Where The Streets Have No Name

April 13 – May 25, 2014

Artists: Claudio Bueno, VALIE EXPORT, Milton Machado, and Teresa Margolles

“(…) The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past”

(Italo Calvino)

“As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”


The Nomad acts through permanent deterritorialisation.
The Nomad acts through permanent reterritorialisation.
The Nomad acts through permanent transgressions.
The Nomad acts through permanent incorporations.
The Nomad acts through negation and excess.
The Nomad acts through variation, expansion, conquest, capture and offshoots.”

(Milton Machado)

“The parallel between landscape and the mind, and between architecture and the mind, is mediated by the body because, on the one hand, the parallel has its origin in the external opposition between mind and body, and also because the body bears the stamp of other factors, just as the landscape does.”

(Valie Export)1

1   Excerpts from: Italo Calvino. “Cities & Memory 3,” Invisible Cities. Harvest Book, 1974. pp. 10-11; Milton Machado. History of The Future. Cosac Naify, 2013. p. 50; Roswitha Mueller. Valie Export – fragments of the imagination. Indiana University Press. 1994. p. 104. 

There are several cities and countries that do not use names to mark their streets, as is the case in Ghana, several Japanese cities, or even Brazil’s favelas. In each instance, there exist different relationships with this nomenclature system that can be understood in terms of targeted interference in the way locals navigate inside the city or even from a political perspective that explains a division of classes present in society. What is common between them is that the names that appear at street corners have a much greater meaning than being just a simple name: they can (and are) used as a mechanism of control by the government or private companies to guide us in how to relate to the urban space. The nomenclature then goes beyond being a mere word, becoming what I call an urban commodity. In other words, it is an intrinsic system of the urban environment that has value in and of itself and is used by the macrostructure to plan, monitor, and control society.

            In the case of Ghana, for example, the government received financial support from the World Bank and USAID fund to map, mark, number, and name the streets of the country. Using the argument that more than 50% of the population now lives in urban areas, the aim was to enable telephone companies and financial institutions to more easily track those who do not pay their bills. Until then, companies were at the mercy of knowing the place and asking locals for a few references (such as a specific tree or some most notorious resident) to locate the debtor – which could take weeks to happen. Now, with the new system, financial institutions can quickly collect what is owed. In addition, international funds, hoping to lend money to that government, use the argument that it will bring greater revenues for the country as a way to encourage investment in mapping – thus increasing its external debt. As USAID’s webpage itself says:

          “Many challenges remain to meet the vice president’s goal of implementing the guidelines throughout the 212 districts of the country. Conservative estimates based on USAID’s experience with five districts suggest that Ghana would need at least $30 million to implement the program nationwide. This estimate does not include the major cities, as cost may vary depending on size. The Ghanaian Government may have to solicit these funds from external sources.”[1]

            What can be seen in this case is that the naming of streets is more than just the name, but something that has value in itself and is used to order and structure the urban environment. On the other hand, the favelas of Brazil also don’t have names for the streets, but for different reasons. Due to the unregulated occupation of the slums, the region expands depending of the arrival of new families and not according to the number of available homes. They are heavily populated areas that do not respond directly to the offers of the real estate market as, generally, the lots are illegal. In these regions, the (lack of) names of streets are related to the economic status of its residents and the lack of government interest in regulating this situation. Therefore, the nomenclature becomes something of pride to the communities living there, since when they have their space demarcated they feel included in a city that sees them as an outcast. Even Google Maps, when mapping the city of Rio de Janeiro, decided not to go to the slums, using violence and narrow streets as arguments.[2]

            The use of the term urban commodity is a provocation to demonstrate that the mere naming is also something that can be used for purposes beyond spatially locating a resident. This term for this end seeks to clarify how the naming system is used to leverage up the real estate market in specific areas of the city in order to convince residents to accept increasingly exorbitant prices per square meter in some neighborhoods. This is the case with Bushwick, Brooklyn, for example. Because of increasing gentrification process, the real estate market changes the name of the region of some parts of the neighborhood so that tenants or buyers will identify a region as being more highly valued than it really is.[3] In this sense, a buyer does not only buy an apartment, but an entire nexus of signifying interrelations related to the idea of a locality. Thus, when buying an apartment on the Upper West Side in New York, or in Jardins in São Paulo, the consumer is not only buying a place to live, but also a symbolic status and a whole network that is behind that name, that created brand. The researcher Raquel Rennó has theorized a connection between the language used in marketing and how the real estate market has appropriated it to try to sell a brand, a concept behind a product.

          “To say that someone is the resident of Morumbi or Jardins [rich neighborhoods], at the same way to say that another one is resident of Itaquera or Cidade Ademar [poor neighborhoods], by itself, it already allows one to create an idea of the social class to which an individual belongs. These are images which reflect the crystallization of values invested in spaces.”[4]

            One of the reasons for discussing this system in this exhibition is that this very mechanism can be found either in the gentrification process or in attempts to control communities living in urban spaces. In some cases, when a community is gentrified, the new residents – or even the real estate market – strives to change the names of streets or even of entire neighborhoods in order to erase its history and build a new one, as was the case in Bushwick mentioned above. Moreover, politicians also use this same trick in return for favors, to try other political positions or even for reelection. It is a form of political bargaining between politicians and the communities that elected them.

            Calvino’s Invisible Cities, for example, among the various cities described in the book, contains a story about one that has no names to identify the streets and passages. The residents of Zaira must rely only on their memory and the marks left on the urban infrastructure as a way to navigate. Urban infrastructure refers here to the physical buildings that exist in space, whether they be houses, overpasses, bridges, sidewalks, and so on. Thus, the history of Zaira’s residents is embedded in space itself and a reference is needed in order to navigate in its alleys.

            Just as the history of the inhabitants leaves marks on the infrastructure, the infrastructure itself also influences the way one operates in a city. This question is addressed in the work of VALIE EXPORT. For her, the cities’ architecture is responsible for shaping how our bodies behave, altering even psychologically how we understand ourselves and the urban environment.

            Milton Machado, in turn, extracts the social relations present in urban space to create an abstraction over the anxiety of progress and development represented by the cities. For Machado, there is a never-attainable idealization by urban planners of what would be a perfect urban area (based on developmental values), which leads them to implement these projects without even understanding the real social demands at work in those spaces. The characters present in History of the Future are fractions of a single personality which represent how the social aspect is forgotten in the eagerness for progress. Although they keep cities living (such as the Nomad), they are also expelled, killed, and forced to maintain a synchronous relation with the imposed change (represented by the Module of Destruction).

            Machado’s initial idea was to try to connect all continents in order to create the single continent of Pangea. No borders, no boundaries of nations, no barriers. The sovereignty of nations, which is associated with a nomenclature used to define territorial areas, would then be called into question, and another mode of relationship between different cultures could arise. This subject is explored by Teresa Margolles when interviewing residents of the cities of El Paso, USA, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, about their impressions of those cities. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are cities divided by the border between the two countries. Even though they share the same urban space, this boundary creates a dissociation of the two sides and how its residents see each other.

            It is interesting to see how the question of territoriality is viewed from different perspectives. While Machado creates an abstraction to end it and Margolles points to the current political problems in national divisions, Claudio Bueno presents another variation: how the virtual can hack the physicality required for monuments that represent the history of a particular place. The Invisible Monuments series use the virtual to establish new monuments in places that would be impossible if they were actually built. In the case of the Chant des Sirènes, Bueno has created a mobile app that contains a sound monument celebrating the history of women killed in the First and Second World Wars. The work can only be accessed when the coordinates of a mobile phone’s GPS enters the Old Port of Québec, in Canada. While the other monuments in the region exalt the male figure and tell a history chosen without necessarily involving the population, Bueno’s invisible monuments demonstrate a more democratic approach to selecting which history should be told.

            As has become clear by now, the object of study of this exhibition is not gentrification per se, but how the naming mechanism can be understood through different biases. This work therefore does not present arguments about only one system used to change the urban center, but rather it is about the social consequences that these instances of interference have. By avoiding the description just to situate the object, it is possible to focus on the inter- and intra-relationships that occur in the urban space. It is a work of an ethologist, so to speak, as Andrew Goffey explains in the introduction of the book “Capitalist Sorcery.” To Goffey, the ethologist studies the relationships of animals with their environment instead of trying to describe in concrete ways what the animal is in and of itself. Only in this way it is possible to understand what a particular animal may cause in its habitat and its interference in the ecosystem.

           ”Ethology requires us to focus a little more closely on the relationship that is established between the animal and the ethologist, a focus that, transposed to the field of politics should lead to a more nuanced understanding of the way in which capitalism constantly reorganizes itself to prevent people getting a hold. The vampire squids of capitalism engage in the creation of ‘infernal alternatives’.”[5]

            Studying the control mechanisms of a city only by the description and not by its social relations is to fall into what the authors Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers refer to as “infernal alternatives,” which is to say “a scientist whose professional certainties about what are the right questions to ask can lead him or her to adopt a frighteningly dismissive stance with regard to anything that falls outside this position.”[6] The problem of falling into an “infernal alternative” is getting stuck on issues where the answer appears hollow in relation to the question, or the results do not associate the object with the explanation (“getting hold”). For the authors, when an anti-capitalist struggle appears, one has the idea that only a divine intervention could interfere in the economic productive mechanisms, as if there weren’t a right answer to the question about how to change it.[7] It is to avoid this feeling of powerlessness in relation to capitalism that they advocate for a pragmatic analysis, which is “an art of consequences, an art of ‘paying attention’ that is opposed to the philosophy of the omelette justifying the cracked eggs.”[8] In other words, this method does not want to justify an anti-capitalist struggle based on the problems of capitalism itself, but to understand what consequences the conflict has on the environment in which it operates. It is for this reason that this exhibition seeks to understand the effects of nomenclature inside the urban environment. It is an attempt to question not only how urban planning is currently conducted in large cities, but also to stress the social relationships with the city’s infrastructure using interventions and works of art as a platform for the argument

            To avoid possible descriptions of the systems, this exhibition focuses on using utopian thinking to understand the consequences of how the nomenclature affects the urban environment. Instead of doing a critique which sets up a dichotomous structure between two objects – one being considered good and the other bad – and having a descriptive syntax, this exhibition takes a more imaginative approach. Rather than working in terms of mimesis (what the subject really is), it is preferable to make way for a project of possibility (what the object can be). The “radical critique” thus no longer lies in the descriptive aspect and the comparison of objects of analysis, but in creating an imaginable future – a utopian creation to real issues surrounding our life in society[9]. This is the utopian exercise being proposed here: working with this “it could be” to find out what really happens.

            Each work in this exhibition focuses explains different views on this nomenclature system for urban areas. The intent is to demonstrate the different ways of understanding the cities and to problematize the social issues about how we relate in this environment.

[1]    Peter Fricker. “Directionally Challenged: Effort to Name Ghana’s Streets Points the Way to Economic Progress,” Frontlines Online Edition (July/August 2012). Available at <http://www.usaid.gov/news-information/frontlines/economic-growth/directionally-challenged-effort-name-ghana%E2%80%99s-streets>. (Accessed on November 18, 2013).

[2]    “Rio de Janeiro’s favelas charted on city maps after decades of ‘invisibility’,” DailyMail Online (January 24, 2013). Accessible at <www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/article-2267553/Rio-Janeiros-favelas-charted-decades-invisibility.html>. (Accessed on November 18, 2013).

[3]    Lauren Evans. “FYI: Ridgewood Is Now East Williamsburg, Also Bushwick,” gothamist (May 10, 2013). Available at <http://gothamist.com/2013/05/10/east_williamsburg_borders_now_exten.php>. (Accessed on March 25, 2014).

[4]    Raquel Rennó. “A Cidade das Marcas – Marcas na Cidade,” XXVI Congresso Anual em Ciência da Comunicação (Belo Horizonte/MG, September 2 – 6, 2003). Available at <https://www.academia.edu/5780062/Cidade_das_marcas_marcas_na_cidade>. (Accessed on January 20, 2014).

[5]    Andrew Goffey. “Introduction: On the Witch’s Broomstick,” Capitalist Sorcery. Palgrave MacMillan (2011): XVII.

[6]    Ibid: XIII.

[7]    Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers. Capitalist Sorcery, Palgrave MacMillan (2011): 25.

[8]    Ibid: 17.

[9]    Stephen Ducombe. “Utopia Is No Place: The Art and Politics of Impossible Futures,” Walker Art Center, Symposium (July 29, 2010). Accessible at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8BhXKGOeeY>. (Accessed on November 18, 2013).

Curated by Thiago Carrapatoso



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