- Concept and sequencing
Milo Montelli (Skinnerboox)
Michèle Walerich (CNA)
by Daniel Reuter
Providencia—providence—in its biblical meaning, describes God’s intervention in the universe, an influence beyond human control. The Providencia neighbourhood of Santiago de Chile provides both setting and title for this new series by Daniel Reuter. Architectural details, glass reflections, makeshift structures, barricades that obstruct the view. Figures appear, the reiteration of a narrator, or characters living within a fractured narrative? Reuter’s Providencia describes a place locked between a complicated past and an uncertain future. Beneath a surface layer of the quotidian, we sense the last big wave of western aspirations crashing down, conjuring the dreams and disenchantment of a world in upheaval.
“We turned off the highway and crossed the Mapocho River, and I finally saw the city, now completely covered in graffiti, like an open book, polyphonic, aggressive, miraculously legible. Like a book where everyone had underlined a different passage.”
- Excerpt from “Accent” by Alejandro Zambra
Published by Skinnerboox in association with Lët’z Arles and Centre national de l’audiovisuel (CNA)
The exhibition Providencia will be shown in the framework of the associated programme at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2021 at la Chapelle de la Charité in Arles.
A NEW SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY
By Adam Bell
Cities are built on promises and hope, optimism and the desire for longevity. Homes rise up, neighborhoods coalesce, and infrastructure slowly evolves. They have their own sense of purpose and their bonds require constant affirmation. Stories are told and traditions maintained or discarded. Providencia, a once prosperous neighborhood of Santiago, Chile, not only exemplifies this dream but its very name suggests divine protection and legitimacy. More recently the stories and assurances of neoliberalism have changed the way people see cities and communities, opening the door to bureaucrats, politicians, and developers to change these spaces radically. What was once public is made private, walled off, and institutions are stripped and sold in the name of progress and efficiency. More often than not, people are left bewildered and impoverished, wondering where their city went, and if the old stories are even possible now.
In 2016, the photographer Daniel Reuter travelled to Chile. Initially drawn to its remote southern landscape, he began photographing in and around Providencia and saw the neighborhood as a microcosm of the turmoil and unease that had long simmered beneath the surface of Chilean society. Although the ghosts of Pinochet still haunted the country, it was the current president, Sebastian Piñera, and his right-wing government’s policies of neoliberal reform that loomed the largest. Their unchecked corruption and cuts to social services had exacerbated inequality fueling long-simmering unrest. Triggered by a Metro fare increase in 2019, the Chilean people took to the streets. Although the large-scale protests were curtailed by Piñera’s crack-down and the Covid-19 pandemic, the country remains on edge. This serves as important context, but Reuter’s work is not explicitly political nor is it reportage. Only a short story by Alejandro Zambra that accompanies the book directly addresses these converging crises. There may not be images of smoke, police, and angry citizens holding signs, but Reuter’s attentive gaze defines a perimeter, outlining and making visible the discomfort, anger, and resignations of a city moving into an uncertain 21st century.
Mixing color and black-and-white, Reuter’s work is full of symbolic resonances. Images of dented metal walls and railings, empty lots, shimmering glass facades, crumbling concrete walls, and abandoned desert construction sites suggest a landscape in flux, slowly enclosing its inhabitants, choking off the exits. Walls are being built and rebuilt, falling down, and buildings rise from the desert. These landscapes and architectural facades are mixed with pensive and softly lit portraits of young Chileans. Gazing outwards, their expressions seem tinged with weary resignation. Circling the city, the work moves from the undeveloped outskirts to the dense interior, temporally spanning night and day, and never gives us a place to rest. Save the appearance of Spanish text, a few aerial photographs, and the semi-tropical flora, there is little to locate us. There are few people, but Reuter tellingly included two solitary businessmen. Protected by glass cubicles or focused on their phones, their backs are turned or eyes cast downward. Their attention is elsewhere and unseen, and seemingly indifferent. The one figure who does confront us is a young boy. Brandishing a toy sword, held at the ready, his face is partially obscured by a sheer stocking—perhaps playing a superhero or mimicking the protestors, ready to confront some unknown threat or perhaps lead us to safety.
In the 1920s, a genre of documentary films called ‘city symphonies’ emerged. Typified by films such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, these documentaries were unambiguous celebrations of urban spaces and modernity. Juxtaposing a variety of images and candid scenes, they forgo commentary in an effort to evoke a particular mood or concept about the city. While our views of cities have changed, the impulse to understand and image urban spaces has not. An antidote to the boosterish cries of politicians and developers who often shape cities, Reuter joins a chorus of voices aiming to tell another story—wary of celebratory praise but not ready for a bleak prognosis. In Reuter’s Providencia we’re sung a funereal dirge, laced with anxiety, for the transformed and ever-evolving city and its inhabitants. A city that is being sold, rebuilt, and divided as people watch, unsure of what they can do. Now that we’ve fully entered the 21st century, we are tasked with telling stories that will not only tell us something about where we live—our communities, neighborhoods, and cities—but also determine how and whether we can move forward.