April 10, 2008

A Sense of Place

From: http://www.d-shift.org

The Arrival

At 5:30 am the plaza outside the San Cristóbal bus station is quiet other than the sound of birds, crickets and the occasional distant motor, as an unseen vehicle turns onto an unknown road. These streets are still wet with the remains of an earlier rain and the smell of the damp mixes with that of the soil and the stone. How is it that stone smells? It seems implausible but there it is. Even the plaster and paint is there and, of course, the poo01. Dogs live their perilous lives out here on these streets, cowering in the darkened spaces where safety from some unknown threat seems elusive. As night’s darkness slowly succumbs to the dominance of day’s light, it soon becomes apparent that the writing is on the wall. Down every street, unheard voices speak through the medium of paint. This could be the time when they normally shout silently their words of anger and frustration, but at this moment they’re invisible. What lingers is an echoing of feelings, the traces of a part of society that is disenfranchised and relegated to communicating their message in the dark of night02.

Though the graffiti of the streets may speak more directly than the scent of soil, both these experiences, and a myriad more, contribute to a sense of place. They are aesthetic experiences that contribute to a greater understanding03, experiences that can help bring one closer to a state of empathy04. My hope is, that by being here, I get closer to both these experiences05.


Normally, walking down darkened streets can be an unsettling experience. But these streets feel safe somehow—if not for the dogs—at least for me. The shadows and fog bring with them a spirit and an energy, a revitalisation after a long winter in the north that seems to have sapped my strength. Walking this last mile to my destination, I’m happy as I begin to hear a familiar clip-clopping sound. It sounds like a horse, but I’ve been fooled before by this sound, so this time I don’t need to look to know its just a car approaching over the cobblestones. I realise that this is something of a homecoming.

Destination & Departure

San Cristóbal de las Casas is both a destination and a departure point for a journey toward understanding. It is a centre of cultural commerce for the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and the centre of a long struggle for social justice. The people who come to this place all have their own personal reasons for doing so and traditionally it hasn’t been an easy place to get to, so its rare that someone arrives by accident. And yet all of us who have come to this place have arrived somewhere else. Our own past experiences and our own intentions06 inform our perception of this place and individualise our experience of it. This will impact each of us in ways that will affect our ability to connect with the place and the people here.


I have come to San Cristóbal to investigate the communication approach of a sociopolitical organisation called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. I’m interested in the apparent success they’ve had in communicating their message to a wide international audience and the difficulties they’ve had communicating locally and nationally. As a result of this interest, I’m drawn to the various images that I associate with communication and how these images are presented. Others have come to gain a better understanding of the social concerns of the people who are living their often difficult lives both here, in San Cristóbal, and beyond the mountains that surround us.


These streets are a mix of economic and political activity. Retail stores, restaurants, internet cafés, art galleries and book stores populate the city just like any other. But look more closely and you’ll see that there is something different about many of these establishments. Propaganda t-shirts are a popular product in both retail spaces and in the markets, many restaurants are meeting places for activism, and fliers in internet cafe’s announce political meetings or documentaries taking place in one of the town’s many underground cinemas. Yet its the bookstore that speaks to the unique nature of this place. Virtually every one is stocked to the ceiling with an incredible selection of knowledge from philosophy and poetry to sociology, anthropology and political science. The vast majority of the material is Spanish language and intended for a local audience rather than the tourist market. This reflects the highly literate and critically engaged nature of the local population, a characteristic that becomes all the more obvious when you speak with them. This isn’t to say that everyone is engaged and thoughtful but they appear to be more so than other communities.

This could be one reason why the communication campaign by the Zapatistas is primarily focused on words, its the understanding that both San Cristóbal and the larger Mexican community are very sociopolitically literate. In fact it appears that the verbal and written aspect of the Zapatista organisation is almost the only official vehicle for such communication. It is expressed in print through authorised publications of the words of Subcomandante Marcos—these often take the form of poetry, prose or indigenous myth07—and by an internet presence through sites such as Radio Insurgente and Enlace Zapatista. Here text, audio, and video files are disseminated to a wider national and international audience, and while images do mix with the words, they take a back seat. Even the ubiquitous socialist red star is slowly disappearing as the symbol for the organisation, being replaced by that of the Sexta Campaña or simply not being used at all—though its hard to tell at this point whether this is deliberate or merely incidental.

Rhetorical Currency

What is certain though is that, while there exists only a limited amount of official visual communication, there is an immense collection of apparently accepted unauthorised material. This largely takes the form of t-shirts, posters, books, dvds, and thematic hand-crafted objects, all of which is for sale and most of which appears to be directed toward the political tourist market. These products are distinctive for their direct attempt to convey messages of support and many of them appear to reflect a growing change in the organization’s policy and identity. Though many of these objects could be considered arts or craft, the fact that they are intended primarily as political messages makes it more difficult to accept them as art08.


Other objects of art and craft exist here too. Pieces that reflect the culture of various indigenous communities that live in San Cristóbal and throughout Chiapas. In many respects these objects appear more authentic than those whose original intention is to communicate a political message. They are personal expressions, and as such, bring us closer to the lives of the people who create them09. Through encounters with these cultural artefacts and conversations with local people in the community, I am beginning to feel that I may have lost sight of the forest for all the trees. I worry that this will affect my work and its practical intentions, but most of all I worry that I’m not doing justice to the issues or the people concerned.

Another Destination

I’ve been thinking about the larger systemic problems lately, and wondering about how design can play a more constitutive role in addressing them. These problems are messy but I think that design’s own knowledge and its iterative approach to problem solving, can play a role here. Recent ideas in design thinking, such as co-creation and collaboration, might also prove to be invaluable10.

It’s a new day—it’s almost hot—and for the first time I can wear a t-shirt and shorts. I’m hanging out my laundry to dry on the roof of the family home where I’m staying. The city I’ve been experiencing for the past week or so is all around me but I’m being beckoned by the mountains in the distance and the unknown that lies beyond them. I realise that to get a greater understanding of the larger problems behind this movement, I need to go there. So tomorrow, a friend and I will hop into the VW and quite literally head for the hills, except we won’t be running from something, we’ll be running to it. I don’t know what I’ll find there, though I have some ideas. I just hope it brings me closer to the answers I’m seeking, whatever they end up being.


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