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Dérives Versus Derivatives: the Future/s Value of The Underline

Felice Grodin

I want to like The Underline, Miami’s planned 10 mile linear park located under a southern stretch of the raised Metrorail. And I want to list all of the positive attributes that compel it as an improvement to the city’s urban fabric – including four recent artists’ commissions nested within it; however, much has already been written to that effect, and I suspect my interest in this project is triggered by a broader history of the manipulation of public space. So I’ve begun to look at The Underline sideways, rotating the prism, allowing a legible inversion to emerge that unveils a pattern recognition previously masked by surface affect. Doing this requires me to remove my humanist or neo-liberal glasses and replace them with the x-ray enabled shades in John Carpenter’s film They Live. In the film it becomes clear that we societally ‘conform and obey’ without being aware of such manipulation. Similarly, public space and urban infrastructure are empowered by agencies of power behind the scenes. So in order to evaluate The Underline, I have to begin with the future. As in the future leaking backwards, shaping what we see as our present, while at same token ‘fixing’ the past.

I first experienced The Underline through renderings. By renderings I mean close encounters of the digital kind. But unlike the grafted CGI animated extravaganzas indicative of, for example, the downtown development Miami Worldcenter, The Underline renderings show the ‘before’ and the ‘after,’ seemingly designed to denote ‘before’ – bad, ‘after’ – good. In viewing a cropped perspective in the form of a bland and lonely black and white photograph somewhere under the Metrorail,we see in parallel the same perspective digitally enhanced with teeming technicolored landscapes, streaming cyclists and weekend workout warriors. We find ourselves somewhere under the rainbow and the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades (here we go again). I wonder what’s lacking and what’s excessive about these renderings. They seem to convince me that the project is a win-win. An internationally recognized design firm James Corner Field Operations (they did the High Line in New York right?) enhances a similar linear urban condition within the framework of a public-private partnership between Miami-Dade Parks & Transit departments, and the non-profit Friends of the Underline. My eyes keep looking at those renderings though…Why is it necessary for many public projects to pit the old against the new?

I remember an article by Hito Steyerl – “How Kill To People: A Problem of Design.” She writes about the notion of creative destruction and how accelerated capitalism dissolves and absorbs all things. This recalls Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of axiomatic reterritorialization otherwise known as the capitalist death drive. Steyerl proposes to imagine design as a ‘reverse bulldozer,’ digitally wiping before and after scenes of urban development to tidy up the messiness of the ghosts of the past. “The video uses wipes to transition from one state to another, from present to future, from elected municipality to emerging rule, from working class neighborhood to prime real estate. Wipes as a filmic means are a powerful political symbol. They show displacement by erasure, or more precisely replacement. They clear one image by showing in another and pushing the old one out of sight.” So what is the before that the after is “pushing out” in the case of The Underline? Is the project simply augmenting a banal and underutilized piece of land? As I gaze at the various images of the extended site, what becomes evident is the grafting of transportational infrastructure in Miami. The Metrorail appears as a gigantic centipede snaking its way through the urban tissue of the city. Looking up downtown Miami on Google Earth, I notice that at certain elevations the Metrorail overlays onto the city grid and at others it congeals and fuses with various tethered veins of highway. This territorial network is of horizontal and stealth circuitry. Metrorail is thus analogous to an invasive species. Invasive species are nothing new to South Florida which attracts them more than any other part of the United States. Therefore a fitting creature for the Metrorail might be the Burmese python which leverages existing ecosystems for its own efficiency and advantage. And like a thin veneer that separates above and below, our sea level is its datum. The recently completed tunnel, nicknamed ‘Harriet’, serpentines under Government Cut connecting the PortMiami via the MacArthur Causeway to I-95. On any given day one can sit in the sculpted plaza sandwiched between the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science and observe the frequency of emerging shipping containers transported by trucks. The ebbs and flows of goods are heavily trafficked on our landscape, but we rarely notice. In another case,transportational infrastructure is both an urban cause and effect. One such case in Miami is Overtown. Overtown was developed to house the labor force that built the original Florida East Coast Railway. But by 1965 the implementation of Interstate 95, the East-West Dolphin Expressway and later Metrorail, had supplanted large areas of Overtown. Yet Overtown also utilizes public transit. According to “Metro Atlantic: Architecture, cities, transit and urbanism,” the Overtown Metrorail station is the fastest growing in Miami since 2007 by 84%. If The Underline is a new urban concept that laminates onto the old, can infrastructure be something that, despite decoupled planning restrictions, have an emancipatory potential beyond these limits?

In 1971, the experimental architectural group Superstudio illustrated a theoretical project called Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (12 Ideal Cities). Alternately dystopian and utopian, its seventh city, Continuous Production Conveyor Belt City both produces (resource extraction) and consumes (growth). The city marches “…unrolling like a majestic serpent, over the hills, from the mountains to the seashore…” At the front end the city grows generic buildings that are a mass-produced, and at the rear they decay. The cyclical nature of such a representation is more akin to the capitalized fluidity of the real estate market than fixed architecture. If we consider a city through the lenses of They Live, we realize that claims are made at the level of infrastructure that can control, inflect and regulate our lives without us necessarily realizing it. The architect and urbanist Keller Easterling calls this potential battleground “extrastatecraft.” She defines the often invisible lines that intersect us as having embedded agency or disposition. Due to the systemic scales and layers of infrastructural systems and their circulatory trajectories, binary rules do not apply. What is at play, she reveals, is the power latent in protocols, viruses, multipliers and switches within relational and market logics – much like software. And much like software, its agency lies not in the linguistic claims made about a particular cause or concern, but how it operates.

Archigram’s 1964 Plug-In City

Another hypothetical project, Archigram’s 1964 Plug-In City, also does not comply with the traditional architectural ethos of form follows function, but rather form follows fluctuation. Consisting of a diagonal matrix bisected by a high speed monorail, all things grow or die in this littoral zone such as “residential units, escalator tubes, shop supply tubes & silos, shopunits, local good sorting, compound unit shops, craneways, heavy duty railways, maximum circulation areas, fast roads, local parking and environmental seal balloons.” It is as if the slick glass fiber-optic free zone cities Easterling critiques have been turned inside out. With all things exposed there are opportunities to hack directly into the mainframe.

If then, as Easterling points out, “entrepreneurs design not only the product but also its passage through a market,” why can’t art have a similar approach to utilizing infrastructure? And why not view infrastructure as an artistic medium? The recent inaugural commission by the Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs program Art in Public Places of four distinct art interventions are full of such promise, especially with consideration to the future. Rather than viewing these interventions as “contemporary art,” is it not more useful to consider them as valves? Valves are another Easterling-like operation that “may generate effects some distance down the road or the line.” Contingencies may be factored in that produce unintended results. Like prototypes that are tactically inserted into a system, they metrically bend to that system, and the system itself is thereby bent creating a mutation.

So what if we forecast these future forms beyond The Underline renderings of today? As artist Diann Bauer recently wrote in her essay You Promised Me Primer and You Gave Me Gossip Girl, “We can see this in derivatives markets, where the agreement to buy or sell an asset in the future at a certain price effects how that thing is traded in fact today. This projected future takes on a truth value because it effects things in the present…it doesn’t matter if that future actually comes to pass or not, because it has already had its moment of truth by altering the present…”

Rendering of Nick Lobo’s The Brutal Workout

What if I were to invest in the value of Bhakti Baxter’s Metro Flower Power nodes as eventual community gardens, or Naomi Fisher’s #PUZZLED, where through iterations of public gatherings, it spawns a new realm of the commons? What about Nick Lobo’s The Brutal Workout, a structure that implies much potential beyond its function as an exercise station. As the years advance, its off-the-shelf piping multiplies around and fuses to The Underline, tapping into the plumbing supply. Water becomes available to everyone and services a community besieged by climate change and sea level rise. People live within the structure and have built pods that span its modules. The modulation itself has become developed and zoned over the years to adapt to changes, needs, and populations. Finally, what became of Agustina Woodgate’s migrating The original bicycle-powered mobile radio station is now an historical prototype. It was powered by a one standard solar panel connected to a laptop and moved by the sweat of human, solar and digital labor compressed into piloted radio waves that inform, pressure and mold the future via public broadcasting.

I believe in The Underline. I believe in the value that art programming may bring to it. But I’ll bet on its future. Or, perhaps better said, I believe in the capacity of its future(s) potential, and how it may traverse time to transform our present.

Felice Grodin is an artist with a background in architecture. Her practice is focused on alternative landscapes that span both the micro and macro scale.

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