DALLAS — For the next four years, the art and design initiative New Cities, Future Ruins plans to leave its mark on the United States Sun Belt. When the project’s inaugural meeting took place last month, artist Sophia Al-Maria captured the tone of the weekend when she explained how she came up with the term “Gulf Futurism”:
The [Persian] Gulf has a strange set of conditions which I think are perhaps unique — this real living memory of a deep historical way of life mixed with a super rapid development, that has taken centuries for many other places, suddenly dive-bombing the region. […] Through that I began to think about these conditions and I never came to any conclusions. Other than the very obvious ones [sic] that we’re all fucked.
The apocalypse is a popular subject — books and artworks and Hollywood films have been grappling with the human effects on the environment in the age of the Anthropocene for years now. But New Cities, Future Ruins questions the assumption that the apocalypse must be an impending disaster. A basic premise, borne out over the weekend’s events at the Meadows School for the Arts at Southern Methodist University (SMU), is that the apocalypse has in fact already happened. Now, we must learn to live in the world we have made, one in which we are, in fact, all fucked.
Although Al-Maria’s comments focused specifically on her conception of the Persian Gulf in the early 2000s, it’s useful to transpose some of those conditions onto the Sun Belt — a region spanning across Texas and New Mexico, up to Colorado, and down through Arizona and southern California. In his keynote address, Andrew Ross, author of Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City (2011), also invoked parallels between the Sun Belt and the Gulf: desert climates, economies driven by oil, rapid urban growth that erases or ignores indigenous ways of life, widespread migrations across borders. Ross’s talk was a call to action — a plea to reorient Americans’ collective, and ultimately capitalist, approach to environmental activism.
Ross speculated that the conservative right has in fact already accepted climate change as a reality, but rather than legislating for the preservation of natural resources, they have instead begun hoarding them. This is a chilling thought, especially in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s most recent cabinet appointments, such as Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Ross, like many of the participants of New Cities, Future Ruins, advocated for a renewed understanding of the means necessary for enacting meaningful environmental legislation: We must recognize climate change as a civil rights issue, rather than a corporate or merely economic one. We must, as activists Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman argued during their talk, approach activism as a bottom-up rather than a top-down process.
In keeping with this grassroots mentality, some of the most successful projects on view in New Cities, Future Ruins were those that engaged directly and thoughtfully with local communities. For instance, [bc]Workshop, a nonprofit community design center, has been working for the past several years in Dallas’s Jubilee Park, a historically African American neighborhood. The project, which builds houses for Jubilee Park’s longtime residents — whose homes were under threat due to changing economic conditions and demographics — demonstrates how implementing sustainable technology and building methods can combat gentrification in disenfranchised communities. [bc]Workshop’s methods involve interviewing residents to learn about their daily habits and how they ideally utilize their domestic space, from gardening to watching television to storage needs. The designers then place the family in a Holding House on Congo Street built specifically for the project while their new home is built. The Congo Street Initiative serves as a means for thinking about the implications of institutions and companies who arrive as outsiders to a community in need, and for treating the resultant relationship ethically and respectfully.
As a contrast to the more practical and site-specific presentations, many of the performers at New Cities, Future Ruins focused on imaginary utopian futures that would destroy or upend dominant social structures. Autumn Knight’s performance “L-A Consortium” (the dash is not silent) is set in the wake of an unnamed but presumably revolutionary event that has resulted in black people becoming the controlling arbiters of all cultural institutions in Texas. Knight cast her fellow performers (NCFR participants Iv Amenti, lauren woods, David Herman, and RonAmber Deloney) as a committee tasked with building a new nonprofit, donor-sponsored consortium of cultural organizations — the names of which are more conspicuously ethnically diverse compared to the usual endowed institutions one sees even nationally (e.g., Shepanique Center for Literacy, NaQuante Gallery, La shiri Center for Curatorial Studies). Knight instructed the committee members to present and react to each other’s proposals by using a prescribed set of body language — the side-eye, the lip pucker, the shoulder shake — that resulted in hilarious yet poignant moments of communication. For the space of her performance, Knight provided both ideological and visual means for subverting current cultural norms, and for imagining an alternative world in which rubbing a colleague’s “kitchen” is an officially sanctioned gesture of accord.
If the larger project of New Cities, Future Ruins is to establish an ethics of urban development and preservation, which it certainly has the capacity to do, it will be as a result of intelligent and creative projects that confront the cultural and environmental realities of the Sun Belt, while reimagining ways of living — even thriving — among them. As Gavin Kroeber, artistic director of New Cities, Future Ruins, reminded attendants, the Sun Belt is, at least in the American imaginary, the Rust Belt’s foil: if the Rust Belt is a post-industrial wasteland of economic depression and pollution, then the Sun Belt is the wave of the future, gleaming urban sprawl and economic boom. But of course, the rapid growth across America’s southwest contributes to mounting racial injustices and sustainability issues. It is the ambitious goal of New Cities, Future Ruins to articulate these conflicts, and to create a set of events over the next four years — artist residencies, public projects, and exhibitions — that will guide the discourse around those issues facing the country’s fastest-growing region. Now that the time span of New Cities, Future Ruins coincides almost eerily with the United States’ next presidential term, the initiative stands as a potential source of resistance to narratives that deny climate change and institutional racism.
The “New Cities, Future Ruins” Convening took place at the Meadows School of the Arts at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) (6101 Bishop Blvd, Dallas, Texas) November 11–14.