Lab City: The Limits of Pop-up Problem Solving

Lab City: The Limits of Pop-up Problem Solving

The museum world’s fad for “urban labs” shows the limits of design thinking.

Decorated flags at the Ideas City street program, 2015 (José Ginarte)

This May New York’s New Museum launched another edition of its street festival–conference hybrid Ideas City. The festival, which premiered in 2011, is a “laboratory”-style event that mixes art, commerce, and community programming aimed at addressing urban ills. This year, like previous years, the festival centered around a day-long block party on New York’s Bowery that aimed to connect community members, passersby, and art patrons through a variety of exhibitions, activities, performances, and, of course, food trucks—all in a neighborhood that, once a refuge for the down and out, is now known for showy galleries and restaurants. The row of festive tents put urban composters shoulder to shoulder with kimchi chefs; activist and advocacy groups working with the homeless and LGBTQ youth were in the mix, too, but their quotidian displays had a hard time competing for attention with whirring MakerBots, glowing LEDs, and free donut samples.

As museums break with their Fifth Avenue roots and set up shop in “up-and-coming” (read: gentrifying) neighborhoods, they have also focused more attention on social problems. Issues like poverty, gentrification, and environmental vulnerability have become fair game for creative programming. Ideas City, like other festivals that emerged in the summer of 2011, seeks to bring this new programming beyond the institution’s walls and out into the (re-politicized) streets, plazas, and parks. But while the festival purports to address issues affecting low-income residents, the New Museum’s very presence on the Bowery has helped hurl the neighborhood from skid row to “design district”—or at least cement its new reputation as such.

This is not the first time the Lower East Side has been home to such experiments in urban uplift. Indeed, several of the community organizations that participated in Ideas City got their start in the Progressive Era, when an earlier generation of do-gooders sought to transform the neighborhoods around them. At the peak of the Bowery’s skid row days, the Lower East Side became home to some of the nation’s first and most iconic “settlement houses,” which offered essential services for the poor. Led by prominent middle-class reformers like Lillian Wald and backed by magnates including John D. Rockefeller, the settlement houses offered public welfare with a heavy dose of paternalism. But they also acted as community centers and helped foster a generation of activists and reformers.

The settlement houses arose in tandem with public museums, as products of the urban discontent of the late nineteenth century. Chicago’s Hull House doubled as a museum, showcasing handcrafts by female residents. And some of the first public museums (like, for example, the Met), billing themselves as a healthy alternative to the ale house, extended hours to welcome in working-class visitors.

The twenty-first-century iterations of these Progressive Era social and cultural initiatives channel many of the same top-down approaches to social ills, but with neoliberal flair. Flexibility, innovation, and disruption are the order of the day, while seemingly well-intentioned projects come tangled in market incentives. Art is increasingly being asked to make itself useful, and a new climate of accountability has forced all but the most deep-pocketed of cultural institutions to justify their worth, often in the form of museum outreach that manifests itself as “social practice” projects (whatever those may be) and design-based interventions.

Design “puts art to work” through new hybrid tech ventures and platforms for innovation.“Design thinking,” a concept with growing stock in the worlds of marketing and business, dictates that social problems reflect a lack not of resources but of bold, creative solutions. A surge in design challenges, ideas competitions, and hackathons has channeled this logic into a variety of civic pursuits. But the design field tends to privilege bold—in many cases, flashy and overeager—solutions that lack grounding in the communities they seek to transform.

In urban labs, the worlds of tech “disruption” and high art have united in the pursuit of reordering the city. These labs have been welcomed by museum directors seeking to change not only the way their institutions are perceived but also their means of acquiring and showing work. With the price of contemporary art skyrocketing and museums often looking for cheaper works, documentation from these initiatives helps fill exhibition halls. They have also populated social media streams and livened funding reports, where community interactions captured on camera can be monetized.

In lean times, many cultural institutions are willing to form strategic partnerships with corporations because traditional funding sources—the state and foundations—have all but dried up. Neighborhood-based community groups participate in these labs with similar shrewdness: getting involved might not align with all of their core values, but there’s more to lose by sitting on the sidelines. Other groups may snap up attention and resources in the nonprofit sphere, which increasingly mirrors the pace of the corporate one. City governments like New York’s are eager to support such public-private-nonprofit partnerships because they tend to cost the city nothing and promise new business opportunities.

But it’s difficult to see how all these bright ideas actually benefit low-income residents. More often than not, they serve highly educated practitioners, who drop into a neighborhood with “wicked problems,” generate project ideas (which they can use to attract other high-paying clients), and leave, often without seeing their project through to the end. The emphasis on design rather than art reveals a telling difference in the way cultural institutions, increasingly situated in gentrifying areas, think about their neighbors: while high-income patrons come in to consume art, low-income members of surrounding communities need to be engaged through design. The museum remains a guarded repository for objects of value, while the neighborhood around it becomes a laboratory, primed for experimentation.

In many cases, this drop-in approach to urban problems isn’t great for lower-level practitioners either; they might help to prototype and create buzz around initiatives they won’t be compensated for or be able to participate in at a higher level. This is certainly the case in many ideas competitions, including those sponsored by the city of New York. Take 2013’s Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, launched by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg. Over a hundred students, small firms, and other creators submitted ideas and prototypes, bringing the city lots of good press. But this feel-good charette turned out to be little more than a prelude to the real contest over revamping the city’s 11,000 public payphones—a lucrative job for which only a handful of pre-certified telecommunications and design firms were even qualified to submit proposals. The ultimate winner was CityBridge, a consortium of heavyweight firms; the leading firm, an outdoor advertising company named Titan, already operates the largest share of the city’s payphones.CityBridge anticipates more than $500 million in revenue from the new terminals in the next decade, which it will split with the city.

While the fad for urban labs has been underwritten in part by the usual philanthropic suspects (the Goldman Sachs and Rockefeller foundations, in the case of Ideas City), its more conspicuous champions have been luxury car companies—an irony considering that walkability, public space, and green urbanism have been organizing themes. The Ideas City festival was sponsored in its first years by Audi. In 2011, just up the street, the Guggenheim Museum launched a mobile lab with the help of BMW. Such alliances serve as more than just marketing stunts. As Karen Wong, the cofounder of Ideas City, told Architects Newspaper, “Smartly, [German car companies] are doing a lot of R & D about the future of mobility in cities because they do know that at some point the products they’re producing will become extinct or no longer viable they are looking to try to understand what that future may look like.” The BMW Guggenheim Lab, which was set to rove to nine global cities, was met with deep skepticism when it decamped in Berlin, where community groups and a healthy anarchist spirit forced the Lab to withdraw from a proposed site on the front lines of gentrification. It eventually found a home in a posher Berlin neighborhood but, under ensuing stress from corporate sponsors, the Lab’s run was eventually cut short after a last stop in Mumbai.

Can social justice movements and radical artists make use of the opportunities presented by these lab-style events without getting trapped in the questionable logic of their sponsors? While design interventions have helped to provide alternative spaces for low-income communities in the past, such projects demand long-term partnerships—just what’s missing from hackathons and pop-up exhibits. In a setting like Ideas City’s street festival, one gets the sense that grassroots community organizations are performing their work for passersby. The entrepreneurship and growth promoted by the accompanying events may resonate with the event’s automaker sponsor but it does little for groups working in nearby NYCHA developments.

Settlement houses, while much maligned for their stodgy moralism, were different from early charitable organizations in that they actually sought some type of systemic change in the communities where they were situated, rather than just offering temporary handouts. The houses—permanent physical structures that became part of their neighborhoods—offered poor people the services they needed, while the wealthy got their altruistic kick. But they also helped to incubate more radical forms of activism, like tenants’ leagues and pacifist groups. These groups were able to shrewdly use those spaces and alliances even if they broke with the politics of the house’s founders.

Today’s “labs” suggest a similar trade-off, but with far fewer tangible benefits for community members and activists. Their top-down approach to urban ills mirrors that of the settlement houses—without offering the permanent structures that allowed communities to turn the “settlements” to their own ends.

The compelling visual solutions that labs offer are no match for the power structures and economic violence in which the museum, its patrons, and, most of all, its corporate sponsors are deeply implicated. Organizers and activists needn’t shun the world of museums and their labs altogether, but should recognize it for what it is: a site that can be used strategically, but one we shouldn’t get too comfortable in.

Sam Holleran is an artist, writer, and educator. He works at the intersection of visual art, participatory design, and civic engagement.

Max Holleran is a PhD candidate in sociology at New York University.