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).

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, characterized 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.

Fredric Jameson famously wrote that 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 reconceived 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.

The works made in the context of the plastiCities 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.

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 being shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk gallery, 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).

Resurgam: A Libation in Light for the Almost Forgotten

“Some day soon, perhaps in forty years, there will be no one alive who has ever known me. That’s when I will be truly dead – when I exist in no one’s memory.” 

Irvin D. Yalom,  Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

The forgotten corners of cities conceal surprising narratives and striking imagery.  Wardsend Cemetery is just such a place, a burial ground officially closed since 1988, but whose population has been unchanged since 1977.  I came upon the existence of Wardsend during one of those chance conversations you have on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  The following week I was winding along an industrial access road, conscious of the rich golden quality of the late afternoon light.  The metalled road crossed the bridge built to replace one severely damaged by the Sheffield floods of 2007.  Progress then ended abruptly, blocked by large boulders set in place to prevent access to the muddy tracks flanking the River Don.  

Ph. Richard Ward 2012

From the unheralded cul-de-sac, anonymous stone steps rose.  In the absence of signage a welcoming party of gravestones huddled a few metres on, cast in partial shadow.   At the foot of the steps the electrical guts hung from a small concrete bollard.  The wind-blown detritus of modern life was strewn through the adjacent undergrowth.  Alongside, woven into the vegetation, was a smattering of larger offerings to the dead.  These comprised of the usual suspects: tyres, paint cans, an incongruous left shoe and lumps of rubble.  The sense of isolation from the mainstream of the city is immediate. 

Elec

It was not until 2nd February that I came to write about the photographs I had taken some weeks before.  Only then did the poignancy of a favourite image from that earlier visit strike me.  The beautifully crafted headstone of one 27 year-old stood out, captured in a libation of warm winter sun.  Frederick Stephen Goddard had passed away one-hundred years ago to the day.  His headstone was crowned with the single word ‘Resurgam’, which means ‘I shall rise again’.  I thought immediately of all those city spaces that lie dormant on a similar premise.

graves

Wardsend reveals strong parallels for me with other urban land in apparent decline.  Rendered in the pre-sunset glow of Winter light the memorialised dead jostle in a sun-dappled crowd amidst the pell-mell ingress of nature.  Similar vistas play out in the post-industrial brown-fields mottled with buddleia, bramble and rosebay willow herb.  Our heritage takes many forms and speaks to us in many ways, many of which are themselves individuated in their interpretation.  None is perhaps so poignant as the neglected memory of the dead.

Throughout Wardsend nature tries to make sense of a space less manicured than the dead might ever have dreamt in life.  The tension with a natural succession shines through in many of my images.  Silver Birch, the classic pioneer tree species of open disturbed ground, abound and encroach, albeit gradually.  This quest for a new equilibrium also plays out where industry has died, or is in transition, as much as in a place of burial.  Here at Wardsend, the process has been managed since 2010.  Consequently, some identities have been refreshed from beneath a blanket of vegetation.  Others are lost to us, their memory shattered by frost, or corroded by the action of wind and rain. 

Broader questions about the spaces we offer to the dead and how we memorialise within crowded urban settings are of considerable cultural and social relevance. Does this apparent decline really matter?  Is it a decline at all, or is a more radical position, one in which we surrender the dead to nature, a more fitting epitaph?

Richard Ward, 2013

Interstices of the City

Interstices of the City

Often those seemingly forgotten or forbidden places, shadow cast and foreboding, hide stories that arterial roads never bring to light.  We hurtle by, their narratives not lost on us because they were never found.  On a sunlit Sunday, I was taken to just such a place.  Between decaying buildings a short access road to a new nowhere, the quaintly named ‘Sylvester Gardens’, was lined with the social gargoyles of other lives lived.  Silver nitrous oxide capsules cascaded from the innards of black bags, drinks cans piled together, their chaotic state of equilibrium incongruously crowned by the chess board lid of a small games compendium.  These cairns of indulgences past form tribal boundary markers on a journey into a borderland where societal values are potentially contested.  They speak of other cultures and existences, a rabbit hole for the ‘curiouser’, or a potentially threatening place where social taboos are enacted.   Half swept streets make strange bed-fellows with suburban sensibilities.

With each step, the austere walls of decaying industrial units gradually gave way to surfaces adorned in art of growing complexity.  The lane opened out onto a concrete slab relict that betrayed former purpose.  Onto the whole played the golden light of the winter afternoon as to our right the Porter Brook roared with the passing of Friday’s snowfall.  All around clumps of mucky whiteness persisted in the shadows.   Each remnant vertical surface had something to say, or a legacy of someone with something to say.  Beautiful, complex and sometimes perplexing images were interposed with short bold statements, themselves often foregrounded with teeming mounds of rubble and rotting timbers.  The whole place asked many questions across a bold and unpromising canvas of brick, broken windows, concrete and flaking paint.  On the surface the scale of endeavour and striking imagery are magnificent.  The whole speaks of a deeply unconventional meeting of minds, a place where counter-cultures can be and are enacted beyond the opprobrium of the bigger society.  Is it an appropriation of space, or embellishment?   I have attempted to capture some images in this fairly secret gallery.  If this is a space in transition how long will it remain?

Richard Ward, 2013

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project reflections #26

Burn Weed

It is my hope that it has now become apparent to the reader how many of the pioneering plants that I have thus far described employ – by means of adaptation – various ingenious biological defenses against the animals that might eat them.

These defenses constitute the great armoury of spines, thorns, prickles, bristles – and bitter, unsavory compounds and poisonous concoctions – that botanical nature has designed and brewed up to deter animal interest, investigation, and ingestion.In terms of our human experience of these arms and fortifications, there can surely be no more commonly suffered strategy than the sting of the common nettle – Urtica dioica. Every child – and every parent – must surely be conscious of that shockingly unpleasant ‘first contact’ with this painful weed; of the alarming white bumps and reddened skin that we associate with ‘nettle rash’.

Stinging nettle or common nettle, Urtica dioica, is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native to Europe, Asia, northern Africa and North America – it is the best-known member of the genus Urtica. The plant has many hollow stinging hairs called trichomes on its leaves and stems, which act like hypodermic needles; injecting histamine and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation when contacted by humans and other animals. The plant has a long history of use as a medicine and as a food source.

Stinging nettle is a dioecious herbaceous perennial, 1 to 2 m (3 to 7 ft) tall in the summer and dying down to the ground in winter. It has widely spreading rhizomes and stolons, which are bright yellow, as are the roots. The soft green leaves are 3 to 15 cm (1 to 6 in) long and are borne oppositely on an erect wiry green stem. The leaves have a strongly serrated margin, a cordate base, and an acuminate tip with a terminal leaf tooth longer than adjacent laterals. It bears numerous small, greenish or brownish flowers in dense axillary inflorescences.

The leaves and stems are very hairy with non-stinging hairs and they also bear many stinging hairs (trichomes), whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that will inject several chemicals: acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and – possibly – formic acid. This mixture of chemical compounds causes a painful sting or paresthesia from which the species derives its common name, as well as the colloquial names: burn nettle, burn weed, burn hazel.

Urtication, or flogging with nettles, is the process of deliberately applying stinging nettles to the skin in order to provoke inflammation. An agent thus used is known as a rubefacient (something that causes redness). This is done as a folk remedy for rheumatism, providing temporary relief from (or at least a novel replacement for) pain in the joints.

As Old English stiðe, nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century. Nettle was believed to be a galactagogue, a substance that promotes lactation.

Because it contains 3,4-divanillyltetrahydrofuran, certain extracts of the nettle are used by bodybuilders in an effort to increase free testosterone.

An annual Stinging Nettle Eating Championship draws thousands of people to Dorset, where competitors attempt to eat as much of the raw plant as possible. Competitors are given 60 cm (20 in) stalks of the plant, from which they strip the leaves and eat them. Whoever strips and eats the most stinging nettle leaves in a fixed time is the winner. The competition dates back to 1986, when two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about which had the worst infestation of nettles.

In Europe stinging nettles have a strong association with human habitation and buildings. The presence of nettles may indicate that a building has been long abandoned. Human and animal waste may be responsible for elevated levels of phosphate and nitrogen in the soil, providing an ideal environment for stinging nettles.

Paul Evans, February 2012