecological problem areas in a different semantic way, and thus reveal new possible solutions.
For example, their study of the Matanzas-Riachuelo Basin, a highly-populated region of Buenos Aires that runs along one of the most polluted rivers of the world, is put together as a 14-minute video. In it, a group of architects, conservationists, artists and journalists imagine the river as a dramatic character – as an entity that has an active and visible presence in the life of the city. To describe the river as an ‘opposite number’ brings movement into a purely semantic field and
as a result throws up questions such as: is it possible to view pollution as positive? How does our relationship to the river change when we no longer view it as a sewer but as habitat? And how does viewing waste as either resource or rubbish create new perspectives in terms of value? The process of this kind of speculative adoption of urban ecological problems not only opens up new ways of thinking and dealing, but also reveals how the expert is caught up in the performative slipstream of their own research. In terms of their practice, m7red do not consider themselves to be neutral observers but as protagonists within the context they are describing. The porousness between imagination and reality thereby becomes a constitutive element of their work.
This became particularly clear in a project that they undertook with the US-American artist, Teddy Cruz, to set up an informal settlement at the heart of the Buenos Aires downtown area. As a reaction to the failure of a centralised housing policy, they examined models that would create a living space outside state supervision and support. On the edges of the settlement and together with its inhabitants they carried out a re-enactment of the landgrab through which the settlement had been founded decades earlier. By repeating the earlier strategic and practical modus operandi within a clearly defined fictional field of action, not only did the informal understanding of the participants came to the surface and was thereby ‘formalised’ but it also became something that was transferrable to other situations. The videotape of the re-enactment, also available online, thereby serves as a practical guide for other communities in terms of self-empowerment. Quite how entangled fiction and reality became during this kind of process is revealed by the fact that the performed landgrab was finally stopped when the police intervened. What is more: sometime later the place where the re-enactment happened was turned into an informal settlement, as if an imaginary opening up of the land was necessary in order to enable an actual occupation.
The extent to which m7red’s practice stands alongside the tradition of politically-engaged community-based art leads to a number of internal contradictions. If on the one hand their interventions are about struggling against social and political aberrations in a city, under certain circumstances this leads to a creative elite becoming professionally interested precisely in an area where they wanted to get rid of the gentrification affect. Equally delicate is the question of how far systematic dissemination of informal knowledge enables an effective mobilisation of others against state caprice or disorganisation but which, however, could also make the communities in question vulnerable to the authorities. Questions such as these, that directly affect the integrity of a growing settlement or community, have to be re-negotiated every time with the protagonists.
Interventions in an urban context bring about incalculable, happenchance effects that can also become the trigger for new political imaginings. It was this observation that inspired the practical part of the workshop. The participants were to develop a project for the region going forward into the future based on the social, economic and infrastructural realities of the Ruhrgebiet. Important local protagonists such as the World Heritage Site Zollverein, the energy provider RWE as well as the football club Schalke 04, had to be examined alongside local factors such as unemployment, greening issues or industrial brownfield sites and described in relation to their present condition, their effects and their future perspectives. The participants drafted complex portraits of these entities by means of shared research and discussion, after which they were re-combined in a haphazard way. These newly-combined building blocks were then to generate new imaginary units. After that, the working groups drafted campaigns for new-age inspired nature-oriented living spaces on the grounds of the Zollverein. These were to be either ‘princely’ luxury resorts for the long-term unemployed, utopian scenarios that welded art and work together, or strategies for winning back the land for fossil fuel power generation.
m7red quite rightly describe their strategy as pragmatic. Their key question, how can something that already exists be viewed in such a way that something new will come out of it, is not a utopian one, but one that challenges reality by means of the imagination. Their aim is to test its viability from the perspective of a viable reality.