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  • Shlomo Rahamim

Appropriation Aesthetics

After spending almost every day on Eje 1 Oriente, Circunvalación Boulevard, I never noticed the Santo Tomás Apóstol 'La Palma' Parish.

Central Mexico City. Parish of Saint Thomas the Apostle La Palma, La Merced. Mash Studio. Shlomo Rahamim.
Figure 1: Parish of Saint Thomas the Apostle 'La Palma'. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Parish of Saint Thomas the Apostle 'La Palma''. Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

My surprise at this recent discovery made me wonder why such a distinctive and unique building on Circunvalación went unnoticed. The reasons are varied. For instance, the visual dominance of the Flower Market (Mercado de la Merced), which, with its orange color, captured my attention from day one, or the traffic congestion that makes it hard to focus on anything other than the steering wheel. However, what struck me the most and motivated me to write this is the informal commerce that appropriated the façade of the Parish entrance, blending it in so much that it went unnoticed.

Flower Market, La Merced Market, downtown Mexico City, informal commerce, La Palma neighborhood.
Figure 2: Flower Market. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Flower Market.' Photograph. 2023. 'Aesthetics of Appropriation' Collection.

Informal commerce in downtown Mexico City, Parish of Santo Tomás Apóstol, INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), INBA (National Institute of Fine Arts), space appropriation, La Merced neighborhood, Barrio de la Palma, Circunvalación, Circunvalación Ring.
Figure 3: Exterior view of the parish with informal commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Exterior view towards parish with informal commerce.' Photograph. 2023. 'Aesthetics of Appropriation' Collection.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the aesthetics of the parish were transformed, which led me to create the term 'Appropriation Aesthetics.'

We can understand this term in different ways. The first, and less relevant in my essay, is the cultural and conceptual approach that takes existing elements in a specific context and reuses them with a new artistic focus. This definition aligns with what we currently understand as cultural appropriation.

The other way to understand this term is that the aesthetics of appropriation result from the reconfiguration and recontextualization of an existing space to generate new meanings and experiences, whether spatial, artistic, aesthetic, or social.

Appropriation aesthetics can occur in both public and private spaces, but it must undergo a process of architectural, urbanistic, or landscape appropriation and transformation.

This aesthetic can emerge from artistic intervention, architectural adaptation, or complete modification.

Discussing the aesthetics of appropriation aims to explore the relationship between the appropriated physical space and aesthetic expression. This allows us to discover new ways of perceiving and interacting with space, uncovering new meanings.

The ongoing process of appropriation aesthetics involves a reinterpretation of architectural elements that takes place every day, creating sensory experiences that evolve daily.

The result of appropriation aesthetics can enrich the environment or even damage and destroy it, and oftentimes, our interpretation of the result depends on our own perspective.

Each of these issues depends on a particular context, making each case very complex and dependent on various factors. Therefore, let's delve into the specific case of the Santo Tomás Apóstol 'La Palma' Parish.

2. Context

The parish is currently located in what we know as the Barrio de la Merced in the Historic Center of Mexico City, which was previously known as a section of the Barrio de la Palma, hence the name the parish acquired.

According to the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History), its original name is the Temple of Santo Tomas Apóstol, and it is currently known as the Temple of Santo Tomas La Palma. However, if one visits the parish, they will notice that the name 'Parroquia de Santo Tomas Apóstol La Palma' is inscribed on the portico.

Portico La Palma, Portico Parroquia Santo Tomas Apostol, La Merced, Barrio La Palma, Synchronized, Hotdogs, Hamburgers, Informal Trade, Appropriation Aesthetics, Shlomo Rahamim.
Figure 4: Portico. Rahamim, Shlomo. "Portico". Photograph. 2023. "Appropriation Aesthetics" Collection.

The La Palma Parish was erected by the Augustinian Order in the 16th century. Initially, it was an adobe hermitage, and in 1728, the construction of what we now know as the parish began.

The temple underwent several interventions in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Its most significant modification occurred in the 19th century when the vaulted roof and the roofing structure were remodeled, and the atrium with its walls of inverted arches and the portico were added.

We can recognize the architecture of the parish as colonial. The facade, in general terms, can be described as simple, although it draws attention with a relief of Jesus Christ on the cross, surrounded by drapery held by angels.

The temple was declared a historical monument on September 12, 1932, which highlights its significance in the city's cultural heritage. However, it's important to note that it is not inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. This is because the center is divided into two perimeters, A and B. Perimeter A contains the largest number of buildings and public spaces with historical and cultural value, while Perimeter B, 'the outer ring,' remains part of the center but does not hold the same historical value.

Perimeter A and B, Historic Center of Mexico City, Ring A and Ring B, Downtown Mexico City, Shlomo Rahamim, Real Estate Heritage, Mexico City Center.
Figure 6: Perimeter A and B of Mexico City's Historic Center. Rahamim, Shlomo. "Perimeter A and B of Mexico City's Historic Center." Illustration. 2023. Collection "Aesthetics of Appropriation."

The division between the center's perimeters is key to understanding the urban context of La Merced and, consequently, leads to what this essay proposes: the Aesthetics of Appropriation.

The importance of Perimeters A and B lies in the need to identify both polygons to mark a clear division of which area holds greater historical significance. It's important to understand that, for the most part, Perimeter B is the result of the center's expansion.

This division has had several repercussions within the center in terms of governmental efforts to address both areas. Perimeter A receives the majority of attention in terms of security, infrastructure, amenities, maintenance, and transportation methods. Therefore, when one travels through both perimeters, the difference is clear. The perception of space undergoes a complete transformation, partly due to the architectural difference between them, but also noticeable socio-economic changes.

La Merced is located in Perimeter B, right at the boundary with A, divided by Eje 1 Oriente Anillo de Circunvalación, where the parish is situated.

From its beginnings, La Merced has been recognized as a hub of economic activity. Currently, the market of La Merced is one of the largest in the city.

In La Merced, we find a diverse architecture that reflects various historical periods. We can observe everything from colonial buildings like the parish to modern and contemporary structures. Alongside Circunvalación, Congreso de la Unión, and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, narrow streets play a significant role in terms of security.

Regardless of its commercial and economic activity, La Merced remains an area marked by significant inequality, where individuals experiencing homelessness, sex workers, and high crime rates coexist.

The lack of security, government attention, and economic activity form the perfect combination to generate an Aesthetics of Appropriation.

3. Transformation of the parish

The parish isn't in its current state by coincidence; it's a result of what's happening in La Merced. The government's attention to this area isn't non-existent, but it's limited. There's now more police presence, though crime still persists.

The most significant factor is informal commerce. La Merced is overrun by it, and one could generally say it's been allowed without major attempts to eradicate it. The most noticeable attempts are the 'Burladeros,' placed at the curb's edge intending to improve avenue traffic and confine commerce within the sidewalk.

Ring road, informal commerce, La Merced market, Flower market, facade of the Parish of Santo Tomas Apostol La Palma, informal commerce, Shlomo Rahamim, Mexico City palm trees, downtown Mexico City, invaded facades, aesthetics of appropriation, aesthetics of denial, popular culture, metapropriation.
Figure 10: Informal Commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Exterior View towards parish with informal commerce 2.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

México City Burladeros, Historic Center Burladeros, La Merced Burladeros, La Merced Market Burladeros, Flower Market Burladeros, Governmental barriers, Mexican architecture, Burladeros and informal commerce.
Figure 11: Burladeros Mexico City. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Burladeros.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

This strategy did work; the commerce visible along the avenue is much more contained. However, this element simultaneously facilitates commerce for two reasons: 1. It delineates the commerce area, and 2. It functions as a barrier for commerce. Stalls use it as their barrier towards the avenue and only address their interior divisions, resulting in some areas being completely overrun by commerce, as is the case with the parish.

The atrium of the parish remains intact. What we find there are two large palm trees, the main facade of the parish with its entrances, and the walls bordering the atrium, added in the 19th century. One of those walls faces Circunvalación and consists of three entrances, the main one in the center and smaller ones on the sides.

Atrium of the Parish of Santo Tomas Apostol, informal commerce, Mexican architecture, Shlomo Rahamim, Christianity, Catholics, accesses invaded by informal commerce.
Figure 13: Left access invaded from the atrium. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Interior left access.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

On the Circunvalación side, the facade is entirely invaded, leaving only the three entrances free, although reduced in space.

Commerce at the parish overtakes the facade, leaving a central space for circulation, and on the side facing the 'burladeros,' it's equally overrun by commerce. On the left-hand wall, there's also an entrance to the atrium, on the exterior part of the wall, which is also overtaken by commerce. When standing in the atrium facing the entrances, the commerce is visible.

Access to the Parish of Santo Tomas Apostol, La Merced market, typology overlap, commerce vs. religion, Shlomo Rahamim, popular culture, Flower market, circumvallation ring, informal commerce.
Figure 14: Main access invaded by informal commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Main Access.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

The commerce along the facades of the parish's atrium raises a couple of issues and questions. Why is it allowed for commerce to take over a facade that's part of the real estate heritage? Or perhaps, is the level of intervention by the authorities proportional to what they consider important? Is anyone ensuring that informal commerce isn't damaging the walls?

It's important to mention that, although this might seem like criticism of informal commerce and governmental efforts to rid them, it's not. It simply presents the necessary context to understand the Aesthetics of Appropriation. While there's concern about the facade's condition and potential damage caused by commerce, I don't necessarily see it as negative for residents to appropriate and reinterpret the space.

A similar case, or the one with the most common characteristics that I encountered, was that of the Church of Our Lady of Loreto. It's located in Perimeter B, was built during the colonial period, and faces Loreto Plaza and the Justo Sierra Synagogue, the first one in Mexico.

The church is also listed as a heritage site in Mexico City but not on the UNESCO list. The building is in a delicate structural state due to damage from earthquakes and sinking in Mexico City. It's not far from the parish and is also in an area surrounded by commerce.

In this case, what was invaded was the facade of the rear part and its square, also by informal commerce. From what I observed, it seemed that the Loreto case was more saturated. Although here we don't see the 'burladeros,' we do witness how commerce appropriates the wall of the facade and uses it as a base to create the rest of the space for commerce.

Church of Our Lady of Loreto, Loreto Square, downtown Mexico City, blind masseurs, Shlomo Rahamim, Mixcalco Market, San Antonio Tomatla, real estate heritage, Justo Sierra, Justo Sierra Synagogue, informal commerce, invaded real estate heritage, Mexican architecture, popular culture, Chicago Bulls Mexico.
Figure 16: Church of Our Lady of Loreto invaded by informal commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Our Lady of Loreto, Downtown Mexico City.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

Currently, the church is undergoing intervention to mitigate structural damage, though the commerce part remains intact. We can find several more examples throughout downtown Mexico City, such as Eje 1 Granaditas known as Tepito and La Lagunilla, where commerce takes over the sidewalk, although there are no 'burladeros.' In the past, the vast majority of the avenue was entirely overtaken by commerce, but nowadays, it's been controlled, and it only occupies the sidewalk.

4. Popular Culture as an Influence

To understand the Aesthetics of Appropriation, it's crucial to identify elements from popular culture present in informal commerce as these aesthetic manifestations influence the transformation of facades to be perceived as commercial spaces.

Some consistent elements identified were symbols, iconography, references to celebrities and famous characters, famous logos and brands (piracy), saturation of elements, irony, striking colors, typography, and signs.

Each of these elements serves a specific function: to grab attention. Symbols and iconography transmit significant messages at a glance. Umberto Eco explains that most architectural objects aren't designed to communicate but to function. Integrating them into our architecture entirely changes our perception of space. This concept isn't new and has been explored for centuries, both for commerce and religiously, among other purposes. Eco's statement that "Architecture functions as a form of mass communication" is fitting here.

References to celebrities and characters serve a similar purpose; merely seeing them recalls a story, similar to religious iconography. Having a physical object that reminds us of celebrities and characters becomes a powerful element since they are presented as desirable objects. Some recognized examples target children, such as a Rayo McQueen bag, Barbie pennants, Minions or Cinderella lunchboxes, or an Elsa Market bag.

Logos function similarly to symbols and characters. Recognizable logos transmit a complete message and turn a product bearing a well-known logo into a coveted object. However, another variable emerges here: the products offered from specific brands fall into the category of piracy. Products pretending to be from a particular brand are sold at more accessible prices, increasing sales potential. The significant issue here is the aesthetic appropriation within an aesthetic appropriation, which, for the purposes of this text, can be understood as 'Metapropriation.'

Recognized logos observed included Chicago Bulls shirts, Levi's clothing, Adidas wear, and other logos that belong to the context, such as the Mexico City government logo as part of the 'burladeros' design or a couple of Coca-Colas being consumed by locals.

In the context of appropriation aesthetics, the auditory space plays an essential role closely linked to popular culture. Although not visually manifested, the auditory environment significantly contributes to this aesthetic. Beyond flashy product names, the auditory space reveals sales strategies emphasizing why we might need what they offer. This auditory appropriation adds another dimension to the transformation of the environment, further enriching the aesthetic experience and challenging traditional perception conventions. Besides merchants, the constant noise of the avenue and the voices of people occupying the space contribute to this unique auditory experience, adding to the complexity and diversity of appropriation aesthetics.

Another element we can identify is the use of striking colors to advertise products, like fluorescent posters, eccentric typography, and signage.

Fluorescent posters have been seen in Mexico for a long time and are present not only in informal commerce but also in many other businesses like supermarkets. Although their use in informal commerce is common, they always come with names and prices in interesting typography, making it challenging to overlook them. They are used in various ways, often general for a flagship product or offers, and the particular ones usually small with the price of a specific product only.

Signage, on the other hand, aims to draw attention but involves an artistic and craft process, often blending colors, typography, logos, characters, symbols, and iconography.

Hamburgers Mexico City, Sincronizadas Mexico City, Hotdogs Mexico City, street stalls, La Merced market, street food CDMX, food near church access, food at Parish of Santo Tomas Apostol La Palma, Shlomo Rahamim news, fluorescent cardboard, phospho-phospho, signs, Mexican art.
Figure 17: Sincronizadas, Hamburgers, and Hotdogs. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Sincronizadas, Hamburgers, and Hotdogs.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

It's not necessary to have all these elements to consider it part of the Aesthetics of Appropriation. By identifying similar trends, we can deem it as part of the Aesthetics of Appropriation, considering it as an unconscious result stemming from the use of elements from popular culture. These elements collectively supersede what we identify as a religious typology and, through addition, saturation, and chaos of elements, transform and present themselves as a commercial typology.

5. The Metamodern Synthesis: the Intersection of Perspectives in the Facade Appropriation.

To identify the aesthetics of appropriation, it's crucial to understand that it's a terrain where different perspectives converge, sometimes contradicting and complementing each other. Essentially, we identify them in a mode of synthesis within the framework of metamodern thinking.

In point 4, it's mentioned how the result of the chaos of elements added to the facade of the parish culminates in the aesthetics of appropriation. This unconscious outcome responds to its immediate context, which is pivotal to comprehending more deeply the various meanings and interpretations we can derive from these spaces.

5.1 Metamodernism

Jimenez Lai in his text "Between Irony and Sincerity" explains the origin of "Metamodernism," which essentially combines both postmodernism and modernism simultaneously; one is never more dominant than the other, where irony represents postmodernism and sincerity represents modernism. Concerning its relationship with the aesthetics of appropriation, both irony and sincerity can be found within it. This becomes clearer with examples such as the irony presented by the items for sale, ranging from towels with nude models to pirated merchandise. This irony lies not only in the imposition of commerce in front of the parish but also in imposing a new set of values conflicting with those upheld by the parish. However, if we understand this as part of their work, sincerity emerges. It's the livelihood of these individuals, their trade in selling these items, and their appropriation of space that sustains them and their families.

Selling on burladeros in Mexico City, visual pollution, historic downtown CDMX visual pollution, piracy, informal commerce, governmental walls, triumph of commerce over religion.
Figure 18: Burladeros reinterpreted for informal commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Towels on burladeros.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

5.2 The Sensory Experience

When in this space, one perceives it as sincere, largely due to the sensory experience it offers.

Juhani Pallasmaa discusses visual hegemony in his book 'The Eyes of the Skin,' suggesting that suppressing other senses results in less humane architecture.

As seen in the references to popular culture, the space is vivid and saturated, reinforcing the idea of visual hegemony in the aesthetics of appropriation. However, there isn't a suppression of other senses; they all coexist. We encounter loud conversations dominating the auditory space, the smell of food stalls, their flavors, the tactile sensation of structures one must touch to navigate the space, and the multitude of items that come together.

5.3 Irony as an Aesthetic Resource

In the book 'Irony; or, the self-critical opacity of postmodern architecture,' Emmanuel Petit discusses Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, stating that 'Irony becomes an aesthetic resource to bridge the gap between artistic preferences of different social classes,' suggesting that irony serves as a strategy to challenge the distinction between 'high culture' and popular culture, aiming to find a point where diverse audiences can relate. In popular culture, it's used to explain how 'high culture' is embraced to appeal to its audience through desire and preference. Furthermore, this can also be understood in the context of irony alone, where the concern isn't about piracy but how well-known symbols are utilized to attract people to their space.

The irony lies in advertising the space with logos and famous brands without intending to deceive the public, as everyone knows these items aren't original. Here, we encounter sincerity once more.

The aesthetics of appropriation are inherently metamodern, as each attempt to intervene in the space is essentially both ironic and sincere.

6. Denial Aesthetics

In Shane Reiner Roth's essay, 'The Production of Denial Aesthetics,' the term 'denial aesthetics' is introduced, referring to a series of materials or visual elements that seek to deny their true nature or identity to appear more valuable, authentic, or desirable. Negation aesthetics aim to deceive human senses into perceiving something different from reality.

Rather than revealing the truth behind an element, this aesthetic hides and disguises it to create a deceptive appearance. Thus, its objective is to create a visual and sensory illusion that conceals the true nature of the space to achieve a different perception for the inhabitant.

When considering denial aesthetics as part of the aesthetics of appropriation, it makes sense, as what commerce attempts is to deny the original facade and appropriated space. The combination of aforementioned elements leads one to perceive the space as commercial rather than religious.

Religious-commercial access, Parish of Santo Tomas Apostol, La Merced market, Flower market, informal commerce 2023, piracy, money in CDMX, religion and commerce, popular culture, Shlomo Rahamim.
Figure 19: Side access invaded by commerce. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Side access invaded by informal commerce.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

The issue here leads to a controversy because in section 5.2, 'The Sensory Experience,' we discuss sincerity and authenticity as a result of integrating all senses into the space. What distinguishes them is the following: it's authentic and sincere because the integration of senses occurs naturally. It doesn't pretend to be something else, or solely aim to be commerce. Where it isn't authentic, sincere, and aims to deceive us is in the concealment of the facade. Several times we've mentioned that the aesthetics of appropriation are unconscious, and it's true, except for one aspect: hiding the facade. The result of denying the facade, what it represents and symbolizes, is entirely unconscious, making it authentic. The aesthetics of denial will always be conscious of pretending to be something different, and this very contradiction that remains unresolved is what turns the aesthetics of appropriation, from a new perspective, into metamodernism, sitting at the center, Plato's metaxis, describing the condition of the intermediate.

The aesthetics of appropriation are authentic but also hypocritical. They are as sincere as they are ironic, honest as well as deceitful, beautiful and at the same time, ugly. It's condemned to a repeating circle that never ends, and from there arises what we describe as metapropriation, where within the appropriated space, new spaces are born to continue appropriating.

7. Beauty and Aesthetics of Appropriation

The aesthetics of appropriation and its relationship with beauty are complex and controversial, best approached through Byung-Chul Han, who in his book 'The Scent of Time' raises the idea of the polished, the clean, the smooth, the hygienic, and their relationship with beauty in contemporary society, where smoothness and polish equate to beauty. It's a society that overcomes the historical wound of art born from the negative and transforms into one that only knows how to consume the clean and positive. Here, aesthetics become explicit and lose their eroticism. However, we encounter its antithesis, the aesthetics of appropriation, which presents itself as an unconscious rebellion against the polished, as by its very nature, it's dirty and disorderly. Its appearance is inherently chaotic, and this chaos becomes its defining feature, setting it apart from the norm.

7.1 The paradox of aspiring to the polished

The paradox lies in the aspiration of the appropriation aesthetic towards a polished appearance despite its apparent disorder and chaotic nature. Its aim is to be clean and organized. This is because informal commerce thrives on trends, brands, logos, celebrities, and fashionable characters. It aspires to the perfect world that trends sell to us. In today's society, the ideal consumer follows trends, lacks character and firmness, is trend-driven, and is attracted to cleanliness and polish due to its association with beauty. The informal trade, solely focused on selling, aspires to the polished look to easily attract its final consumer and secure the sale.

The appropriation aesthetic is trapped in a constant cycle of aspiring towards cleanliness. However, due to its inherent nature, it is impossible for it to achieve the ideal of polish. Thus, the cycle becomes a metamodern theme where it remains stuck in the middle; the appropriation aesthetic always wants to be polished but cannot reach that state.

7.2 Eroticism and beauty

The beauty of the aesthetics of appropriation arises from an unexpected place, as it resides within its disorder and disorganization. The beauty of this aesthetic is erotic, as it doesn't intend to be beautiful from the outset but rather seduces you within its creative chaos, resulting from the addition of diverse elements like the mix of colors and the birth of its culture. Unlike the polished, the beauty of the aesthetics of appropriation is revealed through a process of discovery, akin to art that aims to be erotic and mysterious.

To truly appreciate the aesthetics of appropriation, it demands a deeper immersion to uncover its beauty.

It challenges contemporary aesthetic conventions by embracing chaos and imperfections as sources of beauty, inviting us to explore it within its creative chaos so that, over time and through aesthetic visual experience, we may discover its beauty. Through this exploration, we can question our current notions of beauty and its relationship with the polished.

Burladeros in Mexico City, commerce on burladeros, appropriation of public space, informal commerce, religious typology, commercial typology, contemporary trends, La Merced, La Palma neighborhood, circumbalación, Shlomo Rahamim.
Figure 20: Circulation between burladeros and the facade of the Parish. Rahamim, Shlomo. 'Circulation between burladeros and the facade of La Palma Parish.' Photograph. 2023. Collection 'Aesthetics of Appropriation'.

8. Constant evolution

The aesthetics of appropriation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that manifests in the transformation of urban spaces, as seen in the example of the Santo Tomás Apóstol Parish.

This implies the reconfiguration and recontextualization of the existing environment, generating new interpretations, meanings, and experiences. It invites us to explore the relationship between physical space and aesthetic expression, creating sensory experiences in constant evolution that can enrich or challenge the perception of the surroundings.

Influenced by social and cultural factors such as popular culture and informal commerce, the aesthetics of appropriation highlights traditional beauty norms and creates an intriguing connection with those who experience it.

Finally, it represents a phenomenon that questions our interactions in the urban environment, deserving a deeper exploration due to its constant evolution and its multiple layers of meaning.


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