Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer spent five years researching informal marketplaces globally

Words by Edgar Pieterse | 20 Sep, 2015

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.

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

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.