A Reflection on IdeasCity Arles: It’s the People Behind the Ideas

In All, Ideas, Theories, & Stories, The Story by Teju Adisa-Farrar

She said “these are some of the brightest minds in the world around these topics,” and no one flinched. That’s how I knew I was in the right place. Even if each and every one of us had inner insecurities and dysfunctions, we all accepted that compliment and continued confidently in the important work that takes up so much of our lives.

There’s so much I can say about my weeklong residency with IdeasCity Arles, but I’m only writing a reflection. And this is not even a comprehensive reflection because I’d need much more time. I have been reflecting and debriefing my weeklong residency project with IdeasCity in Arles, France for about a week now. I still cannot quite figure out the best way to write about it so I decided this reflection will be based on encounters with objects, people, andsurprise, surpriseideas.

Objects – Sleeping Pods: Created by Belgian designer Thomas Lommee these sleeping pods (he calls them open structures) traveled from Athens, where they were used by IdeasCity previously, to Arles where they were reconstructed again for us to sleep in. These remarkably comfortable pods are each different and can be assembled and reassembled as needed. Each IdeasCity fellow had a pod to themselves, with fabric coverings made locally in the Arles region. Each pod contained an air mattress and reading light. As a compact person it was just enough space for me to sleep comfortably, my backpack and the small bag I brought also fit inside my pod. These sleeping pods were concentrated in one of the refurbished buildings of the old train factory where we were working and staying that week. I’m sure these pods could be repurposed and used in a variety of ways of which one could be to give homeless people in cities around the world some semblance of shelter without violating exclusionary, non-progressive housing laws and regulations.

Objects – Camera and Microphone: One of the points of contention the whole week was the overwhelming presence of the LUMA Foundation, founded by an heir of a large Swiss pharmaceutical company, and investing a great deal of money into developing Arles; a small city of about 57,000 people. This foundation already single-handedly commissioned Frank Gehry to build a tower on the old train factory complex, which is already under construction. Their presence brings up the very relevant issues of private actors having a lot of power and influence in developing cities, what this means for the diminishing roles of city governments in urban development and revitalization, public spaces constructed and managed by private interests, among many other things. Our residency coincided with LUMA Days and two other conferences taking place in Parc de Ateliers (the old train factory LUMA has been revitalizing over the past four years). In many ways the entire week, including our residency, was a marketing tool. Camera men along with a man holding a large fury microphone followed us around almost all the time recording our conversations and the work we were doing. There were a few times where IdeasCity fellows would say “you can’t record this” or sigh relief at the end of the night when the cameras and giant microphone were no longer present. Much of this week was managing expectations and negotiating different levels of the process.

Ideas – Proposals: At the end of the week in a conference organized by LUMA in partnership with IdeasCity and the New Museum of New York City, each team of IdeasCity fellows presented their proposals of different possibilities for developing Arles. Arles is a small postindustrial city, which has historically been communist and in decline since most of the factories closed down in the 1980s. These ideas ranged from a mobile land/water itinerant peoples assembly, which my group proposed, to turning one of the empty shops in the city center into a restaurant and cultural space for six months out of the year to 3D printing (out of algae) a to-scale model of the very famous Arlesian arena. Arles was a key city in the Roman empire and is considered a second Roman city meaning they have all the elements of a traditional Roman city. Although we all agreed one week was not nearly enough time to do the necessary fieldwork and fully understand the city, there seemed to be a consensus that any redevelopment needed to be more inclusive of everyday Arlesians, not be overrepresented by a private cultural institution such as LUMA, and had to find ways to adapt while integrating both the Roman and postindustrial history of the city.

Ideas – Art and Culture Are Not Silos: I believe very strongly that it is not necessary to “create culture.” Even that language is problematic and elitist. A multiplicity of culture exists in the city. Often private institutions do not recognize or acknowledge certain type of culture; and even if it is recognized, its not always the type of culture that is promoted or can be used as a marketing ploy for “creative city” or “cultural city” narratives. IdeasCity Arles had the focus:

Starting from the premise that art and culture are essential to the future vitality of cities, IdeasCity provides a vital platform for designers, artists, technologists and policymakers to exchange ideas, identify challenges, propose solutions, and engage the public’s participation. IdeasCity brings together thinkers and practitioners from design, art, architecture, urban planning, technology, science, business, sociology, education, and civic and governmental institutions, and fosters collaborations between them.

The fellows were made up of architects, curators, culture producers, artists, makers, urbanists, and many of us occupied more than one of those spaces, which is what made it so interesting. We were all well-versed in the impact of art and culture existing in spaces in the city. As one of the youngest (if not thee youngest one there) I was acutely aware that many of these fellows had been doing this work professionally, independently and otherwise, for an average of about a decade. Thus, even though in some ways the projects we did during the weeklong residency felt siloed, we all know that art and culture, as the potential for possibilities and participation, should not happen in a vacuum. Many of the fellows’ work combats this directly and challenges it by shifting the language, practice, and reality of art and culture curation (using that word in the broadest sense possible) within cities.

People – All the People Dem: This is not hyperbole. All the IdeasCity fellows, people I met and talked to were remarkable and exceptional in their own way. Many of them lived lives like mine: being born one place, growing up somewhere else, living in a different place, and doing projects in other places still. Many people found niches where their work was most useful. Many were actively finding a balance between practice and theory. And most of them were doing it well and have been doing it for a while. One artist whose work I really admired was a speaker and on the panel for my team’s proposal. Bouchra Khalili is a Moroccan visual media and film artist who, thanks to IdeasCity, I was introduced to in Arles. There are so many things I can say about her work which is straightforward, profound, and simple in a way. I feel like her project The Mapping Journey Project visualizes in an artistic format some of the research I do. More so than her work was the way she talked about and described it in its local and global context, which contributed to making it so inspired. In addition to Bouchra, speakers like Amanda Williams from Chicago, and the fellows I had the pleasure of spending time with were not only committed but clear about the value of their work. From ceramics makers to sculptors to independent curators to architecture school drop outs, all the people dem (as Jamaicans say) were amazing.

Encounters: IdeasCity Arles was a weeklong series of encounters some of which were stark realities and others felt like surreal natural-rose-like fantasy. It was challenging, enlightening, and a great way to propel me forward into a summer of thesis writing. It gave me ideas about lifestyle choices, artistic endeavors, the experience of international practitioners, and life in a way… it gave me a refreshing, no matter how isolated, slice of life. Like any city, IdeasCity is many things: inspiring, segmented, fragmented, at times a failure, at times a revelation, constructed, disconnected, connecting, dynamic. It is not only the infrastructure, but the people who inhabit it. IdeasCity is most certainly about the people, of which I was lucky to be one.