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Quilian color l1010812.1sq ello

Quilian Riano


Quilian Riano is the founder and principal of DSGNAGNC, a collaborative design/research studio exploring political engagement through architecture, urbanism, art and activism. Riano is also the Director of Strategy and Research at NYDesigns, a residency, fabrication and research program for designers and tech at the City University of New York (CUNY). In practice and academia, Riano works with community groups and trans-disciplinary teams to create comprehensive research that can be used to propose a variety of targeted policies, actions, and designs that seek to increase agency at various scales — from pamphlets to architectures to landscapes. Riano holds a Masters of Architecture from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and currently teaches design studios at Parsons, The New School for Design and Pratt Institute of Technology. Riano has recently received the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise as well as awards and residencies from Boston Society of Architects, Harvard University, and the Queens Museum. DSGNAGNC’s work has been featured at the Venice Biennale, Harvard University, the World Urban Forum, Cornell University, New York’s Center for Architecture, The Van Alen Institute, Parsons The New School for Design, The Queens Museum of Art, The Austrian Cultural Forum, Boston Society of Architects, among others.


Quilian color l1010812.1sq ello

The question posed here is a bit daunting. It could be re-written to say: what can artists, architects and designers do in the face of full-scale institutional failure(s)?

There are so many potential answers to this question; including Nothing.

In fact, it seems that this is more often than not the answer to the question of institutional failure. This view clearly, and by now infamously, came into view when Zaha Hadid responded to questions about the deaths of hundred construction workers as Qatar prepares for the world cup. Hadid’s responded to the Guardian [1] by saying, “I have nothing to do with the workers, I think that’s an issue the government–if there’s a problem–should pick up.” I guess that I should note that the deaths she was questioned about did not happen while working on the construction of her stadium design, if that makes a difference.

IMAGE 1 Image of Al Wakrah Stadium by Zaha Hadid Architects

The uproar that followed was as much a reaction to the callused response, as to the total lack of political agency expressed. Many thought, if one of the practitioners close to celebrity status within architecture cannot have an opinion on such an important subject, or advocate for change, who can? Many responded to the backlash by pointing out that Hadid’s hands were contractually tied and if she answered in any other way her firm could become liable or even lose the project. This view seems particularly cynical and potentially leading to a very particular kind of autonomous practice. One that erects high professionalized walls around what it can and cannot deal with. One that disarms any discussion of politics and conflict before it can even be had.

Now, let’s say we do want to trigger effective change.

We should begin by looking at a new crop of practices that are beginning to embrace the political potential of art, architecture and design to change urban contexts. I use urban here as a way to talk about systematic complexity that includes political, economic, social and spatial concerns. Through conversations, teaching and practice I have noticed three specific interrelated issues and questions that emerging practices are dealing with that may give us a clue about how to trigger effective change. First, many practices are repositioning what the relationship with established institutions could be. Second, although many emerging practices spouse political and social ideals many projects still happen at a smaller scale, often leading to questions of overall impact. Finally, those cultural producers that seek larger changes are also actively rethinking models of practice, authorship and autonomy.

IMAGE 2 Image of Occupy Sandy on Daily Kos

After surges caused by Hurricane Sandy flooded many vulnerable neighborhoods in New York City, Occupy Sandy [2], a new disaster relief organization was formed. Occupy Sandy was lead by artists and activists that met and worked together during the Occupy Wall Street actions of 2011. The group helped provide essentials, aid and information to those affected by the storm. Interestingly, a group that had a few months before protested federal and local institutions became a key player in helping organize and coordinate between those same groups. The relationship was never easy, often with mutual mistrust especially with then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration [3]. The discomfort did not only come from official sources but also from allied activists and artists. Occupy Sandy, they argued, changed the focus of the movement from institutional critique to become something closer to a nonprofit service provider [4].

This is perhaps one of the biggest anxieties around politically-engaged practices face. How do you retain a critical stance while understanding that for projects to have impact they need to interface with established institutions? Art theorist Gregory Sholette wrote about these anxieties by dubbing certain new practices as mockstitutions. Sholette reviews critiques, including the fear that by acting as pseudo-service providers for the neoliberal institutions, artists will not be able to mount a strong critique of the larger conditions that have lead to the mockstitution being necessary in the first place. In the end, however, he argues that there may be possibility in the flirtation with institutional norms. Sholette argues that:

"Although Adorno once railed against the intellectual and artistic banalities of administered culture in the post-war era, perhaps it has become necessary now to occupy the ruins of that former society, or more accurately to wear its wreckage like a carapace in the way certain sea creatures camouflage themselves from predators using discarded materials. After all, this accumulated cultural detritus is our shared history, our dark archive of fragmented knowledge and potential liberation."[5]

Could the same be said of larger social institutions -- are they of shells, waiting to be worn, waiting to be rethought and reconfigured? This analogy leaves room that some of the shells of institutional failure may be partially or totally filled and only through coordinated action can they be vacated and filled with new possibilities.

Furthermore, the institutional question can also be thought to be one of scale and scope. Let’s take Tactical Urbanism as an example. Tactical Urbanism is a term used to encompass a variety of small-scale urban actions often taken without explicit permission from an official authority. Perhaps the best-known example of such a tactic is the parklet - a park created in a parking lot that begins as a temporary action but may become semi-permanent as official structures are created. The most common current critique of such smaller-scale projects and Tactical Urbanism, generally, is that when tactics lack a strategy they will just fulfill whatever strategy those in power have already set forth. As an example, researcher Oli Mould says that Tactical Urbanism “represents the latest cycle of the urban ‘ strategy ’ to co-opt moments of creativity and alternative urban practices to the urban hegemony – it is the new Creative City.” [6]

IMAGE 3 The original 2010 parklet. Credit: Rebar

It is not to say that a small project does not have a place, but rather that without a larger strategy or intention that small project will likely be co-opted. In other words, the intentions to create a parklet may be a justifiable response to institutional failure. But, the question remains whether parklets can move beyond localism. Can they be designed to have larger political and scalar intentions? Can they be the mediators to help groups organize and create larger political and social agendas?

However, if these type of smaller projects are to take on a larger strategic nature the role of the artist and/or designer may have to also change. It may not be enough to work on things back in the studio and put them out in the city. Practices are becoming broader and more transdisciplinary, using skills from design, art and social sciences to act on the city. Collectives rather than individual practices are gaining traction among artists and designers as a way to practice and form projects. The collectives are usually broad and incorporate members of the communities in which projects take place. One such example is the collective created for Theatre Evolutif, a project by OOZE architects (Eva Pfannes & Sylvain Hartenberg), Marjetica Potrč, Bureau d’études (Xavier Fourt & Léonore Bonaccini) and residents of the Saint-Michel neighborhood in Bordeaux. [7]

IMAGE 4 Theatre Evolutif by OOZE architects (Eva Pfannes & Sylvain Hartenberg), Marjetica Potrč, Bureau d’études (Xavier Fourt & Léonore Bonaccini) and residents of the Saint-Michel neighborhood in Bordeaux. Image Credit: OOZE.

This project in a neighborhood under threat of gentrification began with the designers and the community agreeing on a charter that would define the goals for the project. The designers used these principles to design the project that include a garden, tools and public areas to meet. The roof was co-created with local residents and is flexible so that it can be changed as necessary. In many ways this project has been co-created by designers with some expertise in ecological systems and structures and a community who understands what it wants and needs. The project has the promise to give local residents not only agency over the structure but a place to gather and discuss if changes in the neighborhood happen in accordance to the charter signed with values and goals for the area. This kind of local and ongoing organizing may help prevent further institutional failures as the neighborhood changes.

So, artists, architect and designers - how can we create change? This is a very difficult question given that even the best of intentions can be co-opted and rendered powerless. Perhaps the first step is to realize that it is not about us. We are the tools for ideas, knowledge and perhaps even the unexpected (dis)connections. Regardless, here is a working proposal to increase the impact of our work: be ambitious and communicate larger political agendas and how you hope to change existing power dynamics even if (especially when) all you can do is act at a small local scale; existing social institutions may not be perfect but engage with them regardless while retaining a critical voice; co-create projects with those that will actually do the long-term work of organizing and acting on larger agendas, specific issues, neighborhoods, etc. Triggering.

[1] Zaha Hadid defends Qatar World Cup role following migrant worker deaths.

[2] Occupy Sandy

[3] Occupy Sandy: A Movement Moves to Relief.

[4] STORM TROOPERS: The Legacy of Occupy Sandy

[5] Sholette, Gregory. "Mockstitutions." Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto, 2011. Page 185.

[6] Tactical Urbanism: The New Vernacular of the Creative City. Oli Mould. Geography Compass. Volume 8, Issue 8, pages 529–539, August 2014.

[7] Theatre Evolutif by OOZE Architects, Bureau d’études & Marjetica Potrč in Landezine

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The question posed here is a bit daunting. It could be re-written to say: what can artists, architects and designers do in the face of full-scale institutional failure(s)?

There are so many potential answers to this question; including Nothing.

... Show more »