Friday, May 15, 2015

A View of the City - A Critical Reflection

That's the biggest selfie stick I've ever seen” says the voice. I lift my head toward the rear of a large delivery vehicle, where a man stands on a raised platform above the street level, we both look up at the camera and laugh in agreement. I am walking up Grafton street for the fourth time in the last half hour, pushing a bike with a six metre telescopic pole, atop of which a small video camera is mounted, recording our every move. The camera at this moment in time plunges myself and all others into a visual archive of the city, an archive which maps urban form and encounters. It also paints us into a world of surveillance, within a medium which transfigures between artifice and archive.

The 'View of the City' challenges our definition of what visual archive is? What does it do? What is it's purpose? And what new information and interpretation can we disseminate from the practice? These are questions that I have tried to figure out on my time during these looping peregrinations through, and circumambulations of, this primary route. The project for me was primarily concerned with our experiences and encounters in the city which could be effectively expressed through visual media. The process of walking allows one to reflect on the purpose of this visual practice. 

"A walk has a continuous linear narrative, which becomes a picaresque adventure filled with multiple diversions and encounters, the people and objects you encounter become a vignette within a picaresque story." [1]

You walk as think your way through Grafton Street, and by doing so it allows you to absorb the narratives of street life, its cathartic and experiential. This translocation gives a compendious understanding of Grafton st. providing you are willing to fully engage with an active observation of the city. Through this lens the street reveals its diverse oeuvre. A theory which may seem somewhat laconic, but one which is made possible by viewing a blinding familiar street with a new pair of eyes. The 'View of the City' offers the viewer a simultaneous reading of the non standard 'obtuse' viewing planes of the city. This visual representation traces the things which are fugitive and subaltern to the user whom has an 'a priori' understanding of this embodied local route through the city. The moving image in this sense has the power to illuminate the things which move below the surface and light, to un-nest a series of frameworks and entangled conditions and to reveal a series of realities constructed within realities [2], All of which enable us to produce new knowledge of the city street.

The challenge for the project reveals itself in a simple question, How can this information be disseminated to understand and inform our shaping of urban forms and public spaces? To which my riposte would be; What can we truly learn about the city through visual practice? My pathway along this project has informed my judgement on how photography and visual media has the deeply embedded ability to aid the research and justification of the reality of city life, how the capturing of the dynamic flux and flow of a people in constant movement form the evidential nature of the urban condition and in time the urban archive [3].

The camera become the an apparatus which can provide us with a mode of justification. The camera which we used had an effect upon our methodology of working, in the sense that its small size does not encourage close contact encounters through the intrigue of the public, which is opposed to the group who were doing the portraiture photography on O'Connell street. The increasing availability of inexpensive recording equipment provides us with an opportunity to constantly create and archive. An opportunity which companies like Google have used to create large scale street-scape representations of every major town known. Vast amounts of data, pieced to together to form coherent imagery. Imagery with no framing, no analysis, no awareness of social practice or ritual, no knowledge of its history, it renders it as pointless data in terms of the the visual archive of the city as a digital archaeology. The project aims to tell you about proximity and connectedness of the city, it aims to understand our awareness of the city as a series of linkages across a uniform ground surface which we are all connected to,

The urban visual archive and 'The View of the City' is a process of capturing the city at a moment in time, through which we can revisit and recover the knowledge and lives of the previous societies who ingrained their mark on this street during this moment. The visual archive is a layered series of elements, moving from the physical capturing of light through a camera to capture the raw information, to the condition and meanings which can then be associated to it and finally to its purpose, how will this visual representation be interpreted in the future, will it be used as evidence for change, or as an understanding of the ethics and politics of the time? [4] The Urban Reform Photographers of New York in the early 20th century relied on this visual urban archive as a medium to influence change. The wanted to use the image as a way to articulate meaning. Jacob Riis [5] a police reporter and photographer documented the working and living conditions of the poor in the city, building up an archive of photos which were embedded in meaning and emotion, a commonality of many being rubble, laundry, vandalism, social segregation and isolation. He used the evidential nature of the conditions of the city to propel change in policy and law, for better housing, social facilities and quality public spaces for a people left behind. But, this theory is conceited, by the fact that it was later revealed that many of Riis photographs were in fact staged. Therefore visual representation can be left open to the construction of artifice, which effectively removes the authenticity of meaning attached to it.

The 'View of the City' cant be read as unfettered evidence of past realities of the daily lives of the early 21st century homo-urbanus, but can only be understood as a visual representation which is embedded in its own entangled history, just as we all are [6]. The ulterior visual representation of the street-scape is only real as a moving image. It moves along the boundaries between documentation and art. It is a hybrid form of visual representation which can be read as a performance art piece, whereby the people within it are vignettes acting out their picaresque journey, or they become the subjects of documentation through visual sociology, where we can attach meaning to them as individuals.

"The lens, the so-called impartial eye, actually permits every possible distortion of reality: the character of the image is determined by the photographer's point of view and the demands of his patrons. The importance of photography does not rest primarily in its potential as an art form, but rater in its ability to shape our ideas, to influence our behaviour, and to define our society" [7]

Which ever way the project is viewed or interpreted at a later stage, it has the ability to serve as a "repository of the collective memory of its inhabitants, mnemonic to their knowledge of previous eras, and a source of ideas about their social identity [8]". I think the act of 'remembrance' is of great importance to this project, for the reason that, 'all we love, we leave behind'. Beyond metaphor this phrase represents our innate understanding that the present dissolves into the past and that the memories of these spaces become de-saturated and sentimentalised. The act of creating the visual archive of the city is a continuous process. We capture, we catalogue, we preserve, we move on. The French historian Pierre Nora [9] explains that memory becomes so much more important if the future does not offer progress. From this we can understand the importance of the visual archive as an interdisciplinary movement, one which can take the work of photographers, architects, sociologists, anthropologists and urbanists to use visual practice as a mode for change, a change which can inform and orientate the way we shape our cities, the way we populate our public spaces and the ways in which we encounter the urban realm.

Is this view of the city useful? Maybe not, but this film promotes debate on how urban visual practice engages and shapes our understanding of public life and public space. The success of the project as an exhibition will only be determined by the engagement of the viewer, or their willingness to look up, and participate in this new obtuse view of the city. The front entrance hall of the building is essential to its spectacle, The initial idea of the installation was to resemble a camera obscura, whereby the functioning of the room as a proto-camera. This would have been a powerful visual expression of the city, as “seeing the unreal created in the real environment is an intense aesthetic experience” [10]. The exhibition had its failings in other areas which need to be addressed, the use of sound would have enhanced the experiential qualities of a 'synaesthesia' for the viewer. By viewing people drift in and out of scene and hearing only parts of their conversations, it places the viewer back into the time-frame at the moment of capture. I believe that this exhibition could be developed further to enhance the experience of viewing these obtuse views. To craft a more immersive experience which concisely expresses the importance of the city as visual archive.  

Kevin O'Brien

[1] Self,Will - excerpt from 'In Confidence' interview - United Kingdom: Sky Arts  - 2009 - TV Series

[2] Halliday, Paul et al - excerpt from TATE modern ‘Urban Encounters - Routes and transitions - United Kingdom: Tate Modern - 2013 - Annual Conference

[3] Halliday, Paul et al - excerpt from TATE modern ‘Urban Encounters - Routes and transitions - United Kingdom: Tate Modern - 2013 - Annual Conference

[4] Halliday, Paul et al - excerpt from TATE modern ‘Urban Encounters - Routes and transitions - United Kingdom: Tate Modern - 2013 - Annual Conference

[5] Riis, Jacob - How the Other Half Live: Studies among the Tenements of New York - New York: Charles Scribner's Sons - 1890

[6] Halliday, Paul et al - excerpt from TATE modern ‘Urban Encounters - Routes and transitions - United Kingdom: Tate Modern - 2013 - Annual Conference

[7] Zox-Weaver, Annalisa - "Quote from Gisele Freund." Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography - United Kingdom: Routledge; 1st edition - 2005

[8] Walsham, Alexandra -  The Reformation of the Landscape; Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland - United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2011,

[9] Nora, Pierre - Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire - U.S.A: University of California Press - Representations -  No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24

[10] Scott Brown, Denise - A View from the Campidoglio: Selected Essays, 1953–1984, (with Robert Venturi), New York: Harper & Row, 1984

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