Reimagining the Urban: Kate Mattingly

As part of the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, the Arts Research Center co-sponsored the Reimagining the Urban: Bay Area Connections Across the Arts and Public Space on September 30, 2013. Participants have been asked to submit a blog post “on a keyword you see debated in the Bay Area arts, policy, and planning landscape.” This posting is by Kate Mattingly, a PhD student in Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.
Keyword: Connectedness
Before the symposium began, a cluster of people on the waitlist stood next to the balcony. Their view of the floor below looked something like this. Threads held tiny pieces that resembled straws or mini-bones and were constantly waving, but at first glance, the mobile appeared motionless. It took a moment to notice these pieces were in motion, and even closer inspection showed that tiny weights (visible in the picture below) ascended and descended just below the ceiling, mapping the mini-bones’ movement in vertical axes.
If I could choose not a keyword but a key-image, it would be this sculpture. It captured the interconnectedness of shifting landscapes that were broached during “Reimagining the Urban.”
The word “connectedness” comes from the phrase “an intimate connectedness,” which I heard Shannon Jackson say just before Session IV. It seemed prescient. Brad McCrea of the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, then spoke about ways in which his work involves a delicate coordination of four elements: environmental issues, historical preservation, real estate development, and social justice. I thought of an image Dr. Jackson had used earlier of “picking up a corner of the rug” and looking at a situation from a certain perspective.
When the rug is pulled too sharply by one of McCrea’s four “corners,” the others shift. This reminded me of reading Jamie Peck’s “Struggling with the Creative Class,” in particular his critique of Richard Florida’s proposal: “The less creative underclasses have only bit parts in this script. Their role is secondary and contingent, in economic terms, to the driving and determinant acts of creativity. Their needs and aspirations are implicitly portrayed as wrongheaded and anachronistic, their only salvation being to get more creative. And the libertarian politics that envelops the creativity thesis, in as far as it concerns itself with the underclasses at all – for the most part these are portrayed as servants of the creative class, or the stranded residents of ‘hopeless’ cities – peddles only voluntaristic and usually moralizing solutions.”[1]
Dr. Peck shows how a lack of attention to equitable distribution plus a privileging of certain forms of creative action (namely those that benefit gentrification) can de disastrous for certain communities. This recalls a question posed to Raquel Gutierrez after Session III by someone who had worked in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin and who faced the dilemma (paraphrased): “are we working in these places to benefit people who live in these neighborhoods or to benefit people who want to change these neighborhoods into more exclusive places for upper and middle classes?”
Gutierrez acknowledged the interconnectedness of ethics and poetics in artists’ projects, the “complicated” environments she works within, and the possibility that each of us gravitates toward a different place on the spectrum of priorities between social justice and aesthetics. Throughout the day, I found myself thinking about cities as mobiles, constantly shifting, negotiating ever-moving variables. A tricky task emerges when qualitative differences transfer into quantitative data: the mini-bones fluctuate at seemingly random intervals/these weights chart their movement vertically.
Other phrases stayed with me: the examination of our “ever-increasing levels of connectivity” and what they enable and foreclose in a “hyper-individualistic” world; the definition that “design sits somewhere between art and technology;” the importance of meeting people where they are, and the phrase “radical conditions of possibility.”

[1] Jamie Peck, “Struggling with the Creative Class,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 29.4, Dec. 2005,  p. 759.