Monthly Archives: June 2015

Urban metaphysics: Flaneur and genius loci

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Reflections on Genius Loci (Sense of Place)

There are many times that we feel or perceive a place and its atmospheric qualities as distinctive – something that has referred as the genius loci of each place. Genius loci forms a term from Latin genius (guarding spirit) and loci (of place, of location) – meaning the guardian spirit of place. Spirit of place can be described as a time-based phenomenon, an almost geological stratification, the patina and the imprint of time – an assemblage of the environment (urban, physical or both) through time that reveals its distinctive atmospheres and qualities. But indeed, it is a cloud of specific perceptions that becomes activated through our embodied experience of it (i.e. walking through, observing, sensing). Therefore, while talking about the spirit of place (the sense of place), the notion of its character becomes clearer – a result of the interweaving qualities that have been created by human and non-human parameters always activated via our sensations. It is not coincidence that the synonym of genius loci is the sense of place – in other words that which is perceived through our senses and reveals a strange beauty; a feeling; an ambiance. What I described earlier for the genius loci as a stratificated time-based patina of atmospheres and qualities has been also suggested by others. Walter (1988) argues that the sense of place – the genius loci – can be described ‘holistically through senses, memory, intellect and imagination‘  (in Jiven & Larkham, 2003: 69), something that also draws connections to Yi-Fu Tuan’s perspective of place as an embodied result of feelings, imagination and experiences of those who live within it (also Tuan, 1977). In the same vein, the phenomenologist architect Norberg-Schulz (1980), who had widely been linked with the concept of genius loci, described it as the interweaved result of physical and symbolic aspects of place: the merging of earth’s topology, cosmological conditions (light, sky) and the existential threads of cultural landscape.

Flaneur: Oscillating between the priest and the genius loci 

Considering the poetic description of genius loci as the guardian spirit of a particular place, we may think of flaneur as a potential spirit in the formation of urban places. It is tempting to be reminded of what Walter Benjamin suggested for the ‘flaneur as the priest of genius loci’ (Benjamin, 1929 [1999: 264]). Reflecting on this, flaneur can be seen not only as the priest of the atmosphere of place but a significant aspect of this atmosphere itself. While flaneur walks both physically and intellectually, the place – the streets – become embodied sensory avenues orchestrated with memory and imagination by him. Flaneur seems to be the genius loci himself as he celebrates place and its details to such an extend that he is the place – he becomes the street and the asphalt – he contains the very core of moment in the midst of the urban winds. He is the ambulant guardian spirit of place through a constant dialogue between senses, memory and intellectualism. He is an oscillating passer-by figure that weaves spaces, feelings, memories and imaginations together across cities and different eras – oscillating between a guarding of the authentic with modern enthusiasm and an acknowledging of the placeless with post-modern irony. The challenge for flaneur seems to be the seek of a genius loci within the post-capitalism branding of senses, memories and feelings. The intellectual liturgy takes place with the act of walking – that is the action of celebration – the action that seeks to ‘place senses and sense places‘ (Feld, 1996, in Edensor, 2000).

Intellectual electricities: Lighting up the genius loci

The absolution, the heaven, is just up the road and the constellations awaiting for electrification. They wait for the flaneur – this intellectual electricity that runs within us – the cities – for two centuries now.

Genius Loci (Cambridge, 2011) - Bill Psarras ©

Genius Loci (Cambridge, 2011) – Bill Psarras ©

Bibliography

  • Benjamin, W. (1929) [1999]. The Return of the Flaneur. In Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings 1927-1930. Harvard University Press, pp. 262-268.
  • Norberg-Schulz, C. (1980). Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.
  • Edensor, T. (2000). Moving through the city. In Bell, D. and Haddour, A. (eds.) City Visions, Harlow: Pearsons Education Limited, pp. 121-140.
  • Tuan, Y.F. (1977). Space and Place. London: Edward Arnold.
  • Jiven, G. & Larkham, P. (2003). ‘Sense of Place, Authenticity and Character: A Commentary’ Journal of Urban Design 8(1) pp. 67-81.
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Initial reflections on a ‘Metamodern’ Flaneur

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Tendencies: The Modern and the Postmodern

Across cities, architecture, philosophy, arts, literature, politics, culture and economics; their approach has been part of wider theoretical frameworks – tendencies – what it is known as modernism and postmodernism. Modernism (19th-20th century) has been concerned with Reason, Science and the objective knowledge – the one universal truth – and in this way the Self is existent, coherent and independent of socio-cultural factors. On the other hand, Postmodernism was a reaction to Modernism and it aimed to challenge modernist views. For Postmodernism, Reason and Science are ideological – constructed by man. The universal and true feeling is not apparent on Postmodernism, as every truth exists within cultures. For Postmodernism, there is ‘no eternal truths, no universal human experience, no universal human rights, overriding narrative of human progress‘ (Faigley, 1992: 8). The postmodern way of thinking has been characterized by deconstruction, irony, subjectivism and relativism as the Modern “one” and “true” is always under suspicious lenses.

Acknowledging the oscillating: Towards Metamodernism

During 2008-2009, two young cultural theorists from Netherlands; Dr. Timotheus Vermeulen and Dr. Robin van den Akker proposed the term ‘metamodernism’, of which an influential paper entitled ‘Notes on Metamodernism‘ (2009) was published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Culture. The discourse on what’s next or what follows the Postmodern has been endless at least the last 10-15 years. Yet, what is the reason for discussing Metamodernism?  Metamodernism is the concept of the early 21st century which refers to the post-Postmodern era.  The prefix ‘meta’ stands for metaxy (Greek: μεταξύ) to describe the oscillation of things. Therefore, as Vermeulen and Van den Akker note, ‘the metamodernism oscillates, swings back and forth, between the global and the local, between the concept and material, between postmodern irony and a renewed modern enthusiasm. It yearns for a truth – but – it knows it may never find, it strives for sincerity without lacking humour – it engages precisely by embracing doubt‘ (Discussing Metamodernism exhibition text, online, 2012). To understand perhaps metamodernism, one should think of it as a pendulum – it oscillates between romanticism, sincerity, irony, enthusiasm – it is not utopian although it finds itself into a yearning for possible utopias. Following some recent clarifications of Vermeulen and Van den Akker (June 2015), it is easy to describe metamodernism as a movement, a philosophy or an aesthetic framework, but according to them it is not. Metamodernism seems to be something else; a structure of feeling. Raymond Williams (1977) first used the term ‘structure of feeling‘ to describe the lived experience of a quality of time at a particular time and place – a common platform of perceptions and values produced by a particular generation (also Bourne Taylor, 1997: online).

Berndnaut Smilde - Nimbus II (2012) ©

Berndnaut Smilde – Nimbus II (2012) ©

The hybrid nature of 21st century flaneur: Towards a Metamodern Flaneur?

Metamodernism combines both modern and postmodern bringing them into a third platform of oscillation. I have analyzed in previous posts (see also here) that the potential flanerie in the 21st century globalized city has gone hybrid through a number of performative “turns”: the spatial, the sensorial, the socio-technological (also Psarras, 2015). This is apparent in the walking-based artworks and practices of Francis Alys, Simon Pope, Christina Kubisch, Gordan Savicic, Christian Nold, Janet Cardiff among others (see also Walking Artists Network). Such artists have brought together poetic, metaphorical, political, sensory and technological threads of walking in the city. They cannot be labeled as flaneurs and flaneuses based on what the early 20th century flaneur was but their practices and intentions have gone hybrid – revealing emerging hybridities.

If I can argue for a 21st century flaneur/flaneuse, the concept has shifted from the traditional alienated persona of Benjamin – it has shifted from a mere spatial consumption of the city. On the contrary, hybrid flaneur/flaneuse has gone through an oscillating poetic and practical “orchestration” of co-walkers, technologies, objects and places – rendering him/her the initiator of hybrid poetics. Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse has gone into an emerging sociality, not only walking into places but also with others, becoming an active ear and nose on foot – away from the visually-oriented consumption of the past. Drawing from the collective walks of Simon Pope, Francis Alys, Christina Kubisch and Christian Nold, the attentiveness on the social has made apparent a sensory attentiveness as well, what Myers (2010) calls a ‘sharing of viewpoints and earpoints‘. Hybrid flaneur has shown a spatial turn as well – a fruitful focus on the geographical features and qualities and their alteration through technological aspects of locative media (GPS) and experimental mapping as part of his/her poetics (see also Psarras, 2015).

Within the multiparametric environment of 21st century city, hybrid flaneur/flaneuse acknowledges the postmodern loss of public space, the sameness of things and the ironic image of the artist who goes walking in a city that has been overstimulated and under constraints and sterilities. Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse does not stay in the car but also not only walks into – he/she integrates the multiple surfaces of the city by walking and riding the tube – setting his foot not only on the asphalt but on the escalators and terminals. Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse seeks for a 21st century urban romanticism but not into his/her imagination. On the contrary there he/she inverts the irony and constraints of spaces as parts of his/her tactics. Hybrid flaneur does not seek for the romantic place-bounded belief into the globalized city – he knows won’t find it there. On the contrary, he/she sets his foot into the glocality (see also Meyrowitz, 2005) – acknowledging the 21st century city as a glocal fabric with new threads ready to be activated.

Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse oscillates between multiple platforms of sociality and solitude, sensory tactics and overstimulation, asphalt and immaterial layers, between his body and the technological extension of it. Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse shows a metamodern orchestrator who has changed all the previous metaphors into altered versions of “botanizing”, “weaving”, “tuning” and “orchestrating”. Hybrid flaneur/flaneuse is constantly oscillating between the romanticised view of early flaneur, the radical tactics and political implications of psychogeography and the performative/playful elements of Fluxus/Land Art eras. It is an oscillation augmented by technologies and socio-geographical sensitivities (also Psarras, 2015).

[reflections will be continued in next text]

Notes

I would like to thank Dr. Timotheus Vermeulen (University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, Director of the Centre for New Aesthetics) for our recent discussion

On a Hybrid Flaneur (Bill Psarras © 2015)

On a Hybrid Flaneur (Bill Psarras © 2015)

Bibliography

  • Bourne Taylor, J. (1997) ‘Structure of Feeling’ in Payne, M. (ed.) Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Blackwell Publishing – Blackwell Reference Online [link]
  • Faigley, L. (1992). Fragments of Rationality. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.
  • Meyrowitz, J. (2005). The rise of glocality: New senses of place and identity in the global village. In Nyiri, K. (ed.) A sense of place: The global and the local in mobile communication, Vienna: Passagen Verlag, pp. 21-31.
  • Myers, M. (2010). ‘Walk with me, talk with me: The art of conversive wayfinding’ Visual Studies, 25(1), pp. 59-68.
  • Psarras, V. (2015). Emotive Terrains: Exploring the emotional geographies of city through walking as art, senses and embodied technologies. PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths University of London.
  • Turner, L. (2015). ‘Metamodernism: A Brief Introduction’, Notes on Metamodernism, 12 January [link]
  • Vermeulen, T. & Van den Akker, R. (2010). ‘Notes on Metamodernism’, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, vol 2. [link]
  • Vermeulen, T. & Van den Akker, R. (2015). ‘Misunderstandings & Clarifications’ Notes on Metamodernism, 3 June [link]
  • Vermeulen, T. & Van den Akker, R. (2012). Discussing Metamodernism – Exhibition Press Release, Gallery Tanja Wagner, 17/3 – 21/4/2012 [link]
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On a philosophy of traffic lights

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Cities are being regulated by humans and non-humans, in ways able to facilitate various material and immaterial mobilities. One of such non-human regulators are the traffic lights which follow a global standard colour code: the green, the orange and the red. Traffic lights can be found at the intersections, crossroads and pavemenets – a mundane technical assemblage of our everyday lives. Yet, extending flanerie’s intellectual freedom into such things – what can traffic lights say to us?

Re-contextualizing the traffic lights

Traffic lights are comprised of a stable metallic body and three changing colours. They are static, fixed in the ground, observing abstract figures of the streets. They are part of the place. Simple light structures, yet there are three changing conditions in a loop of light, which continues showing itself not only in front of crowdy times and streets but also in the midst of an anonymous street in the middle of nowhere. Traffic lights are spatial signifiers of the transient both in literal and metaphorical way. The green shows the safety of things for the driver, a temporal light signal which re-brings the driver into the mobile condition. It shows the very first step into the potential – a synonym of re-entrance. The temporality of orange indicates an in-betweeness of movement – but it is a signal that asks for critical thinking. It is up to the driver’s decision to slow down, to think carefully of the next step. Then comes the red phase, a stopping signal that freezes the continuity of journey – a signal to think – a moment of re-calibration, of waiting.

Traffic light seems to hold a poetic – an almost spiritual – potential. If considering the journey and the street as an unfolding language through time – to echo Solnit (2001) – then the traffic light becomes a spatial semicolon of light. The unfolding condition of everyday life and the street is quite the same. Life and the street are not perfectly paved and articulated – they are full of contradictory moments of happiness, sadness, victories and failures. Within the buzz of everyday life, the challenges, the thoughts for the past, the present and the future – traffic lights are a moment of relief. During that minute (almost), such a waiting boring time becomes a phase for reflection, for re-consideration, for getting lost in thousand thoughts. It is a moment of re-enactment, traffic light invites us to think with it, to tag our thoughts in the change of its colours. It is strangely beautiful to observe all the drivers – stucked in traffic lights – as temporal thinkers and temporary enlivened arrows of potential. While music and the ambient noise of radio fill the air, others smile on their own, others silently cry and others just sit static – as they tune themselves in the staticness of the car, of the asphalt, of the whole scenery.

You will find traffic lights as unnoticed sculptures into the most crowdy streets of globalized cities. However, you will also find them as anonymous light corners in empty crossroads during a hot sunny noon or during a foggy evening. They are parts of both atmospheres and they contribute on the ambiance of each place. The multiple practical and poetic levels render them almost a part of a bigger installation artwork of which concept has been the everyday. Such inbetween feeling is born while watching the mixed media installation artwork Location I (1998) of Belgian artist Hans op de Beeck. It is an atmospheric crossroad of traffic lights – into a silence which is ready to shout loudly that something will happen. It is a celebration of what it means the concept of the moment to all of us – even unconsciously. It is such traffic light framework that gives them the potential to be poetic links for the intellectual mind – triggers of the unnoticed beauty – semicolons bounded to place but rites of passage for the next to happen. Traffic lights are the frozen incarnation of Hermes god – messengers and indicators of the transient.

Traffic Lights in Germanry - Wayne Pinkston ©

Traffic Lights in Germanry – Wayne Pinkston ©

Hans op de Beeck - Location I (1998) - mixed media 320 x 400 x 500 cm ©

Hans op de Beeck – Location I (1998) – mixed media 320 x 400 x 500 cm ©

Bibliography

  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Hans of de Beeck (1998). Location I, mixed media installation, 320 x 400 x 500 cm.
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