Utopia London and the Waiting Room of History

Tom Cordells’ film from 2011, Utopia London, opens with an evolutionary tale of London’s cityscape, from its early days of domination by religion to that of finance today. Such stories are often recalled with an air of inevitability to them, and are dependent upon a conception of time as something homogeneous; like a dark empty tunnel with the light of progress perpetually up ahead in the distance. The writer Amit Chaudhauri, remembering a poster that hung on the classroom wall of his private school in Bombay that depicted the evolution of man from homosapien to European man, remarks that the poster gave an impression of history as if could be captured in one sweeping movement, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

What about everything else? Caught in between these points are the trappings of stories and lives that remain untold, or yet to be told. Official historical narratives rub away at these other narratives, removing their tracing marks; yet they remain, as Chaudhauri describes them, in ‘the waiting room of history.’ Time is not indeed a dark, empty tunnel and neither is history, as he writes in his essay for the London Review of Books,

‘Homogeneous’ and ’empty’ are curious adjectives for ‘time’: they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and ‘homogeneous’; streets and rooms might be ’empty’.”

What does it mean to conceive of a a landscape as empty? It is surely these seemingly “empty”, negative non-spaces that are in fact Chaudhuri’s waiting rooms of history; and they are certainly not empty.

History,” writes Arundhati Roy in her novel The God of Small Things, “was like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside. To understand history… we need to go inside and listen to what they’re saying…”

Cordell’s film is an attempt to explore London’s ‘waiting rooms’; the old houses of history (with all the lamps lit, as illustrated by his use of nighttime photography) and examine the time/space that exists between London’s official architectural history—the evolution from religion to capitalist finance.What else happened here?

Like a flâneur, who views the history of the city subversively, deliberately relocating its various meanings and hierarchies, Cordell aims to seek out and ‘decode’ these buildings from the city’s recent past; products of Modernist, utopian ideas that still stand (for now at least) as exceptions to the official evolutionary narrative. This task sounds simple at first, but it is not. The official history of these Modern projects is that they were a failure, doomed somewhat from the start. This history is followed by the desire of some to wipe them off the map, and out of history, completely. The facts of the matter are of course much more complicated, but the task of opposing such existing, dominant assumptions about these projects is challenging.

Upon entering the old house of history, Arundhati Roy warns:

we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we can’t understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by a war. A war that we have won and lost … A war that captures dreams and then re-dreams them. A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves.”

War was in fact a key aspect of Britain’s Modernist project. The buildings reviewed in Utopia London were a proposed response to a national disaster, a reaction to a social imperative that absconded, by absolute necessity, from what was considered to be the needless artifice of precious decades. “Back when Modern still meant new, context was everything,” explains Cordell and his enigmatic use of archive footage points to various origins of modernity around the world.

The Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin witnessed the revolution that was happening in his own country and the architecture it was inspiring from London, where he was living, but his own ambitions to bring such architectural projects to the UK were strictly limited to a ‘penguin utopia.’ In contrast to Russia, from Britain at that time the modern was considered to be a concept for dictating a decorative fashion for the elites rather than a radical template for a new society. However, Finsbury Borough Council, faced with a population dominated by squalid living conditions, later commissioned Lubetkin to devise a plan for their new health centre as part of an ever-pressing problem of how to tackle a desperate social situation of poverty and squalor. The aftermath of the Second World War would further this imperative in Britain’s cities, and Britain’s Modern project gained momentum.

The archive footage from Utopia London appropriately and evocatively contrasts an effervescent energy of bodies literally revolving and twisting around the streets of Moscow in a revolutionary fervour, with glimpses of rubble, devastation and squalor in London. These clips are followed by colourful, friendly and optimistic government archive animations promising a better, nicer life in the British city. This sequence effectively demonstrates the idiosyncrasy of Britain’s Modern movement, which T.J .Clark has referred to as one that preferred a method of brokering with gentility, keeping on favourable terms with the status quo, rather than steaming ahead with a bold new one.

Winston Churchill suppressed the possibility for a revolutionary London like Lubetkin’s once the war was over. This culture of compromise that defines British Modernism is apparent from its buildings, along with the nuances of Britain’s shifting political landscape. These nuances are what form the code of each building, which Cordell engagingly deciphers, as Utopia London‘s narrative unfolds across the decades following the Second World War.

The film contains significant interview footage with seminal architects and follows them back to their buildings as they stand today. Despite meeting the odd resident along the way, very little of the film is in fact reserved for residents. One standout interview with two young men in their rented council flat in Brixton demonstrates the kind of stigma that predominates public opinion of council properties today (‘It’s really nice, once you’re inside, you wouldn’t know it was a council flat’). This stigma might go some way towards an explanation for why there are a limited amount of interviews with residents in Utopia London, but it is still unfortunate that the lives of people living on these estates today is still rather under represented. Then again, this is a film about architecture—about grand ideas and master plans—and a great deal of the original footage shot for the film is dedicated to slick portraits of the buildings themselves at night, city lights reeling around them, emphasizing their certain resilience in face of time’s passing.

Cordells research is impressive. Is he an effective critic as well as an archivist of the British Modernist architectural movement? The narrative and filmic techniques in Utopia London compose a unique space, a filmic non-place, as a site for the re-vision and re-telling of past events and lost ideas in London’s architectural history. It is perhaps only marginally more than a nostalgic or mournful lament for what was, or what might have been. Narratives such as this one that resist dominant political and social ideologies can still maintain a sort of myth of ‘the establishment’ as something wholly determined and unquestionable when they pit master narratives against other master narratives.

Rather like Geoff Dyer’s recent analogy of the squash player that repeatedly insists on slamming the ball against the wall without thinking to question the existence of the wall in the first place, in seeking to replace one grand narrative with another, Cordell perhaps does not get to grips adequately enough with the complex realities of the lives entwined within these super structures. In seeking to establish counter-narratives to the status quo of history, what if we were to resist slamming things against that wall as if it were unshakable and try to do something else? What would that something else be?

Last year I enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s spoken word drama, Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains, with its narrative that revolved around a brutalist 1960s housing estate. A boy who lives there develops a relationship and falls in love with the daughter of the architect who designed the estate and enjoys returning to the place she conceived. This established entwining of lives, between grand designers and tenants, does become gradually loosened over time, as the architect’s daughter goes on to university and meets an up-and-coming architect, a new breed, whom she travels the world and falls in love with. The boy grows up to be a writer and, a romantic at heart, never really forgets his love for the girl. At the end of the story when the estate is slated for demolition, he questions the notion of ownership and the whereabouts of lost ideals. The story was inspired by the Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London, designed by Alison and Peter Smithson. Say Hi to the Rivers and the Mountains is a combination of allegorical lament for the failed idealism of Britain’s Modern project, and a scathing critique of the ensuing cynical consumerism that followed it in the name of progress.

Whilse seeking to decipher ‘hidden’ messages from history, it is worth remembering that all codes are essentially comprised of many complicated fictions; dreamed up dreams, re-dreamt, dreams that we own and are owned by. The young characters from Roy’s The God of Small Things come to learn how “history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws,” and also that it “lurk[s] forever in ordinary things.”

Chaudhauri also describes historicism as something that at once liberates, defines and shackles us in its discriminatory universalism, “the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities. The insight waiting for elaboration… must find the best and, in the positive sense of the word, most opportunistic expositor… that is potentially vast, important and problematic.”

In Utopia London, the process of exposing and decoding the histories that lurk in these neglected, overlooked buildings, exposing them as products of developing political ideologies and social inventions does not reduce the role they have played in the drama of London’s 20th century cultural history so much as it problematises it. Utopia London as a film is a witness to the ideological denigration of these buildings, followed by a rejection of government responsibility for them (there is no money, government-run schemes are insufficient, etc) and the apparently inevitable solution of private investment to fulfill public needs.

Thomas Paine’s famous lines from his pamphlet, Common Sense are poignant here: “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” Today we are faced with a contemporary British culture that has gradually, since Thatcher, seen the ‘right to buy’ normalised in such a way that they appear equal to the rights to safe, clean housing and adequate healthcare. “But,” Paine continues, “the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason,” and Utopia London could not be timelier. Through an his engaging utilisation of the remnants of time passed, Cordell is a worthy and “opportunistic expositor” for the waiting room of London’s socialist architectural history that has been too patient for too long.

Advertisements

Lines of Indistinction: Kafou at Nottingham Contemporary

(The following is a review I wrote for Nottingham Visual Arts in December 2012.)

Hector Hippolyte, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947

Hector Hippolyte, Papa Zaca Papa Ogoun, c.1947

Kafou is the Creole word for “crossroads”, explains Alex Farquharson in his video tour to Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou. It is an important term in African and Haitian belief systems, symbolizing a meeting place between the vertical realm of the spirits and the horizontal realm of humans. It is at this threshold that the boundaries of life and death, visible and invisible become hazy.

“Kafou” in the context of the exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary has another meaning. The story begins, as we are told, in 1940, with the establishment of the Centre’ D’art in Port-au-Prince: the meeting of modern art with Haitian art practice. Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou documents the mutual influence of modern art from Europe and Haitian culture. It also marks the moment Haitian culture met the modern art gallery. The nature of this particular crossroads, and what happened there, is what comes into focus in this exhibition.

In 1976 Brian O’Doherty presented an essay, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, that was the first known attempt to verbalize the developing affects of the modern art gallery space on the production and reception of art. While this endows the object with a sense of worth or value, the art “exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern) there is no time. This eternity gives the gallery a limbolike status; one has to have died already to be there.” This is true, he said, both for the art and the spectators.

A house of the living dead is something you might rather relate to vodou temples than the modern art gallery. The two may be more similar than previously considered. O’Doherty was possibly the first to trace the modern method of display back to ancient histories of religion and the establishment of ritual “ultra-spaces” that facilitated a symbolic connection between heaven and earth through an engagement with objects. Speaking earlier this year, Marina Warner recalled this connection. “Tempus and temple,” she explained, share the same root …They function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings.”

In the modern art gallery, as in a church or temple, the space itself is primary in the process of establishing meaning. O’Doherty believed that the insistent construction of an apparently unchangeable space was an attempt to impose meaning and identity, both in terms of social values and aesthetic. In its over-definition of itself, and resistance to change, modernism purposefully neglects difference. Its rigorous laws separate inside from outside, the eye from the body. With this, “Modernism’s transposition of perception from life to formal values is complete.”

As the years have progressed since the 1970s, the certain distinctions between subject and object have become less tenable. Postmodern criticism was among other interested parties to compromise hierarchies of space/ power/ knowledge. “It would appear”, wrote Harry Garuba in a recent article for E-Flux, that the boundary between Nature and Society, the world of objects and subjects, the material world and that of agency and symbolic meanings, is less certain than the modernist project had decreed.” However these challenges to modernism, in opposing its formalist ideologies, still assumed its knowledge systems to be somewhat unmovable. O’Doherty’s essay was a significant attempt to reflect critically on art-making at the time that manipulated the picture plane and the white cube to varying degrees. But postmodernism’s reactionary tactics tended to assume a dominance in modernism’s strategies. “Contesting its authority is a fine thing,” writes Garuba, in his assay “On Animism, Modernity/ Colonialism and the African Order of Knowledge: Provisional Refelctions,” “but it is much more difficult to overturn its legacies.”

What these commentaries also rather problematically assume is that those who are colonized by modernity are then drawn wholly and inevitably into its regime of knowledge/power. What if the lines are less distinct? Garuba supposes another angle of enquiry: “What are the epistemic legacies of this regime of knowledge, especially in areas of the world … seen as outside of the modern? Have they been largely untouched by the dualist episteme of modernity or have they been captured by it?” This historic survey of visual art from modern Haiti may be an opportunity to consider such negotiations with modernity. Haiti is, after all, the only independent republic to have been formed by a successful slave revolt.

Préfète Duffaut Maitre Carrefour 1951. From the collection of Dr Robert C Bricston, San-Diego.

Préfète Duffaut Maitre Carrefour 1951. From the collection of Dr Robert C Bricston, San-Diego.

Much of the text that accompanies the art works in the exhibition is from essays written by modern or contemporary American or European commentators, all of which express a great admiration for both the art and the artists. Two great quotes appear together next to one painting, Les Generaux (1988) by Madsen Monpriemier. The first from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 reads, “Rid me of those gilded Africans, and we shall have nothing more to wish.” The second, from André Breton, written in the visitor’s book of Centre D’Art in 1948, reads, “Haitian painting will drink the blood of the phoenix. And, with the epaulets of Dessalines, it will ventilate the world.” Placed side by side like this, these quotes represent the kind of mutual fear and awe felt by foreign observers of Haiti’s vodou culture. Vodou had a defining role in Napoleon’s defeat, the independence of slaves and the establishment of Haiti. For Breton, as a founding member of the surrealist movement, Haitian art quite possibly represented radical forms of artistic expression.

Truman Capote found the work of Haitian painter and vodou priest Hector Hippolyte admirable for its unwillingness to compromise, “there is nothing in his art that had been slyly transposed, he is using what lives within himself, and that is his country’s spiritual history”. It would seem that the transposing quality of Modernism described by O’Doherty was not a complete process when crossed with Haitian art, but its influence is still felt, albeit very selectively. As I walked around this show I could not fully distinguish what might have been a surrealist influence on the Haitian artist, or the signs of an influence upon surrealism. Farquharson himself also makes reference to Matisse in describing one of Hippolyte’s paintings, and the comparison is very clear. Hippolyte painted on pieces of board with enamel paint. His paintings, along with the others that are on display in this room, combine a kind of narrative history painting with the presence of vodou mysticism, in what appears to be a unique collection of spiritual history painting.

The paintings of Préfète Duffaut in Gallery 2 adopt a curious negotiation with another modernist pictorial technique. He brings a unique geometric form and symmetry to his symbolic depictions of vodou lwa, with bright colours. I am left thinking that, in response to Harry Garuba’s enquiry—whether cultures considered non-modern have been untouched by modernity or captured by it—when it comes to Haitian art there is no straight answer either way.

O’Doherty identified an established tendency in the modern art of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to isolate works, excising them from their context, the living world and beyond. Reality, however, does not always conform to rules of etiquette. Meanwhile, the vernacular art practices of the time were surpassing themselves and transgressing their established habitats. Memento mori photographs incorporating symbolic gestures of hair or jewels, predated Symbolism and Surrealism, and ultimately caught the eye of these movements. Similar magical, symbolic gestures in Haitian art similarly inspired them.

While many scholars have considered art as a matter of representation and communication, the anthropologist Alfred Gell saw visual art as a form of instrumental action: the making of things as a means of influencing the thoughts and actions of others, intended to make an impact upon social life. Artworks are social agents that perform a social role. Gell also recommended that anthropological understandings of art from countries other than their own should be applied to the contemporary art of anthropologists’ home countries

In an essay for the London Review of Books Marina Warner considered the work of Damien Hirst in this manner. Concerning his most recent piece “For the Love of God”—a diamond-encrusted skull—, Hirst declared “I just want to celebrate life by saying to hell with death.” Warner concedes that Hirst’s “limitations as an artist are bound up with the transparency – you could say the obviousness – of his symbolism.” Apart from this obviousness, she also attributes this short-falling to Hirst’s individualism as an artist, the influences of the modern gallery space and the financial markets on his production.

For effective communication and personal expression though symbols, Warner argues, there is a need for mutual exchange between the art and its community. A mutual exchange is necessarily a dialogue. The agency enacted by an artist is rarely self-sufficient; it is not simply a ‘product’ or end-point of an action, but rather an extension of the artist received by others. Rather than being too literal, anticipating their own redundancy in the process, artworks should tantalize, even frustrate the viewer for dialogue to occur. The most oblique, perhaps most exciting, paintings in this regard are those made by the Sans Soleil artists, an isolated community living in the mountains of Port-au-Prince, who were both guided by avant garde principles and yet protected from the market value buzzing around the modern art gallery. In their work contorted and obscure figures swirl around in abstract space. They are somehow neither directly representative nor symbolic of anything in particular.

In his books Art and Agency, Gell argued that aesthetic appreciation alone is insufficient for understanding art, as he believed it failed to engage with the specificity of art objects themselves. But you don’t have to become an anthropologist in order to engage with art in this way. Kafou’s co-curator Leah Gordon was quick to explain in a recent gallery talk that she is not an anthropologist, that she offers no definitive explanations to the practices of Haitian vodou, and that her engagement with the vodou art of Haiti comes from her point of view as an artist. Yet her excellent film in the final gallery space of this exhibition adopts an anthropological approach that follows Haitian art practice to its place of production, predominantly the ghettoes in the cities of Haiti. The sculptures seen in this context seem to possess a liveliness and vitality that is somehow missing here in the gallery. Here again we see the lines of distinction between disciplines productively blurred.

In her film, Gordon visits an art gallery in the heart of one of Haiti’s ghettoes. The man who owns this gallery remarks on the importance of this space to his community. Spaces for art, after all, are still desirable, but what defines them is more open to question; who uses them and how is crucial. Garuba observes Marx’s idea of the commodity as both a material object and a “mysterious thing” simultaneously. He then remarks that, instead of opposing one, or defending one against the other, this co-presence must be recognized for the possibility of a genuinely alternative order of knowledge to emerge; understanding the world not as if it were already a dead object for analysis, but as something vital and alive.

There is one particular painting in this exhibition by Wilson Bigaud from 1952 that depicts a beach scene. The vodou lwa Larisen is advancing from the sea towards the beach. The intensity of this presence is causing bathers to flee in panic. One figure remains kneeling on the sand, facing the lwa, with an easel in his lap and a brush in hand. Not only does this seem to suggest how difficult the task of pictorially representing vodou is, but also how brave and bold an effort it is to attempt to do so. It is this painting that therefore seems paradigmatic of this exhibition as a whole. There is a risk at the crossroads: you cannot know for sure whether the kafou will let through good or bad spirits. Even if it inevitably upholds certain epistemic structures of modern knowledge production (in the white cube), this exhibition is a bold move, and very compelling.

Vodou is “the one thing foreigners don’t know about,” proclaims the Haitian artist in his interview for Gordon’s film. If they did then Haiti would have fallen long ago. While this may well be the case, Kafou: Haiti, Art & Vodou is testament to a moment when foreign artists came to Haiti and were enchanted.

Strange Art for Strange Times: Metaphors for Subobjectivity

41d1X53hEKLI had an inspiring couple of hours in Modern Art Oxford last week. First of all there was the Documenting Cadere show, which throws up some interesting art-historical questions regarding the documentation of performance art and the significance of Cadere’s practice to contemporary discourse on art and the politics of space. But what was most satisfying about the visit for me was the sale on old art catalogues that was happening in the shop.

Amongst the piles was Registration Marks: Metaphors for Subobjectivity, a catalogue from 1992 that accompanied an exhibition of paintings by Adam Lowe at the Pomeroy Purdy Gallery. It includes essays from Adrian Cussins, Brian Cantwell Smith and Bruno Latour and is a product of intense discussions between these diverse adademic writers and Lowe regarding “how we register a world…where we can no longer assume as given edges, boundaries, objects and truth.” Marina Warner cites this catalogue in the bibliography for her book Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media in the Twenty-First Century. This is the earliest publication I have come across that documents such interdisciplinary conversations regarding new approaches to objectivity from the end of modernity.

As for the “Metaphors for Subobjectivity”, I found the majority of the metaphors used to describe such abstract ideas a little far-fetched, awkward or tenuous (or sometimes just corny). The collection of paintings entitled  The Verso Paintings are the result of a process whereby the artist used a technique of relief printing to add and expose different layers in the canvas. These are the various “registration marks” referred to in the first half of the catalogue’s title. It is also difficult to ascertain to what extent Lowe’s paintings are in fact a parallel investigation, in a physical and visual language, to the concerns of these theorists from looking at these catalogue reproductions of the paintings alone.

When the metaphors do deliver the goods however it makes for exciting reading. What I found makes this catalogue so interesting is the degree of enthusiasm from all the contributors, working together in a still-emerging field of research. “This catalogue represents an opening move, not an end-game,” writes Lowe. Freed up from the burden of academic qualifications in their individual disciplines, the writers are permitted to pursue more experimental, rhetorical language that makes this an enjoyable read. “We sediment out as individuals and communities,” writes Cantwell Smith, “in virtue of the blends of connection and disconnection that endlessly well up and subside.”

Here we see Bruno Latour setting out his ideas of “irreduction” and the “non-modern” that would be published in more detail in his essay We Have Never Been Modern in the same year.

We might have another choice between moderns and antimoderns. Time might have never flowed in an orderly manner after all. Radical revolutions demoting for ever the past might never have occurred at all. We live in a strange time. Everything seems worn out, everywhere commanded by the jaded. But still there exist many people who have the fresh feeling of living in a renaissance. The world is so old that there is nothing new to paint, to write or to sing, and it is so young crisp that we seem not to have even started. After having fought the tyranny of religion, that of science, that of academicism, that of patronage and than that of their own free wills, the completely autonomised and completely emptied arts suddenly grasp again at the most forbidden of all fruits, reality.

How should this new non-modern reality appear? Latour offers an oblique manifesto for the non-modern by way of conclusion:

Is it possible to paint without imitating the apparent synthesis of the past, without fighting against the supposed tyrany of scientific representation, without reproducing in a nostalgic or symbolic way the re-presentation of religion? Such a painting would not fight for autonomy – since autonomisation has ended its historical course into nothingness – but it would not be subservient either – since the patronage of the pious had disappeared along with the dictats of the cognoscente. Such a painting would not evade objectivity but would attempt at grasping the many other ways in which objects are slowly produced – and the classic representation so beautifully illustrated by Velasquez’s Meninas (as commented Foucault) would become only one of the many degrees of subobjectivity. It would be realist but the shape of reality would appear strange since, once the tyranny of the philosophy of science was removed, many other intermediary stages would become visible. It would be religious but none of the traditional characters of past religion would be visible since new mediators would appear that would recreate here and now the re-presentation of presence – and not by alluding to the figuration of angels, virgins and Christs. Strange painting indeed since it would regrasp and retackle all the things that artists have learned in schools and in studios to despise and hate: reality, science, religion, tradition, heteronomy! And nevertheless it would have no direct affiliation with the figuration of the past. Non-modern would that painting be.

Strange art for strange times; the idea is confusing and yet somewhat confirming. It registers an impetus to look at the world again, to mix things up and look at it differently.

Cacophonies of Confrontation in Artur Żmijewski’s Democracies (2009)

‘Well, you can measure results, but you can’t measure what is causing them. You can do statistics, but how can you measure what is individual?’ asks Max in Nicholas Mosely’s Hopeful Monsters.

Artur Żmijewski (b. 1966 in Warsaw) has since 2009 been assembling video footage of people in giving their opinions in public spaces around the world for his Democracies. It was last shown earlier this year in its most substantial form yet at the Hartware MedienKunstVerein in Dortmund, Germany, consisting of 25 short video films documenting various manifestations of public opinion, shown simultaneously in the gallery space. Here is Dr Inke Arns, curator at Hartware MedienKunstVerein describing the installation:

And here is a sample of the work from when it was shown at the Cornerhouse in Manchester in 2009:

It is surely a more ‘realistic version of politics’, that Bruno Latour might approve of, but the installation is not exactly enjoyable; it is noisy, disorientating and even distressing at times to watch. It puts eloquent political rally speeches indiscriminately alongside acts of violence or expressions of uncomfortable opinions. It is both a representation and an enactment of struggle: the struggle to hear and to be heard, the struggle to see and to ignore what we don’t want to see. That would be democracies then: having once been a theoretical system of reasoned education, democracy is now an incoherent cacophony of chaos.

And what of the role of the camera in all of this? In Democracies the camera appears at once to be a helpful facilitator and an agent provocateur in political struggles. Determining which one it is would depend upon, among a number of things,the presence or absence of what Ariella Azoulay calls, a ‘discerning spectator’. In The Civil Contract of Photography, she surveys various photographs of Palestinians in Israel, reconsidering the political and ethical status of photography, asking, ‘what do these pictures want from me?’

All the video clips in Democracies are each of individual interest. Headphones are provided, inviting a discerning spectator to focus on each clip at their own discretion to see what’s going on more closely; to visit and revisit places; to compare without conflating the individual events in the exhibition. In addressing the expressions of others through these images, Azoulay argues that a spectator can become a citizen in a citizenry of photography. This requires the kind of time and patience that, even if the gallery allows for, everyday life perhaps doesn’t.

The hope that conflict and differences could be flattened out under modernization, or controlled by the power of civilizing projects, or wiped out by technological advancement has long been dashed. The problem that poses as the solution, proposed by Żmijewski ‘s Democracies, is to somehow create new institutions for nurturing new pluralisms, alternative citizenships, in an environment that might cope with the growth of the paradoxes that globalization confronts us with, and that we are increasingly forced to confront whether we would like to or not.

Restless Spaces

I shall soon be commencing research on a piece entitled ‘Upstairs Downstairs: Notes from the 168 Bus’ for the new Ideastap anthology, New Cartography. To get me started, some reading of other writings about the modern city:

From ‘Imaging’ in Restless Cities (Verso 2010):

I came to rely less and less on anything resembling the experiential phenomena of Surrealism and became increasingly uncertain about their political significance. Exceptional moments of natural light seemed to offer similar conceptual transformations, and produced better pictures; for many who work with photographic media, the weather is not merely analogous with a state of mind.”

Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre á l’usage des jeunes génerations (1983 translation by Nicolson-Smith):

Though not everything affects me with equal force, I am always faced with the same paradox: no sooner do I become aware of the alchemy worked by my imagination upon reality than I see what reality reclaimed and borne away by the uncontrollable river of things”.

The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre:

the fact is that the space that contains the realized preconditions of another life is the same one as prohibits what those preconditions make possible

Patrick Keiller again:

I wondered if the prohibition that Lefebvre identifies is something suspended within the spaces of a film, and, if so, whether this might explain some of the attraction, and the seemingly utopian quality, of so much film space, and why some people are willing to devote so much time and effort to making films.’

Henri Lefebvre, again:

‘The fact is that around 1910 a certain space was shattered. It was the space of common sense, of knowledge (savoir), or social practice, of political power, a space thitherto enshrined in everyday discourse, just as in abstract thought, as the environment of and channel for communications; the space, too, of classical perspective and geometry, developed from the Renaissance onwards on the basis of the Greek tradition (Euclid, logic) and bodied forth in Western art and philosophy, as in the form of the city and the town . . . Euclidean perspective space have disappeared as systems of reference, along with other former ‘commonplaces’ such as the town, history, paternity, the tonal system in music, traditional morality, and so forth. This was truly a crucial moment’

Finally, Patrick Keiller again:

In 2008, cycling along Harrow Road, I did not encounter any explosion of the ‘intense forces of atmosphere’ that are undoubtedly concealed there; but unexpected memories of earlier discoveries, at a time when it seemed possible that a dysfunctional economic orthodoxy was finally collapsing, suggested that such experiences still have some value.”

Still Looking: “the meaning and enigma of visibility itself.”

In 2011, a BBC program called, The Horizon Guide: Moon,[1] claimed to be a celebration of ‘man’s relationship with the Moon.’ It featured footage from the BBC’s first live television feed that recorded the first man to go to space and return safely to Russian soil. The blurred image of a man stepping out of a plane was accompanied by commentary from a news reporter in the studio. However, the reporter was more concerned with the giant propeller on the plane, moving right in front of his eyes, in real time, from thousands of miles away. The sensation of that moment seemed to have taken precedence over the man from space walking down the steps in front of the propeller.

The relationship that the presenter of The Horizon Guide, Brian Cox, enthused over as being, ‘man’s relationship with the Moon’, is an indirect one. A story about our direct relationship with the Moon should perhaps start by looking out of a window. However, even that would be a mediation of sorts, for windows also have frames and glass. What this program was really documenting was our direct relationship with pictures. It documents how millions of people around the world remember where they were when they saw the first man on the moon, looking at flickering pictures on the surface of a box, while their backs were turned to the night sky.

         This error on the part of the programme’s makers was not merely on account of naivety, but illustrative of the fact that the significance of pictures in the formation of our relationships with the world around us is as taken for granted today as it was when John Berger began writing on the subject in the 1960s. From the groundbreaking TV series Ways of Seeing to date, Berger has continued to challenge the way we perceive the world as it is in pictures through his passionate and intelligent essay writing. He transcends the disciplinary boundaries that ordinarily compartmentalize the visual aspect of culture and its affects in order to address, ‘the meaning and enigma of visibility itself.’


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00llgs8 [last accessed 24/ 08/ 11]