the right to imagine
Gabriella sees the city as a travelling surface for new ideas, projects and public debates; with many worlds hidden in its folds. She says we create our cities and our cities in turn create us. As Chief Creative Officer for Mexico City, she led a team as varied as the city – bringing together urban geographers, data experts, political scientists, lawyers, artists, historians, philosophers, architects, futurists, and everything in between. Together, her team engages people in urban imagination, travelling back to first principles to ask: how do we want to live together? How will we move together, play together? So that, working together, people can come up with better answers for our times and our futures.
Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews, Lily Piachaud and Hadeel Elshak.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
So we have just entered the Highgate woods and it is a little bit past 5pm, which I think is an interesting hour, both because we’re in London. You know 5pm. I always have this idea of high tea and all of the Londoners going to tea, but most importantly, I love it because it’s also I think one of those threshold spaces where the light is absolutely stunning and starts shifting dramatically.
This is actually one of the very few old growth forests that London still has and I think even as soon as we entered you feel that, you know and I love this idea of really thinking about what old growth forests do, because I think for such a long time, when we started talking about ecosystem services and putting dollars and cents to nature and whatnot, we thought that tree count was what was important.
So, you know, just like, okay, we’re gonna tear down one tree, but we’ll put up two trees, but then it turns out it’s not the same thing. There’s a layeredness and an intensity of connections and relationships that get created over the years. It makes an old growth forest completely different to a new forest.
So even coming in, I think one gets a very different sensation of these types of spaces no?
I’ve never been here before either so we’re going to explore and try not to just walk. We’re gonna have to make conscious decisions about where we turn.
I will follow you. (Laughs) We can either just navigate in that way where you think the other knows where you’re going and you know, our bodies will talk to each other and just decide without our conscious brain. But yes, let’s explore.
Before I became chief creative officer of Mexico City and before I got this mysterious call from the mayor of Mexico City, I was working in a very multidisciplinary way, but very much embedded in the arts world, arts and culture. So I ran my own culture foundation, which was called Tóxico Cultura. We did several things, everything from bringing really fabulous people down to Mexico City. I’m also a documentary filmmaker, so I was both doing my own films as well as helping out in different capacities there. And also I was an editor for a lot of editorial projects that were usually international magazines that wanted to do specific numbers in Mexico City. So from guest editing a couple of colours magazine editions to Vice, like the first one that was done in Mexico City I was a guest editor for that. And then books and whatnot. So I was also a journalist and a writer and really shifting my role in many ways. But again, like very much embedded within the arts and culture realm. I got a fellowship from Ted at the very beginning of the Ted Fellowship.
And there, I got to meet people from so many disciplines and that were incredibly, not only multidisciplinary, but transdisciplinary in terms of not only their work, but themselves. Everything from people writing science fiction and at the same time doing biology or living architecture like Rachel Armstrong, for example, where you had Ushahidi folks doing these fantastic crowdsourcing projects, et cetera, et cetera.
So I became every time more interested and invested in trying to figure out that new sphere of the multi transdisciplinary practices and what that entails and what did it mean if we started thinking about creative ethos not only in terms of a relationship to arts and culture, but actually at the encounter of other areas of knowledge.
I had hosted an event with a couple of friends and the mayor came to it like,, he was still running for mayor, but we all knew he was going to win because Mexico City since it had local elections has only never been ruled by the left wing, fortunately. Which is one of the reasons why Mexico City has been so much more progressive than the rest of the country.
When we found out that he was coming and we knew again that he was gonna win, we decided to redo the agenda and thought about like, who does he have to see? Like who are the people that are incredibly talented that have these fabulous projects that are just as much madly in love with Mexico City as we are, that the mayor has to get a taste for the untapped talent that Mexico City has.
It was a fabulous event I must say. An incredible energy in the room. And I think he went back so moved and so inspired that I got a call. Again, like two weeks before going off to Yale, from somebody on his team and we had a coffee and she basically said the mayor wants you to propose something for his government.
And I was like, okay, perfect. He can fund this. He can fund that. And she was like, no, no, no he wants you to step into his team. The only reason I said I would think about it was because I was off to Yale and had six months of a very generous fellowship where I would have time to think and reflect and really imagine this as a speculative project. The next mayor of Mexico City gives you free reign to invent a city department from scratch for your very favourite city in the world for one of the most fascinating and complex and gargantuan cities in the world, what would this even do? What would it be?
To be honest, I thought he was going to take a look at the idea, think it was too outlandish and just say no. And then I go to his office, I present and he says, okay, you start in 10 days. And so 10 days later, I was completely shell shocked standing in front of, you know, 300 people in suits.
And then I was in government. And so everything that I had thought of and was an idea in my head or little notes on papers actually then had to become a reality. So that ended up being Laboratorio para la Ciudad officially, the experimental arm/creative think tank for Mexico City. It ended also being one of the biggest, wildest as well as most painful adventures just because of the sheer learning curve I had to go through..
It really put into practice, into play, into tension all of those ideas that I had about what it would take to get this creative ethos, not only at the borders of other disciplines, but actually sinking into the city itself. Like you know, the city itself becomes this travelling surface for ideas, for projects, for debates, for a new ethos, if you will, or new constellations in your words.
I mean, one of the things that I love the most about Mexico City and cities like them, like I’m also absolutely fascinated by cities like Istanbul and Seoul and Tokyo. Like these very, very big, very restless cities, like cities that will not sit still if you will. The fact that there’s so much life to be had both on the surface of the city and to behold very openly, but also it would seem to be that the folds of it and the nooks and crannies, you start pulling a string and then there’s all of these hidden worlds that open up even before stepping into government as a journalist or a documentary filmmaker.
I would have it that I’d be doing, let’s say, a little piece on Mexican wrestling and you start pulling that string interviewing the vendors and the people that work around the arena. And then suddenly you figure out there’s a whole world to be had that has been living adjacently to all of those other worlds.
And so basically I think your notion of home, when you come from a place like Mexico City is very different to that notion of home for people that come from easier, if you will, or smaller cities, because I don’t think anybody will ever be able to claim that they will know Mexico City in its entirety. And at the same time, there’s a feeling of it and a sensation of it and an energy of it that your body recognises as yours, if you will. So it’s this interesting tension between the unknowable and also a sense of intimacy and of belonging that happens in a very different way.
Mexico City will always be the thing that you expected. It’s a stereotype, it’s shadow space but also the opposite and I have the feeling that it continuously navigates between the critical and the possible, if you will, it’s kind of like this impossible possible city. And then also incredibly fascinating to both work with the challenges that it has just because there’s so many resources to tap into and we articulate in different way. So it is everything from, let’s say a place that has the third largest cultural agenda of any city in the world. It has an astounding amount of museums and things, but it also has like an incredibly rich vernacular culture since Mexico City sprawled 35 times in size from the sixties to the nineties. It actually means that there’s a lot of towns that got eaten up by the city. So you can get on one subway stop, travel 15 minutes and you’re in a completely different place, like with a different rhythm, with different aesthetics, with different ways of being in the world.
Going into government I already knew that we have one of the largest subway systems in the world but then you’re working in Mexico City and you find out, oh, it’s not only one of the largest subway systems of the world, but it moves 5 million people per day. We have pyramids buried underneath because, you know, since especially in the city centre, as you probably know, when the Spaniards came they decided to build a city on top of the pre-Hispanic city. So basically there’s even a metre and a half from the surface of the streets and the centre, you can actually start finding relics from Aztec days. And we have everything from museums and there, cinemas, libraries. There’s a place in it where every Saturday people come to exchange toys. Another one day there’s a whole community around people that are obsessed with the subway that have been collecting everything from subway tickets to tokens and they just like have so much knowledge about Mexico City.
It also speaks to the place that Mexico City holds vis a vis the rest of the country and are both generous as well as kind of like heart wrenching. It’s one of the things that I never understood why in the newspapers of Mexico City so often there was news about a baby being born in the subway. And I always thought that, you know, maybe it was women that didn’t have enough to grab any type of other transport. And they, you know, just like got caught in the middle of their trajectory to the hospital. But it turns out that since for the price of the subway ticket, you get medical insurance even though we have a decent-ish public health system in Mexico City. It’s not necessarily true for other surrounding states. So basically what would happen is that in other places they would recommend to the women that didn’t have money to have their babies in hospitals and proper hospitals to start labour in the subway of Mexico City and then they would be whisked off insured by a ticket that costs like, you know, I think it’s 50 pence or less they would actually be covered by medical insurance. So it’s kind of like, again, like one of those things where it’s so interesting to just like start your little exploration and have a whole world open up in many ways. I mean in so many ways, I do think that there is always a symbiotic relationship between cities and the people. Actually one of my favourite subjects and something that we actually wrote into the Mexico City constitution is the right to the city.
Whoever you are, be it that you are a young woman that needs to get an abortion or that you are somebody who’s 60 years old that has a terminal illness and wants to opt into euthanasia, or be it that you are young and want to find work. The city should actually allow you to fulfil the things that you would like to do in it.
But then also if you read Aquila Feb from the seventies or more recently, David Harvey, they speak very eloquently that in the end, the ultimate right to the city is to be able to create the city. Because first we create our cities and then our cities in turn create us so very much this link, which is one of my obsessions from decades ago to the importance of imagination that we many times think is a cherry on the cake. But I love to think about the right to the city as the right to imagine.
At the beginning, I tried to pretend that we were a group of people from civil society that coincidentally worked in a government office and coincidentally were paid by you know public funds and coincidentally, oh I reported to the mayor, but then I quickly understood that in a certain sense, that tension between the world that I came from and the world that I was stepping into was the most important gap. And in between territory to explore and that we really had to embrace the hybridity. I really was given quite a lot of free reign to make my choices and my decisions. So in the end I had about 20 people at all times on my team. Half of them came from the urban political sciences and the other half came from the humanities, everything from urban geographers, data experts, political scientists, internationalists, administrators, lawyers. Working hand in hand with artists, designers, historians, philosophers, writers, editors, architects, urbanists, futurists, and everything that we did set in between.
I felt that one of the reasons why we’ve gone into this deep democratic crisis, I think it’s because we have wanted to shy away from politics and gone into a more technocratic way of thinking where we think that cities for example, are there to be solved. But I actually think that we need to urgently travel back to first principles and ask ourselves those big questions again, of, you know how do we want to live together? How will we move together? How will we be healthy together? How will we play together? And then come up with better answers for the times at hand if you will.
So for me, it was just as important to have people from the humanities helping hold that space for the deep thinking and the deep code. And so basically that for me was incredibly interesting to think yes, we actually need to think deeply about data driven policy. We need to think about legal systems and human rights, but we also need to think about narrative and philosophical questions and urban imaginaries and all of these other things that would seem to lie more in the subjective space. But you know, one of my big realisations is that subjective life and the way that we anchor mind to matter is actually just as influential in our belief systems and enhance in our realities as is everything else on the other side of reason, if you will.
So that mix was incredibly important and it was also what I think allowed us to journey, I think every time further into the ontrails of government, because I was well accompanied, not that it was an easy accompaniment because actually one of the toughest and most difficult coming togethers of my team was precisely to become transdisciplinary. And there’s a big difference between the multidisciplinary where you have each discipline doing its own thing. So, you know, the designers design and the anthropologist do the ethnographic practices and the political scientists do policy. But there’s another way of being where you actually have to create a language in between and you have to create meaning in between and tools in between these worlds and rather have like more of a prism of perspective of urban life.
And so then it became, I think like a conversation again, always with its extensions between what it meant to be of government and to have these new tools at our disposal and to use them. And at the same time knowing that we were there to also redefine the edges of what government could be.
I think we need to generate enabling spaces more than specific projects. So the more that we think of the soil the more that we think of where things grow and how they’re interconnected. And also realise that nothing happens except in its relationships, like nothing in the world and I think, you know, even with the pandemic I think we have a renewed understanding of how Symbiosis works for better and for worse on our planet, in our society.
So I have the feeling that in terms of soil there’s so many analogies there. One of them is the layeredness, especially in old growth forests, because I think interesting cities are just as layered and one needs to think about how things acquire a life of their own in that context to enhance the enabling space.
The second bit that I’m quite fascinated with is I was reading Underworld by Robert McFarland and he mentions at the beginning of the book that we mostly think that the intense biodiversity happens on the surface of the world, like these trees, these leaves, these plants, all of this, but that actually even one square metre of soil, when you travel vertically has multiple, you know, it’s just like exponentially more, biodiverse than anything that we can see, but we don’t see it. So that is also incredibly interesting to me, in terms of how do you think about both the soil, but also what I’d say is the urban DNA or urban culture, which is no longer just about arts and culture, but urban culture in large in terms of everything that happens within the folds of the city, everything that is both fixed, but also shifting and all of the relationships in between.
And I also think that this leads to a place where I find that there’s more, a more moist way of thinking to be had, which is thinking in ecologies. So let’s say even if you think of health as an ecology, then you no longer think about just your individual body that gets sick and needs to get to the hospital and get treatment. But you start thinking about the relationship between your environment, your built environment in your family home, you know, the quality of your relationships, most definitely the health system, but rather it just becomes like nested systems one after the other. And so this I find much more interesting and a much more engaging way of thinking about urban themes.
For better or for worse. There’s no going back. I think a lot of the work that I’ve been doing since I’m a recovering citizen, since I left government about two years ago, is very much based in many of the lessons. Say my work with Bogota, I have been advising the mayor’s team who’s just like this fabulous, super smart, talented, passionate group of a lot of women. And I love women in politics, I must say. And the question that we’ve been holding is how can we restructure the whole city around care? So this is fascinating because it definitely has us revisiting everything from, you know, care economies and care democracy from the seventies, and, you know, inspired by John Toronto and all of these big thinkers, but there’s also new conversations to be had. How do we territorialise care, for example, like how do spacial design actually speak to care as well? How do we think of care as a quality that when you add it to anything else such as housing, because you know, under a more technocratic view, you can think of, I’ve got these many bodies, I need these many roofs. If you say housing and care, that brings up a whole different conversation because yes, you need to think about those roofs and housing people, but you also start thinking about community and mutual aid and everything that falls in between. So it becomes more of the relational aspect that surfaces.
One of the things that we know is that to talk about care is also very much to talk about the way that we’ve gendered society and the way that we’ve gendered cities. And we need to think about these big shifts that need to happen for policy to really land. So how does politics enter the household? Like, how do we start thinking of how we influence a rethinking and a reframing of the things that happen behind the scenes? Again, like in that most private realm, which is the family structure, for example. As I mentioned, like, you know, my favourite way of working is forming communities around questions, because I think that when we have these open ended questions, we have an understanding that this will be ever evolving, ever iterating. And there’s not one big thing, but rather that we had to hold this space for multiple ways, even of having this conversation and creating an ecology around it, of people that are doing different types of research and activities and working in different ways around that subject.
In terms of imagination. I think it’s a process. I think it’s a skill. I think it’s a capacity. I think it’s a way of being in the world. I think it’s physiological. I think it’s psychological. I think it’s emotional. If not magic, it’s definitely mysterious.
I think that all of us have at one point understood that there is such a thing as self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of humankind. In terms of the way that we imagine ourselves, the way we imagine our cities, the way that we imagine our world has incredible repercussions on who we become, because we are tracing the limits of possibility and paradigms without meaning to, so that that’s actually why one of the most interesting things for me in terms of city life would start off with urban imaginaries like having a much deeper understanding of how we build them, how we make them individually and collectively.
So an urban imaginary is these ideas that we have of cities and ourselves in those cities. Those who let’s say an urban imaginary for Mexico City that was very interesting to us was that we would never consider Mexico City to be a pedestrian city. I mean, you just look at these images of sprawling Mexico City, one of the largest megalopolis of the world. And there’s no way that you think of Mexico City as a pedestrian city, but guess what? Less than 30% of our population actually own a car and then you have these wonderful, crazy things. Like, you know, the biggest, the second biggest pilgrimage after Mecca is actually Virgen de Guadalupe, where we have 11 million pedestrians coming in.
So sometimes it’s actually understanding new imaginaries that can get created, but sometimes it’s also understanding imaginaries that we should work past and actually reconfigure and revisit. So this is one of the more interesting things to me because I really think that it becomes part of urban culture and silently, it informs us all if you will, for better and for worse.
It’s a slippery thing, knowing how to work with that, because I think it’s, as everything is also a layered conversation, it has to do with everything from pop culture, to grassroots movement, to the built environment, to policy, to social expectations and cultural norms. It really is everything at once. But it’s also why I’m so interested. As I hadn’t been mentioning, let’s say just like the work with Bogota. Like if you rethink the city around care, it’s actually not only about urban imaginaries, but it’s also about socioeconomic articulations, if you will. So it travels, into the imagination, but it also travels into everything else that we have built around their imagination. And you think of everything from borders, you know, which are fictitious lines. Look at the incredibly real, sometimes tragic realities that borderers can create and that’s the same with political systems. It’s the same with religion. It’s the same with everything. Like we live in an imaginary world in many ways that we don’t necessarily treat as such coming in, actively into that space and proactively actually I think is one of the biggest things that needs to shift. I love data driven policy, but I do think that we also need to be searching and exploring everything that lies outside of it, and actually even defies our numbers and our Quanta and that other way of viewing ourselves.
I’m not very good with short answers, as you see it’s one of the issues with having been brought up with soap operas. I mean, not that I watch soap operas, but talking about urban culture, they’re in our DNA. So I don’t do [inaudible] very well and I had a megalopolis as a playground. So, you know, that doesn’t help either.
I think we should start with the usual suspects. I think having and investing and understanding the importance of art and culture, like instead of, you know, new governments coming in and when a crisis hits, it’s the first thing that goes. I think we really need to think that that is a gymnasium if you will, to come up with new ideas to have imagery and emotions and the possibility of the building box for a novel ethos and a new way of living. And I also think that even though I love that there’s the conversation around creative economies and creative industries. I also sometimes feel that we really need to think deeply that, that is not the beginning and end all of culture because you know, that is culture and arts and creativity more for economic purposes, where we should also be thinking about culture as a voice of the society as this place of expansiveness this other way of creating cohesion with our societies of questioning of, you know, and I think it’s a different path of inquiry that should be in conversation. And in deep conversation with again, like things on the other side of reason, with data driven policy and all of these things.
I think we need to build these spaces for transdisciplinary conversations to be had because it’s actually more difficult to hold that space than it would seem like I saw that even with my, because many times we end up watering down the language and the values of different disciplines instead of actually thinking that things have to be larger than the sum of its parts. But that actually takes time and it takes patience and it takes a holding of that space as well as pushing for people to work beyond the borders of their own fields.
Like, I love this journey into other disciplines where, as I mentioned, you know you have artists helping create legal frameworks where you have urban geographers thinking about artistic interventions. You know, just like how do we start thinking of hybridity, especially in terms of urban culture and urban creative practices. So that’s kind of like a big thing for me and I come with my biases, but that is one of the things that I think is still missing from the conversation and that I would love to focus on.
I think we need to think deeply about who has the right to imagine. I think this is linked to all sorts of things from everything from one, you know, care economies is called time poverty of women, especially that carry the care burden that just do not have time for anything but the emergencies of life. And I do think that to be able to participate fully in a democratic society but also in collective imagination, public imagination, political imagination, whatever you wanna call it. We actually need to think about how we democratise imagination as well and what type of society does that and what type of society doesn’t and also understand that these urban imaginaries and these imaginations should not be monolithic. They should be as diverse and heterotopic if you will, as the societies that we live in. And how to structure that, you know, how do you create the scaffolding for that? I think it is a really complex conversation, but a very necessary one, because this is what I think will bring things into its future potential, especially in terms of urban life.
I actually think one of the more interesting things that we could be thinking about in terms of urban life is how cities offer up multiple ways of belonging, of knowing in many ways that your way of belonging to London and my way of belonging to London will have its intersection. But it will also have a beautiful, expansive diversity to it, depending on precisely that like our subjectivities, our desires, our daily life and it’s a combination of everything.
And I do think that there should be a realisation that as we were speaking about there is a symbiotic process and that sometimes what surrounds you is actually the edge, the claustrophobic edge, sometimes of how far your mind goes into the way that you belong to that city, to that society, to your own possibilities.
I do think that there is a tyranny of averages and of numbers in many ways, but one of them is that, you know, Mexico City, if, if you look at the numbers, it’s 60% green space. But when we actually created the first GIS, which are just like a way of mapping the data of the city so that you can navigate, you find out that 60% is very unevenly distributed. So you have places like Miguel Hidalgo a borough that has more than 42 square metres of green space per inhabitant, which is as green as the greenest of green cities. And then you have other places like Iztapalapa that have less than four and by the way they also have half a million kids. So we started creating tools where you could actually see that happening and really think deeply about this. That’s just like what the city offers. I also think that we code public space without meaning to and I’ve had some discussions with people from other cities where they think that they’re creating public space, but even the guard or the way people look in a space is actually a silent conversation with everybody telling people who belongs, who doesn’t, what you’re allowed to do there and what you’re not allowed to do.
This is one of the reasons why I love play because play is expansive and ambiguous. When you think about free play, not playground play, but you know free play. We really need to rethink many things. There’s like a legal concept that I find incredibly interesting, which is a right to self realisation I think would be the translation. And how beautiful it is that that is something that we should also think about now, like, you know, how much a space and how much policy and how much collective life allows us for us to be individually satisfied with the makeup of our own lives, as well as how it intersects with the lives of other people.
And that’s also another beautiful thing about the right to the city. It’s both an individual right. But it’s also a collective right. And it’s a future generations right. But it’s a lot of things at once. Going back to the layeredness.
I have to come back because when I’m walking and talking, I get lost in a word space but I love the woods. This will be my new favourite thinking walking space, because besides I’m staying a scant two blocks away,
I used to love the idea of esperanto. Because I’ve travelled since a very young age, like I always loved the possibility to be able to communicate with all sorts of people from all sorts of geographies and whatnot. But now I completely take that back and I think Esperanto is more of a dystopic way of thinking about it. And I actually would prefer my own version of a Babel tower, if you will, where you actually had access to all of the languages and you could just like pull the perfect word. So in terms of the forest and what we just experienced in Japanese there’s actually a word for light filtering through the trees of a forest and that’s what we saw. And isn’t that just perfect? And then the other thing is like forest bathing, which is also a thing in Japan, which I think I also have like, my also beautiful forest baking moments.
What about city bathing?
No, I mean, that completely exists. No. I mean, in Mexico City, some streets are so literally that you just walk through them and then you smell like tacos (laughs) others, because it’s just like so beautiful and meandering, I mean, it really is. That’s a beautiful concept to think of. Do you mind if I keep on exploring it, will you gift it to me?
Have it, it’s yours.
Urban bathing, like, but isn’t it true? No, like think of a busy street and what that does to you and then think of something completely different. Like your favourite leafy street or one that is super vibrant and musical and chaotic.