Tracing Creative Destruction
Matthew Buckingham and David Harvey
Tracing Creative Destruction was a two-part program held June 6, 2012, at the Kitchen, New York. As part of the program, David Harvey and Matthew Buckingham first led a reading group before then engaging each other in a public conversation in which they elaborated on the concept of creative destruction and its historical trajectory from different angles. The following text is excerpted from that conversation.
Matthew Buckingham – I thought that I would talk about a project that revolves around, or tries to grapple with, the somewhat open signifier of “creative destruction.” In 2004–05, I was invited by Washington University of St. Louis to teach in their MFA program, and also to develop a project for an exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum. When I got there, I learned that none of the grad students, except for one, were from St. Louis, so we decided to look at where we were by investigating the city together. We looked at how St. Louis presented itself through different forms and levels of narration. We tried to pay attention and be sensitive to categories like government, self-narration, journalism, business, real estate, community leaders, cultural producers, and also word of mouth and overheard conversations, paying particular attention to the characterization of the urban space in the city and trying to see where we were. Almost immediately, a pattern emerged in what we noticed and recorded.
What kept coming up again and again was the metaphor of the clean slate. Another iteration was the notion of starting over—very specifically, land clearance. We noticed that this was happening in the present moment, but also on many variant historical levels. We constructed a timeline and the most obvious beginning point was the colonial period: the clearing of land and the displacement of Native Americans from the area, which was organized by the French colonists who founded the city. This process was later continued by the Spanish until 1800 when the area reverted to France. It was then quickly sold by Napoleon to the newly formed United States under the government of Thomas Jefferson. In the next phase, there was the gradual destruction of the Mississippian culture and the burial and ceremonial earth mounds that dominated the landscape—which had lent St. Louis the nickname of Mound City. It was dotted with these structures that dated back thousands of years.
The list goes on through the chronology. Significant fires and tornadoes periodically erased the built environment. Eventually the entire riverfront city was razed to make way for the Gateway Arch—which is one of the ways that St. Louis is known as an image. Other visual markers are the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the famous examples of Pruitt-Igoe and other social housing projects that were raised at Gaslight Square. When I got to St. Louis in 2004, the big debate was over how to rebuild the city centre. This was something that everyone was talking about: it was visible in advertising, the various real estate offerings, and the so-called appeal of loft living, the idea of “bringing people back” to the city centre. The week that I arrived, Riverfront Times did a feature on the new city planner at the time, Ron Stanley.
I also became very curious about my own personal surroundings where the university had put me up. I was housed at 710 North 20 Street in the city centre. From there, you could see the Gateway Arch in the distance, the rail station to the left of it, and the regional FBI headquarters to its right. Noticing that there was a gap in the urban space of the vicinity, I turned to a map. This area was more or less surrounded by an intact grid but had a highway coming into it. I found on one map a label for what was missing: an area that was called Mill Creek Valley, a 465-acre African American neighbourhood of about 6,400 households—around 20,000 people. In the late 1950s, it was declared “blighted,” a quasi-legal legislative term at that time that allowed for a combination of public city money and federal money to be used to clear the land by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which was the St. Louis agency under eminent domain. After that process, about 2,000 of the 6,400 homes were rebuilt. Of course, not much later, those were also torn down. The whole project started in 1959. By December 1969, the remaining land had been sold to private interests. The whole area was basically sold off.1
Part of the background to this situation has to do with what we now see in hindsight as a very typical pattern of depopulation of the city centre and population increase in the suburb. In St. Louis, it’s extremely pronounced. If you look at the numbers from 1950, the city population proper was nearly one million and the county population was around 400,000. In 2010, the census tells us that there are 300,000 people living in St. Louis City and one million living in the county. There was a great deal of media coverage regarding the whole process. Demolition of the Mill Creek Valley neighbourhood took place in the mid 1950s in order to make room for the Daniel Boone Expressway, which, of course, was a conduit to the suburbs. One of the things physically noticeable at Washington University was that we were on the other side of a line—we were not in anything that felt like a suburb but we were on the other side of the city line, and the tax line, where even subtle traces, such as changes in the quality of the pavement, are noticeable.
I came across a number of local publications that dealt with the Mill Creek Valley story, and met people who had been involved firsthand. I also found an article that was published on June 25, 1964, in which Charles Farris, the Robert Moses of St. Louis, admitted to errors that had been made in the processes of clearing the land and relocating and finding adequate housing for the people who had been forcibly removed. I thought that that was an interesting moment to isolate and focus on. I decided to limit myself to looking at as many of the news events that had been reported on that same day as I could. I assembled a “traffic report,” selecting stories from national to local scale that resonated with the Mill Creek Valley story in some way. I wrote them into a news bulletin that you might hear on the radio, on the hour—a fictional construction made from non-fiction material. Then I contacted several antique car clubs in the area. I decided to photograph a certain stretch of one of the few streets that is still in the same place as when it had been a residential and walking neighbourhood—Pine Street. I photographed one minute of driving on a section of Pine Street using a high speed analogue camera with slide film—it happened to be Kodachrome, toward the end of its production—and then projected that one minute of driving in the exhibition space at walking speed so that it became a ten-minute duration, stretching the image and time space. These were all automobiles that were being built as Mill Creek Valley was being torn down. I created a fictional traffic pattern on that stretch of road. The focus of the photography goes from inside the car to outside the car. It was an attempt to create an imaginary space from the past within which to listen to an imaginary but non-fiction news report. In the project, the report comes over audio speakers and was recorded by the artist Sharon Hayes. I’ll read the intro from that news report and then I’ll describe it. First you hear a station identification jingle, and then you hear a Teletype machine, which was often used at the time to indicate that the news was coming up. And then a voice: And now the news. In the swamps of Mississippi, the search for three missing civil rights workers intensifies as new sweeping civil rights legislation clears its last hurdle in Washington. A halt to construction on the Gateway Arch is announced for August. Land clearance boss Charles Farris admits he made errors. Archaeologists are set to begin excavations at Cahokia mounds. And St. Louis gas wars continue despite the effort of the Gas Dealers Association. These stories plus traffic and weather coming up. The time is one minute after the hour.
In the ten-minute piece, each of those stories is elaborated in detail. The project was installed in the exhibition space with a set of double slide projector projections that dissolve on top of a floating projection screen. When the piece was up, this was on the news: the conviction of the murderer of those three civil rights workers who were missing in 1964.
To jump back to the so-called pre-history of the area, the Cahokia mounds represent one of the largest city constructions in indigenous America. The largest part of the site is across the Mississippi in Illinois, seven minutes from downtown St. Louis. And, of course, there is this other, more deliberately symbolic, and deeply problematic, example of urban renewal in St. Louis—the Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. This minimalist abstraction, which is also a literal gateway and a reified settler gateway to genocide and stolen land, stands on top of a subterranean museum to Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. The Arch itself provides one a cartographer’s view of the city, while at the same time is visible from the boundaries of the city.
I’m interested in bringing social and political issues into conceptual art practice and often work with two related concepts of history or historical memory. One is what I would call a critical history, or a critical understanding of present day effects of the past, or we could say the historical present. The other, more speculative model I would describe as a speculative history that also engages a critical understanding, but more so of repressed histories, things that could bear on the future or even require new imaginaries from us, new ways of thinking about the future based on what we don’t know of the past. This is the “hidden from history” model. I think that neoliberalism seeks to limit that imagination. It’s constantly redirecting our imagination toward commercial forms of reproduction and consumption, often embedding creativity within consumerism. Reform and change are arrested when they are constructed as unrealistic or denigrated as revolutionary, and are often placed nostalgically somewhere, and often very vaguely, in the past. Any oppositional strategy of cultural production has to be formulated against this framework. The stakes are the conditions under which the social is forged. At the moment, possessive individualism, to borrow a term from David Harvey, is the dominant mode. It’s a template for socialization and subject formation. But, as I see it, one of the tasks of doing history can be to unfreeze these supposedly irrelevant questions that have been relegated to the past and bring a wider range of people to see that history is not over for everyone. Running through uneven development, there are also uneven conceptions of history. So, in opposition to creative destruction, or alongside it, or as a way of interpreting creative destruction as a term, I would say that we try a version of what Bayard Rustin called “making creative trouble,” through, among other things, “social dislocation.”
David Harvey – I recall being at a conference at the end of the 1970s with a lot of real estate experts and bankers. I was in my provocative phase, so I decided to use the notion of “creative destruction” to go after them. I started to talk about creative destruction and real estate markets through everything from blockbusting to the sorts of practices that we’ve just been seeing in housing markets in this country. But predatory practices in real estate markets have actually been going on for a very, very long time. What was interesting was that even though I thought I had done a very good job, one of my colleagues who was sitting in the back row came to me afterwards and said, “You know, there were three guys in front of me who were saying ‘Yes, we’re the “creative destroyers!” We love it! What a great idea!’” This is a double-edged sword. There was quite a fierce argument afterwards with some of them and I decided that if they wanted to be creative destroyers, I’d like to be a creative destroyer, too, and take away their business.
The point is that I learned you shouldn’t, by definition, suggest that all creative destruction is bad—you should think about some positive ways in which it could be launched. In fact, what is a revolutionary movement if it’s not a movement of creative destruction? You have to destroy certain forms of power; you have to destroy certain privileges and wealth structures in order to be able to create a different world. I think one of the things we’re not really good at right now is defining what that other world might look like. We’re often so antagonistic to the destruction that is going on around us, and most of our politics is guided by resistance to that destruction. I think it is perfectly understandable and reasonable in certain circumstances, but if you are only talking about resistance to their creative destruction, you aren’t thinking about what your creative destruction is going to be about, and in particular what it is that you want to create and what it is that you need to destroy. If you want to create socialism, do you need to destroy markets? Do you need to destroy money? All of those kinds of questions have to be put out there. I’d like to emphasize something about the creative side of this and to suggest that if you’ve decided on what it is you want to create and what it is you need to destroy, to do that. Then, how do you get the political power and the political movement to do it? Particularly when there is usually one group of creative destroyers out there, who are extremely rich and basically own the state and the media, and are pretty much involved in all aspects of political and juridical life.
Having said that, I want to pay attention to the connection between creative destruction and the history of capitalism and capital accumulation, and, in particular, to look at it in its urban context. In this country, over the last thirty, forty years, we have been through a phenomenal phase of creative destruction. A lot of the time it has involved destruction in one set of neighbourhoods and creation in another set of neighbourhoods. For example, between 1984 and 1986, something like 60,000 steel jobs were lost in the city of Sheffield alone. That is destruction. You can look at images of Detroit and the pictures where things are torn down, and, yes, that’s bothersome. But I would like to suggest that some of the fiercest forms of destruction are really in terms of people’s livelihoods—their possibility to have a decent life, their social relationships, their assets, their security. Neoliberalization has been about the destruction of much of that, through what has been a massive wave of de-industrialization.
The city of Baltimore—where I lived for many years and which is very similar to St. Louis in many ways—went through a really traumatic transformation. When I went there in 1969, there were something like 37,000 people employed in the steel industry. If you wanted to do something politically in the place, from my left perspective, one of the first places you went was to the steelworkers and figured out if they’d help you or not. If you had the steelworkers on your side, you really could get something done. Politically they were a very powerful force and they were also very active in many arenas. By 1990, the number of people employed in Bethlehem Steel was down to about 5,000—they were still producing the same amount of steel. There had been a radical transformation of technologies. Very often, waves of creative destruction are connected to waves of technological innovation. That’s to be expected. If you suddenly move from a world in which the main means of transportation is the railroads to building highways, you can expect all kinds of things to change, for parts of the landscape to be abandoned, and another part to be built, and so on. This wave of de-industrialization was in itself a massive transformation of American life.
Look at a community like East Baltimore: in 1970, there were a number of people living in this area who were African American, who had jobs in the steel mills or in General Motors, or in Western Electric, drawing down union salaries. While there was a lot of impoverishment in that part of Baltimore, there were also certain blocks of housing that were beautifully kept. You could actually treat those blocks of housing as seeds from which you could hope to grow a different kind of urbanization project that would encompass everybody. But by the time they’d lost their jobs, not only did they have to leave the neighbourhood, but you would hear stories of family breakups, of people taking to alcohol, drugs, and all those kinds of things. And, if you’re moving from Baltimore as a blue-collar city, what is there left? Eventually it became a white-collar city. As it was transformed, many of that population who had formerly held union jobs had their families disintegrated. So you suddenly find yourself creating the territory of the television show The Wire. If you look at The Wire, you see what creative destruction has done to Baltimore. There was a resistance. The second season of it, which deals with the de-industrialization of the port, is very telling. In the show, the characters look at all the mills on the other side, including the Bethlehem Steel plant and say, “Well, at one time we produced steel here, now we don’t.” The big question is where that de-industrialization came from. Why couldn’t it be stopped? If you ask the question, what you got as an answer was, “Well, it’s globalization. You can’t do anything about it.” If you went to the mayor’s office and said, “Hey, stop all this stuff that’s going on! We want to keep the industry here,” the answer would be, “We can’t do it—it’s globalization.”
But what was globalization about? Where did it come from? Capitalism has been globalizing since about 1600—globalization is nothing new. In fact, for those of you who read the Communist Manifesto in the reading group this afternoon, there is a beautiful passage in there about creating the world market, the destruction of all local industries, and the displacement of all materials that is a very good general description of what globalization has been about. But what is significant here is asking a macro question as to what it was that suddenly shifted the world around in places like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Sheffield, and Essen in Germany. Suddenly, the great steel producing cities were not producing steel anymore. Why? Now if you go and you talk to the workers who hung out in those plants, they will say, “We’re good steelmakers. We know how to make steel. We make a good product.” In fact, for the Bethlehem Steel workers in Bethlehem—not the ones in Baltimore—one of the reasons they think the World Trade Center fell down is because the builders used Japanese steel instead of Bethlehem steel. They’re convinced that if Bethlehem steel had been used, it wouldn’t have fallen down like that. They may be right, they may be wrong, I don’t know. But they’re convinced. But why, when building the World Trade Center, was Japanese steel used? Why didn’t the builders use steel from the Bethlehem works?
At this point you get to a political story as well as an economic story. You can say that global competition was changing, and changing for a variety of reasons. One of them was that the costs were diminishing very rapidly in the sphere of transportation. There is a wonderful film by Allan Sekula on container ships called The Forgotten Space. Containerization, which came in the 1960s, suddenly made the shipment of steel and steel parts very easy to manage. You just stuff the steel into a container, the containers are lifted onto the boat, and then you lift it off and onto a truck. You no longer needed all of the longshoremen. You’ve destroyed a bunch of jobs through containerization, and the process becomes much more efficient. That also made it possible for automobiles to be made in various parts of the world. It’s made it possible for us to drink beer made in China and water from Fiji and all kinds of ridiculously silly things—as if our own water is not good enough. The revolution in transport costs is really changing what competition is about, and spatial geographical competition becomes much fiercer.
During the 1950s and 1960s the automobile industry in this country was essentially a monopolistic structure: three large firms, no serious competition. They could play games at price leadership, and they could cut union deals. Union salaries would go up and then they would raise the price of the automobiles. There wasn’t much competition to stop them. They had a gentle collusion and they would watch each other’s prices. If General Motors raised its prices, Ford raised its prices. You had a monopolistic structure and within that structure, labour started to become rather powerful. At the end of the 1960s, the union movement was very strong. I mentioned the steelworkers, but it wasn’t only that; it also included the autoworkers and others. They were pretty radical. They were pushing really hard about job security, wage levels, benefits, and so on. They were pushing so hard that they were beginning to cut into profits. At that point there was a social movement amongst the capitalist class. It was during the 1970s that they started to set up all these think tanks (Manhattan Institute, Heritage Foundation) to start to create a different philosophy, a different understanding of the world. I think they had been reading Mao or something. Because they couldn’t invite the universities directly, their project was to surround the universities with all these think tanks. Then, bit by bit, the think tanks would chip away at the knowledge structures that were being preserved and constructed inside of the universities, which were, at that time, far more likely to be liberal institutions. Also, there was a real push to say how are we actually going to keep the profit rate up? How are we going to organize?
These organizations at the business roundtable, which included corporations who produced about two-thirds of the US gross domestic product, the chamber of commerce, and others, were getting together and deciding things. They decided, in a way, on a political campaign. People say to me, “Whoa, you make this sound like a conspiracy!” I say, “No, it was a political project.” Any group in society can have a political project, and their political project was to disarm labour. One of the ways they could disarm labour was by globalizing. Offshore, there are all of those workers out there, but in order to capitalize on them, the transport costs had to be low. Not only this but if you start globalizing you’re going to take commodities from here to there, and cross borders: you need a financial structure that is going to facilitate that. You have to start thinking about currency problems. If you’re getting your auto parts from Brazil, you don’t want to have a situation where suddenly the exchange rate changes and everything goes wrong. So you have to start hedging exchange rates. It was a class project, to go after labour, to go after it politically but also to go after it through all of these techniques. One of the ways was to capture the Republican Party—the Democratic Party at that time was still broadly based in labour. Get Ronald Reagan elected, get his anti-unionism on the books, so that he could go after the air traffic controllers and start to diminish union power. There was a political project to diminish union powers, an economic project to globalize, and a technological project, one which was labour saving, which is what I was talking about in Bethlehem Steel. And, those three projects actually brought you to a point where there are no more steelworkers in Baltimore. There were about 2,000 left and in May 2012 Sparrows Point plant, the last remaining vestige of Bethlehem Steel, finally closed down, maybe for good.2 You never know, it might open up again, but it looks like it’s gone for good.
When you’re looking at creative destruction, you always have to look for the questions: Where is the political power to do this? Who is wielding the political power to do this? And, why are they destroying those things and not preserving other things? And, why are they creating other things when they could be creating something else?
If you ask yourself what corporate capitalism has destroyed and what it has created over the last thirty or forty years, you would come up with a balance sheet of what has happened to our society. It’s not just about destroying physical plants and capacity, it’s about destroying social relations and destroying institutions. Both Reagan and Thatcher set out to destroy the power of the union movement. Margaret Thatcher actually articulated a philosophy in which she said, “There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women and their families,” which is to cultivate a notion of individualism. Along with that notion of individualism there came a notion of personal responsibility. We were told again and again, “It is your personal responsibility.” As that happened, you had a wave of privatization. You have to pay for education, you have to pay for healthcare, and it is your personal responsibility to have enough money to pay for it all. If you don’t, and you die, that’s your personal responsibility. I don’t know if you remember the 2012 Republican debates when somebody said, “Well, what happens to somebody who hasn’t taken out insurance?” and everybody cheered, “Yeah, let him die.” That is a pretty unthinkable idea to most reasonable people but this is the kind of society we’ve created. And that is what creative destruction has been about in the United States. We’re seeing this playing out right now in the politics in this country.
We’ve destroyed a lot of the political institutions. For example, in Baltimore, I have mentioned that if you wanted to do something politically you would go to the steelworkers or the autoworkers. The only institutions that were able to defend the living standards of the impoverished in the 1990s were the inner city churches. There was an interfaith alliance of inner city churches, which was about the only organization that was going to actually militate on behalf of impoverished populations. There was almost nothing else at all. By then, the crack epidemic had come through and you’re really in the territory of The Wire. At that point you say, “What kind of possibility is there to turn this all around?” Things have been destroyed. The education system, which was still halfway decent for half of the city in the 1960s, was destroyed during the 1970s. When I say that sometimes teachers I know in the system get mad at me and say, “Well, we’re still struggling!” Yeah, but what are you struggling about? Half the schools in Baltimore don’t have enough electric outlets to be able to plug in a computer. How do you educate people in today’s world if you don’t have enough electric outlets in a classroom? There’s no money for it. We have been through a phase of orchestrated, organized creative destruction, which is continuing right up to this present day.
The biggest private employer in Baltimore is Johns Hopkins University, where I used to work. They decided to have an urban health initiative because they had a lot of impoverished people right next to the hospital and they were losing money with the Medicaid payments. They decided they actually wanted to change the community—they were basically trying to gentrify it, or use eminent domain to wipe it out, and then put in a cancer research institute. They’re creating something that could be said to have some public good. Who could be against a cancer research institute? Some public good! But, what do you destroy? You’re destroying people’s livelihoods and the spaces in which they have lived most of their lives. We see the same thing going on in New York with New York University, Columbia, and all of these institutions doing the same thing, using eminent domain to take over chunks of the city, expel people, accumulate assets at low cost, and then build something alternative.
I think that notion of creative destruction is terribly important but it has to be set against the background of these very general political processes as to why this is happening and how it is happening. And then ask the question, “Why is there not more resistance?” One of the interesting things is that the project of creative destruction has been so successful, and we have so absorbed this whole idea of personal responsibility, that the idea of a mass movement of collective response has almost disappeared off the political horizon. This was not true in the 1930s, it was not true in the 1960s. Now it is. We have to rebuild and we have to do our own creative work at the same time as we also have to have a target of what it is—what instruments, what institutions of power—we really need to destroy to be able to create a much better world.
Buckingham – I’d like to continue the conversation by picking up something that we briefly talked about in the reading group this afternoon. Some of you who are familiar with David’s writing may have noticed in a number of recent texts that there is a discussion of a set of relations, which could perhaps be used to critique or make demands.
David suggests that this set of relations could consist of our relationship to nature, technology, the reproduction of life, the processes of production (which we were considering just now), social relations, and mental conceptions. David has also added the question of institutions—what kind of institutions and what is our relationship to them? I take them to be a wide range of institutions, legal and otherwise. I think that set of relations implies a certain level of attention and awareness on the dynamic process in our own evaluations of the institutions on many scales simultaneously, local to global.
Harvey – The institutions I’m most familiar with are the universities. Universities in the United States, Britain, most of Europe, and even throughout Asia have gone very neoliberal. The whole ethic and ethos is entrepreneurial—to the degree that there’s an educational structure that is technocratic corporate managerialism. The natural conceptions of the world that are largely conveyed through higher education these days are certainly not the sort that I learned back in the 1960s. I’m not being nostalgic for the ’60s, because there were a lot of things wrong with it. The point that I make is that you can’t talk about an institution like the university without recognizing the tremendous pressures there are upon it. There are many public universities in this country which receive almost no public funds. For the University of Michigan, I think about 12 percent of its budget comes from the state. Berkeley receives about 6 percent of its budget from the state. There was a time when all this was funded by public money. Where do they get their monies from now? They have to raise it, in part through tuition, so you now have indebted students—there is a trillion dollars of student debt out there. But you also have a bowing down and a kowtowing to big corporate donors. And, what do big corporate donors do? There are at least five big universities that I can name where big corporate donors have come in and said, “We’ll endow two professorships of economics and give you five or ten graduate student fellowships, and a bundle of things to go with them, provided you teach Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.3 You can’t teach anything else.” Now if I came in and tried to do that and said, “...provided you teach Marx,” imagine the howls that would go up. What’s terrifying is that universities have accepted, and have said yes. Even universities that are extremely well endowed. Princeton has accepted one such thing. I think it’s appalling. Since when was it possible for corporate capital to buy a big chunk of university education? It’s been going on, step by step, over time.
One of the reasons I left Johns Hopkins was that I couldn’t get any money for graduate students. The school basically said to me, “If you want to get money, you have to go out and raise the money to get them, to bring them here.” I said, “How am I going to do that?” “Well, you know, you’ve got to go out and get money.” I said, “Maybe I’ll set up a big grant to study Marxian theory funded by General Motors.” And, you know what the dean said to me? He said, “I think that’s a great idea. If you really want to do that, I’ll try and help you.” Seriously. My point here is that this has been the predominant movement, and year by year it gets worse and worse. Fortunately, at CUNY (the City University of New York) we have a decent administration at the Graduate Center that doesn’t kowtow to that, yet. But the pressures are on. So when you’re talking about mental conceptions of the world, you’re not talking about or dreaming of something in a library and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to teach this, or a good idea to teach that.” What you’re talking about is actually an educational system that is being driven by certain financial forces and powers that are then trying to push it in certain kinds of directions. There’s resistance, of course, and there’s criticism. But if there’s no financial power to do other things, then what are you going to do? It’s not only higher education, of course—it’s going on in the schools and elsewhere. So, when I talk about those spheres, I’m talking about the institution, like a university, and then the kind of mental conceptions of the world. I’m also talking about the social relations that come out of that. Increasingly, within these universities, a lot of the teaching is done by adjuncts who are paid almost nothing. They’re a precariat—as we call it—and living hand to mouth. There’s a structure of social relations that goes along with it. This is why I like to think about what is happening in those seven arenas. Even in my own institution I see they’re fitting together in a different way. Over time the configuration has shifted and changed. It is evolving. It is not static and it is not stationary. And as it evolves, of course, it’s becoming more and more unpleasant as a place to be.
Buckingham – In your most recent book, Rebel Cities (2012), you reflect upon Occupy in the last chapter—I’m curious about any ways that you might consider those sets of relations in terms of what has happened so far with Occupy in the fall and the period leading up to May Day and now the early summer.
Harvey – I wasn’t here all of last year—I was away on sabbatical, living on the land and pretty isolated in Argentina. So I really wasn’t following what was going on with Occupy very closely, and was just getting reports from afar. I’m sympathetic with a lot of the things I heard about the movement and I think they did a fantastic job of changing the conversation by actually making people think about social inequality as an issue. That was brilliantly done. But at this point, I don’t see it as having the same kind of heft as, for example, what I saw in the Chilean student movement, which is really quite phenomenal. They have a much broader project, which is to roll back the whole Augusto Pinochet history. They’re not necessarily anti-capitalist but they’re certainly deeply antagonistic to the whole thing I was talking about. In this country, we should be getting rid of Reaganism. In Britain, they should be getting rid of Thatcherism. In Chile, they understand they’ve got to get rid of Pinochetism. That is what they’re about, and they’re getting a lot of public support. As I see it right now, the movement in this country hasn’t got to that point. Maybe people are talking and doing things that I don’t know about. But one of the reasons for trying to talk about some of these things is to lay out what we might want to think about, and how to represent these needs in various kinds of ways.
But let me ask you a question: As you develop your work, you’re seeing creative destruction and you are working with images. Are there ways to somehow go beyond the images? Is there some trick you can use so that suddenly people will go, “Wow!” Is that your ambition?
Buckingham – I would say that it is in a sense. I look at the project that I presented this evening as a descriptive—it parallels the narrative that you gave us just now. A lot of artists offer parallel descriptions or comparison or a checking in with experience. One of the things that has come into sharper focus in the last few years is creating a potentially different experience in exhibitions or in visual art—through a different way of using images. As such, images are becoming more prevalent and, in some cases, they are replacing language. Artists, who are sensitive to reflecting on how they direct attention in a different way than a viewer may perhaps be used to, recognize that you are in a particular time and place, thinking about particular issues and questions.
But going beyond that to the “wow” part—I think that the biggest puzzle is not only to describe a situation but to consciously get into questioning the mindsets that are being operated through the work and what the work refers to. I still think that that comes back to a unique relationship to experience that is possible in visual art. Hopefully it’s not too ambitious. In looking at another phrase that comes up in your work—the time/space collapse or compression—if different temporal modes can be experienced and embodied literally by a viewer, that could also be a way of questioning the so-called time/space compression. Maybe that is too ambitious but I think that’s at least an objective of some artists. And, I would identify with it in that sense.
- For more information, see James Neal Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764–1980 (St. Louis: Missouri History Museum Press, 1998), 467–68.
- Bethlehem Steel Corp. declared bankruptcy in 2001 and was sold to International Steel Group, which later merged with Mittal Steel.
- Friedrich August Hayek (1899–1992, Austrian [later British] economist and philosopher) and Milton Friedman (1912–2006, American economist) both defended the classical liberalism of an open market as opposed to a centrally planned market.
About the Authors
Matthew Buckingham is a New York–based artist whose work questions the role social memory plays in contemporary life. His projects create physical and social contexts that encourage viewers to question what is most familiar to them. Some of his works have investigated the Indigenous past and present in the Hudson River Valley and the “creative destruction” of the city of St. Louis. His work has been in solo and group exhibitions at ARC/Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Hamburger Bahnhof National Gallery, Berlin; Kunst-Werke, Berlin; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitechapel, London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
David Harvey is a professor of geography pursuing Marxist methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism. He received his PhD from St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961. For many years, he was associated with the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Harvey is the author of many books and essays on the geographical, urban, and structural implications of capitalism. Since 2001, he has been based in New York, where he teaches Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York as Distinguished Professor.