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Francisca Benitez - Ephemeral City

Category: Portrait 18. March 2009

At the ripe old age of 35, Francisca Benitez calls herself a “retired architect”. When the Chilean-born artist first arrived in New York ten years earlier, her experience as an architect permanently shaped her view of the city. What she imagined as a creative, intellectually challenging profession, turned out to be an exercise in municipal bureaucracy—much of her work was about interpreting building codes and zoning restrictions, cutting through administrative red tape, and facing the challenges of a complex system of rules, regulations, and protocol.

All of these obstacles, however, only served to further inform her unique perspective and conception of a sprawling urban landscape. She found that her attention was more and more drawn to those dimensions and spaces around her that may be overlooked, or taken for granted. Informed and inspired by her heroes, Gordon Matta-Clark and Ed Ruscha, she never lost sight of the bigger (or smaller) picture—that the jurisdiction of boundaries, lines, and interactions was a process that was constantly being defined, whether the results followed the modus operandi or not.

In a city as densely packed as New York, public space is always an issue. An endless procession of building up and tearing down, moving in and moving out, rumbling underground networks and soaring stories of skyscrapers, is accompanied by a constant series of negotiations between people, places, and properties. It is a fluid, flexible entity, but there are still lines that are drawn and maps that are plotted. In an era when exploration seems to be a tapped-out enterprise, the artist still finds novus terra incognita.

For Benitez, these opportunities seem to be everywhere. Her work is not so much about confrontation or intervention as it is about observing, recording, noticing. A ride on her bike leads to the discovery of ancient religious architectonic rituals that subtly transform alleys, backyards, and balconies in Williamsburg. A trip to her roof reveals spellbinding pigeon formations that represent power struggles between former street gang-members. An experiment of simple floor rubbings unearths a vast grid of previously unnoticed property lines.

But these engagements are not just about identifying hidden territories and demarcating space. They are also about personal encounters, chance meetings, mutually verified acknowledgments of positioning and re-positionings. In the end, public space is not just about vacant lots, “keep off” signs, or property issues. It’s about the human element that underlies them all. (jn)

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