The Los Angeles Biennale

Currently at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. Formerly at the Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture/Urbanism.



Feb '14 - May '14

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    Plausible reference #2

    By sarah123
    Feb 17, '14 9:03 PM EST

    In my last post “a plausible reference” I alluded to the idea that the Los Angeles biennale may be a work of fiction that nonetheless offers insights into this city we call home. Here is a second reference that may help to illustrate this premise.

    With its infectious beat and sardonic yet cheerful lyrics Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" was a big hit in 1993.    The song starts with the sound of birds in the background, enter Ice Cube rapping: "Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God, I don't know but today seems kinda odd, No barking from the dogs, no smog..." The song continues to describe all the reason's that for Ice Cube "today was a good day." There was "no jacker in sight", nobody got "killed in South Central", he "saw the police and they rolled right past" him, "the Lakers beat the Supersoniks", he picked up a girl he'd "been trying to f**k since the twelve grade," and he didn't "even have to use his A.K." At the end of the song the absent helicopters (also mentioned in the lyrics) return to South Central. The song creates a vivid image of what daily life might be like in South Central, both the mundane: eating breakfast, driving around, watching TV, as well as the extraordinary violence that was a hallmark of South Central in the early 1990s. The song is clearly a critique of the problems in South Central, made all the more poignant by making the lack of violence on a particular day seem almost magical. The song was even more pointed given that it was released less than a year after the LA Riots. South Central was greatly impacted by the riots that broke out April 29 1992 after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police officers accused of beating African-American Rodney King.

    The story of the riots is well documented in Mike Davis' 1998 book The Ecology of Fear  where he blames the social unrest on general economic decline and disinvestment in neighborhoods of color. Davis also describes the increase in social segregation of ethnic enclaves that occurred in the aftermath of the riots. He blames this on a policy of containment and exclusion implemented via a zoning process that aimed to bring "disciplinary order" to the modern city. "Using computer software to identify hot spots of prostitution, petty crime, and drug use the police now routinely veto building and operating permits for "crime magnet" businesses." (Davis 1998) The planning department's aim was to cut down on liquor stores and dance clubs, but the policy also limited other small businesses that offered sources of income for these depressed communities. Davis shows how the city's implementation of what he calls "social control districts" with names like "drug-free zones", "sleeping zones" (a term used for skid-row sidewalks), "anti-camping zones", "anti-gang zones", and even a "child-molestation exclusion zone" were justified with seemingly rational data-gathering processes. Evidence of crime zones are easy to find if the primary criteria for the search is to find such crimes. While it is unlikely that the zoning and accompanying signage (installed to demarcate these zones) worked as a deterrent for these activities, mapping the urban space in this way had a number of unforeseen consequences such a curtailing the rights of individuals and further depressing many communities of color.

    In January 2012 the press picked up a story of skateboarder Donovan Strain's attempt to pinpoint the exact date represented in Ice Cube's "It Was A Good Day" (post). Deconstructing the song, Donovan picks out the events detailed in the lyrics and cross-references all the possible dates when each event might have taken place. He begins by narrowing the dates between when Yo! MTV Raps premiered: August 6, 1988 (referenced in the lyrics) and the date of the song's release: February 23, 1993. Donovan then compares, within this period, the dates when the Lakers beat the Supersonics, dates when the skies were clear of smog, dates after beepers were made available to the public, and dates when Ice Cube was not on the set of the film "Boyz in the Hood" which he starred in. The resulting date is given as January 20th 1992, a date Donovan christens "National Good Day Day." Donovan's exercise is a clever example of inductive-deductive reasoning combined with data-mining in the Petabyte Age.

    The use of Deductive -Inductive reasoning and use of the web to collect data, offers a solution to the question exactly what day was Ice-Cube rapping about. The answer Donovan gives us may or not be true, since Ice-Cube has of yet not verified the hypothesis, but it might be true. The answer of course is irrelevant. Determining the exact day in question offers us no valuable insight into the urban condition that Ice-Cube depicted in his song. Donovan's exercise illustrates the conceptual problems in some forms of rational analysis (the “name of city” biennale for example).  Just because the method of analysis is rational does not mean that the information will be useful. I am not saying that Donovan shouldn't have taken on this problem. I am happy he did, as reading about his sleuthing while listening to the song brought me joy.    When we consider the urban representations depicted in most architecture/urbanism biennales we tend to believe that these rational explanations (since they are based on "real" data) will give us new insights into the urban environment we are studying or living in. Donovan's exercise is a comical reminder of why this is not always true.

    While the fictional narratives found in songs, films, literature may not offer us a "rational" evaluation of urban environments these forms of expression do provide other forms of insight and create a counterpoint to more fact-based exhibitions. The power of "It Was A Good Day" is its ability to connect us to a specific time and place. The rhythm and narrative of the song is a powerful evocation of an individual's emotional response to a particular urban environment.  The song also allows us to understand larger political and social questions of South Central in the early 1990s through a ground-level description of its every-day reality. 

    Donovan decoding Ice Cube’s “secret” good day in his 1993 hit “Today Was A Good Day”.

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The Los Angeles Biennale is an experimentation in creating a nomadic biennale on urbanism, hosted by the International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam. This blog will cover the preparation, activities and findings from this experiment.

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