BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 09 SEP 01
Featured in
Issue 61

New Settlements

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 09 SEP 01

Different groups fight to claim social space in the city. Is there a way for art to participate in this conflict? If you acknowledge that conflicts can arise about what a city is or should be, then the urban 'imaginary' emerges as a potential site of artistic intervention: challenging the dominant concepts of urban space on a symbolic level while projecting alternative visions.

'New Settlements', curated by Jacob Fabricius, threw into relief the various views of the participating artists: the utopian vision of a liquid city in a state of constant transformation was set against the perception of urban space as commercialized territory controlled by the mechanisms of surveillance. Pia Rönnicke's video Storyboard for a City (2001) combined architectural drawings with computer animation to create a fluid cityscape that unfolds in a ceaseless stream of tower blocks, flyovers, parks and open spaces. This flowing vision recurs in the digital video Bungalow 8, Chemical Sundown (2001), by Jeremy Blake: like an ecstatic drug dream, patterns and cascades of luminescent colours blend with graphics of city grids and captured film sequences of futuristic urban settings.

This desire for the dissolution of urban space into a flow of visual thrills was dissected by Sean Snyder in his research work 4 and 1/2 Minutes (An Introduction to the Culture and Architecture of Tokyo) (2001): a compilation of photos, texts and charts explores the idea that in Tokyo the transformation of the city into images is not a utopian fantasy but the result of capitalist politics. Snyder documents how architectural simulacra - copies of Hungarian farmhouses or French châteaux - are being built all over Tokyo. It's a process that primarily seems to serve economic interests by destabilizing local industry - all that is solid melts into surface design.

The flipside to the city as a glossy marketable surface is the policy of controlling and 'cleansing' urban spaces. Cady Noland's 2 in One (1999-2000) was installed to recall a police roadblock in the middle of the exhibition space, deliberately obstructing the visitor's free passage through the room. Henrik Olesen sealed off the entrance with a partition wall, Untitled (2001), forcing the viewer to enter through a narrow door. On the inside, photographs and fact-sheets commented on the criminalization of homosexuality in different countries (including many states of the US). In the toilets a soft female voice welcomed you to 'Wonderful Copenhagen': a work by Julia Scher, Nicolai Washroom Attendant - Male and Female (Unisex) (2001) that lends the rhetoric of city image-marketing the sting of surveillance paranoia. All three installations effectively manifest the aggression inherent in the way public space is commercialized, administered and cordoned off against supposedly undesirable elements of society.

In his video Why It's Time for Imperial, Again ...' (2000) Gerard Byrne focuses on another motive of the urban imaginary: the car as a symbol of wealth and (upward) mobility. Byrne appropriated a magazine ad by the Chrysler Corporation from 1980. It's a fictitious dialogue between the chairman of the Chrysler board, Lee Iacocca, and Frank Sinatra: like old buddies, the two casually discuss the standards of modern luxury cars and extol the merits of the new Chrysler limousine the 'Imperial'. Byrne uses the ad as the script for his video. Two actors portray Lee and Frank as two grumpy old businessmen who look like petty Mafiosi fixing a dodgy deal. As they talk they stroll through a run-down industrial district with dilapidated factories and abandoned railway lines. Byrne dismantles the 'classy' image of the Chrysler Imperial by connecting it to the obscenity of wheeler-dealing and the desolate reality of the urban wasteland left behind by industrial car production.

Although 'New Settlements' highlighted scenarios of economic exploitation, social control and post-industrial decline, it didn't privilege this dystopic perspective. The fascination of the utopian view of the city as a site of visual flow, intensified experience and unexpected exposure to otherness remained equally strong. The exhibition thus succeeded in foregrounding the urban imaginary both as the subject of a political critique and as the raw material for transgressive fantasies.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.