Figure 1: Public Park of the Third Millenium
Photo: Karen Till
In many countries, urban renewal, as tied to the rhetoric of sustainability, has led to proposals to “green” the city. When tied to a development logic, the complexity of urban places become reduced to two-dimensional mappings of absolute space: lots, peoples, and landscapes are classified as blighted and threatening to the body politic. In this article, I focus on creative visual practices that challenge such a model of urbanization and provide alternative spatial imaginaries of the city. I examine two artistic interventions in Bogotá: Prometheus, a collaboration with former residents of El Cartucho and the artistic collaborative Mapa Teatro from 2001–2003; and Auras Anónimas (Anonymous Auras) by Beatriz González, unveiled in 2009. Both projects animate the messy complexities of place in a city marked by violence, where any historical narrative and hegemonic vision of urbanism is subject to question and doubt.
In Bogotá, as in other cities in the world, political candidates have run on “green” campaigns. Winning an election under such a banner in 1997, Bogotá’s mayor Enrique Peñalosa Londoño of the Liberal Party has recently received praise for creating a more “sustainable” city; indeed, he was invited to the World Urban Forum in 2006 to give the plenary lecture based upon his reforms.1 Peñalosa initiated five mega-projects during his three years in office (1998-2001)—the bank of lands; a parks system, including a bike paths network; a system of libraries; the Transmilenio mass transit system; and road construction, maintenance, and renovation (Avenida 15 and Autopista Norte) (Absolute Astronomy). Not all of these were completed, but he was able to push through such ambitious initiatives in part because he received a city in good fiscal condition (due to mayor Jaime Castro, who reformed the city’s financial structures), a more active citizenry (due to his predecessor Antanas Mockus who pursued a Cultura Ciudadana or Citizen Culture program), and a relatively independent District Council. He also built upon existing traditions to encourage a sense of safety in public spaces, in particular Domingo Ciclovia (Cycling Sunday), launched by Augusto Ramirez in 1982, to close the city’s main arteries to vehicular traffic and encourage bicycle use. Peñalosa also broke the mafia’s hold on the city’s bus transportation system and challenged the city’s reliance on Japanese transportation companies who recommended building more freeways rather than creating alternative public transport options.Bogotá now has the largest bike path system in all of Latin America and one of the most successful public transportation systems. In 2007, PBS’s Design e2 series ran a special on Peñalosa’s vision for creating a city for people, not cars. In the video’s introduction (narrated by Brad Pitt), Peñalosa was praised: “In just ten years, Bogotá’s murder rate fell 70%, from one of the highest in the world to less than that of Washington D.C. It can be argued that this turnaround was due in part to the vision of Enrique Peñalosa and his belief that sustainable urban design can be the foundation for social justice.”2 Despite this success, there remains some irony in his being labeled the “happiness mayor” and identified with social justice (Peñalosa and Ives 2004). Peñalosa’s sustainability reforms not only included significant transportation innovations, but also the removal of street vendors and residents from downtown sidewalks and neighborhoods. For example, El Cartucho, a neighborhood in the historic Santa Inés district known to be one of the most dangerous places in the city, was razed for what became (a rather sterile and still unsafe) Public Park of the Third Millennium by 2005 (Figure 1). Peñalosa called the neighborhood “a symbol of chaos and of government impotence” and part of his mayoral campaign included the promise to “reclaim El Cartucho for the public” (Mance 2007). Yet thousands were displaced, the livelihoods of many residents were destroyed, and numerous historic buildings were torn down. Another example was the partial razing of the city’s central public cemetery for the poor (Figure 2); the intention was to remove the city’s unnamed dead interred in mass crypts so that the virile bodies of soccer players could have a new sports field. Rezoning a “blighted” residential neighborhood and a cemetery for use as a central park or leisure space meant displacing not only the city’s and nation’s poor and unwanted peoples, but also the memory of the presence.
When eminent domain policies in the name of the public interest displace peoples against their will without compensation and classify lived places in the city only as parcels of property, the question of the “right to the city” must be raised (after Lefebvre 1996). If urban planners and politicians are to take seriously their claims of social and environmental sustainability in ways that include social justice, moreover, the ways in which urban space is visualized and represented must change. In this article, I focus on the ways that creative visual practices might challenge such a development model of urbanization and provide residents, urban theorists, and city-planning professionals alternative spatial imaginaries of the city. The aesthetic forms, social processes, and relations that emerge through urban artistic practices include new narratives, memories, dreams, and objects that might be shared with others, even if only for a limited range of time (Dorrian and Rose 2003; Kester 2004; Lacy 1995). These alternative visualizations of the city, and the processes that go into their making, throw contemporary development maps into disarray and remind us that places are lived, performed, and inhabited, and never merely property (Till 2008). Such spaces of encounter—with past, present and future lives and natures—invite residents and visitors to explore the lingering and possible pathways of remnant landscapes, material objects, and forms of belonging. As I argue elsewhere, artistic memory-work based upon unfolding and open-ended pathways may also offer ways of inhabiting the city tied to a place-based ethics of care (Till in press).
In this article, I examine two artistic interventions that in some way challenge Peñalosa’s vision for a sustainable city: Prometheus I and II, a collaboration with former residents of El Cartucho and the artistic collective Mapa Teatro5 from 2001-2003; and Auras Anónimas (Anonymous Auras) by Beatriz González, unveiled in Bogotá, Colombia in 2009. Both projects animate the messy complexities of urban places as lived environments of meaning, memory, and matter. Through what Lisa Saltzman (2006) describes as post-indexical forms, the creative practices of these artists explore the role that the past plays in a city marked by violence, where any historical narrative and hegemonic vision of urbanism is subject to question and doubt. Through very different creative practices, the artists invite residents to perform and explore their attachments to, and experiences and memories of, their homes, their city, and their nation through social rituals in their neighborhoods or central public spaces. The art of and engagement with places as living environments work through body memory in ways that might enable alternative, more inclusive spatial imaginaries of the city and the future. Below I explore how, in making the spatial-temporal movements of memory tangible through the very places and bodies designated as marginal by city authorities, Prometheus and Auras Anónimas encouraged residents, guests, and city officials to re-vision the city in ways that might stimulate a process of critical self-reflection about difficult social issues.
In Bogotá, the Santa Inés neighborhood known as El Cartucho became the target of urban renewal policies beginning in the 1990s. Located near the main government buildings downtown, it was one of the most historic neighborhoods in the city. Yet due to the interrelated processes of urbanization and suburbanization, economic restructuring, and migration, the former colonial buildings in this centrally located area became run down. Elite residents began moving to other parts of the city by the 1960s and 1970s. When the central bus depot was located nearby, Santa Inés became the port of entry for many families and individuals who left the poverty and violence in the countryside and sought better opportunities for their children in the city. With high rates of homelessness and unemployment, informal economies emerged. Soon the entry of the drug cartels and strongmen meant that the neighborhood had one of the highest rates of homicide and insecurity in the city (and hence the nation). As Henry Mance (2007) observed,
You could buy drugs anywhere in Bogotá, but only in El Cartucho could you consume them so hassle-free. Thousands of homeless people, prostitutes and criminals came to the area [...] A gulf grew between the area and the rest of Bogota. It developed its own rules: residents were not to rob inside El Cartucho, not to be grasses, and to speak only when necessary [...] El Cartucho even had a ‘commander,’ a former criminal known as Comanche, who would resolve disputes between residents and with the world outside [...] In the 1990s, it had begun to attract not just drug users and prostitutes—but also journalists, anthropologists, social workers, and politicians. As its legend grew, so did public outrage.
Under Peñalosa’s term, reclaiming the neighborhood for the public meant rezoning the area, displacing the people that lived there (mostly without compensation), and razing the neighborhood to make way for a central park. During this period, many individuals that lived informally in the neighborhood working as trash collectors, recyclers, and street vendors became homeless. Some were temporarily housed in hotels to be processed and given identity cards before being let back on the street without housing. In a still later phase other residents were relocated to the nearby slaughterhouse.
In 2000, a new (returning) mayor, Antanas Mockus, inherited the park project. Plans were already well-advanced to raze the entire twenty hectares of Santa Inés, which began in 2003. In response to the political backlash that occurred with the projected removal of most of Santa Inés, as well as building upon his previous agenda of creating civic responsibility, the Mockus administration hired the artistic group Mapa Teatro as part of a larger urban community development and public art working group to develop projects in collaboration with local neighborhoods.6 The working group included historians, anthropologists, social workers, students, and artists. They developed “Project C’úndua: A pact for life,”7 which ran from 2001–2003, with three projects that ran at multiple locales throughout the city: 1) C’úndua: anthropological and artistic work with residents of an informal settlement on the outskirts of the city, Usaquén, that included ethnographies, school projects, and simultaneous visual installations between Usaquén and a downtown square (2001); 2) Prometheus: historical research and artistic work coordinated by Mapa Teatro in collaboration with anthropologists, students, and residents of Santa Inés, resulting in installations and site-specific performances along the historical route Avenida Jimenez and in El Cartucho (2002-2003); and 3) Corridos (Run-throughs): “video-sonic install-actions,” or the use of theater, performance art, installation art, and activism resulting from the collaborations of Mapa Teatro and former residents of El Cartucho, in downtown Bogotá (2003). These projects were sponsored by the City of Bogotá'a Mayor’s Office and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).8
The projects in different ways communicated residents’ stories and experiences of loss through performances of place, mythic creations, and expressions of personal and social memory. Mapa Teatro helped coordinate intergenerational memory books (working with K-12 schools); video installations; street-specific photographic memory projects (later installed in bus terminals); site-specific theatrical performances; and related exhibitions and publications. Through their artistic interventions, peoples, spaces, objects, and times from what was considered marginalized and centralized locations were reconfigured to question historical narratives of progress. Citizens living in informal settlements located at both the outskirts and central parts of the city, colloquially known as “disposables,” were brought into contact with citizens living in mainstream society through “encounter spaces.” Typical of Mapa Teatro’s artistic mappings, places and times were juxtaposed through very different embodied journeys that encouraged acts of personal and collective discovery.
For what became the Prometheus project, city authorities initially suggested creating some sort of tangible marker in the landscape in Santa Inés, a permanent memorial that would function as a testimony to the life experiences of those who once inhabited this part of the city. But the artistic team Mapa Teatro did not want a pre-determined project to set the parameters for their creative work with the residents. Instead they co-curated and developed “social laboratories of the imagination” with former and soon to be displaced residents of El Cartucho. After talking to residents about their experiences and getting permission to video-tape personal stories at home or in the locations of their former homes, Mapa created relations of trust with a small group of residents. They invited these individuals to work on an artistic project that would move beyond the telling of their personal stories. After preliminary workshops that included bodywork, they invited residents to read and discuss Heiner Müller’s Prometheus myth. They encouraged residents to perform their personal stories through their interpretations of this myth. They had no idea what to expect.
In December 2002, fifteen residents from El Cartucho performed an evening rendition of Prometheus, Act One. All residents of the city, including Mayor Mockus, were invited to attend. The city center and the razed lots of the “old” Santa Inés neighborhood functioned as a backdrop and stage. Two large video screens (about three stories high) were erected, upon which “archival” stories of the residents that had been previously recorded by the artistic collaborative were projected; the voices of interviewed residents was the “soundtrack” for the performance. Residents brought their furniture and belongings from one room in their former homes (or the artists helped them furnish a room that they wished they might have) to create a stage: there was a bathroom, a bedroom, a dining room. As residents performed their interpretation of Prometheus in formal attire, they did not speak but enacted the myth/their story, such as by sequentially lighting matches while sitting atop chairs, playing cards at a dining room table, walking around and dancing on the fantasy of having a bed, or performing magic tricks in front of mirrors. Throughout their performances, the projected images ran and spoke behind their embodied enactments atop their former homes. Prometheus, to quote Mapa Teatro, became “a poetic reconstruction of once inhabited places" (Mapa Teato).
At times, the “actors” mimicked the recorded images of themselves being projected/performed on the large screens. In this way, audiences became witnesses to the spectacle of themselves witnessing stories of loss (Blocker 2009; Ranciére 2009; Taylor 1997). What places and stories were “real” and what were imagined in this performance? What fantasies and memories did the actors and audiences bring to these city spaces in transition? What did the actors, as residents performing in their reconstructed homes and former locations of their old neighborhood, remember as their story unfolded behind, in front of, and around them? To include the audience into the performance, Prometheus concluded with a grand ball, which became a celebration of this place and an invitation to reflect upon how this place has been perceived. The audience was invited to come to the stage and join the “actors.” In this way the many spaces and stages between the “actors” and “audience,” recorded images and lived experiences, memory and imagination were blurred, offering the possibilities of new stories, new imaginaries, alternative futures. A year later, in the same place and time, Prometheus, Act Two, was performed, offering a new record of the lives of the people involved in the previous year’s performances in the last moments of the neighborhood’s demolition.
According to Daniel Vargas, the Executive Director of C’úndua, the creation of experimental communities was a more fitting form of memory-work than a permanent memorial in El Cartucho. He noted that the city’s initial idea of building a memorial designated “a population [as] without a memory, without any intention to remember, to assimilate,” and asked outsiders “to leave a testimony and pay homage to its most painful and happiest life experiences.” Such a gesture, he argued, is indicative “of a society that has problems recognizing itself.”9 For Mapa, the presentation of the life histories and experiences of these residents through Prometheus was akin to “a paper record of the disappearance of a neighborhood through the building of a park in the city center.”10 But of course much more transpired. New spaces of imagination were explored by the residents and artists through the performance. Residents worked together in different settings and capacities in unanticipated ways to remember and represent their attachments to their homes. El Cartucho, always a mythic and lived place, became a threshold through which residents could access voices, inheritances, and resources that might provide a language of belonging, even as people were structurally excluded from the city. Residents were able to connect with the materialities and psychic qualities of the places they once inhabited that still remained within them. The performance became what anthropologists Arthur and Joan Kleinman (1994) call an enacted assemblage, where the “interconnected cognitive, affective, and transpersonal processes” of body-social memory come together (719). Because the demolition of El Cartucho exceeded contemporary narratives of urbanization and public memory, the performances of place by former residents had the potential to transform memories of violence to shared stories of relevance through forms of collective witnessing rather than spectatorship, and through the co-construction of experimental communities that offered the possibility of critical self-reflection.
As Salcedo reminded us, we remember images when someone dies, within the space of mourning personally. But it is the circulating, postmemorial (Hirsch 1997), and posttraumatic images that circulate and are well-known for Colombians. When they see these images, they remember that they know these facts, but respond with indifference. These pictures of individual people have become anonymous. As Salcedo noted, for Auras Anónimas, the repetition of these photographic images creates a phantasmagoria, that is, the traumatic character of death that is considered irrelevant by most Colombians. If memory traces are always “re-transcribed” and “re-discovered” with evolving circumstances through time (belatedness), as Casey argues, through these images, the past is continually reshaped in the present, but not so much in terms of deferred events but in the sense of the possibilities of memory. Rather than treat the past, present, and future as separate—“that happened in the past, over there in that time”—unresolved remainders offer a form of remembering that is a process of ongoing remanence. Casey writes that the unresolved remainders of memory “do not consist of depositions laid down —as is assumed in theories preoccupied with leaving marks and traces in an unchanging material base—but in pathways that branch off ever more diversely into a multiple futurity” (277 my emphasis). There are always residuals and excesses. At some moments in time and in some places, we might remember those residuals and move differently through pasts to futures to presents.
Casey suggests that in body memory, place memory, and social rituals these residuals of memory find refuge. It is precisely through these social relations, embodied performances, and places that Auras Anónimas works as a project of critical public memory. González wanted to restitute a sacred element, to return the ritual of mourning individual deaths, to this defaced place. After the transgression of a violent death, the artist wanted to relocate individual acts of bereavement back to the social rituals of a public space, to recuperate the memory of another. For González, individualizing an image through repetition brings a truth dimension, or aura, to each crypt; it activates the space for a collective memory, of witnessing and narrating in an aesthetic form of what has happened. The art shows internal violence and expresses the perverse logic of the Colombian experiences and legacies of death. Do we see peasants or soldiers carrying a body? Who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? People come alive again in these images; as we view, as we witness, the art changes the pathways of memory.
Salcedo noted that the cemetery has now become a place of memory for the next generation of artists and citizens. By creating such interim spaces to explore the pathways of these unresolved remainders of memory, artistic projects create cartographies that mobilize critical spatial and historical imaginaries and call into question the inevitability of the present. Yet at the same time, visitors are asked to recognize the individuality inscribed in these public structures of death and mourning, an act that may awaken them from the dream-like state of spectatorship, of consuming images, rather than of remembering past violences.
Landscapes, stories, empty lots, bodies, and other matter classified by city officials as marginal and in need of removal don’t just go away when buildings are torn down. Their presences linger and continue to haunt other spatial-temporal registers of the lived city (Till 2005). Mapa Teatro’s understanding of “laboratories of social imaginary” offered space-time configurations and enacted assemblages through which residents performed, listened, witnessed, and imagined geographies of loss. By creating places of performance as an act of memory-work, audiences engaged in intersubjective processes that may alter taken-for-granted understandings of citizenship and belonging in postcolonial cities. Through Beatriz González’s Auras Anónimas, residents are invited to re-visit and re-explore public sacred spaces through embodied rituals of mourning. Moving through the unnamed crypts to examine the images of the anonymous victims of violence demands a reflective process: individuals are asked to remember forgotten relatives, family members, neighbors, or fellow citizens. In this way, violence becomes personalized and the auras of those who have gone before may speak of past injustices but also alternative futures.
As the artistic projects of Mapa Teatro and Beatriz González remind, the city, as an inhabited and haunted place, offers possibilities for residents and guests to envision and remember past, present, and future. Artistic encounters offer creative spaces to experiment with new social arrangements; we are invited to think through and experience how, when, and where urban places, stories, and residues are mapped or ignored. Residents and visitors may in this way consider what living with loss, trauma, pain, and the injustices resulting from past national and urban violences means, and how they, as citizens and human beings might create a more socially just society. Such artistic re-visionings of the city can in this way enable all residents’ claims to their “right to the city” (after Lefebvre 1996).
1 Much positive media attention has been given to Peñalosa in recent years in the U.S. and Canada. See for example: Fettig, 2007; Montgomery, 2006; Peñalosa and Ives, 2004; Sylvester, 2007 (http://www.cbc.ca/thesundayedition/audio.html).
2 Fettig, 2006, http://www.hulu.com/watch/67737/design-e2-bogotá-building-a-sustainable-city; quote begins roughly at 3:07 minutes into the video.
3 Here my use of the term spatial imaginary draws upon the classic works of Derek Gregory (1994), Geographical Imaginations and Henri Lefebvre’s (1974, 1991) The Production of Space.
4 For a discussion of absolute space, as opposed to relational and relative understandings of place, see David Harvey, 2006. See also Henri Lefebvre (1974, 1991), The Production of Space.
5 Colombian artists Heidi, Elizabeth, and Rolf Abderhalden founded Mapa Teatro, Labortory of artists, in 1984, and collaborate with other artists, scholars, and local residents on various projects. For more information about the collaborative see: http://www.mapateatro.org/ and http://hemi.nyu.edu/eng/seminar/2007/eng/perf_mapateatro_eng.html (last accessed 7 April 2010).
6 The information for this section is taken from: Abderhalden and Aristizábal, Eds., (n.d.); Gutiérrez Castañeda, 2008; Mapa Teatro, “Cúndua;” interviews with Rolf Abderhalden by the author (in Berlin, 2008; in Bogotá, 2009); and email correspondence with Rolf Abderhalden and Heidi Abderhalden with the author.
7 C’úndua is the Arhuaca (Columbian indigenous) word for the mythological place to where we go after death.
8 Mapa Teatro would continue their work on related projects with former residents of El Cartucho through their own funding and grant-writing efforts from 2004-2009. See: Mapa Teatro, “Cartography: Art, Memory, and the City.”
9 Vargas, n.d. in Abderhalden and Aristizábal, Eds., 88. Italics in original..
10 Mapa Teatro, “Proyecto Prometeo.”
11 The information for this project is based upon the Beatriz González’s presentation of her work and Doris Salcedo’s interpretations of the larger project at the site on 27 August 2009, held in conjunction with the 8th Hemispheric Institute for the Americas Encuentro/Encounter, Bogotá, Colombia. Subsequent information was provided by the artists through email correspondence with the author. I also discuss this project in Till 2010.
12 Salcedo successfully called attention to a mistake by the city planners, who proposed laying out the soccer field in an East/West direction: if built, the field would not be usable because the sun would always be in the athletes’ eyes.
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