drifting in the city

Though I spend a lot of time exploring the urban skyline from car park roofs,  I also wander the city streets as a  photographic  flâneur in the tradition of the Situationists.

This tradition makes no appearance in the texts on Australian photography---eg., Anne Marsh's  Look: Contemporary Australian Photography since 1980 (2010)--despite the Situationists being   in the modernist  tradition of avant-garde agitation to which movements like Dada  and Surrealists belonged.

The Situationists have been written out of Australian photographic writings, even though the photographic practice of  many Australian photographers is one of  exploring the nooks and crannies of the city in unpredictable ways.They are modern day flâneurs.

The Situationist's  concept of the dérive---an unplanned walk or drift, was defined as the 'technique of locomotion without a goal'.  To dérive was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonate with states of mind, inclinations, and desires, and to seek out reasons for movement other than those for which the urban  environment was designed.

Sadie Plant in her  The most radical gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age says that the Situationists held that:

If modern society is a spectacle, modern individuals are spectators: observers seduced by the glamorous representations of their own lives, bound up in the mediations of images, signs, and commodities, and intolerably constrained by the necessity of living solely in relation to spectacular categories and alienated relations.

The aim is to negate the seductive glamour of the spectacle through  gaining an immediate experience of the world, and transforming the everyday into a reality desired and created by those who live in it. 

If  the avant-garde had failed to deliver the transformation of everyday reality it promised, then so had the modernist city planners. Sherman Young in Morphings and Ur-Forms: From Flâneur to Driveur in Scan (2005)  argues  that the romantic figure of the flâneur in nineteenth century Paris is arguably impossible in Australia's  automobile city,  and  it has instead morphed into digital-camera toting tourist-flâneurs. Australia's cities--eg., Sydney--are metropolises of drivers, or  driveurs. 

Their city is a cacophony of road rage, billboards advertising escape, talkback radio and traffic reports;  a city represented by traffic jams, bus lanes and fellow drivers.  It is a world of tollways and tailbacks, traffic lights and street signs. 

opening the past to an outside

A recent survey of contemporary Australian photography since the 1980s by Anne Marsh indicates that very little photography is being done to represent  the changes to our capitol cities long the lines of Eugène Atget in Paris, Bernice Abbott in New York, or Thomas Struth in Berlin. 

We can  infer from this absence in the Marsh survey of contemporary Australian photography  that do not have a body of images being produced that open  the past to an outside; an opening  which  becomes a threshold between past and present. This threshold enables us to recollect what has been and it transmits the disquiet of the past to the future.

The subject is history and time:--the object photographed is not just a play of forms, as these are  countered by the forces of history that traverse it. Form is a "sedimentation of content", as Adorno puts it in Aesthetic Theory.  Content is all that happens in the dimension of time.

the mirror as memory

Modernism in industrial capitalism was born with a strong sense of repudiating the past as an anachronism that needed to be dumped into  the trash to make way for the progressive new art. If the trash became the archive of the past in an era of increasing instability and rapid social change, then the camera became a device to  represent and preserve the fragments of the past. It could back the tide of oblivion.

What is  new in the economy is continuously replaced by evacuations, demolitions, removals, temporarily vacant lots and  new buildings. Since the early 1960s, in the metropolitan centres of Australia , city fabrics largely inherited from the nineteenth century are  being overlaid by the twin development of the freestanding high-rise and the serpentine freeway.

The  everchanging shops  result in the old being so completely displaced, that  the old appears as if it never existed at all. So the past is dislocated from the present, and with the cultural forgetting,   our history  becomes a series of fragmentary memories. Forgetting is built into the very capitalist process of the modern production of urban spaces and the repeated destruction of the built environment. 

Memories counter the sense of historical loss and cultural amnesia associated with forgetting. As our capital cities are made and remade, memory  of place becomes  ever more important. It is a memory of life based on shared memories in a history of  place: a house,  city street, suburb, or a bio-region such as the river country around the mouth of the River Murray. These are memories of the spatial layout,  habitial memories associated with bodily preformances of say riding a bike,  and  personal memories.

If the camera promised to be perfect memory machine for preserving the past,  it also corrupted or destablized the positivist objectivity of vision by exposing the partiality and mutability of its own supposed clear and distinct  representations.

We are left with memory traces---eg., Kodak's golden memories--- that enable our identity. These traces  are important  for to be without memory  is to risk being without identity.

Our built environments change and we are left with our memories of what once was.

Architecture as history

One way of becoming aware of Adelaide as a historical city is through reading its architecture as if  the built form was  a cultural text.  The urban build form is part of our visual culture. and it gives us a sense of history that acts as a counter to the functioning of the  media's 24 hour news cycle  as a mechanisms for historical amnesia.

Architecture embodies the ideologies involved in its inhabitation, construction, procurement and design. It displays the thinking of the individuals involved, their relationships and their involvement in the cultures in which they lived and worked. In this way, buildings and their details are cultural artefacts that can be read for the history they embody. 

We can interpret buildings and landscapes as cultural artifacts with historically specific meanings that can  be understood in particular context over time.  A first cut highlights  the large number of nineteenth century buildings scattered amongst the modernist ones of the 20th century.  Adelaide  slowly became modern--ie.  a shift from low-rise to modernist high-rise.

Modernism now surrounds us. It is familiar.  We realize that modernism in architecture and urbanism touches on, and is touched all at once, by all spheres of human life.  It signifies an industrial Adelaide; one that is slowly receding into the background with the emergence  of, and the shift to,  a service and informational economy.  

Modernism also meant  centrally-planned development regarding the  regarding the “city as a machine”. In Adelaide that basically meant a  car-centric suburban development, where walking from one place to another is not feasible any more. The characteristics are familiar: money-oriented development governed  by loose controls produced building forms whose disadvantages have been widely discussed: skyscrapers with plenty of sellable floor space but whose form destroys the urban fabric, cookie-cutter housing that does not really fit anyone’s needs, office parks that are not close to where the workers actually live.

A  second cut would highlight the spaces or the  voids between the  building’s forms. They are defined by (and define) the relationship between these forms and the movement of the people on the street.  They help to define the experience people  have on the street. It is this embodied experience that helps to make the inner city a pleasurable space to live in. 

Often the the relationship between these architectural  forms and the movement of the people on the street  takes the form of a nostalgia for the old and a desire to preserve the old architecture as heritage.  

embodied knowing


The concept of 'embodied knowledge' is  based on knowing a place from the personal bodily movements through the city over time (pre-reflective, bodily existence),  as opposed to a theoretical knowledge---knowing a place  through film, books, paintings  and photographs. We are in the world through our body, and insofar as we perceive the world with our body.

We  learn not just by thinking about things in a university but also by doing them. Embodied knowledge developed through self-discovery in the body’s contact with nature (e.g. walking in the Adelaide parklands with standard poodles),  and practical knowledge developed through apprenticeship in the body’s contact with artifacts (photography).

It is a situated knowing from being in the world. Hence the importance of the lived body. Our awareness doesn’t emerge from a disembodied mind floating somewhere beyond physical reality, but is part of an active relationship between us and the world. The ‘I’ that knows is tangled with what is known--we are “nested” in contexts that include relationships with people as well as with objects in  the world. These bodily movements and practices build up memories of being in the same location at different times.

If we relate this to large format photography,  then we have  the  notion of an integrated set of skills poised and ready to anticipate and incorporate a world prior to the application of concepts and the formation of thoughts and judgments. This kind of embodied poise or readiness is “habit,” or preconceptual capacities or dispositions that sketch out in advance and so structure our awareness of objects.

Habitus is  the outcome of the sedimentation of past experiences, shaping the photographer's  perceptions and actions of the present and future and thereby moulding their artistic practices.

remembering Australian modernism

This is looking back to the work of Wolfgang Sievers and more specifically to his photographs of the Adelaide Festival Theatre.  Sievers was a modernist Australian  photographer who specialized in industrial photography and whose design roots lay in the Bauhaus.  Sievers wanted to show that Australia was an advanced industrial nation rather than a producer of raw material and agricultural products;  that industrial technology could be humanized; and that the craft work of photography produces art objects that express the vision of the artist.

Siever's work, along with  other Australian modernists in the visual arts, is usually interpreted in terms of a narrative or discourse which positions  Australia as 'provincial' and whose culture has been derived from elsewhere. 

Historically, Australians, living in a settler colony,  lacked their own cultural traditions,  and so they  created their local or national culture by  appropriating bits or fragments  from the  cultures of the imperial centres. The next step was to find a possibility of originality in Australia within this relationship of dependency between centre and periphery. 


The key text here is Bernard Smith's European Vision and the South Pacific. In this text Smith argued that  European  generated concepts and visual design are not simply imported and assimilated,  but are also transformed by the experience of the regional culture into a hybrid form, which in turn informs the national tradition. The originality lies in the interpretation of the overseas influences and concepts as expressed in the work produced  within Australia.

Unlike the US no  institutional offshoot of the  Bauhaus was established in Australia,  and so  the worn-out  pre-modern design clichés of traditionalist Australia remained locked into place. The modernist style--- that is, geometry of  form, clarity, sharp angles and straight lines--- only emerged in the 1960s. This was  40 years after the Bauhaus was first established in Weimar Germany by Walter Gropius, with its emphasis on founding a  new utopian language of colour and form. 

Hence the sense of Australia as being a provincial and conservative culture hostile to modernist art by those migrant artists fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany in the early 30's and soon after from most of Europe.   Hence their  need to ‘de-provincialise’ Australia  by providing expanded cultural horizons through responding to an emerging industrial Australia by  embracing an international modernist  art (abstraction) with a universal language. 

According to this vision of modernity Australian culture was to be made continuously modern, Australian photography could become part of the art institution,  and Australian visual culture  could be internationalised. This European modernism, with its contempt for the aesthetic forms of the past and its celebration of the machine, envisioned a world cleansed of traditional forms and hierarchies of values. Modernism celebrated the romance of cities, the healthy body and the ideals of abstraction and functionalism in design.

The American formalist  modernism of Clement Greenberg overlaid this 'new way of seeing' with an emphasis on the  concept of medium specificity. In his texts Greenberg argued that there were inherent qualities specific to each different artistic medium, and part of the modernist project involved creating artworks that were more and more 'about' their particular medium. Abstract  modernism in the higher arts (ie., painting and sculpture) represented a withdrawal from reality to pursue their self-reflexive exploration of formal problems, whilst  photography was left to get on with its routine (pre-modernist) task of picturing the world.

John Szarkowski argued the modernist case  for art photography as a specific medium by outlining the specific characteristics of the medium in The Photographer's Eye. These unique characteristics---the thing itself, the detail, the frame,  time, and vantage point---- differentiate the photographic medium  from other visual art-forms such as painting or printmaking. Photography for the American formalists was a specific type of medium with its own seeing and aesthetic. 

This formalism  offered  straight photography a bridge into the art gallery and art market; into a world where style was the means of histyorical evaluation  and  the autonomy of art was translated into a space constituted by discrete objects linearly hung on austere white walls to be  viewed by the gaze of  the disinterested  spectator.  Modernism became the official culture of the art institution--galleries, magazines, market, academia--- and it defined the agenda for institutional collecting, exhibiting, research and scholarship and histories. 

outside the pale of modernist art history

As the 1970s came to a close Minimal and Conceptual Art  had run their course in the art institution. Minimal Art had eschewed the image, the end game of formalist modernism, and   deflected visual  art (ie., painting) from its representational agenda to a new agenda in which the means of representation became the object of representation. 

Conceptual Art had produced socially and politically-orientated works often combining snap-shot like pictures with text to impart messages and to circumvent the  modernist art establishment.  For conceptual artists, the typically black-and-white and often amateurish photograph was a document, which often combined with text and exhibited in open-ended series.

The deskilled, amaterurish photographs of Conceptual Art (eg., Ed Ruscha's book Twentysix Gasoline Stations) were seen to open up the possibility of art offering  sufficient resistance to the equalization of images produced by the culture industry. Conceptual artists rejected and deconstructed the traditional aestheticism of art photography,  and conceptual art demonstrated that there need not even be a palpable visual object for something to be a work of visual art.  Hence the end of art talk.

The new love of photography that emerged in the 1980s after conceptual art involved a photography that took its cues from painting: it was pictorial and in colour, thus abjuring  both the abstract, black-and-white characteristics of the late modernist art photography,  and Conceptual Art's conception of black-and-white and often amateurish photographs as a document.This new colour photography  included William Eggleston, Jan Groover, Joel Meyerowitz, Lucas Samaras, Stephen Shore and Richard Misrach.

It highlighted that modern art  had a stylistic meaning and a temporal meaning, that painting and photography were different ways of making pictures and that contemporary art had stopped being modernist  art.


What emerged from this pictorial turn was an understanding of  a photograph as a picture that was both based on depiction or representation and was an autonomous image. It was a return to, and enfranchisment of,  what lay outside the pale of modernist  history.

Today there is no longer any pale of history. The idea of pure medium has been deconstructed with the hybrid art practices of Jeff Wall and Gerhard Richter that merged the mediums of painting and photography. Everything is now permitted. Artists are free to make art in whatever way they wished, for any purposes they wished, or for no purposes at all. 

Urban Life

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, Anne Jacobs argued  for the virtues of close-knit, inner-city life, developed organically and built over time in opposition to  the modernist  kind of postwar planning  of the mid-century city planners. These favoured free way building, exemplified  best  by Robert Moses  who wanted to run a 10-lane elevated highway through the middle of Washington Square Park.  

The modernist planners  assumed that they knew best, and saw the wholesale remaking of the urban landscape and along with it the displacement of entire communities as essential in creating the  modernist city of the future. This form of  planning theory blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems.

 Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejected the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. Jacobs advocated for “mixed-use” urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. 

Opposing expressways and supporting neighborhoods were common themes in  Australian cities in the 1960s. In Adelaide this took the form of The Metropolitan Adelaide Transport Study or the MATS Plan which was deeply opposed.  In opposition to the vision  of a cookie-cutter corporate city of glass-box office towers, high-rise apartments, and limited-access highways some of those who opposed the MATS Plan  wanted Adelaide to develop as a more European type city with high density housing and a stronger emphasis on public transport.

Those who advocated the latter  held the view that  a mixed-use, densely populated but still human-scale city  was  best fostered not by suburban plots or indeed by towering residential high-rises but by something in between, by a mix of four- or six- or nine-storey buildings in which people live and work and go back and forth “on different schedules” and for “different purposes.” 

What has happened since the 1970s is that urban neighbourhoods  have gone  from being edgy and gritty working class  to trendy and chic-- the process of middle-class gentrification. What has emerged is what Richard Florida terms the ‘creative class’: the trendy little shops of entrepreneurial designers, nouvelle cuisine restaurants and cappuccino bars, microbreweries, galleries, and the like. 

Smart Growth

Smart growth is the new buzz word for urban development.   This is understood by  the Adelaide City Council as a vibrant, populous and sustainable Capital City built upon Adelaide’s heritage and lifestyle. Behind it sits the UN's Agenda 21 that addresses sustainable development in the world’s cities.

This primarily takes the form of  a residential development that aims to bring more people into the city and to develop under-utilised land into medium to high density residential land uses. It is a reaction to a sprawling,  doughnut city;  and  it is designed to  both reduce car use and to intensively redevelop within established suburbs (greyfield areas) in order to  transform Australia's major cities into more sustainable environments.

The state government's 30 year Plan for Greater Adelaide  includes easing urban congestion, expanding public transport, preserving open space, bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances. It encourages redevelopment around public transportation hubs, valuing communities and neighbourhoods and promoting equitable and affordable housing.  

There is a lot of resistance to smart growth and the new urbanism's high density mixed use living.  This urban design  is seen as anti-suburban and  lefty green. Those opposed say that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights. 

drifting

The Situationist idea of psychogeography is structured around the interplay between the subjective imagination and feelings on the one hand and urban space and built environment on the other. One of psychogeographical  principle means of exploring an urnan space was dérive or drift. To drift was to notice the way in which certain areas, streets, or buildings resonates with  the walker's states of mind,  inclinations and desires, and to seek out 

I  often aimlessly stroll through the city to take photos. It is an an escape from daily routine  that  enables  me to look at my urban  environment in a fresh way.

During  my photowalks in the city I notice the empty offices and empty shops and  the newspaper headlines about the empty factories as manufacturing goes offshsore.  I shudder, and drift into a new car park.  This, along with the  freeway and ring road,  is an icon of  the automobile age. Cars are an object of desire; a status symbol for the wealthy, an aspiration for the poor.

In the carpark electronic music rings in my ears and  I hear the sound of heavy metal on a car radio as it races around the car park looking for a parking space. The music expresses  the starkness of the modernist conception of a city---a machine for machines to live in.  I remember Le Corbusier's  1925 "Plan Voisin," that was sponsored by a then famous automobile manufacturer.

Corbusier's  "Plan Voisin,"  was designed for a flat topography devoid of natural features such as hills and rivers. In it, Le Corbusier  proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with his sixty-story cruciform towers from the Contemporary City, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. 

The carparks located on the street grid in Adelaide signify the city as a work and pleasure centre in a commercial culture.  Car parks are devoid of people and social hope. They are sites of surveillance and security guards, with wire netting across the bars of the open  edges to prevent people from jumping off the roof to the street below.  Their eerie silence suggests the clsoing  of the sprawling car-based  city of the late 20th century.

 

We walk amongst the changes to the city and accept them, but if you scratch beneath the surface of urban life you uncover different historical layers, oddities and particularities that are currently being erased by a global culture and market.