Commissioned Text: David J. Madden on An Idea of Progress
Jan 2016

Iván Argote’s An Idea of Progress addresses the contemporary obsession with urbanism. We are bombarded today with visions of an urban future. More than half the people in the world, we are frequently reminded, live in urban areas, a figure that the United Nations predicts will rise to two-thirds by 2050.[1] Cities—sometimes enhanced by trendy modifiers like ‘smart’ or ‘resilient’—are thought to hold the solutions to planetary problems like climate change and economic crisis.

Various companies, foundations and politicians promote a particular version of city life as the ultimate twenty-first century route to personal happiness and social improvement. In this picture of the future, the cities of the world will be run by an alliance of global corporations and technocratic government. Older prophets of the city conceived of radical alternative forms of social and political organisation. But the dream of today’s urban futurists is the status quo enriched by technology, big data, digital connectivity, and new trends in architecture and planning.

This kind of urban boosterism is especially strong in London. From real estate advertisements to government-sponsored planning reports, London is often imagined as a lavish designer product. In a report modestly titled The Greatest City on Earth, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, writes of “creating the future,” announcing, “We want to lengthen the current… lead of London as the financial, commercial, cultural, artistic, media, educational, scientific and innovation capital of the world.”[2] The city’s ruling elites believe that the global urban future can be London-centric. Greater London is being remade as the capital of a new empire of the globetrotting ultra-wealthy and the financial firms that support them.

Amidst all the fanfare, it is too easy to lose touch with the fact that today’s cities are contested territories. Inequality is what truly defines the contemporary urban experience. In the emerging luxury city, there is no room for the urban majority: the non-rich city dwellers, those who are either left out of gentrified urban space or forcibly expelled from it. What to some observers are the signs of progress—extravagant new housing blocks, iconic architecture, inner-city districts without poor people—signal to others their impending eviction from their home and their place in the urban realm.

An Idea of Progress steps directly into this contested field. Its centrepiece, a banner covering SPACE Mare Street, mimics the real estate renderings on hoardings and billboards that have proliferated in many parts of the capital. The exhibition’s banner and video also draw on interviews with residents of Hackney, the rapidly-changing area where SPACE is located. Freely combining real estate fantasia with the wishes and anxieties of local residents, An Idea of Progress is a pastiche of possible urban futures.

Cities are always under construction. The transformation of the city inevitably causes political as well as personal strains; Baudelaire wrote that the city changes faster than the human heart.[3] But such change is not random, nor is it the outcome of natural processes. Urban change reflects political and social struggles. Whether or not the strange cityscape that is emerging in today’s unequal city should be seen as a sign of progress is precisely the concern of Argote’s exhibition.

Argote’s work speaks the visual language of urban growth on overdrive. The globalised, financialised real estate sector is filling London with new shapes and silhouettes. Speculative ventures are creating monumental gherkins, giant bulbous walkie-talkies and towering, fractured glass pyramids. Argote’s dreamscape is only slightly more grotesque than the strange geometries of the hypertrophied skyline that is actually sprouting across the city. His images invite us to ask who and what these mutated spaces are for.

That An Idea of Progress is being exhibited in Hackney is no accident. In recent years, this part of East London has seen some of the starkest population shifts in the region, as working-class families and long-established immigrant communities are being displaced. On many measures, the London Borough of Hackney still ranks amongst the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom. Yet Hackney also possesses extraordinary wealth. And the area has experienced the fastest rise in housing costs in all of Greater London.

The result is a district that is increasingly unequal and uneasy. Questions about what defines a successful neighbourhood and a desirable built environment are far from academic exercises here. Argote’s sculptural works incorporate archival material that shows Hackney’s residents voicing these concerns from the 1970s onwards. An Idea of Progress articulates a contemporary sense of crisis that has been decades in the making.

Hackney is also one of the many parts of London where the culture industries have been drafted into service for real estate. Art and artists have been used in the area to encourage and legitimise the process of gentrification, even as many cultural producers see themselves as amongst those displaced by it. Argote’s work represents the appropriate response: art that confronts urban conflict head on. Images of the future are always entangled with the struggles of the present. By making us think anew about these future visions, this exhibition questions the very role of art and imagery in the contemporary metropolis.

Taken as a whole, An Idea of Progress asks today’s Londoners to rethink our ideas about growth and development in the urban environment. What sort of urbanite would inhabit the future that Argote portrays? What sort of city do we desire? In the process of creating the future, it is necessary to pose these questions. Whose city, whose progress?

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[1] United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects: 2014 revision highlights (New York: United Nations, 2014): 1. Available online at http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Highlights/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf

[2] Boris Johnson, The Greatest City on Earth: Ambitions for London (London: Greater London Authority, 2013): 7-8. Available online at https://www.london.gov.uk/file/16207/download?token=FrawHvNb

[3] From “Le Cygne” (“The Swan,” 1861). See Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil,James McGowan, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 174-175.

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David J Madden is Assistant Professor in Sociology and the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. His work examines housing, public space, gentrification, urban politics and social theory. David holds a PhD from Columbia University and is a member of the editorial board of the journal CITY. He is co-author, with Peter Marcuse, of In Defense of Housing, forthcoming in 2016 (Verso).