In 2007, the world passed a demographic milestone: for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. The booming 21st-century megacities are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and are becoming ever more concentrated and higher-rise. According to some commentators, these cities will decide the fate of the planet. For the influential authors of Empire and Multitude, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, the city is the place where the multitude may act within a defined territory, as well as through a network of communication, to exercise power over its living conditions. The other face of this phenomenon is a widely expressed fear at the global production of homogeneity in such metropolitan centres, and at their role in providing easy access to low-paid labour for multinational enterprise.
In the last decade, many artists have responded to alienating, routine or anonymous aspects of the experience of living in ever-larger cities – as, for example, in works by Hu Yang, Beat Streuli and Yang Fudong in this space. Others have preferred to emphasise the creation of relationships at a micro level that work against the homogenisation of contemporary life. Palestinian–US artist Emily Jacir focuses on forms of relationship and communication in her practice. Where we come from (If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?) 2001–03 documents Jacir – enabled by her United States passport – performing errands and fulfilling wishes for Palestinians unable to cross Israeli checkpoints to visit a family member or return to a childhood home. Rirkrit Tiravanija’s ‘performative installations’ may involve cooking and eating food, screening films, drinking beer or having a massage. Tiravanija’s practice moves away from the art object and throws the spotlight upon the viewer and the relations between people.