CITIES, poetics of life

How to define a neighbourhood

Schöneberg itself was a genuine delight. Dieter noted how the area was, to some extent, demarcated by "male prostitutes in that direction, female prostitutes in that direction, and transvestites over there", a form of municipal boundary that is exactly how citizens think of cities and exactly not how administrators and politicans do.

via cityofsound: Journal: A walk in Schöneberg, Berlin: energy policy, gentrification, protest, and the humble joys of communal flower beds.

The entire long article, written by one of my favourite thinkers, Dan Hill – a designers (interface designer, perhaps?), but for a long time working in the role of a defacto urbanist, in the UK, Australia, and now Finland, is egregiously worth a read. It deals with the neighbourhood of Schöneberg, and by metonymy all of Berlin, and its many particularities: DIY urbanism, guerrilla occupation of industrial ruins, decaying suburban housing estates, the German energy policy, the Mietskasernen, even David Bowie.

But what I am quoting is what remained, weeks after reading, the most memorable paragraph and the one I found myself quoting most often: the way in which people define their territory. This is precisely what we mean when we say genius loci; the sense of place.

So many people write so much nonsense about Berlin that finding something meaningful and true is always a delight. It seems to be a positional good, the way having an opinion about New York, psychoanalysis, the French banning of hijab, Lars von Trier or Lady Gaga is a must way of separating the social wheat from the social chaff.

CITIES, poetics of life

If I were in Melbourne, I'd go to this: Assemble Papers

I am in Berlin, so I cannot go, but you should.

Assemble Papers, a new independent magazine, is launching on Thursday 26 July (tomorrow or today, depending on your time zone) in Northcote. A magazine about the culture of apartment-living, small living, non-sprawled living; about elastic urban growth boundaries, livability indeces, about Australia’s architectural heritage and the compact (but gorgeous) houses of Japan. It is edited by the very talented Eugenia Lim, otherwise a video artist. The first issue features some wonderful stuff (an interview with Alain de Botton; and then an interview with Marcus Westbury).

I have been involved in Assemble as a mentor, and it has been a really wonderful, rewarding experience to see the project shape up so nicely.

While I am enjoying the benefits of compact living in Germany, here are the launch details:

A reminder to join us tonight, as we launch
Assemble Papers & the culture of living closer together.
Taco Truck onsite and refreshments from
Sailor Jerry, Rekorderlig, Mountain Goat
and the Beaufort Bar.
Tunes by DJ Simon Winkler.
Join us from 6.30pm
Thur 26 July 2012
20 High St Northcote 3070 (corner of Walker St)

CITIES, poetics of life

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

– Momus, The Rumpus Interview

This feeds into a number of conversations I’ve been having recently, through which I have unearthed the roots of my own understanding of a meaningful life in the diet of socialist-approved children’s books my generation grew up on in Croatia; books in which gangs of smart children come together and make awesome things come through, generally accompanied by either a complete disinterest, or active sabotage, of adults (Vlak u snijegu, Družba Pere Kvržice, Junaci Pavlove ulice, Emil i detektivi, Blizanke, Koko i…). This, to me, ties directly to the fact that the most interesting initiatives in art, politics and design in Central Europe (not merely post-socialist, but all of Central Europe) are collective pursuits (art, design and curatorial collectives, magazines, festivals, movements, protests), as well as to the fact that contemporary young Australia is woeful in all of these categories. Coming together to work on a bold, brave project is shrouded in a kind of sublime poetry over there. Here, people shudder and say I hate group work, and ‘arts management’ is understood as the art of midwifery for many individual little geniuses.

Groups can be creative too.

CITIES, poetics of life

Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library | The Awl

What the available details of Wallace’s life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression.

The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent ’70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn’t as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on “Me” is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the ‘star’ as something we want to be.

A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.

“We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?”

Maria Bustillos, Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library

CITIES, how the world works, poetics of life, theatre

Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich

This interview was first published on 16 September 2008 on Spark Online, and is normally available here.

"What Do You Think About Me?", still from the exhibition

Sivan Gabrielovich’s new project, opening on Wednesday 19 November at the Meat Market, a video installation titled What Do You Think About Me?, brings together members of the Israeli and the Palestinian communities together for a series of discussions, workshops and interviews. It is a rare moment of viewing these two groups thoughts and concerns about who they are, and what they think of the other.

Gabrielovich is rushing to finish the installation, neck-deep in cutting 60 hours of video footage down to 3. “I have these visions that I’ll be editing as the people are entering the gallery. I’ll be just putting the DVD in the player.” Continue reading “Let them make pancakes: talking to Sivan Gabrielovich” »

CITIES, poetics of life, theatre, travel notes

The Museum of Broken Relationships

I remember when this opened, some years ago, under the name ‘Museum of Failed Relationships’. I liked that name better – it echoed of wars, revolutions, fallen heroes and honour in defeat. Broken… eh… anything can break. I visited it in June 2011. I was at the end of a relationship, that moment when all sadness gets a bit grimy already, and I was in the right mood to read about the ‘ex-axe’, and similar exhibits. In anyway, it was one of the most enjoyable museum visits I’ve ever had in my life, and I recommend it to anyone.

CITIES, poetics of life

Cruel but kind – a precise description of one element in the pervasive ambivalence of the national character. Here also are vitality, energy, strength, and optimism in one’s own ability, yet indolence, carelessness, the ‘she’ll do, mate’ attitude to the job to be done. Here is insistence on the freedom of the individual, yet resigned acceptance of social restrictions and censorship narrower than in almost any other democratic country in the world. Here is love of justice and devotion to law and order, yet the persistent habit of crowds to stone the umpire and trip the policeman in the course of duty. Here is preoccupation with material things – note, for example, the hospitals: better for a broken leg than a mental deviation – yet impatience with polish and precision in material things. The Australian is forcefully loquacious, until the moment of expressing any emotion. He is aggressively committed to equality and equal opportunity for all men, except for Black Australians. He has high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of confidence in anything he thinks.

Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first ed. 1960

Cruel, but kind

CITIES, poetics of life

The ugliness I mean is skin deep. If the visitor to Australia fails to notice it immediately, fails to respond to the surfeit of colour, the love of advertisements, the dreadful language, the ladylike euphemisms outside public lavatory doors, the technical competence by the almost uncanny misjudgement in floral arrangements, or if he thinks that things of this sort are too trivial to dwell on, then he is unlikely to enjoy modern Australia. For the things that make Australian people, society and culture in some way different from others in the modern world are only skin deep. But skin is as important as its admirers like to make it, and Australians make much of it. This is a country of many colourful, patterned, plastic veneers, of brick-veneer villas, and the White Australia Policy.

Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, first paragraph in the book

The Australian Ugliness

CITIES, poetics of life

Riding a bike as experience

I am very interested in the interplay between one’s experiential reality and their ethics, as you might know. And, while writing the previous post (about the experience of performance from the point of view of someone who has to reflect on it), I came across this very interesting short article, titled ‘why riding bikes is the key to better cities‘.

This should be of interest to anyone creating experiential performance, but it’s also immensely interested to someone who tries to teach people to understand their cities. At a level of sufficient abstraction, I don’t think there’s much difference in the approaches.

The most vital element for the future of our cities is that the bicycle is an instrument of experiential understanding.

On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.

In a car, the world is reduced to mere equation; “What is the fastest route from A to B?” one will ask as they start their engine. This invariably leads to a cascade of freeway concrete flying by at incomprehensible speeds. Their environment, the neighborhoods that compose their communities, the beauty of architecture, the immense societal problems in distressed areas, the faces of neighbors… all of this becomes a conceptually abstract blur from the driver’s seat.

Yes, the bicycle is a stunningly efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.


Invite a motorist for a bike ride through your city and you’ll be cycling with an urbanist by the end of the day. Even the most eloquent of lectures about livable cities and sustainable design can’t compete with the experience from atop a bicycle saddle.

“These cars are going way too fast,” they may mutter beneath their breath.

“How are we supposed to get across the highway?”

“Wow, look at that cathedral! I didn’t know that was there.”

“I didn’t realize there were so many vacant lots in this part of town.”

“Hey, let’s stop at this cafe for a drink.”

This is something we both know and don’t know. Many people (James Kunstler, Robin Boyd, Dan Hill) have noted that the ugliness of suburban sprawl is largely caused by its need to be legible at 50km/h:



Compare and contrast.

But, at the same time, we (all of us) do forget the importance of lived experience in making people care. Barrie Shelton, in one of my classes, showed a series of mental maps he had the residents of a small British town make. The men, who drove, made large-scale maps of streets and sports facilities. The women, who took public transport, drew detailed maps of the town centre, with names of all the shops. The teenagers, who weren’t allowed out much, had a very fuzzy sense of town outside of the main train station and the few bottle shops around it. Had there been a proposal to demolish a 19th-century shopping arcade in the centre of town, how many do you think would care?

We learn the world by experiencing it. The more I try to teach young Melburnians about the world around us, the more I crave the ability to set them experiential exercises of the bike-riding sort. In geography and built environment disciplines, we already put a lot of emphasis on fieldwork and mapping, both kinds of travel to a place for the purpose of recording information. I wonder if these shouldn’t be enriched with tasks of way-finding, game-playing, and similar.