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Media_Habitat c.1975

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Commissioned by Sharjah Architecture Triennial
Sharjah, Fall 2019 to Summer 2020

Farzin Lotfi-Jam, Felicity D. Scott and Mark Wasiuta

Media Habitat, c. 1975 revisits an audio-visual archive produced for Habitat: The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, which convened in Vancouver in June 1976. Claiming that filmmaking would enable UN member states to “speak for themselves,” Habitat’s organizers invited each country to produce up to three short documentary films of recent urban and rural development projects. Development aid and technical assistance were available to countries demonstrating the need for film equipment, materials, or expertise. 236 films were thus produced and transferred to video, with audio-tracks available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

During the Habitat conference, the films functioned as a supplement to national reports and the delegates’ speeches. Capsule versions were available on demand during committee meetings and plenary sessions, which took place in front of a field of individual screens. Together, the UN declared, the films functioned as “a global learning experience,” producing a “global snapshot” circa 1975. Development aid had, in other words, become a media phenomenon.

But a particular type of snapshot was produced and put to work at Habitat. For countries of the so-called Global South, Habitat served as a training ground not just for navigating the new global economic order—but also its visual language. While the films were required to conform to narrative guidelines mandated by the UN, this does not entirely account for the repetition of visual and cinematic tropes, recovered here as a haunting aesthetics of development. Throughout Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, similar scenes and shots appear over and over again—to shore up a narrative of national modernization and of the benefits of international development aid.

Media Habitat, c. 1975 presents the films in two organizing systems: the first is by country, arranged according to the Historical Index of Human Development for 1975, with its implied progression towards modernization; the second is by visual development tropes.

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