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The pitfalls and potential of urban creativity

Creativity

‘Who wouldn’t want to live in a creative place?’ asks Dr Paul Merchant, a lecturer in Latin American film and visual culture at the University of Bristol.

Creativity has become a selling point for cities worldwide, a perceived characteristic that will ensure their inclusion on lists of the top ten, 20 or 50 tourist hot spots. Indeed, I write this as a resident of what is apparently the UK’s ‘most artistic city’.

But what do we mean when we describe a city as creative? Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality in Latin America, a collection of essays by scholars working in fields including architecture, history and cinema, asks that question of cities marked by severe social divisions and inequalities.

Can exhibitions of art from Brazil’s favelas change social attitudes about their inhabitants, or do they end up reproducing stereotypes? Can new forms of urban planning in Buenos Aires, lead to better social inclusion? What can 1950s photographs of Mexico City’s transport systems tell us about the roots of contemporary inequality?

There is no single answer to any of these questions. In fact, some contributors to Creative Spaces end up questioning the value of ‘creativity’ and ‘marginality’, the book’s two key themes.

Those on the social and/or spatial fringes of cities might well have to live more creatively (or imaginatively, or resourcefully) just in order to make ends meet. However, there is a gap between that and the collective production of new ways of living that might effect real social change. What’s more, both national governments and the organs of global capitalism have shown a remarkable ability to turn celebration of such practices into a means of making profit (think of Nike’s controversial LDNR advert, or the rise of the ‘gig economy’) or avoiding systematic measures against inequality. On this latter point, more than one of the book’s authors explore the phenomenon of self-built architecture in marginalised urban areas, studied by John F C Turner in Lima in the 1960s, and more recently apparent in the ‘incremental housing’ work of the Pritzker Prize-winning Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena.

Do such projects (like Aravena’s Quinta Monroy in Chile) empower residents of the city’s edges, or do they let governments shirk the responsibility of providing decent housing to their citizens? Which is to ask, do they follow a similar logic to Hernando de Soto’s celebration of creativity in the informal economy? And if so, is this simply a sign of the victory of neoliberal entrepreneurialism, even in the sphere of the home?

The need for consideration of such questions is by no means limited to the Global South. On 14 May 2019, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Sir Angus Deaton warned that the UK was becoming one of the most unequal nations on earth. In other words, becoming more like many parts of Latin America (and, of course, the US).

London is already witnessing the emergence of gated communities, and is in danger of becoming what Teresa Caldeira terms a ‘city of walls’. Addressing this and other problems will undoubtedly require creative thinking about how we live together in our cities, and Latin America offers powerful examples of the attendant risks and possibilities.

To romanticise the urban margins as a hive of creativity, is to risk pigeonholing them as ‘other’, and assigning them a position within neoliberal capitalism in which they are expected to produce themselves for the benefit of others. The creative practices that avoid these risks, the contributors to Creative Spaces suggest, are those which unsettle their audiences, those which make us suddenly unsure of our own position at the centre (and not the margins) of experience.

This was the genius of Banksy’s ‘Love is in the Bin’, the self-shredding version of his ‘Girl with Balloon’ murals that undermined Sotheby’s self-positioning as the centre of the artistic economy. Or sought to undermine, at least: the auction house lost no time in suggesting that the value of the work might in fact have increased. Here, nonetheless, is a more hopeful philosophy for the cities of the future: creativity that strives to elude capture.

Dr Paul Merchant is a lecturer in Latin American film and visual culture at the University of Bristol. He recently published a chapter in Creative Spaces: Urban Culture and Marginality in Latin America titled, ‘Cynicism and the denial of marginality in contemporary Chile: Mitómana (José Luis Sepúlveda and Carolina Adriazola, 2009)’ (SAS Publications, 2019). It is available open access or paperback.

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