City walls- cities of walls: the cultural wall system and the intramuros/ extramuros symbolic system

wounded wall

wounded wall

Walls are, as Simmel (Frisby 1998) first put it, ‘’mute’’. Throughout the years, in both imagination and practices, walls have been used as boundaries. With the spatial expansion of the cities when capitalism entered political economy, walls were demolished in order to convert the medieval city to the contemporary model that was now sprawling, considering the walls as obstacles for the further expansion of the city (Brighenti 2009).

Whereas being used as protection measures in the past, now walls became both symbols of segregation and alienation of communities walling themselves from the rest of the city. The case of famous ghetto physical walls as well as imaginary walls in the memory of people, as in the case of late- medieval Jewish ghetto, isolated communities physically as well as mentally from the rest of their neighbours.

Other type of wall systems are yet developed in the contemporary city context, such as the ones Foucault (1977) is talking about mentioning social exclusion and isolation from the walls of prisons and other enclosed institutions. Therefore modern walls do not stand for power and wealth but are symbols of the power to punish as they are transformed to elements of spatial political economy of government (Brighenti 2009).

Walls are now turned into tools for managing enclaves inside the modern cities since the protection from external invasion is no longer a priority. The boundary- making features of the walls such as fences, parapets and so on are the new ways of managing post- industrial social control proving what Alsayyad and Roy (2006) had claimed that contemporary urban condition is a ‘’medieval modernity’’: contemporary urban geographies appear to be constituted through a constellation of fragmented spaces, as embodied in the exemplary cases of the gated enclave, the squatter settlement and the camp. In relation to this, the Israeli architecture of occupation in the Palestinian territories is an example of the most effective device for the governments of population focusing on the organisation of space and the political dynamics that follow it.

As walls demarcate a within and a beyond, they define flows of circulation, set paths and trajectories for people, and consequently determine the possibilities and impossibilities of encounters (Brighenti 2009). Besides being boundaries between territories, we come to realise that walls are territories themselves. Walls do not only separate but they also hide so their existence in the urban context is linked to visibility as well since they either open or close our horizons.

Graffiti as a principal wall practice is transforming wall surfaces into interactive platforms for foundational dialogism, it is something like in-your-face appropriation of public visual surfaces. Therefore the wall, in this case, can be seen as a cultural device or even as a stage for acting. After all, the city is more vivid when you speak to it (Banksy 2005).

The different meaningful aspects of wall- artefacts together with the fact that they are probably the most representative elements of urban landscapes give them a symbolic dimension. The artists working on walls see urban space as no neutral physical entity. The actual thickness of experiencing the urban is dependent on the fact that we inhabit second- hand worlds: worlds determined by meanings received from others (Frisby 2001).

Since walls and streets are boundaries for social constructed zones, street artists show that what is normally regulated by property and commercial regimes, can be appropriated as an unconstrained, unsanctioned, uncontainable, antagonistic act (Irvine 2011). As each city is a different adventure whose main elements, walls and concrete is the artistic substance to work on, walls are transformed to sounding boards that once you start listening they never shut up. After all a wall is a very big weapon. It is one of the nastiest things you can hit somebody with (Banksy 2005).

Considering the city as their necessary working environment as well as a real teacher, providing a daily instruction manual for visual codes and semiotic systems in which we live and move and have our being, street artists work with a big identification and empathy with the city: they state something in and with the city, many times like an aesthetic therapy of the dysaesthetics of urban controlled (Irvine 2011).

Out there, in the city, where walls and screens are increasingly intermingled, street artists are fond of breaking the cultural wall, which controls art intramurally within established disciplinary practices, therefore street art inserts itself in the city, injects itself on the city walls as a significant argument for visibility, the socio- political structure of being visible in urban space (Irvine 2011). Like Pop art, street art is introducing and appropriating a new category of art which comes in opposition with the cultural wall system and its institutionalised type of art.

In this sense, the extramural zones of non art space and the logic of the art container are now turned inside out: what was once banished from the walls of the art institutions is reflected back on the walls of the city. Street art is now the mural art of the extramuros, outside the institutional walls (Irvine 2011).

One of the major obsessions of modern art theory is the one of the cultural wall that is actually referring to the institutional walls, the over- determined modernist white cube of four gallery walls (Brighenti 2009) and the following artworks representing symbolic capital in domestic space.

The use of the intramuros/ extramuros symbolic system, inside and outside the walls, names both material and symbolic spaces, zones of authority, and hierarchies of identity (Brighenti 2009). The link of cultural wall system with the symbolic intramuros/ extramuros system is profound if we consider that within the institutional boundaries of the art world system, we learn what type of art is included and includable and excluded and excludable.

The dominant visibility regimes tend to function according to this concept but when the actual wall is collapsed and is no longer boundary for the art piece that is converted to a street performance, then the extramural becomes included and includable. The collapse of the wall between the viewer and the art piece is not only imagined, in this case, such as it was required and presupposed in Dadaism, but becomes an actual practice through street art.

What is actually happening with street art nowadays is that street artists as other nomads inscribe visual interventions that are not only working at the local community level but also globally. They are working on different cities’ canvases and documenting their work for all to be able to see. The example of Banksy’s stencil work at the Palestinian boarder walls that has been viewable from people all over the world prove that the art of the extramural world has reconceived both material and conceptual walls and spaces; the extramural becomes post- mural (Irvine 2011).

Bibliography

Alsayyad, N. & Ananya, R. (2006) Medieval Modernity: On Citizenship and Urbanism in a Global Era. In Space and Policy Vol 10 No 1, pp 1-20.

Banksy (2005) Pictures of Walls. Pictures on walls.
Banksy (2005) Wall and Piece. England, Random House.

Banksy (2005) Pictures of Walls. Pictures on walls.

Brighenti, A. (2009) Walled urbs to urban walls- and return? On the social life of walls. In The Wall and the City. Trento, Professional Dreamers’ Press.

Brighenti, A. & Mattiucci, C. (2009) Editing Urban Environments: Territories, Prolongations,Visibilities. In Mediacity . Berlin, Frank & Timme.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The birth of the Prison. New York, Pantheon Books.

Frisby, D. (2001) Cityscapes of Modernity: Critical Explorations. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Irvine, M. (2011) The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture. In Sandwell, B. & Heywood, I. eds. Handbook of Visual Culture. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

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Street art as producer of urban imaginary

alternative spectacle

alternative spectacle

As the metropolis provokes and inspires, it is the exposure to difference, otherness and frustration that stimulates the artist (Sennett 1990). And as the personal and collective narration is aiming at using urban symbolism for reforming urban mindscapes giving new dimensions to urban space, this is exactly the way the sign is linked to the social and spatial dimensions of places. What matters in this case is how people use these places for creating their collective urban plots. Their different mindscapes and imaginaries are the indicators for understanding the physical reality of the urban together with its consequent meaning. And this is where street art becomes the tool for making the invisible visible again and a community re-imaged and re-imagined (Irvine 2011).

Except for offering uses and functions, space also includes potential and choice. The urban mindscape as another landscape, the one of the mind, consists of local and external images of the city which indicate something between the city as a physical entity and the visual perceptions people acquire about it (Bianchini 2006). Urban imaginaries can be defined as symbolic, psychic indicators of unconscious desires and social constructions impacting on urban reality (Silva 2003).

As Castoriadis underlines, social imaginary is expressed by the people’s potential for creative and autonomous self- activity (Curtis 1997). In addition to this, l’imaginaire urbaine has been essential for constructing an experimental utopia for new urbanism (Lefebvre 1996) and besides this we can also state that the exploration of what is humanly possible needs to use the urban environment as a potential for encountering possibility and diversity that will give way to recreation.

Therefore, city- dwellers need to participate in the process of attaching meaning to urban space by introducing their activities inside its context and therefore identify themselves through them. In most of the cases, thresholds, like street art communities, can provide with this opportunity as they give people the freedom that is considered as necessary prerequisite for play (Stavrides 2007). And there, the urban art movement, expressed via street art genres, becomes the paradigm of hybridity in global visual culture. Thus, street art production as a metaphor of the socio- spatial orientation becomes the community practice and purposeful tool for reclaiming space by spreading cultural signs.

As the city is not merely a physical mechanism and an artificial construction, it is involved in the vital processes of the people who compose it, it is a product of nature, and particularly of human nature (Ambrose 1994). As a consequence, the role of the metropolis in the production of street artworks is of paramount importance if we take into consideration that the urban space is not only the inspiration and stimulation of the artists but also the environment they comment upon together with the place that hosts and sustains street art. In this distribution of the perceptible (Rancière 2004), street artists, as other drifters and flaneurs, another type of strollers, are looking for evidence in the urban space and by collecting them, they tend to construct their stories as another visual journey taking place in our daily paths.

The artist Slinkachu for example, has created his world of Little People by setting up a variety of everyday life scenes of his tiny figures after having remodelled, painted and then placed them in city streets all over the world. In Slinkatchu’s work the world is transformed into this two-tier universe with reality contrasted against small frozen moments of an alternative world. Slinkachu decided to make something that would make people look down and stare with childlike fascination. The drama in the set-ups of the tiny characters reflects a wider urban experience and the annoyances of city life. The humour in the work prevents it from becoming too negative. It catches people where they least expect it and jolts them out of their everyday lives. His art might be small but his resonance is larger than life (Self 2008).

Another example is the artist Space Invader who by spreading out ‘’mosaic viruses’’ all over the city is starting up an urban game whilst blighting up the place a bit. The city becomes the concrete, the substance to work on and a variety of adventures with different participants is constructed in this context. These little interruptions on one’s visual field are cheerfully subversive and utterly unchallenging , presenting themselves as somewhere between a jeu d’esprit and a mirror irritation, depending on one’s point of view. Will your street be invaded next? (mine was), a type of game to capture them and search to find them. (Invader 2008).

The artist Mark Jenkins sculptures human- like figures by using box sealing tape and then positions them in strategic points inside the city. His practice of street art is to use the street as a stage where passers- by become actors. He usually appropriates indoor concepts by setting the same scenes outdoor in the streets; for example a man sleeping on a bed in the middle of a parking in Winston- Salem.

Different genres of street art can be then seen as a variety of symbolic signs and images that construct their own situations by using public space in order to communicate a meaning that most of the times comes in opposition to the dominant one. The power of the message is also backed by the specific spot it is placed since the narration has to be constructed by using what is already there and at the same time transforming it into something new by giving it a different meaning. A good example is the strategically placed stencil in the forefront of Barclay bank with a sinister man in black hat reminding people who are using the cash point the danger of contemporary city life by shouting ‘’Beware pickpockets’’. The inscribed ‘’Vote here’’ on a trash can in New York can be seen as another case of questioning today’s narration and symbolism while detourning the already existing meanings.

Therefore the placement of work is often a call to place, marking locations with awareness, over against the proliferating urban non- places of anonymous transit and commerce- big box stores, the mail, the Starbucks (Augé 2009). Street art is then the medium for constructing a new visual landscape, representative of a new kind of attention to the phenomenology of the city by introducing play and gift in public exchange.

Bibliography

Ambrose, P. (1994) Urban Process and Power. London, Routledge.

Augé M. (2009) Non- Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 2nd ed, London, Verso.

Bianchini, F. (2006) European Urban Mindscapes: Concepts, Cultural representations and Policy applications. In European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History and Politics Vol 23 No 1,pp 13-31.

Curtis, D. (1997) In Castoriadis, C. ed. The Castoriadis Reader. Blackwell, Oxford and Malde, pp 8-15.

Invader (2008) Invasion in the UK: Space Invaders and Its UK Influences. Trans- Atlantic Publications.

Irvine, M. (2011) The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture. In Sandwell, B. & Heywood, I. eds. Handbook of Visual Culture. London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Lefebvre, H. (1996) Writings on Cities. Oxford, Blackwell.

Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics : The Distribution of the Sensible. London & New York, Continuum.

Self, W. (2008) Little People in the City: The Street Art of Slinkatchu, 2nd ed, England, Boxtree.

Sennett, R. (1990) The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. London and Boston, Faber and Faber.

Silva, A. (2003) Urban Imaginaries from Latin America Documenta 11. Stuttgart, Hatje Cantz.

Stavrides, S. Heterotopias and the Experience of Porous Urban Space. In Franck, K. A. & Stevens, Q. eds. Loose Space: Possibility and Diversity in Urban Life. 2nd ed, London, Routledge.

The Great Caucasus adventure continues

Azerbaijan

Laza

IMG_302918 hours of train, 3 hours of marshrutky, 3 hours of driving. Mild electroshocks of curiosity pulled me out of the numbness of my body. I saw myself as the snake charmer of the road dyne in which our black Lada Niva was lost. The promising valleys were all standing there untouched with the pure wind brushing their fresh mop of hair and the soft rain oiling their curvy bodies. ‘’If I look long enough into their charming abyss I might put the evil eye on them. But they are beautyproof. They can ward it off with no fear.’’ A cup of warm chai and grapes, that skinny wise looking dog on my knees and the night fairy of the misty valleys hypnotised my fragile spirit. I lost myself in the fog of my dreams. No fear, no regret, only freedom.

Xinaliq

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I woke up on the peak of my heart.I had flown all the way up, I was 2.335m high.I could see well, fresh brewed wind had wiped out all my poisonous worries. I had made it, I was here among the real people with the warm smiles and the exotic souls. I looked at them, I touched them and i lived the way they showed me. They found their place inside my ignorant heart, I gave it to them. I prison no memory, I simply keep it like a hidden treasure. Magically wrapped inside its spooky clouds Xinaliq was now mine.

Baku

IMG_3931I walked fast. I saw people looking at me, i speeded up. The tyrannosaurs of modernity blocked my way. Luxurious facades, seductive ladies with their marble hearts. I forgot how to fly, I lost my pride in the sky.I felt smaller and smaller, I was gradually shrinking. I kept my head down and i learnt to behave. Being back to civilization showed me the way. Skyscrapers pained my eyes but i didn’t fear. The Caspian sea was all that I could hear. I made my way through the tiny stone paths where the patterned carpets and oil lamps whispered the legends of a glorious past. A cloud of madness was hiding the cenotaph of all the future desires. Gentrified mindsets, this is not what I admire.

 Mud volcanoes, Qobustan

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I was now in the desolated semideserts. I dived into the deepest recesses of humanity. Mud was giving birth to slow paced melodies of relief.  The volcanoes were resting under the firing sun. A while later I could feel the vibes of antiquity. The petroglyphs were exposing their engraved secrets. My eyes played with their symmetric lines and milled their rough surfaces. The sun went down and the sky got naked. Gallant darkness ripped off the greedy clouds. The sparks of fire warmed up our tired souls. Wine and tasty meat proved to be the best recipes for sleep.

More photos on our journey around Azerbaijan can be found here.

The Great Caucasus adventure begins

Georgia

Tbilisi  

Old Town TbilisiJust after midnight we finally reached that Old Town hideaway. The weak moonlight revealed the dilapidated exterior of the 1860s building. The collapsing wooden stairs were helpful enough for making our way up to that lovely wood-columned verandah where warm chai and even warmer smiles were waiting for us. The host was awake full of energy and curiosity. The moon accompanied the magic mumblings of the night and the stars were the spectators to our late night confessions.

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The sunrise found us sunk into our soft mattresses. The wind whispered sweet melodies to our sweaty bodies. The city was awake and so were we. Soon enough, we found ourselves wandering around its old balconied houses and quirky paths resting our bodies at its leafy squares. We made all our way up to the hills to dig with our thirsty eyes inside the confusing mixity of its shabby Soviet apartment blocks which were rubbing shoulders with its old stone churches and eye-catching watchtowers.

view from Nariqala fortress

You could hear the beating heart of the city from the Nariqala fortress when looking down to the villagelike neighbourhoods strung along the Mtkwari river. On our way down imaginative smells of khachapuri tickled our stomachs. Our appetite was captured by the various fresh baked cheese pies which became the perfect keep-me-going meal for the rest of our Georgian trip.

Mtskheta

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Early clouds embraced the morning sky.The hanging wires were soon leaking raindrops of melancholy. We got off the marshrutky and we found Mtskheta soaking uncorroded under the grey sky.A short walk up the hill for a deep breath of fresh air and the near mystical significance of the city for Georgian culture was soon understood.

The Jvari church we so much awaited to see was visible from the cliffy hilltops with its silent blessings weaving spiritual plots in the air. All we did was enjoying the timid sunbeams making their way out of the thick clouds on the tiled rooftops, the Cathedral and the river crossroads setting an alluring panorama blown away by the humid wind.

Davit Gareja

IMG_3977Early afternoon and our wine talks convinced our untamed spirit for a long ride near the boarders of Georgia with Azerbaijan.One of the most remarkable Georgian sites, more than 15 monasteries spread over a wide remote area was now our destination.

IMG_4007The mountains were embracing tightly the monastery caves and the harmonious horizon was uniting the remote wilderness of the sight. Muddy paths of unexplored beauty led us to the way up to the stone chapel where a well- deserved view was finally reached.

Kazbegi

IMG_4836IMG_4950IMG_5032The Georgian Military Highway was hiding a gem somewhere between its first 65 km from Tbilisi. Ananuri fortress was standing there with its churches like an ephemeral oasis that escaped from the Middle Ages. Sublime architecture and fine views made it for the rough ride that was expected for the rest of the journey.

And here we were. The relay race between the mountain sides seemed endless throughout our whole way up to the Tsminda Sameba church.

2200m and the higher we hiked the smaller we looked but the bigger we felt. The sturdy muscles of the wind were squeezing our remaining energy.

But when we arrived the wind of freedom was offered open-handed to our soaking bodies. Dark, misty and sharp the Caucasus was spreading all around us. A feast for the eyes.

More photos on our Georgian adventure can be found here.

Hymn to the city

cross the line, fly away

cross the line, fly away

It is wider than you think

With its loose playfulness unfolding like frou frou ribbons in the sky

With its rainbow disco lights fondling the hidden encounter’s eye

It is wilder than you think

With its ghetto fists breathing anger in their lungs

With its street fights taming the stranger’s guts

It is darker than you think

With its shadows crashing down the light of your brain

With its acid sun drops fighting the spirit of the rain

It is falser than you think

With its enthroned spectacle running over its vacant paths

With its nicked beauty dressing its naked hands

It is sadder than you think

With its kids screaming for love and attention

With its seeds rotting from lack of affection

It is crueler than you think

With its shrunken fingers pulling the strings of your deepest pains

With its greedy smiles burying the melodies of your secret games

She is a sadist massaging your crying wounds

You are a masochist watering your rotten roots

She is the substance of your galloping imagination

You are addicted to the opium of your nation

She is the antidote for your broken wings

You are trapped in the magic of your firing strings

She is the revenge of your silent quest

You are cursed to follow her request

She is the holocaust of your blessed desire

You are convicted for all that you admire

She is the prison of your fragile heart

You are the prisoner of her anonymous art

Welcome back home

The city is your home

To some place I know

buried_city.jpg

buried city

Rubbish bags all ripped off, concrete walls with dark signs on, the sound of a beer can crushed inside the palm of the punkie teenager, idle footsteps of some hectic neighbourhood stranger. A motorbike parks itself in some dusty city slum, weak streaks of moonlight unlock one of its many paths. It always felt unusual but nice.

You were there again.

Wandering around the small turns of this urban labyrinth, charmed by the echoes of an unfound mystery rhythm. As an urban flâneur, your only guide is your feeling, your only way in and out is your nerve. It provokes and inspires, it is a glorious metropolis in decay.

The sunlight sets fire on your path. You get to see them again, wandering lost and found at the same places, beggars of their own destiny. They stink, they shout, they are crazy they say but you so much want to touch them, they are all so real and safe.

But you keep walking never daring to turn your head to their side, this appalling guilt that scratches your golden inside. You keep walking, sweaty worked out hands give you warm bread, old man with beard spits on your name.

You keep walking.

Old ladies, two of them uncoil their morals in a morning chat, you hear a couple of words or one. There is sun, so much sun.. you need sunglasses, they are your only protection against the spasm of the public realm. Warm grey sunshine, untuned mind.

Meat choppers tik takking and you weigh your lies. Hostile looks and trembling hands, the sound of your coins will nourish his heart. Lost fights with life, headless statues on time. Up and down, shaking hands, exchange is done.

Nighmarish parade of some gypsy kids with chaotic smiles, this city is lost in an accordion’s sound. Insignificant melodies of a young little man, swallowed by the charm of this beautiful smile. Sprayed on the surface of some debris in the street, it demarcates the beyond and the within.

Your heart is squeezing and your inside is freezing, this lava fills you up, your mind is about to crack, stark naked as a tyranny it messes up with your wounds while promising a therapy to all those she could.

Look long enough to see, it is an abyss, a lie, a beauty, a we . It is Athens.