Art, Technology, and Public Spaces: A Latin American Perspective

Victoria Messi

Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero (UNTREF), Buenos Aires, Argentina

This article was developed as part of the research project, “Reconfiguraciones de la tecnología en la experiencia artística. La historicidad de la técnica como parte de la reflexión tecnológica del arte at UNTREF.

Keywords: media art, Latin America, robotics, land art, science fiction, modernism, technological recycling, urban interventions, art and technology, infrastructure

This article reviews and analyzes a series of projects and interventions developed by Latin American artists who creatively explore the use of technology to rethink the relationship between technical progress, urban development, and social well being. The projects deal with some of the most alienating, unsustainable, and contradictory aspects of Latin America’s megalopolis. Yet they do so by approaching the issues creatively, poetically, and playfully.

The works combine elements and strategies typical of urban interventions, land art, performance, and relational aesthetics, combined with the creation and deployment of technological devices. While much of the experimentation with art and technology focuses on cutting edge devices, these projects seek to do the opposite. They rethink the huge socio-technical networks that were built to provide modern cities with basic infrastructures (drinking water, sewer systems, and communication and transportation networks), at a time when these infrastructures and the very notion of the city as a shared public space are in crisis.

The first group of projects focuses on the broken promises of modernity in the region, underlining that in fact technology and progress do not come hand in hand. They question the sustainability of local models of urban growth. They do so by referencing science fiction, the exploration of outer space, and the new promises of robotics and nanotechnology; sometimes with longing, other times with humor or irony. But in all cases they create fascinating pseudo-futuristic machines made out of recycled technology, halfway between Blade Runner and literature’s “magical realism.” The common strategy is to take these machines on some kind of exploration or mission, be it sending a robot to draw the map of a city onto the desert’s surface; launching a spaceship to navigate through abandoned railways to rediscover now mostly isolated rural towns; or floating devices through contaminated rivers and streams in an attempt to clean them.

Nanodrizas by Arcangel Constantini (Mexico) draws attention to the social and environmental costs brought on by sudden industrialization. For this project Constantini created a modular, open source robotic species that seeks to communicate and interact with its environment. Looking like small UFOs, these robots feed off sunlight using solar panels, and float through contaminated rivers and streams around Mexico City. With the help of sensors and microprocessors they analyze the quality of the water and release biochemicals to help clean it. Though the nanodrizas look like flying saucers straight out of an early science fiction movie, they also bring about current visions of the future, particularly as it relates to the new promises of nanotechnology.

Arcángel Constantini, Nanodrizas, 2009. Used with permission.

Arcángel Constantini, Nanodrizas, 2009. Used with permission.

Arcángel Constantini, Nanodrizas, 2009. Used with permission.

Arcángel Constantini, Nanodrizas, 2009. Used with permission.

S.E.F.T. 1 by Iván Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (Mexico) deals with the social consequences of the political decision to privatize the railway system in Mexico, given the growing concentration of population and resources in the big urban centers—small towns fall into oblivion. Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene assembled what looks like a spaceship using an old truck to travel through abandoned railways in Mexico. With this vehicle they visited communities that used to have trains passing through them but, since the privatization of the railway system, don’t anymore. They documented through video, pictures, and interviews the changes that communities experience when trains no longer pass through their towns.

Iván Puig, Seft, 2006/2011. Used with permission.

Iván Puig and Andres Padilla Domene, Seft, 2006/2011. Used with permission.

Iván Puig, Seft, 2006/2011. Used with permission.

Iván Puig and Andres Padilla Domene, Seft, 2006/2011. Used with permission.

Nazca City by Rodrigo Derteano (Peru) thematizes the fast, unplanned, and informal expansion of cities into the desert. Derteano built a robot to draw the map of a full-scale imaginary city on the surface of the Peruvian desert. The automatized vehicle plows the earth to reveal its underlying color, drawing the lines that make up the city. The robot draws its way through a remote desert landscape that might as well be Mars (perhaps referencing the colonization of outer space), as there seems to be no life around it. The project brings into question the modern idea of the city, bound by functionalism and optimization, with little or no capacity to integrate informal urbanism and spontaneous reconfigurations of social space. It models a city unable to incorporate sustainability issues, demonstrating the absence of any urban planning involved in the rapid expansion of city life into the desert of Lima.

Rodrigo Derteano, Nasca City, 2010. Used with permission.

Rodrigo Derteano, Nasca City, 2010. Used with permission.

Rodrigo Derteano, Nasca City, 2010. Used with permission.

Rodrigo Derteano, Nasca City, 2010. Used with permission.

The second group of projects described in the article is a set of interventions at smaller scales, which deal with some of the most alienating circumstances of Latin American urban life. These projects deal with the periphery within the city. They also involve hybrid materials and practices, as well as technological recycling.

Both Parasitophonía by Leonello Zambón and Urban Parasites by Gilberto Esparza refer to the condition of living on or off of another organism: in the first case, by feeding off the city’s chaotic activity and sounds; and in the second, by leeching off the city’s waste and energy sources. They both reference science fiction by pointing to a decadent aspect of the present, as it relates to an idea of the future (our present time) that dates back to the eighties. In these projects there seems to be no tension between the empowering and alienating effects of technology, only certainty of the latter.

In Parasitophonía, Zambón (Argentina) designed a bicycle with a wooden trailer that has its own custom recording and sound systems, work tools, desk and stool, and other gadgets. The artist cycled through the city and its outskirts recording sounds, processing and remixing them in real time, and playing them back modified and amplified to the howling traffic and the hurried people walking down the streets.

Leonello Zambón, Parasitophonia, 2010. Used with permission.

Leonello Zambón, Parasitophonia, 2010. Used with permission.

Meanwhile in Urban Parasites, Esparza (Mexico) made several species of robotic parasites—different hybrids made out of recycled technological waste and various materials. This artist placed the parasites in different parts of the city, where they could feed off specific energy sources. They move and make sounds as they collect what they need from their surroundings: one robot crawls through power cables, absorbing their energy, while another is capturing sounds of the environment and reproducing them at random; one robot hangs from a light post and persistently swings toward the light, while other tiny robots are going through piles of trash lying on the sidewalk and streets. Esparza stages a view of the present very much like past ideas of what the future would look like, in which autonomous technological beings inhabit our cities, but in a completely absurd and parasitical way, living off other organisms without producing anything.

Gilberto Esparza, Urban Parasites, 2007. Used with permission.

Gilberto Esparza, Urban Parasites, 2007. Used with permission.

Gilberto Esparza, Urban Parasites, 2007. Used with permission.

Gilberto Esparza, Urban Parasites, 2007. Used with permission.

All the reviewed projects work with past ideas of the future and refer to science fiction in order to think about the present. Is it to speak of a future in which mankind has finally arrived at a stage of technological development that ensures its own destruction, as well as that of its environment? They seem to reference the failure of modernism and the broken promise of technology bringing about a better future—alienating instead of liberating the subject. Might revisiting these issues with irony, playfulness, nostalgia and humor be an attempt to warn and bring up to date the statement of frustration and alienation regarding our shared future?

Are they perhaps suggesting that the new promises of technology look a lot like the old ones? Is the creative use of contemporary technologies to rethink certain aspects of the modernist project as a way to make evident a revival of its failed ideals; or to warn about the risks of contemporary rationality, driving us once again towards the alienation of the subject instead of its liberation?

If utopia usually calls for an ideal society in the future—a positive and possible reality in a time and place far from the present—what could we say about these artists and their work? Could they still be thought of as utopian if they seem to want to intervene and modify the present, or if they trust that art in such a context is a means for social change?

Bio

Victoria Messi (b. 1981 in Buenos Aires, Argentina) received her MFA from Universidad de Buenos Aires and is currently completing a Master’s program in Science, Technology, and Society at Universidad Nacional de Quilmes. She is a researcher and professor in the Master’s program in Aesthetics and Technology of Media Art at Universidad Nacional de Tres de Febrero, where she also worked as an academic coordinator and joint professor in the undergraduate program of Media Arts. She is author and developer of El Pez Eléctrico (www.elpezelectrico.com), a website that publishes original articles, videos, and texts on media art.

Messi has curated and worked in the production of several new media, video, and photography exhibitions in Argentina. She writes texts on art and new media and has published in catalogues and journals in many different countries. She has done editorial production for several books on photography, media, and contemporary art.