URBAN COVID. The actor of the city, the keeper of the intangible

Fear of the city and from social to political

The skin of the city, the membrane that pulls it all together, the intangible, was eroded by decades of factual living. COVID-19 eats out the meat of the city. Jobs are gone, empty storefronts display for rent signs, small businesses are closed, entertainment is absent, major tourist attractions deserted. The City is left on the bones. Buildings are only partially occupied. 

After two weeks of quarantine, that now follow a trip to Europe and several months of lock down in the spring of 2020, I have developed an anxiety about the city (the indoor places: subways, supermarkets aisles, medical offices, etc.) City equals contagion. The city can erase my life easily as it has done to tens of thousands in New York in only two months. The city doesn´t have a lot to offer. Yesterday, I left my apartment for the first time since my return. Beyond the distanced diners in temporary shelters that restaurants have erected on the sidewalks and in the streets, there is little social interaction. Most activities take place online (from meetings, to yoga, to parties). The location is irrelevant and the physicality of the space has lost its value. Plenty of amenities are still closed and for many, the city has become non-desirable. For me, the city is the subject of study. Even though fear is my main emotion in the city, now I keep living here to overcome the fear.

When the levels of COVID were still under twenty per cent, and the lock down was in effect, the New York Times reported that 420.000 mostly wealthy New Yorkers left for second homes. From May 28 to June 30, when the count for deaths by the Coronavirus was over 20,000, with the highest death rate in the poorest neighborhoods, and after the killing of George Floyd, roughly 60.000 protesters took to the streets. The number is inexact because the protests were less well-documented than the exodus of the wealthy from the city. (I was left with Wikipedia as my variable source, I counted the protesters of each day). It is important to remember that the rate of COVID-19 infection didn’t increase with the protests, which proves that political activity in the city did not adversely affect the general health, and that the wealthy did not contribute to the significant equality and  civil rights movement of the early 21st century. 

An important change has occurred: the city is less social, and in the case of New York, more political. Those who supported the intangible values of the City were those who had never forgotten why they came here or why they love the city. Those who really love New York are those who have been fed up with a city reduced to an icon, an I LOVE NY logo on a tourist’s T-shirt.

Several hundred residents, including students and temporary workers, have fled the city and continue to do so while dramatically fewer are arriving. This summer, internships took place online or were cancelled. With classes for students now online, high unemployment, and restrictions on visas for foreigners, the seasonal flow of visitors and transient residents this fall has drastically decreased over previous years. In September, tourism was severely down. “The pandemic and the global travel restrictions introduced in March to slow the spread of the Coronavirus has decimated the American tourism industry …and international arrivals to New York are down as much as 93%, and the people and businesses of the city’s tourism industry are on the brink.” Now it is very clear that New York was a city of migrants and visitors who are no longer coming. According to the paper, “The Dynamic Population of Manhattan”, in 2012, the census of Manhattan was 800,000 but the number of work-related commuters was 1,630,000 and those non-commuters passing through Manhattan went up to 4 million. Now, the numbers of both commuters and transients are down significantly.  

I do not ask: How will the pandemic shape the urban landscape of the city? I ask: How can I, in the midst of a pandemic, change my life as a resident, and change the city where I live? After a ten year dedication to  researchs and projects solely focused on the city’s transformation: (Rape New York (2004-2008), I Condo New York (2005-2009), City Reservoir (2009-2011) IPI City (20016), I realized that between 2003 and 2020, the forces of globalization and gentrification and therefore the stimulus of profiting from them were so powerful, resistance through individual actions has been impossible.

Cities, from muscle to bone

In the Prometheus myth,  man in conversation with the gods, butchers an animal, taking all the meat and leaving only the bones to the gods. In anger, the gods decree: You took all the meat for yourselves. Now, you are really going to need it. You will need meat’s energy for work. Work is a punishment for human greed. 

World wide, the forces of capitalism in the 21st century have consistently destroyed the intangible values that characterize cities. Cities became (on different scales and with different timing) pure muscle. Run by culturists using the different weights for different parts of the body: real estate, tourism, spectacle of art, flashy architecture, etc., the cities have been overdeveloped as parts, with no correlation to the living organism of the whole. Strong muscles, even when disproportional, hold the bones in place, but with COVID, the muscle of the city has debilitated tremendously in a very short time. Now that the demand is down and the tangible elements are much less present, the lack of intangible qualities in cities becomes apparent. Up until now, the establishment has been blind to them.

In the last twenty years in New York , what began as an isolated development in Brooklyn next to the Sugar Factory, has been extended throughout the boroughs into Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and, more recently, the South Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Changes on zoning, and the lifted restrictions of construction from five to twelve floors has made even fully developed neighborhoods such as Chinatown, the Lower East Side and East Village and along the Bowery, targets for redevelopment. The battle is now in the LES, where several towers have gone up along Delancey adjunct to the Williamsburg bridge and the river side of Chinatown. 

The criteria for policies and urbanism overlook the needs of residents; cities are thought out as places where tourists are both exploited (by tourism structure) and pampered (made to feel comfortable, offered easy to digest sweet candy city). Cities, intended as centers for interaction and progress, are reduced to boardwalk venues for lineal exchange and simple consumption. 

In Rape New York, A true story of sexual violence in a corrupt property market, I narrate my experience. The city is the battlefield and the wounds are on the body, in this case, mine. The city as a battlefield is not an academic metaphor. It is real. In the first pages of this true story, I relive the moment-by-moment experience of a home invasion and rape in my apartment in Harlem. Between police disinterest and squabbles from the health insurance company over who’s going to pay for the rape kit, I realizes that the violence of such an experience does not stop with the crime. Increasingly concerned that the rapist will return, I seek help from my landlord, who refuses to address security issues on the property. I come to understand that it is precisely these conditions of newly gentrified lower-income areas which lead to vulnerable living spaces, high turnover rates, and ultimately higher profits for slumlords.

The feminist approach implies that the body, my body, is political and what happen to it isn´t private. Beatriz Colomina, Founding Director of the Program in Media and Modernity at Princeton University, essentially reflects this aspect in her blurb:  “Absorbing, tender, insightful, terrifying, this book will change the way you think. In an extraordinary eloquent refusal of the line between the personal and the public, it takes us from the slow-motion details of a traumatic violation to a multidimensional reflection on the institutions and spaces of contemporary life. Memoir becomes urban manifesto.”

In 2016, new regulations about to be introduced in New York City were threatening the stability of the area where I live. Housing, once again, became for me a subject of study and also, due to the pandemic, a place of confinement. I began interacting with associations, coalitions and groups in the neighborhoods where I work and live, such as the HDFC Coalition and Palante Harlem, which fights against the City reclaiming properties of non-wealthy owners for unpaid taxes or water bills. My contact with others was mainly in Harlem and Washington Heights in homes and community rooms. 

For two years, I took a day job as an English/Spanish interpreter and was assigned to different cases, some of them in court but most from the social service administration, where I accompanied a social worker or a psychologist into the quarters of Latino population, which they serve. Those assignments might involve checking on a senior resident, making sure there was food in the home, that social security payments are not redirected by coercion of relatives or others, checking on a teen ager that has problems with the authority of his father, or who uses her mother’s credit card for makeup or posts porn videos. Sometimes my language assistance was required to make a resident aware of an eviction process for unpaid rent or to assist in the Housing Preservation of Development (HPD) meeting with tenants in rent stabilized buildings in the process of becoming HDFC Coops. At night I volunteered for meetings with tenants and shareholders of coops in Harlem, and I made them aware of the reforms the city was preparing for them and what that meant: losing the control of their homes. 

At the end of 2017, I documented the whole picture of what I saw in real life in The Re-appropiation (by the Di Blasio administration) of Housing in New York  and in The Family, I drafted the connections between not for profits as Design for Public Space to a development firm associated with the mayor of the HR&A Advisors – Real Estate and Economic Development. Both texts were used as a reference for several community groups. I also actively helped reclaim a building that was foreclosed and transferred to the City. Although the strenuous efforts of myself and others to fight the city’s policies against its residents produced some results, the dedication was disproportionate to the damage. Fighting local government bureaucracy is like banging one’s head against the wall; the state is simply not working for the individual. 

Recently I have been in touch with Art Against Displacement (AAD), which fights against the construction of inadequate high-rise housing and argues against abolishing rent stabilization of apartments in the LES and currently runs the cancel rent movement. They also facilitate a reading discussion group, and for November 2020, the assignment is The lofts of SoHo : gentrification, art, and industry in New York, 1950-1980. They, several artists and galleries and a librarian, believe that artists can again be the actors of the city. They take a more hardline approach than previous artist/activists by refusing the crumbs that developers offer and rejecting gentrification in any way.

Whereas in Rape New York, I analyze what exists, in City Reservoir,  I analyze what doesn´t exist in order to explore the potential of the  future. To do this,, I reference another familiar cultural construction: If the definition of “National Park” is “a designated tract of land meant to preserve the landscape’s natural beauty by protecting nature from further exploitation,” then the delimitation “City Reservoir” might be interpreted as a designation meant to prevent “the civic” from being subdued. The city is seen as a place for progress rather than a homogeneous and passive center for consumption. The city is seen as an international civic plaza rather than simply a place that draws crowds:  an intellectual park, containing the one and the other in all its chaos and its freedom!  But how to translate the intangible into the transitional? We face the dilemma of preservation: that which is being preserved sacrifices private enterprise (e.g., land that becomes a “National Park” is no longer available as farmland.) The generative force of production is left behind. The place becomes a place for contemplation, solely for tourism.  The challenge is to preserve the vibrancy of city life. A “reserve” of food, water or money keeps the idea of “saving”, storing assets, putting away valuable things, without taking it to its pre-existing condition (“pre”). The Reservoir is one possible way to introduce translation of intangible into preservation.

But what is the intangible? My logic is that if we only pay attention to that which is measured, then the intangibles need to be measured. This is what I tried to do with IPI City, The Index of Intangible Patrimony Associated with the Architectural and Urban Elements in a City. How intangible is your city? There will come a moment when this question will be as common as asking, “How green is your city?” The sole existence of a tool to measure could direct attention about what is measured; but there is no tool to measure the intangibility of a city. To scan and register the existential quality in the life of a city and to translate the built urban environment into measurable values, such as tolerance, participation and access will be a way to direct attention to the subject of intangibility and to the field of immaterial urban ecology. 

To measure how green a city is, the quality of the air is measured. This is what determines the level of air contamination. A concrete tool can also measure the existential quality of life in a city, and a typology can register intangible conditions in the constructed environment. Instead of quantifiers, qualifiers such as freedom (free/occupied space, free access/payment required, free/contained body); tolerance (toleration for withstanding hard conditions, willing recognition of diversity); control (attraction/repulsion, hostility of the space, ease of movement, programmed/spontaneous activity used).

A city holds both the material patrimony (monuments, buildings, parks, plazas, urban furniture and urban infrastructure) and the immaterial patrimony (intellectual, existential and relational elements). Because these two concepts are tied together, the immaterial patrimony is altered when the built environment is modified. For instance, if a public space (like a square) is eliminated or built upon, the immaterial patrimony (gatherings, conversations, meetings, celebrations and initiatives) of the whole neighborhood will be damaged. The intangible patrimony is in close association with the architectural and urban elements in a city. 

In Ecology, an indicator is a plant or animal that, by its presence in a given area, indicates the existence of certain environmental conditions. For instance, clean water or clean air is a condition for ecology. Therefore, the existence of a water lily is an indicator that the water is clean. Similarly, in urban ecology, an indicator is a situation or an individual whose presence indicates the existence of certain conditions. For instance, public space is the main condition for urban ecology. Therefore, a square with limited commercial activity where adults can “hang out” is a high indicator of public space in a city. A bench with no separators is an indicator of tolerance for vagabonds. 

The intangible is in the complex. And is therefore what, in one way or another, we fear. When the intangible was suffocated in the suburbs, a previously urban-phobic population moved to cities because they were simple, safe and suburban (SSS). Everyday life within the intangible, the existential, takes mental strength. Now, under the pandemic, we are starting to develop the discipline it takes to regain them. The cities have their tangible values decreased tremendously because of the pandemic. The fear of contagion and the realization that cities have less to offer and lots to recreate is prompting an urban exodus from cities. But the intangible values were vandalized by over-development, which removes complexity and increases convenience. The intangible qualities of the city, already devalued by the lack of open free space to interact, a ground for spontaneity, the time and state of mind to encounter the other, is further attacked by the pandemic, but the forces are now different. People are dealing with life and death. The intangible has been inversely proportional to the level of commodification of a city. The total collapse of the machine of the city can be an opportunity to reclaim the city that nobody wants. Now there is a moment of opportunity to assess and  reapportion the tangible and the intangible elements of the city in equal measure.

Dealing with the abstract, translating the intangible

Many of us have never considered the intangible or have assumed it could not be quantified. It’s important to “materialize” the intangible in order to enable an understanding of its’ importance.. The history of translation of the immaterial into something tangible (material) is as old as civilization. One can think of cave paintings capturing the desire to hunt animals, or the ceiling of a chapel trying to give shape to beliefs and alternative worlds. One way to define “human” is to say “those who deal with the intangible”. Humans translate the immaterial, what one doesn’t have, into the material. For instance, hunger, the food one doesn’t have, can be translated into an artifact or a piece of art. The immortality one doesn’t have can be made into a horizontal non-walled house. The artist/architect will still be hungry, mortal, but they will have produced an object/space that has more value than that the matter missed. An artist/architect converts the immaterial -what lacks matter such as thinking, living, feeling – into something with some matter, such as a thought, a book, a movie, a building, a sculpture or a poem. 

There is a tendency to misunderstand  technology  as  intangible. With technology, the material is reduced but that doesn’t mean that the intangible is increased. The factual mode of the 21st century is likely different from the day dreaming mode of  prehistoric, cave-dwelling humans. The imagination is not factual. Empty space and unoccupied hours lead to imagination. 

With the beginning of the 21st century and the fear of reality caused by trauma, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks on the twin towers, the importance of technology in our lives exploded. On October 4th, 2001, I flew to Barcelona to the Mercats de las flores, a theater where I conceptualized the living room of the Media house by Enric Ruiz Geli. The living room of the house didn’t have a couch with seats for others, it had a screen and an internet connection to receive virtual visits from others. The audience witnessed me talking to family members and having sex with a lover. This wasn´t exhibitionism, rather I wanted to tell how the virtual can assist our lives but also offers us an incomplete reality. The presence of the person is received in parts, the voice (telephone) or the voice and the image (video conference). Virtuality happens, takes place and occupies time, but doesn’t have a complete existence. Since this first performance in 2001, up to 2020, the video technology that was only available for business and extravagant “media home” shows has been inserted into our everyday lives via skype, whatsApp, Hangouts and Zoom. In the last six months, due to COVID 19, these technologies are more than a complement to our lives. 

In the months of quarantined lockdown in my apartment in New York under COVID-19 pandemic, I felt a kinship to a primitive human sequestered in her cave. The wall of my cave is a computer screen. With the pandemic and the lockdown, any personal contact with real people is forbidden. People are the source of the sickness, and the tendency to spend more time in mediated virtual connection rather than person to person is consolidated. Containing people in a frame implies that the person is in the square of your screen and that the interaction is framed in a time slot, under the user’s control. The constant reduction of the presence in the virtual world is acting as the model for the real world. The model created by tele-living has extended to the rest of our lives. The real looks like the virtual: framed, controlled, predictable, something that can be switched on and off. But it is not, as we can see this with the pandemic; we can not control death. 

With the quarantine, and in the new normal, there is no “outside”, no way to fully relate to others but those in my own cave, where I hide from the outside. Death is outside, nearby. 20% of New Yorkers were infected between March and May 2020 and hospitalization for COVID did not deter death. Not only were the hospitals filled beyond capacity but there was also no treatment for the disease. Going to the hospital was not equivalent to being cured. One out of three coronavirus patients entering a public hospital in New York didn’t leave, but were put into plastic bags or huge cardboard boxes and stored in refrigerator trucks parked on the street, waiting for disposal. Medicine wasn´t saving people from death. 

Medicine is a preserving art, it preserves the alive materiality. In the last decades, because of sport medicine, and the power of plastic, the mechanics and the cosmetic have improved immensely but not as much has been done on cell formation and immune system balancing. The increase of cancer and the outbreak of epidemics (first SARS, now COVID) might relate to that. Plastic surgery may make you look younger, but it is of no use when confronted by COVID-19; a wrinkle-free face is not going to fool the virus. 

Being human implies fighting for survival but also accepting death; optimizing the tangible but also envisioning the intangible. What happens in medicine, happens in architecture. Architecture, including modern architecture, postmodern architecture and architecture without an adjective, has focused too often on materiality, skins and surfaces, while bypassing the internal structure, the rational distribution of space and the need for the intangible. 

Modern architecture was a way of Disembodiment. In an attempt to trespass the ultimate human limitation, the finite nature of time, the body is reduced to both its extremes, envisioned as either a mechanical device, perfectly articulated, in which each part has a form and performs a function, or as a stationary object, like a black box with a form unrelated to what happens to it.  Refusing its organic attributes, the body is reduced to a mind that lives in fiction. This disembodiment redefines the notions of form-function-fiction and, in consequence, the concept of the machine. Lying down, supine is the daydreaming position for the mental trip, a limbo. In 1929, Mies van der Rohe designed a chair diluted in a place: the Barcelona’s pavilion. Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand created the chaise longue, a reclining machine midway between bench and bed. Modern Architecture, while claiming that architecture is the machine for living, is characterized by placing the body in a semi-horizontal position; reclining for sick minds and bodies. Freud brought institutional practice (psychiatry) into the home, on the couch (as psychoanalysis). Like the supine patients in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, tuberculosis patients were laid out in the sun at mountainside sanatoriums on a trip with no return. 

Modern architecture was a response to death, because of the war and because of epidemics such as tuberculosis. What will be the architecture produced after COVID? All of us are aware of the need to include, in our dwelling, social space that is now basically absent. Several architects are addressing the layout of the home, including working space, by adding balconies to windows. They are trying to solve a problem: the need for space to work, to socialize or to get fresh air when we all spend more time in the home. What we see is the reduction of a situation to a problem. The productive culture does Procure architecture. Instead of altering the situation tries to patch the problem. In the same way that Modern Architecture tries to cure with the clean (reestablishing things to their original condition), raising health, austerity, lack of decoration, flat surfaces, transparency, up to the point that the only human trace is dirt: matter out of place; In the same way that deconstructive architecture was a reaction to cure, correcting, putting things in order, giving everything its place, by separating things into their elements and rearranging them; In the current manifestation of  “Pro-cure living” and “Pro-cure architecture”, cure  (to remedy, to clear up, to solve a problem) not only terminates the problem but also dilutes it. By diluting it into a bigger substance, by making the problem weaker or less concentrated, the bits are dispersed, spread around (like virus particles).  The problem is solidified into form and the building becomes literally the “solution” – the concrete form of the problem.

To approach “program”, without reducing it to “problem”

A program must be defined by its formula not by its name: “Public intimacy”: park, “private property/public use”: street, “minimum domesticity”: hotel. Or by character: “monument as a paradox”. Concepts such as privacy and intimacy, alienation, vagabondism and nomadism redefine categories: house-less/home-free. Ambiguity remains. If  “living” is not simply a list of functions: sleeping, eating, bathing, a house can not be an addition of spaces, or a multifunctional space that facilitates such functions. If space is diluted (activity is not attached to space, and location doesn’t relate to place but to contact) then to approach the program as a problem is obsolete.

The formulation of a situation as a “problem” and the work of architecture as a “project to solve it” is not just language. Behind “The urgency to reduce” lies a defensive position and behind “to give remedy” or cure, a medical and correctional one. A “series of operations” and “strategic plans” documents, from which to ”produce program and form” is between a military and an industrial process of production. The urgency to conquer a problem limits the situation to the formulated premises and distracts from the real issue. The search for remedy is, by definition, a failure, any solution will be at deficit to the original state. “There is a problem, it needs to be solved” instead of “the situation should be altered” is the attitude of contemporary cultural production.

The packaging of the intangible
One programmatic example of pro-cure architecture is the type of housing defined as the condo. In Condo New York, A Theory of Love, Architecture and forms ownership  I refer to the commodification of home into a package. The condo is a hassle-free home, a hotel room owned and enlarged. If the house were to empower a person, providing both freedom and roots and not just as a convenient image of freedom and roots, then the regulations for constructing and trading real estate would strongly prioritize values such attachment and mobility, over profit. On a practical level, if the house were considered a real vehicle for a dream, it wouldn’t be treated as just another product exchangeable by the laws of the market. The house is in fact a priority product in the economy, for developers, for contractors and for real estate agents.

In the last twenty years, the translation of the intangible to the tangible for commercial reasons has turned into abstract areas and has expanded into new arenas. Traditionally the intangible was translated to basic goods such as drink, foods, luxury houses, watches, cars or clothes. Lately, the intangibles are translated into other intangibles, or hardly possible to materialize: experiencing into traveling, thinking into meditation; well being into body spas. The focus of these new areas (where the translation of the intangible is exploited) was leisure and culture related; their disciplines were art and tourism, their iconic building, the museum and the house and the location: the city.  This new type of home, the condo, sells the house as an amenity of leisure. In fact, the condos started as housing for seniors who no longer work and want to spend extended periods of time away from home but not in hotels. With cities all over the world becoming safer, retirees move to cities where they have the conveniences of shops, medical facilities and restaurants close by and access to entertainment. This population lives in a complex that facilitates the materiality of their living. But in the overall view, the presence of these complexes has diminished the communities where they were erected and have added nothing to the city they inhabit. 

Looking at the role of this new extended city center, this marketing of the intangibles has had a huge role in the ways city centers are now shaped. This turn (of commercial and public exploitation of the abstract) has an impact on city life, especially in the city centers, envisioned as the material manifestation of culture. In this marketing of the abstract for commercial purposes, the city is sold as a package, the frame for these “fake tangibles”.

The city is all about the intangible. The intangibles (being part of something, encounters, movements, action, connections, etc.) were marketed as places to visit and events to attend. They include the conversion of the museum in the main architectural building (cultural production not culture) and city centers into malls, a mere accumulation of things and services sold, resulting in the transformation of the city into an art-resort ready to be preyed upon and exploited by its visitors. In Art Resort I tell the story of the redefinition of what constitutes a city. The city is the battlefield. Cultural tourism and the museum have played a role. In the struggle between non-art/architecture and art/architecture, the museum has been a proponent of non-art. This ‘civil war’ of art has consequences not only for art and artists, but also for the residents of the place where the struggle is taking place and for the general advancement of humanity: the abstract has gone from our lives.

In 2014, a few years after the mortgage crisis, with tourism booming, the scale was so big and the forces so strong that any actions I could do alone or with a  group were meaningless. I withdrew from the outside world. I retired into writing and working in isolation. I felt as if I were a voluntary prisoner. Through a book presentation, I met Terry Williams, a professor and scholar, teaching classes on race in the city at the New School, and we began working together. During the years after my rape in New York in 2001, I found myself in the dillema of pressing charges against a man who matched the stereotype of the rapist: black, young and unemployed and that most likely will the exposed to the disproportion in sentencing due to race. Terry Williams and I spoke about this, and his knowledge and experience helped redefine my dilemma. I was recently the guest editor for his lecture: The Myth of the Black Rapist. Through Terry, I learned that in 2015 there were about seven million people in the criminal justice system, either in jail, prison, parole, or probation, and while the paradigm has changed over the past hundred years, in the form of the leasing program, vagrancy laws, the black codes, prison industrialization, one fact remains: the vast majority of those incarcerated are non-whites. The result of our collaboration was the draft of The Pet Prisoner,  A portrait of present day society which takes the fictional notion that a prisoner can be sent to a house as a pet. 

Today, prisons are a factory type business in operation. The massive incarceration rates, and the increased sentencing time serve the industry well but do nothing for the original purpose of imprisonment, which was to have a healthy society. Keeping those who did harm away from society to avoid further harm while encouraging them not to return to crime, once released, is not related to producing revenue for those corporations owning prisons. Imprisonment in the United States is a business because of corporations like Correction Corporation of America (CCA), which builds prisons and has investors who demand more prisons, who in turn need more crime. Crime becomes the primary reason prisons exist, and more crime breeds more prisons. The crime need not be violent crime, or drug related, or even socially harmful. The acts only have to be deemed crimes by power brokers who then label those who are poor as criminals. Walking in the street, spitting on the sidewalk, washing car windows, sleeping on the street, urinating in public or being homeless is adequate cause to be labeled a criminal. These so-called ‘quality of life” crimes are really ways of criminalizing the poor. The poor, those without wealth, when imprisoned, are also deprived of the immaterial: love, freedom. Only the unconscious remains, in all other ways, they are dispossessed.

If the institution is not working for the individual, the individual must take the role of the institution. Under this principle, I lived with a prisoner who was on parole and wrote a play.  Anne & Que, Pet Prisoner was a theatrical situation staged within the four walls of a 450 square foot traditional Chinatown railroad apartment. The performance involves two characters, Anne and Que, operating in situ amidst a small audience of ten people.

Anne, a do-gooder liberal, feels isolated from the world and deeply lonely. She encounters literature for a program that re-socializes prisoners within people’s private homes. She agrees to participate, adapts her apartment to bring a prisoner home, and receives Que, her “Pet Prisoner”. Que is only interested in money and in making an attempt at a life outside prison, but still, he feels as though he doesn’t fit in anywhere. He’s clueless except in regard to his physicality, and even that self-awareness is pure narcissism. Anne, a free citizen, is a prisoner to the virtual world; Que, a former real-world prisoner, is now more restrained by his own limitations; both are desperate to find some way to live in the present, but are worlds apart.

Anne & Que and The Pet Prisoner (a program that joins penal and civil life) exist to help us realize both the absurdity of the current prison system, as well as of urban living. A play-like performance, this “happening” challenges traditional theater: it takes place in an actual apartment, the stage is gone, there is no seating and no barrier between the audience and the actors. Like prison, Anne & Que is in close quarters. The act of imprisonment is a metaphysical condition: removing freedom. Incarceration is a factual condition: to contain a person at the least possible cost. Imprisonment is an intangible, whereas the incarceration industry is a tangible business. 

In 2019, thanks to the Rome Prize from the Spanish Academy in Rome, I started the research: The post-ideology and the relationship of trust between the individual and the state. If imprisonment is an ethical black spot in the U.S., the way that  refugees, romanies, and other migrants are contained, is a moral lowpoint in the E.U.. Through bureaucratic procedures, the Romanies were displaced from the camps where they had lived for over forty years in houses they had built themselves, to metal boxes. Containers in the cookie cutter camps under the so-called Villages de la Solidaritat program are another example of the exploitation of minorities by the reduction of intangibles to tangibles, their homes to containers. The movie Salone, a container life narrates their story.

I realized that the same scheme that had happened with the city, and housing, the reduction of the intangibles and the exploitation of the tangibles associated with them, have gone beyond culture and leisure activities and extended broadly even beyond the fields of correction, education and food. The main obstacle in the world for happiness, at least for mine, is the solo approach to the tangible side of things. And for that reason, when I think about where we are now, I see that the only way to improve our society is to focus on the prosperity of the intangible with the same vigor we use in the pursuit of the material. 

Climate change heats the planet and unbalances the weather; the industrialization of foods produces stress in animals and creates immune problems which prompt viruses; urban over development destroys the sense of community in cities. Life is treated as something factual,  not existential. But this denial of reality doesn’t change the facts: 210.000 deaths by COVID-19 in the U.S., employment rate rising to 14.7%, and the number of people living below the poverty level in the U.S. is expected to rise to 20% by the end of the year. Even with the current conditions, environmentalism and ecology of the material are not well understood and are not popular with the exception of the younger generations, and still the ecology of the immaterial is unknown and neglected. This year, the unsustainability of the way we have lived is more evident than ever. In the U.S., we saw it in the long and destructive fires in California and Oregon, in the amount of people who cannot pay rent, are homeless or in extreme poverty. And worldwide, in the small rectangular shapes pasted to the faces of all. 

Jana Leo 
October 19th 2020

Edited by Keith McDermott

About Jana Leo:
I see intellectual work as an extension of personal experience. I live therefore I think. In my view, writing/art/architecture should be a form of social advancement and Academy a platform for political activism. Inequality, gentrification, paternalism in another turn of the screw, slice the flesh. I live therefore I am active. Much of my work, the interests and the values I hold important are at times discouraged or diminished by others, and only later,  at the right moment, appreciated and celebrated.  The moment is now. 

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