Some Ramblings on Community

I’m at a point in my thesis research development in which there are so many ideas bouncing around in my head that I’m having trouble narrowing down to a specific direction for primary research. In terms of secondary research, the sources I have range from visual intelligence, resource sharing systems, sustainable cities, community building and place marketing.

My idea is that through love for banal everyday occurrences, objects and situations, we slow down enough to appreciate our city and experience our place in a new way. Through this new perspective we will build stronger communities by creating valuable programs and services. Why build community? As an antidote to the isolation of globalization, to reduce consumption and share information.

‘Walk’, project by Constantin Demner of Studio Elastik
An intervention in public space in East London, UK, using the language of street art to bring local history to life in the imagination of passers-by.

This project captured my imagination because of my interest in street art as a portal to the essence of a city, and representation of the more subversive side of it’s population. Street artists, however, are not community-builders – they are vandals at worst, and political activists at best. Projects like Walk balance between those two sides and unite them to deliver a strong message about how we view our surroundings, and offer a suggestion on how to explore different ways of seeing. Demner’s focus on local history is a great example of creating a connection to the community, something that residents would find valuable. I think there could be a lot more information in the signage for this project in order to get the most value out of it, but it definitely makes a statement on seeing the city in a new way. I especially like the part when the music stops and we take a look at the historic building across the street for a few seconds – that is a beautiful observational moment.

This concept does not address the ‘how’ of building community however. There must be programs and services put into place to add value to our neighborhoods. Things have changed so much since my parents generation. They grew up in 1950’s-60’s Bronx neighborhoods, which I picture as the idyllic example of community. You knew your everything about your neighbors, and when you had to run out to the store you asked them to keep an eye on your kids playing stick-ball in the street. My great-grandmother was a real estate maven – she owned 6 or 7 buildings and rented out the apartments, while my great-grandfather had a beautiful garden in the backyard of their house, with overflowing tomato plants and even chickens!

I grew up in Connecticut on an isolated street that was nothing close to being a neighborhood. If we needed something, we got in the car and drove to the store – we rarely spoke to the neighbors much less ask them for a cup of sugar. I used to envy the kids that could run across their yard and get their friend from next-door for a playdate, since my mom had to call and make arrangements well in advance.

Society is moving closer and closer to internet dependence, and there are many opinions on the effect of this on our social interactions. Does it make us more or less isolated to be plugged in to ‘social software’ like Facebook, Ning, and Foursquare 24 hours a day? I don’t know the answer to this, I can only give my opinion which is that there is NO WAY a computer screen will ever replace being with a person in real time. Then again it’s possible that an online community can strengthen connections between people because they know each other well enough to say hello. John Thackara writes at length about this – most recently on Change Observer.

The transition toward sustainability is not about messages; it’s about activity. It’s not about proclamations; it’s about practices. Many professional designers are in the representation business, so their default response in recent times has been to design a poster about sustainability. Or maybe a website filled with green things to buy.

But projecting more signals into an already cluttered environment is like throwing confetti into a snowstorm. Advertising folk respond to what they call “the clutter problem” by adding to it. Social media? They’re part of the clutter conundrum too. Online communications are a mode of publication, not of conversation. The number of bloggers is growing at 35 percent annually; the number of people using the internet is growing at 10 percent. Do the math!

Emitting messages, however clever and evocative they may be, is not the same as being with real people, in real places, who are changing their lived material reality. That’s why I have a radical proposal: Consider speaking your words in a place rather than pressing “send.” Ivan Illich believed that our culture started to go off the rails in 1120, when monks stopped reading texts aloud to each other and became solitary scholars.

Are social media playing a similar role today? For Illich, there was a huge difference between a colloquial tongue — what people say to each other in a context, with meaning — and a language uttered by people into microphones. Or typed onto a Facebook page.

When someone we trust tells us to our face that a thing is important, we pay attention. Conversation is usually a more powerful medium for provoking change in behavior than pre-packaged messages projected at us by media. Conversation matters more than content. Out there in the bioregions, and especially among folk like the Transition Towns groups, face-to-face is key.

There’s continuity here between today’s social radicals and the avant-garde of art in earlier times. For years, artists fought to bridge the schism in Western culture that separates the creator from the spectator. The Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Lettrists and Fluxus artists all fought in different ways against the idea that art was about the creation of beautiful, static forms.

As Guy Debord put it: “Representation separates life from experience.” The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that perception is a process in which an active body enters into a “communion” with its surroundings. I empathize especially with the Lettrists, who invented a technique called hypergraphics, or super-writing. Their technique merged poetry as text with more graphic ways of communicating such as painting, illustration or signs. Rather as traveling storytellers have been doing in Rajasthan for 2,000 years.

I apologize for practically transcribing the entire article by John Thackara, but it is just so pertinent to the point I’m trying to make. I’m reading ‘Society of the Spectacle’ by Guy Debord, a provocative 1960’s book on cultural theory. He describes the spectacle, ‘In all its specific manifestations – news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment – the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life.‘ He argues that we want what we are told to want by the governing bodies of this ‘spectacle’, which in modern times means the advertising industry and any other governing body in control of our cultural experiences (film, art, music, etc.). He also laments society having downgraded from ‘being into having’ – this successfully describes the cause of alienation in a globalized world. The one way communication of mass-media adds to our consumerist society and potential feelings of isolation and apathy.

So let’s talk about some solutions! My teacher showed me this great link to an Italian craft fair, Unconventionall Holiday Market, where they are bringing artists and designers together from around the world to create better souvenirs for the town. The creative agency Unconventionall accepted submissions from artists for a minimum of one week stay in the town and they expect over 150 artists over the course of the summer. This is a really unique way to create value in the community, and stop the manufacture of cheap knock-off not-made-here souvenirs.

I’ve also done some research into ‘Use Communities’ and I can’t believe how many there are out there! It’s a great way to limit environmental preaching (which no one really listens to) and actually do something to reduce consumption. It is related to the idea of reuse of materials, which I’ve posted about numerous times. It is the idea of providing services without requiring ownership, from car-sharing to dress rentals. There are many online resources that provide the link between individuals in a community, rather than consumers renting services from businesses. Here are a few: Neighborgoods, Rentoid, I Let You, Building Bulletins, Gogo Verde, Bright Neighbor and Barterquest. Even more sites offering product sharing include Swaptree, Techtain, Loanables, Sharer!, FreeCycle, RentAThing and Return My Pants. Shared office space sites are WorkSpace, The Hub and Aula. Thank you WorldChanging for this great list!

Borrowing from friends and strangers can help build community, and using an online network to do so can eliminate the awkwardness of knocking on someone’s door. Need I also mention that this saves money and the need for storage space? This requires a critical rethinking on what the American Dream really does to the Earth, and to really consider the side effects of our lifestyles. If we visualize the negative backstory (and future) of the products we are using, it will change our behavior, and could change our relationship with objects from one of ownership to one of use.

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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