– Spring/Summer 2004

Confessions of a Global Urbanist

Jan Verwoert

Tags: Marjetica Potrc

I. In Theory

In the affluent societies of the West, economic 'crisis' is usually portrayed as a temporary state of emergency. In other countries around the globe that have come to bear the full force of the negative economic, ecological and social consequences that the economies of the 'first world' skilfully externalise, crisis has become a habitual state of normality. In capitalism, the only way to produce and secure profit for some is to make sure that others pay the costs. Keeping the countries of the 'third world' in a deadlock of permanent crisis - so the general theory goes - allows the 'first world' to retain its privileges by covertly ensuring the continued economic dependence of the former colonial states (and by now partially also the states of the collapsed Soviet Union). In this theory capitalism not only produces but also instrumentalises the forces of crisis to sustain the relations of exploitation that form its basis.

In his recent writings, Immanuel Wallerstein proposes a different perspective.1 He asserts that the crisis currently generated by the global economy is about to reach a climatic point at which it will no longer be manageable according to capitalist interests and cause a terminal breakdown of the entire system. Basically, his argument is that the established capitalist strategy to increase profit (that is to cut the costs of production) by lowering wages, evading taxes and refusing responsibility for social welfare and environmental protection have been exhausted. The crisis caused by these policies on a global scale is simply too vast and the irreversible damage to the environment has reached catastrophic levels. Moreover, the reckless politics of transnational corporations

  1. See, for instance, Immanuel Wallerstein, Utopistics, New York: The New Press, 1998

  2. Of course, to describe situations of crisis as crucial periods of transition is a more or less predictable rhetorical move (especially when the diagnosis of crisis, as it is the case in Wallerstein's theory, is framed by a post-socialist utopian agenda). Still, Wallerstein's observations seem plausible and useful in the sense that they draw attention to the significance and potential implications of the social, economic and environmental points of crisis that capitalism currently produces in different regions around the globe.

  3. Published in Manifesta 3, Newsletter 1, Ljubljana, 2000

  4. The series of works in which Potrc reconstructs structures developed by the different organisations featured in the Urban Independent project includes: Barefoot College: A House (2002), displayed in the Max Protech Gallery, New York; Rural Studio: Mason's Bend Community Center (2002), presented in the exhibition 'Extreme Conditions and Noble Designs' in the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach;Rural Studio: Butterfly House (2002), shown in 'Designs for the Real World' at the Generali Foundation, Vienna. A greenhouse modelled after structures in the Leidsche Rijn was presented in 'The Pursuit of Happiness' in the Kunsthalle Bern, entitled Leidsche Rijn House (2003), together with a selection of Burning Man Structures (2003). Improvised structures from the Burning Man festival had previously been displayed together with structures from the Barefoot College, Hybrid: Burning Man and Barefoot College (2002), in the exhibition 'Housing' at the Westfälischer Kunstverein Münster. A version of the core unit modelled after the ones found in Amman, Jordan, East Wahdat: Upgrading Program (1999-2003) was shown in the exhibition '50 Years of Central European Art' in Vienna, Miami, Berlin and Bern.

  5. Marjetica Potrc, 'Five ways to Urban Independence', in Dreams and Conflicts: The Dictatorship of the Viewer (exh. cat.), Venice: Venice Biennale, 2003, p.272

  6. In this sense, Potrc's pieces inhabit the ambiguous space of objects that are simultaneously real and symbolic artefacts opened up by surrealist sculpture and painting, where pipes, indoor palm trees and sanitary fixtures can be presented to exhibit first of all the difference and multiple interferences between reality and its representations.

  7. The complementary phenomenon in the urban centres of the Western world is the strategy of seducing global companies to settle in the city by financing the development of former industrial areas into attractive office locations. Yet city councils usually never receive much in return for this urban development. In Germany, Hamburg (for instance) recently invested more than €600 million into the development of a nature reserve [!] into a runway extension for the testing range of the EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), which is partially owned by Daimler Chrysler, as the company threatened to move its construction site for the new Airbus A380 elsewhere if the city didn't comply. Now, after the completion of the extension, the EADS has simply stepped back from its promises to the city for financial compensation and the city council effectively gets nothing in return for the development it has paid for. The only gain Hamburg receives is one of symbolic nature. It can pride itself on still playing host to Daimler Chrysler.