The City as Text [La Ciudad como Texto]
Organisation: Independent and Collaborative Project with the unique name as ‘The City as Text’
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 21 Aug 2020
Credit: Carola Ureta Marín
The Chilean social outbreak in 2019, was a major political event. The City as Text project: Documents, classifies and displays a large number of graphic interventions (visual data) made by citizens in the face of imminent government censorship. The project is a georeferenced register during the hardest days of revolt. A virtual tour of 2.4 km made by hundreds of photographs and hosted on a website, allows people from all over the world to live the experience of walking through those streets as an echo of social demands. This material represents a free, innovative and unique ‘National Memory Data Archive’.
Days after the website launch some impacts began to present visibility. Today, after four months online, we can establish that:
– First, participate in a cultural and political movement to establish a counternarrative about the appropriation of the public space by citizens, in the context of a government trying to impose the discourse of internal war, and public enemies. The president himself said during a public speech on October 20th, 2019 : “We are at war against a powerful enemy” referring directly to the Chilean people.
– Another outcome was mainly in the international arena. Since the dictatorship, exile created a Chilean diaspora spread throughout the world. People who had discourses against the Chilean development model imposed during the dictatorship a continuous to this day had found refuge in other countries. One of the unexpected effects was to connect people of the Chilean diaspora with the streets of Santiago resonating with their long-standing social demands and the fight against human rights violations.
– In the field of Journalism: Reinterpreting photography as geodata, going beyond the common perspectives of photojournalism and opening a medium to new uses and experiences in the Chilean media. In the same way, this Archive collects information that has contributed to generating Data Activism as an echo of social demands. Finally, it has allowed the development of an alternative Data Journalism to the traditionally dominant ones (Telecommunications) that have contributed new studies. This specific data from a particular moment of crisis in Chile, provides accurate information by merging the quantitative with images (qualitative) opening boundaries in Quantitatives Journalism.
– Due to the use of the platform as a Memory Archive, many research, webinars and articles have been published not only in Chilean universities and media, but also internationally giving more visibility and support to the crisis.
The techniques were planned according to the different scenarios and contexts, here are the main procedures:
- Data Capture: Due to the fact that protests took place daily in the streets and police repression was very violent, dangerous and constant. The only possible way to do this register was doing it by walking with a handheld camera, very early in the morning and without any special supply as a tripod or a 360º camera. Multiple violations of human rights and the threat of whitewashing the walls as censorship of the social crisis by the government required a lean, invisible and tactical approach.
- Data Processing: Hundreds of digital pictures were indexed and later digitally retouched using traditional editing programs. Because of the special geography of Chile and the pathway of the record it was impossible to merge all the pictures directly in digital. The photographs were printed for manually reconstruct completely the journey georeferencing each point. The first prototype of the 2.4 km and generated by using hundreds of photographs in an analog montage of twelve meters long. This mock-up was used later as a guideline for the digital version.
- Data Display: The main criteria was to create a different experience, approach and access to the data for different types of users. Although hundreds of records were viralized, not one allowed to georeference and have a continuous experience. The virtual walk later became more necessary and assertive due to the lockdown of people all over the world because of the COVID.
What was the hardest part of this project?
There are three relevant aspects to consider in this project. The first is related to the rapid reaction, the assertive register and subsequent website execution, due to the need for censorship in the midst of crisis. The constant protests in the streets didn’t allow to stop and realize what was happening, because it was happening. Police violence, constant clashes between protesters and the Armed Forces, toxic gases that were breathed in the public space, made impossible to have an overview of the demands. Hundreds of records were published on social networks, but none are addressed in a panoramic or georeferential way, much less experiential. The record was completely subject to the journalistic experience itself, with the risks involved.
The second is related to the pandemic that have direct consequences with demonstrations. When people are in the streets demanding their rights, the confinement seems to play against the so-called ‘justice’. When protesters are locked up, only the police is allow to be in the public space and by order of the government they erased the messages from the walls. This project ‘uses’ precisely the lockdown and its digitality, to enhance the transmission of this Memory Data Archive. The online work of almost fifty people who make up this initiative continued for five months of confinement and then, the free access platform did nothing but broaden the spectrum of expected visits. Thus, not only people from other regions of Chile but also people abroad could feel part of this social crisis.
The last point refers to the completely collaborative and self-managed essence of the project. No economic transaction was made for the development of this online experiential archive.
The project is precisely in tune with what arises in this crisis, which is collaborative work and solidarity between people to achieve radical changes.
What can others learn from this project?
There are different approaches of the “City as a Text” project. Due to the transversality of the documented data during an important crisis in Chile, including a Plebiscite that will completely modify the Constitution. Various disciplines can use this Memory Data Archive to deepen research, activism and cultural works, because of its digital nature and free access. Focus in the journalism field we affirm that: Along with the “in your face” political violence exercised by a state grasping to hold power, there are other forms of violence that need to be covered by medias. What was signaled as vandalism by some political actors was really a Meaning Map of concerns, desires, rights, rage and hopes. The register becomes Data that embodies the citizen demands in a specific moment that could contribute to build alternatives imaginaries. It transits in a parallel dimension to official history, news and academic articles. It is built by citizens in the public space, situated and overflowing in its own materiality and immateriality. As an anonymous, collective and popular authorship registered and exposed as an alternative documentation. Beyond the official front page news, there is the need to create and explore alternative media to narrate this stories that includes so many silenced voices. Also, data is usually seen as a way of grasping clear and univocal reality. However, we are everyday surrounded by valuable unstructured data (like graffiti) that should be recorded, indexed and processed in the context of the larger narratives of social changes. Journalism must capture and try to reflect the essence of events, and what more ‘real’ than the voices of citizens themselves demanding changes. This free online website made by the documentation of the city, represents an alternative database as an input for research and open the door to the Data Activism.