Monday, 3 May 2010

Cycling and the Mind

from "On Your Bike - The Complete Guide to Cycling" by Matt Seaton

Another distinct aspect of cycling is the way that a cyclist apprehends his or her environment. Unlike a motorist, who is cut off from their immediate surroundings, cyclists fully experience the sights, sounds and smells of the world they are pedaling through and are able to cover much more ground and at a faster pace than any pedestrian. Where a pedestrian in London for example can cover several pages of an A-Z map, a cyclist can link several pages at a time. The cyclist is the ultimate realization of the flaneur, what the poet Charles Baudelaire called "the passionate spectator", the person who travels through the city with the eye of an artist, observing everything, part of the flow of the urban bustle. Baudelaire's idea of the flaneur was a type of intelligent, idle drifter, whose existence in Paris was threatened by the dirigiste logic of Haussmann's boulevards. He might have been surprised then to find his notion surviving and even thriving through the twentieth century.

First, the German intellectual and theorist of modernism, Walter Benjamin, took up the cause of flanerie. He defined the city wanderer as one "who goes botanizing the asphalt", someone in whom "the joy of watching is triumphant". In other words, flanerie is a sophisticated term for the simple pleasure of people watching and a particularly unfocused and aimless form of tourism. This activity was further refined, mystified even by the Situationists, for whom the idea of the 'derive', - a close cousin of the flaneur's ironic stroll - was a central principle of their theories of 'psychogeography'. As one of the Situationist International's key architects, Guy Debord defined it, "In a derive one or more persons during a certain period drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there." The distinction between the situationist derive and Benjaminian flanerie is that, for Guy Debord and friends, the 'drifting' is not random but purposive, albeit obscurely so. The deriviste surrenders himself to the secret, hidden currents of power, interest and desire that the Situationists believed to run through the urban environment. The derive is therefore " a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences" in order to reveal a city's occult psychogeography.

These are rather abstract and fanciful concepts, but they do seem to relate to the counter cultural way in which a cyclist progresses through an urban environment. Because they can go where most traffic cannot, cyclists tend to use back streets and unconventional routes, accessing parts of the city that are screened off from the majority of people. The mental map of the different neighbourhoods in a city and how they relate to one another is totally different for a cyclist the the one held by someone who relies on transit or on the major arterial routes that most motorists stick to. So much more of the history of a city's development and its patterns of poverty and wealth are visible to the cyclist. A simple illustration of this is to visit an unfamiliar city and explore it by bicycle; there is no better was to establish a rudimentary knowledge of its layout and character. "The city is the realization of that ancient dream of humanity, the labyrinth;" wrote Benjamin. Traveling by bicycle allows these secrets and puzzles to be unlocked; it makes you fully a citizen of the polis.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Vancouver [de]Tour Guide 2010

A group of artists, cartographers and writers have collaborated to develop a community map of Vancouver that offers alternative views of the city. The purpose of the project is to create an interactive resource that residents and visitors can access to learn more about aspects of Vancouver that have been neglected by organizers of the Olympic games. To view the map and sign on as a collaborator visit the site using the following url:

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Curating the Void of Collapsed Machinery

In the Gallery an officer’s garmenture is crowned with a feathered mask. Portraits of colonial masters and laboring slaves hang alongside images of machines that grind and extract. A stack of mattresses recalls aspects of Kafka’s thematic oeuvre. The collection of artifacts displayed in the room suggests a memorial to an historic trial or perhaps the staging of a theatrical scene where some grand injustice is about to unfold. A rope awaits the fettering of limbs. Witnesses to the torture event look on from within their frames. A ladder rests against a wall inviting the always possible escape, which is rarely ever taken.

Walter Benjamin referred to Kafka’s work as “an ellipse with foci that are far apart.”[1] The writing is replete with fissures, wounds and ruptures which illuminate variations of the separation motif: the arbitrary nature of the law, alienation from authority, the culture of exile. In The Penal Colony this theme of dislocation reaches an obscene climax when the machine of the story disintegrates. As the animated gears scatter a kind of double wound erupts, represented by the fatal blow to the officer’s skull but also the space vacated by the machine’s departure. One imagines what the villagers might do with this site, if anything? What mnemonic potential does the machines disappearance create? Memory, it would seem, may give way to superstition as we acknowledge the explorer’s silence as he reads the inscription on the Commandant’s gravestone. “Have faith and wait!”- a prophecy the villagers find ridiculous.[2]

Weeks after seeing The Insurance Man: Kafka in the Penal Colony I travelled to Berlin. Ruins, excavations, monuments and memorials mark the landscape at every turn. Berlin is a living archive, a national gallery of failed totalitarian dreams. The Berlin Wall was the progeny of Kafka’s machine, a mad instrument of judgment and condemnation. The Wall, in fact, was a kind of vertical Bed with layers of apparatus to thwart escape: an inner wall, barbed wire, electric fences, a dog corridor, control towers, alarms, anti-tank obstacles, a fakir bed (essentially an area embedded with raised spikes), and finally the outer Wall that marked the boundary between East and West Berlin. The effect of the Wall was to create a form of self-colonization – to preserve the paranoid dream of the ideal state.

The wall produced its own expressions of the animalized human. By scurrying, climbing, ramming, burrowing or taking flight, many managed to flee successfully and yet hundreds were wounded and killed as they sought a way out of the state apparatus. Sections of the Wall and the gears that constituted the death corridor sprung off during the years after reunification. Pieces of the Wall were dispersed across oceanic divides while other sections have been aesthetisized as objets d’art. Like the Machine in the story, the collapse of the Wall has created a negative space with a multitude of readings; it is a scar, an emancipatory event, a place of remembering, longing, forgetting. As with the empty lot in The Penal Colony, the question of reclamation arises- giving rise to the problem of what to do– what is the zoning potential of space named the “death strip”? How do planners curate the void of collapsed machinery?

In places the Wall is maintained as a memorial, elsewhere it is a trace distinguished as a line of masonry in the pavement. Along certain sections the Wall is absorbed by the banks of the Spree River and facades of other buildings. With disbelief I came across evidence of a different kind of rezoning of the Wall machine void. In Prenzlauer Berg a showroom for a housing development had been constructed within the Wall corridor, metres from an apartment building where in 1961 residents flung themselves out of third-story windows to reach West Berlin on the street below. The developer’s slogan on the hoarding read, “Your New Home, WITHOUT COMPROMISES!” Further along the wall in the Kreuzberg district the Fellini Residences were being sold under a similar premise, “You do not have to die to arrive in paradise. You have it right on your doorstep.” The Wall has become the final frontier of post-colonial Berlin.

Kafka insisted on exploring those dissonant pauses that linger in human relations, urban spaces and the rule of the law - in order to make such voids visible. In turn, the Installation extends the memory of the machine as it responds to its absence. As with the Condemned man of the story, who remains condemned after his temporary reprieve, the wall in Berlin remains embedded in the psychic-self of the city. The city is condemned to continuously re-invent itself and re-build it’s empty spaces and historic wounds. And yet it would appear that with reunification, in true Kafkan style, many Berliners have been left behind to suffer the same fate as displaced and confused villagers elsewhere.

Interviewed twenty years after the collapse of the wall a former border guard reports on his memory of the collapse of the wall:

“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I more or less fell into a deep depression. I didn’t want to go home. I stayed in the barracks. Everyone else had left. I stayed until the end. I didn’t do anything, just stayed in bed […] I drank beer and stared at the sky.”[3]

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Some Reflections on Kafka,” in Illuminations- Essays and Reflections (New york: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 141

[2] Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony,” in Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p.167

[3] CBC, “Berlin, 20 Years After”, November 6th, 2009