Bottom: São Paulo set in Cappadocia
Imagine this: you’re walking down a side street in Midtown Manhattan and turn onto Fifth Avenue, facing uptown. But there, instead of the void of sky that usually greets the vista north toward Central Park, a massive mountain blocks the view, crowned with an uncharacteristic religious symbol. Then it strikes you: you’ve seen this rocky mass before. It looks every bit like Rio de Janeiro’s Corcorvado peak, topped with its famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. And that’s because it is Rio’s Corcorvado mountain — moved right into the heart of New York.
Welcome to the world of Ciro Miguel. The São Paulo architect spends his spare time dreaming up landscapes in which familiar urban landmarks from around the world collide. The images he’s kitbashed together are his own; most involve elements from his home country, Brazil, or New York, where he was a graduate student. Others encompass his world travels. It’s in the way Miguel’s collages represent the places and ways many travel now, in fact — reflecting trends in trade and politics driven by globalization — that they can be seen as more than mere dreamscapes, representing connections and evoking experiences that have become very real.
It’s become a conventional view that globalization is a homogenizing force, including among artists grappling with the face and form of the cosmopolitan megacity. Mexico-born British photographer Sze Tsung Leong is one of the best known; he’s embarked on a series of photos of city skylines photographed from the same perspective — on the horizon line — followed by another project that involved shooting various cities from a similarly high vantage point.
Sze’s philosophy, outlined in an essay called “A Picture You Already Knew,” was that human settlements would best express their differences only if stripped of variables like perspective and geography — without which their built forms appear, by comparison, nearly identical. Daniel Raven-Ellison, of the Geography Collective, arrived a similar conclusion, stringing together street level shots of different megacities to form video navigations that reveal comparable patterns of development.
These concepts are insightful, but hardly resonate with most people’s experience of world cities. Few actually encounter them as distant vistas or ground-level blurs, with the exception of business travellers — the people who fly long routes in roomy beds on the enviable side of the flimsy curtain that divides airline classes — for whom each glamorous metropolis does often seem like a carbon copy of the last, their anonymous continua of glass, steel, and suited sophistication stretching from airport business lounges to financial districts.
There’s a tellingly-named magazine for this caste — maybe two, if you count Monocle, which is catnip for hipsters with airline club memberships — but I mean Nylon, the publication that derives its name from an elision of “New York” and “London”. Appealing to a transatlantic elite who regularly commute between Heathrow and JFK, the magazine’s title, more than its content, effectively establishes the rarefied understanding of the two anglophone epicenters as two sides of the same coin.
But for those who don’t live like George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, flying to a foreign city tends not to elicit as much ennui as culture shock. That’s where Miguel’s collages fit the bill, conveying the jarring contrasts encountered by less frequent travelers who fly coach. Miguel himself began his series out of the sense of disruption he developed during his first visit to Rio; “[l]ike most of the travelers who had been there,” he wrote to me, “I was completely shocked by the scale of the mountains and their relationship to the city.”
Increasingly, seismic political and economic shifts mean the far-flung landmarks and landscapes Miguel has brought together are among those most likely to lie on either side of intercontinental journeys. As the cultural chasms between probable destinations have expanded, the likelihood we’ll experience the sense of shock his collages convey has only grown larger.
As recently as the late 90s, most international travel cycled among the economic engines of the “Global North” — the G8 countries of the North Atlantic, plus Japan. Travelling between any two points elsewhere in the world often involved changing flights in Europe, North America, or a handful of Asian hubs; movement from East to West Africa involved layovers in Paris or London, and traveling between countries in Latin America often meant being marooned in Miami (after his epic 1950 South American journey, which inspired the film The Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara found himself stuck in the Florida city on his way from Veneuzuela to Buenos Aires, his home).
Trade has been critiqued as a form of imperialism, and, for decades, economic and political relations did look troublingly like — and dictated — the world’s spoke-and-hub flight map: an impoverished periphery dominated by a controlling core. Miguel’s mashup of Manhattan and Mount Fuji, touchstones of core countries, best represents this era.
But eventually, the rest of the world — the Global South — began to feel the benefits of expanded global interchange. Little represents their newfound muscularity so well as the sight of Rio’s mountains lording over the towers of New York. Today, foreign investment doesn’t just flow to the periphery from the core; in business, politics, even design, “South-South exchanges” have grown in prominence. Tellingly, the focal points of air travel have also shifted: by passenger numbers, Beijing is now by far Asia’s busiest hub airport; flights easily swing between Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia via Dubai.
The trend seems set to continue. Rising incomes, roaring economies, and stabilizing governments — caused by expanding trade in some places and causing it in others — are now becoming the rule in much of the Global South. It’s hard to find a single phrase to describe this phenomenon; the two most common are the “rise of the rest” (too developed-world-centric) and “globalization 2.0” (better, but Tom Friedmanesque). Financial types prefer the more mechanical “emerging markets”; many simply go by the specific places being discussed.
One term, “BRIC,” was coined in 2001 by a Goldman Sachs economist to describe the rising prowess of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. In 2010, the BRIC countries formed a political association of the same name, adopting South Africa to become the “BRICS“. By 2005, Goldman had also become bullish about the “Next 11” — growing economies including Mexico, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, and Vietnam that were marked by “macroeconomic stability, political maturity, openness of trade and investment, and quality of education”.
The value and credibility of these categories might appear suspect, and not just because they were composed by a single (and infamously influential) investment bank prior to the world financial crisis. And yet BRICs and N-11s have been flexing as much diplomatic as economic muscle lately, supplying more evidence of their skyward status.
China rules over an empire of investments (and supplicants) in Africa and chides the US over economic policy, Russia plays hardball with Europe over gas supplies, and Brazil has become a kingmaker from Honduras, where it mediated in a constitutional crisis, to Haiti, where it heads a large peacekeeping force, and has partnered with Turkey to intervene in the dispute over Iran’s nuclear energy program.
Transplanting Istanbul to the beaches of Rio, or setting São Paulo’s buildings in the mountains of Cappadocia, reflects not only the increased likelihood of traveling between such disparate landscapes, but the once-unthinkable collaboration between the governments that control them. The formation of something like a Turkey-Brazil axis has been one of globalization’s most head-turning consequences — the director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre termed it a “watershed in the emerging configuration of a multipolar world”. Neither freer trade’s proponents (rhetoric aside, they were agents of the core) nor its detractors quite expected things would turn out this way. Most assumed the traditional core-periphery relationship would hold; the debate largely concerned what could be achieved within it.
The jury may still be out. Miguel’s latest collage shows Athens’ Acropolis looming high over São Paulo. It’s long served as a stand-in for Greece, which, over the course of the last year, has found itself thought of less as the cradle of Western civilization than what may be the first of the West’s precariously-balanced economic dominoes to fall. The mere prospect of Greek default has deeply shaken confidence not just in the Eurozone, but the developed world as a whole.
Many now fear the Acropolis’ ruins might turn out to be less anachronistic than prophetic. High performance continues in the BRICs and N-11, making the old Global North seem even more anemic. Protesters have taken to the streets and are squatting in squares across Europe and North America to voice anger at economic conditions.
But this inversion of economic forces is far from all-encompassing. Canada has escaped the worst of what’s being experienced in the recession-addled United States; in Australia, good times still roll. And Greece’s crisis is actually one faced by Europe’s periphery — states including Spain, Portgual and Ireland (recently referred to by their own, less-flattering acronym, PIGS) that were brought into the Euro long before they were really ready to share a currency with more stable-state countries, like Germany and France, in the core.
Take a closer look and the rising Global South is also looking shaky; inflation may strangle the rapid ascent of Brazil, and uninhabited “ghost cities” built across China to boost its GDP, as well as its ballooning municipal debt, attest to the weak, bubble-like foundations of the Asian giant’s prosperity. Miguel’s remix of Istanbul and Brazil showcases globalization 2.0’s advancement of rising stars. But by inserting the Acropolis in São Paulo, he’s also revealed the looming spectre of its flipside — the precariousness of the system in which they’ve risen.
Tags: Artists, Athens, Brazil, Istanbul, Japan, New York, Photography, Recession, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Travel, Turkey