Faith is the Place. The Urban Cultures of Global Prayers
metroZones 11, b_books 2012, 978-3-942214-04-9
…illusion and truth, power and helplessness;
the intersection of the sector man controls
and the sector he does not control
Henri Lefebvre, The Critique of Everyday Life (1947)
A Shiite imam asks strategic questions of a Maronite Christian to determine the grounds for reciprocal discussion in Beirut; a priest in the villas miserias of Buenos Aires doubts his faith in the shadow of a popular liberation theologian assassinated during the Dirty War; Pastor Christine, a Congolese trader, mixes commerce with divine deliverance establishing temporary parishes among traveling merchants; the Redeemed Christian Church of God builds parishes on abandoned urban sites in Africa, Europe, and southeast Asia; its Redemption Camp on the edge of the megacity of Lagos attracts half a million believers on a regular basis (@6% of the urban population), attending to medical, social, and educational needs along with its pastoral message.
These are snap shots from the extensive research project, Global Prayers, in which academics and artists through workshops and field research endeavored to learn over a number of years the mutual influence between religion and the functional spaces of modern cities. That project produced Urban Prayers, a reader of academic writing, but it also sponsored combined academic and creative research brought together in an exhibition – “The Urban Cultures of Global Prayers” – at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst (NGBK) in Berlin Kreuzberg and the Camera Austria in Graz in 2012. The text Faith is the Place: the Urban Cultures of Global Prayers, edited by a collective of seven curators and published by metroZones, reflects the framework of the exhibition in which religion is investigated as an urban practice shaping social space.
Organized (as was the exhibition) in categories of communitas, enterprise, power, staging, (trans)mission, and rupture, and interspersed liberally with images, the texts slowly unveil how new manifestations of (predominantly Christian) faiths have inserted themselves in the cracks of urban poverty using commerce, technology, and self-governance as a “quiet encroachment of the ordinary” (Bayat 2004). This is neither an anthology of religious art, nor is it a series of case studies articulating the role of faith in our lives today. Rather it is a compilation of approaches for understanding what co-editor Stephan Lanz considers “the relationship between religiosity and urbanity in [primarily] an urban space of poverty” (286). In revealing contemporary cultural manifestations of religion, Faith is the Place uses network analytical methodologies within a creative framework.
Contributors include theorists, anthropologists, journalists, artists, curators, writers, and a physician who makes films. Their multi-disciplinary practices utilize art as a means of knowledge production with unique methods of inquiry. The text also contains its own critique as contributors differ as to the utility of research to artistic praxis or conversely an artistic exercise of analytical methodology. For example, co-curator Jochen Becker deftly circuits a metaphor of light through the power grid (electrical and political) of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) linking it to the strategies of exhibition installation in respect to the sacrality of the modernist white cube gallery space. In contrast, cultural theorist Helmut Draxler argues against the infusion of analytical practice within a cultural means of production without a serious understanding of the dichotomy between critical distancing and subjective expressivity. He warns of the potential for “irreducible relativism” (126) should artists abuse the limits of “free knowledge association or political volunteerism of all sorts” (127). A case in point is the mapping practice of Matilde Cassani who misunderstands the efficacy of invisibility on the part of practitioners of marginalized sects.
Combining analytical inquiry, cultural expression, and knowledge production has long been prevalent in contemporary art if we consider the work of Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser (institutional critique), Krzysztof Wodiczko (interrogative design), or Martha Rosler, Renée Green and Fred Wilson (mining the archive). These have not been merely self-reflexive practices but the identification of intricate networks to render visible the often hidden systemic patterns of influence. The late urban geographer Neil Smith noted the impact of such work as early as 1992 so the collusion of art with urban studies is not new to the Global Prayers endeavor whose contributors make use of interviews, sound mixes, visual documentation, and interpretive installation as “Another Way of Knowing.” Both in her title and essay, Anne Huffschmid reveals the motivation, methodologies, and concepts behind the exhibition and publication and it is a resourceful reminder!
Cultural production is another way of knowing and its methods (for example, long-term photographic documentation) often reveal significant details that only become evident in comparison over time. The soundscapes of the African megacities of Lagos and Kinshasa as well as the favelas of Buenos Aires and the “acoustic arenas” (212) of Beirut stand out as significant additions to a complex portrait. Stephen Lanz, Victor Okhai, and Kathrin Wildner reveal a competitive cacophony as amplified sermons vie with the noise of funk parties and itinerant missionaries hawk for disciples in heavily populated neighborhoods. Wildner differentiates between various modes of listening: locating sound in space, linking it to memory, determining meaning, and identifying qualities or characteristics. She asks: How do we listen? And how do we translate listening to speech?
In a similar means of dimensional understanding, Christian Hanussek works with the Rika Collective of Nairobi to get beyond “the sensational media image of lurid gangsterism” (198) that is assigned to the Mungiki movement, identifying instead how it “operates in a contested field” as a religious sect, albeit a syncretic and isolated one. Hanussek contends that within a global context of contemporary art “major cultural institutions totally reject any art that has become a bearer of religious meaning” (199, and also Elkins 2004). If this is the case, what is the spatial articulation of belief? Is the intersection of religiosity and urbanicity a matter of socio-geographic concern alone? Or can creative practice shift cognitive perception? Huffschmid suggests that Faith is the Place can offer no more than “a few ideas concerning the relationship between images, knowledge and imagination in the fields of artistic as well as (other) cultural research” (165). As such it intends to open a discussion rather than confirm either a theoretical or ideological position.
The space of modernity was and continues to be urban space. This was determined largely by changes in transportation and economics through the mechanisms and systems of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries that clustered employment centers in large metropolitan areas and transferred goods and information across vast expanse through particular hubs or ports of exchange. Cultural practices either reinforced a nostalgic view of rural stability or embraced the increasing spatial and psychological density of metropolitan centers. Art and literature underwent dramatic discursive change while religion seemed shaken by a loss of influence in the practice of everyday life. The secularization of culture became the identity of modernity but by the turn of the 21st century a technological revolution made change such a constant feature of our every day lives that disruption and adaptation mark both the sequences and spaces of existence. Faith is the Place contends that religion takes a new place within and because of these social, political, and economic ruptures.
The United Nations found that the world’s majority became effectively urban in 2005. Smith, saw a shift from nation-building to city-building as part of the neoliberal economic system of globalization – a city-building based on speculation and profit rather than sustainability. This new system no longer accommodates the populations it has pressed into migration, peoples uprooted by political and civil conflict and economic instability and relocated to megacities that since the financial crash of 2008 offer little opportunity in either formal or informal sectors of the economy. For Smith, “access to all of the necessities of daily living have been increasingly squeezed for millions of people under the neoliberal regime” (Smith 2011). Is it then any wonder that religion becomes a mechanism by which urbanites replenish the necessities of food, shelter, health care, education, and social intimacy?
“(Social) space is a (social) product […] the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action […] in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power” (Lefebvre 1991). Religion has squeezed in where the necessities of daily living have been squeezed out inserting itself into the crevices of society while making use of all the entrepreneurial tools of a neoliberal regime. But even as a means of control or power, this should not be read simplistically as an outsider victimizing the poor. As many of the contributors to Faith is the Place show, religion is itself a tool for survival and for cultural expression. The ghostly drawings of La Santa Muerte in the juvenile jails of Mexico City where worship of the heretical cult is forbidden manifest the persistence of faith in the delineation of illusion and truth, power and helplessness.
In claiming a voice for these transversal practices, Faith is the Place lacks religious diversity, being unevenly focused on Pentecostal religions specifically and Christianity in general. At times it seems more about the globalization of evangelism and less about global prayers. Though the world’s third largest religion demographically, Hinduism is addressed in only one essay and Judaism and Buddhism are not represented at all. Uneven translation and copy-editing make some texts not only difficult to follow but full of inaccuracies. The use of the word “cult” to mean a generic religious service or ritual is particularly disturbing due to its negative connotation of an aberrant practice. Religion, then, is the subject; the contemporary city is the space; and simultaneous creative and analytical practices are the methodological means by which these researchers – and we in turn as readers – gain insight into the shape of everyday life. The value of giving space to underrepresented subjects outweighs the difficulties of collaborative editing.
Bayat, Asef, 2004. “Globalization and the Politics of the Informals in the Global South” in Ananya Roy and Nezar AlSayyad, eds. Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia. Lexington Books, 79-102.
Elkins, James, 2004. On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Taylor & Francis.
Lefebvre, Henri, 1991. The Production of Space. Blackwell, 26.
Smith, Neil, 2008-2011. “Neoliberalism: Dominant but Dead//Cities After Neoliberalism?” (June 27, 2011).
Smith, Neil, 2002. “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy” in Antipode 34:3, 427-450.
Smith, Neil, 1992. “Contours of a Spatialized Politics: Homeless Vehicles and the Production of Geographical Scale.” Social Text 33, 54-81.