In 2001, when Argentina’s economy was near collapse and property prices plummeted, UCLA art prof Fabian Wagmister bought a 15,000-square-foot abandoned warehouse in Buenos Aires. When he finally set out to clear the remaining debris from the building last year, he uncovered more than 100,000 Christmas ornaments piled in one of the back rooms.
What to do with a trove of metallic bulbs, plastic wreaths, and bags of fake snow for a sunny Argentine Christmas?
Re-gift them, of course.
“As artists we were immediately taken by the powerful expressive potential of the materials,” says Wagmister.
Now the director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Center for Research in Engineering, Media, and Performance (REMAP), Wagmister invited a team of ten artists, researchers, and programmers from Los Angeles to distribute the ornaments to the surrounding community as part of a social experiment they are calling !Navilandia al Sur. ‘Navliandia’ comes from a toy company that they suspect previously inhabited the warehouse. Sur, or south, refers to the warehouse’s location within the city—a region with fewer resources than the north.
Starting on December 15, the team invited community groups to visit the warehouse, one among many lining a historically working-class district that has seen an influx of technology companies. There, the researchers have encouraged participants to develop projects that will use the ornaments to express their identities, struggles and aspirations. On December 23, the groups took to the streets and decked the halls accordingly.
“The area seems to be incredibly activated and empty at the same time, like a checkerboard,” says David Sloane, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California who is currently in Buenos Aires, explaining that the recent gentrification makes the area ideal for a project like this.
As the ornaments make their way throughout the city, Wagmister’s team will map their spread using a blend of low and high-tech methods. The ornaments’ specific location will first be recorded on a physical map, with Sharpie. Programmers will then scan the maps, find the coordinates for each plot point, and create a three-dimensional model of their placement throughout the city. Many bulbs will be tagged with a unique serial number and the project web address, Navilandia.org. Curious citizens who find a stray ornament weeks or months down the road can use an online web tool to look up their bulb, add new location information, and continue to develop the database.
At least 15 groups, including advocates for the homeless, members of the municipal government, cinema students, and local artists have met at the warehouse to map out a plan for the ornaments.
According to Anne Bray, a Los Angeles-based artist who is facilitating the project, tango dancers intend to use the ornaments to highlight local businesses; shanty town teenagers will decorate the railroad crossings that separate their barrio from the richer one next to them; workers from a run-down historic hospital will beautify their once-grand pavilions.
The evening of December 23, the groups painted the town red (and green and gold). By this morning, more than a hundred thousand ornaments have added splashes of color and cheer to those long stretches of gray.