What does innovation look like in a depressed economy?
In cities known for innovation, such as San Francisco, Boston, and New York, initiatives like Uber, Lyft, Google's driverless car, Kickstarter, and Couchsurfing show that "innovation" and "economy" have become decisive factors of the 21st century.
However, in depressed economies where centralization and the crackdown on private industry are the norm, innovation and economy may seem like two divorced concepts. Venezuela's economy is in decline, inflation has doubled since May 2015, and there is a lack of traditional economic policies; in this context, what does innovation look like?
In Caracas, innovation is not necessarily created by chic and tech-savvy young people like in Silicon Valley. Instead, it is created by artists in El Valle, an area of the city where artists are given the space to become apprentices, and where traditional tools express economic hardships facing Caracas.
In the 1950s, President Marcos Perez Jimenez developed a public housing project on the west side of Caracas for lower to lower-middle class families. He called it "Segundo de Diciembre" to commemorate his coup d'etat which put him into power. Later, the name would change to 23 de Enero, the day the dictator's government was overrun.
Today, the social housing building complex is home to artists who have used the walls to innovate with paint and brushes. This neighbourhood is in many ways the political ghost of the city, representing the deaths of past governments as well as the birth of new ones. The artist community rose at the height of the Venezuelan socialist revolution (1999-2015), adorning the buildings with revolutionary images and representations of peace shattered with violence and conflict.
These murals form of innovative escape from the bustling and frenetic city of Caracas. The walls display messages of lives lost to gangs, conflict, and violence. The street art at 23 de Enero is unique in that it is not directly government-sponsored; it is paid for by community members and several communes, who do receive indirect funding from the central government.
The murals themselves invoke a sense of vigilance, surveillance, protection, and popular struggle. The eyes in many of the paintings are particularly mesmerizing, with a combination of sadness and hope. Some murals express an implicit criticism of the lack of justice, like the mural with a dove suffering from a gunshot through the heart. The murals innovate through their form of expression, moving further away from technology and into expressive strokes that are less common in our technology-driven world. This mural art is central to the vibe and eerie feeling that envelops this neighborhood and the city's depressed economy. However, it is also a reminder that in times of strife, art can embrace the lives and hopes of citizens, and that public space can be a canvas and a form of unity in residents' lives.
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