Dérive and Psychogeography: Situationist practices of urban space
Editor: Sumita Chakravarty
With the movement of the world’s population to cities from rural hinterlands (it is estimated that by the year 2030, sixty percent of the world’s population will be urban dwellers), it is small wonder that the city has come to occupy the forefront of critical consciousness today. At once the site of dire prognostications about the coming apocalypse, as witnessed in the cinematic destruction of iconic cities like New York, and the beacon of hope for countless employment seekers across the globe, the city in the twenty-first century is the literal and figurative hub of culture-in-the-making. This issue of Immediacy sets out to explore some of the processes at work in the silent and ceaseless transformation of the city as real and conceptual space. Using various media technologies, the aim of the creators is to provide aural and visual tonalities of spatial activity, to render palpable the hum of the everyday in the metropolis.
For the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century; for the Palestinian-American Edward Said, New York –“[R]estless, turbulent, unceasingly various, energetic, unsettling, resistant, and absorptive” – was the capital of the twentieth. In the opening decades of the twenty-first century, it is perhaps too early to tell which city will claim this distinction, for there are many contenders (Shanghai? Sao Paolo? Istanbul?), and the century is still young. What will be the dominant narrative of the future city? Suketu Mehta’s brilliantly (if somewhat luridly) portrayed Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found hints at the scope and power of mega-cities in the popular imagination.
Of course, the city has long provided a challenge to media practitioners in their attempts to document, glorify, or vilify it. It could be said that the medium of photography cut its teeth on different perspectives of city life: in the lonely grandeur of trees or buildings in the art photography of native New Yorker, Alfred Steiglitz; or the daring photojournalistic views of New York’s immigrant neighborhoods in the work of Jacob Riis, to cite but two examples. Then there was the Russian film pioneer Dziga Vertov who helped initiate the long tradition of the ‘city symphony.’ Using the newly-unleashed powers of the kino-eye, Vertov wanted no less than to document his country’s zeitgeist through a minute recording of the industrial city. As Scott MacDonald shows us in his historical account of the city symphony film, a line stretches from Nothing But the Hours (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926), Berlin: Symphony of a City (Walter Ruttman , 1927) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929), all the way to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Both documentary and fiction films also developed genres that foregrounded the mean streets of city life: Hollywood crime thrillers of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s come easily to mind. More recently, nobody has quite captured human alienation and the city as ‘lost’ space more magically than the filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. In a series of films set in (or around) Hong Kong, he portrays the city’s historical amnesia through a sense of bruising loneliness.
But not all visions of the urban environment are bleak and alienating. The city is not only the crucible of popular culture, but popular culture in the form of advertising and consumption-oriented images have ineluctably shaped dominant understandings of the city. Television, in particular, has portrayed the city as a haven for the free-spirited, awash in consumption, able to indulge in a full range of life-style choices. During the eighties and nineties, urban characters were positioned in the cozy comfort of their highrise apartments in affluent neighborhoods. The city was the place to make money and discover oneself. Such models of city existence have been taken up through the global circulation of images and media narratives, as images of the city keep pace with the demands of a mobile workforce and ‘flexible’ production cycles.
Countering the search for self, the city of today has become the canvas on which to inscribe a politics of possibility and new forms of community. Because cities attract media coverage, they can host both actual and virtual discussions of issues that affect people directly, such as the environment, work and living spaces, infrastructure, and the like. New ways to create and disseminate information have also enabled city dwellers to take charge of their urban surroundings and affect the nature or pace of change.
What does it mean to have the city as the center of critical consciousness in the twenty-first century? And how can audio-visual media help us to see/hear the city anew? The projects presented in this issue are meant to spark reflection on these questions. In a sense, (urban) space itself emerges as the concept under scrutiny: the materiality of space as a determinant of individual and collective existence, grasped through the materiality of media technologies. The concern is with space as taken over, commercialized, polluted, mapped and inhabited – and the strategies that might best serve to communicate these lived realities. Two themes can be identified in the varied aspects of urban space that we find here: the city as site of interrogation and contestation; and a focus on limits and margins, on the invisible and inaudible aspects of the city. Unlike the symphonic rhythms of an earlier era, these ruminations on the city-as-space stay close to the ground, point to its fractures, reveal subterranean or marginalized spaces. They do not shy away from the humdrum and tawdry, from the dark interiors of subway stations or the bright glare of a commercial warehouse. They seek poetry in the mundane and the different. They are interventions of a sort, for their collective aim is to reclaim the city from the encroachments of hyper-regulation and relentless uniformity.