the modernist city

It is in the modernist  industrial city  (Fordism) that the  representations of the city come to the fore,  in the sense that photography, cinema, print, and advertising  shaped  the way our senses  experience modern life through images. If visuality becomes integral to our knowledge of  and practice in urban society  in the 29th century, then it is  cinema, which  has the  prominent role in inserting visuality in the experience of modern life in Australia. 

As is well known, these representations of the  new urban experience celebrated the daily life of the street  as the stage for the chaotic energy of the traffic, the swirling maelstrom of the crowd; the clockwork-like rhythm of daily life as thousands of workers and office-goers entered and exited their corporate workspaces at regular hours.

a seismic shift

The 20-30  years between photographing around Bowden Brompton and my recent photography of Adelaide's CBD  was marked by  a seismic shift in urban policy and politics.  This was a shift characterised by the disintegration of 1960s/70s liberal urban policy and the emergence of the era of neoliberal revanchism.  

The blighted places like Bowden and the south west and south east  corners of Adelaide, which  were seen to be in need of urban renewal,  were urban neighbourhoods where people lived,  and  where memories accrued  from their everyday life  that had  nothing to do with the stigmatising negative images associated with them.   They were seen as slums--no top areas-- that needed to be cleaned up. 

The liberal era of the post-1960s period was characterised by redistributive policy, affirmative action and antipoverty legislation. The talk was about the city and social justice.  That was effectively killed off by the recession we had to have,  the collapse of the State Bank in 1991, a  period of economic stagnation and ongoing de-industrialization.  

What emerged was the era of neoliberal revanchism characterised by a discourse of revenge against minorities, the working class, feminists, environmental activists, gays and lesbians, and recent immigrants. 

Adelaide: a doughnut city

One way of making sense of Adelaide as a city is in terms of  it being akin to an American  doughnut.  The American donut is a sugary ring with an empty centre and is a fine metaphor for the rich suburbs around a collapsed inner city. The city centre was structured on the segregation of urban areas into retail, industrial and living areas whilst the  suburbs were designed as a refuge from the bustle of city life. 

Since the mid-20th century Adelaide, like other Australian cities,  has been subjected to the "doughnut effect": the city centre becomes "hollow" as population moves from inner suburbs to the outer suburbs in search of newer, larger or more affordable houses. The ‘great Australian dream’ was a large house on a quarter-acre block in the suburbs. Consequently, Adelaide became a low density city.  

People live in the suburbs on the urban fringe and work in the city. Since adequate public transport runs out well before you hit the real 'burbs' people  travel to the city in the car to work, shop and play.  The city centre  is full of car parks,  office buildings, shops  and commuters. 

The conception of the  city as a doughnut overlooks that the hollowed out centre (CBD) was,  and  is,  a place of  mostly white collar work within high rise office buildings. In Adelaide  these  building are mostly in the  bland modernist style: rectangular shapes of concrete and glass.  

The hollowed out centre is mostly noticeable on the weekend: the streets are empty of people. It was devoid of vitality and the city centre had the feel of a urban wasteland or concrete jungle. The corporate model was a soulless landscape of glass, steel, and concrete boxes.

edgelands

I'd always seen the Port River estuary  and the Le  Fevre Peninsula as in-between lands or edge lands. I'd always imagined as existing  on the edge of town: a site earmarked for industrial development that never happened. I'd seen it as the wasteland on the border of a city, derelict land so damaged by the pollution from industrial development that it was incapable of beneficial use without further treatment.

Edgelands are familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside.  They are the half-rural, half urban nothingness,  or raw and rough wasteland ton the fringes of the city and, as  a desolate, forsaken netherworld whose existence goes unacknowledged, they stand in marked contrast to the tamed countryside or farmland. 

Edgelands have traditionally  have been without any signifier, an untranslated, ignored  landscape between the duality of rural and urban landscape.They often  lie on the  border of the suburban fringe and seen as blots on the landscape until they are developed for suburban housing, industry or shopping centres. 

 Edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen, except perhaps as a blur from a car window as we hurry towards the countryside  or the coast in search of wilderness and communion with nature; or  as an ignored and  forgotten  backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities.

Sixth Street, Bowden

These  Bowden street scenes are a part of Adelaide's working class and urban history. Bowden--- and Brompton--- were once counted among the least desirable suburbs in Adelaide. The expansion of the very industrial and commercial premises which had sustained the working class community in the nineteenth century caused a decline in the close-knit working class  community and  by the 1930s Bowden and Brompton was classified as one of Adelaide’s slums.   

 The  Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Study, released in 1968,  meant that  the Highways Department proceeded to buy properties.  Many houses owned by the Highways Department showed that their standard fell much below the general standard of housing in the area. Even though he North-South Transportation Corridor proposal was finally abandoned in 1983   The  suburbs became  progressively more run down during the 1990s,  the small scale housing  degenerated, and as a consequence of its closeness to Adelaide and manufacturing districts, the suburbs become a centre for storage, commercial or wholesale purposes.      

The closure of the gasworks that dominated Brompton in 2000 and Clipsal Industries' relocation from Bowden in 2009 provided an opportunity for re-development of these suburbs.  Many of the buildings in Bowden have been pulled down as part of the process of urban renewal. The factories, working class cottages and warehouses have been replaced by  parks and houses by what is known as Bowden Village. 

These street scenes, and the people who lived there,  are part of Adelaide's history that is forgotten. Few will remember them.  Few lived here. Little will be protected as heritage, for Bowden signified, for respectable  Adelaide, the negative of  civilised urban living. It was seen as dystopia: a polluted,  industrial place  full of dead  beats, bums and  alcoholics. 

periously situated

The art historian's interpretation of Australian surrealists paintings in the Agapitos/Wilson collection,  highlights the  representations of their dreams and unconscious  fears and anxieties about  both the 1939-45  war  and their repressed sexual desires.  

Today our fears are activated  by the negative effects that the  economic processes of the global economy  has on our localities and regional way of life.

We fear the wrecking ball that  throw us out of work into unemployment and onto the scap heap that we experienced with the on-going process of de-industrialization that started in the 1980s,   and then the global financial crisis around 2007. The last forty years of neoliberalism have resulted in massive increases in inequality, obscene wealth for a tiny few, but no greater happiness for the many. We find ourselves somewhat periously situated.  

We live with an unease about the break down of civil society, the growing distrust and  increasing violence, joblessness and stagnating wages,  and  the rising costs of living, even though Australia is doing okay compared to Europe and the US.    

There is now a lot more anger in public spaces. The surreal quality of everyday existence is  no longer about the outback, as it was in the 1940s. Australian's turned  away from the outback  to embrace suburbia. Suburbia was the new  or modern Australia. 

errant wandering after 9/11

The public realm - both as a physical and virtual space - has increasingly and insidiously become a privately owned and managed environment where under watchful and anonymous eyes, the activities and behaviours of the public are both monitored and controlled. Loitering or meandering generates a suspicious glance; the gathering of groups is perceived as a threat; desire lines must be hastily overwritten with pathways that tow the agreed and official line.

Photographers lurking  in the ambiguous shadows and darkened alleyways away from the corporate branding are a special target of security guards and police in the public domain.  They are targeted under wrongful suspicion in relation to the anti-terrorism legislation enacted after 9/11; wrongful suspicion of anti-social behavior when there‘s no legitimate evidence to support the suspicions and accusations that result in the photographer being stopped for being a potential terrorist.

The law and legislation provided to the police are being pushed and misused to the extent that it is creating a hostile environment for public photography. Members of the public and media do not need a permit to photograph in public and that the police and security guards do not have the power to stop them from filming or photographing incidents or police personnel. 

Yet photographers have been stopped without having any reasonable suspicion on the grounds that  taking images  could be constituted as antisocial behavior.Taking a photograph in the public space is  deemed to be  risky and potentially threatening to the authorities.

The resurgence of interest in the act of walking or 'wandering', within contemporary artistic practices,  with their  roots in the Surrealist errance and Situationist derive,   can be viewed as a critical tool or conduct  through which to challenge or subvert the logic of the various surveillance systems.

‘losing oneself in a city'

One of the ideas within the surrealist strand  of modernism that resonates is the idea of  ‘losing oneself in a city’. This  can be framed as a craving for the unknown, the unfamiliar, or the strange in both oneself and one’s surroundings. It is a seeking to dissolve the boundary between self and other, as well as melting which might differentiate the body from its urban environment. It is a sense of abandonment and a relinquishing of rational cognition.

This deportment reaches back to the European surrealists who encouraged a wandering haphazardly in the city to allow the eruption of unconscious images into consciously perceived space. The ‘aim’ of surrealist idea  of  'errance' was to puncture the surface of what was consciously ‘seen’ to allow dreamlike revelations to emerge in the cracks and fissures between the different layers of reality.

Emma Cocker in Desiring to be Led Astray in Papers of Surrealism (Issue 6 Autumn 2007)  says:

In one sense errance can be understood as part of a tradition of spatial navigation and urban geography; an act of wandering through the newly bourgeoning city space that follows in the footsteps of Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur; Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man of the Crowd (1850), or is echoed in the writing of Walter Benjamin, whose reflections on the city have subsequently informed a critical interpretation of surrealist practice ...  Such practices have been framed by a later discourse that asserts the critical value of the pedestrian experience of the city, as both a politically resistant and playfully disruptive gesture. For Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), walking is read as a tactic for challenging the dominance of the map or grid.

This sense of errance as  aimless wandering was developed by the Situationists with their idea of the dérive (drift or drifting) that reflected the pedestrian’s experience, that of the everyday user of the city. Users could for themselves experience, ‘the sudden change of atmosphere in a street, the sharp division of a city into one of distinct psychological climates.

One popular interpretation of this by contemporary photographers is night photogrpahy which involves nocturnal wandering. This urban nightwalking  can be seen as specific model of errance, through which to de-stabilise or blur the line between self and one’s environment.  This is an example of contemporary photographers  using 'wandering' as a critical tool through which to explore temporary, multiple and contrary readings of place.

the streets of Adelaide

I have stumbled upon some photographs of,  and about, Adelaide

One was on the ABC's By Design program. Their  Streets of Adelaide over Time referred to the 1936 work of Gustav Hermann Baring's  Progressive Adelaide: As It Stands Today,  and the rephotography of this work by Mick Bradley and writer Lance Campbell in their book City Streets: Progressive Adelaide 75 Years On. This  showed how the buildings and the streetscapes have changed—or haven't.

This body of work is a systematic exploration of the buildings along specific streets in  the CBD and so quite different in approach to my fragmentary focus on individual scenes.  

I'd also come across Ian North’s exploration of the streets of Adelaide in his  recent photographic series the Adelaide Suite (2008-09)  done in an anti-aesthetic style of amateur photography.  I'll trace down the catalogue.

What is missing from this is any sense of what photographic modernism in Adelaide was from the 1940s to the mid-1970s. I don't know the art photographers of that period or how  photographic modernism was understood by them. It's a black hole.

Though modernism was never a coherent, unified entity--it was a series of different constructs----I presume that there was a  core understanding  of photographic modernism in Adelaide  from the 1940s to the 1980s. This  was along the lines of a formalism that insisted on the uniqueness of the photographic image as an autonomous art, that is, as a medium with its own art history.

This basic modernism  in Australia was given an American interpretation based on the Beaumont Newhall's influential text, The History of Photography,  its institutionalization in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and its refinement by John Szarkowski in The Photographers Eye. This strand of modernism held that photography possesses unique formal properties; it is exceptional in the sense that no other artistic medium can address these specific properties and representational problematics as well as photography can.

There is, however,  another modernism  in Adelaide though--one that emerges from the constellation of Surrealism,  the Angry Penguins, European expessionist abstraction and the post war European migrant artists. The Greenbergian modernists, of course, dismissed surrealism as kitsch and surrealism was repressed in late modernism. 

returning to Port Adelaide

I mentioned in the Introduction that my photographic roots were in Bowden and Port Adelaide--the industrial  or manufacturing side of Adelaide that was developed in the 1950s. It was a low skilled, low tech   form of manufacturing  that was indifferent to the environmental consequences of the pollution of the commons caused by industrialization.

The old tidal swamp along the Port River estuary was developed into Port Adelaide and it became  the site of much heavy industry and shipping and pollution. What was damaged from pollution, ie., heavy metal contamination,   was the Port River, which was  more or less treated as a sewer. 

The river and the ocean were seen  as  spaces  that business  could  discharge the  stuff they didn't want anymore without paying for  polluting the environment. It was the state's job--socialising the losses.

The progressive  state Labor Governments under Don Dunston and John Bannon had difficulty dealing with the environmental damage. Consequently,  working class people lived in a polluted environment and their health suffered as a result.