ART WITH THE CITY *
Gerardo Mosquera and Adrienne Samos
ciudadMULTIPLEcity was inspired by Panama City. Often in urban art events, the idea comes first and then the city. The city acts more like a site, a place where the volition, energy, organization, institutional framework, and above all, the financial support necessary to carry out the idea all come together. This is not to say that no valuable works have been made, and in direct response to a specific city, but that the conceptions behind interactions between city and art lean toward the generic. Our case worked the other way round. The unique characteristics of Panama City fascinated us, and we decided to plan an artistic project with the city as its protagonist.
The project was launched in an environment with no tradition of state and private support for culture in general, and still less interest in promoting contemporary art. Panama City was, therefore, both the stimulus and the problem. Despite the relative stability of the country’s economy and society, it has only one museum of modern and contemporary art with a small budget, and the city has scant cultural centers and alternative spaces. There are few places in the world centered so exclusively on business, and where the dominant classes and the State have so little interest in culture.
Under these circumstances, a group of artists were called together to work not only in the city, but with the city, by designing projects that would have a direct impact on the metropolitan area, its communities, imaginaries, problems, dreams, preoccupations... Art capable of resonating with the people in the street and with the life and dynamics of the multiple, complex capital of a tiny global country. However, from an organizational point of view, the city was not prepared to manage an intricate project of such a scale: it was to be the most important event in the field of the visual arts in the history of Panama. This contradiction led to successes and limitations at the same time.
Indeed the institutional weakness of the city was a problem, but this was yet another reason to develop an event of urban art on a social level. In a small country with a conservative and outworn artistic scene, and a very limited audience for contemporary art, it was appealing to explore the possibilities of certain current practices to go beyond the art world and reach ordinary citizens.
Another important factor leading to ciudadMULTIPLEcity was that young artists, critics, architects, and writers in Panama have discovered the city in recent years and are working within a distinctly urban poetics. So this was a propitious moment to conjure up a project intersecting the interests and work of many Panamanian intellectuals. This new generation is transforming the prevailing flatness and tradition-laden atmosphere in the city and starting to receive international attention. Most of these young Panamanians (as well as foreign residents) participated in carrying out ciudadMULTIPLEcity, a collective effort that provided them with valuable opportunities and inspiration for their own work. The event began in that spirit and was part of an internal evolution taking place in the culture of the country; it did not come “from outside” to act as catalyst. On the contrary, it acted as a spur for the renovating efforts of recent years in the country and marked a milestone in the search for an art that is critical, advanced and vigorously cultural.
The extreme narrowness of the isthmus and its strategic location between two oceans made Panama a global city before globalization. Bridges unite sections of land, but the land of Panama has bridged the waters of the world, even centuries before the interoceanic canal was built. During the Renaissance, transcontinental traffic was Panama’s raison d’être. Even indigenous animals and plants of both North and South America coexist in this nucleus of crosscurrents. Gate to the world, hub of air and sea transportation, center of fiber optic telecommunications for the Caribbean, Central and South America, financial and commercial emporium, paradise for all kinds of businesses, this city has become, in a highly internationalized globe, the epitome of transit and movement.
Panama City is not a new capital of services born out of nowhere, like several urban centers in China. Panama City’s long and tumultuous history can be traced back to the beginning of the Spanish conquest. Panamá la Vieja (Old Panama), the first European capital founded on the American mainland, was built in 1519 by the Spaniards and destroyed in 1671 by Henry Morgan, the pirate. Present-day Panama City, founded further west in 1673, harbors the ruins of the ancient city. The historic quarter, declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO, ranks as the most important among all of Central America's capitals.
Restricted to the South by the ocean and to the North by the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone (until 2000 a military enclave, a country within another, whose boundary was an avenue of the capital), the city was forced to grow along a narrow cone-shaped strip, with the old part of town as its vertex standing at the banks of the Panama Canal. Thus the city tended to grow upwards, to such an extreme that it has become one of the tallest cities in the world in proportion to the number of inhabitants: around a million in a country of less than three million. Its skyline and character resemble Singapore and other South Asian metropolises, and contrast with the small-town appearance of Central American capitals (although in many aspects Panama City remains a global village with skyscrapers).
Nevertheless, the landscape of this concrete emporium, plastered with commercial propaganda, is dramatically marked by nature: the ocean that surrounds it and the jungle from which it seems to have been excavated, reappearing in every garden and park. Here one can go in minutes from the urban center to the jungle—harboring one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world—and in a few minutes more to a village where the Emberá live in tribal conditions. Despite its hot, humid climate and torrential rains, it has been named "the coldest city in the tropics" due to the abuse of air conditioning in cars, homes, and workplaces. It is no understatement to say that Panamanians have turned their backs on the all-pervading nature, and on the city itself, whose anarchical complexity they fail to comprehend.
Until recently, Panamanians have also turned their backs on the Canal, that great icon with which the entire world identifies this country. The Canal Zone, governed by the U.S. military and restricted to Panamanian citizens, was in fact a parallel capital for almost a century. The Zone’s way of life—its order, cleanliness, dense forests, its residential areas designed as garden cities, its modest and functional architecture—became fixed in the minds of Panamanians as some sort of social, technological and urban utopia, even conditioning the negative image they have of themselves. As the Canal was being gradually transferred to the Panamanian government, that “architecturally correct” and forbidden territory began to open up and reveal itself—literally surrounding the chaotic urban agglomeration of Panama City. No other metropolis in the world is faced with the opportunity and challenge to effectively integrate those large green spaces, right next to the urban fabric but of which Panamanians were vaguely aware.
Panama’s delirious modernity—filled with skyscrapers and prosperous commercial zones, and boasting one of the world’s most important banking centers—cannot hide its architectural and urban chaos, or the growing poverty of most of its population. Colossal traffic jams, buildings of the most ornate pastiche with façades disfigured by dripping air conditioners and pipes of all sizes, historic areas, ruins both ancient and modern, luxury restaurants, casinos and bingo parlors, kiosks, Chinese grocery stores, shopping centers, tourists, Native Panamanians in their traditional dress, street vendors, temples to every god, hand-painted posters alongside flamboyant digital screens… and noise, lots of noise. As a result of wild speculation (some call it “tropical capitalism”) due to money laundering and a corrupt judicial system, the urban fabric seems to have been built by accident, in a swift, spontaneous, forceful and arbitrary way. Buildings and superhighways swallow up the sidewalks and green areas, alienating pedestrians, who are becoming increasingly intimidated by an environment they feel less and less related to.
Panama City, the only American capital founded off the Pacific Ocean, is, nonetheless, Caribbean in culture and tradition. Its proximity to the Caribbean Sea (due to the narrowness of the isthmus) caused it to be inextricably linked to the historical dynamics of the Caribbean area, rather than those of Mesoamerican civilizations, or the ancient Capitaincy General of Guatemala (to which it never belonged, in contrast to the rest of Central America). Due to its unique geographical shape, and to the enormous cultural and demographic weight of its principal urban centers, Panama City and Colon, this country is virtually a Caribbean island wedged into the mainland: ocean to the north and south; to the east the so-called Darien “gap”, a jungle so impenetrable that it prevents communication with South America, thus historically isolating the country from Colombia; and to the east, an inactive border with Costa Rica (and its Talamanca mountain range) that marks the southern limit of Mesoamerica. A frontier between two worlds.
The Caribbean nature of the capital is reinforced by the massive influx of immigrants from the English-speaking Antilles who have settled in Panama for various reasons throughout history. Hence the city uniquely combines the Hispanic Caribbean (its salsa, its distinctive Spanish) with the Anglo-Antillean (its calypso, its spicy food, and so forth). Immigrants from these English-speaking isles have spread their language since the nineteenth century in the Latin American country that is also the most strongly influenced by the U.S. after Puerto Rico.
Axis of communications and global commerce, Panama possesses an ethnic and cultural diversity akin to much larger cities. For this reason it was chosen, twenty years ago, as the seat of the fifth Bahai Temple (there are only seven in the world). Along with the various Native Panamanian groups, Hindu, Arab, Jewish, Chinese, Greek, Japanese, Spanish, French and Italian communities follow their cultural and religious traditions, adapted to the rare modernity of this tropical city. Panama is the only place in Latin America where mosques, an imposing Hindu temple, synagogues, Korean churches, Santería houses of worship, and traditional Chinese temples founded in the nineteenth century (where, of course, Kuan Kung, the old war god of wealth and commerce, is worshiped) all coexist. Multiple dynamics of fragmentation, hybridization and contrast have given the city a unique profile.
The district of San Felipe, at the core of the historic quarter, was the scene for various ciudadMULTIPLEcity works. Many participating artists were attracted to its historical setting and its hybrid cultural life, which encompasses diverse ethnic groups and social classes. Not yet overly contaminated by tourism and commercial gentrification, nor by street crime (as is true of the nearby neighborhoods of Barraza and El Chorillo), it is a popular district where the Presidential Palace coexists with the noise of the street vendors. Its colonial heritage includes sections of the fortress wall that once surrounded the city, the main cathedral, and numerous Spanish colonial churches, convents, monasteries, houses and plazas. Also worth noting are the French, Italian, Colombian, and North American influences on its architecture, as well as the underestimated patrimony of wooden houses from the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, characteristic of the Lesser Antilles and a significant testimony of the construction of the French and North American canals.
Despite its fascinating peculiarities, Panama is a city with no myth. It suffers from a lack of representations, of symbols to define and interpret it. On the outside, it is identified by its bad image of Americanization, commercialism, dirty business deals, money laundering, and corruption. Its inhabitants import their identity from the rural folklore of the country's central provinces, U.S. pastiche, and shreds of European, African and Eastern cultures. But in reality, not even that is taken seriously. As Roque Javier Laurenza wrote more than two decades ago: "The damned geographic determinism and its transit zone, a fact that hangs over all Panamanian existence, has produced a human type that only has eyes for immediate and tangible things."  Here, the collective memory is volatile, nothing stays for long. But perhaps this very lightness of being—which gives way to a creativity unaware of itself, fusing everything without fear of being kitsch or absurd—is perhaps the most genuine attribute that identifies Panama City’s dwellers.
In fact, transit has determined that Panama be a city that is always used and seen in passing. The hegemonic presence of the Canal Zone has also deviated attention from this unique metropolis. In spite of its cultural value and diversity, it needs legitimizing even among its own citizens. ciudadMULTIPLEcity aimed to offer a new appreciation of the city by making it a living protagonist of works of art that would in turn act upon it. The event brought together nine visual artists from various countries, so they could react to the city and work with it as passers-by, while three Panamanian artists would work on the basis of their long experience as locals. ciudadMULTIPLEcity was not conceived as a sociological and artistic investigation or as a long interactive experience of foreign artists with the city and its communities, but rather as a response to the transit, fragmentation and rapidity, all distinctive traits of Panama City. The artists were faced with the challenge of conceiving simple, direct works that could reach the people and at the same time constitute advanced and even experimental examples of urban art. Works with various layers of meaning that would explore how well contemporary art can communicate with a wider audience, instead of its typically elite public.
The artists were selected on the basis of their previous experience or talent for tackling the types of creations we had in mind. In some cases we chose preexisting projects that could be adapted to what we were looking for, and in other cases we worked with the artists on new pieces based on earlier projects. But most of the artists created original work as a direct result of their relationship with Panama City. The foreign artists visited the city beforehand to plan their projects, and returned later to carry them out. They responded and actively related to physical, social, and cultural aspects of the city, struggling with its seductions and crucial problems.
In contrast to urban projects that move from the city toward art —that is, where the city is treated like raw material, a theme or a setting for pieces that can sometimes turn out to be very subjective and “closed”—the works of ciudadMULTIPLEcity were directed to move in a circle: from the city toward art and from art toward the city. Some works invited participation, others not, but both the works themselves as well as the artists’ working methods generated multiple dialogues with the metropolis, its people and imaginaries. All the ephemeral public works created for ciudadMULTIPLEcity were exhibited or conducted during a month: from March 20 to April 20, 2003.
We chose to use a decentralized curatorial method. Each of the foreign participants had a young local artist as principal liaison, who, with various collaborators, was responsible for helping in every way. They acted as direct collaborators for the visitors from the time of their first stay in Panama, above all in their relations with the city and in arranging the logistics for each project. As curators we played a more active role in the planning phase, in artistic control, and in the general guidance of the event. We adopted this method as a strategy for both curatorial and practical reasons. In order to carry out a project so complex and laborious, we had to find solutions to make up for the lack of existing structures and institutional support. The decentralization of the work was the only way it could be achieved, but at the same time, it was the ideal method for the visiting artists to get to know the city and its surroundings more intimately. As curators, we analyzed the philosophy of the event with them, presented a general overview of the city, and discussed each projected work. But it was the local artists who took the visitors to key places, to local bars, and walked the streets with them.
From another angle—and of equal importance—we launched ciudadMULTIPLEcity as a large informal workshop, where Panamanian artists, students, professors, and designers could work with colleagues with greater expertise, or coming from other areas and bearers of different life experiences. From the beginning we designed the event to include a wide range of educational programs, much needed in a country where artistic education is weak. As part of the event’s educational agenda, the visiting artists gave slide-talks about their works and took part in other public gatherings. All these interchanges were mutually enriching: both the visitors and the local artists gained knowledge and experience, as did city-dwellers. The young Panamanian artists were also able to make contacts beyond the prevailing isolation of their own milieu.
Very close working relations and friendships were established between the visiting artists and the local ones responsible for the project. Working side by side contributed in major ways to making concrete artistic decisions and to the practical realization of the initial ideas. Moreover, many artists, students, designers, architects, and professors shared directly or indirectly in the execution of the works. Patricia Belli, Nicaragua’s most outstanding artist, even traveled to Panama City along with a dozen young artists to work on the event. Their participation was a key element in the work by Francis Alÿs and Rafael Ortega. Perhaps even more important than the collective labor was the degree to which these young people, along with the local team responsible for each project, made possible the live contact of the visiting artists with the city.
Another outcome was that the projects were well adjusted to the city and in accord with the aims of the event. As mentioned above, this was due to the artists being able to delve cozily into the city’s rough byways, going well beyond an outsider’s approach. The network of human relations with colleagues and other local people around each participating artist, made such understanding possible.
We consider that two of the three satisfactory results of the project were, first, the educational benefits from gaining new experiences, information, and expertise; secondly, the skill with which the works were created to construct an array of meanings that worked rewardingly with the city and its communities, and in terms of contemporary art. The third accomplishment, inseparable from the second, was the value of the works within the broadest range of contemporary practices in urban art and discussions concerning it. We think that most of the works–seen in their interweaving with the context and their impact on it—formulated plausible answers to the intricate problems of urban art being discussed in the world today. The interest that was awakened goes beyond the local aspects of the project, although it cannot be detached from them.
ciudadMULTIPLEcity succeeded in stimulating the artists toward a more active interchange with their surroundings, to work in a more connected way and on wider, more open and diverse levels of communication than customary. They have expressed their satisfaction with an experience that, in their opinion, broadened the reaches of their work. The works “looked like Panama City”, and people understood them, notwithstanding their structural, aesthetic and semantic sophistication. Rich in artistic meanings, they communicated dynamically and touched on critical points.
The visual arts constitute a highly specialized, intellectualized and closed field, due to the passivity and hermeticism of the academic community, the fetishized artwork, and the consequent action of a very powerful luxury market. Furthermore, its audience keeps diminishing as the mass media increasingly gain territory in depoliticizing and trivializing culture. These factors go hand in hand with an increasing erosion of the public sphere.
However, the freedom and methodological ecumenism of contemporary artistic practices, its flexibility and approach to “real life”, can evolve into a broader, collective action. We applaud certain openings of art toward fields and devices of popular and mass culture, humor and spectacle, whenever these construct meaning and possess a critical edge. We all live immersed in a “society of spectacle,” so why not take advantage of some of its practices in a participatory broadening of an art that is incisive, which prompts discussion, an art even radical and subversive? Of course, one always runs the risk that the spectacular side might steal the show. But art must take more risks toward the use of hybrid forms, to go beyond the simple postmodern exchange of referents and techniques between the “high” and “low” spheres, which retain their own circuits and aesthetic-symbolic systems. In short, an urban art is needed that subverts the frontiers between both spheres to create new audiences through innovative and collective practices that emerge in the context of specific communities, practices directed to them, which question and defy our usual perceptions and the basic structures and interests on which the city operates.
The works of ciudadMULTIPLEcity suffered some of the implicit contradictions in the dichotomies expressed above. However, to a large extent almost all the works were conceived as heterogeneous experiments with a critical and aesthetic sense, resulting in a fusion of contemporary practices (video, photography, conceptual art, appropriation, happening, action, participatory art, etc.) and elements of the entertainment industry (Artigas, Milanés, Alfaro, Vélez), of advertisement (Araujo, Amer), of vernacular culture (Amer, Vélez, Palomino, Gu Xiong), of mass culture (Alfaro, Alÿs) and community work (Alfaro, Vélez, and artway of thinking). Its value as works of urban art derives precisely from their fluid interplay of languages and media to create meaning—while allowing that meaning to be “distorted” by its contact with diverse social agents—and not merely mixing one thing with another.
At times they worked “too” well. The most dramatic case was that of Ghada Amer. One of her critical billboards, in this instance against the corruption of government officials, was set up facing the Comptroller’s Office of the Republic. The Comptroller demanded that the work be removed, but we refused. He appealed to the Mayor’s Office, which had given written permission to place the sign there. They contacted us to say that they had made a mistake, and that existing laws prohibited signs in that location, so they proceeded to remove it. A few days later two more billboards vanished mysteriously. One against political corruption was placed in a park on a central avenue and the other one against gluttony was put in front of a McDonald’s. The size, weight and placement of these billboards required several people, heavy equipment and a truck to remove them, so their disappearance was obviously not a mere case of vandalism or spontaneous robbery. As of now, these works of art have not been found.
This scandalous act, recalling the practices of totalitarian countries, clearly showed the repressive side of a society that is liberal only on the surface, revealing a mind-set and schemes that would fit the kind of military dictatorship that oppressed Panama for more than twenty years. Amer was almost glad about what happened, because it verified the significance of her work. Other incidents concerning works by Gustavo Araujo, Jesús Palomino, and Humberto Vélez also confirmed the extent to which ciudadMULTIPLEcity was immersed in the contradictions and power structures that have taken over the public space of the city.
In our view, the biggest failure of ciudadMULTIPLEcity was the incapacity to enlarge its possibilities for interchange and socio-cultural work with the different communities of the urban area. The lack of organizational structure and the countless problems connected with an event of this kind in a difficult city, meant that we had to spend too much time on logistical and administrative problems, to the detriment of the curatorial work with communities. The dialogue between the works and the artists, vis-à-vis the people of the city, would have been much richer had we been able to develop concrete programs of information, participation, and debate with schools, grass-roots institutions and other groups of civil society. This flaw was partly compensated by the organization of many public conferences and by the wide coverage of the projects by the press, radio and television, all of which strongly supported the event. But more could have been done in both areas from a cultural and educational standpoint. The artworks themselves remained somewhat unaided in their relationship with the city, having to communicate with its dwellers directly, with few mediators to amplify and reinforce their messages.
The catalogue of ciudadMULTIPLEcity is also a book about Panama City and about general questions concerning contemporary urban areas, especially in Latin America. It could not be otherwise, since the city was the protagonist of the event. This volume tries to present the complexities of the city visually, through pictures by leading Panamanian photographers, and with a design that seeks to follow the city’s distinct image. The city is also discussed in depth by Margot López, Eduardo Tejeira Davis and Alvaro Uribe—major specialists on the subject. Equally significant are the “hinges” that link each text. Conceived by writer Alberto Gualde and artist Jonathan Harker, these hinges throw light upon different facets of Panama City, with succinct acuity and humor. Also included are essays by Jorge Francisco Liernur, Carlos Monsiváis and Armando Silva—three of most important thinkers on the complex situation of Latin American cities. In that way we hope to contribute to a clearer recognition of Panama City’s character, its values and its chaos, conflicts and seductions. We hope the book will also contribute to the discussion of wider problems that affect cities in our neoliberal, globalized world. One of the burning themes of the twenty-first century is precisely the urban question. The dynamic of cities is already causing dramatic changes in society and culture worldwide. The connection between art and city has not evolved very far as yet, but will probably indicate a main course of action for artistic practice in the near future.
* The texts published in this site first appeared in the book ciudadMULTIPLEcity. Art >Panama 2003. Urban Art and Global Cities: an Experiment in Context (KIT Publishers, Amsterdam: 2005).
 Ironically, Panama has been the only Latin American country to break diplomatic relations with the United States. After the tragic riots of 9 January 1964, Panamanian President Roberto Chiari denounced the unfair canal treaties and charged the US with aggression. Relations were resumed only after Lyndon Johnson publicly guaranteed the US would engage in a "full and frank" review of the treaties.
 Roque Javier Laurenza: "Las ideas y el panameño típico", in La República (Panama, ERSA, May 1978).
 See Bennett Simpson: “Multiple City: Arte Panamá 2003” in Third Text, Vol. 17, No. 3 (London: Routledge, September 2003), pp. 288-294.
 For more details on institutional authoritarianism in Panama and on the fate of Amer’s works and other abuses against participating artists in ciudadMULTIPLEcity, see Lina Vega Abad: “Entre la anarquía y el autoritarismo” in La Prensa (Panama: 26 March 2003), p. 6A.