Thursday, 6 November 2014

Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014 Part 3 - Urban Exploration and Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate'

The following are notes made for a presentation made at Belfast Exposed gallery at Fergus Jordan's 'Garden Estate' exhibition on 30th October 2013. More on the photographic series can be viewed here. A film of the presentation is also included. While this presentation was not part of the 'Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014' series of events, the subject matter is extremely pertinent.

My research is an attempt to relocate our understanding of space from the common-sense objective point of view to one which takes account of our own subjectivity. As such I indulge frequently in a bit of what is known as psychogeography; that is the creative use of the city, the performance of divergent acts in the field staged so as to reach a deeper reading of the space of the city.

Around these walls you see the products of an act of psychogeography; outputs of the process of the lone artist in the field (Fergus with his camera), examining what is there and passing it through a personal interpretive process, the filter of what could be referred to as ‘style’ but is perhaps more aptly viewed a radical reinterpretation of the sub-utopian landscape of the Dunclug housing estate.

Psychogeography derives from the work of the revolutionary artist collective the Situationist Internationale, based in France in the late 1950s. They sought to disrupt the common-sense attitudes to life, which they saw as being largely driven by the capitalist market, and replace it with a more fundamental social interpretation based largely on a reinterpretation of Marxist thought deriving from the work of Henri Lefebvre. This disruption was normally achieved through what they referred to as ‘detournement’ or distraction.

The primary mode of distraction with regards to psychogeography and the city was the derive, or drift; an aimless walk through the city which would begin to expose the psychological relationships which inform our experience of space. I have several difficulties with the situationist way of thinking, a minor one being, surely the act of creating a psychogeographical profile of a city imbues any walk through the city with a purpose, displacing the act of ‘aimless walking,’ and this is but the beginning of the fundamental problems I have with situationism, and indeed architectural theory in general, something which field art practice has long since overcome without difficulty.

Essentially, I believe that we all have a ‘common-sense’ attitude to how we are in the world; an idea which derives largely from the philosophy of Rene Descartes. Cartesian philosophy, as it came to be known, suggests that we are three dimensional objects existing in a three dimensional world with other three dimensional objects, which we can perceive, understand and act upon accordingly. This is the assumption which Newtonian physics was based on. Science now regards Newtonian physics as a model and has moved on to things like quantum physics, etc. The old model still applies, but other models are required to fill the gaps, as it were.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we abandon cartesian philosophy and start to radically change the way we conduct our everyday understandings of space and place, but as we start to try to change, adjust and tweak our surroundings in order to improve them, which is what architects and urbanists hope to do, I think we need to start to leave behind the ‘common-sense’ model of being, which Cartesian philosophy could now be called; I believe it is causing us big problems.

What problems is it causing? Well, the idea that we are totally objectified 3D objects, but that we are somehow gifted with the ability to understand other 3D objects is a problem. There is a clear gap in the thinking here which lead Descartes to believe that the mind is also objectified, it exists in three dimensions much like the body. This idea became known as Cartesian Dualism, the idea that mind and body are separate and can be separated from each other. This runs counter with most of what contemporary neuroscience suggests; the mind is a process, not a thing, a paradigm shift which is perhaps more incredible than it sounds, and is supported by philosophers like Martin Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Richard Rorty, as well as most of contemporary sociology.

How does this idea, then, affect our understanding of the city, and how does it help us to critique situationism? I would suggest that most theorists believe there to be some sort of objective foundation to the sociology of the city. There is an attempt to reduce architectural theory down to a mathematical formula which is a symptom of Cartesian Dualism. The social, much like the mind, is a process and as such is not located in three dimensional space.

So, when the situationists assume that by decontextualising the city they can expose some sort of naked objective sociological framework, all they end up exposing is their own naked subjective interpretation of the city.

Returning to architectural theory and the idea of the garden estate, we can start to anlalyse the intentions of the designers behind the ‘Radburn estate’ ideal on which Dunclug was based. Situationism is often referred to as one of the utopian movements in political art practice, and the radburn estate or the garden city idea is certainly one of the utopian movements in late modernism. Based upon an extremely robust and intelligent architectural theory largely stemming from frank Lloyd Wright, who was no doubt influenced by early modernist European Architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, who in turn had substantial connections within the Bauhaus; architectural royalty! these ideas we can now see resulted in nightmarish social conditions for the normal citizens these designs were inflicted upon.

The problem, I believe, resides in the Cartesian ideas which formed the foundations of architectural thought, and still does to this day. There are some architects who seem to think that if they design and construct a space in a specific way that this will instigate a particular behaviour in an individual; almost like a human being entering a building or a space is like a ball bearing entering a machine. There is a clear input; the human, and a clear output; a behaviour. And of course we know this is not the case; we have free will and we cannot help but exercise it. So when the modernists did their calculations and figured out that we should all live in high-rise flats or in the garden estates they could not foresee what would actually happen, what we see in Fergus’ photos.

Turning back to the problems of psychogeography, what I am trying to move toward with my architectural theorising is something that art practice seems to have taken for granted for a long time and never bothered naming. That is the idea of ‘mytho-geography’ as coined by performance artist Phil Smith. This is a practice which has a latent understanding that, once decontextualisied, the city needs recontexualised. Mytho-geography suggests this should be in an abstract or oblique way, as Phil Smith suggests this is ‘the art of walking sideways.’ Field artists already do this. 

Fergus used to live in the estate and therefore knows it very well. Regardless of this, he returned to it as a stranger with a camera, normally in the dead of night. This, in itself, is the practice of detournement, or distraction. He was in the context, understood the context, but abstracted himself from the context in order to view it obliquely. The resultant photographs which we see are Dunclug recontextualised, interpreted through Fergus’ camera, a side of the garden estate none of us would be aware of. Fergus has turned our attention towards it.

As an architect and designer this speaks volumes to me of the failure of modernism, the ends of design. It tells me there is something fundamentally amiss in what we hope to do both as professionals and human beings; and it is something I hope desperately to address and correct in my own work.

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