I am, of course, against the notion of pedestrians waiting for cars – we know that this curtailment of the citizen right to public space was never voted on, and was implemented stealthily in most cities during the early 20th century, largely to protect the (wealthier) car owners from legal culpability.

But I am also a huge fan of dancing in public, so it evens out.

This lovely presentation by Mikael Colville-Andersen for TedxZurich tackles a whole bunch of good concepts and ideas, including:

  • the birth of jaywalking
  • desire lines
  • design thinking
  • how smart cities change to suit how their citizens live
  • the use of temporary projects to test-drive urban design ideas
  • designing for usability, and how breaking the rules is not a legal problem, but a design problem
CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

Robert Dessaix: Arabesques

It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.

In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.

When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:

1. on happiness

‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’

2. on protestantism

…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.

(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)

3. on travel

‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’

4. on how Australians perceive Europeans

Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.

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CITIES, things I have liked

But how can you write?

My week in Chefchaouen is full of these snapshots, vivid in colour and deeply etched in my mind. But none is as close to the surface as that moment when I opened my eyes to a group of children, staring at me with total discombobulation. I smiled slowly and the eldest came forward.

“What are you doing?” He asked in French

“I’m writing.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to remember.”

“Why?”

“Because I think your town is beautiful, and I want to capture that beauty so I don’t lose any of it later.”

“But how are you writing?” he asked, more forcefully this time.

“Pardon me?”

“How…” he said gesturing to my notebook impatiently, “HOW?”

Impasse. I wasn’t sure what he was asking me. Was it a permission problem or a question about what I planned to do with those words? I closed the notebook carefully, not wanting to lose the memories I had already jotted down. The children all stared at me, foreheads knotted, until a smaller girl came to the front and plopped down in front of me on the stoop, staring up at my face with wide eyes. She took my pen and mimicked what I was doing, then stopped and stared up at me for approval. I gave her a hug, still concerned that I had somehow offended my impromptu hosts.

“How?” He asked again, more softly.

A man walked by, slowing down when he saw the kids surrounding me and pausing entirely when he caught a glimpse of my baffled state. He spoke with the eldest in Arabic, and then he said what stuck with me ever since:

“Often, the women here cannot write. They think you are in your teens, and they want to know why you, as a woman, can write but many of the women here cannot.”

from Vivid Memories in Chefchaouen, Morocco, by Jodi of Legal Nomads.

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CITIES, things I have liked

'The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland, in 1965.'

He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’

I saw Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil maybe half a dozen times. An essay-film, not a documentary but certainly plotless, almost 3 hrs in duration, a miracle of dramaturgy. Every time I saw Sans Soleil, I was in company, and each time I was the only one to stay awake until the end.

Watching Sans Soleil has always felt like being inside someone’s head: unspeakably intimate. To see what they see and think what they think, synchronised, have the same associations, same train of thought. Sex doesn’t even come close. Chris Marker was a recluse who gave no interviews, and that is probably why.

Chris Marker is, without a doubt, the only film-maker I can quote by heart. He said: nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments; only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave.

Chris Marker died this morning, at the age of 91.

He said, I’ve been round the world several times and now only banality still interests me. This is from Sans Soleil too, footage of people sleeping on the ferry to Tokyo. Limbs in every way tangled, a socked foot dangling off the armrest.

David Thomson once wrote that La Jetee is the most important film ever made, “never mind if no one named it recently for Sight and Sound in their “10 best” polls. I know that if you went to most of the people polled in that magazine and asked, “What about La Jetée, then?”, they’d say, “Oh, well, of course”, and then (I’m one of them) we’d come up with some fancy excuse about La Jetée being above and beyond the best.” La Jetee, made in 1962, still feels, to this day, like it comes from the future of cinema.

The man who introduced me to Chris Marker was also the worst person I have ever encountered in my life, a vile man, and here we return to the proverbial Jew-gassing Nazionalsozialist and his enjoyment of classical music. To make my life easier, I tell myself stories of how he never appreciated Marker for the real reasons, only the false ones, things like technique or the monochrome stylishness of La Jetee, or Marker’s place in the history of cinema. Not things like dangling feet, or the side observation about the Japanese man ‘making an important discovery in electronics’ before killing himself to follow his wife.

I remember thinking, in the early days, that Chris Marker, despite the name, could not be an Anglophone, because his humour was too soft and diffuse. The bit in …a Valparaiso where the narrator starts inventing reasons for why the city is just so. The tiny commercial break in Letter from Siberia, a sing-song advertisement for reindeer as household appliance. Who does that? Nobody does that. When people do things like that, we fall in love. When we think about why we love people, it’s that calibre of behaviour, nothing bigger or more outwardly significant.

The question that has haunted me for years has been this: why do we get bored watching a film, or reading a book, and yet we can observe a street corner for hours? Sometimes it seems like art couldn’t possibly surpass living reality; and sometimes there come majestic works of art that seem like the only thing worth making, really worth making. Chris Marker created the pinnacle of both possibilities. Sans Soleil, the awe of reality; La Jetee, the perfect artefact, truer than the truth.

It is easy to love La Jetee, I as much as everyone, but Sans Soleil was always my favourite, because it was stronger than sex, because it had not the easy 50s stylishness but the more trying, gravelly 80s video textures, because it was as long as a DJ set, because it kind of was, anyway, a remix of memory. Sans Soleil is messy, and, someone once said, ‘for people who want their lines straight, life itself is a problem’.

As I get older, I realise that this will become more and more common: I will outlive artists important to me. And then, perhaps, one day this time will no longer be my time, among the living artists there won’t be any I adore. There have never been many artists truly, seriously important to me. Perhaps one for every artform (except non-moving visual arts, which I like but do not love). Chris Marker is the first one to die, and I am left a little bit more mortal.

I like to think the spirit of Chris Marker lives on in the work of chelfitsch and Jerome Bel.

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CITIES, spatial poetics, things I have liked

In this spore borne air,

Edit: I almost forgot to assign this artwork to Anna Garforth. Oops.

Why is this beautiful? Because it’s moss, yes, and so it has a third and fourth dimension over and above normal graffiti or wall writing. But then, after, chiefly because of the comma.

All images tend towards invisibility, and all phrases tend towards noise. In five or ten years, perhaps dangling clauses (or prepositional phrases) will be the primary gimmick of advertising copy, and this just an annoying piece of self-conscious quirkiness in trendy typography. For now, though, periods vastly outnumber commas, and a graffiti of this sort still has the power to follow me round the corner and until the end of my day, uncurtailed by any finite punctuation.

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