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.
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).