Monday, May 11, 2009

Caracas Unbound

“Caracas,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in 1971, “is a nightmare of air conditioning, supersonic and deafening, a center of the culture of oil which prefers consumption to creation, and which multiplies artificial necessities to hide real ones... Caracas can hardly sleep, because it can’t turn off the anxiety of winning and buying, consuming and spending, controlling everything. On the slopes of the mountains, more than half a million of the forgotten contemplate, from their houses built from trash, the alien waste.”

Now Caracas, the capital and vanguard of Venezuela, is shaking the shackles of its old gods. Chavez has dared to resurrect Prometheus, promising to bring the fire of sovereignty and renewal to all of Latin America. But this city unbound in spirit is tethered from all directions to the axles of its origins. History and hope struggle over whose roots are deeper. This is the spacetime of incipient revolution.

The city is roaring and suffering tenuously between between explosion and implosion. Between the skyscrapers and the slums there is a somehow frictionless yet screaming imminence that is impossible to comprehend the meaning of. This is the irreconcilable geometry of contradiction. Its angles are measured in fear.

Parallel architectures of decadence and despair share only an essence of desire. But while the architecture of subsistence strives only for stability and survival, the architecture of surplus would not, could not be satisfied with infinity or even eternity. Two worlds of desires live an impossibly overlapping equilibrium, an equilibrium of perpendicular ruthlessness and unimaginable patience.

Highways cut through hearths. Everywhere, scalpels of speed vivisect meaning. An asphalt circulatory system with no heart is pumping poison, and the people who walk amongst the cars selling whatever they can are living and breathing it. As you travel along these roads, the brave new city in your head will struggle and fail to transcend the resilient blinders of old infrastructure. Minarets of entitlement climb unabashedly higher and shantytowns burgeon fitfully outwards, antennas and towers soar in the clouds while bricks and rebar cling precariously to the steepest slopes, all together, all to the glutinous, omnipotent, toxic rhythm of oil. This coagulated city built with black gold is as thick as petroleum; pumped from the depths of the earth and history, it seems it can only ooze or blow up.

A Johnny Walker billboard which reads “the distance between the good and the grandiose” is silhouetted against a cordillera of poverty. Murals on one side of the street denounce the inhumanity of capitalism and commercial centers on the other side announce new products and sales.

The duplicity of skyscrapers and slums captures more than any book or declaration the grotesque madness of a system of winners built on losers, a society of individual freedom built on collective servitude. This double geometry in itself is a condemnation, it condemns itself and even condemns those who look at it. Nothing is autonomous in this viscous choreography of inequality, nothing is outside the contradictions. Because the antagonistic geography of cosmopolitan postopia has no boundaries. There are no city limits in the neoliberal colosseum. Caracas cannot help but represent the world in miniature any more than the world can stop constituting Caracas. Implacable currents of imports and exports sculpt the maze of turbulent horizons where malls and misery meet, just as economic tides of growth and recession are pulled by a faceless moon of global capital.

On the political front, No es No and Si es Si and never the twain shall meet. Socialism and sovereignty and democracy and revolution all devolve onto a single man who leads both his followers and his opposition in two rigidly converging grand marches of mutual fear and hatred. There is unity only in the informal market, where vendors stand on highway medians selling baseball hats and t-shirts with whatever political slogan will sell. Si! in one hand and No! in the other. This is deep, and not shallow politics. The faces and lives of these men and women who sell politics for survival reflect and resound as loudly in the city’s aura as the work of the most dedicated partisan. Silent and forgotten beyond the tinted windows of the air conditioned minorities, these men and women are not doing anything contradictory. The message of their livelihood is clear, and it is larger than all the Si and No propaganda put together.

In the architecture of scarcity, the lights go out on victory. As constitutional referendum results were announced we watched from a balcony in Paraiso as a mountainside of lights suddenly disappeared: The informal power grid was overloaded by the demand to see and hear voting results that could determine the future of a revolution. The news of victory plunged thousands into a night of slow, informal war between angry disillusionment and indefatigable, angrier hope. The arrival of this darkness does not obscure, it illuminates.

The darkness of victory reveals vertical islands of steel and glass, contending for privilege in horizontal swells of tin and concrete which silently but massively demands dignity. The darkness of victory reveals Caracas unbound, grappling with the inertia of its insanity. Caracas unbound is a massive and intimate clash of design that strives diversely for the meaning of its history and its future.

The pivotal and decisive battle for this meaning will not only be fought on the streets, it will be a fight for the function of the streets themselves, for their directions and their intersections. Caracas unbound must somehow design an impossible architecture: a human city in an alien womb.

Prometheus has returned, and is wandering the blueprints of inscrutable urban destiny, tortured but unbound. The fire has been lit. And we are all the wind, blowing.

by Quincy Saul
La Pastora, April 2009

Las Venas Abiertas de America Latina, por Eduardo Galeano, 1971 p.271-2 [translation by qms]