Urban Grit: a (psycho)geography


Over the last 5 years there seems to have been an expanding production of publications, exhibitions and artists’ monographs on the subject of the city and its growth or decay. Perhaps this is in response to or a way of dealing with unprecedented accelerated urbanization on a global scale. The Global Cities Index of 2014 cited London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong as occupying the top 5 places of global importance and according to the 2011 census, the population of London showed a record of 8m and is expected to reach 10m by the middle of the 21st century. Its power, status and significance have expanded so much physically and ideologically that, it has been proposed, the UK can now be perceived to consist of London and everywhere else: unLondon.  A geographic area which takes in Brighton, Reading, Oxford and Cambridge and possibly the whole of the South East is the new Greater Greater London, whilst postwar new towns can be considered as constituting a kind of ‘quasi-London’ where commuters trek to and fro to London workplaces (Matthew Engel, Engel’s England, 2014).460

These shifting parameters of the city seem echoed in the changing cultural boundaries which constitute reflections of the urban, whether in painting, photography, site-specific or public artworks, experimental film and video, performance or writing. Relatively new genres are gaining ground, such as urban architecture and street photography which explore themes such as urban decay, alienation and the struggle for occupation, possession and dominance.746

Similarly, there seems to be an ever-expanding literature of expression (and repression?) of some of these psychic dimensions of the urban. ‘Trespass: a History of Uncommissioned Art’, ‘Forbidden Places’, ‘Do Not Alight Here’, ‘Derelict London’, ‘States of Decay’, ‘Out of Sight: Urban Art & Abandoned Spaces’, ‘Modern Ruins’, ‘Building Pathology: The Thames & Hudson Book on Graffiti Techniques’, ‘Hidden Cities’, ‘The View From the Train’, ‘The Secrets of the Underground’ and The Abandoned London mouse pad all published in the last 5 years perhaps represent  a growing collective paranoid-schizoid position developing from a persecutory anxiety of the engulfing urban environment.  This, it could be argued from a Kleinian perspective, represents an expression of the fear of retaliation where split-off elements of the self, such as hostility and alienation are projected outwards to the city, finding expression in a multitude of proscribed practices.

753Or perhaps a denial of the growing spatial power relationships of the city and architecture is generating a parallel world of resistance through an ‘edgework ethnography’ of these ‘occluded topographies’ of the city. ‘Urban exploration’ is becoming the accepted parlance to describe the interrogation of public and private space via ‘place-hacking’. ‘Cultural Hijacking: a Do-it-yourself Urbanism’, ‘Access All Areas: A Users’ Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration’ and ‘Explore Everything: Place-hacking the City’ are all examples of a recent literature which implore gaining access to restricted places such as construction sites, abandoned tube tunnels and underground sewers. So-called ‘urban outlaws’ such as The London Consolidation Crew recently climbed the Shard, sat in a crane and attempted to board an ex-Soviet submarine moored on the Thames as part of their methodology of an ‘archaeology of the future.’457

Further recent examples of the merger of art and life in proposing different perspectives of the city have been explored by Layla Curtis’ work, Traceurs: to trace, to draw, to go fast where the artist trained in Parkour techniques involving breathtaking leaps from stairwells and buildings, jumps across rooftops and pirouettes over walls, and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s 2013 essay-film, Taşkafa told through the lives of Istanbul’s street dogs and narrated by John Berger.777

Reflections on the urban were also a feature of the recent John Moore’s 2014 Painting Prize held at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Mark Siebert’s ‘Homerton High Street’ depicted the scraps and details of a street surface of leaves and a discarded betting slip, and painted on a piece of cardboard found nearby. Mandy Payne’s ‘Brutal’ used the materials of its subject matter – concrete and aerosol paint – to consider temporality and displacement in Park Hill, a Grade 11- listed modernist housing estate in Sheffield. John McSweeney’s  ‘Legacy’, in an ironic ‘dejeuner sur l’herbe’, showed young people picnicking on a grass verge, sipping carbonated drinks and checking their phones against a backdrop of grey tower blocks in various states of demolition, whose grim signage indicated their provisional use: ‘EAT’, ‘PLAY’, ‘GET’, ‘SHOP’.  Painted on an empty crisp packet, Conor Rogers’  ‘88 Calories’ meticulously observed the cracked surfaces of garden paving adjacent to a yellow brick wall against which a synthetic – looking broom leant hopelessly. Themes and tropes of the sub-urbia and its detritus permeated throughout: flyovers, supermarkets, clipped lawns, overgrown stairwells, rows of isolated semis and streets of 1930s villas devoid of people.459

Artists’ takes on the effects of the London Olympics may now seem to be dated, but in The Art of Dissent (Marshgate Press, 2012) editors artist Hilary Powell and sociologist Isaac Marrero collected a fascinating compilation of incursions, excavations and displacements in or about the Olympic site which took place over several years. The book is document of a ’range of improprieties’ which challenge the consensus, drawing on Jacques Ranciere to describe a condition of disagreement. In this ‘assemblage of dissention’ artists, architects, curators, writers, poets and social researchers reflect on their interventions in architecture, film, installation, performance, writing, photography and drawing: a rogue torchbearer who made his own torch ran 5 minutes ahead of the official parade;  a series of nocturnal trespasses ‘performed’ in semi-derelict buildings; an unofficial viewing platform installed at the perimeter fence which stayed in position for 60 hours before it was removed by officials; a film-document of ‘absurd sporting activities performed under guerrilla conditions’ including discuss-throwing with old car hub-caps and trampolining on abandoned mattresses.316

In a catalogue essay of the work of Rut Blees Luxemburg’s nocturnal images of the city, art historian Régis Durand  intriguingly proposes ‘photography as suicide’ where, as in the repressed unconscious ‘what cannot be thought is thought… in fragmentary inscriptions …of shadowy spectral images and illegibilities’. Her work is included in the recent World Atlas of Street Photography (Thames and Hudson, 2014) which joins an enormous literature of photographic publications on the same theme which attempt to visualize the unknowable through the (contemporary) still image. From the constantly moving chaos of New York, Delhi, Moscow, Berlin and Johannesburg et al., photographers struggle to turn the banal into the extraordinary. Whether framed by intent, subject or through various formal devises  –  it’s all street, where humanity has become imprisoned in apartments or by the shrinking horizons of a diminished depth of field of trapped perspectives. But how to make sense of the visual chaos? Isolated pigeons in the Piazza San Marco attempt anthropomorphic versions of alienation emphasising the ontological condition of the human condition – alone…isolated.  Variations of ‘street portraits’: people photographed indiscriminately unawares, register how similar we are, hemmed-in by fashion and socioeconomic forces, or ‘reveal’ how restraints of style through culturally-defined tastes  determine our essential similarities (we are beginning to look like each other, like people and their pets). Photographic documents made in the 1970’s of Brick Lane and Spitalfields show a shocking poverty:  the homeless huddled around fires made in the street (yes it really was like that) and make Gillian Wearing’s subjects holding ‘Signs 1992-3’ on the following page look lightweight and in poor taste. Football fans, office workers, tourists, prostitutes are elsewhere herded  together and somehow taxonomised, remindful of why photography was such a potent area of critique in the 1970s and 1980s through the pages of Screen, only now accessible through historical anthologies of visual culture.

486In the exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds: Photography and Architecture in the Modern Age’ at the Barbican, London (October 2014 – January 2015), 18 photographers of the city ‘from New York to Venezuela’ promise to ‘highlight the power of photography to reveal hidden truths about the society which we live in.’ Works by Andreas Gursky, Berenice Abbott, Ed Ruscha, Thomas Struth and Bernd and Hilla Becher seem to embody Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as representations of states of order, as ‘other’.  If their images do create another real space as meticulous and well-arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed and jumbled (the laboratory-like perfection of Gursky’s work, the ordered horror of Bas Princen’s Garbage Re-cycling City, or the grid-like empty parking lots of Ed Ruscha’s bookworks), the architectural and ideological relationships between space and power (ironically on show at the Barbican),seem to be lost on the curators.561

Further Links: John Moore’s Painting PrizeRut Blees Luxemburg, John Berger, Place hacking, Andreas Gursky, Berenice Abbott, Thomas Struth, Melanie Klein, paranoid schizoid position