Lea Rekow and Tom Leeser
Even as nations converge on a purely technical and superficial level there has been an ever-greater divergence between the people who have the means and ability to devise these connective technologies and profit from them and those who have been seduced to use them. Never before has there been such a wide gap of understanding between the producers, owners and users of technology.
—Chandran Nair, Founder of the Global Institute For Tomorrow
Tom Leeser:: Let’s start with examining trans-disciplinarity as a model for divergence—opposed to the common practice of interdisciplinarity and convergence. This question relates to recent issues being discussed within the contemporary ecology of social, political and artistic practice.
Isabelle Stengers implies that there are “speculative possibilities” that present themselves through a process of divergence, “disentangled from authority.”  Pedagogy and practice needs to respond to difference and we should question the tendencies of convergence and recognize the failures of disciplinary integration.
Divergence seems to be at the core of the Green My Favela project, a project that aims to preserve political potentials  so they can develop a divergent and pragmatic network. Your project seems to aspire to foster a new model of networked localism that evolves creatively and socially over time.
Lea Rekow:: Networked localism is a specific micro-practice that can parallel these ideas in a larger context of exchange. But the problem of networked localism is that it is not always replicable.
I think when you are talking about creating new models, each instance has to be very unique. You can’t formulate a way for one thing to fit all needs. I know that Bill Gilbert at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque is working in this sort of networking space whether it’s with different sorts of disciplines within Albuquerque or stretching it out as far as South Africa, working with medicine and all these other initiatives—environmental studies that sort of interface with his arts program.
At this moment, this is the best thing that is coming out of this—ways to network that makes sense. For me, I am really focused on what makes sense—because I am not privileging an economic model and because I have chosen not to put fund raising at the top of my “what’s important” list because I wanted the project to work in a different way. Because to me the neoliberal economic model is flawed and so is the traditional not-for-profit model. So I am looking for different ways to make projects sustainable, which don’t rely on economies in the common way we are used to.
TL:: If we look at the word economy, it can also mean an entire network of producers, distributors, and consumers.
LR:: Yes. One of the critical things involved in working in this way is building partnerships and collaborations, and if you put a traditional economic model at the top of that pyramid it’s going to fail—it just can’t work because you don’t have collaboration when fund raising is at the top. You have to find different ways of working that balances our idea of market and economy with other things that are more important. When you reposition and redefine economy this way, within social partnerships, the project’s funding doesn’t become the overriding impulse. You have to reposition economy to build effective creative models. That is not to say you can’t have economic results, but they tend to dominate and that creates all sorts of problems. We can look at the issues in a new way, in a divergent way. The words we use as practitioners are also being subsumed by the mainstream corporate worlds very fast, i.e. the sharing economy, activist investors, etc.
TL:: I think we see that in regards to technology and the discourse of investment, an arrogance of technology arises in regards to creating a specific economic agenda that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the immediate social need, even though it says it does.
LR:: This was a real tendency in Europe with all these writers I was working with recently. Very unconsciously, people would talk about technology design and follow it with the words like—“empowerment of people.”
Technology rises to the dominance in these paradigms like economy does and we tend to draw these fictional conclusions that just aren’t real—like money is more important or technology empowers people. These things really have to be addressed when we are talking about how the formulations of new networks can be effective, or how new organizational strategies can work.
TL:: Does your work start with an affinity towards locality and regionalism before moving on to a larger framing of global social justice?
LR:: I try to steer clear of the term “social justice” actually. I try and look at it through a framework of environmental justice and that is definitely connected to social justice, but really I am not interested in connecting to an ideology of transformation. I’m more focused on physically remediating space, and obviously to do that I need principles of social justice, or Paulo Freire’s idea of the pedagogy of the oppressed —How do we use principles of co-production and cooperation to enact actions?
It is very pragmatic, we actually get in there and begin by picking up trash from the site and digging in the ground together with the people that live in Rio De Janeiro’s Favelas (informal communities). There are all kinds of issues you have to deal with, like burning plastic fires and the police. I just don’t think I am qualified to talk about social justice and social transformation. I don’t really understand how it happens and I don’t think it necessarily does. Particularly in an informal context, which is so fragile that stability is very fleeting and security is volatile, and sustainability over the long term may just not be achievable. From everything I have read, social transformation seems to be based as much on luck as anything else. In my own experience that is true also. We created this beautiful garden and it was run by this wonderful community leader and it was just great. But the leader didn’t have healthcare and bits of his body started falling off because of his diabetes, and he eventually died. So the project is really suffering right now.
These ideas of social transformation—sort of like “technology empowering people”—the idea that you create an action and it will end in social transformation is a bit of a fallacy; it is more about making an attempt than really making a claim to any outcome or quantitative goal of social transformation.
TL:: You are raising a very important question about outcomes, which at times seems almost impossible to determine. Within an art practice, determined goals are sometimes antagonistic to the process itself. The notion of a quantitative outcome for social justice or even environmental justice for that matter is, like you said, a kind of a fallacy at best, or if not, a political fiction that can’t really be achieved. One can only assume that one starts from a virtual situation and certain events emerge to produce intended and unintended actions.
LR:: Well everything is always out of control to a degree. The trash in the Favela, for example, is unimaginable. It is really intense. It reminds me of what Zizek talks about when he says we should all literally live in our shit, well in the Favela you actually do. And you really do need to pick up garbage and start digging. It is living on a basic level which is so out of control and so overwhelming, its confronting your worst fears, because no matter what you do you are never going to get ahead in the game. You can’t see the social transformation because for every step forward there is another step back in a different direction. But it is great to work with people who want to come in and work voluntarily, and it’s rewarding making these gardens and taking home some okra at the end of the day. It is on this very micro-level that things are successful. It’s therapeutic for the children just to be in the space. But that is about as much as you can expect at the best of times.
TL:: I think there is a correlation between your project and what Phil Ross is doing up in the Bay Area.
It seems you both are talking about the physical—you are talking about the body, in a real space functioning creatively in an economy within the moment. The experience of the gardens, the experience of the methodology is wrapped up in the temporal body so to speak.
LR:: It’s got to do with people in space and what that means. All technology interfaces still come down to people being in space, no matter where you are. It is not transcending that. It is still people-centered.
1. Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks, Kyle McGee pg. 103
2. Scapegoat Journal, The Care of the Possible: Isabelle Strengers Interviewed by Erik Bordeleau
3. Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed