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

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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.

 

 

Evolving Mobilities

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The concept of mobilities has been an issue which has been discussed for some time in the pages of interdisciplinary journals such as Environment and Planning, a series of journals which focus on the interface of sociology, philosophy, urban studies and culture. There are, it is obvious, many different kinds of mobility. In Mobilities journal, based at Lancaster University, recent topics range from cruise and televisual tourism, ‘everyday cycling identities’, ‘seam sensitive walks’, the problem of ‘crafting quiet’ in trains, the aesthetics of aircraft safety cards and the spatialities of recreational road-running. It is a concept (or concepts) that is a source of continual evolution, reinvention and concern, in tandem with ever-changing political, cultural and physical environments.tube1

Zineb Sedira’s recent work Collecting Lines, is a large-scale video work showing at the northern ticket hall at Kings Cross St Pancras and a series of photographs shown in stops along the Victoria line. The work has been commissioned by Art on the Underground which describes it as a ‘poetic reflection of networks, mapping and movement’ and is part of a series of ongoing public art projects from contemporary artists.

Sedira’s wider work frames questions about language, mobility, cultural identity and loss. It includes commissions from the Port of Marseille (the hidden interiors of sugar silos); ship graveyards in the harbour city of Nouadhibou, Mauritania (the main point of departure for African migrants trying to reach Europe); images of weather-battered lighthouses in Algeria built under French colonial rule; and a film commissioned by FACT (the desolation of a scrapyard where cars are stripped of mobility and purpose). Her work concerns metaphors of arrival and departure, stasis and transition, entrapment and escape, belonging and disconnection. Oral history plays a significant part – in Collecting Lines a tube driver who retired after 42 years of service driving the trains in the underground tunnels talks about the maps he collected and ones that he made during this time.

tube6Sedira is interested in lines, those we see and don’t see – the Underground maps, its handrails and yellow lines on the platforms, the train rails, tunnels and hidden cables. Her video work includes drivers’ view of the tunnels, images of trains leaving and returning to their depots and being cleaned. Colour abstract photographs at Brixton station are drawn from the wires and circuitry which lie behind the panels at stations.

The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum in north London is a specialist collection which addresses issues of migration through the visual arts. Began as an art society in Whitechapel in 1915, it has over 1400 works from 380 artists from 35 countries and holds educational programmes, exhibitions and external projects. A recent conference discussed the ways in which identity, migration and art overlap and the responsibilities of art institutions to curate work by migrant artists.tube21

Performance artist Kylie Walsh borrowed her mum’s caravan to host ‘experiments with intimacy’ in Mobile at the recent annual Latitude festival of poetry, theatre and installation in Suffolk in which she addressed an audience of nine about escaping from the orbit of class. Audio recordings based on real conversations were heard in the dark whilst the microwave and lamp flickered, the windows became video screens and the cupboard enclosed scenes from her suburban childhood. Kylie (real name Cindy – she changed it when she went to university), sat at one end of a sofa where ideas around mobility and escape played against the intimacy and proximity of performer and audience.

Walsh’s previous work concerned issues of people-trafficking from Eastern Europe – women smuggled illegally into the UK. In This is London: Life and Death in the World City (Picador, 2016), Ben Judah estimates that 600,000 people from Eastern Europe endure illegally in London, effectively in ‘a city within a city’ where ethnic groups become enclaves of immobility. At the heart of his book are his conversations and experiences with his subject. Romanian, Vietnamese and Russians speak about the glamour of London from afar and the fear and poverty close up. George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933), Walter Benjamin (Moscow Diary, 1926) and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind (2015) all examine themes of poverty, otherness and hope of migration to the city from different perspectives from the journalistic to the autobiographical and it is this which informs much of  Zineb Sedira’s work.

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Born in Paris to Algerian parents who can’t read or write, the importance of oral history and storytelling is evident and interviews often appear in her work. Now living between Brixton, Paris and Algiers, since 2005 she has used her apartment in Algiers as a platform for international artists to exhibit. She has described the labyrinthine processes of trying to create something there, an aspect of which perhaps has resonance with the complexities of the urban fabric in London and its unknowability. The question, for example ‘Where is Brixton Village?’ asked online, provokes the following response:

Take the scenic route. Turn right when you set out of Brixton tube station and cross Atlantic Road (you’ll go under the railway bridge). Turn right into Brixton Station Road Market, then at the crossroads, turn right into Pope’s Road Market. The entrance to Brixton Village Arcade is a blue door under the blue bridge, about 100 metres on your left.

Or: Take the first right when you leave the tube and you’ll find yourself on Atlantic Road. Head down it until you find an entrance to Brixton Village Arcade on your left (it’s past the railway bridges).

Or: Head down Coldharbour Lane from the Town Hall and there’s another entrance on your left, just over the crossroads.

Or: Turn right when you get out of Brixton Tube Station and cross Atlantic Road (you’ll go under the railway bridge). Turn right into Brixton Station Road, then at the crossroads, turn right into Pope’s Road. About 100m ahead is the crossroads with Atlantic Road – turn left and then the entrance to Market Row is on the other side of the road, opposite Brixton Village.

Or: Turn left when you leave the tube and then the first left into Electric Lane. The entrance to Market Row is on your left.

Or: Head down Coldharbour Lane from the Town Hall and there’s another entrance on your left, 50 metres past the Ritzy cinema.

Or: Turn left out of the tube, cross Electric Avenue and then the entrance is not very far, just about 30 metres on your left. Walk through the arcade and you’ll see the entrance to Market Row just across Electric Lance. You can walk through Market Row on your way to Brixton Village, if that’s where you’re headed.

Art on the Underground’s collaborators include Black Cultural Archives, London Sinfonietta, London Wildlife Trust and Vestry House Museum. Movement between these would perhaps make for an interesting Urban Salon Workshop along the lines of Networks of Possibility: Experimental Sound, Class, History and Nocturnal Territorialism.

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 Further Links: http://art.tfl.gov.uk/  http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rmob20

On Existentialism

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If one can drag oneself away from the Shakespearean dramas currently being enacted in real life (I am writing this in London), it is useful to remember that there are tools for textual analysis out there to help us make sense of things. Browsing Polity’s recent media, communication and cultural studies catalogue was balm, an antidote and a light at the end of a tunnel which seems to get smaller by the day.

Culture can be understood as a system of shared texts and practices used by people to make sense of the world, asserts Rein Raud in Culture in Action, and the media offers infinite possibilities for distraction which demands and absorbs all our attention. A new kind of selfhood is being synchronized, argues Dominic Pettman in Infinite Distraction – our experience of the world is increasingly mediated making us interchangeable with one another and dividing us into small groups that never meet or interact. In The Mediated Construction of Reality, Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp investigate the processes through which the everyday world is constructed and reconstructed through media and ask if the resulting social world created is perceived as stable and livable or unstable and unlivable.

Natalie Fenton (in Digital, Political, Radical) probes the social role of the media and its implications for progressive possibilities and asks what are the conditions to live together well? Through a range of examples of protest and political movements, she proposes relationships between the media and opportunities for counter-politics.

Inspired by Heidegger’s philosophy of being and time, in Television and the Meaning of Live, media scholar Paddy Scannell investigates the category of the ‘live’ and asserts that the meaning of ‘live’ has much to tell us about the meaning of life and the question of existence.

In Geert Lovink’s critique of social media, Networks without a Cause he challenges the nature of mediated networks and proposes the increasingly appropriate concepts of ‘deep presents’ and ‘near-miss’ futures. In The Closing of the Net, Monica Horten asks how political decisions influence the direction of internet communication, where powerful corporations have become more embedded whilst seeking exemption from liability. These same organisations manipulate policy, filter content and store personal data and the notion of a democratic internet is being eclipsed by a heavily monitored, market-led ecosystem.

Lest we forget that our world view is influenced by journalism and its role in determining which topics are at the centre of public attention, Adrienne Russell’s book Journalism and Activism reports on the realities of media power. Meaning in everyday life, she argues, is tied to the communication tools and platforms that we have access to, the architecture of digital space that we navigate and our ability to control our media environments. Similarly, Barbie Zelizer (What Journalism Could Be) highlights journalism’s intersection with culture, politics, emotion, collective memory and visuality whilst being deeply embedded in social, economic and political institutions and structures. She demonstrates the central role that journalism plays in shaping consciousness and asks readers to re-imagine the news by embracing alternative conceptual prisms.

Other eerily apposite titles ring out such as Networks of Outrage and Hope; States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century; What Is to Be Done? and Symbolic Misery: The Catastrophe of the Sensible. Others focus on issues which have been glaringly brought to light by recent events such as the nature of democracy and personal agency; the rise of conservatism, selfishness, domination and inequality; data surveillance; civic rights; participatory culture; the realities of migration, mobility and citizenship and their relationship to mediated environments.

Whilst we are distracted by the maneuverings of a few, these titles are a timely reminder of a critical context through which to navigate an unprecedented and disturbing set of events.

 

 

 

Simultaneous Landscapes

In Space, Place and Gender (Polity Press, 1994) the geographer Doreen Massey reflects on her observations as an adolescent, when from the top deck of a bus she noted the ‘acres of the Manchester flood plain which had been entirely given over to boys’ in the form of dozens of football and rugby pitches.  Relationships between gender, landscape and power permeate through differently cultural means.

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American director Courtney Hunt’s film, Frozen River tells the story of its two (female) protagonists – one living in a broken-down trailer whose gambler husband has left, and the other a Cherokee living on the nearby reservation whose mother-in-law has stolen her child  –  resorting to people-smuggling as a result of their financial dire straits. The film’s prevailing image is the winter landscape of the North American Canadian border and the frozen river which links it, across which these two must drive to smuggle their cargo hidden in the boot of their car. Black trees, frozen ground, grey slush-covered roads all convey bitter cold, hardship, desperation, decrepitude and lack of hope.cloud4

The real subject of the film however is borders, not just the geographic border but the economic and political borderline condition of the characters. The two main characters, marginalized through their economic situation and also by their gender, resort to desperate measures in order to live. According to Hunt, people living on reservation lands constitute a forgotten people ‘living so marginally that they make other marginal people in the US pale by comparison’. The word ‘reservation’ in itself suggests something provisional and temporary that can be taken away or is dependent on something else.

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Representations of US white poverty as well as that of Native Americans are almost non-existent in mainstream cinema. Deemed unworthy for Hollywood endorsement because of its representation of a ‘small ethnic group’, Frozen River was later categorized as ‘off-Hollywood’ suggesting in itself a marginalized category. Its funding was precarious – there was only one take per scene according to the director and conditions for filming inside the trailer (whose real occupant had moved out during the making of the film – shockingly someone actually did live there) were reportedly worse than those  filming in the freezing temperatures of the outside scenes.

If Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 60s was about the frontier both as framing and narrative (and ideological) device, then cinema about migration ironically concerns the lack of it. The landscape against which these narratives are played out, in many films, is undetermined. Increasingly, a placelessness prevails which reflects back on the narrative, almost mirroring that which is really being played out – the universal human condition of trauma and enduring terms of power. The characters may be moving, but the landscape they cross appears static.cloud6

In Ghosts (2006) about the Chinese migrant workers drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004, the indeterminacy of sky and sea reflects back on the hopelessness of the characters’ predicament, trapped in limbo as illegal and dependent on others. In Dirty Pretty Things (2003) about migrants without papers existing in London and living in fear of immigration raids and deportation, we see the characters only at night, invisible to others and exploited in service jobs. In The Good Lie (2014) about the lives of four characters offered asylum in the US as part of a policy to refugees in Sudan escaping civil war (but quickly withdrawn by the Bush administration after 9/11), the characters cross deserts indistinguishable from each other from Sudan to Ethiopia, walking thousands of kilometers in the hope of finding a place free of conflict. The clipped plots of American suburbs are set against the open African savannah  reflecting the theme of ignorance and diversity of values and sheer otherness of both sides (wars happen, if at all, only on TV ). In The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004), a documentary set in the Gobi Desert about the lives of a nomadic tribe threatened by urbanization, the landscape of the Steppes is an unchanging horizontal line between sand and sky and broken only by the temporary huts and camel herds.

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The director of Frozen River states in an interview that the original idea for the film came from an idea for a poem and culturally and historically, there is a link between film, poetry and trauma. Simon Armitage’s films in verse incorporate trauma and are concerned, he says, with the missing voice. Pornography: The Musical is a docu-drama about women in the pornography industry; Songbirds is a documentary set in a womens’ prison; Out of the Blue is a film-poem to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11; and The Not-Dead is a TV film about the war that veterans from a range of conflicts fight when they return home in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Armitage composed poems derived from veterans’ testimonies which they then read out as voice-overs. He has talked about the relationship between the film image and the heard word and the wavelengths created between image and poetry when they pull apart, come together and intersect: describing it as a stretching or frisson between the two when in tandem or misalignment.

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This poetic sense could be applied to the cultural disjuncture of the recent exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy in London which could become be a critique of its own subject merely by a change of title. The inclusion of only one female painter, Berthe Morisot (and arguably not of a garden scene) amongst the over one hundred and twenty works on show is almost unbelievable curatorally. In addition, in the penultimate room, enormous photographs of a selection of the (male) artists posing with brush or spade amongst their estates says it all: nineteenth-century gender, privilege and power prevail and will endure.