This is an archive site for NCFR's 2016 convening. Visit the homepage for updates on our next phase.

Blog/ A Talk with NCFR Artistic Director Gavin Kroeber

art Urbanism #NCFR2016 Dallas Southwest SMU
Oct 10, 2016

November's convening marks the beginning of New Cities Future Ruins, a four-year curatorial initiative that seeks to question and respond to the rapid urbanization of America's Western Sunbelt. As a way to get to know the many facets of the project, we will talk to members of the project team, advisers and participants on this blog.

In this first discussion, artistic director Gavin Kroeber breaks down some of the founding principles for the project, as well as his formative interests.

Rewind to the beginning of your career, what made you form your practice around the intersection of art and urbanism?

We live in a moment defined by the mutual re-composition of art and the city.

I mean, first, that urban spaces are being remade as venues for art at a fever pitch. Living in New York, I saw this most clearly in the creation of the Park Avenue Armory, Governors Island, and the High Line, which represent a new breed of vast, re-purposed, post-industrial art venues. In Dallas we might talk about the Arts District.

At the same time, arts institutions are venturing ever more frequently out of their traditional architectures and into the streets—again, when I was in New York some of the most salient examples were initiatives like the BMW Guggenheim Lab or the New Museum’s Ideas City festival, though of course there has also been an explosion of public art groups and festivals like No Longer Empty or Performa that weave their programs into the urban fabric. In Dallas the Nasher’s XChange project might be a good place to start.

As art and the city move towards one another, the ways we experience each—and the ways we conceive of each—are being transformed. To my eyes, art and urbanism aren’t just intersecting, but creating a new space: literally, new physical spaces in the city animated by art, and metaphorically, a hybrid disciplinary space.

I didn’t exactly choose this space. It’s all around us, and it’s growing—it’s a defining feature of our culture right now.

Where did the idea for NCFR come from?

New Cities, Future Ruins is a multi-year initiative founded by art centers at three universities—SMU Meadows, ASU Gammage, and the UTEP Rubin Center—and each partner have their own reasons for getting involved.

Fundamentally, however, there are three shared goals: First, to build a network of practitioners—from inside the region and out, working across disciplines—that are engaging the issues of rapid urbanization and sustainability (ecological, economic, and social) that sit so close to the surface in the cities of the Western Sun Belt. Second, to create opportunities for artists and designers to realize visionary projects in these places. Third, to move these cities towards center of international thinking, as important sites that illuminate planetary crises.

For me, personally, this project is also about challenging inherited biases. These are cities that render urgent issues legible in compelling ways—yet they struggle for visibility against a prevalent anti-suburbanism and persistent Romanticism. The discourse of the critical art world predominantly focuses on other sites of crisis: the ruin porn of the Rust Belt, the orientalist fantasia of Asian mega-cities (and lets not forget the allure of the Land Art sites and postcard Southwest landscapes just out past the edge of town). These are frontier cities, defined by their relationships to the historic frontier and the frontera, and they represent a frontier for art practice as well.

You're based in St. Louis, why are you so concerned about the Western Sunbelt?

The urbanized West represents an ascendant paradigm and an emerging crisis. These are growth-machine cities in extreme environments—some of the fastest-growing in the nation, sprawling explosively into fragile ecosystems. These are the capitals of the “demographic gap” states, places with intense racial divergences between the oldest third of the populace (80% Anglo in AZ) and the youngest (40%). The dynamic change in these places is producing new political blocks and challenging entrenched powers. On these levels and others, these are cities that seem to be charting the direction of North American urbanism—raising the question of whether our ways of life can or should persist.

The patterns aren’t unique but they are especially legible, almost pure. The extreme environments play off the extreme growth. There’s not much historic urban fabric to compete with the subdivisions, freeways, commercial centers, and logistics sites. In a lot of these places, the sense of history has been invested in the Western landscape surrounding the city, leaving the built environment feeling a bit unmoored, like islands of contemporaneity floating on a sea of regional myth. It creates a kind of petri dish effect. To me, an outsider, it feels like you can see the dominant patterns—and stakes—of the current moment more clearly here.   

What is the goal of this first event, the convening?

We’re testing out frameworks, trying to push back on received narratives about these cities and the clear the ground as we plan for “phase 2”—the residencies and public commissions that will be mounted in 2017 and 2018.

This is partly about pushing past that anti-suburban bias in the broader art and design worlds, but also about challenging some patterns of thinking in these cities. These cities harbor strong strains of techno-utopianism and indulgent apocalypticism—this is what the title of the initiative stands for: the boosterist rhetoric of New Cities and the romantic fantasies of Future Ruins. For me, these are not sufficient. These cities do demand speculation about the future—but forms of speculation that are more grounded, and therefore more visionary.

Post-convening, what comes next?

I’m excited to say we don’t know. I mean, we do, in broad strokes: residencies and public commissions around the region hosted by the three anchor partners and some other interested institutions, all rolling together into an international touring exhibition in 2019. The details, though, are up in the air. This is precisely why we’re convening in Dallas: to drill down on the ways we want to approach this political geography, the kinds of approaches we might look for when we make invitations to artists and designers.

Two books you'd recommend as companions to this project:

Just two? Oof. That is not easy.

Confined to just one pairing, I might say Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife and convening participant Elizabeth Tandy Shermer’s Sun Belt Capitalism.

The first is a sci-fi bestseller that came out last year and unfolds in a near future water-war between Las Vegas and Phoenix (Texas, in a twist, has already been decimated. Dallasites are refugees struggling to survive on the lowest rungs of the social ladder.)

The second is a brilliant scholarly exploration of the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce under Barry Goldwater, laying out the ways that global neoliberalism was incubated in Sun Belt cities. The cocktail of federal funding and deregulation that local business elites concocted would drain the resources of the unionized East and Midwest and it would provide the blueprint for the special economic zones that now dot the globe.

So that gives us a 20th-century pre-history and a speculative near-future. Between the two of them maybe we can begin to orient ourselves now.