And now for something different. The Sydney College for the Arts (part of the University of Sydney) is hosting Danae Stratou’s video installation VITAL SPACE – Istanbul. For a glimpse of the videos involved, plus my text on the project’s socio-economic and political siginficance, read on…
Catalogue text, by Yanis Varoufakis:
A city is the most paradoxical of places. It brings people together just as powerfully as it isolates one from the other. It creates a great urge to cooperate but also gives rise to hideous conflicts. It is the laboratory of civic virtues and simultaneously the factory of malfeasance. It offers protection while, at once, danger lurks behind its every corner.
In the Near East, great cities like Athens, Alexandria and Bagdad first manufactured and then spread the word of Reason to the rest of the world. But they were also the sites of great crimes, where thinkers like Socrates and Hypatia were put to death by those threatened by the power of argument to unite ‘citizens’ and challenge establishments.
In central and northern Europe, once the world started coming out of the Middle Ages, courtesy of the strengthening connections with the East (mainly of the trading variety), magnificent cities emerged which would dominate the world with their economic and military power. However, underneath all the glory and the power, these cities comprised sharp divisions between opulent palaces, majestic cathedrals and paupers’ dwellings.
In the cradle of the industrial revolution, Britain, the rise of the cities was foreshadowed by the Enclosures; the inhuman weeding out of the peasantry from their ancestral land, to make room for sheep whose wool was becoming one of the first ever global commodities. Thus, the villages were swarmed with migrants from the other side of the hills, turning surreptitiously into towns. And when the forced exodus could not be contained by the nearby townships, several towns swelled to become vast slums, the raw materials of Greater London, today’s Manchester, the precursors of modern Shanghai, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Istanbul.
Megacities were the logical conclusion of this process of displacement, dispossession, modernisation, civilisation, urbanisation, globalisation – all concepts that are intimately intertwined with the manner in which contradictions created shared spaces and, later, commodification built up into urban grids that generate, at once, incredible wealth and stupendous misery.
Walking through London, Paris or indeed Chicago one can still discern the old dividing lines between the ancient slums and their neighbouring affluent suburbs. Even where gentrification has pushed the poor out, the signs remain indelible. Especially where the connections seem strongest; e.g. along railway corridors and imposing highways.
Cities have long memories of divisions and connections. But these memories can only be retrieved when physically experiencing the cities. Walking their streets, touching their walls, sensing the air, looking at the top floors of buildings which, in contrast to the ground floors, remain relatively untouched by the passage of time. These experiences reveal the roots of the present in a past that united and divided their population then just as it does now.
There is, however, a ‘condition’ that is new to our times. Megacities of the past were job machines. Manchester, Detroit, Tokyo, Seoul – all attracted huge numbers of slum dwellers who found in them paid work in workshops and factories and, in this manner, moved quickly from the informal to the formal sector of the urban social economy. Today’s megacities, in contradistinction, are more circumscribed in terms of their capacity to elevate ‘newcomers’ to the formal sector. The reason is simple: Most money is now made not in growing factories, mines and shipyards but in the service sector, in real estate and in finance. These labour ‘markets’ either cannot absorb more than a small proportion of available labour or they can only employ workers informally and temporarily. In this sense, while the city population rises inexorably, its informal parts are not formalising at the speed that is necessary to break down the division between formal and informal; between suburb and slum; between those who have property rights over their lives and those who do not.
On the one hand, the availability of plentiful informal labour drives growth up and enriches further the already rich. On the other hand, the new wealth is causing an opposite force to that witnessed in the European megacities of the 19th century: instead of slums formalising (and slum dwellers acquiring the property rights that are a prerequisite for improving their houses and lives) they are cleared by enterprising developers who deal directly with governments and turn ex slums into gated communities. Instead of greater unity, stronger links, and a heightened sense of connection, we end up with more gates, higher fences, brutal evictions and wholesale dislocation. This is the new condition that faces the new megacities.
Istanbul is a unique city. The capital of two empires and of a republic, the connections and divisions it is made of are multi-layered both time-wise and spatially. Historically, it emerged as a major city because of Constantine’s penchant for sitting astride Europe and Asia. This connection was seen as a source of power and probably explains why this city was large and powerful even when London and Berlin were, in comparison, insignificant towns. It was also the cause of many conflicts that have been playing themselves out until the very recent past.
Lots of history has flowed since Constantine’s days, almost as much as the quantities of water that traversed the Bosphorus. Today, we hear that the building of a third bridge over the Bosphorus, connecting the two continents, is likely to divide even further the formal from the informal, the haves from the have nots, the powerful from the weak. It is an ironic twist that deserves to be explored diligently and in the non-partisan that only the artist’s eye can offer.
Vital Space – Istanbul
Danae Stratou initially conceived of a project that would juxtapose urbanised humanity against a desolate nature. The overall project is entitled Vital Space. Its first phase was initially shown in Istanbul, as part of an exhibition commissioned and staged by Istanbul – European Cultural Capital, 2010. Her intention was to capture the city’s essence in the context of a video installation comprising two films depicting two different aspects of Istanbul. One film offers a bird eye’s view of different paths connecting order and disorder, centre and suburb, privilege and dispossession, formal and informal. The second film captures from ground level a sea of people coming toward the camera in sequences filmed in different city locations (e.g. bus station, ferry boat terminal, busy streets).
The work’s raison d’ être is to demonstrate the liberating effects on our imagination of being there; of physically experiencing the city’s divisions and connections; of intending to heal the former and cultivate the latter by looking at and hearing the city’s rhythm in person. Of ‘flying’ above it, on the one side, and allowing a stream of humanity to pass us by, while we remain still, tranquil, motionless.
Vital Space – Istanbul is thus projected on a large freestanding wall (7.00mx4.00m). Both projections cover the entire surface of the wall on each side, the viewer purposely incapable of watching both films at once. Instead, she must walk around the free standing wall to catch glimpses (or watch extensive parts) of the two films separately. On the one side (Side A) of the wall, she will encounter the birds’ eye view film. The other side (Side B) exposes her to the ground level constant human flow. The former offers a constant outward movement, as the camera mounted at the front of the helicopter relates a constant flow of images taking the viewer seamlessly across the city, from the centre outwards. In contrast, the ground level film presents a different dynamic from a camera that remains static, as if waiting to absorb the constant flow of humanity is coming toward the viewer.
Seattle, March 2012