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<nettime> Are Cities Good For Creativity?
Rana Dasgupta on Thu, 7 Sep 2006 13:04:23 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Are Cities Good For Creativity?

from my BBC blog:


I want to approach this question by thinking about a related, and in
some ways opposite, one. "Are internment camps good for creativity?" In
some respects, though not all, the internment camp can be seen as the
opposite, the alter ego, of the city. We can think of Auschwitz and New
York inhabiting opposite ends of the American moral-spatial spectrum in
the second half of the twentieth century (which is partly why the events
of 9/11 had such a profound resonance).

Yesterday my neighbour came to my door to show me the diary of one of
his relatives, a Sikh fom Punjab who had fought in the British army in
the second world war, and who was captured and interned in a
prisoner-of-war camp. The man was a talented artist and draughtsman, and
had filled his notebook with drawings of camp scenes. Men sunbathing in
front of barracks, playing hockey, putting on theatrical performances.
He wrote accounts of the camp's economy (with "one English cigarette" as
the basic unit of currency) and stuck in newspaper clippings of
Mussolini's death etc. His fellow camp inmates, among them Eric Newby,
wrote poems and comments in the book, and painted pictures of "Jit
Singh, the Indian painter" at his canvass. These comments bore witness
to a deep intimacy and appreciation between the American, British,
Canadian, French - and Indian - men who found themselves together.

This diary put me in mind of the internment camp on the Isle of Man
during the same period. Many German and Italian nationals resident in
the UK were interned there in 1940, and a large proportion of these were
central European Jews who had arrived in England to flee Nazism.

They lived in great fear, believing that Hitler might soon invade the UK
and that this enclosure might be one of his first targets. But the camp
was full of Jewish artists and intellectuals, and nothing could stop the
inevitable. Within weeks of their internment, there were camp
newspapers, weekly lectures on nuclear physics, and regular concerts.

Three members of the future Amadeus Quartet, all from Vienna, met in the
camp. The quartet was founded in London immediately after the war, and
endured until the death of violist Peter Schidlof in 1987. The Viennese
composer Hans Gál was interned there, and wrote several works there.
Perhaps readers know of other internees.

(See also the fascinating story -


- of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, written in the Stalag VIIIA
prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.)

In many respects these camps were similar to cities. They inherited the
civic cultures of places like Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and they brought
together people from different backgrounds, with different skills and
interests. But in other ways they were quite different. The notion of
time was completely different, for the onward rush of urban time was
taken away, and what was left was time as a still pool. Death was more
proximate than in the cities (from which it had been exiled), and this
gave a gravity, an earnestness, to conversation.

Creativity is one of the qualities that most reassures us about our
humanity. What do the outbursts of creativity in internment camps, and
even death camps, mean for our thinking about cities? Do they display
the fortitude of urban culture, which continues unabashed even in such
terrible circumstances? Or do they remind us that creativity is somehow
linked to those things that cities are most concerned to stamp out -
death and inactivity - and that sometimes it may be in the most unlikely
places that the most astonishing human creations arise?


Rana Dasgupta

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