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, spatial poetics

It is a strange thing to love a city.

I always had a sense that I would fall in love with Tokyo. In retrospect I guess it’s not that surprising. I was of the generation that had grown up in the ’80s when Japan was ascendant (born aloft by a bubble whose burst crippled its economy for decades), and I’d fed on a steady diet of anime and samurai films. Tokyo for all sorts of reasons spoke to me. By the time I was ready to start having fantasies about any city other than New York, Tokyo was already “the default setting of the future”—Blade Runner city!—and whether because of my childhood poverty or personal inclination, the future was where I longed to be.

It took a while—I wasn’t the kind of kid who could afford to just up and go wherever he liked—but I did finally make it to Tokyo. My best friend, a Japanese-American who’d relocated back to the home country after college, was hosting me. It was a strange time, really. My friend was scheduled to have open-heart surgery the following month, which was part of the reason I had flown over when I did. You know: just in case. He had pretty much decided that no matter what the doctors said about the risks, he was going to be fine, and all that really mattered at the moment was showing me as much of Tokyo as possible. His way of dealing with it. So that’s basically what we did for the next three weeks. Saw Tokyo. Lived it. And predictably I fell in love.

With what? The typical stuff. All the bells and whistles of its modernity. The strangeness of it, the impossible overwhelming scale. With the ramen shop behind my friend’s apartment that served the greatest gyoza I’d ever eaten. With his hip neighborhood, Shimo-Kitazawa. With the last trains back from Shibuya, everybody smashed. With the curry shops that were a revelation to me. With the ginkgo trees and the parks that, despite Tokyo’s insane urbanism, were everywhere. With the castles and the temples and the costume tribes that gathered in Ueno Park on the weekends. With the fact that you couldn’t walk five feet in Tokyo without being tempted by some new deliciousness. With the eyeglass-washing stations. With the crows and the wooden crutches propping up ailing trees. With the glimpse of Mount Fuji from the top of the Metropolitan Government building. With the salsa clubs in Roppongi. With my little train book that I carried with me everywhere.

I could go on. We all can when we talk about the cities we love. Tokyo just did it for me the way London or Rome or Paris or Barcelona does it for other people. My childhood self with all his longings resonated with Tokyo’s futurism. My immigrant self grooved on the familiarity of being an utter stranger, of being gaijin No. 1; it was not so long before that America had been as incomprehensible to me as Japan. My apocalyptic self (highly developed after an ’80s childhood) froze at the scars of Tokyo’s many traumas.

It is a strange thing to love a city. In the end because no city is entirely knowable. What you love really are pieces of it. You are like Dr. Aadam Aziz forever peering at sections of his beloved through the perforated sheet. In Midnight’s Children the sheet was finally dropped and the beloved revealed, but with cities that never happens. That is perhaps part of the allure, what brings us back to the cities we love: our desire to accumulate enough pieces so we can finally have it whole within us. But to love a city is also to love who we were at that time we fell in love. For me, my love for Tokyo is intertwined with my love for my best friend, who did, in the end, survive his surgery.

Cities produce love and yet feel none. A strange thing when you think about it, but perhaps fitting. Cities need that love more than most of us care to imagine. Cities, after all, for all their massiveness, all their there-ness, are acutely vulnerable. No city in the world makes that vulnerability more explicit than Tokyo. In the last century alone Tokyo was destroyed two times. Once by the Great Kanto Earthquake and again by the bombings of World War II.

Each time Tokyo has risen anew.

Today, as radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station drifts toward Tokyo, I am again thinking about the vulnerability of cities and of our love for them. Perhaps cities provoke so much love because they know that in that love lies their own endurance. After all, isn’t it true that for all their vulnerability, as long as a city is loved by someone it will never truly disappear? Isn’t that what it really means to love a city the way I love Tokyo: to carry within yourself the possibility, however faintly, of its rebirth?

Junot Diaz, Tokyo

CITIES, how the world works

Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer

Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
c. 1618
Oil on canvas
88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Very interesting post at Yes means Yes on communication patterns and how one says ‘no’, applied in regards to sexual violence. A paper by Kitzinger and Frith (1999) uses very fine-combed conversation analysis to discover that

– in English, saying ‘no’ is usually done indirectly: through use of pauses, aahs and ums, palliatives such as appreciation, and explanation. In other words, a typical refusal of an offer sounds like this: ‘Thank you, I would love to, but… uhm… I have to work all day tomorrow, so… yeah… I might not be able to.’ This is how a rejection normally sounds like, a rejection of any offer. In English, a direct ‘no’ is understood as a rude and aggressive communication tactic.
– in English, such rejections are clearly understood by both men and women; neither had any trouble hearing the implicit rejection, however politely expressed, and regardless of the fact that they did not include the word ‘no’. Continue reading “Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer” »

CITIES, policy & design

Cities, or the missing vision for 'em in Australia

Dear reader, I have been busy beyond description. I have had no time to tweet, let alone post considered long-form writing on this blog, which is still incredibly dear to me. Instead, I have placeholders in my mind, things I think about when I’m running up and down Melbourne (literally, physically running), and things I can list here as a sort of physical placeholder:

– criticism as judgement and as philology;
– the role of the audience, and critic as an audience member;
– short taxonomy of live art;
– on Christoph Schlingensief (I have recently submitted by interview with Anna Teresa Scheer on the book she has edited with Tara Forrest on Schlingensief, of which I am tremendously proud – I will re-post here when RealTime publishes it, but I was going to write a few other things too).

However, I’ve been also itching to write more about cities. I’ve realised I don’t publicise the other half of my life enough – many people don’t know that I have spent 14,600 hours (I calculated tonight) studying and working on cities, which makes me at least fluent in urbanism. I am a geographer, there’s about half of an urban planner in me, and I’m also being trained in urban design. I research, I design, and I write about urban problems to almost the same degree as I write about theatre. And it was only recently, when I realised that my ex-boyfriend had somehow managed to sell himself to the world as the theatre and urbanism expert who just happened to be going out with me, that I started wondering about whether I am perhaps too reticent about these things. I mean, I do have this whole other area of interest, if not exactly expertise.

So, I’ve spent the best part of this semester completely engulfed in urban design (when I wasn’t completely engulfed in the break-up with the said ex-boyfriend) – urban design which, in Anglophone countries, has been detached from urban planning since about the 1960s, which has resulted in some important problems. I’ve been grappling with those problems, as well as learning to master the expectations, the tasks, the problems and the opportunities of the design-based teaching process. It has been absolutely hectic, but extraordinarily rewarding so far. I am very fond of the design teaching process, which is studio-based, which is to say problem-solving and creatively oriented, but at the same time homework-driven and hugely demanding of the student. It seems to me that almost any discipline or area of knowledge could be taught that way, and that the practical component (the having to make something and present it in class twice a week) enhances one’s knowledge in a fairly significant way.

I have also been offered to teach studio-based subjects, which is humbling and incredibly exciting at the same time. I am getting interested, very interested, in combining performance training practices with design practices, in one way or the other (in performance exercises being used to generate design, or design exercises being used to generate performance). And when I say design, I really do not mean buildings, but solutions.

You see, the divorce between urban planning and urban design in the Anglophone countries has resulted in a peculiar state in which neither the left nor the right hand have the tools to effect change, and are, on top, working in mutual hostility. Urban design has gone the way of architecture (on which I will say only: I am yet to meet an architect who isn’t incredibly ignorant of most of the world, yet smugly convinced of the superiority of his discipline over all others – other than my friend Pouria, who doesn’t count because he’s Iranian). Urban planning has gone into public policy. The result is that urban design is only interested in shapes from bird’s eye perspective, and urban planning in equitable processes of consultation, and policies. The latter has no interest in Really Existing urban conditions, not as far as I can see. The former, while it has an appreciation for Really Existing urban conditions, has no understanding of the social processes that form and perpetuate such conditions – which makes it essentially unable to replicate them through design. The result is the deep stasis we see in Australian cities, a failure of imagination and governance.

Dan Hill has recently published an extraordinary article on this failure of imagination and governance in Architecture Australia, and re-published it on his excellent blog, City of Sound. I recommend the article even if you never cared about a city in your life: it’s very thought-provoking. Dan makes a point that governance isn’t simply management, that it needs a vision for the future (which is what design could give urban planning); but also that ocularcentric (pretty-pictures) design, of which we currently have bucketfuls, cannot give us the solution. This is why I previously made a distinction between designing an object and designing a solution: the latter can be invisible, yet it has to work. At the same time, paradoxically, it is urban planning in Australia that has the ‘strategic’ epithet in front of it, the long-term thinking and acting. Design is short-term and product-oriented, while strategic planning is without vision. No wonder we’re fucked.

In another, recent blog post, Dan also addresses this, somewhat obliquely:

Strategic Design is, to me, potentially the most interesting recent development in design. It’s neatly defined at the Helsinki Design Lab site:

“Helsinki Design Lab helps government leaders see the “architecture of problems.” We assist decision-makers to view challenges from a big-picture perspective, and provide guidance toward more complete solutions that consider all aspects of a problem. Our mission is to advance this way of working—we call it strategic design.”

It feels (and is) quite different to design thinking, which is a term and way of thinking I think will fade quite rapidly, for some good reasons (the incorporation of its basic tenets into everyday processes) and bad reasons (the lack of rigor, awareness and responsibility on the part of many who have been actively pushing it in recent years). Either way, strategic design feels like something else, and its careful, integrated and thoughtful focus on meaningful, systemic challenges like health care, education, and climate change is particularly relevant. It’s also sketched out well here.

I have seen ‘design thinking’ appear in many places recently, even creeping into the world of theatre (through people such as Esther Anatolitis and Ming-Zhu Hii, who are very interested in design). I am quite wary of the term, because I am under no illusion that designers have the general knowledge needed to find solutions to problems. I work with designers, and I can attest to the inordinate focus they place on packaging, as opposed to function. But what design disciplines do have is a method of ploughing through a problem – a process.

What is needed, however, is greater emphasis on learning how a city works, what a city needs, how a city changes – in an abstract, non-targeted way – before a designer has actually gained enough knowledge to put their drawing skills to good use. See, for example, the eminently reasonable curriculum offered at Delft university (the Dutch are particularly good at teaching this stuff right). (ADDENDUM: I didn’t want to be mean when I original wrote this, but now I think it may make sense to compare this to the similar curriculum at Melbourne University. As you can see, the design subjects are strongly focused on design methods, such as digital modelling; while the planning subjects are mainly concerned with legislation. The focus on actual processes shaping the city is just about negligible.)

On a related note, I saw Timothy Morton give a lecture last week, at Melbourne University. The gist of it seemed to be that the age of theory is over, and the age of doing has begun. This is a peculiar thing, coming from a theorist, who in the question time admitted that all he knows how to do is sit in libraries and think, and that there must be a place for such activity too. Of course, yes. But I’m finding it interesting that this sort of thinking has been creeping into humanities and philosophy: a sort of glorification of the doing, of labour, of the physical, unthinking world, over abstract synthesizing of the world. The problem is that it very easily slips into glorification, precisely because it comes from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Similarly, there has long been an interest among designers in philosophy; but this is always in the most utilitarian, de-abstracted terms: ‘let’s design smooth and striated space, as theorised by Deleuze and Guattari’.

It seems to me that neither of the two is particularly smart as an approach, and that the trouble comes from a certain lack of general knowledge, or specific knowledge, on both ends. There is a place in this world for abstract thought, and for creative problem-solving. They can be immensely useful to each other. But it is only in their non-compromised forms that they are actually what they are, and only as such can they be useful to each other…

CITIES, how the world works

Let me finish the sentence…

Excellent article (book excerpt, more precisely in The Age today about unconscious sexism. It compares the cases of two Stanford biologists, both tenured professors, both transgender, and both have undergone sex change late in life:

“Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn’t know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Ben also noticed he was treated differently in the everyday world. “When I go into stores, I notice I am much more likely to be attended to. They come up to me and say, ‘Yes, sir? Can I help you, sir?’ I have had the thought a million times, I am taken more seriously.”

Before sex change, Joan Roughgarden’s research career was based around exploring radical ideas in biology. But, when the now-female researcher suggested that Charles Darwin’s theory of competition between the sexes was wrong:

THE scientific establishment, Joan said, was livid. But in contrast to the response to her earlier theory about tide pools and marine animals, few scientists engaged with her. At a workshop at Loyola University, a scientist “lost it” and started screaming at her for being irresponsible. “I had never had experiences of anyone trying to coerce me in this physically intimidating way,” she said, as she compared the reactions to her work before and after she became a woman. “You really think this guy is really going to come over and hit you.”

Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counter-intuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn’t a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has “the right to be wrong”.

Where she used to be a member of Stanford University’s senate, Joan is no longer on any university or departmental committee. Where she was once able to access internal university funds for research, she said she finds it all but impossible to do so now. Before her transition, she enjoyed an above-average salary at Stanford. But since her transition, “My own salary has drifted down to the bottom 10 per cent of full professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences, even though my research and students are among the best of my career and are having international impact, albeit often controversial.”

Well worth a read. The comments, of course, are too.

CITIES, poetics of life, theatre

Vertical multiculturalism

You have to be the most humourless disco sceptic not to like this Turkish gem:


Clã – Competência Para Amar:


Against horizontal multiculturalism – by which we intend a socio-cultural activity oriented towards minorities, or a decorative employment of mainly non-European expressive cultures (Brook, Barba, Mnouchkine), a moussaka which tries to convince us, with a bit of Indian make-up, majestic Japanese costumes and roars of two to three dark-skinned actors, that it is engaging with the rest of the world. But the methods of composition and employment of these piled up sensations/sensationalisms are still intact in their Westernness. In contrast to this – let’s say it calmly – colonial approach, artists of the so-called vertical multiculturalism, working on the transects of different cultures, struggling to break through the simultaneity of different cultural identities with a sort of schizoanalytical approach, are building a unique, innovative art. Such an actor manages to hold, within his mental habitus, multiple different archaic combinations and ways of being while his body emanates the gestic essence of modern theatre, which gives a vertiginous dimension to the internal, ritual element. The same can be said for the above-described directorial interventions.

–Gordana Vnuk, Pogled iznutra

CITIES, how the world works

Review: Africa

“There are four big problems that emerge from aid. One is the obvious one: the corruption, the fact that you’re giving somebody something for free, no strings attached. The second problem is aid dependency, which is the whole notion that you create a society heavily burdened and laden with bureaucracy, which is very inefficient and essentially kills off the entrepreneurial culture. The third problem has to do with this economic term called ‘Dutch disease’, although they usually call it the oil curse. It actually applies to aid as well, where you have these large inflows of capital which really kill off the export sector. Then finally, disenfranchising the middle class; governments become beholden or responsible to report to donors and they don’t have any obligation to report to the domestic citizenry.
-Dambisa Moyo in The Africa Report

“In addition it was clear how little say not only the citizens have, but the governments have. You hardly ever saw participation from domestic policymakers in designing and discussing what was, essentially, our future – Africa’s future. I mean, there are so many classic examples of people’s lives essentially being shaped and designed by policy that’s not domestically constructed.” She cites the donor who refused to give any aid unless an entirely new town be built in Zambia, despite the government’s protests that they would be left holding the baby, as indeed happened; or George Bush’s requirement that two-thirds of the $15bn he was giving to fight Aids had to go to pro-abstinence programmes, and none could go to any establishment that provided abortions. ”
The Guardian interviews Dambisa Moyo

Partly, of course, it’s about power, and purse-strings; partly, she believes, it’s a PR issue, “there are many well-spoken, smart African leaders who should be on the global stage”; very largely, given that so far not many are, it’s a case of who gets to do the talking, and increasingly, it is people like Bob Geldof and Bono, the most visible representatives of what she calls, in a thrillingly withering manner, “glamour aid”. “There are African policymakers who are charged with the responsibility of creating policy, and implementing policy. That’s their job. Long, long lines of people have stood in the sun to vote for a president who is effectively impotent because of donors or because glamour aid has decided to speak on behalf of a continent. How would British people feel if tomorrow Michael Jackson started telling them how they should get out of the housing crisis? Or if Amy Winehouse started to give the US government advice about the credit crunch? And was listened to? I think they would be perturbed, and worried. I mean, they’ve completely disenfranchised the very people we’ve actually elected!”
The Guardian interviews Dambisa Moyo