Urban Play Focus 01: Gilberto Esparza – Urban Parasites

As part of the lead-up to the launch of the Urban Play project I am doing with Droog Design in Amsterdam, I will be writing a series of focus pieces on the urban intervention artists and designers I have selected to take part in the project, and who are working at the edge of creativity in the city. First up: Mexico City’s Gilberto Esparza.

dblt (diablito) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

It’s been very satisfying to watch 3D urban intervention come into its own in recent years due to the historically unparalleled roster of people hacking and remixing the physical city with their work. But even out of this immensely talented pool, Esparza has emerged as something of a game-changer. His Urban Parasites – small robotic creatures made from recycled consumer goods which wander, climb, crawl and explore the marginal areas of the city – bring a fresh, unexpected dimension to the city itself and to urban intervention in general.

While his early works required direct human interaction to be animated, he said in a recent conversation that he then began looking at the natural energy sources in the city, using for example “wind or water to help a shapeless sculpture move through the irregular urban geography.” His combined interest in mechanics and a frustration with the lack of an entirely self-sufficient animated object in the early stages on his interventions introduced him to the study of robotics, and “the way they can express or project their ideas, wishes, or fears.”

To hear him talk about the “ideas, wishes or fears” of robotics in the city is only the tip of the iceberg in understanding his emotional and philosophical approach to the inter-relationship of his objects and the city. Inspired by the street vendors (ambulantes) of Mexico City, who get the power for their sidewalk shops from nearby electrical posts, Esparza’s creatures also use the electric cables for power and as a means of movement, such as with diablito (little devil).  And on the ground below, his “ppndr-s” (pepenadores) intervention is Esparza at his best. Abstract, mechanical beetle-like creatures, made of recovered and recycled consumer electronics and discarded materials, pick and forage their way through piles of trash which have gathered in the corners of the city’s streets:

ppndr-s (pepenadores) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

I always find immense satisfaction in work which uses existing, cast-off areas of the city as opportunities for interaction and animation. But more than that, the pleasure lies in seeing the perplexed, confused and eventually amused look on the passers-by as they begin to decipher what is taking place. Which, as Esparza says when thinking about the larger picture of cities in general, is quite substantial. For him, the “micro” interventions of his work, are directly part of what is happening at the “macro” level:

“I believe that the city, as a concentration of human beings, is the epicentre of the most radical transformations in human history – it is also the materialisation of a human project that facilitates the meeting of imagination, knowledge and information. All this happens in an environment for survival, where social and economical relationships and other aspects depend on a continuous negotiation and fight for power with others. The city is a live organism, in which many life forms subsist. I also think technology is an essential part of the city. It creates trends and situations, which are influenced by and subordinated to the environment, but sometimes these make their own rules…”

clgd (colgado) from Scott Burnham on Vimeo.

From small mosquitos which fly around the inside of subway cars to the amazement of children, to odd creatures which move towards lamps and lightsources in the corners of buildings, Esparza’s work opens new areas of expression in the ongoing narrative of creative interaction with the city, and I’m honoured to be working with him. A complete overview of his work can be found at his Parasitos Urbanos website.

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