Artist and perpetual tourist Jorge Mañes Rubio makes art inspired by the unexplored, ignored, and abandoned places on Earth. (Read more about his current project to create a micronation in an underprivileged Amsterdam neighborhood here.) After TED2014, he stayed on in Vancouver to explore, and found a few spots you wouldn’t likely see on the beaten path, from a derelict floating McDonald’s to a Sikh temple.
“I was lucky to be able to spend some time in Vancouver after TED2014,” says Rubio. “I didn’t want to leave without having the chance to get to know the city a little bit better, from well known spots in downtown to hidden gems outside the city. During the very busy week at TED it’s hard to find time to explore the city, so if you didn’t have the chance, here are a few interesting places I came across in a post-TED state of mind…”
The McBarge was the first floating McDonald’s location in the world, built for Expo ‘86 in Vancouver. It was moored on Expo grounds in Vancouver’s False Creek, showcasing the newest technology and architecture. The restaurant was designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and was one of five McDonald’s locations on the Expo grounds. Although the floating design allowed for the barge to operate in a new location following the exhibition, the derelict McBarge has since been abandoned and anchored in Burrard Inlet. This abandoned floating restaurant reminds me of many other great structures and buildings built for very specific events – Expos and Olympics – all over the world, which a few years later fail to find a second purpose and end up forgotten in decay.
The gigantic Chevron Gas Refinery Substation is probably the most impressive industrial landscape you can find in Vancouver. It has been operational since the petroleum company set up operations in Canada in 1935. Here, crude and synthetic oils, condensate and butanes are transformed into 50,000 to 55,000 barrels of motor gasolines, diesel, jet fuels, asphalts and propane every day.
While the roots of Vancouver’s Chinese community go back a long way, there have been large migrations from Hong Kong and China in the past 30 years. I’m always very interested in ancient Asian culture, temples and rituals, and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was definitely worth the visit. Vancouver’s Chinese Garden was built in 1985 and 1986, inspired by the principles and techniques of the original Ming dynasty garden, creating a huge contrast with the city’s landscape. Even though this is a public garden, it was surprisingly quiet compared to the much busier Chinatown, right on the other side of the walls.
A few stops on the Skytrain and you’ll go from downtown’s high skyscrapers to real suburban neighborhoods. This was the most unique and authentic house I found, right across my friend’s place. It reminded me of many other pictures I’ve seen in suburban American neighborhoods such as in Detroit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to talk to the owners to find out more about this house and its story, because there must be something special about this place. By the way, even if they might seem small, most of these houses are divided, with different tenants on the ground and first floors.
After taking a wrong turn on the highway in Richmond, I ended up in the Nanak Sar Gurdwara Gursikh Temple. This is a place of worship for Sikhs, but its location and architecture adds a great deal of uniqueness to the temple. Its bright colors, flags and plaster animals got my attention as soon as I drove by. Located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, it features all kinds of decorative elements such as lions, elephants, fountains… My first thought was that it might be an exotic theme park, till I drove into the parking lot and saw the elegant and colorful clothes people were wearing. Turns out that it was Sunday morning, probably the busiest time for a Gurdwara. At that time I didn’t know, but Gurdwaras are open to everybody, despite your religion, age or sex. I didn’t dare go into the building, but I had time to take a few pictures and enjoy what ended up being one of the most unexpected sceneries during my trip.
With the TED Fellows, expect the unexpected: 3D animated molecules, tethered quadcopter cameras, death row inmates turned lawyers, quantum chaos. It’s the fifth-anniversary edition of TED Fellows talks, live from Vancouver, and here’s what happened in Session 1.
Usman Riaz, musician + artist The Fellows stage comes to life quietly with the melodic strains of Pakistani composer Usman Riaz’s guitar. The piece, called “Boneshaker,” accelerates into one of his signature percussive pieces. Hammering on strings with his fingers and knocking on the body of the guitar with his knuckles, the piece crescendoes and crashes. The 23-year-old multi-instrumentalist from Karachi is also a composer, filmmaker and visual artist.
Ziyah Gafic, photographer + storyteller Ziyah Gafic photographs simple, everyday objects: books, keys, shoes, combs, glasses. But these mundane items tell a violent story. Exhumed from mass graves 20 years after the Bosnian War of the 1990s, these objects belonged to the victims of genocide, and are cleaned, catalogued and used to help identify the bodies found with them. Afterwards, they become what Gafic calls “orphans of the narrative,” either destroyed or stored away out of sight and out of mind. His quest is to keep them in view as a last testament to the fact that these people existed, preserving them as an easily accessible visual archive that tells the story of what happened — integrating an objective forensic perspective with human compassion.
Alexander McLean, African prison activist With quiet intensity, British lawyer Alexander McLean tells the tale of Susan, a female prisoner living in a 7-by-9-foot cell, whom he met while volunteering in a Ugandan prison. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable when they come into conflict with the law, says McLean, often suffering torture and rape at the hands of interrogators and punished for crimes committed by their husbands. Susan, for example, was sentenced to hang for killing her husband when he tried to attack her with a machete. To help people like Susan, McLean founded the African Prisons Project, an organization that offers prisoners a legal education via distance learning so they can defend themselves in court, help empower fellow prisoners, and pave the way for a promising future. Susan finished her degree, spoke for herself in court and had her death sentence overturned. She opened a legal aid program in her prison, and will practice law upon release. This year, the project will launch a class of female inmates from Uganda and Kenya, establishing a new generation of prisoners-turned-lawyers, proving that one’s future need not be determined by one’s past.
Dan Visconti, composer + concert presenter Dan Visconti wants to update the image of the composer from an old man in a wig with a quill pen to a figure deeply integrated and in service to his or her community. Growing up listening to pop but trained as a classical violinist, Visconti creates vibrant new ways to present classical music, letting it serve as a locus for engaging in social issues. One recent project, a work commissioned by CityMusic Cleveland, was a weeklong musical event based on the experiences of the city’s 30,000 refugees — including musicians and dancers from refugees’ home nations. This project gave voice to typically sidelined communities, helped young kids learn about their own cultural histories, connected the city’s refugee groups, and helped identify and empower community leaders. With this kind of public engagement, Visconti is embodying a new classical composer’s role for the 21st century.
Aziza Chaouni, architect + ecotourism specialist The river that runs through the ancient Medina in Aziza Chaouni’s hometown of Fez was once considered its soul, sending water to both public and private fountains throughout the city. But since the 1950s, overcrowding, over-development and pollution from such industries as tanning turned the stream into a toxic sewer. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover and restore the riverbanks, create pedestrian pathways, reclaiming these areas as public spaces and reconnecting them to the rest of the city. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered, illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and other vegetation are being planted, revitalizing Fez as a living city.
TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio is an artist and perpetual tourist who investigates invisible, forgotten places — Chinese cities submerged by the Three Gorges Dam Project, a little-known Pacific island paradise destroyed by mining — creating artworks that reimagine and revive these sites as attention-worthy destinations. Here, he tells us about his latest art project, in which he created a “new nation” in response to the social struggles of a small neighborhood in Amsterdam.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is a pioneering project that aims to research the impact that designers and artists could have if working together with governments and other political/social organizations. I was asked to team up with design studio Muzus and come up with a new proposal for Columbusplein, a public square in Amsterdam West. Politicians and social workers from the area were looking for a different perspective on how to tackle several social issues in the neighborhood, such as bullying among the youngest ones and the lack of a community spirit between all the neighbors.
The first thing we found out during our research is that the demographics in the area are quite unique, with a very multicultural and multiethnic population. Even if the new generation is born Dutch, they still find themselves growing in between different identities (Third Culture Kids TCK), creating a great deal of confusion specially among the youngest ones.
It is also important to say that more than 20 social organizations have been present in the neighborhood for many years, helping those families that struggle the most, and arranging all kinds of activities for kids and their parents. I was overwhelmed to see how much is done by them. But these organizations are also very heavily structured, with little interaction between each other, and showed very small room for changes.
We thought that whatever we would come up with should not only involve the neighbors, but it should also be welcomed by all these social organizations, and somehow reframe their work in a new way, bringing them all together under a common purpose. It all sounds great, but how do you do that?
The answer came to me while walking around Columbusplein’s sports field on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful effect that all the lines and colors created on the court. The analogy between this space and the plurality that inhabits the neighborhood was the spark that initiated everything. That image would later become the flag of a new micronation, a rich mix of cultures, colours, identities — all different but nevertheless intertwined as one. The neighbors would have the chance to create their own nation, their own history, their own identity, all from scratch, and the different social organizations would finally have a strong story that would tie together their hard work.
Amsterdam West received the idea with enthusiasm, but they also remained very skeptical about the viability of the project. A new micronation sounded like an utopia, lots of work, plus how this concept would address social issues such as bullying was not clear.
In order to give shape to this micronation, we created several events, the first one being a competition to create a national secret sauce for fries, the favorite local snack. There was a great response from the neighbors, both adults and kids, coming from all kinds of backgrounds (Turkey, Morocco, Surinam, Netherlands) and the inherent freedom of the event allowed us to observe the behavioral dynamics of the kids from a completely different perspective. Columbusplein was writing its own history for the first time, the winner of the secret sauce contest, a 9-year-old named Sophie, was featured in the nation’s first stamp, and now the secret sauce is being used in local restaurants and markets.
For the second intervention, I decided to step up the game, think big and create Columbusplein’s first Space Program. We thought space exploration and new technologies will be very important for future generations, plus all the important nations have a Space Program right? And we don’t want to stay behind! So together with some young national astronauts, we went to visit the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, where we learnt everything about the International Space Station, the way astronauts live up there, and got ourselves ready for our first mission, which I called Mission Kite.
One day later, kids were creating their own tyvek kites, featuring drawings from lunar modules, planets, space ships… After customizing and assembling them together, it was time to start the mission, and kites were flying in Columbusplein for the very first time. The reaction was great, and even police officers and social workers spontaneously joined the event. After a few minutes, a small group of kids who were mocking the participants had to sit down and watch the rest have fun, wondering why they didn’t join the workshop themselves. The Space program was important not only because it played with kids’ ambitions, but also because for the first time, social workers took ownership of the art project.
More ideas such as an alternative currency featuring social workers on the banknotes or a passport to keep track of citizens’ involvement with the micronation are already on the table. Social workers are being invited to readapt their activities under the Republic of Columbusplein’s perspective, and a new approach based on positive potential instead of problem-solving has been shaped. Amsterdam West recognizes the value of the energy and excitement that the fictional micronation’s concept has created in the neighbourhood, but is also asking for more time and a more detailed plan to evaluate if this new approach could be the right path to follow, and how to fully involve all the social organizations active in the area.
My work as an artist is to imagine a different world, and create little bits of it. The micronation concept allowed me to do so, and allowed the kids and the workers in Columbusplein to be part of it. The micronation of Columbusplein is an art project for the neighborhood, but that doesn’t turn it into community art. Projects like this open new possibilities that might expand the future impact of artists on social issues, going beyond the pre-established white cube context.
SOCIALDESIGNFORWICKEDPROBLEMS is an initiative by the New Institute, Twynstra Gudde, social designer Tabo Goudswaard and Doen Foundation.
The micro-nation of Columbusplein was created by Jorge Mañes Rubio and Muzus with the support of Amsterdam West.
All images are by TED2014 Fellow Jorge Mañes Rubio. To find out more about his work visit www.seethisway.com