Interview with France Purg on Privileged Tactics
Conversation with Urska Jurman
Urska Jurman: Privileged Tactics is a series of projects you developed with Sara Heitlinger on the theme of how people create their own survival solutions, existential as well as emotional. With Privileged Tactics I, the two of you started with the creative survival strategies and techniques of street children in the Ukraine, where you lived for two months in 2006. In Privileged Tactics II, which is still in development, you thematise the survival strategies of a group of Coptic people in Cairo whose economy is based on the collection and recycling of a large part of the waste products of the city of Cairo. Another aspect of these projects is that you also draw attention to questions of personal responsibility for the environment in the developed world.
Privileged Tactics III is a project which you are currently developing in which you concentrate
on the intimate relations of people who live in different geographic environments, and on their creativity – the effort to maintain connections over long distances. Would you start off by presenting the conceptual points of departure and work methodologies which are developed within the projects? It is interesting to me that you have constructed PT I as well as PTII from two parts: from an exploratory part in the field (streets of the Ukraine, and Cairo), and from created objects/models which you implement as critical design.
As a part of your installations in a gallery space, these objects – a bag for stealing for PTI, and for PT II a model for increasing personal responsibility to the environment – challenge visitors with the uncomfortable task of reestablishing their own stance toward dealing with questions of what we think about theft as a concept compared to theft from necessity, how we contribute to the pollution of the environment, and so on. It seems to me that with this, what interests you above all is how to shake the established positions and dispel the certainty of the Subject in the developed world.
Franc Purg: Marginal, or better said, fringe groups have interested me for a long time. They were also the starting points for my older projects, such as: Where is the line (1998), Leon (2001), Kids (2002) among others. In the case of Privileged Tactics these include the street children in Eastern Europe; the Zabbaleen, who are a minority group of Coptic people in Cairo; and finally, partners who live in different geographic and linguistic environments. In Privileged Tactics the two of us were not interested in the social aspects of these groups as much as the creative practices they use in their work and survival. We consider the question of creativity to be an important question of the times, as we find ourselves in a great crisis which is neither economic nor financial. Climate change is showing us that the sphere of our existence is changing drastically, and we do not know what is still to come. In this situation it is revealed that the borders between the center and the margins are very slippery, and that the center can be marginalised, or vice versa. Essentially, it seems to me that our entire world situation is forcing necessary changes in our thinking and creativity. We must begin to change our habits, thinking, needs, if we want to survive. We consider the margins, the edges, as a kind of indicator and incubator for questions of the future: if we understand events on the edges, we can “read” the future. That is why we maintain that the practices of the margins will be very useful in the future. The subject of Privileged Tactics is actually creativity – the challenge of how we can function outside established practices in crisis situations.
Urska Jurman: So, in Privileged Tactics you are showing that solutions for the future are being established today in edge or marginal situations?
Franc Purg: Exactly. Although it sounds ambitious to say that the margins are ahead of the centre with regards to questions of the future, it looks as though the centre has been overconfident in comparison with the margins. Now something is happening in the centre. It is certain that our environment is changing greatly and that the order of the world is changing. Neoliberal capitalism, which usually passes as the only possibility, has revealed itself to be a nonfunctional system. If we hope to survive, we have to be creative in all fields – we need to cease with established practices and search and experiment with new habits, solutions and thought processes.
Urska Jurman: How do you then see your task, or role, as artists, in relation to the marginalised groups from which you draw inspiration? Is it a role of mediation?
Franc Purg: When we went to the Ukraine and later to Cairo, we had a very clear vision of our position. We resisted the condition of the omniscient white man and told ourselves that we would work above all from the position of some kind of exploring students. We learned about street children and later about the Zabbaleen. They have a very sophisticated knowledge of how to survive in the utmost difficult urban conditions. Of course we did a great deal of documentation during our visits to the Ukraine and Cairo, but that was never the reason for our work. Right at the time we were in Kiev, there was the large traveling photographic exhibition, World Press, full of miserable scenes. That exhibition raised doubts in us about the plausibility of documentation, and raised a lot of ethical questions. The two of us did not want to cast the street children as victims.
We understood the survival practices which we discovered among them as a kind of new system. We could call this system a model. And that is how we presented it afterward. In PTII the approach is somewhat different. We were astounded by the economic system of the Zabbaleen, which is based on the exceptionally effective recycling of the garbage of Cairo. We would like to promote – as much as possible – their unbelievably sophisticated model of collecting and processing waste as an model to be emulated in the developing world. In conjunction, and based on the activities of the Zabbaleen, we are working on a model of personal responsibility for the environment in the developed world. How could we in the developed world attain something similar to the system of the Zabbaleen in terms of long-term effectiveness? We created a model for consumers that offers them information about the environmental impact of a product. This model opens up a space for individual participation with regards to environmental problems. The ways we try to subvert the tactics of liberal capitalism is similar in both PTI and PTII. I doubt that the global market desires environmental responsibility in buyers, if their choices work against the principle of maximizing profits, which leads to outrageous cases, such as being able to buy water from Fiji in London. The same goes for the model from PTI, a bag to facilitate stealing, which enables us to start doing what capitalism does legally.
Urska Jurman: Do you have a plan laid out for the themes you will address in the framework of Privileged Tactics? And what actually are, according to you, privileged tactics?
Franc Purg: No, we don't have blueprints for the themes. As we were doing PTI we did not even know that we would be doing a PTII and now PTIII. Later we discovered that the concept of privileged tactics, which we developed in the framework of the first project, was something we could also use for following projects. It was felicitous for us, we couldn't say otherwise. As we did PTI, we associated with homeless children on the streets and talked with different people in the Ukraine about this phenomenon – we learned that this situation did not exist in socialist times. A great number of stories we heard went more or less like this: factories shut down, parents find themselves without money, a new owner buys the factory for a comparatively low price and raises the rents of the factory housing, and because there is no work there is no money and the family must move out. The parents usually separate, the father vanishes who knows where, the mother drinks, and the children wind up on the streets. In order to survive, these children develop strategies and tactics which are criminal according to established norms. In short, they steal. On the other hand the events which are associated with this, which put the children on the streets, the rise of capitalism, are legally approved. In PTI we did not illustrate the condition of homeless children, we did not document it; rather, we showed a model of possible resistance to the system which pushed them onto the streets. We first exhibited PTI in the year 2006 in the Modern Gallery in Ljubljana. The installation had audio instructions of how we can steal and how we can manufacture gear for making stealing easier. We constructed a model – a bag which thwarts the electronic sensors for detecting stolen items at a store exit. We also had a workshop, in which we taught people these things. It is necessary to understand this object, the bag, within the context of deciding for yourself when, from whom, and why you will steal. In the exhibition we also incorporated a statement, in which we wrote, among other things, that stealing represents resistance to liberal capitalism, with its own numerous criminal actions which are in that case legally approved. In PTI we were therefore asking; when is theft criminal and when is it a privileged tactic?
Urska Jurman: Is it a privileged tactic then when you have the possibility of choice and you do not do something out of necessity, as in the case of the street children of the Ukraine or the
Zabbaleen group in Cairo?
Franc Purg: No. Privileged tactics are not the possibility of choice or freedom, especially today in a democratic system where freedom is one of the basic human rights. Accepting the possibility of choice or freedom as privileged would mean that we would passively renounce the United Nations declaration of 1948. In ancient Rome, to be privileged meant that you were free. Street children and the Zabbaleen certainly do not feel themselves privileged. Quite the contrary. They live in an extremely tough environment and precisely in those surroundings figure out strategies, methods and tactics for survival. It will sound pathetic to those who have never been in such a state of affairs, but to live and survive is a privilege. Another way to put it would be to say that privileged means that someone creates their own rules - strategies - which are not a part of the generally accepted system or laws. The root of the word “privilege” is the Latin “privilegium”, coming from “privus”, which means “one's own, personal” and “lex”, which means “law”. In Slovene colloquial language it would mean “to take one's fate into one's own hands”, which the street children and the Zabbaleen have also done.
Urska Jurman: Could you describe PTII in more detail?
Franc Purg: As an introduction to this project I would mention the project Red Cross, which I constructed in 2006 in the Machtesh Ramon crater in the middle of the desert near the town of Mitzpe Ramon in Israel. There is a platform there intended for observing and admiring the spectacularly beautiful crater, but it is also used by the locals for illegally dumping waste. On the slope of the crater I built a giant red cross made mostly from red junk. The local government was not pleased with this, of course, and organized a clean-up afterward. Later Sara and I started thinking about a joint project in which we could work with our shared interests into environmental problems. The inspiration for PTII was the Zabbaleen, which means “people who collect the garbage” in Arabic. They are descendants from Coptic farmers, indigenous people, who were destitute at the beginning of the 20th century and figured out a way to survive in a big city. They moved from the region of the Nile delta to Cairo, or rather the backwaters of the city. In order to survive, they first collected organic waste in Cairo and raised livestock in the settlement of Mokattam, where they live and which has become a part of the city of Cairo. Later, with the growth of the city and the rise of consumer society, they began collecting other garbage as well, sorting, reworking and reselling it. They collect organic waste, paper, plastic, bags, metals and textiles, and recycle more than 90 percent of the waste. They have workshops in which they manufacture equipment for processing waste into products and semi-products, which they sell back into the city. For example, they make compost from organic waste; they mix plastic bags, which are known as expensive to recycle, with sand and make such things as covers for sewage systems. Until 1980, they were the only people cleaning Cairo, where between 20 and 25 million people live today. In the nineties the city government contracted four multinational concerns to clean the city, but the plan quickly revealed itself as a failure. Some absurd things happened, for example some contractors brought trucks to Cairo which were too wide for the streets, for they had not even come earlier to inspect the city. Of the four companies, only one still remains, which obviously does a poor job of cleaning the city, as Cairo is drowning in garbage. The economic system of the Zabbaleen is still under question; it is not clear whether they will be able to stay in Mokattam, as the city government wants to resettle them elsewhere. Today, in times of over-pollution and saturation with waste, the example of the Zabbaleen appears very progressive to us. Their system should be studied and promoted. That is also our intent. As Sara and I began to work intensively on the project, we discovered that the model of this group, which recycles a large part of the waste products of Cairo, is not something we can carry over and use in the developed world. But we believe that it is very suited for the developing world. That is why we created the second part of the project, in which we propose the so-called model of personal responsibility for the environment in the developed world.
Urska Jurman: Why does it seem to you that the model of the Zabbaleen is not suited to the developed world?
Franc Purg: Taking a model from one context into another is problematic. Just as Cairo wanted to implement the western model of city waste maintenance, and this proved to be ineffective, I believe the model of the Zabbaleen would not work here. The model for the developed world is different. For the developed world we created a model of personal responsibility for the environment in which the consumer can make decisions about which products to purchase based on information about the environmental impact of each product.
Urska Jurman: PTII has been running since 2006. How has the project changed from the original ideas since your recent trip to Cairo in October 2008? How has your own understanding of the economic and environmental model of the Zabbaleen changed in that time, and also what you are trying to realize in the project?
Franc Purg: When we first visited the Zabbaleen in the summer of 2006, their recycling system fascinated us. Our first reaction was to try to help them within the framework of the project, but we were aware of the plans of the city government to resettle the Zabbaleen out of the city of Mokkatam, where about 70,000 people live. We developed a proposal for the project and submitted it to the UNESCO Digital Arts Awards, where the idea was selected for second prize. The prize
enable a three-month residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, where we were able to continue developing the project. Another consequence of the UNESCO prize was that we established contact with the freeDimensional organisation from New York who helped us greatly in the development of the project. Our original idea was to carry out an action in Cairo involving the distributing of 10,000 plastic water bottles and tracking them with a GPS system. We foresaw that the result would be a great percentage of the bottles winding up recycled by the Zabbaleen. We intended to then work with this statistical data, saying, “look how important the Zabbaleen are to city of Cairo.” GPS quickly turned out to be an overly expensive and unsuitable system for us, so we changed tack, to a radio frequency identification system, RFID. Upon modifying the action with plastic bottles, we reconsidered, as it was still very expensive. In the process of working we started to intensively rethink the direction of how it would be possible to promote their model. I think that the role of the artist is not just to produce objects - you can also promote something that already exists. Here we can link to the idea of the “ready-made”. If we were to make the action with plastic bottles in Cairo, it would be in conjunction with promoting the model of the Zabbaleen, which we consider very important.
Urska Jurman: Wasn't the idea of promotion part of the content of the project from the very beginning?
Franc Purg: No, we didn't know that we would be doing that. Now we are aware of it. We only learned in the process of the work itself. The white man likes to step into the third world to teach
and subjugate. That is the idea of colonialisation. Our position is reversed. In PTI we went to the Ukraine in the position of learners and not teachers.
Urska Jurman: I would like to know if that is why your ideas about promoting awareness throughout the development of the project, as well as your understanding of what kind of promotion makes sense and is needed, changed upon meeting the Zabbaleen?
Franc Purg: They need promotion in Cairo. This year the Austrian photographer Hermann Huber wanted to exhibit his photographs of the Zabbaleen in the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo, but for political reasons, which is a commentary in itself, was refused. The Zabbaleen are still on some kind of blacklist in Cairo, which is paradoxical. The other thing however is the promotion of that model in the rest of the developing world - to spread their knowledge to other groups who could implement it.
Urska Jurman: You speak of blacklists - do you mean by the city government or by the residents of Cairo as well? How do the residents of Cairo relate to the Zabbaleen?
Franc Purg: At first I thought that the root of the problem between the city government and the Zabbaleen was a matter of religion. The Zabbaleen are not Arabic, they are mostly aboriginal people with Christian roots. As we grew to know the situation in Cairo however, we realised that questions of religion are not the reason for the negative actions of the government toward them. The president of the non-governmental organisation, the Association for the Protection of the Environment, which was established by a wealthy Coptic family and supports the Zabbaleen, also told us this. I think the source of these problems is primarily a great appetite for the physical space in which the Zabbaleen live and from which the government wants to move them.
Urska Jurman: I read that the residents were not exactly inclined toward the international contractors because they had to begin paying for a subscription to the garbage removal services, even though the contractors were not able to match the Zabbaleen in recycling such a large percentage of garbage.
Franc Purg: The paradox here is that the foreign contractors cleaning Cairo do not even recycle, but dump the garbage in the middle of the desert. You can imagine how much garbage 20 to 25 million people generate each day. The garbage they dump is buried in the desert without any protection. When it rains in winter, polluted water pours into the river Nile, which is the only water source in Egypt and which is the source of their entire water system. That is the catch-22 of the multinationals' cleaning of Cairo. And as you said, with the multinationals people had to pay to subscribe to their garbage removal services. What is the implication of importing the Western model to clean Cairo? The system doesn't work. Even more, it is destructive, in the ecological, economic and social senses. Then you have the existing model of the Zabbaleen, which they do not grasp, but which they actually should support.
Urska Jurman: How is the stance of the city government toward the Zabbaleen now, after the obviously unsuccessful experience of the international contractors?
Franc Purg: At the moment they maintain the status quo. And that is why it seems to me that this is the right moment to promote the model of the Zabbaleen.
Urska Jurman: In what way does the Association for the Protection of the Environment support the Zabbaleen?
Franc Purg: Until recently the Zabbaleen manufactured semi-products - they recycled paper, cut plastic bottles into strips and sold them, for example, for the manufacture of synthetic fabric, and so on. That organisation, which has about 60 volunteers who are all Copts, help the Zabbaleen with advice, as well as financially. For example they opened a compost-manufacturing plant, and a workshop in which they process old clothing into finished products such as bags and rugs, which they design themselves. In some of the plants they make covers for sewage systems out of plastic bags and so on. In short, the organisation supports the manufacturing and selling of various semi-products and products, along with the collecting, sorting and processing of garbage.
Urska Jurman: And how is the settlement of Mokattam organised – the garbage city, where the Zabbaleen live?
Franc Purg: In Mokattam, it stinks - how could it be otherwise? It surprised me that a part of the neighbourhood is Muslim, although the Copts are Christians. In the Mokattam there was no feeling of tension or visible borders which would divide it into two parts. It is organised on the basis of families which specialise in the collection and processing of different materials. They have schools, a kindergarten, doctors and nurses.
Urska Jurman: You speak of individuals but the settlement has 70,000 inhabitants.
Franc Purg: Yes, that's right. The doctors have not been there long and half of them work as volunteers. People there are very poor and have great health problems with hepatitis b, which is their perpetual curse.
Urska Jurman: We spoke about the incompatibility of models. Do you think that the model of the Zabbaleen could be taken to the Western world, but on an individual level? Is it possible on an individual level, in everyday life, to follow the model of the Zabbaleen, who recycle the bulk of garbage? It is difficult to imagine people collecting and processing the garbage they produce after working an eight-hour day.
Franc Purg: I don't think we have another choice. Until now we have believed too much that the government will do something about this. But governments are bound to four-year mandates. The introduction of unleaded petrol, which was a governmental measure, was positive of course, but what happened? At the same time the number of automobiles tripled. In my opinion the planet could possibly begin to change at the individual level. Every individual must decide how to create less pollution. I don't see large systematic possibilities. Who will force you to throw your paper into the paper bin? Here I see the perspective of our personal responsibility. We have already gone so far in polluting the planet that if we don't seriously wake up and radically change our thoughts and actions there is no future for us. As I said, I think that we can not import the model of the Zabbaleen system into Slovenia. It is about two different structures. But we could take it to the developing world. What could we do in the developed world? Within the scope of our project, we present a model of personal responsibility. The developed world is the world of the consumer society. The reason for the universal crisis we are in is our over-sized appetite for gain, consuming, and so on. The model for personal responsibility which we suggest could be implemented practically. It is based on an extra principle of consumption. If we are currently making purchasing decisions based on price, quality, design, and so on, Sara and I introduce another dimension, which is personal responsibility. The suggested model shows the environmental impact of a product. For example: the quantity of greenhouse emissions produced in its manufacture, where the product was manufactured and how far it travelled to the point of sale.... On the basis of this information the model indicates the amount of emissions generated, and so on.
Urska Jurman: Your model is actually a model for the aware consumer. You have not brought the system of consumerism itself into question, and there is still the open question of what happens to the packaging of the product.
Franc Purg: What is the aware consumer? Our model also includes information about whether the manufacturers of various products are responsible for recycling packaging or not. The model is constructed so that products are embedded with an RFID microchip containing all relevant data. Scanning the chip accesses a database from which the consumer can make decisions. This model is suitable for the Western, developed world, and we believe in the importance of personal responsibility for the future of our planet while at the same time we are aware that change cannot happen overnight. But if we turn back, we destroy radically, quickly and decisively.
Urska Jurman: In connection with the model you have developed in the framework of PT you talk about the concept of critical design. I understand these models as criticism, which at the same time offer suggestions: as criticism of established dominant practices and thoughts, and that also suggest “something different”, something which can be carried over into and practiced in real life. Your combination of the symbolic and the real is interesting for me. You are developing models as some kind of abstract proposal, which could in all seriousness be implemented in daily life. Why do you find it necessary to develop models/proposals which could potentially be applied as solutions to different problems?
Franc Purg: It would be too simple and boring to be a passive critic. This is the source of our desire to create useful models - proposed systems - which we call critical design. Critical design is the opposite of affirmative design, which is the melding of function, aesthetic concerns and not least, profitability. With models which in some way subvert the capitalist system, we are trying to stimulate critical rethinking and the formation of one’s own personal position, and perhaps new practices as well.
Interview conducted November, 2008.