The future is unwritten.
– Joe Strummer.
Lisbon is changing. Fast. Ask anyone who’s lived here for more than two years, and they will tell you the changes, although difficult to pinpoint, are increasingly fast. Ask anyone who grew up here and they will mostly say Lisbon is unrecognizable.
Some changes are, if not good, okay: the tourists are bringing in much-needed money. Construction is everywhere, albeit very slow: the crumbling infrastructure is getting a facelift. Multiculturalism and social awareness are on the rise. The majority of citizens have tattoos. Most speak and/or are learning another language (with English, obviously, dominating). Young men are trading in their Ronaldo haircuts for a more hipster-friendly look: so, diversity, sort of. The art and music scenes seem to be thriving. At a very Portuguese pace, but thriving nonetheless.
There are vegan food, craft beer, bike, tattoo, vinyl, bracelet, handbag, book, “artisanal” (whatever that means) and all sorts of DIY and “ma and pa” options everywhere you look. There are digital nomad meet-ups. There’s the Web Summit. And citizens of the world are starting to acknowledge the existence of Lisbon as a major metropolis. Madonna’s here. More importantly, Scarlett Johansson is here. Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander are here because it — and, as a former resident of Williamsburg, this hurts to say — is “Williamsburg-ish.” In other words, If you’re young, willing, and able, there is plenty of opportunity.
Other changes are not so good: the tourists and foreign incomes are eating and selfie-ing the local population literally out of house and home. The old people can’t keep up as the most spoken language in their home city is not one they speak. The graffiti is indistinguishable from the marketing. Tuk-tuks with attractive, English-speaking drivers, overcrowded streets, trams, trains, beaches, arrogant vacationers and an eagerness to give them priority over the locals in terms of food and shelter — these things are slowing everything down in a culture with an already highly laid-back work ethic.
Minimum wage stays low, prices are going up. The housing market is a disaster for the local lower and middle class. Just like NYC, local-favorite landmark bars and venues can’t afford the rent either if they want to keep prices fair, their owners losing out to bigger fish and having their entire lives uprooted (Flamingo Bar, Anos 60, and Laboratorio, all deformed or defunct now, are just three of dozens of examples). The majority of citizens have tattoos. You hear “I wish you were here” and Bob Marley being played on acoustic guitars inside bars and atop miradouros daily, and you wonder what it’s really all about.
The messages “Immigrants welcome, Tourists fuck off” and “FCK AIRBNB” are adorning the city’s walls with more frequency. The fake drug dealers are multiplying rapidly. People feel a need to adapt or leave; some are leaving, and Darwinian capitalism is filling the void.
What does the future of Lisbon hold? Will the city manage to keep its character, charm and, consequently, its residents in the face of gentrification, tourism, tuk-tuks, and Airbnb? Or will Lisbon actually decide to go the way of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and become an empty shell of itself, a revolving door catering exclusively to the upper classes, the highest echelons of hipsterism, and tourists? There’s really no way of telling. But, if things continue the way they are now, the proverbial glass, in my humble opinion, may not stay half-full for much longer.
Futuros de Lisboa is a unique interactive multimedia art exhibit composed of photographs, essays, videos, illustrations, and all sorts of weirdness, compiled by professionals in various fields, academics, artists, and regular citizens of Lisbon. The show examines one simple question that is on the mind of anyone who lives here: “What comes next for this magical little town?”
I live here, as an immigrant and not in an Airbnb. I like this town and its residents, even more than I liked Williamsburg some 15 years ago. And I really liked this show, spending close to two hours and, therefore, rushing to see the end before it closed.
The show is at the Museum of Lisbon in Praça do Comércio. It consists of ten rooms on the third floor, each with a theme. There are hefty descriptions of each theme, and quotes about the future, in Portuguese and English, on the mostly white walls. There’s also an installation on the ground floor — I didn’t have time to see this last part so let that remain a future surprise for both of us.
Other than that, spoiler alert. Here’s what to expect. Enjoy.
Room 1: Room of the Future over Time.
Here you purchase your 3€ ticket. The large, dimly lit room houses a number of architectural layouts, illustrations, newspaper articles, and videos describing what Lisboetas thought their city would look like in the future, way back when — from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1970s. People had a lot of crazy ideas for Lisbon’s better-known parks, roads, landmarks, bridges, shopping centers, houses, etc. None of these really came to fruition, probably for a multitude of reasons. But the technicality of it all must have made these notions very convincing at the time.
The one image that sticks out in my mind is from 1963. It shows the superhighway that Avenida Liberdade was meant to become. Instead, Avenida Liberdade would become Lisbon’s 5th Avenue.
Take that, Mr. Salazar.
Room 2: Room of the passage to the Future.
This is more a hallway than a room. All it has is an aesthetically questionable lit-up tube connecting Room 1 and Room 3. I have no photo available as I walked right through this one; but, hey — to each their own.
Let this part be a surprise too.
Room 3: Room of the people of the Future.
Here, the message is clear: the children are the future. This brightly lit, small area with a window to Praça do Comercio holds a gridded portrait photo wall with a few dozen multicolored children from local schools. It’s inspiring because most of the kids look happy. A lot of them have generic, ironic t-shirts. Which is very likely genetic.
From Darth Vader to “Chill Out” to “Attack the Class” (courtesy of Nike) to “Don’t stop the music,” the messages on the shirts, as a whole, are difficult to decipher. My brother had a shirt that had “Where’s the Beef?” written on it when he was around five years old. Back then, he had no idea he might be offending vegans the world over by wearing a slogan made popular by a highly lucrative 1980s marketing campaign for Wendy’s designed to compete with McDonald’s and Burger King. He was five or six. I think my parents were oblivious too; it was just cute. Now my brother has a kid of his own, but is not a vegan. [Brother’s — and Editor’s — Note: Our parents bought me the t-shirt because it was in the discount bin of Odd Job probably. Unlike more fortunate generations, I didn’t get to “pick” my t-shirts, I only occasionally got to say “please, nothing in neon this time.” Take that, Millennial! Also, correct, I am not a vegan.]
Anyway. The room doesn’t have that “Lord of the Flies” feeling sometimes associated with children. It’s an uplifting, safe space. This is made more clear by a few white blocks on the floor with inspirational words like “diversity”, “commitment,” and “dedication” written on them.
Room 4: Room of the Past of the Future.
Quote* beneath the lengthy description:
“One thing is clear: the hardware of the human brain has not changed much throughout this cultural and technological revolution.” – Gonçalo Lopes, Joao Frazao, Catarina Ramos and Joe Paton
*This brings to mind a quote by one of the U.S.’s more European dead writers:
“I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” – Edgar Allen Poe.
This is where the exhibit starts to get interesting. In this room, various modern consumer products, such as a Bimby, a Sitway, a smartphone, a plastic bag, etc., are placed in 1920s antique-looking wooden-glass casings from the Bordalo Pinheiro Museum. It is a clever juxtaposition and made me think how some things become classic, how others are just plain retarded, and how it’s impossible to know the difference.
It definitely sets a certain mood.
Room 5: Room of the Future through Time.
Here, the walls are adorned with excerpts and pages from Portuguese comic books, ranging from the 1950s to today, where local artists show their visions of what might be or might have been. The comics have that universal feel that all comics do, and the colors are very on point. All of these deserve some attention, in my opinion, and the images mirror those we saw in Room 1, but in a more playful way.
Room 6: Room of the Difficulties of Predicting the Future.
This was my favorite room. It’s a very simple but impressive and well-executed concept: photos from 1918 Lisbon with photos of 2018 Lisbon directly above, with the same theme. For instance, “Sport” in 1918 and in 2018. Or “Medicine,” “Education,” etc. It’s pretty self-explanatory, and it brought many a smile to my face. It, again, reminds one how futile it is to try to predict tomorrow today.
It also made me think of my age: of my first Walkman, and of Napster, and of the first time I heard (not saw) the words “Youtube” and, much later and to my yet-to-be-discovered dismay, “Airbnb.” I also pondered Playboy magazine versus Pornhub…
Quote on wall:
“When man sets out to project something for the future […] it is what is possible today, not what will be the forerunner of what things will be tomorrow. Tomorrow you cannot predict, because tomorrow is based on circumstance, and circumstance is both unpredictable and continuous.”
Or, what Joe Strummer said.
Room 7: Room of the Future by the People.
This room starts with drawings made by the children of Lisbon — several local schools were commissioned. Some of this art is a lot better than the stuff you can find in a lot of modern art galleries and museum, including New York City’s MOMA.
And, again, we are reminded of who the future is. Although more than one kid seems to think that trees won’t be able to survive without glass domes, and most of them want both flying cars and a flying Lisbon, the optimism in said drawings is in strong contrast to the video at the end of the room.
In the far corner, a TV with headphones (and subtitles) shows everyday citizens of Lisbon who were stopped on the street and asked one question: “How do you see the future of Lisbon?”
The answers are somewhat horrifying.
Most people agree that the town will be completely overrun by tourists and foreigners. Every single old person is especially angry, confused, or sad. A lady who sold me flowers at Rossio square once or twice almost screams that “two years ago you could hear some Portuguese here; today, it’s all foreign — there’s no more Portuguese!”
The younger ones try to be more diplomatic, saying things like, “a city is its transportation” or, “I hope we can preserve our historical heritage.” One old man politely notes that “the noise that you can’t make in Germany, the Germans come and make that noise here.” Another younger citizen observes: ”The architecture hasn’t changed much in 400 years so, other than the shopping centers, and Oriente and stuff, I don’t see that changing much.”
I watched the whole video (it’s a few minutes long), got kind of depressed, and promised myself to assimilate and fucking learn Portuguese already.
Room 8: Room of the Now-Present Future.
Here, students and faculty of Lisbon’s technical universities present ideas for modernizing their city. There’s a drone, a robot, new forms of concrete to cover the old crumbling infrastructure, wave energy, etc. There is a lot of scientific and technical mumbo-jumbo, and it’s nice to see that the city’s nerds are keeping busy.
Marilyn Monroe’s here too. And a few videos, photos and scientific essays explaining things that tend to go way over my blond head. It’s an impressive room for the academics among us and makes it clear that a lot of the future is already here, as the room’s title suggests.
The exhibit, by the way, was quite empty, which was puzzling but made it easier to enjoy. I saw a maximum of 10 people the entire two hours I was there. In this room, one of the few visitors — a somewhat annoying Russian child — tells his father that he wants one of the camera drones he sees in a video. “Not one of those war drones, they suck,” he clarifies, “I want a camera drone.” The children are the future…
He then proceeds to repeat the word “boring” seven times and swiftly moves to the next room. His parents quietly follow.
Room 9: Room of the Hypothetical Future.
This room starts with images by illustrators, in collaboration with engineers and architects, depicting possible scenarios for the future of the city. There are 10 very cool apocalyptic postcards at the entrance, including a few about Praça do Comércio (which you can see through the windows in the previous rooms):
These are followed by a number of larger, sometimes very poorly photoshopped images of Lisbon streets in the future. There’s a lot of water because, you know, the icecaps and stuff. Some of these are really nice, others are just plain bad.
There are also a few eerie hypothetical photos of Praça do Comércio converted into a high-class resort. These were part of a fictitious (for now) website promoting the show — lisbonresorthotel.com — and how I first learned about it. Most locals I know who’ve seen this site before knowing about the show were amused, frightened, and confused as to its seriousness and probability.
Where would they put the fake drug dealers?
Room 10: Room of the Inevitable Future.
This is basically the hippy room. Sustainable energy, reusable products, “waste not, want not” — these are the main themes here. It turns out that in 2015 the United Nations established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): according to the info on the wall, “the proposal sets out an agenda to be reached by 2030 and comprises of an action plan for people and the planet.” All 17 SDGs are displayed above the exit:
There are also three graphs eloquently explaining the difference between a linear, a recycling, and a circular economy:
These are followed by examples of how citizens of planet Earth are finding new ways to not shit where they eat. It also reminded me that I seriously need to get some new shoes.
At the very end of the show, there’s a fitting quote by Noam Chomsky:
“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.”
We hear ya, Noam. Let’s hope that Lisbon does too.
See you in the future.