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Ministry of Information

Mary Taylor

Mary Taylor makes things happen and watches people in New York City and Budapest. Founding member of the Open University and of Think Tank X, artist and situation-maker, she teaches anthropology at Hunter College and Cooper Union in New York.

Ministry of Information] vol.17



This video shouldn't be missed:

It pertains to my previous posts on urban communication (October 14, , 2009) and on bike lanes in NYC (July 12, 2008). A friend of mine working for the city as a judge told me that she's recently felt pressure from colleagues when she has overridden tickets that appeared unfounded. She told me that given the city's strategy to increase revenue from ticketing--you know, all those tickets we've been getting for riding our bikes on sidewalks even where road conditions are unacceptable--is paying their salaries, her colleagues were suggesting that they'd just better keep on keeping on, After all, they don't want to end up on the unemployment rolls (we're hovering around 10% here at the cracking center of the Empire, while China is facing a labor shortage).

Mary Taylor

Ministry of Information] vol.16



Aesthetic art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot
satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity. That is why those who want
to isolate it from politics are somewhat beside the point. It is also
why those who want to fulfill its political promise are condemned
to a certain melancholy
Jacques Ranciere
The Aesthetic Revolution

Of kissing and great art

In the midst of a fever I rushed to the Guggenheim for my last chance at experiencing Tino Sehgal's The Kiss. 35 years old and Tino's got the Guggenheim allowing him to have an interactional piece that has not one material remainder. I don't know: there are maybe 50 "actors" in this piece and the large part of what they do and say is unscripted, or, at least, loosely scripted.

First, there's the kiss.  Two dancers, who at first sight seem to be random museum-goers, are engaged in a lengthy kiss when you walk into the foyer. It was only maybe minute into it that I began to notice the tempo and the deliberateness of this passionate display. Standing, crouching, laying, rolling, the kissers serve 3 hours at a time. This choreography is so carefully carefree. It made me want to kiss too.

Then we start trudging up the spiral, to be met by kids! Prompted by a "grown up", one approaches you, asking you what you think Progress is. They are maybe 7-13 years old? Mine was one of the older ones. He had to tell the next guy-a generation up from him- what we had been talking about. If only I could remember the "ization" that he "privatization of water in Bolivia" into. Beautiful.  

And there was Tino, hanging out, perhaps fine-tuning, as we "progressed" to the summit of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral. Spit out into a gallery at the top, the cubist paintings that surrounded me seemed trite, cartoonish.  It was then that we compared notes and confirmed how different our experiences had been.  Walking back down against the flow of (pilgrims making their) progress, stopping in to see the Malevich paintings, even that dwarfed by Tino's show, we paused for a long while to watch the kissers from above, wondering what Tino would have done if we had also begun to meet the visitors at the hand off points and start conversations with them.  We didn't see any volunteer kisses, odd perhaps, but watched a security guard chase away some people who had decided to sit right next to the kisser, and then, under orders from someone else, try to get them to return to whence he had chased hem.

"Something's changing in the art world", said my friend Katja, who lives from her art, as we walked out into the spring air at twilight.  I wondered what, exactly. Was it that Tino had become famous enough to have this incredible experience made in the Guggenheim despite his project-his forbiddance of representations of his work, his insistence on traveling with methods of minimal carbon footprint, the ephemerality and quotidian quality of this work? Or was it because of it? What does it mean that Tino Sehgal has become a star when so many quotidian and framed acts of similar form and substance, as clever in quality, as sublime in aesthetic apprehension as his are disregarded, unfunded, not even considered art?

This is not a critique of Tino, by the way. I'm really happy to have seen the show and happy for him that it happened. I'm happy for all the people who experienced it too.  Here I just want to meditate on the production of that boundary between art and life. Or -dare I?-between art and revolution.


Mary Taylor

Ministry of Information] vol.15




In 2007 Naomi Klein argued in her book The Shock Doctrine-The Rise of Disaster Capitalism that the introduction of shock to a population, working much like the effects of shock on an individual, was a technique being employed in the spread of neoliberal policies around the world.
Just a year before, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Neil Smith had argued in There's No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster that the framing of Katrina as a natural disaster had the effect of obscuring the human origins of the tragedy that followed. First, "the world has recently experienced dramatic warming, which scientists increasingly attribute to airborne emissions of carbon, and around the world Katrina is widely seen as evidence of socially induced climatic change" ( Second, Smith points out, not only is vulnerability to such differentiated by factors such as race and class, but both the market and "successive administrations from the federal to the urban scale" had "made the poorest population in New Orleans most vulnerable" by cutting the New Orleans Corps of Engineers budget "by 80%, thus preventing pumping and levee improvements" (
Finally, despite the well-known force of the hurricane days in advance, no preparations were made to help citizens. "When the National Guard did arrive", Smith writes, " it was quickly apparent that they were working under orders to control the city militarily and protect property rather than to bring aid to the desperate" (

As Klein and Smith both argued, Katrina's disaster paved the way for a remaking of the built environment of New Orleans through an unprecedented death, displacement, and dispossession of human beings. "At all phases, up to and including reconstruction, disasters don't simply flatten landscapes, washing them smooth. Rather they deepen and erode the ruts of social difference they encounter", Smith writes. Disaster reconstruction invariably cuts deeper the ruts and grooves of social oppression and exploitation.  "Developers descended on New Orleans with wallets bulging and chops smacking." before family members could even account for the dead.  "In anticipation that the city will be rebuilt with higher and better levees and with many fewer working class and African Americans, New Orleans two weeks after Katrina already looked like a developers' gold rush (Streitfeld 2005; Rivlin 2005)." ( Many New Orleanians, "displaced, with no private property to reclaim, face lower wages, escalating costs for scarce housing, and as the initial sympathy wears away, increased stigmatization (" see these developers and these corporations as the "true looters."

Now, on to Haiti.

On January 12th, Haiti was shaken by an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. The estimated death toll as I write lies at 120.000 and is likely to go up. Only a month before, Haiti had joined 41 other members of Alliance of Small Island States at the Copenhagen climate change summits to push "negotiators from powerful developed and developing countries to recognize their right to exist and for emissions cuts strong enough to protect their homes and lives".

One might ask "what does this tragic earthquake in Haiti have to do with climate change?" Although not caused by human activity, the earthquake has created a scenario that presages in many ways the effects that human-made "natural disaster" can have in the age of disaster capitalism. As we continue, keep in mind Smith's attention to vulnerability and to post disaster reconstruction.

The level of the sea is rising measurably as arctic ice melts due to an overall warming of the earth's temperature. Because of sea level rise, small island states like Haiti will be particularly affected by the climate change that we now face. Indeed, new studies suggest that a mere rise of 2-3 degrees celcius could result in the sea rising 20 to 30 feet ( This is why the Alliance of Small Island States sought in Copenhagen  "to secure a strengthened second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol and put forward a new Protocol to be adopted under the Convention which would result in legally binding targets for the USA."

Despite the well established knowledge that the largest part of the detrimental human impact on the environment originates in the "first world", it will be these "third world" countries that will pay the dearest. It is "a cruel irony that without adequate global commitments, the countries contributing least to global warming would be the most affected by its consequences. Among other developing countries, small islands as well as coastal, low-lying and African countries already vulnerable to drought and desertification" [are] at the highest risk" (

The way in which Haiti is transformed in the after math of the earthquake is thus a fable for the future. As Smith would warn, vulnerability to the effects of "Natural disaster" and post disaster reconstruction in places like Haiti must be seen historically.

The legacy of colonialism that placed the nation in a position of debt since its independence in 1804 must be calculated into its ability to address the disaster.
This is no place to give a deep history of Haiti, so a few sentences must suffice in to paint a portrait of these conditions. Haiti was the first independent state in Latin America, declaring its independence in 1804 after over a decade of revolution. But it paid a high price for this honor. In 1825 the government agreed to make reparations to French slaveholders in the amount of 150 million francs (reduced in 1838 to 60 million francs), in exchange for French recognition of its independence. This debt (in this case to French banks) set Haiti on a path of debt that would become a model for newly independent postcolonial states. The United States occupied the island from 1915 to 1937, leaving Haiti with dictator Duvalier, who spent the massive funds he borrowed on his own narrow group of favorites. Finally, in the pattern so familiar to postcolonial states, the funds received from The World Bank and IMF required Haiti to slash tariffs and subsidies, and other protectionist policies, and disinvest in health, education, and essential infrastructure, such as running water.
Instead of a recognition of the historical conditions that have led to Haiti's particularly harsh vulnerability, news coverage since the earthquake, while asking for charity, is replete with words like chaos, violence and poverty that function to put the blame on Haitians for their misery. Although there has been an outpouring of sympathy expressed through monetary and other aid, there is little analysis of what made Haiti so vulnerable to begin with, and there is a little talk of how to avoid the kind of reconstruction seen in New Orleans.

It is unclear what to make of what some are labeling a military occupation by the United States. Should we be talking of DISASTER IMPERIALISM.

Pointing to Iraq and New Orleans, Klein notes that the disasters themselves are major new markets ( The military-industrial complex "has expanded and morphed into what is best understood as a disaster-capitalism complex, in which all conflict- and disaster-related functions (waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating traumatized soldiers) can be performed by corporations at a profit. And this complex is not satisfied merely to feed off the state, the way traditional military contractors do; it aims, ultimately, to replace core functions of government with its own profitable enterprises, as it did in Baghdad's Green Zone" (

New Orleans "became a domestic laboratory for the same kind of government run by contractors that was pioneered in Iraq". The biggest contracts were secured by  "the familiar Baghdad gang: Halliburton's KBR unit received a $60 million contract to reconstruct military bases along the coast. Blackwater was hired to protect FEMA operations, with the company billing an average of $950 a day per guard. Parsons, infamous for its sloppy work in Iraq, was brought in for a major bridge-construction project in Mississippi. Fluor, Shaw, Bechtel, CH2M Hill--all top contractors in Iraq--were handed contracts on the Gulf Coast to provide mobile homes to evacuees just ten days after the levees broke. Their contracts ended up totaling $3.4 billion, no open bidding required" (

This is the new model of reconstruction. "Privatized disaster response has become one of the hottest industries in the South. Just one year after Hurricane Katrina, a slew of new corporations had entered the market, promising safety and security should the next Big One hit" (

"Natural Disaster" hits. People scramble to survive under the weight of historical conditions that have robbed them of autonomy and the wealth of their labor and natural resources. The US military moves in. Reconstruction begins.

Send your energies and monies to Haiti. But don't stop there. Question what reconstruction means. Which reconstruction? For Whom?

Blog on debt forgiveness for Haiti:

Article on Disaster Capitalism:

Klein/Cuaron film The Shock Doctrine:

Website for the Alliance of Small Nations:



[Ministry of Information] vol.14



What is urban communication?

Urban communication is a manner of intervention that uses the city in unexpected, un"planned", and sometimes even illicit ways. It opens up new spaces for and styles of, and media for communication, using the city as its backdrop and tool.

In 2007 the Open University Oakland held a lecture inspired by Graffiti Research Lab.  After viewing the short film prepared by Helen Park for the event and assembling LED "throwies", we went out onto the street s of Oakland, distributing our LEDs across the urban landscape.   The inspiration that evening was of the dérive, a term popularized by the situationists in the Paris of the 1960s. The Dérive is an attempt at analysis of the totality of everyday life, through the passive movement through space. It is translated as drift. Situations arose from using of the city in ways other than what the planners had in mind.

Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, friend and enemy of situationists, proposed the moment as opposed to the situation, stressing the temporal aspect of such acts. "The political moment, as Lefebvre wills it, is a pure and absolute act of contestation: a street demo or flying picket, a rent strike or a general strike. Streets would be the staging and the drama might be epic or absurd or both"(Merrifield, 29).

Surely many of the youths (and the not so young) around the world who tag walls with names and symbols, paint pictures, and affix stickers do not often refer to French philosophers. They are nevertheless taking in their own hands the making of the city-what Lefebvre would have seen as an expression of the right to the city.

Graffiti is an old word-it literally means "scribblings". Writing on urban walls has long been used for political purposes. But the way in which urban communication manifests in any situation has to do with political-economic conditions (property rights, laws, police power) and the availability of specific technologies.

In New York City, for example, graffiti thrived as a form of expression in the post industrial environment of burnt out buildings, abandoned lots in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80s.  First appearing on the streets, writing then moved to the subways.  In the beginning writing "consisted of mostly tags and the goal was to have as many as possible. Writers would ride the trains hitting as many subway cars as possible. It wasn't long before writers discovered that in a train yard or lay up they could hit many more subway cars in much less time and with less chance of getting caught. The concept and method of bombing had been established." (

In the competitive milieu that ensued, "The next development was scale. Writers started to render their tags in larger scale, limited by the fact that the standard nozzle width of a spray paint can is narrow.   The first larger tags did not have much visual weight, until "writers began to increase the thickness of the letters and outline them with an additional color." Writers the "discovered that caps from other aerosol products could provide a larger width of spray.", resulting in the development of the masterpiece." (  Writers eventually started to render these masterpieces the entire height of the subway car. Tags rendered in this form were termed top-to bottoms.

A curious thing had happened with Graffitti, though, already beginning in the 1970s.  Even as it thrives as a medium for free, unregulated expression, it has been reframed inside the gallery (already in the 1970s), part of the result of the search for respect for vernacular Black and Latino creative expressions and tamed by the efforts of property owners, creating distinctions between "vandalism" and "murals", good graffiti and bad graffiti.  This history of his taming is tied with the Gentrification.  Staring in the 1980s, white artists, intellectuals, and avant garde moved into neighborhoods that had seen "white flight" in 60s and 70s, where rent was very cheap.  As these folks and the people who followed in their tracks began to buy property, they sought to protect their homes from being palettes for graffiti.
The thing about most urban intervention is that it involves practices quite different from those of a gallery artist. Urban intervention is much closer to everyday life.  Although many artists get permits to engage in urban interventions, countless citizens just do it, in myriad ways. Those who do those things that are unconventional, even when not illegal, often put themselves on the line legally and socially. They also engage in making the city their own.
Efforts to curb graffiti artists were aided by a step up in legal developments and in police efforts, as the interests of the new urban class become central to policy beginning in the 1980s.

The crack cocaine epidemic was taking its toll on the inner city, and the "War on drugs" targeted small scale dealers and runners, rather than the big shots or the middle class clientele. With powerful firearm readily available, "the climate on the street became increasingly tense. Laws restricting the sale of paint to minors and requiring merchants to place spray paint in locked cages made shoplifting more difficult. Legislation was in the works to make penalties for graffiti more severe." (

As cities like NY and have gentrified through a process in which public space has been privatized into the hands of a few, the defense of private property has become paramount, making crime of graffiti more strictly punishable. In stepped the sticker.  Many people now affix ready-made stickers with their tags, political messages or images on various surfaces in cities.
But there are other technologies for urban communication.
On its website, Graffiti Research Lab simply tells us is dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication. The brilliance of this open source technology is that Graffitti Research Lab is not just making technologies for urban communication available to anyone who wants to use them, but is inventing new ones  that allow new approaches and often also circumvent legal problems.  Who, after all, would arrest me for sticking a magnet to a wall? Has it hurt anyone? Isn't it removable? It is a gift, in fact, and you may reuse it if you like.
In a world in which mass communications are in the hands of corporations, urban communication promises more than your name in big letters.  Graffiti Research Lab offers you the technology.

A few urban interventionists.
Graffiti Research Lab
Yes Men (,
The Situationists
The Motherfuckers
Krzysztof Wodiczko
Madagascar Institute
Picture the Homeless
Black Panthers
World Cant Wait (  (
Urban Homesteading Project
Guillermo Gomez Pena

Thinking about urban intervention and the transformation of society
Henri Lefebvre His idea of the right to the city: (right to the city
The coming insurrection
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (trans. Brian Massumi), London: Athlone Press, 1988, p.270 (on their ideas of transversality, see  (
Brian Holmes
David Graeber
"Henri Lefebvre: A Critical Introduction". A. Merrifield, London, Routledge, 2006

On Graffiti Research Lab

Histories of Graffiti


[Ministry of Information] vol.13



Pictures from Workshop- Mashroom Magic @Sculpture Center 44-19 Purves Street Long Island City, New York 11101
*Read the previous post for WS's details.