We erect our structure in the imagination before we erect in reality.
Introduction: The Art of Critical Practice
A critical photography series will inevitably draw upon a wide spectrum of critical traditions in theorizing the complex relations between image, text and social practice. The assemblage of photograph and critical analysis is designed to produce a creative dialogue between knowing and seeing, a differential space where two discrete systems of representation work not to determine each other but to expand a common horizon of possibility for contemporary photographic practice. The philosophical antecedents of the critical perspective can be found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), where mental structures are said to precede our experience of the world, as a basis for knowing how we come to know about things. De Certeau argues that in The Critique of Judgement (1790) Kant identifies an ‘art of thinking…a practical knowledge’ (1988: 72) in the ‘relation between the art of operating (Kunst) and science (Wissenschaft), or between a technique (Technik) and theory (Theorie)’ (ibid: 72). The “Kantian channel” (Foucault in Raunig: 2008) in European Modernism has given rise to numerous critical philosophies, which themselves go beyond Kant’s interpretive model for investigating the subjective limits of knowledge. Operating within the “Kantian channel” Gerald Raunig re-evaluates Foucault’s lecture What is Critique? (1971) to suggest an art and technique of the critical project as the basis for an effective poetics of social action, a productive mode of aesthetics emerging in spaces of ‘re-composition and invention’ (Raunig: 2008); a place occupied by the resistant image in the art of the critical photograph.
Raunig’s emphasis on the transformative power of thought resonates with Karl Marx’s (1818-83) famous dictum ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’ (Marx: 1845), which develops Kant’s critical sensibility into a material praxis that offers a critical understanding of the individual’s subjectivity as the product of a collective social and historical situation. In Capital Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (1867) Marx adapts Hegel’s dialectical method to his radical political philosophy of historical materialism, which argues that consciousness is determined by the socio-economic realities of work in the newly industrialized cities of modernity. Marx introduced philosophy to the political struggles of everyday life, and in the process provided the basis for the critical tradition in the social sciences. The critical theory that we associate with the establishment of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in 1923 has its origins in revisionist Marxist thought, and in particular the sociology of Max Weber (1864-1920) and Georg Simmel (1858-1918). Simmel’s essay The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) develops an early critical perspective on the urban experience of modernity in its analysis of how the individual forms a sensory relation to the city, and in turn is reconstituted as the fragmented, alienated subject of modern life. Simmel’s writings influenced the urban sociology of the Chicago School, in particular the work of Robert E. Park (1864-1944) who saw the city as a kind of laboratory for mapping the complex social ecologies of the urban environment. Contemporaneous with the Second Chicago School were the urban photographs of Harry Callahan (1912-1999) who taught at the Institute of Design, Chicago from 1946-1961. Callahan’s images are the equivalent of Simmel’s alienated perspective, their geometric repetition emphasizing the ‘formal composition of the image…even to the point of distortion and beyond’ (Rexer 2009: 103); the critical photograph reflecting the reified topographies of the modern city.
The social historians and philosophers of the Frankfurt School re-interpreted Marxist thought in modes of critical theory capable of apprehending the mediatization of life in metropolitan cities, emphasizing the power of the image as ideological surface and cultural interface in the visual economy of capital. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) in particular, saw a cultural convergence between politics and aesthetics, and sought to illuminate the dialectal character of images in unconventional forms of critical discourse. Benjamin turned the production of critical histories into something of an artform, his ‘open source’ Marxism an attempt to grasp the cultural complexity of everyday life, where the fleeting, fragmentary experience is like a crystal of our wider historical condition. In the art of critique, Benjamin induces a heightened awareness of the socio-historical relations between technical processes of modernization, the lived experience of those processes in modernity, and their cultural representation in modernist aesthetics. In One Way Street (1928) Modernism is pressed into action,
its constellations of images, aphorisms and juxtapositions are intended to be a form of thinking in pictures (Bilddenken) from which understanding emerges without having to be expounded (Macey 2000: 38)
It was no coincidence that Benjamin and his contemporaries perceived photography, and later film, as sites of cultural contestation, where the social function of images was open to historical modes of critique. Painters, poets, photographers and filmmakers alike were not simply representing the city they were creating it in critical productions of modern life. In all its dynamism and cultural complexity urban experience could be sampled, filtered and synthesized through the intelligent surface of the critical image; ‘thinking in pictures’ becomes constructive criticism in the work of art, reverberating like visual feedback in the “Kantian channel” of European Modernism.
In a photographic study developed over four years, Unmapping the City traverses the critical history of modernist aesthetics, as the creative condition of possibility for connecting retrospective forms of abstraction to new perspectives in contemporary urban photography, a process shaped by the ‘implicit recognition of a historical transition from the representational priority of “surface” to that of “interface”. (Burgin 1996: 157). In practice, Unmapping the City develops a versatile flatness that shifts between modernist surface and the visual interface of post-modernity, as the contemporary city is conveyed (transported) through multiple layers of sensation. The photographic effect is to deconstruct the three-dimensional built environment in ‘perspectives of flatness’, which in turn re-construct a critical sensibility toward the concrete, rationalized spaces of urban cartography. The conscious representations of a particular place in all its architectural and geographical features are subsumed into a more suggestible surface of abstraction, as the photograph becomes a cultural index of the unknowable City, and in the process re-instates a dialectical relationship between individual perception and the vast complexities of urban life.
The unknowable City exposes the established order of space as a cartographic fantasy of the rational mind (‘everything in its right place’), which is encountered in the ‘actual’ city that we think we know as a matter of routine, while editing out the peripheral details that elude the frame of our everyday lives. In the art of critical practice our vantage point is closer to that of the private detective of noir fiction, who casts an inquisitive gaze over a shadow city of sinister encounters, ambivalent places and shifting perspectives, where the ambiguous narrative of the ‘detective story functioned as a tool giving shape to this increasingly abstract and seemingly amorphous urban terrain’. (McQuire 2008: 48) In a world of appearances things are called into question and interrogated through the lens of uncertainty, which in the critical photograph of Unmapping the City, becomes a visual technique for manifesting the structure of an urban unconscious.
The photographer adopts the method of the psychoanalyst to retrieve a critical image of the city, as the photograph restores to perception the information that remains absent, like a blind spot in the individual’s urban conscious. A superficial patina of uniformity is rendered through the strategic use of the close up and a filtering down of colour tones, a homogenous surface resistant to signification, not dissimilar to the alien indifference of the unwieldy city. The dynamic relation between the unknowable City, photographer and photograph, resembles the topology of the imaginary, symbolic and real in Lacanian psychoanalysis,
The real is not simply synonymous with external reality, and nor is it simply the antonym of ‘imaginary’. It exists outside or beyond the symbolic, is menacingly homogenous, and is not composed of distinct and differential signifiers (Macey 2000: 324)
The undifferentiated surfaces in Unmapping the City, recall the ‘difficult’ or resistant aesthetics of the modern artwork, they require some visual analysis on the part of the viewer who like the urban detective carries out a critical investigation into what might have been missed, scratching at the surface in order to make sense, to become susceptible to the powerful affects of the critical image, as an interface with the unconscious perspectives of the unknowable City. In its proximity to the real, the shadow city of a depleted and repressed Modernism resurfaces in the photograph in a process of cultural transference, a critical technique for screening the Otherness of the contemporary European city, which might otherwise elude more conventional methods of signification.
The art of critique informs the practices of established disciplines, and occasionally acts as a tacit knowledge upon which a formalized discourse can be founded, as was the case with Freudian psychoanalysis. Philosophers, historians, social scientists and psychoanalysts who develop techniques of critical practice share a desire to question the limits of understanding with a view to creating new conditions of possibility. Working at the threshold sense, these critically minded individuals tend to situate themselves in connective practices that pertain to their own field and those of other disciplines, their versatility stemming from the indeterminate nature of the differential position, as a place for making differences. Critical spaces of ‘re-composition and invention’ (Raunig: 2008) are not the formalized, rational discourses of the individual’s specific discipline, they are the un-thought, emergent practices of critique that in the arts occupy a privileged position as purely creative practices without specific rationales, and which are entirely of a ‘manouvrier knowledge’. (de Certeau, 1988: 68)
In the context of de Certeau’s chapter on The Arts of Theory (ibid: 61-76) ‘manouvrier knowledge’ translates as the intelligent labour of the workman or artisan, a sense derived from the subtle meanings of manoeuvre, which encompass the versatile act of dexterity and skill, the strategic movement either military or political, the tactic, and the co-ordinated approach. The art of the critical photograph approaches the cultural mobility of the sign beyond the frame, and in Unmapping the City, traverses the urban terrain in a series of creative manoeuvres that are shaped by the contingency of the photographic event. The photographer’s ‘manouvrier knowledge’ translates into the versatile ‘perspective of flatness’ that cuts across and moves between structures of reality and imagination in the city, connecting modernist aesthetics to urban perspectives to photographic event, in the currency of contemporary visual practice. The following chapters illuminate the discursive frames of this versatile photograph not to explain it in terms of representations, but rather to show how it works as a type of ‘manouvrier knowledge’ for Unmapping the City.
The Urban Perspective of Modernity
The genre of urban photography has played a significant role in the ‘materialization of an urban system of perspective’ (McQuire, 2008: 37), commencing with Charles Marville’s photographic survey of the destruction of Ancient Paris and its subsequent re-construction in the regulated spaces of the modern city. Marville’s photographs are part of the historical ‘‘territory of images’’ (Sekula in McQuire, 2008: 45) that overlay the rationalized spaces of modernity with a virtual architecture of signs. Unmapping the City builds a critical interface between the historical territory of images and the contemporary city, a place for making perspectives in the architecture of the imagination, which originates in the Modernism of nineteenth century Paris, its most notable exponents the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) and the Impressionist painter Edouard Manet (1832-83). In Loss of a Halo Baudelaire reveals a new sensibility toward the mundane experience of the everyday, at the moment in history when high art descends into the commercial life of the city’s streets,
the point at which the world of art and the ordinary world converge…is not only a spiritual point but a physical one, a point in the landscape of the modern city. It is the point where the history of modernization and the history of Modernism fuse into one. (Berman, 1983: 156 – 57)
If today we take the spiritual to approximate the psychological, Unmapping the City resonates with Saul Bellow’s architecture of the imagination in the The Bellarosa Connection (1989); ‘You can never dismantle all these modern mental structures. There are so many of them that they face you like an interminable vast city’. Emerging from the social and historical complexities of the urban environment are a thousand cities of the imagination as the shadow architectures of perception, encountered as the by-product of a City conceived in modernity. These other places are the yet to be experienced vicinities of the city, the interstitial places that materialize in the gaps between ‘perspective seeing’ and ‘perspective knowing’, un-thought and unseen layers of imagination that exist within the same place. Unmapping the City invites the viewer to extend their photographic imagination into the material substance of the urban fabric, to interface with the ‘interminable vast city’ in a subtle form of urban poetics. In the versatile ‘perspective of flatness’ the infrastructure of the modern city merges with the info-structure of urban photography; a retrospective insight into the discourse of Modernism, and a prospective lens through which to encounter the aesthetics of the contemporary city.
The aesthetics of modernity are inseparable from the transformation of the urban landscape in mid-nineteenth century Europe, expressed in and through the construction, expansion and habitation of cities. The Modernism of the metropolis is closely connected to the history of urban reconstruction as Harvey explains in The Condition of Postmodernity,
Modernism, after 1848, was very much an urban phenomenon…in a restless but intricate relationship with the experience of explosive urban growth (several cities surging above the million mark by the end of the century), strong rural to urban migration, industrialization, mechanization, massive re-orderings of built environments, and politically based urban movements, of which the revolutionary uprisings in Paris in 1848 and 1871 were a clear but ominous symbol. (Harvey, 1989: 25)
In Paris between 1852 and 1870 Baron Haussmann commenced a programme of public works for Napoleon III that resulted in a ‘massive re-ordering’ of the built environment, which sets an historical precedent for the systematic practice of urban planning, in which ‘geometry and arithmetic take on the power of the scalpel’. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987: 212) Public space was increasingly organized around the commercial practice of real estate development, as Haussmann implemented his programme of public works in the construction of new apartment blocks and department stores on the boulevards of central Paris. The architectural facades of the city assumed a more uniform character, as the result of an economic imperative to build faster and higher than ever before. The cultural force of Modernism begins to take shape in the social survey of the straight line, reflected in the grid pattern of streets and the formal divisions and subdivisions of space into blocks, quarters and districts, a guiding principle of urban design for most major international cities in the modern period.
The modernization of Paris involved a different type of thinking about how to organize social life in the metropolis. The modern city was conceived as an urban design, ‘a picture of how the environment ought to be made, a description of a form or a process which is a prototype to follow’ (Lynch in Grahame Shane, 2005: 31). The modern perspective was first an attitude toward the ideal cityscape, realised in the cartography of the mind and built by architects, planners and engineers in the growing infrastructure of urban life. The modern preoccupation with ‘the model way of life’, found a place in the popular discourse of the model citizen, model employee, fashion model, role model, as various expressions of an individual psychology, which had the tendency to take things out of context and separate them from the social complexity of the everyday situation. The Impressionist paintings of Gustav Caillebotte (1848–94) had the appearance of an ‘architect’s impression’ of Paris’s new boulevards, their flatness of colour and photo-realism depicted a city abstracted from the particularities everyday life. The virtual feeling conveyed in Caillebotte’s street scenes was part of a wider historical shift toward a society of appearances, mediated in the surface experience of the city’s burgeoning commodity culture. The new perspectives of the modern metropolis were designed to meet the business requirements of the bourgeoisie for a model boulevard, capable of increasing the flow of consumers, commodities and capital in the economic life of the city.
In a city governed by economic cycles of production and consumption the pace of urban life began to accelerate, as the demands of technological progress, economic transformation and political upheaval, countered the individual’s ability to grasp the complex state of affairs that was perceived to be modern. The artistic search for a modern perspective was driven by the need to provide an image that could somehow reconcile the fragmented nature of urban experience,
The aesthetic as a synthesizer of values, relations and forces… a point of reflection, identification and orientation for the subject in relation to its community and to the world (McMahon, 2002: 4)
There is no single perspective of modernity as the sheer scale, speed and complexity of modernization and its social effects are, in a sense, incomprehensible for the modern individual, hence the decisive role of cultural productions in making perspectives of modern experience, based on the tendency of the image to capture an imaginary ‘complete picture’ of understanding from the social complexities of everyday life. Cultural perceptions of ‘the everyday’ were framed in and through the act of looking at things; the enchantment of the commodity, the allure of the department store window, the spectacles of the modern city, all combined to make the social and historical perspective of the modern individual a primarily aesthetic experience. The city is mediated in ‘perspectives of flatness’ and at the same time negotiated in images as ‘sites of struggle… where powers converge but are also produced’. (Tagg, 1988: 148) A cultural technique of vision found expression in the voyeuristic character of the flaneur, whose obsession with the act of looking invests a surplus of meaning in the imaginary surfaces of the city.
The Productive Gaze: From Flaneur to Aperture
A long history of cultural observation originates in the character of the flaneur, whose urban gaze in the The Painter of Modern Life is likened to a
kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness…reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life. He is an ‘I’ with an insatiable appetite for the ‘non I’, at every instant rendering and explaining it in pictures more living than life itself, which is always unstable and fugitive (Baudelaire, 1964: 9)
The flaneur is a uniquely modern character who goes walking in the city, the detached observer of everyday life whose poetic vision is considered a ‘perspective seeing’ central to the social production of modernity, insofar as the ‘circumstances of Modernism were not modern, and only became so by being given the forms called spectacle’. (Clark 1985: 15). In the streets of the modern city there is a type of cultural labour that is reflected in a whole spectrum of visual techniques – sightseeing, window shopping, getting the latest ‘look’, the snapshot, the encounter, the glimpse – which together create the myth of a privileged social observer. The modern metropolis is as much a network of glances as it is a site of commercial exchange, its visual economy is produced in a thousand tiny perspectives, which accumulate into the spectacle of urban life; ‘in thousands of eyes, in thousands of objects, the city is reflected’. (Benjamin in Gilloch, 1997: 6) The cultural activity of making perspectives became central to the process of representing urban life, as artists, writers and photographers searched for a visual language capable of expressing the complex social exchange between the modernisation of the city and the lived experience of modernity.
The cultural discourse of the flaneur mediates the historical transition from the Classical to the Modern period, and is crucial in providing Modernism with its visual perspective. In an increasingly mechanised society with a capacity for the mass production of images the flaneur became the commodified ‘non I’ of a modern identity forged in the acquisition of things, whereby individual sensations were destined to take precedence over sensibility and consumption over conviviality,
As flaneur, Baudelaire ‘empathized himself into the soul of the commodity’. His empathy sprang from a mimetic capacity which itself paralleled the commodity’s capacity to take on various meanings (Buck-Morss 1989: pp186–7)
Baudelaire readily embraces the surface experience of the modern city, as he becomes a cultural mirror reflecting the alienated vision of ‘a thousand eyes’ hypnotized by the allure of department store windows. In the dreamscape of the city a surreal experience prevails, exemplified by the brief encounter, the fleeting glimpse of all that is fugitive and contingent. Despite his antagonism toward photography, condemned in The Modern Public and Photography as ‘art’s mortal enemy’, Baudelaire creates the possibility for an auto-poetic technique of vision, which is similar to the reflex of the camera. In a modern labour of perception the photographer, painter and poet share a common ground in their efforts to capture the surface effects of life in the city, an experience made possible by the historic convergence of urban design, photographic technology and the aesthetics of modern painting.
In America photography was driving the new visual economy its popularity initially due to the mass appeal of the portrait; there were ‘86 photographic studios in New York City’ (Morris, 1989: online) by 1853 producing hundreds of images on a daily basis. In Paris the portrait studios of the photographer Nadar, born Gaspard-Felix Tournachon were the most notorious, as Nadar was a character not unlike Baudelaire having worn many hats as a publicist, playwright, bohemian and journalist. It was in the photograph though that Nadar was able to realize what was fast becoming the psychological face of modernity, insofar as the mental life of the individual would take precedence over the social infrastructure of the city. Although he operated a highly commercial portrait business, Nadar’s subjects included many key figures in the cultural hierarchy of Paris such as Sarah Bernhardt, Gustave Courbet, Jules Verne, Claude Monet, Louis-Jacques Daguerre, Edouard Manet, and despite his dislike of photography Charles Baudelaire. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) was inspired by Nadar’s attempt to ‘map the city’ from the elevated perspective of his balloon Le Geant (The Giant), and by 1858 he was able to produce aerial photographs which flattened the entire urban landscape into a single plane of the geographic portrait. Nadar’s growing commercial success enabled him to invest in Fine Art, as he became a major patron and friend to key painters in the Impressionist circle who in 1874 held their first exhibition Nadar’s studios on the Boulevard des Capucines.
The Impressionist painters were among the first to appropriate the views of the new boulevards as subject matter for a painterly survey of the city, adopting the balcony as readymade vantage point for extending a voyeuristic gaze into the throng of public space. Although drawn toward the fleeting and contingent, the Impressionists had a tendency to distance themselves from the melee, using the photograph as a mere template for representing a pastoral ideal of metropolitan nature. In abstracting themselves from the industry of everyday life the Impressionist’s constructed an architectural gaze, which surveyed the cityscape from the detached position of the urban voyeur. In 1873 Monet painted a view of the Boulevard des Capucines from the balcony of Nadar’s photography studio, a composition influenced by the elevated perspectives in the emerging genre of urban photography. The painting contains two bourgeois gentlemen surveying the boulevards from a different vantage point to that of the painter’s on the balcony; the intersection of gazes at once a ‘figuring out’ of modern perspective and the architectural transformation of the city.
The boulevard scenes of Camille Pissarro further develop the elevated perspective into a painterly survey of the new Paris. In 1897 Pissarro commenced a series of Neo Impressionist works, which developed into a study of the Boulevard Montmartre portrayed across changing seasons. The images convey a vertiginous feeling of leaning forward into the painting as the viewer is drawn toward the frenetic energy of the streets, a sensation heightened by the close proximity of a flattened perspective. Pissarro captured the contingent nature of everyday life by adapting a technique from the photographic survey in reproductions of the same vantage point from a room at the Hotel de Russie; the difference ‘between the position of people in the street from one Boulevard painting to another is so slight that we could be looking at photographs of the same scene, taken only moments apart’. (Ward 2007: online) In the Impressionist’s survey of Paris there is a slippage from Baudelaire’s flaneur of social observation to an aesthetic of surveillance, where the painter assumes a controlling gaze directed toward the streets below. In the contemporary field of vision the CCTV camera takes up the position of the automated flaneur, casting a thousand electronic eyes across the city.
The modern flaneur navigates the visual excess of the urban terrain, as new perspectives spring up everywhere like so many sideshows, as the everyday life of the city is compressed into socio-historical structures of the spectacle. The flaneur becomes a visual sampler of commodity culture, piecing together a multifaceted city and refracting it through the artist’s prism of the visual fragment. Surrounded by surfaces and flattened perspectives on all sides, the flaneur’s sense of space no longer accords with the views of classical geometry,
Euclidean and perspectivist space have disappeared as systems of reference, along with other former ‘common places’ such as town, history, paternity, the tonal system in music, traditional morality and so forth. This was a truly crucial moment. (Lefebvre in Harvey, 1989: 266)
The crucial moment is the disappearance of a coherent social and historical perspective into the bits and pieces of everyday life, where meaning becomes a side effect in the ever-changing rules of abstraction. It is a crisis amplified by the photograph, intensified by the moving image, of a reality both multiple and contingent, ‘there were many spaces in reality as there were perspectives on it…there are as many realities as points of view’. (Kern in Harvey 1989: 268) The flaneur’s gaze of visual excess opens up a versatile perspective, an optical modulation of the city grounded in the elusive experience of the sign.
Nowhere is this visual excess more evident than in Manet’s seminal work, A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1882). The composition is a ‘painting of surfaces’ (Clark, 1985: 248) that corresponds to the flattening out of social relations, where everything is appearance and facade in a commodity culture of uncertainty. The woman at the bar resembles a mannequin from the department store windows on the boulevards, her gaze emptied out of all emotion she appears as ‘merchandise’ in a range of luxury goods displayed across the counter. The mirror behind her resists its conventional role as reflector of reality and instead skewers our perception, like a rogue camera presenting us with a de-formed snapshot of modern life. The barmaid and the ‘gentleman’ directly in front of her should not appear in the plane of reflection, their spectral forms like Baudelaire’s ‘non I’ of the disembodied self image. In the non-reflective painting Manet emphasizes the flatness of the picture as a means of drawing our attention to the emptiness of the image and its abstract qualities as a surface. The painting brings together multiple layers of flatness and works them into the uncertain canvas of modernity, intermixing reality and imagination in the alienated perspective of modern life.
Although considered a member of the Impressionist’s by art historians Manet’s artwork resists classification, shifting its visual registers between Classicism and Modernism, abstraction and realism. In the art historical canon Manet’s paintings are considered central to the genesis of modern art, and yet remain marginal to the artistic movements of the day – he avoided exhibiting with the Impressionists preferring the Salon as the arena to prove his talent. Manet utilizes the historical residues of a disappearing, fragmented Classicism, which are relayed and recomposed in the painterly surface of modernity; working with and against the grain of modernist aesthetics to produce critical images, which challenge the mimetic nature of paintings as iconic signs of resemblance. A Bar at the Folies Bergere represents an ambiguous type of realism, flattened and abstracted from everyday experience, it becomes a poetic fold in modernity, a less frequented vicinity of early Modernism expressed in the painter’s aesthetic of a deformed social reality,
Manet’s expression of these conditions is so intensified that it is possible to see his work as a classicism of estrangement. The figures he paints and represents are simultaneously palpable…and yet disintegrated, hollowed and even incipiently deconstructed by their inscription with this crisis of perspective. In this process of emptying, they become emblematic of the new ‘fragmentary’ type of person produced within capitalism, the person who ‘empathizes with commodities’ (Wall, 2002: 83-86)
In a manner similar to that of Baudelaire, Manet empathizes with the estranged surface conditions of modern life and incorporates them into a new approach to picture making. To be modern is to be abstract, detached, partial and yet absorbed by the supra-individual sensations that inform the perceptions of the modern individual. In locating their images as hinges between imagination and reality, both Manet and Baudelaire inhabit an ambivalent space in Modernism that recalls the photography of Unmapping the City; ‘a field of decoded perceptions’ (Johnston, 1999: 27) realized in the uncanny perspectives of the differential image, the in-between visual spaces that resist definition. In twentieth century Modernism, surrealist photographers filtered the city through the lens of dissolution and made new perspectives emerge at the threshold of cultural sense. Surrealism installed a revolving door between imagination and reality that ‘made photography the intimate ally of flaneuring’ (Roberts, 1998: 106), insofar as the photograph can make visible the unconscious but tangible experience of the modern city.
Surrealist Perspectives: The Unfamiliar City
There is a sense in which the surreal photograph evokes the ‘classicism of estrangement’ identified by Jeff Wall in the paintings of Manet, a contingent but legible perspective in which physical things remain discernable and to some degree composed in the field of vision, while perceptions are attuned to objects of the imagination. Giorgio de Chirico’s paintings are imbued with this ambivalent perspective of estranged classicism, through allusion to a realm of the urban unconscious,
De Chirico’s city was not only a space to put next to the actual city, but also one to place – palimpsest like – over it, so that the actual city and the imagined city were fused. Reality was infiltrated by the dream, the present infiltrated by the past (Walker, 2002: 37)
In the surrealist’s architecture of the imagination, reality becomes flexible and open to negotiation as the borders separating physical and psychical space are compromised. Unmapping the City perceives an urban landscape infiltrated by the ambivalent objects of imagination and reality, composites of surreal perspective, which disturb the rational order of the architect’s design.
The surrealist influence on urban photography extends beyond a strictly art historical definition of the surreal, to inform processes of redefinition or resurfacing that loosen photography from the confines of pictorial conventions. Elements of a documentary surrealism that emerge from a uniquely urban experience are evident in iconic works of modernist photography, where reconstructed spaces of abstract realism stutter at the edge of definition: the flattened architecture of shadows merging with the urban fabric of the city in Paul Strand’s From the Viaduct (1916), or Alfred Stieglitz’s Old and New New York (1910), its ghost-like skyscraper ‘under construction’, like a stage set behind the old city in the foreground. Germaine Krull’s aesthetics of modernization in the portfolio Metal (1928) include details of the Eiffel Tower, which appear as photo-motifs for an industrial dreamscape, the vertiginous perspective and sense of disorientation redefine the tower as a scaffold for the imagination, rather than a structure in own right. Strand’s Wall Street (1915)recalls the sinister classicism and skewered perspective of de Chirico’s Metaphysical Town Square series (1910–1919), the scene forced into a sharp angle and flattened across the picture plane, as the commuters recede like shadows into the architecture of estrangement. The solidity of Wall Street’s authority is for a brief moment framed in an uncertain symmetry of form and content; ‘with your soft focus lens you destroy the solidity of your forms…and the line diffused is no longer a line’ (Strand, 1917: online)
The surrealist photographers of twentieth century Paris, adapted the flaneur’s gaze as an instrument for diffusing a singular reality, composing virtual cities from the unconscious perspectives that exist within the same place. The surreal perspective becomes an exercise in poetic observation, the photograph a ‘pattern of interference’ (Holland, 1999: 14) in the ebb and flow of everyday events; in the chance encounter of the deserted boulevard, the blind alley, the uncanny ‘found object’, there emerges a two way street between ‘perspective knowing’ and ‘perspective seeing’, where the pictorial conventions of realism begin to break down and yet continue to refer to the photograph’s status as an index of reality. In the surreal city things are made to appear that in most circumstances remain ‘off the map’, resurfacing in the photograph as a place for seeing, a theatre of abstraction where the unfamiliar finds expression. The photograph becomes an ambivalent surface for filtering the unconscious reality of the city,
Surrealism was more concerned with working out of the symbolic spaces and thresholds that psychoanalysis advanced in its revision of the relationship between object and subject, its internalization of the social world in the individual. Thus as a site of the unconscious, the city – Paris – exists as a place of confrontation between desire, loss and the social world (Roberts, 1998: 110)
The surrealist street photographers negotiate the visual fragments of Manet and Baudelaire in a social pathology of allusion, the virtual city a diagnostic screen for translating unconscious desires into the visual architectures of the sign.
In twentieth century Paris de Chirico’s uncanny classicism continued to exert an influence on surrealist photography, in images empty of a human presence, or which contained solitary or blurred individuals as marginal to the subject matter. The sense of urban estrangement was heightened through a flattening of the depth of field, oblique perspectives and unorthodox tonal contrasts, in streets taken out of context and drawn by the camera toward the unfamiliar realm of abstraction. The photographs of Jaques-Andre Boiffard subvert the ‘official classicized cityscape’ (Walker 2002: 38) by dislocating landmark statues and monuments, their ground made uncertain by the very condition of their abstraction from the commotion of everyday life. Boiffard’s ‘matter of fact’ photographs of hotels, café’s and shop windows achieve a similar effect through their association with the imaginary landscape of Andre Breton’s novel Nadja (1928), as the mundane aspects of everyday life, its blasé surfaces tinged with indifference, assume a poetic quality in connection with the imaginary landscape of the novel. Structures of imagination and reality converge in the creative faculty of the viewer, who approaching the scene with a literary sensibility, experiences a different place from the one provided in the photograph.
The photographs of Eugene Atget (1857-1927) were adopted by the Surrealists as totemic of the urban unconscious, his blind alleys, shop windows, signs and stairwells, organized into serial encounters with the unfamiliar city,
Far from being one-off snapshots, seeking to mark particular moments, Atget’s photographs aim to withdraw items from actuality and present them as variants of a basic model (Sheringham, 2006: 87)
Atget’s withdrawal from ‘actuality’ evokes the magical terrain of the dreamscape, encountered in the uncanny scene of Rue St Jacques (1906), its facades covered by a whole architecture of signs. In the tradition of Baudelaire and Manet, Atget aligns himself with the empty surfaces of the imagined city, conveyed in his photographs through an air of indifference that is at once seductive and unnerving; the flaneur’s perspective drawn into a forensic gaze of detection, where uncanny streets and deserted alleyways evoke a feeling of noir abstraction. Atget exposes a strange sense of absence in a city ‘spirited away’ by the cultural mobility of the sign, a world suspended in mediation, which almost a century later is retrieved by Baudrillard in The Perfect Crime,
The photo is not an image in real time. It retains the moment of the negative, the suspense of the negative, that slight time-lag which allows the image to exist before the world – or the object – disappears into the image…The photo preserves the moment of disappearance and thus the charm of the real, like that of a previous life (Baudrillard, 1996: 86)
Post war American photographers working in the modernist tradition have retained the spirit of Atget and his contemporaries in their attempts to extract the ‘moments of disappearance’ from everyday life in the city. Lee Friedlander’s photographs of New York and New Orleans in the 1960’s and 1970’s exploit the radical indifference of the surreal image, in order to suspend the appearance of reality in moments of abstraction. In New Orleans (1968) Friedlander faces the street directly from the inside of a shop window, allowing the window-pane to become a singular plane of flatness, a perspective onto the street and a canvas reflecting details from the interior of the shop; the man in front of the window appears as a silhouette in the picture plane, his right shoulder obscured by a small image on the shop window. The scene has a televisual quality that recalls the basic two-dimensional illusion of perspective,
In explaining the principle of drawing in perspective, Leonardo asked his reader to imagine he were looking through a window and tracing the outline of what he saw upon the surface of the glass’ (Burgin 1996: 156)
As surface and interface the photograph utilizes a dynamic ‘perspective of flatness’, embedding the image with perceptual layers that slide across each other in a tectonics of vision. The city emerges as a moving stage set, its unreality the effect of a strange juxtaposition of picture planes like those in Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere, which invite the viewer to consider both the potential and limitations of the two-dimensional surface of representation.
Friedlander’s photographs construct a perspective place of non-representation, where the psychological spaces of modernity converge with the auto-perceptive faculty of the camera. It is a surface of uncertainty where everything is shown and nothing is explained, the viewer permeated by a complex discourse on flatness, which questions the very nature of signification in the problematic surface, first encountered in Manet’s ‘classicism of estrangement’ and later in the modernist avant-gardes of Europe and America. The photographic or painterly ‘perspective of flatness’ is the visual effect of a modernist gaze, which has detached from the linear co-ordinates of Euclidean geometry; abstraction goes ‘off the map’ in the perspective gone awry, a severing of reality from a historically specific condition of representation. The evolution of Modernism is synonymous with this new technique of perception, its flatness characterized by the synthesis of surface, plane and perspective into a pure figure of affect,
It is not in principle that Modernist painting in its latest phase has abandoned the representation of recognizable objects. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable, three-dimensional objects can inhabit (Greenberg in Harrison et al, 1993: 201)
In abandoning a classical principle of representation Modernism had in practice gone ‘off the map’, although the cultural trend toward abstraction was not beyond the limit of its own historical condition of possibility. The flatness of Modernism was a structure informed by reality and imagination, the aesthetic condition of the complex social and historical transformations of urban life. In the abstract painting of the early twentieth century, Modernism adopts the city as one of its central motifs, an image which also finds expression in photography through the architecture of abstraction.
Non-Perspectives: The Abstract City
In the unconscious viewpoint of the modern flaneur is the perspective gone awry, the schizophrenic gaze of the divided self, broken down, dislocated and depleted by the relentless energy of the modern metropolis. The modern artist’s tendency toward flatness is an an-aesthetic response to the auto-pathology of the city, the treatment of abstract painting in which the avant-garde movements of Modernism experience a loss of perspective, which in part reflects the psychological attitude of painters, writers, musicians and photographers alike toward the uncharted terrain of modernity. As Kern notes, the novelist James Joyce
had his action take place in a plurality of spaces, in a consciousness that leaps about the universe and mixes here and there in defiance of the ordered diagramming of the cartographers. (Kern in Harvey, 1989: 267)
In the wake of this fluctuating modernity, artists made interfaces with the schisms and flows of the city as a means of informing a new aesthetics of abstraction, merging with and emerging from the conditions of everyday life in multiple and disparate perspectives beyond the grasp of individual experience. To be modern was to embrace the social and historical conditions of instability as windows of opportunity, to pursue an impossible symmetry between the individual vantage point and the multiple perspectives of urban life. The schizophrenic gaze of the modern artist was a decentred, partial perspective, realized in the improvised vision of a thousand different encounters with a thousand different cities.
Paul Citroen’s photomontage Metropolis (1923) is totemic of the city in bits and pieces, assembling a generic urban landscape from the exploded perspectives of modern street scenes. Metropolis is influenced by cubist painting and collage, which had a tendency to break up the linear perspective of the picture plane into fragmented, two-dimensional surfaces. Cubism’s ‘perspective of flatness’ develops an incoherent cartography of forms in order to convey the essence of urban life in all its dynamic complexity, distilling from the city a sense of what is encountered as real in day to day experience,
It was an abstraction not seeking transcendence but steadfastly rooted in the material world, its forms derived from the actualities of the visual, its ground the here and now of modern reality – hence its claims to be ‘the new realism’… (Gooding, 2001: 42)
The assemblage of the cubist painting defined a new image of urbanism, which began to explore the connections between city, surface and painter in terms not previously applied to visual representation. In the non-perspective of the flattened city, the traditional sense of place and all the qualities that were associated with its historical situation were dislocated, and subsequently re-placed by a partitioned type of space, which was broken down, regulated, and consumed in the economic exchange of commodity culture. Dispersed across the multilayered surfaces of modernity was a historical condition of visual experience, a cultural geometry of the straight line that corresponded to a levelling down of values and a flattening of social relations; economic and social histories converged with the aesthetics of avant-garde Modernism, rendering the image of modernity a ‘design for life’. The sociologist Georg Simmel drew a perceptive analogy between the aesthetics of cubist painting, exemplified by Picasso’s Landscape with Posters (1912), and the emerging social geometry of the modern city,
All reconstruction of that which one terms the artist’s calculation: the precise separation of ‘planes’, the schemata of the horizontal and the vertical, the triangular and rectangular in composition, …of the visual arts as ‘spatial configuration’… – all this breaks up the work of art into individual moments and elements and thereby strives to explain the work of art by putting it together again out of partial regularities and demands. (Simmel in Frisby, 2001: 252 – 53)
The non-perspective of the modern city is a composite surface of ‘partial regularities’, where things are experienced in a state of flux, in schisms and flows, fractured spaces and flattened horizons. This architecture of abstraction un-maps what was previously experienced in traditional perspective, and re-assembles it into the incoherent vision of the schizophrenic artwork. A whole spectrum of twentieth century abstraction emerged from the fragmented geometry of cubist painting, which found inspiration in the dynamism of the city. Fernand Leger’s The City (1919) assembles a ‘perspective of flatness’ from intersecting blocks of colour, its effect intensified by the strategic dispersal of black and white tones across the picture plane in a synthesis of cubist geometry, futurist dynamism and a modern machine aesthetic, what he referred to as a ‘polychrome architecture’ (Leger in Gooding, 2001: 54) of the city. Leger’s compositions influenced the work of the De Stijl artist Theo Van Doesburg, who alongside Piet Mondrian worked at the limits of flatness in pure forms of geometric abstraction, advocating ‘visual art as the means of defining the formal relations that could be utilised in design and architecture’ (ibid: 52). Van Doesburg’s Composition XXII (1920) resonates with the visual design of Unmapping the City, juxtaposing blocks of colour that are partitioned in accordance with the straight line, each block appearing as a layer of flatness which retains a state of independence from its neighbours, while remaining integral to the overall surface effects of the composition.
In 1920’s Europe there is a similar convergence of modernist painting and new forms of modern architecture in the architectonics of Suprematism, which render an already abstract city from the non-perspective spaces of the imagination, translating two-dimensional surfaces of Suprematist painting into prototype architectural models. The wider cultural shift toward formalism severs the link to an external physical reality, as the abstractions of nature are replaced by the abstract conception of a model based on its own internal logic of composition, the introverted perspective with a tendency to generate forms as independent structures of the mind. Between 1923 and 1926 Kazimir Malevich and his Suprematist colleagues realised an architecture of abstraction at the State Institute of Artistic Culture, Petrograd, constructing a series of models called Architektons. The models were ‘not so much plans for actual buildings or fragments of cities, as three dimensional versions of complex Suprematist compositions.’ (Harrison, 1993: 244). Under Malevich’s direction the architect and painter Lazar Khidekel was instrumental in the shift toward an architectural Suprematism, and was the first to translate the abstract model of the Architekton into residential complexes, offices and theatres, providing an influential vision of the future European city.
In America, the modernist photographers Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg composed their own versions of the differential city from the architecture of abstraction. Schamberg studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania before gravitating toward abstract painting and photography, his Untitled (Cityscape) (1917) being one of the first examples of the modern American city ‘as a series of interlacing geometric shapes, formed by rooftops, walls and windows’ (Warner-Marien 2002: 252). Schamberg’s background in architecture and early experiments with Precisionist painting gave his images a draftsman-like quality, as if the model city and the actual one had somehow merged in the surface of the photograph. Charles Sheeler’s works form part of an ongoing dialogue with the Precisionist paintings of the same period, the photograph often a study for a painting of the same scene. New York, Park Row Building (1920) depicts a city of surfaces, the architecture flattened toward a single plane, as blocks of shadow break up the visual field and merge into urban structures in a style similar to that of Paul Strand. Sheeler’s 1922 painting Skyscrapers is modelled on Park Row Building, but further abstracts the photograph from its urban context in a non-perspective flatness of intersecting geometric forms. The visual effect resembles the architectonics of Unmapping the City, where flatness is developed as an aggregate of photography and painting, a common ground for realising the aesthetic possibilities of two-dimensional surfaces, and their complex connections with architectural forms.
Contemporary photographers of the urban environment such as Andreas Gursky and Frank Thiel re-surface the city through a similar architecture of abstraction, their flatness working like a visual interface between past and present, in an ongoing dialogue with the unfinished project of Modernism. In Montparnasse (1993) Gursky references the early paintings of Mondrian, such as Composition: Checkerboard, Light Colours (1919) as he fills the entire frame with an apartment block, flattening the image and deleting any extraneous details in post-production to produce a modulated surface that ‘subjugates the real situation’ to the ‘artistic concept of the picture’ (Gursky 2009: online). Frank Thiel’s study of Berlin depicts a city under construction, emphasising perspectives of temporality and change as opposed to the finished architectural product. The internal structures of incomplete buildings provide readymade abstractions of work in progress, as if the grand narrative of Modernism were still being played out, in a spirit reminiscent of Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris. In recent works Thiel explores the aesthetic potential of a depleted Modernism, using a form of photo-archaeology to excavate the everyday fragments of communist East Berlin. Through a process of historical re-cycling, Thiel dry cleans soiled curtains from dilapidated buildings and subsequently re-arranges them in the studio in deliberate compositions. The enlarged photographs develop the surface tension of a highly formal realism, which transcribes the geometric patterns on the curtains into the wider social and political context of contemporary Berlin.
The non-perspectives of the abstract city unfold across a continuous plane of transformation where the co-ordinates of space and time form malleable proximities with the particular features of a place. A wall becomes a building, which becomes a surface, the surface coheres into a painting, the painting appears as a photograph, and the photograph becomes a film, which becomes a memory of a walled city… In territorial possibilities, spaces emerge as de-codings of place and places adhere in re-codings of space, as the concept-image ‘City’ is continually re-created throughout history and ‘made particular by individuals – in complex and ever shifting ways – within the generality of space. (Sharr, 2007: 56) Perspectives of memory and tradition adhere to the material interstices of urban life, and as the city changes surface tensions appear, violent eruptions even, as social and historical forces reshape perceptions ‘on the ground’. The marked differences between classical and modern architectural styles in contemporary European cities are the result of the asymmetry between the building that lives in the traditional place of history, and the rationalized programs of modern architecture. Unmapping the City relays this surface tension through the jarring of traditional and modern perspectives; the corner of a refurbished palace sits beside a newly constructed office block as old and new are squeezed into a single surface of perception, heightening the contrast between functional and monumental styles of architecture. The distorted edge of the palace appears to give way against the imposition of the office building’s recycled Modernism, an effect intensified by the skewered perspective of the diagonal. It is as though the traditional city were trying to gain traction in the photographic space, as it drifts toward the edge of the frame like a passing shadow. A coincidence of perspectives is realized along a versatile contour, where two buildings and two cities intersect, a prospective place in the dynamic history of the city. The ‘perspective of flatness’ becomes an urban interface between past and present, abstraction and actuality, a place for the architectural unconscious to emerge in the mythical info-structures of the photographic imagination.
In moving between historical infrastructures and the contemporary info-structures of urban life, Unmapping the City develops a non-perspective practice of ‘surface flows’, folding three-dimensions back into the homogenized, two-dimensional space of the photograph. The histories and perceptions of the re-surfaced city are infused with a cinematic quality, the ‘spool’ of experience captured in the multiple flickers of perspective that make up the essence of a place, but bear little resemblance to its map. In the architecture of imagination, concrete perception gives way to a mode of filmic detachment, a blurring of the boundaries between the psychical apparatus and physical space, as if the photographic surface were unfolding the city along the radically abstract space of the Moebius strip, an ‘interminable band of variable geometry…with but a single face, and therefore neither exterior nor interior’ (Lyotard in Burgin, 1996: 150). Unmapping the City conveys us along a similar surface of disorientation, where the common sense oppositions of inside/outside, past/present, night/day, surface/depth begin to fold into each other and disintegrate, as if the contents of the urban unconscious had become enmeshed in the very substance of the photograph. In a city of strange geometries everything is distributed across a single layer of proximities, where small variations can be critical to our sense of perspective. In the un-mapping of the city, reality stutters at the edge of abstraction as the gaze becomes unstable, we don’t quite know where to fix our attention or what it is that we are supposed to be looking at; a window becomes an image, the image a screen, the screen a portal, which transports us to memories of a city long forgotten or places yet to be encountered. The detached indifference of the urban sprawl is re-enchanted in the twilight of ambivalence, as the sublimated nature of the City begins to ‘think in pictures’, in and through the info-structure of the photograph.
In all its urban complexity, the incomprehensible, unwieldy nature of the city impels the urban photographer to adapt to the sheer magnitude of the subject, for in practice ‘it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker’. (Marx, 1976: 548) In Unmapping the City the photographer ‘tools up’ with a versatile surface, which becomes a critical reflex in the environment of the unwieldy city, a situation that requires him to replace the cognitive frame of representation with the perceptual register of affect. The result is an emergent form of critical cartography, a dialectical encounter with the complexities of place, where visual sensation displaces meaning in the counter-intuitive lens of the urban photographer who ‘thinks in pictures’. The almost impossible task of abstracting the sublime from the indiscernible mass of everyday life is made tangible in those elusive moments when the Real City is coaxed into being, and makes its presence felt in the non-perspective place of the image. The concluding chapter will consider how the ‘perspective of flatness’ becomes a means of negotiating the conditions of contemporary urban life, as the unwieldy city finds expression in the art of the versatile photograph.
Conclusion: The Versatile Photograph
The versatile image of contemporary photography has built upon the critical tradition of working between the discourse of Modernism and its effects in the post-industrial world. In this regard, Joachim Brohm’s project Areal 1992-2002 works at the periphery of urban spaces, using the photograph as a prospective place for considering the discrepancies between the physical aspects of the city’s infrastructure, and its alteration in the info-structures of media and telecommunications; ‘the only real specificity of a location is given by its perpetual modification’ (Bittner in Brohm 2002: 142). Urban experience is modified with such frequency that our shared sense of perspective disperses into a pathological state of abstraction, where life in the contemporary city and its environs is separated from human understanding,
We find ourselves moving within a dynamic field of optical signs and rhythms, a context in which perpetually shifting situations and characteristics are refracted by the objects’ intrinsic unwieldiness. (Bittner in Brohm, 2002: 143)
Brohm re-stages a critical moderation of Modernist discourse, especially the historical belief in technological progress and social improvement, which results in the ‘unwieldiness’ of the contemporary city. The faceless conurbation of post-modernity is emptied out of meaning, a decoded place of urban estrangement and dis-integration, which is conveyed in the depleted Modernism of Areal.
The photo-minimalism of Lewis Baltz, whose work featured in the seminal New Topographics: Photographs of a Altered landscape (1975), articulates a similar visual critique of the nondescript suburban landscape of parking lots, residential complexes and industrial parks at the tail end of the American dream. The (1971) series The Tract Houses develops a form of critical minimalism, which reflects the editing down of life in the suburban sprawl, a bleak social geometry of an aborted Modernism without purpose, expressed through the ‘repetitions, regularities, and slight variations’ (Rexer, 2009: 150) of the photographs, ‘as they underscore the rigid conformism of mass development’ (ibid: 150). Baltz exploits the aesthetic impasse of what in retrospect was considered a progressive minimalism of the 1960’s, deploying its inaccessible surfaces as a social commentary on the desolation of post-industrial America.
Contemporary photographers who engage in critical variations of modernist aesthetics adopt the versatile approach of the ‘altermodern’, defined by the curator Nicolas Bourriaud as the “reloading process of Modernism”. The altermodern artist is above all a versatile one, who explores the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves’. (Bourriaud 2009: online). In Deleuzian terms, the altermodern is a ‘pattern of interference’ (Holland, 1999: 14) in the history of modernist aesthetics, the versatile Modernism of Unmapping the City, signifying a perspective pattern of interference in the events of contemporary urbanism. Patterns and trajectories of movement become a key feature of the altermodern, as the discourse of Modernism is ‘reloaded’ with the cultural mobility of the sign,
Artists traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs creating new pathways between multiple forms of expression and communication…This evolution can be seen in the way works are made: a new type of form is appearing, the journey-form, made of lines drawn both in space and time, materializing trajectories rather than destinations. The form of the work expresses a course, a wandering, rather than a fixed space-time. Altermodern is art thus read as a hypertext; artists translate and transcode information from one format to another, and wander in geography as well as in history. (Bourriaud, 2009: online)
The versatile photograph of Unmapping the City is a critical expression of the altermodern, its ‘evolution’ the effect of a series of adaptations, modifications and adjustments to the perspective patterns of the city; the tendencies of images behaving in a certain way or displaying particular traits or characteristics, through small variations in contextual information. In the ‘transcoding’ of the versatile photograph, Cubist and Surreal tendencies might combine in a window that captures a fragment of the city, as if it were being glimpsed from a passing train, and in the same instant becomes the after-effect of second perspective layer, forming an uncanny tension between movement and stillness, inside and outside, as the city begins to lose its bearings in the critical trajectory of the sequential perspective. The altermodern’s ‘journey-form’ takes a different perspective line when it intersects with the surrealist’s ‘architecture of estrangement’, as we apprehend the echo of a shadow Modernism, the ‘other side’ of the city hiding in an enclave of urban sprawl. If the image is supplemented with the surrealist’s imagination, we could be standing inside a box camera with an architectural shutter, looking out onto the emptiness of a depleted Modernism of grimy windows and degraded facades, which now appear as a dystopic vision of 1960’s optimism. Along the same trajectory of a Modernism gone awry, we encounter a 1920’s Bauhaus cinema suffering from a sense of vertigo under the cultural weight of history, the building now ‘thrown into relief’, out of place and out of time as a surreal monument to the past. In moving along a different course we enter the unwieldy city of conflict, as the smooth grid patterns of De Stijl are violently interrupted by the signs of warfare, the bullet holes and pot marks of the photo-documentary colliding with the surfaces of abstraction. The versatile ‘perspective of flatness’ filters the abstract into the real and the real into the abstract, through the controlled drift of the ‘journey-form’, which negotiates a prospective view of contemporary Sarajevo now searching for a vision of renewal after years of disintegration and conflict.
The shifting perspectives and improvised surfaces of the altermodern’s ‘journey-form’, create an ambient flatness of the contemporary city that shares a cultural ground with the Situationist’s
derive (literally: ‘drifting’), a technique of transient passage through varied ambiances. The derive entails a playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psycho-geographical effects; which completely distinguishes it from the classical notions of the journey and the stroll (Debord in Harrison & Wood, 1992: 703)
In the ‘psycho-geographical effects’ of the derive, perspective patterns of visibility appear and disappear in the contingency of urban events. The mirrored facades of office blocks become architectural cameras, as they reflect their own perspectives of a virtual city just beyond our field of vision; a slippage in photographic history from the perspective place of Unmapping the City to that of William Clift’s Old St Louis County Courthouse reflected in the Equitable Building (1976), which composes a reflective plane of surreality on the surface of a glass skyscraper. The mirrored windows act as a readymade grid of abstraction like those used by the De Stijl painters in the 1920’s, turning the photograph into a versatile surface of perspective patterns, where virtual images appear alongside actual ones in the visual complexity of the city.
In perspective patterns between seeing and surveillance, Unmapping the City relays a visual ambiance of flânerie and observation, through critical encounters with the CCTV camera. In the voyeuristic frame of the urban detective, we traverse a surreal juxtaposition of visibilities; the streetlight redundant in the daytime but illuminating the city at night, alongside the CCTV camera ‘throwing light on the situation’ through a virtual eye concealed within the electronic network of the invisible city. The versatile photograph becomes a reverse technology of surveillance, abstracting the CCTV camera from its urban territory and turning it into an object of critical reflection. The flaneur’s gaze is abroad in the world, moving along a perspective trajectory from photographer, to camera, to photograph, to viewer, to CCTV camera, to the imagined space of the CCTV control room, making visible the ambivalent relationships between knowing and seeing. Unmapping the City ‘screens’ the built environment and its technologies of vision, prompting us to consider the types of authority, both visible and invisible that are encoded in the information architectures of the city.
Across partial perspectives and fractured terrains, Unmapping the City abstracts a ‘journey-form’ from the psycho-geographic drift of the derive. The presentation of different images side by side, amplifies the aesthetic of mobility as the perspective in process counteracts the stillness of the photograph; the technique of juxtaposing two images to form a unique view of the same subject matter, recalling that of Edouard Mesens in the Surrealist journal Varietes,
What Benjamin noticed and what remains striking today, was not the individual images but their grouping together in Varietes, where photographs from cities across Europe and America are brought together to create a complex multilayered sense of urban ennui.’ (Walker, 2002: 101)
Benjamin could be describing the expert juxtapositions in Unmapping the City, its improvised course of abstraction a means of navigating a generic City from the bits and pieces of imagination and memory. Within the stillness of the photographic frame there exists the potential for movement, the creative flow of ‘thinking in pictures’, which refuses its destination. Theperspective in motion encapsulates the typically modern experience of the individual ‘on the move’, as the photograph becomes a conduit for ‘the dynamism of the beautiful and its capacity to provoke thought’. (McMahon, 2002: 7) The transitory nature of modern life arises from a tendency to make connections between things and ‘go with the flow’, as a multitude of disparate and changing circumstances becomes the ‘film’ of experience in the city.
In Unmapping the City there are moments when the ‘journey-form’ becomes a perspective in motion as we wander through the urban landscape with a filmic sensibility, encountering makeshift places, like stage sets inserted into the fabric of everyday life. The city begins to lose traction in the mobility of imagination, Atget’s Paris and de Chirico’s Mediterranean Streets re-surfacing in perspectives reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) or the collapsing stage sets of houses in Buster Keaton films, such as Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928). In the ‘dynamic field of optical signs and rhythms’ (Bittner in Brohm, 2002: 143), perspectives collapse into proximities, across a smooth surface of ‘free association’. The un-mapped city becomes a hinterland of deferred meanings and distorted places, oscillating between imagination and reality: the mural of a tree on a 1960’s apartment block, appears as a projection out of nowhere, a silhouette of a bird in flight turns out to be a sticker on a transparent hoarding, the side of a bus resembles an office storage cabinet, shadows made of light, windows made of shadow, bridges that lead nowhere, a railing made of swastikas, and its swastika shadows, the cable from a tramline coils into a signature, a stairway that feels like a conveyor belt, adjoins a park where day and night collide, scaffolds become networks and traceries, buildings capsize, streetlights become tendrils, steps without beginning or end; signification ‘goes critical’ in the optical event of the journey-image.
Rhythms of perspective and perception, sequences of surface and effect: the dynamism of the beautiful ‘expresses a course’ and ‘translates a format’ (Bourriaud 2009: online) in the altermodern experience of the city. As the unwieldy city ‘runs its course’ the photographer conducts it along a critical channel, directing its semiotic energy across the surface flows of the versatile image. The rhythmic perspective ‘transcodes’ the free associations of a filmic experience into the urban acrobatics of the free runner or traceur, who navigates the ‘open source’ city by improvising a route that goes ‘off the map’, through unexplored and often unseen places in the urban landscape. In the photographic sequences of Unmapping the City, we take a perspective detour, following the perspective of the free runner through enclaves, backstreets, stairwells and blind alleys of the urban terrain. In the versatile surface of the rhythmic perspective is the critical refrain of the art movement.
Unmapping the City becomes an art movement in the ‘’Kantian channel’’ by introducing thought into the photographic event, the critical thought of the ‘journey-form’, where thinking in pictures follows the dynamism of the beautiful to become the art of the rhythmic perspective. The silence of the photograph is like an interval, the pause, the space between that shapes a new rhythm as the break from established patterns, which in the altermodern’s perspective, becomes a critical re-interpretation of modernist aesthetics. Lefebvre approaches the modern city by way of a resonance, which confronts the histories and geographies of urban life with the non-representational surface of rhythm analysis. The individual must first be taken by the city as a premise for a critical encounter with its unwieldy nature,
one must let oneself go …in order to grasp this fleeting object, which is not exactly an object, it is therefore necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and outside. A balcony does the job admirably. (Lefebvre in Boutros, 2010: 179)
The versatile photographer is taken by the city and goes with the flow, a semiotic transformer in the ‘journey-form’, grasped as the rhythm of perspective. The photographer, like the DJ, scratches the surface of the photographic record and interferes with the visual coherence of the city, producing differential perspectives from those laid down by the ‘ordered diagramming of the cartographer’. (Kern in Harvey 1989: 267) The perspective place is abstracted by the critical image as a visual potential of Modernism:
It is characteristic of modern literature for words and syntax to rise up into the plane of composition and hollow it out rather than carry out the operation of putting it into perspective. It is also characteristic of modern music to relinquish projection and the perspectives that impose pitch, temperament, and chromaticism, so as to give the sonorous plane a singular thickness to which very diverse elements bear witness (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 195)
The versatile flatness of the altermodern photographer emerges as a critical plane of re-composition and invention; Art making its perspectives in the rhythmic surface of the resonant photograph.
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