Rules of Engagement: From Toilets in Caracas to New Media in New Delhi, Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga Survey Five Recent Art Projects Dedicated to Social Change through the Creation of Experimental Communities

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IT IS PERHAPS IRONIC THAT A DISCUSSION OF WHAT MIGHT BE TERMED A NEW culture in the arts should begin with that old modernist saw, the toilet. However, the toilet in question is very different from the one that Marcel Duchamp presented almost a century ago at the Society of Independent Artists. In 2003, the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrc, in collaboration with the La Vega neighborhood association and the Israeli architect Liyat Esakov, proposed the installation of two dry toilets in Caracas and its outlying areas. Potrc began her work as a research project involving several "barrios," or shanties, of Caracas without a specific goal in mind other than a general desire to understand the life conditions in such an extreme urban environment. She writes, "I was personally drawn to the fact that the barrios are not planned; they are self-upgrading structures. Liyat and I realized that the infrastructure provided by the city has failed the barrios; electricity is generally stolen and water is provided only twice per week." After an initial research period of three months, which included many discussions with local community members, Potrc and Esakov decided to focus on the sewage contamination and scarcity of water in the "informal city," as the shanties are technically called. They designed a prototype toilet that could be built and used by the neighborhood residents, and they implemented a six-month trial period, after which point the toilets may be permanently adopted. The project represents the climax of a long period in Potrc's work devoted to the search for solutions to a variety of concrete cases of extreme need.

Potrc's work is characteristic of a growing number of artists whose projects demand the mobilization of complex artistic strategies that combine techniques traditionally related to the arts with technology and the mass media. These artists eschew making stable, self-sufficient objects that are removed from the particular physical or social contexts in which they appear. They do not produce specific events or performances confined to a particular place or time, but rather, they propose open-ended projects aimed at fostering experimental communities: temporary but durable associations composed of artists and nonartists united in their mutual endeavor.

Potrc, for example, uses drawing to explore a range of urban problems that attract her attention and to investigate a variety of possible solutions, both realistic and utopian. Reminiscent of Yona Friedman's sketches from the 1970s, her drawings seem to perform a pedagogic role, informing art audiences of her activities outside traditional exhibition spaces. Potrc's drawings combine words and images to bridge the apparent gap between her urban investigations and a more established definition of artistic practice. She usually complements these drawings with a related website and the display of various experimental prototypes and utilitarian objects. These "power tools," as she calls them, are paradigms for--and embodiments of--a wide range of already existing "solutions" to specific social problems. The "solutions" are not instrumental in the productivist sense. They do not belong, for instance, to the progressive tendency of "formalizing" the disorganized or "informal" aspects of a particular impoverished neighborhood by integrating it into the macroeconomic urban system. Instead, Potrc adopts partial and economically sustainable "self-help" solutions, which contradict the instrumental and bureaucratic logic that subordinates individual subjectivity to supposedly objective criteria of efficiency. Potrc's "solutions," then, are solutions only insofar as they restore the autonomy of those who adopt them.

One of the most well-known examples of projects like Potrc's is Thomas Hirschhorn's installation at the most recent Documenta. The piece involved the construction of a series of precarious buildings called Bataille Monument, 2002, in the public spaces belonging to the Friedrich Wohler-Complex, a group of residential buildings in the northern part of Kassel. …