Inga Bryden: The Place of Improvisation / The Improvisation of Place
Bristol School of Art, Media and Design, University of the West of England, Bristol, 9 July 2005
Dr Inga Bryden (University of Winchester)
Inconsistent Landscape: Improvising the City This paper will focus on the urban landscape and the `nature’ of urban experience, acknowledging that place, and perhaps city space in particular, is embodied through an interaction of the senses. The issue of how to represent such a landscape preoccupies cultural geographers, urban theorists and critics of visual culture – how might new strategies of representation, articulation, expression derive from structures of visibility/invisibility and presence/absence?
Vision and Landscape / Visualising the City It is a truism that urban forms allow for new models of visuality, for ways of seeing and being seen, or not (ie invisibility and, relatedly, anonymity). The city is a place of partial glimpses; accidental or unconscious glances; hidden spaces; momentary physical contact; microcosms, and microstructures. It is also multi/interdisciplinary space, across and in which the visual, aural, corporeal, architectural, textual and technological, play. In this sense the cityscape is a territory of interactivity, both with and without borders.
The western industrial city, or more particularly, urban experience, has been culturally characterised as labyrinthine or maze-like: a puzzle of interconnections, dead-ends and frustrations, which both compels continual movement and signifies the playfulness of multiple choice; is both entrapping and liberating. At the same time, as has been extensively critically argued, nineteenth-century society was increasingly coded according to an archive of visual representations – a dominance of the visual at the expense of other forms of experience which has been critiqued by Michel Foucault (Cloke, ed., 34). Commenting on the industrial city and the onslaught of the visual, John Ruskin mentions a `new city sensibility’: place has the capacity to feel and creates an openness to emotional impressions; a susceptibility to external stimuli. This notion of the metropolis as a `new type of spirit’, rather than as something to be defined in quantitative terms, is discussed in the first decade of the twentieth century, contemporary with E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End (1910) which sees urban life as fundamentally affecting the quality of human relations, its nomadic rhythms signalling loss of connections.
It was the seeming elusive, nomadic, unpredictable nature of being in the city which, as Ruskin and others argued, was antithetical to the artist’s ability to dream’ and to create (Mallett in Wheeler, ed., 51-53). Had/has the urban experience fundamentally disturbed the `deeply appreciative gaze’, which could either rest on the art object or admire the cityscape from afar? One possible protective adjustment against urban conditions, noted by cultural critics, is to retreat into `non-seeing’, that is, looking and glancing rather than gazing, although this indicates a lack of responsibility and engagement (Rewers, 88).
The cultural experience of the modern metropolis, then, as a human sensorium – where the self found itself defined in relation to a crowd – was arguably marked by shock and by an adjustment of the mode of apprehension, from the direct `unblinking gaze’ to the indirect, deflecting apperception. Perspective is crucial here to the shifting nature of place, and to cultural responses to that place. One could say that there is a shift in the conceptualising of place/nation, from nation as existing location or landscape, visualised in terms of expansiveness (for example, eighteenth-century landscape painting), to nation as a territory of bodies, as population, visualised in terms of density and proximity (for example in William Frith’s painting Derby Day). As Pam Morris has summarised, a `visualized, imaginative contrast between spaciousness and closeness’ was an ideological subtext in nineteenth-century Britain (11). Such a reconfigured relationship to the world `established through abstracted, habitual and kinaesthetic patterns inspired a type of physiognomic reading of the city and its spaces that was close, enlarged and shifting, not distanced, stable and contemplative’ (Vasudevan et al, eds, 9). As Susan Stewart explains:
…one cannot enter into the life of the city without experiencing a corresponding change of perspective. Therefore the view from above remains a view from an elsewhere, a view which in making the city other must correspondingly employ metaphors of otherness. (79)
Whereas `the very idea of landscape implies separation and observation’ (Williams, 120-21) mass society and its effects can be imagined as `embodied’, with a focus on corporeal physicality, on the being in the city of actual bodies which themselves become a complex system of signification. Furthermore, the relation between the body/mass and the everyday is tactile, absorbed as a matter of habit – a tactility which, as Walter Benjamin has extensively discussed, is linked to modern, urban perception. The city as a place of daily increased opportunities for chance encounters with diverse kinds of people, is refracted and reflected in different ways in different cultural forms: in nineteenth-century literature, for instance, the imagery of a loathed physical closeness, expressed as sensory revulsion, is noticeable (Morris).
As a place of `flesh and stone’, the urban was simultaneously shaped by improvised behaviours and provided a space/stage for improvisation/performance.
The Sensorium The challenge then, in improvising place might be how, in W.J.T. Mitchell’s formulation, to `describe the specific relations of vision to the other senses…as they are elaborated in particular cultural practices’. Duane Michals’ photograph of a scene in a New York bar highlights the dilemma in representing the sensuality of specific practices, rooted in place. The photograph is accompanied by text describing the heat, his feeling of menace, the drinking of a beer and explaining, `there are things here not seen in this photograph’ (Pile and Thrift, eds, 2): the `improvised’ scene is as much about absence as presence. Thus, we could argue that whilst it might be necessary to embrace the urban, the urban environment is about the loss of the sensory, as Manfredo Tafuri proposes in `Dialectics of the Avant-Garde’. Dziga Vertor’s 1929 film A Man with a Movie Camera emphasises the everyday, mechanised aspects of the city, so that it becomes a focal point of collective energy – as viewers we become, like the filmed citizens, part of the process of modernity, our senses anaesthetised.
Or, we could say that the sensory structures of daily habit are rendered invisible, rather than sensationalised. Seremetakis suggests that the sensory structures of everyday life are perceived as a naturalised backdrop, against which sensational events are profiled (events which can therefore be narrativised). So habit, in a way, `obliterates a sense of landscape, disallowing the ability to discern foreground and background which the latter perspective promotes’ (19-22). It provides a kinaesthetic, rather than visual, sense of one’s surroundings. Walter Benjamin describes this well in `Lost Property Office’: `As soon as we begin to find our bearings [in the city], the landscape vanishes at a stroke like the façade of a house as we enter it…Once we begin to find our way about, the earliest picture can never be restored’ (One Way Street). A sensual remembrance of a place maps out an experienced environment, whereas a rationally composed spatial imagination compiles an iconographic landscape (Vasudevan et al, eds, 124). If the multisensuality of everyday experience (allowing, as Rodaway points out, that `one or more senses may be dominant in a given situation’ (5)) is embraced by the city, how might the sensorium of urban life be re-visualised and re-presented or performed, to allow us to comprehend place anew?
Improvisation Notions of improvisation are useful to an understanding of cityscape as simultaneously imagined and a body of distinct practices. To improvise is to `compose, utter, extempore’ but also to `provide or construct’, suggesting an element of additionality. I’d like to consider various techniques used by contemporary writers, artists and theorists to reveal the naturalised/invisible sensory structures of daily habit. Rather than discuss the postmodern city as visual spectacle, or as a collection of fragments, I will focus on notions of the network and the trail; on movement and stasis. What role, if any, might improvisation have to play?
The framework for this investigation is a notion of improvisation borrowed from performance art (itself a `fleeting, elusive material’ (Howell, 95)) aptly matched to the rhythms of the urban condition. Particular reference will be made to Anthony Howell’s definition of the primary actions of performed improvisation: `stillness, repetition and inconsistency’. The aesthetic principle underlying these is: to `use something you have already used again, but in a different way to the way you used it first’ (Howell, xiii); that is, working with possibilities indicated by the preceding `text’. Repetition and inconsistency as actions of improvisation are also, perhaps more obviously than stillness, perceived as defining characteristics of urban experience as I’ve already discussed: repetition in the `abstracted, habitual and kinaesthetic patterns’ of everyday life, and inconsistency in the elements of shock, unpredictability and disorientation.
Repetition mirrors its own actions and is often unconscious (Gilles Deleuze sees repetition as the unconscious of representation, which is a conscious repetition). In this sense it interiorises and reverses itself: Deleuze gives the example of Monet’s first water lily, which repeats in advance all the others (1). Yet difference is also inscribed on repetition – without difference there is no cycle. `What is repeated has been, otherwise it could not be repeated, but precisely the fact that it has been gives to repetition the character of novelty’ (Kierkegaard 1843, 52). So repetition is like a consistent inconsistency. Every repetition is also a renewal; something new is added, an adjustment, which is then repeated. Even in stillness – stillness as arrest, as the breaking out of, or as a state (the Zen of stillness) – there are repetitions. Whereas repetition suggests consistency, inconsistency is more likely an intrusion which interferes with the predictability of an agenda. But is pure inconsistency impossible? Repetition underpins our inconsistencies, as Howell and others stress.
Artists locate in, and work with, the co-ordinates and materiality of an urban place, to produce patterns of interaction, trails looping back on themselves which repeat and improvise, incorporating difference and the potential for disruption. Claire Hayes travels up and down escalators in shopping malls for hours, usually devising a repetitive route. In Fiona Templeton’s piece You: The City:
performers take members of the audience one at a time through a city, passing each member of the audience on to a new performer at the end of their passage in the piece. Two thirds of the way through the performance, the audience member is led back to a site previously visited in the company of an earlier performer, and thus witnesses a scene very similar to that of their own interaction with that earlier performer a while before, at the same time as they realise their own interaction was also observed by a member of the audience and by another performer. (Howell, 66)
If repetition is multiple, inconsistency implies a singular event –or a chain of singular `events’. An interesting example of a `demonstrated’ string of inconsistencies is the performance art of Stuart Sherman who creates action-strings out of an array of objects, presenting vignettes or `portraits of places’. Here is Anthony Howell describing the first performance he saw by Sherman, in a loft space in downtown SoHo, New York. The performance space is surrounded by `a heap of tat’ and the programme tells the audience they will see about 30 vignettes of places (which are listed alphabetically):
A little man, casually dressed, comes on to the stage, chooses various items from the heaps, sets up a camper’s table, touches something, scrubs this with that, holds both in front of his nose, puts away his table, exchanges the objects for fresh ones, glances at a list he removes from his breast pocket – presumably to see which country comes next – opens an umbrella, sticks a plastic rose through a hole in the umbrella, answers the telephone, searches in his pockets, throws away the telephone and the rose, picks up another object, spins it, blows on it, unties a package, allows some rubber balls to roll out on the floor, places patent leather shoes under the legs of the newly erected table, turns on a tape, turns off a tape, dismantles everything, runs a film, does something else, does something else.
At the end of the performance I am nonplussed. I have never seen so much happen in so short a time, but I am unsure of what I have seen. I can’t say I recognised any of the places from the events which took place. Anyway, I go to a nearby bar to mull over what I remember. I have to make a phone call. I go to the phone, put down my drink on the ledge, pick up the phone, put it down while I unzip my jacket, search for my address book, my dime, my specs, pick up the phone, insert the dime, dial, pick up my drink – and there I am perceiving myself doing this, coping with the myriad procedures of living. Could these actions in a phone booth by my vignette of New York? When the work of an artist enables me to glimpse some new aspect of myself I know I have seen something original.(Howell, 75)
Whereas repetition is reversible, inconsistency could perhaps be viewed as a `rite of passage out of the familiar into the unknown’ (77) – an irreversible `one-off’ which creates, rather than compresses, time – that is, a surprise! This poses some related questions: can you improvise inconsistently, without recourse to any system or structure? Does a greater awareness of structure render it more difficult to improvise freely? Does the performer/artist/creator develop a piece in an unfixed durational and `empty’ unlimited spatial arena by assembling more `actions’ or marks, or within set limitations and by inserting actions into a defined place? (6)
Improvisation perhaps reveals `how rapidly the boundaries of so-called freedom are reached’ (Hall, 125), or the difficulty in avoiding variations on clichés. Peter Hall elucidates this with recourse to the French language: repetition (French for rehearsal) evolves into representation (French for performance), but only `with assistance’ (the involvement of the viewer/listener). Yet any formula attempts to freeze a truth: `truth [rather] is always on the move’ (Hall, 157) and the slate is consistently wiped clean.
Improvisation, then, is a means of shifting the boundaries within which we experience the world. In this sense `any creative process is to this extent improvised (involves states of not knowing what comes next)’ (Tufnell and Crickmay, introduction). As Tufnell and Crickmay put it, `we improvise the moment we cease to know what is going to happen’ (46). Or is it more the expectation of the unexpected?
Many urban-based artistic projects and literary/cultural responses to a particular city space, seem to utilise or prioritise networks, and precisely the element of surprise – the unlooked-for spaces (or what Gordon Matta-Clark terms the `non-u-mental sites’).
Interaction/Networks I’m not suggesting that systems of interactivity, or networks, are confined to cities – and plenty of critical work has argued for the blurring of boundaries, for example between the rural and the urban. `Even within the city’, writes Jonathan Raban in a travel article, `nature is engaged in a perpetual guerrilla warfare against culture’ (1). Paul Cloke describes the `spatial cross-dressing both by the arriving in and leaving of places’ (2). Conceptually, the modern city has been ascribed a `sprawling giantism’ (to use Lewis Mumford’s phrase); has been seen as an evolving, misshapen form that is nonetheless distinguished by a density of networks: social; transport; communication; electrical and electronic technologies, the partially dematerialised networks of e-space, and an economic topography. Systems of interactivity involve people – just as viewers are participants in an artist’s vision, networks require constant renegotiation and reconfiguration. The unpredictability of this means, for the city dweller, the development of perhaps minor skills honed to a particular place or situation (Pile and Thrift, eds, 162).
Media/Digital Urbanism If the city is thought of as a datascape, `to be in the city is to be in a state of perennial info-transience’ (Vasudevan et al,eds, 98). As the RAQS media collective has recently written:
The media in a city may be surfaces on which we leave messy fingerprints and tracks of all our navigations, but because of the way in which time and space curve and fold as we switch between media, it becomes possible, willingly or unwillingly, to lose one’s traces and to uncover one’s tracks – to circulate. (99)
Within digital urbanism, the architecture of the internet suggests possibilities for re-imagining the built environment; cyberspace being perhaps an interval between the built and the unbuilt. Recent urban cultural phenomena, both interventions in, and representations of, the spaces of the city include, for example, swarming or flashmobbing (started in the UK in the summer of 2003). Swarming aims, through the internet, to connect disparate individuals: the Birmingham website states, `an amorphous, dynamic body is formed…to become a startling intervention in the life of a city.’ Or `blogging’ culture, the writing of a web diary or narrative of the city; a hybrid textual form which works with internal and global connections; a form of electronic flanerie perhaps. Architects, artists, planners and theorists can let virtual worlds bleed into 3-D physical environments (a process Marcus Novak calls `eversion’).
It is interesting that critics and practitioners discussing the emerging urban in 1990s India, for example, regard it primarily as marked by a `rapid tempo of sensations’ mediated through new forms of mechanical and digital reproduction, which produced cultural `shock’ or `surprise’. More recently, some critics have seen the urban in this context, not as a new space of flows, but as a site for new disruptions, through the practice of urban life (strategies of living), arguing that the process of `unsettling’ brings to light the variety of experiences of the locality. We might add, though, that structures of the everyday might be just as much about repetition, familiarity, habit or tradition as about disruption or `inconsistency’.
The Cybermohalla (neighbourhood) Media Project was created by the Sarai Media Lab in Delhi, as a means for talking about one’s place, in the city and in cyberspace, which expresses its sense of `relatedness and concreteness’. This desire for networks (real and virtual) made up of voices, texts, sounds and images, has been disseminated in the form of wall magazines, posters, stickers, books, web pages, audio streams, animation, and diaries. Diaries were kept by young people working at the Compughar (a small media lab set up in 2001 in the heart of Delhi) in a `working class settlement constantly threatened by disruption…invisible to Delhi’s many millions’ (177) and published as part of this wider socio-cultural, artistic project:
6.00: There is quite a crowd at the tap, people are screaming. Five or six children and three to four women are standing there, each with three to four utensils in their hands.
6.15: Now there are many young children and two women whose children are hurriedly carrying the filled utensils to their homes. Time: When there is no water in the tap, time halts for many people. For instance, work stops. The movement of people into, and out of, the lane stops. Household chores stop. Without water, the time for taking a bath stops, etc. (178)
For another project which attempts to map and capture the multi-sensual, everyday experiences of an Indian city via networks we might turn to ambienttv.net which promotes `network architectures that facilitate alternatives to current socio-political and economic formations’. The collective here, though, is an international group of artists who choreograph space, rather than the residents of a local, overlooked neighbourhood under threat of re-settlement.
Ambienttv.net, as its website explains, uses the `techniques and effects of live data broadcasting and transmission [to] provide [the] theme, medium, and performative space for many of the works’. In the work Diaspora.in.Synchro.City participants, via the internet, are asked to bring a CD ghettoblaster and a printout of the score/choreography to a particular place: on 16 August 2003 a participatory pre-performance took place in London Fields park, before a performance in the `Streets of Asia’ event, in various public spaces in the city of Arhus, Denmark.
Scenario: A modern Indian city is mapped onto the performance space. Drawing on field recordings made across India, the piece begins with the arrival of a train at a railway station (a fixed point in the performance space). The musicians disembark and disperse through the space, passing through 4 distinct locations (railway platform, station forecourt, marketplace and city square) before returning to the station and leaving again.
So, each performer/musician/ghettoblaster takes on an individual character and the `character’ (as in ambience) of a particular place.
Thinking about interventions in, and improvisations of, the city, in such examples, necessitates a reassessment of the notion of agency. The formulation of ANT (actor network theory) has been conceptually useful for mapping networks of natural/cultural/social elements. However, as Cloke and others have queried, how does this contribute to place formation and to the conjuring of the qualities of a place? For this we perhaps need to turn to the notion of dwelling and embodied practices; to the idea of performance as both reflexive awareness and as non-cognitive experience (for example, walking). Cultural geographers (informed by the work of Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze, among others) suggest thinking beyond ocular-centric theories of landscape as a `way of seeing’, to take into account all the senses and the kinaesthetic as modes of understanding and transforming place – in short, a `being-in-the-landscape’; an embeddedness, so that `place’ is performed. This `performing’ or re-enacting of place is constituted, I’d suggest, through the actions of improvisation: repetition incorporating difference; a consistent inconsistency. As Cloke describes: `people mark and map [place] through their bodies, through their repeated experiences – such as the feel of the pull or push of the hill as they walk back and forth from work to home – (re)making, all the while, the path itself’ (163).
So what are the possibilities for re-visualising built environments?
Urban places and spaces, then, can be `performed’ (as in experienced and (re)presented) through the creation of maps/diagrams/montage, but also via technological networks and interaction: underlying these are `clues’ or rather, the notion that there are signs, codes, ephemera within the city to be tracked and pieced together, in whatever form. Moreover, clues are the evidence of interaction; the key to structured principles of human improvisation (Pile and Thrift, eds, ‘Technical Note’). You can `see’ something if you render it, but participation is required in order to `sense’. Sensing, as Bernard Stiegler, speaking at this year’s Radical Philosophy Conference, elaborated, is `techne/technical’. If a city cannot be conceived in its entirety, it can be experienced – in Peter Ackroyd’s words, `as a labyrinth…in a continual state of change and expansion’ (2).
Movement and Change In the final section of this paper, I’d like to try and draw together the notions of the sensorium, `being-in-place’ and improvisation, by focusing on the issue of change and movement in and through the city; in other words, on the resonance of the mobile.
`Being within the everyday of cities is [frequently] to be in a state of constant movement between being situated and being placeless. Being within a world of the familiar becoming unfamiliar’ (Vasudevan et al, eds.107). This movement can be `a geography of memory as much felt in the body as seen in built forms’ (Pile and Thrift, eds, 2).
In particular I’d like to focus on walking, briefly considering four contemporary `case studies’. As Michel de Certeau has suggested, to walk in the city `is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent’ – in a sense, spaces are always rented (103). The four examples deal, to different degrees, with walking (and one with running) as a kinaesthetic response to place: all are based on immersion in place; on repetition; engage with the process of editing, and can be regarded as attempts to represent the sensuality of a city(ies). In incremental order they are:
John Wylie’s critique of a walk to Glastonbury Tor (walking / writing) Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (walking/writing/photography) Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run (running/filming) Artist Justin Bennett’s work (walking/writing/drawing/photography/sound recording/installations)
Furthermore, these different responses to place are underpinned by a notion of the city as a body of practices / embodied practices, and a commitment to the notion of the everyday. The city is experienced and interpreted as (a space of) performance, where `performance is interpretation…a performance is a public act, a way of knowing, and a form of embodied interpretation’ (Denzin, 97). Thus, there is a stress on the urban being and becoming, in which the city-dweller can recreate opportunities for the (de)construction of identity.
The four (re)presentations are also maps, in the sense of a mapping of space, experience and the senses. They delineate desire paths – the `emotional, the wilful, the mystic or embodied…how one…feels the city’ – rather than reproduce `cognitive maps’, how one thinks the city (Pile and Thrift, eds, 2). In making trails in this way, and stressing active engagement rather than passive spectatorship, the four examples could be interpreted as `repetitions’ of the situationists’ practice of the derive, the seeking out of random encounters in order to create a `network of anti-spectacular spaces’ (Sadler, 92). Guy Debord defined this process, in 1958, as `a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’. Although supposed to be `aimless ambulation’, the derive was often choreographed in terms of defined duration and the number of people involved (Pile and Thrift, eds, 266). Or we might say that walking or `rambling as a wandering, improvised form isn’t entirely random, but defined in relation to purpose.’ Indeed, the first rambling texts were urban narratives, `spy’ texts about the pursuit of hidden aspects of city life which evolved to become, in the nineteenth century, texts of urban exploration and the discovery of unknown spaces (Rendell in Pile and Thrift, eds, 196). Of course the making of trails involves the leaving of traces, and a return to the idea of the `clue’: `the buildings of a city (its interior settings particularly) form casings for human action, in or on which human subjects leave “traces” – signs of their passing; markers or clues to their style of existence’ (Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire).
1. John Wylie In his essay, `Landscape, performance and dwelling: a Glastonbury case study’, John Wylie offers a critique of the notion of a `dwelling perspective’ in interpreting place, in order to show that landscape `even if conceived of through notions of dwelling and embodied experience, may still be configured in terms of the transient and the visual’ (Cloke, ed., 137). The idea of dwelling or being in the landscape is certainly useful to considering landscape as a processual and sensuous milieu. However, Wylie sees a danger in the concept of `dwelling’ being too closely tied to the non-urban, to a temporality based in rooted experience, and to a nostalgic viewpoint. Furthermore, with its emphasis on the material rhythms and embodied practice of a place, `dwelling’ might partially ignore the visual and the gaze.
In an attempt to counter this, Wylie then gives a synthesised written account of a journey to Glastonbury Tor (repeated / undertaken by him seven times). With this, he aims to `illustrate’ that practices of dwelling may be transient, to reinstate the gaze, and to `describe’ rather than `represent’ landscape – in other words, a kind of `writing performatively’ which aims to be attentive to the `sensuous, dynamic and material nature of dwelling’ (147). The writing does indeed stress changes of movement, pace, perspective, light, temperature, the body’s sensations and its precise relation to the landscape.
And as the road gains further upward bent, so it becomes almost like a tunnel. Something changes. There is something about seeing the path going up the hill that changes the way you walk, makes you more strident. Exertion too tends to fix one’s eyes downward, hunching into a rhythm for the afternoon swelter, midges, the Tor still invisible, still somewhere over the horizon. Now it is more a trudge than a stroll. Only at this point is the goal of the exercise ever forgotten, as the habitual ambient resonance of depths and surfaces distils into knees, hips and shoulderblades.(150)
Interestingly though, overall it is rather lacking in description of smells, taste and noise, and becomes also partly an academic analysis of the mythological placing of the Tor.
2. Iain Sinclair The mythic dimensions of the contemporary British urban and suburban landscape fascinate the writer, and London-dweller, Iain Sinclair. In Lights Out for the Territory: Nine Excursions in the Secret History of London (1997), the author, accompanied by Mark Atkins the photographer, attempts to make sense of London by walking. `Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city…Drifting purposefully…tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself’(4). The notion is to `cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking’ (1). In the practice of retrieving and recording messages, the marks left on surfaces by graffiti artists, taggers and/or members of the populace are regarded as particularly significant. The city is a `serial composition’, `a fiction that anyone can lay claim to’ and this is manifested in the notion of nomadic, improvised art. `Pick your view and sign it’ challenges Sinclair (2).
Sinclair is also a self-styled flaneur, a figure interpreted by some cultural geographers as an embodiment, through endless strolling, of the blend of `excitement, boredom and horror evoked in the new metropolis’ (Wilson, 87). However, for Sinclair, `the born-again flaneur is…less interested in texture and fabric…than in noticing everything’ (4), embodying instead the observation of the trivial and the everyday, the desire to hear the unheard and to move at a, perhaps, peculiar pace within the city. As Chris Jencks pondered at the 2004 Literary London conference, is `going slowly’ a contemporary form of cultural criticism? In transcribing the marks and messages of the city along a `near-arbitrary route’, so as to produce an `alternative reading’, Sinclair enacts the desire of the flaneur; namely, the intent to transform a `living topic’ into text/writing. Sinclair’s ongoing commitment to walking and writing is also political, undertaken in the face of politicians’ plans to rebrand East London as `Thames Gateway’, a `vision’ which `“involves sweeping away everything that’s unsightly and messy in favour of a heritage experiment”’ (Guardian Review, 20). In this light, I’d suggest that Sinclair’s writing subscribes to the notion of the `unintended city’: `the city that was never part of the formal `master plan’ but always implicit in it’ (Nandy, 2).
3. Run Lola Run (dir. Tom Tykwer, 1998) It is perhaps appropriate to acknowledge critical discussion of film’s relation to the urban space, the rhythms of the city and the processes of modernity. Film both responded to, and was moulded by – through its own processes of fabrication and shock effects of edits, juxtapositions, changes of place, pace and focus – a state of distracted reception (Vasudevan et al, eds. 39). The opening minutes of this film introduce recurring visual and content-related motifs and themes: a range of cinematographic techniques; the nature of the action genre; the relationship between high/popular culture; time and motion, and the idea that life is circular (highlighted in the prefacing of action with a quotation from T. S. Eliot: `We shall not cease from exploration/And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time’.
The basic plot is that Lola must deliver DM100,000 to her boyfriend, Manni, which has to be given to his crime boss by noon (in twenty minutes, film time). So Lola runs in/through the cityscape of Berlin, a scenario which occurs three times, with three different plot versions and endings. This seemingly indicates the interconnectedness of everything, although the `urban cityscape [is] connected only by editing, since no human being could traverse the vast distances between the depicted (East and West) Berlin locations in twenty minutes’ (Haase, 408). Running itself takes up just over half the screen time, motion seemingly divested of narrative meaning. Or is that speed is seen to devalue space, to depreciate a sense of landscape? The film suggests various simultaneous potentials for any given situation – for example, when Lola runs into the paths of three different people, the `action’ is suspended and we witness a lightning `slide show’ of photographs – showing versions of what happened to the person after the chance encounter with Lola. Other moments when the running stops are for intimate domestic scenes. The stillness, in contrast to the running, perhaps `acts as an inconsistency interrupting the continuum of existence’ (Howell, 167).
How do we `understand’ the place of the city (here, Berlin) without recourse to maps or other forms of representation? The city smudges, fades, and parts around Lola. Lola senses the city as a living entity, or rather, a `feeling’ or `effect’ of Berlin comes from Lola (rather than from the touristic perspective of sites). (cf Chris Smith)The film asks us to think about the relationship between the cinematic sensorium and the urban sensorium, and to consider the limits of the sensorial flow (sounds, sights, senses of speed, volume, depth and surface); how senses are subject to disciplines of frame, narrative structure, rhythm, and duration (Vasudevan et al, eds, 64). It is also, I’d suggest, a version of a rambling text, in that such texts describe real places, but with the aim of providing sensation; `the intentions and motivations are spatial and thematic’ (Pile and Thrift, eds, 197). Improvised walking links places as part of a journey, and pleasure is produced by `introducing the new’.
4. Justin Bennett Justin Bennett is a visual/sound artist, based in Den Haag, the Netherlands, and a member of the performance group BMB con. He creates soundscapes, drawings, maps, and installations of cities he inhabits, as well as performing in those cities. Noise Map is a published record of the synthesis of such approaches. Mark-making in a general sense is cartography, as Bennett writes, `– the mapping of places…The material can be pencil or ink on paper, but can just as well be pieces of metal or loudspeaker cables on the floor’ (11). The artist regards his map drawings, usually made at ground level with each building drawn separately, as an `obsessive, rhythmic exercise’ (63). The `Portable City’ map (66-67) is a home for all the people the artist could remember in one afternoon. Each has a place in the drawing and in the network of social connections, some of which are remembered, some intuited.
Soundscapes `recognise hearing as a way of living, rather than as a distraction from seeing’(Soneryd, 33). Moreover, irregularity of noise is intrinsically connected to the urban (as the futurist composers pointed out); `the art of noise was an urban and technological aesthetic’ (Pile and Thrift, eds, 168). In Bennett’s Audio Guide for Den Haag (2001) the listener/walker/reader is taken on a wild goose chase after `the secret sound of the city’ (Bennett, 56). In other pieces, the artist suggests that rumour is the sound of the city: the `ungraspable thing that defines a city’s sense of place’ (61).
When recording a place, the reverberations and resonances are more important than making purist recordings of sound sources. Working later in the studio with the recording, the artist follows the `original trace’, sometimes editing or adding elements, more often focusing on what he finds interesting or typical. The process is repeated, adding layers of interpretation to the original recording process. Making a spatial soundwork can indeed be seen as the creation of a place. Much of the work takes place `in situ’ and `at the last moment’ – thus, the artist has to deal with the place where the recording was made, the transformed space of the processed recording, and the acoustic space of the exhibition venue (where listening to what is already present is vital) – these multiple place/spaces are tuned until they work synergetically with the room/public space, to create a new place (105).
Conclusion In regarding both the city as a place of improvisation and the improvisations of that city, perhaps what is looked for is what Nigel Thrift calls a `domain of flourishing’ (drawing on biology, philosophy and performance studies); `that blink between actor and performance’ which is both conditioned and a `potential for potentiality’ (Cloke, ed., 313).
As attempts to render the experience of the city as a sensorium, the examples considered here could be contextualised in what has been termed the rise of an `experience economy’, including the construction of spaces which `grip the senses’ and the sensorialising of goods (323-24). What seems to be significant for improvisation is a contingency with `performance immersion’ or that meaning is located and invested in place. The trail or quest (however that is interpreted) and the instinct for discovery underpin this – even if the found `object’ or goal may be useless or illogical. If we were to see the examples here as ultimately concerned with the trail, with walking or with movement in and through the city, we could say that they represented urban space as fluid, yet bound by time and specific location. The walker improvises and remaps the city.