Hypercathections

In James Lasdun’s novel, The Horned Man (Vintage, 2003), the protagonist, a professor of gender studies sinks into paranoia via a series of vividly drawn spatial scenarios: the railway station where he witnesses a colleague’s attentions to a student; his office which he suspects is being occupied at night; outside his therapist’s apartment where he sees her inappropriately dressed; the basement of a boarded-up synagogue where he is confronted by his nemesis, and finally the interior of a small wooden booth in an abandoned fairground which he first saw from the window of a passing train. All this, he decides, is understood via a process of hypercathected reality – ‘the way people under certain kinds of pressure perceive the world: its forms and textures impinging with unnatural forcefulness.’

In Mourning and Melancholia (1915), Freud considers the processing and acceptance of death. He describes hypercathexis as part of the process of mourning where the subject transfers an excessive investment of mental or emotional energy onto an object or idea – investing in one emotion in order to facilitate the repression of another. Through hypercathexis the lost object can be re-invested with the new reality of its absence and the ego can find consolation in a substitute for the lost. The goal of mourning is to restore psychological balance and hence to be able to engage in another experience which involves love (and potential loss) (Karyth Cara).

According to cultural theorist Catherine Belsey (citing Lacan), the appeal of cultural objects – what draws us to art, literature or theatre – is their allusion to loss. In their indication of the lack which characterises the human condition, they evoke desire – ‘we long to fill the gap made by the lack of access to the real with something that would reunite us with the world’. Whilst the signifier offers a way to specify our wishes, it also detaches us from ‘the real’ (our organic continuity with the world from which we have been cut off by language). In naming something in its absence, the signifier takes its place.

Buildings, for example, according to Belsey, ‘are a way of enclosing vacancy, their … surfaces fencing off the absence they both produce and surround …. putting on display … the fact of loss itself.’ Hence, architecture ‘makes emptiness’ by carving ‘out of the continuity of the real a substance that surrounds a lack: where there was previously an organic continuity there is now a material object with nothing at its centre’.

James Lasdun (whose poetry also concerns desire and loss, for example in The Revenant) is the son of Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre, South Bank which has been described as a combination of social commitment and reinforced concrete.

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The Iranian photographer Azadeh Akhlagi restages historical events in Iran and photographs them, drawing on theatrical or cinematic techniques. In particular, she has ‘restaged’ the killings of political activists, intellectuals and artists in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s in the period leading up to the Iranian revolution. The deaths of those ‘who lived peacefully and passed bitterly’ went unnoticed and un-photographed and Akhlagi painstakingly assembles confidential documents, witness reports and newspaper articles in her reconstruction of the moment.

Akhlagi’s narrative techniques are borrowed from cinema (previously she worked as an assistant director to Abbas Kiarostami) and 19th Russian literature ‘particularly scenes involving crowds’. Drawing on the mise-en-scene of Renaissance and Baroque painting and through a close reading of certain scenes in Dostoevsky for example, she applies these insights to her work. Alongside actors, she herself appears in every photograph as the missing ‘eye witness’ – staring at the victim, running towards them or helping them up.

 By an Eyewitness (2009-13) is a series of seventeen photographs which depict the deaths of their subjects, which ‘although the exact nature of their deaths can never be known’, Akhlagi spent a long time with the characters ‘in her head’, reading about them and researching their deaths, finding out the weather conditions when they died and other details of the circumstances of their deaths. On exhibiting the work she remarked that ‘people would hug’ her or start crying: ‘it was as if people had never had the chance to mourn these deaths and now, this project and the images in front of them had given them the time and the instrument to release their agony and pain.’ (art radar journal).

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Cathexis, some say is a neologism invented by Freud’s translators for Bestezung (investment) and may be construed as the way in which we invest something with an amplified presence. In Give me Everything You Have (2017), an account of harassment by an ex-student who was writing a novel about the effects on the Iranian revolution on one family, Lasdun reflects on the (initial) vicarious connection he felt to her by way of his father who had a collection of Persian models of buildings and fragments of architecture he had gathered in Iran in the 1960s. Whilst on a train journey to visit the ranch where D.H Lawrence’s lived in New Mexico, Lasdun contemplates his own worth compared to his father (‘At my age he was designing Britain’s National Theatre’).

The narrative shifts to his observations of the man next to him, talking into his mobile phone in ‘Egyptian Arabic, presumably’. Later that night they are woken by ‘federal agents with long, black flashlights’ who demand their IDs – ‘someone in our compartment must have alerted the guard to the presence of suspicious Middle Easterners’.

In Freudian terms, the process of hypercathexis is one of detachment which is brought about through its opposite – the attachment to something else. (In a poem Lasdun had been writing since his father’s death ‘in one way or another airing my grief…’, he likens an invasive red-berried vine in his vegetable garden to his father’s red cheeks). In Lasdun’s book, everything becomes linked in a series of curious recurrences. Like the experience of being stalked where something malign attaches itself to you, threads of attachments (personal, cultural, political, historical) create the fabric of this memoir. But the book also asks if there is something more deeply malign about that ‘solicitously associative manner mimicked so cleverly by online shopping sites … (since you looked at that you may also be interested in this)’ that Lasdun observes – that apparently benign connections ultimately lead to more devastating implications?

Further links: https://judithrugg.co.uk

 

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Down the Track

Under the railway arches of London Bridge station, during the process of the currently ongoing reconstruction programme, a fine, red bricked, cross-shaped vaulted ceiling was uncovered – reminiscent of the vast sixth-century underground Basilica Cisterns in Istanbul, where marble columns support a roof of round bricked arches. This, in a disaster of postmodern rationale was quickly masked with a shiny plastic covering and then cemented over in a crude white ‘wood grain’ finish (possibly an intertextual reference to the exterior of the South Bank Centre up the road?).

But London Bridge is more associated with being a gateway to the suburbs, beyond the unpopulated allotments, backs of sheds and ancient compost heaps: the edges of a no-man’s land of ramshackle wooden makeshift structures and dilapidated fences, abandoned projects, rusting scaffolding and washed-out graffiti. According to the cultural theorist Claire Pajaczkowska, against the urban – a space of historical meaning – the sub-urban is represented and experienced as a space of absence, a dystopic void and a space of oblivion. It is the space of Oedipal drama, avoidance and repression and the adolescent anticipation of adulthood and waiting. (Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, Mark Crinson, ed. 2005).

However, London itself is currently the subject of a campaign to be recognised as a national park. The importance of its green spaces is being made official. The London i-Tree Eco Project published in 2015 was a study into the significance of urban trees, identifying the millions of trees, gardens, woodlands and open spaces as London’s ‘urban forest’. It found 126 species of trees in London, the most common as sycamore, oak and silver birch. Although 40% of London’s surface area is concrete, its trees slow rainfall through their canopy cover, store carbon and reduce energy use. They remove 2,261 tonnes of pollution every year and it would cost £6.1bn to replace them – indeed developers often offer to pay local authorities to have ‘inconvenient’ trees removed.

Trees, threatened by creeping urbanisation, are bound inextricably to human culture and green infrastructure is as important as broadband.  Aerial analysis by Greenspace Information for Greater London found that 49.5 per cent of London is covered by water or vegetation and 22 per cent by trees or shrubs. Half of its front gardens are paved over but if every Londoner would green 1 square metre of land, London could be transformed into a national park.

The National Park City Foundation has estimated that outside the parks, nearly 50% of London is green: in its 30,000 allotments, 3 million gardens, 8.4 million trees and 14,000 species of wildlife. In June 2017, the ‘guerrilla geographer’ Daniel Raven-Ellison drew attention to all the green in a campaign to attract private funding and the backing from London’s 649 wards to preserve London’s green spaces. Starting in Enfield and moving anti-clockwise and returning to his home every evening, he walked anti-clockwise across its 32 boroughs, crossing the Thames a dozen times in a diminishing spiral of 348 miles.

In On Foot: A History of Walking (2004), Joseph Amato reflects that cities were created by walking. For hundreds of years until the end of the nineteenth century it was the most efficient way to travel distances of up to six kilometres; surfaces were made smoother and clogs were replaced with shoes more suitable for walking on cement pavements.  Roads, conurbations, architecture, urban design, culture and social class have walking (or ‘human upright mobility’) at their centre in terms of their production and development. At the end of the nineteenth century, the development of transport infrastructures replaced walking short distances (for the middle-class) and put more emphasis on different kinds of mobilities.

The fragility of the environment was an aspect of W.G Sebald’s narrative in The Rings of Saturn: a first-person account of a walking tour of Suffolk from Lowestoft to Ditchingham, drawing on time, memory and identity. In a recent exhibition curated by the historian Lara Feigel, Sebald Variations: A conversation between art and literature at Somerset House, Jeremy Wood uses GPS as a drawing tool to explore his relationship to the environment. The series of drawings, ‘My Ghost’ tracked his movements around London over the last 15 years in what he describes as a ‘personal cartography’ of the city. In a ‘slightly obsessive’ way he continually adds to this visual journal of his life: a layering of tracks over time and a mapped equivalent of his presence in the past.

Wood interprets Sebald’s importance of scale, where ‘the greater the distance, the clearer the view’ as what the writer or artist both includes or excludes from the text (including mapmaking). Wood sees the parallels between maps and memory but the linearity of GPS technology reveals, according to him ‘surprising things’ within everyday movements – the lines taken and their equivalents of what we chose to remember, unique to ourselves.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold has made a study of lines and asserts that ‘to live, one must put out a line and in a life, all these lines tangle together.’ We generate lines wherever we go and through threads and traces, life is lived along paths. Reflecting on the path he followed in writing Lines: A Brief History (2016) he draws a parallel with fungi as webs of linear fibres which radiate in all directions and permeate their environments. To think in terms of lines is to form connections with philosophy, sociology, art and architecture. In a series of meditations on life, the ground, weather and walking, and the significance of knots and the way things join together, Ingold proposes ‘linealogy’ as a process of weaving. He notes how his book has made connections with those who identify with his proposed linealogies across disciplines such as artists, architects, designers, musicians, linguists, choreographers and poets.

For Ingold, much of culture processes along lines – in writing, storytelling, singing, drawing and language – and these are interchangeable as processes of inscription and verbal assemblies. Lines are in us and around us: if we try to run, we create another line. ‘Modern thought’ he asserts, has fixed place into spatial locations and trapped us into temporal moments but Ingold proposes to consider life as woven from countless threads spun by all kinds of human and non-human beings. The individual lives in a domain of entanglement where we all have our own path, and familiarity with the cultural landscape lies in recognising these paths from traces or signs in a process of ‘wayfaring’.

Like Lara Feigel, Ingold plays the cello and has observed how his work on lines has made  particular connections with cellist readers. Perhaps, he says, it is the way in which the player ‘pulls’ a melody as if it were a line, or the movement of the bow back and forth across the strings is a parallel with spinning and weaving, like a shuttle across a loom, or in the way the fingerboard can be considered a landscape where the player has to find their way.

Further Links: http://www.nationalparkcity.london

https://ravenellison.com; http://lara feigal ;  

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/aug/13/the-rings-of-saturn-by-wg-sebald-walking-through-history

Yule Blog

Christmas started arriving in September as the shops displayed Christmas cards and decorations, in a widely expanded development of the twelve days of Christmas of the burning of the yule log (for some, a euphemistic interpretation of pagan sacrifice).

Christmas however, was effectively deconstructed in 1994 by the cultural analyst Margaret Visser. In her book The Way We Are (Harper Collins) on the extraordinariness of everyday life, which included the significance of knitting, greetings, beards, umbrellas, caviar and ‘paying attention to snow’, she considers the repressed cultural meanings of Christmas and why it continues to attract so much attention. If Christmas was once a pagan feast of fertility, it has become one of pure consumption.

Santa Claus is a symbol of giving and domesticity, a fertility figure: both pregnant (he is fat and carries a sack) and phallic  – ‘dressed in red and coming down the chimney leaving a present in the stocking’. Similarly, the biblical Christmas involves old men giving gifts to a child which may originate in heaven. But also Visser suggests the importance of Santa as an initiation device, where children sooner or later lose innocence and enter the age of reason when they find out that things are not how they appear.

 

‘Hearth symbolism’ is at the centre of Christmas, where the Celtic yule log (another phallic symbol) was burnt. Fireplaces as altars to community and belonging become shrines which are garlanded with decorations and Christmas cards from absent loved ones. Christmas, as a time of consumption (as opposed to production) has become Capitalism’s equivalent of the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia where the fire was a symbol of continuity. Housed in a temple, and tended by vestal virgins (the goddess of the hearth in ancient Greece was Vesta) who were punished if they ever let the fire go out, the hearth symbolised the permanence and stability of the Roman state.

With the coming together of the yule log, decorated in mistletoe the hearth is also ‘a symbol of sexual union’, whilst turkeys (as traditional Christmas dinner) have had their breasts genetically enlarged making them ‘incapable of reproducing without intervention and making it difficult to stand on their feet’.

According to Visser, Christmas is a feast heavy in fertility symbols. The pudding -‘unreasonably solid, fatty, rotund…a snub to everything thin, light and mobile’; the holly and the ivy Celtic symbols of male and female in the winter solstice observance (evergreens were part of the celebration of life and renewal); the Christmas tree – a representation of the feminine within which ‘ancient mythologies about women are incorporated’ (its ‘dress’ and ‘skirts’).  Visser also asserts that the tree is also part of the German Protestant war against Catholicism’s literal depiction of the human form and, like the yule log an appropriation of nature.

 

 

Interiorities

Recently the experience, purpose and contexts of architectural space have been subject to various kinds of scrutinies. The contemporary obsession with how buildings appear from the outside – through aerial photography and online images – dominates how they are perceived, commissioned and valued. This preoccupation with surface has divorced human presence from architecture. In the context of the recent Grenville Tower tragedy in London where considerations of external appearance took precedence over the safety of human life, these issues have more pressing significance.

In their manifesto for the 2017 Venice Biennale of Architecture, curators Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, propose to ‘go beyond the visual’ to ‘the choreography of everyday life’. Architecture, they claim, has the potential to provide ‘free spatial gifts’ such as the earth, the wind, shade, the moon and clouds. These, they say are part of the ‘silent language’ of an architecture ‘that speaks’. They propose considerations between gravity and ‘legibility’, of the struggle between weight and light, and light’s capacity to ‘melt structure’. Ironically though, some have suggested that their work represents yet another Brutalist revival.misc 691

Architectural theorists in the meantime have examined the relationships between interior spatial experience, subjectivity and architectural space. Robert McCarter’s The Space Within (Reaktion, 2016) for example, considers how certain architects have addressed how a building is encountered from the inside rather than what it looks like from the outside and how this has been the starting point for design. He discusses the importance of interior space over time, against how an external façade creates and defines the space around it.

 

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The subjectivity of architectural space and the ways that interior and exterior meet are addressed differently in Jane Rendell’s recent book, The Architecture of Psychoanalysis (I. B Tauris, 2017). Through a form of experimental structural writing which draws on autobiographical experience and various photographic archives, Rendell considers how material environments influence the inner world of memory and imagination. Described by critical geographer Steve Pile as a ‘braiding’ of architectural criticism and psychoanalytic insight, Rendell’s book addresses architectural space through the structures of memory, desire, trauma and loss and the possibilities for their representations.

In the painter Vicken Parsons’ exhibition earlier this year, Iris (a reference to the technology of looking), her paintings ‘become both a window on to the world, and a doorway for light and colour’, moving between illusory space and the picture surface whilst implying an emotional ‘exposure of inner experience’. Their interplay between three-dimensional perspective and flatness suggests an ambiguity between representation and abstraction. Modelled to some extent on the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi’s (1864 – 1916) paintings of rooms – the dark interiors, the fall of light on interior surfaces, a reduced colour palette, nuances of tone and glimpses of domestic materials such as tablecloths and wooden tables  – Parsons’ works invoke a similar kind of atmospheric psychological interior space. They seem flooded with light of different kinds, reflected in apparently highly polished surfaces or falling from an unseen source, whilst their materiality appears to be invested with emotion.

Hammershoi and Parsons’ works evoke Alison Marchant’s 1993 Camden Arts Centre exhibition, Charged Atmospheres: a series of enlarged, almost room-size black and white found photographs of the interiors of derelict mansions. Some bleached out by light, overexposed or eroded, the images of empty rooms, some with partially collapsed ceilings and the marks left by absent furniture, seem charged with loss. The catalogue essay of Parsons’ work by critic Richard Morphet (‘Charged Spaces’), considers the interdependency of two spaces – the mysterious environment into which the viewer is drawn in the paintings and the flat field of the picture surface. This play of flatness against shallowness acts as a screen through which we enter into a space of contradictions where openness and containment, balance and tension, definition and uncertainty, illusion and gesture all play against each other. Both Parsons’ and Marchant’s work seem to imply what lies unseen and beyond what is visible between expectancy and speculation, atmosphere and emotion.

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In the exhibition, Room with a View (Kunstalle-Mainz, 2009) the German painter Matthias Weischer constructs simulations of interior spaces which he describes as ‘receptacles to be filled with objects’. Through creating an interior space and then ‘furnishing’ it, he arrives at a form of ‘object theatre’ where things evoke memories and emotions through the interplay of their psychological connotations. Like Parsons and Hammershoi, through both depiction and the reflection of their materiality (see for example, Hammershoi’s Interior with the Artist’s Easel, 1910), Weischer’s works can be considered as two-dimensional installations which show their own construction of illusion where dissolving figures are performers in their arranged domestic settings.

There has been much written about the relationships between Rachel Whiteread’s work with architecture in their connotations of solid / hollow, inside / outside, full / empty space (Tate Britain, 2017) and Whiteread invariably draws on domestic space and its objects: house, cabin, wardrobe, room, mattresses, chairs, spoons, hot water bottles, books, etc.  In the casts of interior spaces, space becomes an apparently solid mass – memorial-like and impenetrable. Her objects reveal how things look like from the other side of reason – the incidental and unintentional marks made by life and the poignancy of what remains – yet the process of casting itself is dependent on logic.

Commentaries on Whiteread’s work have focused on the significance of the missing and various kinds of loss such as repressed memory, associations with the uncanny, imprinting and abandonment. The art historian Jackie Wullschlager (FT, 16.09.17) segues between Whiteread’s Untitled (Room 101), a cast of the BBC office which inspired Orwell’s torture chamber in Nineteen Eighty-Four and whose ‘eerie inside-outness externalises an inner world and dramatizes how we project our desires and terrors to animate space’, and Malevich’s white square, the ‘embodiment of Russian modernism – the art of the revolution which morphed into the dystopia in Orwell’s novel’. In House, Whiteread’s concrete cast of the interior space of a terraced Victorian house in London, Wullschlager draws a similarity to the look of Brutalism widely associated with architectural dystopia and whose psychological effects, according to the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health can include anxiety, depression, alienation and despair.

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Further links: https://judithrugg.co.uk

Bunker

In 1945 the urbanist and philosopher, Paul Virilio discovered the sea: he described the place as a void ‘with that particular emptiness you feel in abandoned places.’ Everything had been blown up, the beach was heavily mined and deserted and the streets were empty – La Baule on the southern Brittany coast was so strategically important to the occupying Germans that troops continued to fight 3 days after the surrender.

Virilio subsequently photographed some of the 1500 bunkers that were built during World War Two along the French Atlantic coast to forestall an Allied landing, known as the ‘Atlantic Wall’. Like ‘little temples without a cult’, the objects lay strewn across cliffs, beaches and dunes – ‘you could walk all day … and never lose sight of these concrete altars built to face the void of the oceanic horizon.’  He decided to ‘hunt down’ these grey forms ‘until they transmitted part of their mystery’. Virilio’s photographs were of interest because as he reflects, they were ‘not yet archaeological; I believe that I was alone in seeing something else springing up.’ The seven year project led Virilio across the coast through ports, into the gardens and courtyards of apartment buildings and past schools and bars where these ‘scandalous … solid masses lay in the middle of the hollows of urban spaces.’ Their heavy grey contours with no openings evoked a ‘rupture in the apprehension of the real’ not just of the recent past but of the ‘triviality’ of the surrounding history and architecture.

Bunker Archeology (Centre Georges Pompidou, 1975), (English translation, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994) was published as part of an exhibition of these photographs taken between 1958 and 1965, arranged by the Centre for Industrial Creation. In it Virilio considers how the bunker has re-organised the landscape into a series of defensive constructions, frontiers and disequilibriums. In peacetime the bunker is seen as ‘a survival machine, its half-buried mass a reflection of our power over death’ or ‘a habitat, a kind of clothing or a collective armor’. ‘Spun from a network under tension with the landscape … invisible and immaterial … that escapes our gaze’ enabling it to hide from view, coalescing with the earth, prematurely worn and smoothed and nestling in an uninterrupted expanse of space, ‘disappearing from our perception’, ‘I felt as though a subterranean civilization had sprung up from the ground.’

The bunker, he argues, has become a myth, both present and absent at the same time. Present as an object of disgust  – not part of an open, civilian architecture – and absent as its essence as a fortress lies underfoot and invisible. Architecturally, the blockhouse put an end to ‘forward’ and ‘rear’ and began anew with ‘above’ and ‘below’, lying ‘abandoned on the sand like the skin of a species that has disappeared’.

There seems to be an enduring cultural interest in the idea (and reality) of the bunker. In 2009, the Polish artist Robert Kusmirowski’s installation at the Barbican directed the viewer through a set of heavy metal doors along a rusting walkway and down a set of stairs into a warren of dark rooms. In an apparent reproduction of a World War Two concrete bunker, old documents, communications systems and work stations which appeared to date from the 1940s were rendered in meticulous detail. Derelict industrial equipment, rusting generators, old cans and survival supplies, corroded pipes and boilers and a railtrack which ran the length of the installation, segued into the Barbican’s hammered concrete pillars and its location on the site of devastation caused by World War Two bombing.

Kusmirowski’s research included visits to military bunkers and the close study of their photographic documentation and every element of his installation was painstakingly rendered. Born in 1973, his own history included the rise of the Polish trade union movement Solidarność, founded in 1980 at the Lenin shipyard in Gdańsk with the subsequent imposition of martial law and years of political repression. But an importance in the sense of collective identity fostered by Communism was evoked in Kusmirowski’s 2003 installation, Double V, which reconstructed in the gallery a worker’s apartment with its mirror image recreated on the other side of a glass panel, including details such as a plate of biscuits and a portrait of Lenin.

Virilio proposed that the shelter is an enduring metaphor for anguish and it is perhaps timely that one of the site-specific artworks for this year’s Frieze Art Fair in New York is modeled on the Anderson bomb shelter distributed in Britain during the Second World War.  Elaine Cameron-Weir’s temporary structure on Randall’s Island is dug into the earth and features a corrugated metal roof and sandbags. The bunker has associations with aggression and fear, conflict and vulnerability: to create a ‘bunker’ somehow becomes a ‘political’ act and for Cameron-Weir ‘the action of making art is political. There’s a lot of aggression in what I’m making right now’ (FT, 30.04.17).

The bunker hovers on the brink of the past and the obsolete and of the potential of renewal: its ubiquitous concrete make-up makes it impossible to remove from the landscape – it’s easier to reconstitute it as ‘heritage’ architecture.  Partly submerged, bunkers are mostly neglected structures and the internet teems with various ‘guerrilla explorers’ who breach their securities and post photographs of their forbidden interiors online. Powerful flashlights reveal graffiti-covered walls, broken bottles, bits of furniture, cast iron machinery and networks of tunnels and shafts. The Kingsway Exchange, a deep-level shelter built underneath Chancery Lane tube station in the 1940s, was one of eight built in London designed to house up to 8,000 people. After the war it was expanded to use as a Cold War government shelter and communications system.

The idea of the bunker resonates with the rise of nationalisms or ideologies, xenophobia, violence and the return of borders and can’t, it seems be erased either from the landscape or from history. There are allusions to all these, and of history inscribed in space, in their lingering sense of abandonment yet sinister readiness to be reconstituted.

 

Spatial Virtualities

The artist Shezad Dawood’s exhibition Kalimpong at Timothy Taylor Gallery in 2016, included ‘an immersive tour’ of the town of the same name on the border of Tibet, a virtual reality work which according to the press release ‘questions the border between the real and the virtual’. Situated in a separate room, the viewer was required to wear head and handsets to visit the five scenes that Dawood created: a hotel, a mountain range, a cave, a monastery and a temple.

The virtual is increasingly becoming the real and as has been pointed out, the concept of ‘the virtual’ can be unpacked to be understood as a kind of supplement – something almost something other than or similar to itself or which stands in for itself. Something which is ‘virtual’ is as good as the thing which it is supplementary to or close enough to be experienced as the thing itself: an addition, an enhancement or a substitute.

That the experience of space is becoming increasingly secondary, mapped out in advance and mediated by tourism has been widely discussed from the writings of anthropologist Marc Auge to that of the sociologist John Frow. Now, cycling tours of Britain can be done in one’s living room (or perhaps in the future in specialized centres) on an exercise bike wearing a virtual reality headset connected to Google Street View. It’s possible to select particular areas (the Lake District or the Pennines for example) without bothering with the train journey or the weather. Aaron Puzey who developed the software is cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats and documenting his 1,500km journey (CycleVR). He aims to ‘cycle around’ Japan next.

Virtual tourism is a rapidly expanding industry where the race is on to offer ‘iconic’ locations such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. ‘Everest VR’ is a virtual reality experience which was demonstrated at the Royal Geographical Society last year at an expedition planning conference. It is based on 300,000 photographs taken by land and air of Mount Everest by a visual effects studio based in Iceland, and then turned into a 3D model using a process called photogrammetry. The experience is being constantly improved by incorporating images from the Royal Geographical Society’s archives including several detailed scenes such as the Khumbu crevasse or ‘the notorious’ Hillary Step. Virtual climbers can choose from different routes which vary in difficulty.

‘Google Earth urbanism’ – how we interact with the urban environment via satellite communication or how planners and architects insert buildings or infrastructure proposals into digitally mapped and imaged streets – is a phenomenon of our changing perception of space. Detachment from our environment through the use of smartphones, headphones and GPS has an uncanny paradox with a compensatory impulse to ‘share’ or mediatize the most mundane experiences via social media. In recent publications on the city, it has been argued that the ever-expanding urban environment is impacting on our perception. Plate glass, reflected surfaces, skyscrapers, treeless developments spanning huge tracks of space and urban sprawl where the parameters of cities are blurred are all having effects on the way we experience space and our place in it. Whilst this may be the alienating view from the ground, the culturisation of ‘the city’ via Hollywood film and popular culture invariably focuses on the omnipotent view from above (made from helicopters or drones) and constitutes a variation of one point perspective, long critiqued by cultural theorists as a relationship of power.

The city’s continual evolution and impact are reflected in recent titles such as The Endless City (Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, eds. Phaidon, 2007), an outcome of a series of conferences on urbanization held at the London School of Economics, hosted by the Urban Age Project. The book’s cover declares a range of alarming statistics including that 25% of the world’s population lived in cities in 1950 compared to 50% of us who live in cities today to a projected 75% in 2050. Key thinkers on urban space such as Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen consider the implications of this expansion. In Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (Verso, 2016), Stephen Graham proposes that the world must now be understood as a series of vertical strata which is reflected in the geography of inequality, politics and identity.  From the ‘helicopterisation’ by the police to the design of pavements he asks why the super-rich live either in penthouses high above the city (São Paulo) or drill down to build vast subterranean basements (London).

In the 2014 series ‘Twenty First Century Mythologies’ for Radio 4, literary theorist Peter Conrad borrows from Roland Barthes’ techniques of cultural analysis from his 1957 book, Mythologies – a collection of essays which examines how social value is reflected in cultural phenomena. From detergents and soap powder, to wine and milk, to steak and chips, Barthes draws on semiology, proposing myth as a sign whose roots are in language but to which something has been added. Mythologies are formed, he argued to perpetuate an idea of society that adheres to the current ideologies of the ruling class and its media.

In an episode about the Shard, Conrad proposes that the Old Testament banned skyscrapers.  The audacity of The Tower of Babel rose too high and God, resenting the intrusion on His domain took revenge by multiplying the languages of the workers causing confusion, so that the Tower was left unfinished. The Shard is currently the tallest building in Europe but ‘the British pour scorn on overachievement  and give names to skyscrapers that bring them down to earth and into the kitchen cupboard’, like the ‘Salt Cellar’ the ‘Cheesegrater’ or the ‘Gherkin’. A shard is a fragment and Conrad compares it to Barthes’ analysis of the Eiffel Tower as ‘an empty sign’ whose iron girdles allow us to look straight through it and architecturally is totally useless. Similarly, for Conrad, the Shard’s physical location between such useful things as a hospital, a food market and a railway station emphasizes its gratuitousness.

From its viewing platform high above the ground, London appears ‘smudged by haze, jumble and chaos’ but one may be able to see from Heathrow to the Thames Barrier which reminds us that ‘London is camped on a flood plain … and is at best, a runway and at worst, a crowded life raft’.  On ground level, the Shard ‘lies within the context of pleasure’ (between the Globe Theatre, the Millennium Wheel and numerous galleries and restaurants), replacing London as a place of work with a playground or a theme park.  The top floors ‘are given over to the Shangri-La Hotel whose name  is a transliteration of Shambala, the paradise of Tibetan Buddists from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon – a Himalayan utopia where wise lamas preside over a meditative existence, suspended above the turmoil of the lower world.’

 

 

More on the Street

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Street Art World by Alison Young (Professor of Criminology at the University of Melbourne and author of Street Art, Public City and Street / Studio), was recently published by Reaktion in October 2016. This title has already been reduced to half of its publisher’s price by Amazon and appears a long way down in its list of books on the subject – superseded by Street Art from Around the World; The World Atlas of Street Art; London Graffiti; Wild Art; Street Art in the Counter Culture, etc., etc. It is almost as if the notion of street art can’t keep up with its own currentness – to think about street art is to conjure images of the now, the new and the hip. Collapsed with urban tourism it is both counter to and synonymous with the idea of urban chic. There’s a sense of urgency attached to it as if at any moment it will be washed away by censorious councils or erased by the vagaries of taste or appropriated into the mainstream. Young’s book though probes just that – street art in the art world as defined by its commercial value, its place in international auction houses and collections and its commodification in market terms (that street art can be stolen is a possibility that is no longer new or shockable).grf8

Perhaps it is the street itself that is endlessly compelling? A review of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin (Chatto, 2016) outlines the breadth of focus of the female flâneur, that wandering figure epitomized by Baudelaire and the dèrive, from writers from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys and artists such as Sophie Calle and Agnès Varda. The urban textures of these are set against an autobiographical chapter on Long Island and the purposeless and isolation of its strip malls and unwalkable streets where Elkin warns against ‘the creeping feeling that you belong’.

grf5Elkin’s book is a contemporary alternative political history of women through the city whose predecessors include Elizabeth Wilson’s The Sphinx in the City (a deconstruction of the relationships between the urban, women and disorder) and Doreen Massey ‘s Space, Place and Gender. Massey (Obituary, The Guardian, March 2016: ‘Radical geographer, feminist, theorist and political activist’) applied her ideas to generate new insights and action which focused on four themes: spatial justice and the state, political solidarities, spatial divisions of labour and environmental politics. She engaged with the Occupy London and Take Back the City movements through imagining ‘the webs that tie us all together through relations of power’ and called for a view of London that’s ‘more complex and more multi-faceted and less dominated by finance’. Kilburn, where she lived in north London, she argued was an example of how London is impossible to understand ‘without bringing into play half the world and a considerable amount of British imperialist history.’ Her chapter on Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 work, House (James Lingwood, ed. Phaidon), was a model example on the insights of feminist geography on art, demonstrating the impossibility of reflecting critically on site-specific art without consideration of its wider contexts.grf3

The Narcissistic City (MACK, 2016) is a book of images that photographer Takashi Homma made using a pinhole camera (a simple camera consisting of a box with a pinhole at one end and light-sensitive film or paper at the other) which he set up in hotel rooms in Japan and the US. The resulting cityscapes merge together in dissonant collages of smudged flat greys and blues and violets as he changed the positions of the camera to point in different directions.  According to the publisher, the work probes the nature of the gaze and what constitutes the reality of the city. The fragmented photographs sometimes suggest crude screenprinted surfaces mediated not by ink but by light and its unpredictability. Doubt seems to permeate the blurred and smeared surfaces – they appear dissolute, ambiguous and dreamlike where concrete and glass is rendered in a liquid provisionality. Evoking the films and images of Robert Frank and Warhol (it can’t be helped) they have a cinematic resonance where the city becomes mirage seen from afar, through glass and across cultural time – a phantasmagoria freed from rational representation.

grf7In considering Homma’s photographs Hubert Damisch proposes, in a leap of faith, that the black box of the camera ‘doubles as the city’s unconscious’. This was the Freudian allusion made however in Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, a book of photographs made in 1966 documenting the fragments of a typewriter thrown from a moving car crossing the desert. Cheaply produced, Royal Road Test parodied both limited edition photography and the culturally popular romantic idea of ‘the road’ as a journey into desire and constructed notions of freedom. Where Freud claimed that dream analysis represented the ‘royal road to the unconscious’, the negligible, overlooked and forgotten are elements which interest Ruscha (the photographs focused on details such as the typewriter’s broken keys and smashed carriage assembly). His recent pencil and acrylic drawings of old mattresses dumped at the side of the road – where ‘the road’ is an anonymous site of abandonment – follow his ‘Psycho Spaghetti Westerns’ (Gagosian Gallery, 2011) a series of paintings of broken furniture, tyres, cardboard boxes and pieces of indeterminate objects in states of decay, piled up against a slanting horizon and evoking ideas of transience.grf3b

In ‘A Walk on the Wild Side: Urban Ethnography Meets the Flaneur’ (Cultural Values, 4,1,2000), Chris Jenks and Tiago Neves  unpick the concept of the flâneur as being intrinsically bound to a micro-sociology of urban life and the observation of the trivial, the ephemeral and the fleeting. They cite sociologist Zygmunt Bauman that the art of the flâneur is ‘that of seeing without being caught looking’.  A forced sense of detachment is what permeates works of artists such as Christian Marclay’s stop-motion films on the detritus of the city where discarded items found on the street such as the plastic tops of coffee cups and cigarette ends were projected in a gigantic scale onto the wall of White Cube, Bermondsey; and Yuri Patterson’s Instagram images – with over 20,000 followers – of empty reception desks and rumpled packaging.

grf10For all the ongoing fascination of the street, Durkheim’s nineteenth century concept of anomie seems more appropriate for our time, one interpretation of which is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community, the fragmentation of social identity and a pervading sense of inertia.