Informal Displays Jaime Iregui

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From the perspective of a geography which understands space in terms of social production,1 there are certain guidelines which account for why unbalanced spatial configurations are produced in all the cities of the world, which in turn subordinate all spatial practices to the dictatorship of capital.2

In this geographical line of thought, the production of space is principally defined through two aspects related to the organization of production and the display of merchandise inherent in the circulation of capital: the first is space as an absolute3 unit which is territorially structured by the place, rights, and guarantees that the State grants business and private property; the second is where merchandise is transported through a space of flows designed and regulated by the State which can be defined as relative—the access routes and channels between the spaces of production and those of display and sale.

Those spaces where merchandise is displayed and sold inside private property—shopping centers and warehouses—are generally understood to comprise an absolute unit whose boundaries with public space could be called its exhibitory system,4 that is to say, all those arrangements which can be used to display merchandise such as shop windows or displays.

In the case of the spatial strategies5 of formalized trade, standardization and homogenization prevails with respect to architecture and the ways of setting out merchandise, generated through State supervision and the specific properties of the physical space (shop windows or displays), as well as by the observance of local and global trade practices which determine its strategies of display and sale.

While the regulation of public space and the tax system imposed by the State and other relevant entities are obeyed in the case of formalized trade, the same does not apply to the display tactics6 of street vendors.

The so-called spatial imbalances generated by the logic of capital are principally reflected in the spatial practices of informal trade, which has historically occupied the squares, pavements, and streets of the city.

As part of the process of recovering public space in Bogotá (Colombia), the street vendors, who for decades occupied emblematic spaces such as San Victorino Square, as well as the pavements of 13th and 7th streets, have been relocated to various shopping centers built by the Mayor’s Office—some of which have failed and been abandoned—as part of the program of the recovery of public space by informal trade, into which almost 12 billion pesos have been invested since 1990.7

Although the recovery of the squares and pavements of the main thoroughfares of the city is advancing in an irreversible way, pressure from the authorities and the citizens themselves have made informal trade transform the static and invasive character of its stands into an agile and fluid collection of mobile stalls which facilitate the vendors’ movement through various locations of the city.

This tendency toward mobility as a possible response has become generalized among the profession of streets vendors, due to both the effects of pressure and to the functionality of its structure—it makes it easier for vendors to avoid police vans and give the police officers in charge of confiscating the merchandise of the informal economy the slip.

Street vendors use various ways of displaying and selling merchandise in public spaces, from very basic arrangements, such as those used to spread merchandise over the surface of the streets, to those with a certain level of complexity and mobility, like those used to display and sell sweets and cigarettes.

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Many of these mobile stalls are connected via mobile phones—which they also offer to their clients at a rate of 500 pesos per minute—and this facilitates the sending of warning signals concerning possible incursions by the authorities with the objective of seizing the merchandise on sale.

Thus the result of pressure on the informal economy is that the system of circulation and sales has adapted—redefining tactics and display methods—to a political and social reality which aims to be integrated within the logic and network of the official economy.

From such diverse disciplines as art, geography, sociology, urbanism, and political sciences, new approaches to the experience and conceptualization of space are being created, which enable the production, ordering, and use of spatial configurations that are different from those defined by the hegemonic systems, which throughout history have determined the ways of using, representing, and inhabiting space.

In almost all large cities at present, public space has gone from being a space for meeting and socializing to one of mere transit between one point of the city and another; urban design seems to be focused more on optimizing the flows of production of a decidedly capitalist system, expanding without apparent resistance, rather than on satisfying its citizens needs for well-being and recreation.

The same must not be allowed to happen in our cities, which are located in a country with extremely high levels of violence and mindless behavior: places are needed, such as the public space, which function—be it only on the level of the media—as a stage for representing and visualizing conflicts, creating new forms of spatial configuration and use, negotiating the boundaries between the State, citizens, and private business, measuring the capacity of leaders, and constructing a collective meaning, which, until a few years ago, seemed to have been lost forever.

Illustration

I / Jaime Iregui, “Constelaciones,” 2002.

II / Jaime Iregui, “Constelaciones,” 2002.

Note

1 / The geographer David Harvey proposes a historical geography of capitalism that can account for the processes and imbalances of spatial configurations: “ … the phenomena we have to observe here are of an apparently infinite variety. They include such diverse processes and events as the individual’s struggle for jurisdictional rights to a plot of land, the colonial and neocolonial politics which continue in different nation-states, residential differentiation within urban areas, the fights among street gangs over “their territory,” the organization and design of space to transmit social and symbolic meaning, the spatial articulation between different mercantile systems (financial, trade, etc.), the regional guidelines for growth within a work division, the spatial concentrations in the distribution of the reserve army of labor, the class alliances formed around notions such as community, region and nation, and so on.” Text quoted from Ovidio Delgado Mahecha, Debates sobre el espacio en la geografía contemporánea, Universidad Nacional, Bogotá 2003.

2 / Delgado Mahecha, Debates sobre el espacio en la geografía contemporánea.

3 / David Harvey, Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference, Blackwell, Cambridge 1997.

4 / Tony Bennet, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in Thinking about Exhibitions, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Routledge, New York 1996.

5 / Strategy is understood in the sense conceptualized by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Every Day Life: “I call ‘strategy’ the calculation of power relationships which become possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’ A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre), and thus serves as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model.” Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984.

6 / “Tactic” is understood, once again, in the sense conceptualized by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life: “I call a ‘tactic’ a calculated action which cannot count on a ‘proper’ locus (a spatial or institutional localization), nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of tactics belongs to the other. A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. It has at its disposal no base where it can capitalize on its advantages, prepare its expansions, and secure independence with respect to circumstances.”

7 / Michael G. Donovan, “Space Wars in Bogotá: The Recovery of Public Space and Its Impact on Street Vendors,” The MIT Press, Cambridge 2002.