Informal Worlds Reader

Earlier this year, urban and visual culture researchers Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer published two books, both edited volumes, and both about informal marketplaces globally. Informal Market Worlds: Atlas (2015) is a multi-author volume that tracks the powers, currents and actors driving informal trade. It presents 72 case studies of informal marketplaces—from Kabul’s post-conflict Bush Bazaar to Casablanca’s counterfeit markets. Rather than offer a geographic reading, the authors have slotted the various contributions under nine distinctive rubrics or typologies of informality. These rubrics include “notorious” markets, like La Salada in Buenos Aires, as well as “interstitial” markets, like Feirinha da Madrugada in Sao Paulo. Toi market in Nairobi forms part of a global trend for “recycling” markets, while Lagos’s Oshodi market is emblematic of “people’s markets”. The Atlas is complemented by Informal Market Worlds: Reader (2015), also from nai010 publishers. Co-edited with Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, it brings together texts on urban informality, global struggle and design activism by prominent scholars and practitioners, including Alejandro Echeverri, Ananya Roy, Saskia Sassen and AbdouMaliq Simone. This is an edited transcript of an interview with Mörtenböck and Mooshammer conducted in September 2015.

Edgar Pieterse: Your Atlas took five years to complete, which can seem modest compared to the scale of the work. Why did you decide that this was important to do?

Helge Mooshammer: We have this interest in sites of political contestation and what struck us about informal markets—and other sites of the informal economy—was this double-edged pressure that people experience there. I think a good example is probably Cairo. Reports have just come out that in the last year or so following the political upheaval there, they had an enormous surge in informal economies, with street vendors everywhere. And now the military is clamping down on street vendors by restoring a politics for cleaning—restoring order, as it were, to public spaces. You see people in the crisis increasingly pushed into the informal economy, and once they carve out their niche and make a way of living, you have, again, the institution repressing them.

We were really interested to understand why there was this double-edged pressure on how they operated. This coincided with our other interest in alternative information.  There’s a lot of interest from artists, architects or political activists in other forms of co-existence that go beyond this institutionalised power. The institutions are always geared towards taking control, but they are always very slow to respond to challenges in terms of sustainability or other issues. The Atlas looks at alternative areas of interaction and how they could be forged. It is a very contested site, and we started to look more closely at the interaction between institutionalised power and informal markets.

Peter Mörtenböck: We have this history of being interested in forms of networking and the network phenomenon. This helped us develop a methodology, a form of operation for research on informal market places. One of the most important mechanisms that helped us push our research forward was to link up with a variety of different forms of research already out there. It helped us to pursue a global picture, to trace some of the global fault lines and connections between different market places.

Around a dozen of the market places that you find in the Atlas are sites we visited and researched ourselves, but most of the case studies included in this volume are in fact sites that other researchers have done an extensive body of work on already. Many researchers come from different fields but we thought it’s necessary in order to address the global complexity of the situation. It’s necessary to transgress some of the thinking around the formal market place. So that’s why we came up with the idea of the Reader to help us to pursue this interest further.

EP: What is striking about the work is your use of erudite scholarship along with very careful visual cues: the mapping frame, photography and data visualisation. Can you comment about this? I think there’s an imperative not to shy away from the complexity, but at the same time broaden the publics around these conversations by using those visualising techniques.

PM: I think you are right in terms of the challenges. Early on in our research we thought about how to communicate things that are really highly different on the ground in a schematic manner. It was important to come up with a format that could convey the key ideas of our main readings. On the other hand, an atlas is typically a homogenising and restricting format. So we came up with the idea that rather than using different regions in the Atlas and having a conventional model in which you compartmentalise trade into different geographic regions around the world, we could use the mechanism of an atlas to think more strategically about the different framings that are applied onto informal market places. We used those as our categories. There are nine different sections to the Atlas, ranging from “notorious” markets to the current trend of “hipster” markets.

Also, we felt that the visual character of the Atlas is important for us in order to address broader audiences, to engage more people in a much more direct and tangible way in our thinking. It wasn’t an easy thing. It’s really challenging to describe and to explain market places that have existed, perhaps, for 20 or 30 years, to describe the mechanics, the operations, the logistics, the outlook, what have you, in just 2 000 words. But it’s important in terms of addressing the diversity as well as the connections of informal markets around the world to have these stories as compact as they are.

HM: If you look at the spatial features of informal markets, you can understand architecture as a foil on which various political forces imprint themselves. What we recognised was that you can read political trajectories in the development of spatial settings of architecture. That’s why, if you look at the maps, there’s often a focus on the trajectories of development of market sites. What they show is that there is often an attempt to integrate the economic power that informal markets constitute into other arrangements. That is why there is this focus on reading architecture as a way of reading political dynamics.

We also had a particular emphasis on going beyond looking at isolated sites because there’s loads of research out there on informal markets. And very often, because of the complexities of each site, they are bound up and concerned with all these micro details. Of course, each site has its own history and particularities, but we really wanted to tease out the global dynamics. That’s why we brought together all these numerous sites. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a teasing out of various perspectives, and the dynamics that emerge from that. Achieving a global picture was, I think, one of the driving forces behind working on this Atlas.

EP: One of the striking things is that you make a consistent argument through both volumes that informality is not just about the economy, even though you are focusing on markets. This is a really vital contribution to the larger discussion about how we begin to think our way through the current crisis and map alternatives. I know that you don’t necessarily resolve that within the volumes, but you’re continuously gesturing in that direction. Can you speak about how and what are the broader meanings beyond the economic that you are trying to invoke?

PM: I think we wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of remaining stuck with one perspective. We introduced a more conceptual and theoretical framework in terms of thinking about informality. One way of doing that was to think about informality as a double existence. It exists in response to and dependence from the formal economy as a rampant form of shadow or underground existence. According to this reading, informality is described as a low-cost equivalent of some kind of proper mechanism. But informality also exists independently. It produces its own social and economic spheres, which are open for many different opportunities. It introduces new actors in a field of emerging possibilities.

We were interested in the tension between these two different ways in which informality actually exists. The problem really is that this double existence is not a level playing field. You have to include the issue of political and economic power and the different power relations that exist in different societies. And that makes it much more complex and problematic.

HM: As mentioned, this was a collaborative project where some case studies were undertaken by ourselves, but then we also engaged with numerous other researchers and activists, and artists. We organised a series of “onsite research forums”. There was one at the University of California, San Diego, and another at HKU Shanghai Study Centre. I think probably in every discussion that we had we found ourselves confronted with the same question: How do you define informality? We wanted to talk about all these complex global forces, but people kept asking, “What is informal now? And if I show you this particular market would you say it’s informal or not?” There are these prisms of the law and legality, institutional and organisational structure, and so on. We realised that it was actually precisely this kind of tension around the definitions and the discourse that represented what was really at stake.

This laid the foundation for an important thesis. If you look back at the emergence of the term “informal economy”, when Keith Hart coined the term in 1973, it was really out of his frustration with the ignorance of the established economic discourse. He writes about this in the Reader. There was a real blindness, and there was absolutely no comprehension and no vocabulary for this particular and significant part of what was happening in the world. He also says that he had no intention to create moral values around it. It was really just a way of starting a discussion and framing it. And now we have this vast academic machinery working on the informal economy. For example, there is a strong focus on estimating its size and producing figures and numbers. What we realised is that the tension around the definition of what informal means, and what it entails actually mirrors the economic struggle on the ground.  Defining a situation as informal increasingly serves as a precursor to political intervention. So, in a way the academic discussions around the concept of informality has to be understood as part of the battle between competing economic and political interests.

We made some striking findings about very similar activities, which are deemed as criminal in one place or country, but not somewhere else. It was an important realisation for us, that there’s not a given characteristic of what constitutes an informal situation. It rather depends on a particular framing. I think what’s emerged is a pattern of intervention and attempts to establish and consolidate realms of economic power. Take the issue of brands and the contest over copyright infringement, particularly in China and South-East Asia, where there is a consistent attempt of economic actors from the Global North to integrate these markets by insisting on notions of brand and corporations. At the same time, what we found really striking when investigating the spread of young urban markets – hipster markets, if you will – in these regions as well is that insisting on all these notions of brand and copyright infringements might actually be a lost cause, because very different ways of economic interaction are currently emerging.

We have to expand on that at some point, about what that means, but this adds to the aspect of contestation because it’s not only about integrating new markets, let’s say in Africa and other places that have so far maybe escaped the reach of particular western economic powers. It’s about competing economic systems and economics changing through these ways of socially engaging and relating fostered in informal situations.

EP: What struck me about the Reader is the incredible array of scholars you have contributing and the interesting move where you introduce the book with, I think, an analysis from the two of you. You opted for a summary of the chapters as opposed to exploring some of the tensions between the contributions. It seemed, to me at least, that it was a very subtle engagement without explicitly bringing the tensions between the chapters to the fore.

PM: I am very thankful that you picked up on that kind of necessity to engage in multiple perspectives simultaneously, because it’s not just an issue of addressing the grip or the attempt by institutions of power to get their hands on informal economies.   You need to be really sensitive: there is dependency, but there is also an independent realm at work. And I think the tension has to do with how these different arenas interact and determine the informal realities, because both have an impact. And I think that’s really the important point. That’s why there is no way of telling only a singular narrative about the trajectories of particular informal markets. Different perspectives and different actors will tell you different stories about how the markets emerged, how they progressed, and why they might have changed in one way or the other.

EP: Just on that notion of difference and the specificity and historical context and the importance of that. I was curious, because you were in this position to look across these 10 markets in all regions of the world really, whether you detected something that was regionally, in some way, quite specific and unique? And would you, given the flux that is implied and these increasing connections between players, suggest that there is some kind of process of convergence happening in terms of the dynamics and the logics of these?  You’ve not gone the regional route, but rather gone for this, I suppose, functional typology.

PM: I think in terms of say specificities, that has been something we are in fact interested in. Sometimes political events at a particular location have an impact on how an economic situation evolves. That was the case after the demise and dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its cargo containers were not adapted for international trade. These decommissioned containers have been used as infrastructure in container markets. We encountered this sprawl of gigantic container markets, such as Odessa’s 7th Kilometre Market, or Dordoi Bazaar in Bishkek, in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The idea that drives the thinking of the book, in the background, is how these are situated practices. But these practices, which emerged from underground specificities, have started to travel. Containerisation has been exported. It is used in today’s hipster markets such as Box Park in London, or now in Dubai, where there are new container markets for selling everything from Adidas to Versace and fancy food produce that is being created by young entrepreneurs. So you have the re-use of forms, of mechanisms, of logics of operation that one can see emerging from necessity, and producing opportunities as well. I think these mechanisms of migration and travel of concepts are at the heart of our research.

HM: Regional specificities become very apparent precisely through the fact that informal markets are markers of economic re-organisation. So in a way, all the global fault lines of economic transitioning and economic organisations are evident in that.  You get very clear regional arrangements and patterns in this sense. The transition of the former Eastern Bloc in the market economy was a very evident one. Border markets have a similarly important role, precisely because they are evidence of the fault lines of economic organisations. You get this remarkable regional pattern in a sense. And then this is overlapped now with this convergence where you have migrating concepts of an economic organisation, one being the container. But also with the hipster markets, there is very clear pattern of imitation between markets, say for instance, in Bangkok, London and New York. In Latin America too, with this emphasis on a popular economy, again, new models are emerging and then being taken on board.

But I want to mention something else in terms of the fault lines. One of the most striking experiences for us was the research on the annual Special 301 Report issued by the Office of the United States Trade Representative [an annual report aimed at identifying trade barriers to US companies and products]. They are very regionally tainted reports and it’s really interesting to see where the current interests lie. You have, for instance, a very strong emphasis on South-east Asia and China, and on Mexico—but Africa is a complete blind spot. Through these kinds of contestation you get this really telling regional picture.

EP: I’m really intrigued by your attempt to both treat the phenomenon empirically, on its own terms, with a great deal of care, but to also think through its relationalities and what it might intimate in terms of other things. But, on Africa, there’s been this phenomenal intersection of mobile-based technology and repurposing of economic circuits in Africa, paired with a youthful demographic that has a ferocious globalised appetite for all kinds of innovations and cultural identities and circulations. I’m really intrigued with this. The way that you have opened up the discussion on informality is very suggestive for me because I’m thinking through some of those questions at the moment. The one Africa-oriented observation I wanted to make is that religious institutions and networks have always been very profound across the continent, and with this notion of markets and their social functioning you might describe them as counter publics expressed in associational life. I was curious how to read that from an African perspective, in terms of the position of these rapidly mutating religious formations with the ability to fashion these social relations, including economic opportunity and the sharing of intelligence. The question of religious formations is something we almost don’t want to contemplate, but I think they are deeply implicated by the themes that you explore. I’d be curious what your reflection would be on that.

HM: I think we probably are also guilty in that respect in that we haven’t actually addressed that to a greater degree. There are a couple of case studies in the Atlas where religion plays a role, for instance, the one on the pilgrim route to Syria, and the market in Gaziantep, Turkey.

I think we have been really encouraged by the research on the informal markets to expand our work on what we’ve termed the crowd society, which is precisely the emergence of new or mixed social economies. What has struck us, although this is probably primarily true in Europe or North America, is that these new economies are not only about the creation of a community but it actually becomes the creation of neighbourhood. So often you have very coherent communities, if you will, emerging that take over whole segments of a city.

And markets can play a huge role in that. So the hipster markets become the nucleus. That’s why a lot of regeneration projects that operate with these aspirations are favourable to the culture of street markets , be it an organic farmers market or whatever. These supposedly alternative or self-initiated markets become an initiating focal point for a new, urban fabric to emerge around it. Now I’m just thinking about whether there might be a relation between the religious movements that also aim to form cleansed environments, if you will, but also foster a particularly coherent community.

What really struck us in terms of the hipster market is how it expands into the creation of an urban environment. Suddenly, through new bottom-up models such as crowdfunding, you have all sorts of building projects and developments where community housing is built, and so on. You have the whole building of cities around the emergence of alternative economies. What we really struggle with, though, is the obscure way it ties in with other developments: of civic segregation and gated communities.

PM: I am really also interested in the question of religion. We haven’t really touched upon the question directly in our work on the informal market space, but I think it ties in with the emergence of a new spiritual mode around economies—as we can see with the manifold affective ties around sharing economies. Part of that is being facilitated, I suppose, by the possibilities of new technologies, of social media and the like. But a lot of it also has to do with the direct interaction of people. And I think in this spiritual mode that’s where new possibilities are emerging.

HM: Our next research project addresses some elements of this. We’re really interested in thinking through how different kinds of capital are exchanged and interact with each other. How financial capital translates into social capital, or into ideational capital or effective capital. How communities are generated and propel themselves and rebuild themselves, and how these interactions take place through a foil of spatial development.

EP: There’s this interesting question that you reference in your work. It derives from the work of Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman. I quote, “How can we foster ways of encroachment that interrupts the logics of solely profit-oriented markets without themselves emulating capitalist entrepreneurship?” The question speaks into what we were talking about earlier, the different forms of economic engagement and generation that are potentially emerging. This is quite a big statement. Do you have reflections on it?

HM: We’ve often asked ourselves questions related to this thesis. Despite all the awful stories about destruction and exploitation, isn’t there any kind of positive message too? We’ve really forced ourselves to avoid the pitfalls of just moaning and complaining about the bad powers that be. There’s something around Teddy’s and Fonna’s practice that really points towards that: they highlight very concrete projects where it’s really about encroaching on the established modes of institutions. How to break the patterns through which institutions operate, be it simple things like planning regulations, what they demand of you, how they even constitute you as a party and title to submit a planning application.

How can you participate? In terms of the rights, how do you get recognised as a valid actor? These are very concrete questions.

We’ve come to the conclusion that established economic powers have an enormous interest in trying to integrate and modify informal economies, precisely because they constitute a market environment. So that’s what informal market worlds produce. People don’t come together in informal markets just to get cheaper goods, but the coming-together in the market is in itself an achievement. Something gets produced beyond the sum of what the goods weigh. And that kind of market environment could be understood differently, not just as being solely profit-oriented—it could be understood as a contemporary commons, if you will. I think that’s the emphasis in Teddy’s and Fonna’s practice. They always look at spatial approaches towards creating, constituting, fostering and maintaining such a commons where people can come together and address all sorts of things.

I think that commons is really the important issue because that’s really what’s contested here. Circling back to an earlier point, the reports coming out of Cairo are indicative of that. It’s not just about an economic issue—clearing the streets of street vendors and restoring economic order—but it’s precisely because these market environments, these commons, escape institutional control and, by that, they also escape political control.

That’s really the main emphasis here, on how these spaces where people can come together allow for all sorts of things to happen and emerge. The contemporary commons also needs to be defended in many instances against encroachment from different directions. That’s what I think we can offer, to conceptually understand informal markets, not just in economic terms.

EP: A chapter by Matias Viegener explores the links between aesthetics and informality. Can you say a bit about that and why one would invoke the idea of aesthetics in relation to an understanding of informality?

PM: One obvious reason for doing that is the increasing popularity of everything informal within the fields of creative production. That has to do with the way in which informality produces all sorts of entry points into creativity, into innovation, into how to operate things differently, how to create new forms of interaction and so forth. If you look at architecture schools or studies, these are arenas that have embraced informality to an enormous extent in recent years.

HM: What becomes clear in Matias’ text is that he’s really interested in this notion of circulation, how a critical artistic stance becomes co-opted and then takes on value in completely different contexts. What is quite striking is how, in the contestation of informal realities, aesthetics often played a huge role. People were accused of loitering and obstructing the flow of foot traffic, of generally being a nuisance, of littering and creating an unclean urban image. What is interesting in terms of circulation of values is how you have these attempts to control that, but then it escapes control and suddenly aesthetic desire, even though it might again be controlled, becomes shaped by informal realities.

PM: There’s a lot of thinking going on in Matthias’ text in terms of the possibilities that arise from different distributions of the sensible, of what is audible, what is speakable, and so forth. And the aesthetics is a mode of organising the possibilities in which we can intervene in what we term reality, in which we share objects and materials and communication and so forth. Aesthetics is really crucial.

EP: There are major unanswered questions that remain for you at the end of this really substantial body of work. What new research have they prompted? What are you moving onto?

PM: There are several strands of research we are pursuing right now but one thing we have been thinking about in particular is the impact of online markets, not only in terms of how goods are distributed and sold, but also in terms of which different communities are able to connect to one another. One contributor to the Atlas alerted us to women in Sudan connecting via online markets, to sell but also to form communities that they wouldn’t be allowed to form otherwise. We are also thinking about the way in which new economies are emerging. It’s a new project that we termed “building capital” in which we’re looking at different forms of investment in the built environment. Not necessarily investment in economic terms but investment as something that is oriented to building some kind of future, that’s speculating about the future through material structures. And we are looking at the material performance of investment, architectural forms of speculation.

HM: Similar to the markets, where we looked at these fault lines of economic reorganisation, we’re looking at what we term spatio-economic frontier processes where these different modes of capital are experienced. We understand architecture as a foil that can be read as a political narrative. It’s also a terrain of experimentation, and also of economic experimentation in terms of their translation between symbolic and financial capital, affective capital, and so on. I think this is really a huge interest of ours for the future.

A parallel interest, one that will probably intertwine with others at some point, is our work on the crowd society. It links to the online market but attempts to think through how a new, younger generation is experiencing completely different modes of how to interact with each other—and how that again translates into the physical environment, how whole neighbourhoods are built around these peer-to-peer exchanges.

The critical issue in particular is that it seems to transgress national boundaries. Even though we might have the European Union or United Nations, at the end of the day, the official image that we have of how politics works is still through structures of national governments, even though the economy works differently, particularly finance. The formations of the crowd society are not necessarily bound up in national or territorial boundaries, but perhaps rather in cultural boundaries, a community that you are familiar with and that you prefer to speak to. Once again you get this overlap of different communities coexisting with each other.

PM: Connected to this observation, just to give an example of what has emerged from working on different types of marketplaces, is our attention to crowdfunded urbanism,  the way in which citizens rather than administrative bodies initiate and finance the development of the ‘desired’ city. You see it in many different places, say, from Rotterdam to New York, where you see crowdfunded experiments like the + POOL, an initiative to build the world’s first water-filtering, floating pool in Brooklyn, and the Lowline, a proposed underground park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One of the first crowdfunded structures was the Luchtsingel, a pedestrian bridge built of several thousand individually sponsored wooden planks. It was initially meant to just breach a multi-lane inner-city thoroughfare, but it’s become a major urban reference both locally and internationally. I think this shows how protocols of urban planning are currently reorganised around new aesthetic, civic, material, financial and systemic demands and again it will be interesting to see how these bottom-up forms of urban engagement and the spatial logics of corporate capitalism interact and transform each other.


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