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Miami Drift

Léopold Lambert

A map the author made of his trips in Miami.

This text could not start in any other way than by emphasizing how the following words are produced by my own subjectivity and built upon a single trip to Miami. Beyond the metaphorical aspect of the cities we visit being islands in an unknown sea, the map (pg. 37) gives the reader, who is likely to know Miami in a much better way than I do, an overview of the neighborhoods that I experienced when I was there.

My vision of Miami is influenced by the two texts “Generic Objects” (2010) and “Learning from Little Haiti” (2009) written by Gean Moreno and Ernesto Oroza, which I read before flying to the city. The first one describes the structure of the systems of objects conceived by capitalism as cogs of its function. In this regard, it is interesting to observe that the capitalist production is relatively indifferent to the design of its commodities—the stock exchange, its most extreme embodiment, does not even include a material commodity—on the other hand, the design of the systematic infrastructure is cautiously thought to provide optimal efficiency to its function. Moreno and Oroza thus describe how the norms in terms of containers, palettes, ships, cranes, and highways around the world have composed a holistic metric system allowing the globalization and acceleration of capitalism. In a conversation I had with them, we evoked the possibility of infiltrating the system, using these fluxes of goods and its various lubricants. Moreno and Oroza insist however in the impossibility of sabotaging—that is, etymologically and historically, putting a clog in the machine’s cogs—the system, because of its unstoppable indifference:

“Its indifference, its inwardness, the silence generated by its centripetal flows, should terrify us. It is monstrous in the way its energy absorbs all forms and meanings.” (Moreno and Oroza, Generic Objects, 2010)

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This essay is illustrated by photos taken by the author, often with a camera phone, often from a bicycle.

The text “Learning from Little Haiti” offers another form of action towards this system, not as much a resistance against it as a tinkering with its commodities in favor of more local economic forms. Moreno and Oroza describe the numerous speakers that populate the streets of Little Haiti. Used by local shops, the Creole music that comes out of them creates many spheres of intensity composing an invisible sonic urbanity oriented towards the nodes of its production. Moreno and Oroza describe a negotiation between this means of affirmation of local stores with the legal system that regulate them. The speakers, used as mobile objects, benefit from a looser control than the traditional permanent signs. The immanent aesthetics thus comes from the temporariness of the speaker’s position (often simply put on the floor) and its necessary connections (the wires going through a window or a door), as well as potential additional object coupling with other objects (cheap plastic grids, for example). Tinkering is at the core of what Oroza calls “architecture of necessity,” as the form of production that composes with its material inability to function within the capitalist logics.

In contrast with the skyscrapers of Downtown and the villas of the Venetian Islands, such an architecture reveals the social disparity that a city like Miami produces. I would like to insist on the term of production here as I use it intentionally: architecture is certainly not the only producer of social disparity, but not only does it crystalize social antagonism, it fuels it via the process of gentrification. In a beautiful auditorium of Coral Gables, five white architects, critics and curators—only one woman—declare their pride of curating and/or constructing the buildings that put Miami in the international spotlight. Someone in the audience asks a question about Liberty City, an impoverished neighborhood just outside of that spotlight, and one of gentrification’s future targets. One of the five architects recognizes honestly that he does not know how architects can resist this process. The others acknowledge “a problem” while undertaking perilous explanations about the fact that Liberty City’s current inhabitants—essentially African Americans—do not have as bad conditions of life as we usually assume. They continue to suggest that gentrified populations have the means to negotiate the terms of their role in the process with developers and politicians. It is difficult to determine if these architects were being disingenuous or absolutely disconnected from the reality of gentrification, which, in just a few years, evicts people from a neighborhood where they sometimes had lived all their life. While architects like to think that they do not share responsibility for the economic and political violence of gentrification, they are part of this process as much as other decisive actors, since it could not fully enfold itself without an architecture that corresponds to the needs of the gentrifying population. Bodies (often white) that move to neighborhoods subjected to this process do not simply move there: they bring with them a sphere of comfort that substantially modifies the economics of the place. Wine bars, cafes and expensive grocery stores open, the police department starts to operate for the neighborhood and no longer against it, and new buildings get built. The price of real estate thus rises, which facilitates the transition of a working class population to a middle-class one. Gentrifying architecture reflects how the latter group cannot accommodate itself with the current conditions of the neighborhood, and materializes their fears of the otherness by considerably increasing the security of the building and the exclusivity of those allowed inside.

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In response to the gentrifying architecture that brings capitalist value to a given area, a form of resistance to social disparity consists of design that refuses the economic value it could potentially claim. In my conversation in Aventura with designer Liliam Dooley, she describes the fabricating process of the dress of her project soberly titled X. Each dress is simply assembled out of two second-hand dresses that she had cut in half. The use of second-hand clothes implies, by definition, the uniqueness of each dress created by Dooley. Therefore, an economic value could potentially emerge from this status; however, she denies it, asserting instead the economic accessibility of the object as the main goal of the project. It is admittedly easier for a designer to have control over the economic value of her product when it is cloth, rather than when it is architecture. Nevertheless, such intentionality towards the economic consequences of one’s creation should inspire architects!
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Beyond objects of whatever size—architecture being considered as an object here—there are bodies and practices of the city. Artist Adler Guerrier, Miami’s embodiment of the flâneur, uses photography to document his walking drifts through the city. Theorized by Walter Benjamin in his writings about Charles Baudelaire in 1938, the figure of the 19th-century flâneur was an erratic character walking with no goal nor predetermined trajectory. Later the flâneur would be redefined politically by the 1960s Parisian collective the Situationists who would promote the dérive (drift) as simultaneously the social practice of the city and its various “psychogeographies,” as well as a behavior that generates no capital. Objects are indeed not the only ones to be commodifiable, practices like sex (transmission of pleasure), teaching (transmission of knowledge), or voting (transmission of power) acquire a certain value based on a certain amount of factors. The dérive, on the other hand, does not produce any economic value as it places the body outside of the system it observes, an embedded outsider of some sort. Such attitude can only be held temporarily as bodies remain tied to the system of objects—after all, the flâneur can only follow the paths that the city allows him/her to take—and no deep critique of a system can be done from outside of it.

In this matter, the cartography I made of Miami is the one that my bicycle flânerie has allowed me to accomplish. The photographs that accompany this text are instants of this drift that contextualizes my experience of the city. The speed that one reaches on a bicycle is interesting as it allows a body to move through the atmospheres of different neighborhoods, an openness that cars and buses lack. It is also more flexible than public transportation, which, in many cities, including Miami, is almost segregative due to its limited network. Establishing the car as the default mode of transportation, as is the case in many American cities, consists of an aggressive politics of denigration for people who can’t afford one. Those populations find themselves contained within their own neighborhood and denied of their “right to the city,” as theorized by Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book.

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These photographs show conflicting intentions that have materialized into objects. From the obstacles placed to gate Morningside, to the public housing units of Liberty City, this conflict is at the core of what we call politics, and the only choice we have to act upon it, is to embrace it. What I mean by that is that we should not try to depoliticize objects and/or ignore the social violence that they allow. Politics consists of the various organizing methods of a given society, whether they are triggered by a transcendental entity or more immanent democratic processes. Such organization cannot occur without creating certain antagonisms, of which objects are the incarnation. As a designer/architect myself, I know that nothing I design can exist without a certain violence; yet I can decide to intervene within a society that tends to crystalize the direction in which this violence is applied. I can attempt to orient this violence away from marginalized bodies, and towards the mechanisms of the status quo, as any attempt to defuse the political consequences of an object or architecture would only perpetuate the latter. Miami carries a certain amount of specificities that require a much deeper study than the one proposed here, yet the capitalist logic at work in its development has much in common with other Western cities. It is up to us to consider our level of complicity, and our resistance.

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  • This is a wonderful article focusing on the initiative which should take place in creating a language for the city as an answer to the gentrification complex. I was pleased to read Lambert cite Guerrier’s documentation of a dérive through our urban landscape as an example to note. Particularly in the realm of social practice. I look forward to more work and writing focusing on Miami’s provincial life and its correlation in proximity to art history.

    Of course it’s worth mentioning that this problem existed in the early seventeenth century in England with the obsession international French and Italian art as form cultural enlightenment and social status. Something that is prevalent in the contemporary art market. It was in this context that William Hogarth created a vernacular for this period in time and place with his work. Through his engravings and paintings he presented a dystopian narrative of life in England with notable works such as the “Rake’s Progress” and “Beer Street and Gin Lane”. However at the time his work was not considered serious. A problem which is still prevalent in contemporary art today for a number of reasons. I am curious to find if that may change in the future. However the dynamics which currently exist may make that endeavor very challenging.