The Living Thing / Notebooks : Astroturf and artificial reefs

“Artificial reefs”, because Miriam Lyons noted the parallel between building artificial ocean habitats to attract biodiversity, and the construction of artificially-hip neighbourhoods to attract dotcom startups.

Hip urban art movements and diseconomies of scale in hipness

Quick notes: after an idea I had from James Fallow’s Long Now talk and Luis Bettencourt, and some snide asides by Andrew Barton, loosely along the ideas of whether the gentrification experienced by Sydney, and San Francisco, and Berlin, and London, is the usual old story, or something new.

I’m going to argue that it’s new, in the sense that the gentrification process is now global; this changes certain things about the timing and scale of the problem. Formerly, the melting pot of a global city was the best place to build new art movements. Certain things about bigger cities lead to more interesting culture. More audiences support more types of art, more weird movements, more diverse backgrounds from the diverse migrants arriving there, bringing more perspectives and ideas… Bigger, presumably, is better, in such matters.

These days, a global city uses the cachet it acquired from local art movements long dead to attract new creatives from around the globe, (paging Richard Florida) and the slow turbid current of gossip about such things can keep that post-mortal process of attraction long after the incoming rich scions have crowded out the critical mass of the non-rich who might also be a necessary part to have made the place interesting, and further, until those rich scions have gotten older, grumpier and closed all the hip venues with their noise complaints. So, when the next contingent of wanderjahr hopefuls arrives, they wonder what all the fuss was about, or partake of the tour-guide-recommended ossified scripted enactment of what ossified ritual would have have been edgy a decade or two earlier.

I’m wondering if this reflects a diseconomy of the global scale at which such hip metropolises operate. How BIG a melting pot do you need for your edgy art movement to flourish, after all? When Picasso came to Paris in 1900, the région parisienne was estimated at 4 million; Now it’s somewhere more than 12 million. Do the extra 8 million help? 4 million is a second-tier metropolis these days, and indeed, much smaller cities have founded movements. Vienna was sweating artistic and philosophical movements with half that population in the 19th century.

Because art movements are not like high finance, where you can go on getting bigger forever; They are typically bespoke, growth-limited. The impressionists can only fill so many canvasses per bottle of absinthe, and only drink so many bottle of absinthe per day. Three chord punk bands can only play to so many revellers in their cellar venue. The attraction of these scenes is in part their exclusivity, and that by definition is diluted when it gets too big. This stuff ain’t the same as financial industry booms as in Zürich or London or New York, or tech startups in San Francisco or Shenzen, where more leads-to-more. Rather, these are ventures that are crowded out by the dark satanic mills.

Hypothesis: The hipness things will shift away from the hyped-to-death San Franciscos and Londons and seep into places where it can afford to take place.

Possible counter arguments to this could be, e.g. ones about audience size - more art can flourish where there are more rich kids subsidizing it by engaging in conspicuous consumption. Or, say, about the importance of things that seem to have no upper end of improvement with scale, such as universities and finance. The biggest of these bigger-is-better things issue of co-ordination. If you want to make sure that you and a critical mass of fellow aspirational revolutionary artists that you have not met yet and do not know will be likely to meet in the same place to make wonderful new things happen in the world, how do you do that? You’ve heard that everyone is gravitating to London/Berlin/Paris/Istanbul/Rio di Janeiro/… so you head there like all the rest. At first this is brilliant. Then, 10 million hopefuls later, this is counter-productive, because the market is flooded, the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies, and everyone is heading to a desolate wasteland of investment properties and trust-fund-kids, because an army of “lifestyle property developments” are hyping the hipness long after it has ceased to exist. It might take a long time for the outsiders, who are not yet linchpins in thriving underground scenes, to work out the scene which looked so natural and vibrant from afar is, when you get up close, taxidermy.

The problem is that even if you agree with this model, you still have a lot of second-tier metropolises to choose between - a lot more than there are first-tier megalopolises. And if everyone chooses different smaller cities, they still never meet. Your Schiele never meets your Klimt and your Stein never meets your Picasso, and so on. According to this random website as of 2016-01-01 there are 526 urban agglomerations worldwide with more than 1 million people.

Is this a problem? Is that diffusing effort too much? Do we need to get specific: time to start some new rumours about the rising hotspots of creative endeavour. Surabaya? Sofia? Chiang Mai? Cagliari? Wollongong? Santa Fe? Or chop off the least hospitable 26 cities and start 500 new art movements?

To discuss: how this plays out outside the developed world - I think the throttling of Bandung by Jakarta in Indonesia could represent a related dynamic. But later.


Notes towards understanding our understanding of our built environment.