On The BMW Guggenheim Lab: Are ‘Emerging Talents’ Really What We Need?

BMW Guggenheim Lab: Stage is setScott Lynch

You can tell a lot from the language people use– as well as from the language they don’t use. An online visit to the “mobile” BMW Guggenheim Lab, which recently touched down on Houston Street and Second Avenue in all its up-to-the-minute minimalist splendor, suggests that the “international, interdisciplinary teams of emerging talents” running it are engaged in the paradoxical task of trying to discover “innovative” solutions to intractable urban problems while thinking solely in clichés.

The Web site itself is of course cheery and bright, featuring lots of baby blues, the usual self-promotional videos, fussy graphics, things to click on, and, of course, an Internet letter box in which you – an ordinary citizen! – can post your radical visionary ideas about how to improve the city without even buying a stamp.

The economy is almost beyond repair, world banks are facing a meltdown, entire segments of the population have been served with their divorce papers by any and all employers, but the Guggenheim’s site is full of madly utopian visions such as that eye-catching poster in which all of New York’s major buildings are squeezed into the rectangle usually occupied by Central Park, while the rest of the island becomes a green, pristine forest – much as it was before those horrid Europeans arrived in their high-tech wooden boats. Yeah, that’ll work. Just watch out for the bows and arrows.

In a section of the Web site named “I Meditate NY” – a joke in itself – we read that “creativity is the font of innovation.” This is about as perceptive as stating that “sexuality is the mechanism of reproduction.” There’s a reason certain sentences such as “necessity is the mother of invention” stick around forever, while others barely make it to the end of the week. I think we can agree that “creativity is the font of innovation” belongs in the second category. It’s think-tank language, dead on arrival.

In another section, “Where is the Lab?”, it is stated that the lab is “located in a vibrant neighborhood on the border between the Lower East Side and the East Village.” How urban theorists love borders! Later we learn that this borderland is home to “diverse immigrant communities,” as if we hadn’t noticed.

Stranger still is the claim that, along with the usual array of “restaurants, galleries,” etc., the neighborhood has a lot of parks. Really? Well, I suppose Hamilton Fish Park and the “Creative Little Garden” are in walking distance, but if you referred to those patches of greenery as “parks” in the presence of someone from London or Berlin, they’d laugh in your face. So much for the “internationalism” of the interdisciplinary team of “emerging talents.”

That last phrase – “emerging talents” — brings up another question. If you were truly serious about improving urban life, wouldn’t you go with talents that have already emerged rather than those still in the chrysalis stage? Would the manager of a sports team get away with fielding a team of “emerging talents” rather than ones who have already proved their potential?

When I read through a Web site like this one, what I see is group-think eco-architectural trendoids who have just arranged a nice paying gig for themselves, promising idealism and urban transformation, but mostly delivering panel discussions for you and interesting cocktail parties and advanced networking opportunities for themselves.

Still, one shouldn’t complain about the panel discussions. Aren’t you just dying to attend “Beyond Segrification: Models for Equal Glocalization”? (No, those aren’t misprints.) If you are, then please ask Elma van Boxel and Kristian Koreman, the BMW Guggenheim “Lab Team Members” leading this particular slice of “public discourse,” why they choose to speak like Martians with PhDs.

Of course they and all the other “Lab Team Members” (the big question is, do they wear uniforms?) will be very democratic and solicitous and respectful in their approach. You can be sure they will be very interested in the community’s ideas. Could it be because… they have so few themselves? No, surely not.

Everywhere on the Web site appears the neo-Orwellian mantra, “stay connected.” Why? Staying “connected” is as efficient a way of ruining your brain and driving yourself loco as humanity has yet devised. But these urban-theory hot shots trot it out endlessly as if it were the equivalent of “love thy neighbor.”

Since it’s free to the public, and here in our neighborhood, the BMW Guggenheim Lab, which is open through October 3, is probably worth a look. Judging from its hackneyed, pseudo-intellectual Web site, however,  it should be visited with a high-octane dollop of wickedly extreme skepticism.