Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms: ‘Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities’

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

‘The city is an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than a simple material product’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968).

tom-paint-cans

When the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre called for ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 book, Le Droit à la ville, he was not making the case for the redistribution of urban property. Instead, he was advocating the democratic right of the people to participate in and to appropriate the city as oeuvre (artwork). By this he meant that the ideal city, for him, would be one that is worked perpetually by its inhabitants and that this process of inhabiting (in other words making and re-making the city) would take priority over consuming ready-made cityscapes (or habitats). The city he evokes (and which he describes as the properly urban) is a working site, characterised by disequilibrium, unpredictability, desire and encounter, a place that survives ‘in the fissures of planned and programmed order’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 129). It is a space of untold possibilities, in which the meaning of what is and what can be remains (perpetually) at stake. By contrast, capitalist logic forecloses the possibility of making new meanings in and of the city. It transforms the use value of the city into exchange value, concealing the emancipatory plasticity of the site with the hard signs and values of profit. In the capitalist city, the inhabitant, the user of the city, is instead conceived as a consumer of signs, a client to be kept happy. The city as a place of consumption, Lefebvre reminds us, goes hand in hand with this idea of the consumption of place.

As Fredric Jameson famously reminded us, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envisage the end of capitalism. Lefebvre applies similar thinking to the capitalist city, noting that we often perceive it as being ‘as full as an egg or as an entirely written page’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 104), a physical and ideological space in which there is little or no opportunity for us to intervene or make significant change. Certainly, it seems that all too often the only ‘wiggle room’ we’re able to imagine for ourselves remains contained within dominant ideological structures.

For example, in Britain, it seems that we find it very difficult to imagine the city centre as anything other than ‘the high street’. It’s true that shops have, historically, influenced the morphological structure of our city centres. Their streets and architecture were constructed for the purpose of trade and a whole social structure grew up around the actions of browsing, buying, conversing and taking refreshment between purchases. Still today, street furniture and the layout of pedestrianized areas point to shopping as a key factor in city centre design and planning. However, the economic crisis, the rise of online shopping and other factors including the number of available car parking places and the proliferation of out-of-town malls have together produced a sharp downturn in the numbers of consumers who choose to shop on the high street. Since 2007, nearly 300 major UK retailers have gone under (affecting almost 2500 stores) and countless small businesses have closed their doors. Between 2009-2011, city centre vacancy rates doubled. What we’ve inherited, then, on the high street is a form that is increasingly without function, and yet literally set in stone.

There’s a left-right consensus in government that as much as possible must be done to keep city centre shops open. Money has been made available through some high-profile schemes to ‘re-think the high street’ and despite the introduction in 2014 of a new PDR (permitted development right) it still remains difficult to convert retail properties into residential accommodation, the thinking being that the latter doesn’t create long-term jobs and salaries. Mary Portas, who headed up a review commissioned by government in 2011, described its aims thus: ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’. In other words (and this is underscored by the first of the review’s five headline recommendations – that town centres should be ‘run like businesses’), the point for her is that the means of producing capital might need to change, but capital as an end remains unchanged. It seems also that even many ‘grassroots’ initiatives to re-think and re-make our city centres also remain grounded in doing retail, even if they are claim to be doing retail differently. The glut of ‘alternative’ pop-up shops, window displays by local artists and other ‘meanwhile’ solutions, all of which shore up the premise that this is but an economic hiatus, neither challenge the neoliberal status quo or respond usefully and creatively to the irrefutable downturn in city centre shopping. Instead, they paper over the cracks of a socio-economic model that requires not so much an aesthetic sticking plaster as a radical structural overhaul. The ideology of consumption – that is, the idea of the city centre as a space to be consumed and a space in which to consume – remains intact.

So what should we make of Lefebvre’s call for the city to be inhabited as oeuvre? As artwork? In fact, the connection between art and the modern capitalist city is a difficult and ambivalent one. In the nineteenth century, while the Impressionists embarked on their radical attempt to capture something of the fleeting, rapidly changing quality of industrialising cities such as Paris and London, Baron Haussmann – the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ responsible for dramatically re-making the urban fabric of the French capital – commissioned photographers to make propagandistic ‘before and after’ images that would be used to persuade the people of Paris of the social usefulness of an initiative born largely, in fact, of military, political and financial interests. Similarly today, art is harnessed to the needs of the regenerating, branded city. Artists, when they are not asked to work for free, are offered financial incentives to package and sell their practice as product to the public and private corporations who manage our cityscapes. ‘Percentage for art’ schemes variously request or require of developers of residential, commercial and public space a small percentage of their overall budget for the purposes of commissioning art that will be publicly sited. This is perceived as ‘adding value’ to regeneration and ‘enriching’ urban space. Artists are also employed to work with communities whose landscapes are being transformed or ‘regenerated’, with a view to encouraging the latter’s ‘buy-in’ to the project and reinforcing the illusion that they have some creative say in what is happening. Beyond these funded opportunities, there are also, of course, invitations to sell artworks in pop-up shops and galleries, or make street art, or window displays in the now defunct retail spaces described just a moment ago… And then, at another level again, there’s the infamous ‘Bilbao effect’. Every city worth its salt wants a contemporary art space (with gift shop attached) that draws in the tourists, drives the economy, draws inward investment and renews the urban fabric, though since the crisis of 2008 art’s magical effects can of course no longer be guaranteed…

Writing in the middle of the last century, Lefebvre was alert to the dangers of art’s problematic complicity in the top-down meaning making of the capitalist city, yet also keenly aware of its critical and creative potential. He writes:

To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art. This parody of the possible is a caricature. Rather, [we argue] that time-spaces become works of art and that former art reconsiders itself as source and model of appropriation of space and time.(Lefebvre, 1996: p. 173)

Through this prism, art is re-conceived as ‘a capacity to transform reality, to appropriate at the highest level the facts of the “lived”, of time, space, the body and desire’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 164). The space-time of the city, rather than being endured or accepted with passive resignation (ibid, pp. 156-157), becomes the very material from which the properly urban might be sculpted. In other words, the city itself should be understood as a plastic object, the consistency, form and texture of which are at one level determined by what has been, yet the stakes and future of which remain open to (re)appropriation by its inhabitants. It is in this sense, and in contrast to the ‘full egg’ model of the capitalist city, that Lefebvre perceives a gap between the fact of the city and its practice. To inhabit the city is, for Lefebvre, synonymous with critical art practice; it involves interrogating, and more specifically denaturalising, what is and, consequently,what it seems must follow, by exposing their radical contingency. To inhabit the city, in other words, is to imagine that all this might be otherwise.

paint-can-design

The works made in the context of the Foundry project share a common interest in reconfiguring the fact of the city, its objects, sounds and signs. For example, in Is this not a wasteland? Richard Ward destabilises dominant urban taxonomies and re-opens the hermeneutic complexity of ‘wasteland’, which is in fact a discursive ideological production, to other configurations of interpretation and intervention. The compositions sculpted from ordinary and everyday sounds found on and near the Furnace Park site can be heard through listening posts engineered by Thom Wilson, Sam Varcoe and Ben Wadsworth. With ingenuity and craftsmanship they extracted empty paint tins from the cycle of consumption and obsolescence to re-make them as conductors of sound. Similarly, David McLeavy’s stark images decontextualize objects found at Furnace Park. These empty cans of spray paint, rusting padlocks and photocells, along with the lumps of industrial stuff that we simply cannot identify, are a reflection on the processes of production, releasing the labour and forces embedded in the commodity of the ‘steel city’. An archive of the obsolete, McLeavy makes no recommendation as to what use this archive might be put, other than inviting us to contemplate its possibilities.

gabriel-paint-cans

Lefebvre, as we have seen, describes a gap between the fact of the city and its practice, between what the city is and what we make of it (literally and conceptually). This gap, for him, is the space of politics, agency and engagement; it is the space in which we might deflect time’s arrow, interrupting the ‘natural progress’ of capitalism’s logic and recalibrating what we are made to understand is possible and impossible. This deflection, or interruption, is how we have interpreted the political valence of détournement and derive. The event of art institutes a space for thought, a critical distance from what is, and – very simply – creates the conditions for exploring impossibilities.

‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time, peoples this space’. (Deranty, 2014: p. 23).

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms, 2015.

An essay written to accompany our work shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk Gallery, Sheffield, UK), July-August 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Deranty, Jean-Philippe, Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2014).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1996).

Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

Alice Howells on the Russian soul and its capital cities

“Russia, as befits its divided soul, had two capital cities.” Sidney Monas’ contentious statement, from a commentary on Moscow and Saint Petersburg as cultural symbols, begins the debate surrounding the two cities. Does Russia have a divided soul? If so, where does this divide lie, and do Moscow and Saint Petersburg truly represent bisected halves of the Russian soul?

Continue reading “Alice Howells on the Russian soul and its capital cities”

Chris Leffler on Jeux d’espace: Playing with de Certeau in Dishonored’s Dunwall

On 23 October 2015, I presented my paper, ‘Jeux d’espace: Playing with de Certeau in Dishonored’s Dunwall’, at the French Media Research Group conference ‘French & Francophone Videogames/Videogaming‘. You may find the abstract and full text of the paper below.

Abstract: Dishonored by Lyon-based developer Arkane Studios represents one of the most financially and critically successful games of 2012. Particularly praised is the game’s landscape, and the design of the fictional metropolis of Dunwall by Sebastien Mitton (collaborator on Bioshock 2’s Rapture) and Viktor Antonov (designer of Half Life 2’s City 17) creates a Victorian-inspired steampunk dystopia that is both darkly realist and artistically stylised. Through a variety of settings, from fortresses to sewers, the player must direct the protagonist Corvo, using superhuman powers to traverse this complex space.

Whilst videogames are increasingly studied across a range of disciplines, the spaces constructed therein remain underexplored. In this paper, therefore, I will examine the implications of reading the relationship between player and space in Dishonored (2012) alongside de Certeau’s ‘Pratiques d’espace’ (1990). I will begin by demonstrating the possibilities afforded an interpretation of Dishonored by de Certeau’s work, drawing on his understanding of urban spatio-temporal hybridity in my approach to Dunwall. Yet I will also suggest that the game’s designers playfully flout de Certeau’s theorisation in order to rewrite his understanding of our relationship with the urban landscape; from one in which the city and the individual are hermetically distinct, and narratives traced through its spaces leave no indelible mark, to one in which their interaction is necessarily inter-affective and mutually constitutive, irreversibly altering their respective natures. Thus, Corvo’s actions leave their mark on the city, rendering it increasingly more menacing, which consequently restructures the protagonist’s story-line as the city responds to his actions. The result is a narrative that is open to multiple endings, produced in a spatially that is both written and yet to be written, and I will conclude my paper with a brief reflection on the implications of this reading for cities more widely, both virtual and non-virtual.

Original image by Nordlicht at Deviant Art. Copyright Bethesda.

Continue reading “Chris Leffler on Jeux d’espace: Playing with de Certeau in Dishonored’s Dunwall”

Michael Henderson: Thoughts on David Harvey’s Rebel Cities

What I take as a given is that we live in a political world where those who have power use that power to protect and enhance their own positions, and this is clearly an underlying assumption of Harvey’s Marxist interpretation. [If you doubt this assumption you can find detailed evidence for the UK situation, where the gap between rich and poor has been growing over the last forty years, in Jones’s The Establishment (2015)].

This basic assumption implies that collective action is needed to challenge the powerful, but the definitions of who has power and who does not are contentious, and discussion of a right to the city suggests that the inhabitants of a city should all have a right to urban life, which Harvey extends to include a right to the “production of space”.

Image result for david harvey rebel cities

However Harvey is keen to distinguish between the narrow perspective of “factory workers” as those who should be able to exercise a right to the city, to cover more broadly the urban working class; this leaves unresolved the question of how to identify those who are within this definition and those who are excluded; rich investment bankers who do work long hours in city offices might not be the people Harvey has in mind, but more broadly he seems to exclude those who accept neo-liberal ideas about profit and private property (and capitalists are defined, of course, as the outgroup). He does not quite spell out what he sees as the defining characteristics of a capitalist but he comments (p 93) that “every capitalist seeks to persuade consumers of the unique and non-replicable qualities of their commodities”.

If there is to be any prospect of people collectively being able to “make and re-make ourselves and our cities” achieving some degree of consensus on process and on outcomes is essential, and very challenging. Even if some democratic openness about choosing between possible developments can be made to work across the urban working class, power to make things happen is far less achievable than power to stop things which are rejected by a majority. (What gets imposed on a minority remains an issue.)

An important argument that Harvey puts forward is that capitalism fails because it depends on continuing economic expansion. He discusses the attempts to address what he defines, following Marx, as the “capital surplus disposal problem” and suggests that major urban restructuring, like Haussmann’s work in Second Empire Paris (covered in more detail in Harvey, 1985) was primarily intended to use capital. In Chapter 2 he looks closely at a number of similar situations where neoliberal freeing up of planning to allow wealthy investors to reconstruct the city environment is seen as stimulating economic growth (though, of course, often at an enormous human cost). Although he sees the following slow-downs or crashes as crises of capitalism the richest in society seem to cope pretty well (interestingly depicted too in Zola’s L’argent). Harvey recognises too the inevitability of financiers preferring to save developers from bankruptcy rather than protecting individual house purchasers (p 48).

Discussion of re-configuring cities seems to relate essentially to very large cities, and this re-inforces the idea that substantial capital investment is needed in order to make a noticeable difference; how capital is controlled may be as important as establishing meaningful ways of judging what people want from the cities they live in. (The neoliberal model of treating people as customers and basing need on what people are able and willing to pay is, of course, largely irrelevant here.) Swift (2014) argues that “We desperately need to be able to redirect finance … away from paper speculation … towards alternative projects of sustainability that would support democratic degrowth” (p 150) and he offers some specific suggestions on democratically controlled investment institutions that could be part of a solution. However Harvey might have little sympathy for such suggestions as he comments negatively on the French “dirigiste state”, though his later discussion of the Meidner plan to tax corporate profits to create worker control of businesses is more sympathetic.

Harvey says little to recognise that individual life cycles vary enormously so people’s goals and what they want and expect from or within their cities are not constant or consistent. However he is very dismissive of suburbia, partly, it seems, on the grounds that this is a choice made by the outgroup who are definitely not the urban working class.

Harvey does seem to see protest movements as having significant success, and in this respect he has common ground with David Graeber coming from a rather different, anarchist, perspective. This leads on to the question of whether urban protests have a specifically urban character, and this is not necessarily the case in relation to some of the broadest protests e.g. anti-war demonstrations in 2003 widely supported by people from outside major cities travelling to take part.

In Part 2 Harvey gives more emphasis to ways forward, and these include:

  1. Recognising that anti-poverty goes with anti-wealth;
  2. Adopting lifestyle changes to recognise environmental needs’
  3. Rejecting the emphasis on economic growth (like Swift’s support for degrowth).

Artefacts that demonstrate investment -driven reconfiguring of the city may be easy to identify. It may be rather more challenging to find and analyse artefacts which have been created through collective re-invention as these are likely to be smaller local changes rather than city-wide or large-scale.

Graeber, David (2012) Debt: the first 5,000 years, New York, Melville House

Harvey, David (1985)Consciousness and the urban experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell

Harvey, David (2013)Rebel cities, London, Verso

Jones, Owen (2014) The Establishment, London, Penguin

Swift, Richard (2014) SOS Alternatives to Capitalism, Oxford, New Internationalist

Zola, Emile (1891/1969) L’Argent, Paris, Garnier

 

Ross Smith on social identity in the Metro

When people describe a city’s construction in its simplest sense, they tend to discuss the architecture, the way in which the streets and roads intersect, the way nature is embedded within the urban infrastructure to take away from the far too often grey and industrial skyline. All of these things create a social identity and a sense of belonging to said particular city. What doesn’t often get discussed, however, is how the formation of the city from below creates a social identity. A huge advancement in the structure of the city is the construction of the undergrounds. Metros, subways, undergrounds (or whatever you wish to call them) become fundamental in the everyday life of modern society and can be seen as a source of identity. Moreover, they have become marketable to general public as a tourist attraction so their iconicity can be seen in souvenir shops throughout the cities in which they reside.

ross-1 Continue reading “Ross Smith on social identity in the Metro”

Julia Dobson on Dominique Cabrera & the stigmatised communities of Val Fourré

Abstract: Dominique Cabrera’s oeuvre attests to a consistent preoccupation with the representation and construction of a bonheur collectif. Through a detailed analysis of two documentary films, Chronique d’une banlieue ordinaire (1992) and Demain et encore demain (journal 1995) (1997), this article will reveal her adoption of the documentary as a therapeutic form in opposition to dominant Griersonian modes of documentary that counter the potential empowerment of representation with the conferral of victimhood on its subjects. Cabrera’s films avoid such heritages through their insistence on a formal mise en abyme of documentary processes to perform a réinsertion sociale of the stigmatized communities of Val Fourré and a moving réinsertion temporelle of the filmmaker herself in the first-person confessional Demain et encore demain. This mise en abyme includes a meditation on the ontology of the photographic image and its pervasive relationship with mortality; both films sensitize their audience to the relationship between image, time and narrative. Such arguments are presented within the context of the dramatic increase in production of (first-person) documentary in contemporary France and the current crisis of legitimization in the conventional documentary form.

Read the full article here.

Chris Leffler on ‘The Image Speaks’

Through the course of the last academic year, I had the privilege of being involved in ‘The Image Speaks‘. Collaborating with photographer Andy Brown, myself and nine other PhD students from across the Faculty of Arts and Humanities produced a series of original images that visually depicted an aspect of our research. These were curated in an exhibition in the foyer of Jessop West (opened on 22 February 2016) alongside short captions explaining their significance, and this was accompanied by a brochure containing lengthier essays on our chosen subjects.

20160928_091435

In my contribution, Andy and I decided to create a triptych of images based on Castle Square in central Sheffield. Our intention was to demonstrate that a diversity of memories underpin what appears to be an unremarkable tram stop; presenting the contemporary location alongside archival images of the Hole in the Road and Hyde Park flats, we sought to illustrate how multiple times and spaces are interwoven within the single site. This was expanded upon in my essay and caption, in which I used archival research and information from a local historian to complicate this story further.

I found the experience of the ‘The Image Speaks’ project highly rewarding, and not simply because of the quality of the output, for which I cannot thank Andy enough. The process of the project challenged me to work in ways that were new to me, and to present them in a medium other than the academic writing I am used to. In this blog, therefore, I want to focus less on my contribution to the exhibition (which you can see for yourself in the brochure), and more on how it has benefited my wider work.

Continue reading “Chris Leffler on ‘The Image Speaks’”

Guy de Maupassant, Will Self, the Eiffel Tower and the Shard

occursus

This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Point of View featured a fascinating disquisition by British novelist Will Self on the state of contemporary urban planning. Opening with Guy de Maupassant’s sardonic reflections on the Eiffel Tower (see below) and the unfettered view afforded by his London home of Renzo Piano’s Shard, Self develops an argument that takes in Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities, Le Corbusian modernism and Owen Hatherley’s perspicacious critique of the boosterist architecture that produces our cities’ dazzling skylines and has the demerit of functioning as both icon and logo.

You can listen to the podcast of Self’s talk here.

Tour_Eiffel_1878 Source : http://expositions.bnf.fr/universelles
Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

J’ai quitté Paris et même la France, parce que la tour Eiffel finissait par m’ennuyer trop.

Non seulement on la voyait de partout, mais on la trouvait partout, faite de toutes les matières connues, exposée à toutes les vitres, cauchemar inévitable et torturant. Ce…

View original post 496 more words

Maxime Goergen on Zola’s pastoral city

Paris, the last volume of the Three Cities trilogy by Émile Zola (1898), is both a utopian rewriting of Paris’ romantic myth as well as an attempt to make sense of, and go beyond, the city’s revolutionary past. This article explores how Zola’s novel uses specific metaphoric fields (the field, the machine) and intertexts to symbolically transform the urban space into an abstract principle of progress, resulting in a pastoral and scientific dematerialization of the city.

Read the full article here.

Dr Maxime Goergen is a lecturer in French Studies at the University of Sheffield.