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<nettime> "Art and the city" - conference report
Jerneja Rebernak on Tue, 30 May 2006 10:53:16 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> "Art and the city" - conference report

Art and the City
A conference on postwar interactions with the urban realms
Amsterdam 11-12 May 2006

Report by Jerneja Rebernak

Ongoing transformations of the city after the leftover
destructiveness of the Second World War led to a fast conceptual
remaking of physical spaces from the perspectives of architects,
urbanists and designers. However, artists, filmmakers and
institutions helped in carrying on representations about the
collective imaginaries of the city. In this context, it becomes
important to dig into the history of artistic urban activity
from which to understand cities as networks in terms of public
space. This conference was speaking in tones of marking current
theories and research on the urban realm, raging from Isidore
Isou lettrist movement to issues of urban queerscape, elaborating
on Robert Rauschenberg's perspectives on the transformation of
New York City in the 1950s to images of New Babylon and street
art. Understanding the changing role of contemporary urban
»geographycal« landscape needs an emphasis in conceptualising
and imagining public spheres and spaces as both utopian although
virtual, but visible.

Reimagining a public sphere

Most western cities transformed into commodified and privatised
urban spaces, which caused a declining role of utopian agoras on
a global scale. In his keynote lecture, Malcolm Miles (University
of Plymouth) remained cynical about the existence of a public
space as a physical site, which he himself defines as a romantic
concept, stressing the impossibility of reclaiming something
that has never actually existed. Eventually, their existence is
rather confined in small self-sufficient communities outside
dominant societies where a functional public space can be formed
and sustained. Indeed the urban space is being marketised and
all spaces tend to look the same under global capitalism. Public
spaces depict identity formation under symbolisms of images and
names. He cited Zygmut Bauman, who has argued in his book »Liquid
Modernity« that the role of critical theory is to defend the
public realm, to seek a reflourishment of the public sphere. In
this case, Miles looks out for metaphorical spaces, starting
his quest for (un)existing public sphere. The iconic images
of the video screen placed in squares create a »public media
space«, however its content is most of the time only dedicated to
advertising messages to be absorbed by the passing public. Since
Nancy Fraser defines public sphere in terms of the exclusion
of performativity from the standpoint of gender and property,
the metaphorical space that Miles is looking for happens to be
laying in the image of the soviet kitchen, its role representing
a transitional space between the public and the private where
underground and alternative activity literally provoked dominant
status quo. It is in this light that he highlights spaces of
autonomy, like the neighbourhood district of Res Publica in
Vilnius or the learning processes inside rural communities in
Rhajastan, where group activity is shaping the formation of a
new logic of public sphere. In the conclusion of his speech, he
opened up a positive light on existing public spheres outside
the old patterns of residence of the public sphere. It is in the
formation of networks, by sharing knowledge and solidarity that
creates room for an existing public sphere, that new patterns can
be discovered in the micro public spheres around the globe.

New York into Art

In this session, artistic production as well as personal
engagement on social relations in New York City were presented
from the worlds of Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, David
Wojnarowicz and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Robert S. Mattison
(Lafayette College) depicted the perspective of the artist
Robert Rauschenberg on the reshaping of the South Street
Seaport in the New York of the '50s. This area has went under
major transformation in order to become the new financial
district of New York city, with skyscrapers becoming its
symbol icons. This city planning created more homogenisation
and have erased spaces for creativity and artistic production
around the most dynamic city areas. He defines Rauschenberg's
artistic production as having a critical viewpoint on these
dramatic interventions in the urban area. Rauschenberg uses
building material and debris on canvas, which, as Mattison
concludes, represents an antitotalitarian gesture towards the
city programming establishment. His use of construction material
shows us his close relation between ideas of a declining
urban diversity in the city. His perspective on the evolution
towards abstract planning from above can be found in Jane
Jacobs' description of the concept of new psychogeographies of
urban space in her book: »The death and life of great American
cities« from which Rauschenberg and the whole neighbourhood
artistic production (also John Cage and Merce Cunningham) took
inspiration. In the second presentation for this session, Joshua
A. Shannon (Univ. of Maryland) talked about the artist Donald
Judd and the postmodernisation of New York. The artist uses
minimalistic squares and plexiglass boxes, which resembles the
actual industrial forms of the city. His artwork is defined as
literalism in art, where shapes and forms don't stand for any
kind of metaphor or symbolic expression of reality. It is in
the close similarity with skyscrapers that Judd's work receives
acknowledgments, not to forget the cubical shapes of shipment
containers. It is also in the atmospheres of office design,
where geometrical lines separate spaces and where abstract
lines creates the postmodernisation of New York city, which is
reflected through Judd's untitled pieces.

Urban queerscapes

Royce W. Smith (Wichita State University) emphasised in his
presentation the art of David Wojnarowicz (born in Red Bank, New
Yersey, 1954) and his focus on the representation of bodies in
the urban space, which often through their marginality escape
the lights of dominant social activities. His writings have a
perpetuating angle of thinking about the private being contrasted
with the public, which always carries notions of control. Smith
directed his attention to photographs taken in the late 1970s,
where Wojnarowicz started to use techniques of photomontage
where he questions the licit and illicit boundaries of dominant
and queer bodies inside urban streets, decaying buildings and
private atmospheres. This intervention, if so we could call it,
represents a private intrusion of his body into spaces like
teashops, where he is a guest. One part of the series of those
photographs illustrates himself walking the streets of New York
in a mask of Arthur Rimbaud's young face. Rimbaud's juvenile
rebelliousness and his illuminating talent resembled the artist's
own experience, such as his vagabondage and his early discovered
homosexuality. In fact, Wojnarowicz begins his exploration of
spaces such as the street zone of movies, on one hand those
that shows porn and the classic film industry flicks. It is
in this space that he is being photographed, showing his body
on the side of the street where porn is being shown, making a
statement against the normative body. The series of photographs
closes dramatically with the author being photographed in empty
buildings and ends with him shooting drugs in the toilet. It was
in this pessimistic view about the impossibility of achieving
recognition that Wojnarowicz chose to comment on his own radical
erasure in his further artwork. He writes his own manifesto
of the impossibility to escape the exclusion he receives as a
homosexual. He narrates his own experience, which he galvanised
in words, pictures and objects, outside his own privateness.

Décollage: Hains' aesthetics of action

Hannah Feldman (Nothwestern University) is currently writing
her book Art during War: Visible Space and the Aesthetics of
Action, Paris 1956/2006 and gave a presentation on the exhibition
La France Déchirée (1961) of the artist Raymond Hains. In the
contest of the structures of the Empire as a political entity,
Feldman argues that inside public spaces culture, political
identity and the possibilities for alternative publics that
exclude colonial structures are being created. It was during
the period of colonial dispute over Algeria that in the streets
of Paris an unconscious and collaborative spirit engaged in
contesting the political engagement through claiming the right
to expression in the city. Hains actively polemicised the role
of nationalism and closely engaged with discourses on the
Algerian conflict. In addition, Hains' action of décollage worked
to overturn the role of mass media, since the public sphere
in the urban geography was visibly declining. He collected
torn political posters from the streets of Paris and combined
them with a technique called décollage. Hains' work, strongly
motivated by the massification of advertisement, was exhibited
inside galleries and museums, despite the fact those artworks
were not corresponding to regular art objects. The artists
made the forgotten and invisible Algerian conflict legible
through his work, which remained out of the public discourse
in France. Hains' new visual language proliferated into the
French intellectual scene, at the same moment as Debord, who
acknowledged the work of Hains, engages with the concept of the
society of spectacle. Hannah Feldman engaged with Hains political
interventions as vivid examples of the emerging culture that
takes an active stand in the dominion of the privatised public
spheres. She cites Fanon, for whom the location of culture is
to be found in public action. Furthermore, it is inside the
inscription of action that he finds the truth. This model of
cultural action interrupts the normative paths of action in the
public space. Public action becomes a struggle for sovereignty of
representing people that have been yet unrepresented or found in
the shadows of the public discourse. She defines this forms of
interventions as »aesthetics of action«, which give another angle
to the debate of the public sphere, a positive one, where through
political and cultural action subjects are formed.

A radical take on the public sphere: Constant's New Babylon

Lara Schrijver (Technische Universiteit Delft) presented the
idea of an aesthetic collective through the work of Constant
Nieuwenhuis, one of the innovators of Unitary Urbanism. He
understands creation, mobility and play as being the central
activity of the Homo Ludens (Man the Player). It is this creative
individual that will build a city, the New Babylon, which
in return will allow and create a new type of creativity.
Constant unites politics and art in a totality, which he hoped
would create a new being that does not separate space as a
psychic dimension from the space of action. His drawings and
architectural sketches of the new city are based on the idea of
socialisation and automation of the production, where the nomadic
existence and the unnecessesity of work form this new social
context. The formation of the New Babylon is a revolutionary
and progressive idea that aroused the interest of Guy Debord
and the Situationist International, in fact until 1961 Constant
was active part of the movement. They found mutual interest in
the concept of individuation, where man would be liberated from
everyday work and would reveal his playful human nature in this
nihilistic environment. In this environment, collectivity would
maintain the urban, which will allow individual identities to be
transformed in active as well as creative beings. In contemporary
aesthetic community, moments of association are fragmented and
superficial. In this prototypical space of the New Babylon,
Bauman's ethical community or Tönnies idea of Gemeinschaft
(community) would become crystallised. Lara Schrijver searched
for examples that would nowadays illustrated the idea of New
Babylon. Could the architectural shapes of squares and public
spaces reintegrate this model of viewing a new public sphere
or should public spheres be searched for elsewhere? She sees
the proliferation of New Babylons in the digital space, where
public forums reflect the idea of the individual flexibility in
the creation of mutual as well as singular environments. She
finished her presentation with an enveloped vision of »punctual
architectural interventions« that will allow a recreation of
communities in public spaces as it is now happening in virtual

Logo Parc: design projects for the Zuidas area

Daniel van der Velden (graphic designer, Jan van Eyck Academie)
illustrated new design solutions for the Zuidas area, the
business district in Amsterdam South that will soon be built in
a shape of a modern »airport city«. He acknowledged the many
communicative layers that exist in the city. These layers can
be used by governments and market, which regulates them. There
are less and less possibilities free spaces for communication.
Cities are increasingly becoming 'furniturised' in order to play
an active role in the public space and communicate you need a
big budget. Van der Velden communicates a necessity to express
disagreements in the public space; public spaces where we can all
agree to disagree and to contest forms of power. It means that
these signs of possible »accidents« in the public space would
communicate their spirit of an open society, a democracy. Some of
the ideas that emerged from the team working on the concept of
Logo Parc are indoor advertising, corporate graffiti as well as
the reintegration of historical monuments inside these areas. The
idea is to build a communicative forest that would reflect the
current spirit of privatised communication in order to critique
branding and the limitation of access (for the homeless for
example) in the new regulated cities.

Jerneja Rebernak 

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