Open Place interviewed Daniel Urey
April 17, 2015
Daniel Urey from Färgfabriken is engaged in a new topology of cities. His main theme and goal is to strengthen the role of culture in politics and civil society. He received a Master Degree in Political Science (International Relations) at Stockholm University
Färgfabriken is a politically and religiously independent foundation, which is financed by funds from the National Arts Council, the Culture Administration of Stockholm and the Stockholm County Council. The key private sponsor of Färgfabriken is Lindéngruppen AB. The Foundation was established in 1995 by Alcro-Beckers AB, ColArt Sweden AB and SAR (Swedish Association of Architects). As a cultural institution Färgfabriken try to decode symbols of division in different cities, visualize them, expose them and talk about them. Activists work in different countries, attracting to their projects people from very different communities, in particular from municipalities.
The theory of urban narratives
We were found in 1995. From the beginning the organization was consisted of curators, the Swedish architects association and one private company. So we work with problems of the city and with people there. Nowadays we’re working very much with understanding of psychological processes of cities and urban space. And it’s the interesting challenge, we’re interested in investigating and decoding the city, we want to understand its mental infrastructures. How do mental infrastructures affect the physical infrastructures of the city? How does this contemporary mentally infrastructure of narratives affect the way how an urban planner or an architect designs the future city? These narratives are largely about creating the story of us.
When we talk about us, often we mean somebody “another”. So, we ask question, who is included and who is not in particular narrative. Whom do you project into the future and whom not? That’s how we started to talk about sustainable urban development. And when we talk about sustainable urban development, we talk a lot about physical urban development. “Fewer cars in the city!”- OK, fine, that’s good, we must think about physical infrastructure. But we want to include through our programs need to wide up this understanding. When we think about urban planning we have to understand that we need start the research about narratives. These narratives are collective narratives which create identities. Your identification included whose narrative you include in the future of the city you’re projecting. And then you can see the city, where the infrastructure is developing in one part, but not developing in another. Because one group belong to the grand narrative and other not. There is not sustainable, because it means that you disconnecting certain groups and remove certain people from proper infrastructure.
Activities of Färgfabriken
In the autumn of 2013 we initiated huge program that we named “Patchwork of narratives”. We thought about the definition of urban vulnerability. Everybody talks about sustainable urban development. We felt that we need to talk about vulnerability in strategic way, about culture expressions of that vulnerability, existing in our societies.
Most of all cities divide in one or different way. Stockholm is also divided, even though you don’t see it. But then there are cities where the division is evident. We focused on Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Beirut in Lebanon. We didn’t want to add a lot of content into the definition of “divided cities” only by ourselves. We wanted to ask our partners what kind of meaning they would like to add to that, instead creating a framework, fill it with lots of definitions and then give it to people. We had actually just a seed and then asking people if they could shape some content. In both cities we had local partners among architects, urban planners, filmmakers, philosophers. We start to create international and interdisciplinary team, where different people add their experience to proper definitions by talking, making researches and visualizing. So, in Beirut we have two filmmakers, Rania Rafei and Jinane Dagher. They make huge work shooting tree videos as a triptych about urban vulnerability “The Purgatory”. But in that process we also had to wide up our intellectual basis. So we asked philosopher Michael Azar, who is working at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, to write an essay about understanding the definition of the city through the time, how civilization understood what is a city, but also add how the definition of the urban vulnerability was disclosed through the history.
At the same time we start to research how the notion of vulnerability connected with human being in the city, we start to investigate the mental infrastructures of the city. For example, there are two groups in Mostar, Croatians and Bosnians, and they are shaped by narratives, defining who they are. Though, they live in one small city with one hundred twenty thousand citizens. The city just a physical, but the mental infrastructure and all the narratives of the society are divided and the segregation goes along a boulevard in the city center. If I’m Bosnian it’s very difficult for me to cross this street: one can do this easily, just walking, there are neither walls nor borders, but mental barriers prevent to pass it over, that also influence the appearance of city. After the war suddenly parallel infrastructures started to develop in two parts of the city: two schools, two city planning offices in each area etc. With our program we try to expose those narratives that generate a vulnerable society and city.
The same is in Beirut. If in Mostar you have two minorities just next to each other, in Lebanon you have seventeen official minorities, and Beirut becomes a patchwork. You can see symbols that mark the area almost everywhere, but of course you need some skills to see them and understand them. The graffiti can be a marker, that’s why the text of Michael Azar is also about how people tattoo the city and how the city also tattoos people. In this way we’re investigating how different narratives effect on current urban development but also on future urban development.
The thing we never really know exactly is the direction we are taking. There is no proper path. We create the project step by step, we produce contents together. For example, there was a research the result of which was the essay that we can give our partners in Mostar and Beirut, and there are interesting videos that could be analyzed and reconsidered in the form of text.
The project “Patchwork of narratives” ended up with exhibitions in three cities: Mostar, Beirut and Stockholm. And each of the exhibitions had some peculiarities. We have some central works that were exposed in every three places, and we also have a specific program, connected with local context.
We were developing the project “Patchwork of narratives” more than a year. We transferred this experience to the project “Baltic Dimensions”. First we had to identify the institutions in the Baltic region that would be interested for development of cultural programs about urban space. And again we talk about creative process in order to make wider understanding of what is taking place in Baltic region, including new meanings of urban space. After creating the network among institutions and establishing the goal, we start to develop the methodology how we will reach it.
The first city where we started to work was Riga. It’s a beautiful city with great architecture, very touristic and picturesque, but behind that there is a huge rift in the society. They have Latvians and Russians, and they have monuments where Latvians claim their narrative of being Latvian and they have Russian monuments where Russians claim their narrative of being Russian. Suddenly we have two monuments not just telling the history, but sending to the future signals about division. That means that it’s very difficult for Riga to develop, because Riga still projects itself to the future through division. The monuments are only one case of division, of course there are microrayons where there’s lack of infrastructures, disconnecting them with the society. And it’s actually creating problems. What we can do as a cultural institution, as a cultural program is to decode the symbols of division, visualize them, expose them and talk about them. The rest we leave to our local partners.
The global and local goals
Among results of our work there are books, videos, researches, exhibitions, seminars, discussions, workshops both for children and for adults, webpage. There’re lots of resources to penetrate into the society. Exhibition works are the way of visual communication with different target groups. As result of all activities and collective work of participants of projects we have a transformation of ourselves, of our way of “reading” urban spaces. We’d like to share these achievements with wide audience, to engage more people into mental infrastructure that we build up. We need to bring new voices into our analyses to widen the way how to read the city. We try to attract people from municipalities, who are responsible for urban planning.
Each project is an interesting journey and we don’t attach to the certain city from that point of view. The things that the city brings to the project become an indicator for us, whether an idea is valuable for the local society or not. Sometimes it takes years to transform mental minds. You have to work so much convincing people that their efforts are important for global changes. That’s why we need to develop small in-between results, the indicators of changes.
Starting the project in the new place it is important to create a platform for discussion on different levels. We try to talk with high-ranking officials to have support of the project at the local level. We cooperate in our projects with officials from Stockholm, for example, the vice-director of the city planning office. This cooperation allows us to establish the dialogue with officials of the same rank in the place where we do the project. Sometimes we can’t do more than only unite efforts of artists and officials, all the rest at their discretion. It works so.
We in Färgfabriken make projects not to bring the Swedish experience of creating a sustainable society to different countries. We want to unite people, to create the international platform for exchanging experience among actors who live in urban areas and feel the vulnerability of ambient space. This is how we also generate good examples, because often right decisions come not from us, but from local experts who know better the context of the city.