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

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An Arcades Project: Brixton

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An Arcades Project: Brixton

Walter Benjamin, philosopher, cultural theorist, writer and critic wrote about the city through a series of ‘city-scapes’ and ‘urban pen pictures’ – experiments in the representation of the city; a way to represent the momentary and fleeting and contingent. His was a kind of archaeology of the city – its structures of social life, buildings, objects, spaces and configurations of myth. Benjamin’s ‘thought images’ consider the city-as-text: a way of mapping personal history and the objects and traces of the past that modern society threatens to destroy. The memorial, he said, must oppose the propensity for amnesia: to remember those whose struggles and sufferings would otherwise be forgotten.

For Benjamin, living means leaving traces and his accounts of the city – Paris, Berlin, Marseilles, Moscow, Naples – have experience embedded within them. To write of cities involves the writer as part archaeologist, part collector and part detective: to mine the underworld of the urban experience in an excavation project of the discarded debris of space. The city he saw as a continuous ruin, a salvage project through which to reveal the hidden; a space to consider the discarded and marginalized and through which to create a counter-history, unmasking the city as a site of myth where the marginal are empowered.

IMG_6102Benjamin’s ambivalent relationship to the city – as space of overwhelming stimuli and continual source of inspiration, memory and anchor of identity, is also a site of anxiety. In Brixton Market’s arcades – Grenville, Reliance and Market Row –  modernity is also labyrinthine. In the 1960s, Bon Marché was a bustling department store. In the 1970s and 1980s, Villa Road and Railton Road were part of an international movement for alternative living and politics and the history of radicalism in a movement of housing activism and experimental living. With other streets across London such as Prince of Wales Crescent, Tolmers Square, Hornsey Rise and Cornwall Terrace, they were part of a collective utopia, developing urban self-managed communities and skill-sharing through sculpture workshops, communal gardens, bakeries and vegan restaurants. (Steve Platt, A Decade of Squatting).

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An MA student discussed an idea for a project about leaving and arriving:  ‘…and about how I feel a sense of myself.’ The project was about her hair. ‘Black women’s hair is really important to them; something to celebrate and display; part of how we see ourselves.’ She recounted her own history of arriving in Northern Ireland from Ghana with her family when she was 8 and the struggles she had with being the only black person in her class, in her school and in what seemed like the whole of Derry. How she faced ignorance, rudeness and personal affront from people wanting to touch her hair, ask if it was a wig; trying to pull at it, drag at it, stroke it and wonder aloud why her hair yesterday was short, and now it’s long – how come? And generally fixate on it. ‘You see, black women like to create a mystery about their hair and we spend a lot of time over it.  It’s a way of connecting with other black women – we all have our hair in common, and a search for authenticity – what makes us feel ‘real’. I thought I would make my hair speak for itself – give it is own voice. It is as a kind of metaphor for repressed subjecthood, and part of the search for the real me.’ She quotes from Stuart Hall, that matter of ‘becoming’ which belongs to the future as well as the past. ‘Identity’ is a thing which undergoes constant transformation and subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in the recovery of the past, our identities are positioned by the narratives we give them.

 

IMG_6091Amma explained to me the difficulties in finding hairdressers in Derry who understood her hair and what a relief it was to come to London. There do seem to be quite a few hairdressers – illuminated spaces full of people – women – and I was suddenly seeing them everywhere – not only at street level but in other unlikely places – through top floor windows above solicitors’ firms; in a hospital reception area which only seemed open at night, metal shutters rolled down during the day and rendered invisible. These places were all animated with women getting their hair done, no matter, it seemed, what time of day, the weather or circumstances, absorbed, engrossed, oblivious to the outside world, the rain, the dark, the suffering. They seem to radiate warmth and energy, chatter and music, embodying Benjamin’s nature of the everyday: spaces of spontaneity and exuberance. It’s the social architecture of such places, their brilliant light spilling out onto the street, the movement and internal intensity evoked and immersed engagement – the immanence.

There’s a hairdressers opposite Chic N Grillz, the local takeaway, its theatre of life seems always open and full of people. For some, to enter would involve crossing a cultural threshold into an unknown world where fact and fiction, appearance and myth converge and navigation would become difficult.

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Brixton had seemed resistant to change, yet in constant flux; separate from the rest of London with its bland drive to modernity, spreading concrete and erecting towers, establishing new infrastructures of roads, tube and railway networks and ideologies of value. Benjamin denounced such mythic, smug complacency of ‘progress’, seeing it as a mask to hide catastrophe and failed emancipation, where continuous improvement is a signal for the mystifications of capitalism. Ironically, in its Grade 2 listed status, Brixton Market is a constellation of the ‘now’ and the lived: not resistant to newness, but existing in a different kind of order outside chronological time, in the cyclical.  Julie mangoes, Tolly Boy, plantain, Home ‘N’ Fashion, The Wig Bazaar, Candy Fingers, Beauty Africa, Music Temple, Perfection Ventures, dried fish, Golden Penny, Haircraft Body Line, Senovita’s, Amilambi’s, okra, Agik Cash n Carry, Seafood City, Kumasti, Atlantic Silk – compete for your attention, and the comings and goings…the comings and goings. In the covered arcades; in the streets transformed into an interior, in the repetition of goods, there’s a strange anarchic ennui.IMG_6113

‘Mapping’ the city, was for Benjamin, a way to create an ‘interior cartography of subjectivity’. A mirror of this ‘mapping’ was  displayed at a TED –X Brixton event. In Brixton, history overlaps with a palpable humanity in its seething streets: it’s a sense that you are at the heart of things which spool out around you, unpredictable, impassioned, tense. Like Benjamin, we allow ourselves to be enfolded by disorientation through the Market, Coldharbour Lane and the Village, marveling at everyday life as dramatic performance; immersed in a porosity of chance and the use of the senses; losing ourselves within the transience of the improvised – until the next time.

 

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