DA: It seems to be a time of a blurring of frontiers between different media, and I tend to choose hybrid formats in order to command situations in the art field as well as in the urban field. Performance and architecture, or performance and urban development are per se areas of blurred boundaries. I feel the city, the urban, is always performing itself. How can performance as an art medium and architecture, or urban development, develop interesting ways of influencing each other?
NM: What’s exciting about these times is that everything is urban: the urban condition is all around us and is constantly expanding, so the challenge is to figure out what you can do with that new urban space. It’s getting crowded, it’s getting complex and dense and challenging for people living in a city. What performers can do is explore these new conditions, these new spatial conditions, and reveal how you can experience these spaces, interact with these spaces, how you can appropriate them, how these new and not always streamlined environments can offer new qualities, offer opportunities, provide a platform for creativity.
DA: The situation is already highly complex in the field of art, but once you put into consideration the site specificity, the location where you produce art, suddenly there is a queerness of formats which escapes many ways of linear thinking. In a certain way, it is asking for non-linearity in terms of relating to things and trying to put things together in another way.
NM: Yes, art tries to explore boundaries. It can reveal how space changes over time simply by the presence of an artist, by interacting with new media, by engaging with communities, by having local communities engage with their environment in an entirely new way. You call it multi-layered?
DA: Multi-layered and non-linear.
NM: We like to think in the same way when we design. It is not about the static end result, it’s about the process. It’s about the very first moment of conception up to the point of realization and beyond, how you can have a life cycle in a project, have a lasting impact in a place and in a community. I think good examples of artists revealing this non-linear and multi-layered dimension are few. The most obvious are performances that engage with new media. More exciting is when things happen in different places at the same time, maybe a performance appears at the same time in Beijing and Shanghai or in London and Brazil and there is some sort of correlation. Or more complex is when performances leave a trace, so they occur over a longer period of time simply by changing the environment and leaving a lasting impact.
DA: Performance is set up to be ephemeral. And that’s one way it’s different from architecture. Performance leaves a trace mainly in people’s memories and not in three-dimensional space / time as something that you can touch, that you can walk on, or that you can go in.
NM: Maybe the next step is really where art becomes proactive in forcing architecture to be less static, maybe the buildings we can do are truly dynamic. You cannot just alter them, but you can influence them in a more profound way—how they are used, how they are perceived. So the artist has an influence that I guess architects are looking for and are increasingly losing.
DA: What would you call a radical position in art and in architecture or urbanism? There is always a striving for a radical and clear position, but it has often become just a pose.
NM: I think nowadays radical seems to be more understated, more under the radar, more localized. The world is being infiltrated by big art in big venues in festivals and biennials. The more radical projects seem to be the ones that sort of dig deep into local communities and engage with locals on a much more personal level.
DA: There is a new relation between locality and globality which is actually very challenging. What does it mean to live up to these networked societies we are living in—based on data-fication, on digital connections—and to the very local viewpoints of people, to local sides of life and also of art. How to integrate, also keeping in mind that the frame of urbanization has a global scale.
NM: I agree it is a global issue, maybe not so much in a way that we like to think of. Urbanization is following similar trends across the globe, which means that we should consider solutions that could be discovered anywhere on the planet and try them elsewhere as a sort of a recycling of innovation, a recycling of knowledge which is not happening because there is this weird “angst” that we have to be local, we have to be localized in the sense that you can’t copy solutions that work in Brazil and apply them in Beijing. The truth is, you definitely can’t copy them one to one. But you can probably copy the logic behind them, and adapt it to local conditions and apply it elsewhere and see what happens. So I am actually trying to be a bit more flexible in this whole local-global debate. I try to cross-read, mix and match. It is this superposition, juxtapositions that seem to prove and reveal most of the local condition. It’s through the contrast that you can see what is locally valid and valuable.
DA: There is quite a booming buzzword that comes from the design area: “social design”. It links to what you said before, the social and design. You did projects in Mumbai which are for me part of an attitude towards finding location-based solutions, but still I feel a bit uneasy about this buzz. What could be the criteria?
NM: It is difficult. If you take the Mumbai example, one of the challenges we had there was that I was invited to come up with a community-oriented urban solution for slums and other sort of fringe communities. But it was funded by exactly the opposite kind of society, mainly the fine arts, big money from that sort of ivory tower art scene. These two worlds do not mix and match. They are colliding at best. Most likely they are not even touching, which is exactly what happened. The curators involved weren’t too keen on entering the communities I was dealing with. So I spent nine months in Mumbai and a lot of time in the local slums, but the people who were supposed to okay the project were not interested.
DA: Looking at this project in Ghana, have you got impressions about that? There were students of architecture design and it was using local resources for materials as well as human resources, and it was creating a certain queerness in the design process. It wouldn’t go this straightforward way of, let’s just use natural materials, the shell, the cover was from PVC, it would be actually a very rough constellation of natural bamboo and this plastic. And it would be an example of trying to make a transition or to fuse a certain way of dealing with space, dealing with a situation, dealing with a certain type of knowledge--with local knowledge.
NM: That’s exactly the important point. How do you combine a larger macro-perspective of global knowledge, of global experience, and infuse that with local knowledge. That’s a very challenging process. On the one hand, it could go wrong because you are not willing or able to adapt quickly enough, you are basically too used to local practices, which often are extremely well-informed about the challenges and the tools they have available, about the way to do things cheaply and efficiently and with a local aesthetic. And sometimes you have a good solution that you know can solve a local problem, but local practices simply don’t allow for any new intervention. It can be extremely challenging. But this is where I believe real opportunities lie. This cross-breeding, mixing and matching of different cultural visions and ecologies of solutions.
DANIEL ASCHWANDEN is a Vienna-based performer, choreographer, and curator who creates hybrid interventions in urban contexts. He teaches at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.
NEVILLE MARS is the principal of MARS Architects in Shanghai, a sustainable planning and architecture studio. Mars is also the director of the Dynamic City Foundation, an interdisciplinary research platform that is investigating rapid urbanization in China.