We believe in balloons: Art & Social Architecture
Article by Cassandra Ng • Image Credit
While many of us are familiar with the dreary feeling of heading back to work on a Monday morning, citizens in Kabul, Afghanistan were given a pleasant surprise one Saturday morning two years ago (the working week begins on Saturday in Afghanistan). As citizens set about their commute to work, volunteers flooded the streets of Kabul with thousands of pink balloons as part of an international collaborative art project launched by Colombian-born and New York-based artist Yazmany Arboleda. Titled “We Believe In Balloons”, the project injected a dose of celebration and light-heartedness into everyday routine, momentarily transforming the city landscape into a work of art.
as non-political vehicles of hope
We Believe in Balloons focuses heavily on the symbolism of balloons as a representation of hope, wonder, and possibility. According to Arboleda, “there is something about them [balloons] that is magical, that speaks about the idea of hope and innocence and childhood and playfulness.”
Going beyond balloons, the campaign attempts to connect the international community and Afghanistan through art and culture in what Arboleda terms “the first international crowd funded happiness project”. The project gave international supporters of art a non-political opportunity to contribute to Afghanistan: for just one dollar, individuals could write messages of peace, which were then placed inside each biodegradable balloon. The idea behind this, Arboleda explains, is that “every balloon you see in Kabul on the day of the installation represents the spirit of a person from around the world who believes in art and culture as a way of moving forward in Afghanistan -- not war.”
In this way, multiple narratives of hope are highlighted in a country that has, for the past decade, been interpreted through lenses of conflict and war. This fragility was all the more evident as the art project was launched following an attack by insurgent Taliban militant groups on an international organisation’s compound in central Kabul, while a suicide bomber killed himself elsewhere in the city while preparing his explosives on the day the balloons were distributed.
transformation of public spaces through art
Cities are complex systems, and have long been metaphorically referred to as living organisms and ecosystems. In engaging the local community to participate in the event and utilising the entire city as a canvas to orchestrate a display of public art, We Believe in Balloons demonstrates the dynamism of cities and the subversive nature of art to challenge the notion of public space and generate interpretations of social values -- peace, reconciliation, and gender equality.
As in previous art installations around the globe, Arboleda was careful to select a colour that reflected important aspects of the culture that would encourage dialogue. In choosing to distribute bright pink balloons in Kabul, Arboleda hoped to draw public attention to the issue of women’s empowerment in a deeply conservative society. To initiate a step in that direction, he reached out to young artists and women’s advocacy groups in the months leading to the launch of the project, and conducted a series of workshops and panel discussions with women in Kabul
reception: The role of art and culture in development
The result was a maelstrom of dialogue that accompanied the balloons on the streets. Some individuals were pleasantly surprised, seeing the balloons as “a reminder that peace and security will come to Afghanistan.”4 Others were more dismissive, questioning whether the project represented the wisest use of resources, while the Taliban was quick to criticise the project as a way of introducing un-Islamic and decadent Western values into Afghanistan.
It is in the encouragement and facilitation of such dialogue that We Believe in Balloons displays the greatest quality of art -- its essential freedom and the important role it plays in bringing about social change. Development of the arts and culture are often paid little attention in post-conflict planning; and yet remain an essential component in empowering local communities and setting in place conditions for sustainable progress and long term peacebuilding initiatives.
In the meantime, while the debate continues, the balloons that remain on the streets are held up as important symbols of hope and ideas. For a fleeting moment on Saturday morning, they have transformed the architectural landscape of Kabul to reveal the hidden poetry and beauty within the city.
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6. Kabul is the fourth city in this sequence of installations. Arboleda has successfully launched similar campaigns in India, Japan, and Kenya. In India, orange balloons were used to represent saffron and Buddhist monk colours; in Japan, green balloons honoured the culture’s appreciation of nature; and in Kenya, yellow balloons represented gold, an important natural resource for the country.