Spaces for Illness in ‘Bates Motel’

Bates Motel, currently in its fourth season, is a prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Set in today’s world, A&E’s television show offers an intriguing thought experiment about how a teenage boy might become the psychopathic serial killer Norman Bates.
Season four’s first episode, “A Danger to Himself and Others,” sets the stage for subsequent representations of the professional treatment of (mental) illness and its spaces. Norman, after suffering another psychotic episode, finds himself restrained on a gurney in the Willamette county hospital’s psych ward. The hospital calls his brother, Dylan, who tells his mother, Norma. While Dylan goes to Portland where their friend, Emma, is having a lung transplant, Norma rushes to see Norman.
Throughout the episode, Norman’s space and treatment are juxtaposed with Emma’s. The Portland All Saints Hospital is a state-of-the-art facility with competent and benevolent doctors who treat Emma gently and execute a textbook operation to save her life. Emma is afraid, which everyone understands and accepts while also reassuring her. By contrast, the county hospital psych ward where Norman is held is a shabby and crowded place. His gurney is stationed in the corridor and a busy nurse tells him that he must wait in his restraints until a doctor has time to see him. The difference between the two hospitals is striking and further exaggerated by lighting and framing choices. A sickly yellow-orangey tint fills Norman’s space. This is a color code conveying Norman’s mental-health state that has flared up throughout the seasons whenever he moved a step closer to becoming Psycho’s serial killer.[1]
     Remarkably, warm yellow light, which is usually perceived to be soothing, is distorted in the psych ward to instill discomfort. A cut takes the audience to Emma’s room. While it is dark to emphasize her fear, it was shot with a perfectly adjusted white-balance, representing an ordinary world. The waiting area of the All Saints hospital is also spacious, comfortable, and quiet. The locked room where Norman is finally put under 72-hour observation – without any explanation let alone consolation – might be spacious but it is also menacing in its isolation.
     Throughout the seasons, Norma increasingly isolates Norman and hides him away at home. In season one, he can barely participate in school activities. In season two, Norma takes him out of school altogether and makes sure Norman will not get a driver’s license, further restricting his movements. Her misguided actions are to protect him as much as to keep him for herself. Her solution is to control him, the spaces he inhabits, and the people he socializes with. In season four, after Norman is released from the county psych ward, Norma locks him into her room. By episode three, “’Til Death Do You Part,” he is locked away in a room in a mental institution some place near the woods in the outskirts of town.

Pineview Mental Institution

    Norman has yielded to signing himself into the Pineview Mental Institution – to please his mother. But his admission is equated with signing away his privacy and civil rights. He is being locked into his bedroom and deprived of certain items like his belt. When he points out that someone took it and wants to know why, a patronising nurse tells him that “nobody wears a belt around here.” Norman, in this extraordinary place away from ordinary living conditions, behaves like an ordinary teenager: he is angry. Indeed, his anger is justified and would be seen as acceptable outside the institution. But in this confined and supervised place, any reaction by the mental patient is scrutinized with extreme suspicion. Behavior seen elsewhere as ordinary is here treated as a symptom of an illness. The lack of trust and autonomy becomes apparent in the facility’s layout and its regulations of behavior, which are designed to observe and control the patient at all times.
Norma, feeling like she abandoned her son, persuades Norman’s doctor to let her see him. This woman who ostensibly tailors all her actions to benefit her son cannot bear to not be in control. She knows that she is finally “doing the right thing” for Norman. He needs professional help to get to the root of his illness so that he may get better. And yet, for Norma letting Norman work through issues with outsiders proves most difficult. After pushing him to open the door (to commit himself), she is reluctant to let him walk through it. Perhaps not least because this would involve trusting health-care professionals with well-kept secrets, which could lead to both of them ending up in jail for murder.[2]

     Norman is upset by his mother’s visit and goes to speak to his doctor. As he arrives at his office visibly distressed, the doctor’s secretary and a nurse immediately physically restrain him. They automatically treat him as a threat. Two male adults roughly handle this one skinny teenager even though he did not attack them – the patient is merely reacting to their fear of him. In episode one where he was strapped to a gurney although he remained remarkably calm and polite, staff around him displayed similar unease toward their mental patient. This behavior is puzzling because of its complete lack of empathy.
Bates Motel_Restraining Norman
    Comparing Emma’s physical to Norman’s mental illness, it becomes clear that one may be understood and cured while the other cannot be fully comprehended yet, which makes the recovery process more challenging. This uncertainty inspires fear. The usual human response to fear is wanting to neutralize the threat. In these cases, this is achieved by controlling the patient’s movements and his space. Instead of speaking to his therapist, the distressed Norman ends up locked in an observation room once more.
In season four, Norman has already turned into the psychopathic serial killer audiences know from Hitchcock’s Psycho. He just does not know it yet. But the audience does, therefore fearing him and what he might do is logical. Each episode delicately moves the story forward. The production, from lighting, sound, and framing to color themes and costumes, vividly conveys the characters’ experiences and their journeys through this fictional space. This television show can be categorized as drama and thriller, and as such it elicits strong emotional responses. And it is just that: fiction.
     Nevertheless, audiences may inhabit the show’s spaces and take part in this fictional journey. These representations of mental institutions and their patients inadvertently contribute to how mental illness and its treatment are perceived in society. Fictional representations certainly depend on the creation of extremes (the show’s county psych wards are shabby and saturated in eerie orangey light) and myths (mental illness is something to be afraid of). But these vivid representations perpetuate real prejudices. Within the show’s narrative, the mental-health professionals also do not know that Norman tends to kill people when he blacks out (after all, not everyone suffering from psychosis is secretly a serial killer). Their suspicion and indeed fear of what he might do is solely based on an exclusive categorization of them being people versus him being a patient. Episode one juxtaposes the spaces and treatment of physical and mental illness to show alarming contrasts. Due to the nature of the fictional narrative, these carefully established distinctions are all but forgotten by the time Norman arrives at the Pineview Mental Institution. For audiences immersed within the narrative and traveling through this often frightening space, it is easy to forget that mental illness is just that: an illness, and not something that needs to be feared or hidden.

[1] See, for instance, “What’s Wrong with Norman” (S1E3), after he has had another blackout, or “The Deal” (S3E5) when he steals a prolonged look at an undressing and unsuspecting woman at the motel.

[2] The show has created complex characters that are deeply flawed, which makes them all the more human. There is no doubt that Norma loves Norman, and that she desperately wants to be a good mother. In hindsight, Norma’s actions may have been wrong, and, as a mother, she is possessive and demanding. The show makes clear, however, that one cannot solely lay the blame for Norman’s murderous actions on his mother.

The final disease: infertility in ‘Children of Men’

In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) the ailment that has struck humanity is infertility. For eighteen years, no babies have been born on the planet, which has led to the breakdown of societies across the world. Britain has reverted back to using World War 2-style propaganda to stress its superior ability to deal with the crisis over the rest of the world. But it deals with it by interning all immigrants in camps and by offering legal suicide pills to the elderly. In the midst of this journalist Theo is approached by his ex-partner Jules, now leader of the rebellious ‘Fishes’, and asked to smuggle something very valuable to the coast: the girl Kee, who is pregnant.
The dystopian background is established in the opening scenes of the film. Theo enters a London coffee shop to get a take-away coffee. On the TV in the shop the news announces that the youngest person on the planet, 18-year-old ‘Baby’ Diego, has been killed. The crowd in the shop are crying. Theo walks out and puts his coffee on a nearby electricity box to stir in his sugar. Then the coffee shop he has just exited explodes. Although this explosion is referenced later in the film (it was orchestrated by the Fishes), it is not treated as the extraordinary event that it would be in the ‘normal’ world. (Re-watching Children of Men in 2016, after recent terrorist attacks, makes it resonate in new and different ways.) When Theo asks his boss for permission to work from home later that day, he uses Baby Diego’s death as a pretext, and not his near-death experience. Equally, later on in the film Theo gets kidnapped off a London street by the Fishes, and later dropped back again. Neither instance appears to even raise an eyebrow of passers-by.

CoM_cafe explosionFig. 1: A café which Theo has just exited blows up

CoM_Jasper's houseFig 2: Jasper’s house in the woods

In this sense, Children of Men follows a well-established dystopian trope of equating the city with degeneration. This cliché is in the first instance strengthened when Theo visits his friend Jasper, an old political activist and hippy who lives out in the woods in a ramshackle building where he grows his own weed. Jasper’s house is a sanctuary where Theo can speak freely. The countryside appears relatively untouched by the ravages that have hit the city, and Theo’s cynicism is juxtaposed with Jasper’s optimism. But this division gets blurred as the film progresses, when Theo’s attempts to save Kee lead the Fishes (who turn out to be ‘baddies’ after all) to Jasper’s house, where they execute the old activist.

CoM_Jasper's executionFig 3: The Fishes kill Jasper

And of course the infertility exists in the countryside as much as it does in the city. Choosing infertility as the ‘disease’ inflicted on mankind, rather than a bacteria or viruses, allows the characters and audiences to speculate what humans have done to bring this upon themselves. The disease is a ceasing of bodily functions, not an external invasion that humankind has to fight. Although it is not revealed what the cause of the infertility is, characters drop some clues throughout the film that allow for a reconstruction of events. The film is set in 2027. Baby Diego dies at 18 years old, so the last babies were born in 2009. Miriam, Kee’s midwife, tells Theo that the infertility started by pregnant women having miscarriages, which occurred earlier and earlier in the pregnancy, until it became apparent that no new pregnancies were registered. Theo and Jules haven’t seen each other for twenty years. Jasper reveals that the couple had a baby, Dylan, who died in the 2007 flu pandemic. From these facts we can gather that the infertility was preceded by at least one pandemic of a viral disease, and that when the infertility set in it was a gradual process. It was not a divine judgement meted out to the masses (although there are plenty of religious groups in the periphery that take the infertility to be God’s punishment), but rather a halting development that took time to really take hold.

CoM_TomorrowFig 4: The ‘Tomorrow’ arrives to bring Kee and her baby to safety

But what caused it? And why is Kee able to get pregnant? The story wisely does not answer these questions. It is self-aware in its positioning of Kee, who jokes about being the virgin immaculate. In fact, she slept around and does not know who the father is. This leaves open the possibility that the issue is with the male half of the population, echoing noughties fears about mobile phones in tight trouser pockets. The end of the film cannot help but echo religious sentiments, with the baby being hailed as a source of purity and goodness, and with the saving ship ‘Tomorrow’ advancing through the fog. But is Kee’s baby the Salvation of humankind and the start of a new generation, or is it just a one-off medical incident?


Channel 4 has just finished airing the first season of French political drama Spin (Original title: Les Hommes De l’Ombre, 2012). The plot of the first season hinges on the killing of the French president by a suicide bomber, and the subsequent frantic presidential election. Although the presidential candidates are significant characters, the real protagonists are the two spin doctors working on either side of the political divide. Simon Kapita, who got the murdered president in power, comes back to France to help Centrist candidate Anne Visage. Simon’s former business partner but now rival, Ludo Desmeuze, works for the right-wing Prime Minister Phillipe Deleuvre.
Although Spin has been compared to West Wing,[1] a series which consciously draws attention to its use of space, the French drama has none of the ‘walk and talk’ scenes that make the Aaron Sorkin vehicle so instantly recognisable.[2] Indeed, on the face of it, Spin does not use the spaces it is set in very imaginatively. Most of the action is set in Paris, and when a location is used that the viewer may recognise it is signposted with text on screen. However, the series does make interesting use of one particular space: the HQ of Anne Visage’s campaign.
At the start of the season, Anne is not intending to run for president. However, Kapita manages to convince her that she should give it a try. The urgency of the election means that a campaign has to be started very quickly. As part of a swift montage in episode 2, in which Kapita, Anne, and her advisor find financial backing, they also visit an empty space in a ‘working class district’ which will act as the physical centre of their campaign (Fig 1). Political ideals are mirrored in the buildings in which their candidates work: Anne is in a dynamic, popular district whereas her rival Deleuvre exclusively resides in Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the French Prime Minister. Anne’s building is run down and full of rubbish, but when we see it again later in the same episode, people are busily cleaning, painting, and putting up large photographs of Anne (Fig 2).
It is never specified who these people are or where they come from – as soon as the space is found, the volunteer team appears seemingly automatically. The course of the entire campaign is said to only take a few weeks, yet near the end of it, in episode 5, the HQ is transformed almost beyond recognition (Fig 3), with confetti to boot. Here, Anne greets a mass of volunteers who are all emotionally invested in her success.
The key members of staff, such as Anne’s speech writer Valentine and Kapita’s daughter Juliette who is in charge of the internet campaign, are never shown to be either working on doing up the HQ building, or even talking to the volunteers. The show gives the viewer a sense that as soon as the physical space is found to launch the campaign, it automatically attracts people that can also assist in the refurbishment. Spin in this way subtly uses the space of Anne’s HQ to create shortcuts in the narrative. By showing space = volunteers = success, it is able to cut out any thorough explanation of how Anne’s campaign builds momentum, and can instead focus on the intrigue of the spin doctors.

Spin_FR3Fig 1: Arriving at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR1Fig 2: Refurbishments at HQ (Episode 2)

Spin_FR2Fig 3: Electoral success at HQ (Episode 5)

[1] Mark Lawson, ‘Spin – it’s the West Wing, with added sex,’ The Guardian, 10 February 2016, accessed 10 February 2016
[2] See ‘The Corridors of Power’, Empire Magazine, accessed 10 February 2016

Ex Machina’s Meretricious Transparencies

The brilliant sci-fi Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) received numerous awards as well as two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Visual Effects. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his remote home to assist him in the evaluation of his latest invention, a humanoid A.I. he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander). Nathan,[1] the megalomaniac genius with disconcerting misogynist tendencies,[2] wants Caleb to Turing-test Ava. The exchange is set up with Ava behind transparent glass and Caleb seemingly leading the conversation. But this is where it gets complicated. Why is Ava behind this boundary? Who is interviewing whom? And who is watching whom?
     Nathan lives in a remote location that is only accessible via privately hired helicopter. Shot on location at the Juvet Landscape Hotel, Valldal, Norway, Nathan’s house is a marvel of modern design. At its origin, modern architecture symbolized progress and, above all, transparency in its purest concept of accountability and clarity. Glass, along with steel and concrete, were the materials of choice to express these sentiments. In Nathan’s house, however, glass deprives individuals of privacy and imprisons them. Here, glass serves as a boundary while allowing observation. Ava is presented to Caleb like a toy in a display window. Nathan monitors Ava and Caleb via multiple security cameras. Caleb watches Ava on his flat screen TV. Transparency, ostensibly good, is here transformed into a tool for surveillance.
 Ex Machina_2
     The tables turn when Ava is finished with her strategic observations of Caleb, and indeed Nathan. She passes the Turing test with flying colours. It was her who had been gathering information and watching her apparent superiors. While glass limits her space and screens monitor her movements, for her, these boundaries become membranes rather than barriers. She uses the cameras to her advantage and breaks through the glass to escape her prison. She traps both Nathan and Caleb in her former enclosure without a moment’s hesitation, and skillfully hitches a ride with the private helicopter.
At one point during a conversation with Caleb he had asked her were she would go if she could leave. Her wish is to go to a busy junction and watch people. Blending in perfectly, synthetic skin covers her transparent body parts, she can now observe individuals to her heart’s content. Where will she go from here?
Ex Machina_3


[1] In Hebrew culture, the name means “God will give,” which is a nod toward Nathan’s God-complex and creative genius.

[2] One wonders if his endeavours to create artificial intelligence stop short of his wish to manufacture the perfect sex toy as exemplified by Kyoko: mute (because which sexist creator would want “his” woman to talk?), obedient (great cook and cleaner!), and beautiful. Did he get bored with her? What about all the other divine specimens of female anatomy hidden in his closet?

Defining No-Man’s Land: Unobserved Gaps in the Urban Fabric

I recently saw Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which plays out in the period just before the Berlin Wall was raised in 1961. The film depicts in detail areas of East and West Berlin and the building of the wall, including shots of the empty no-man’s land, a zone of surveillance between East and West Germany. The film got me thinking about definitions of a no-man’s land: How the notion is connected to surveillance or spying, and how a place designated as no-man’s land can help us theorize the city and its spaces. In Spielberg’s film the tract of land in-between two competing ideologies and nations is presented as a space full of bullet holes, a space for no-one. The phrase is evocative and loaded with meaning – usually negative, conjuring up images of displaced peoples and heavily controlled state borders. According to a recent BBC article, the term has been with us for a long time; in it, Alasdair Pinkerton, an expert in human geography at the Royal Holloway University of London, explains that it first came into use in the Doomsday Book, where it was used to describe the land immediately adjacent to the city of London, but separate to the city proper. Returning to this original usage, is there a different way to imagine and interpret this place that exists between two worlds, a different way to think about the notion of a ‘no-man’s land’?
I am interested in the idea because it presents a gap in the state of things, and also, metaphorically, a gap in the state: a hole in the fabric of the city, as well as a gap in the built environment. I don’t believe that gaps are something we should be afraid of. They let things in and out. Since 1086, the no-man’s land has migrated from its space outside of the city walls and can now be situated firmly within the city.  Post-war Berlin is the example par excellence, but every city has them. Budapest, London, Oslo, Prague – pick your conurbation and co-ordinates. There are some tracts of land, open spaces that are outside – in all senses of the word. Intriguingly this opens up an array of possibilities relating to their use – theoretically at least they are open to use (and misuse) by anyone.
The no-man’s land is not where you might expect, and usually has more to do with time of day, than physical space. Spaces like this are places where dialogues can take place – like the bridge at night in Bridge of Spies – bridges that connect disparate social sectors, where exchange can happen between unlikely partners. The no-man’s land as bridge hints at a dualistic split in city space, whereby unwatched spaces coexist with observed ones – that is to say that the land and the no-man’s land are one and the same space: like the two cities in China Miéville’s fantasy novel The City and the City – two spaces that exist in one geographical location. Every space in a city holds within it a potential no-man’s land. Perhaps more so than time of day, the very act of mis-using a space, appropriating it for an activity it was not intended for, can transform a space into a no-man’s land. The designation of a space as inside and outside of a state’s jurisdiction is above all a temporal and performative issue, an issue not merely geographic in nature. There are unwritten rules, as well as written ones, about activities you can and cannot engage in, in various spaces. Yet, notions of accepted uses of space are closely linked to the idea of surveillance.
In the age of CCTV – the real no-man’s land must be an off-stage/off-screen space. These spaces are a necessary part of the urban map, even when they do not appear on it. They are undesignated, undefined, and as a result open up a space for all kinds of unusual relationships, uses, and interactions: interactions that do not have a place in the City proper. The no-man’s land is a space for acting out and acting outside. These are spaces where objects can cluster in unlikely combinations – brought there by the users of the no-man’s land: some objects are discarded, and then re-appropriated.  A no-man’s land is really a no-purpose land: a space without a specific role designated by its architecture.
Thinking through the notion of ‘no-man’s land’ throws into sharp relief the kinds of prejudices and ideas that we employ when we think about space and the city. Such gaps in the urban fabric can be openings of opportunity: spaces for the marginal in society – in terms of objects, activities, and people. Paradoxically, whilst such spaces lie beyond the bounds of CCTV, they function as a shadow of the city, a reflection – where the rules do not completely cease to exist, but are rather seen through a screen – and are changed, refracted. Unlike the military no-man’s land, the new no-man’s land is unplanned, and neutral (gender neutral too). And above all un-watched. These are the spaces in which the city speaks, whether or not we like what it has to say.

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It All Comes Down to Space: The Forensic Potential of CCTV

The visual capacities of CCTV cameras are inextricably tied to space: the space they capture in their frames versus the space that falls outside their ranges. The camera eye also conditions the knowledge that viewers can gain from the surveillance footage: the space CCTV analysts do not see is a space they do not know. Even within the field that the camera covers, space can become the decisive tool for making monitored information meaningful. The American true-crime series Forensic Files (Season 11, Episode 30, 2007) depicts how so-called photogrammetry uses the architecture surrounding a perpetrator on CCTV in order to establish the criminal’s height.

The TV show, itself sensationalist, traces the matter-of-fact methods of scientific experts for solving seemingly unsolvable offences. In an episode titled “A Tight Leash,” the car of a murdered woman is left on a supermarket parking lot in the early morning. Investigators assume that the murderer entered the store to avoid stirring attention by simply leaving the lot. They notice a suspicious man on the supermarket’s surveillance tape. Cunningly or coincidentally, the man outwits the CCTV’s visual capabilities. He does not clearly show his face to the lens or give away distinctive body features as he wears a large dark parka and a wool hat. The technology’s restricted optical quality renders the security tape too grainy to identify physical details. Enter the photogrammetry specialist who declares that the footage of the suspect is still useful if analysed in connection to the store’s floor tiles which the wanted man traverses.

As the narrator explains, “[p]hotogrammetry is using a two-dimensional photograph to create a three-dimensional image. And it’s done with mathematics and physics.” The photogrammetrist isolates a frame grab in which the stranger’s feet and the grid pattern of the tiles align. The body is at a right angle to the tiles. The expert calculates the man’s height in relation to the tile size by placing a vertical line with a scale along the body. Thanks to the architecture surrounding the suspect, the visual information about that suspect becomes readable. Architecture puts into perspective what we see.

As the show clarifies, other pieces of evidence are necessary to determine who the man on tape is and that he is guilty of homicide. Yet the photogrammetric analysis is a relevant piece of the puzzle. The CCTV footage does not only help to prove the culprit’s physical identity but also that the built environment is significant for surveillance technologies to work.

Space Exploration and the Urban Heartbeat

The Science Museum is currently running an exhibition entitled ‘Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age’, examining the historic firsts behind Russia’s Space Programme of the 50s and 60s. The striking blue and orange posters in the underground stations got me thinking about the role of the city in the representation of Soviet space exploration and of a passage from one children’s book in particular: Tyapka, Borka and the Rocket (1962). The book is about the 1957 flight of Laika – the first dog, indeed, the first living being, ever to make an orbital flight of the Earth.
The following passage from the book is particularly striking:

Laika, sweet loyal Laika, how happy have you made the scientists all around the world. The faint beating of your heart, fluttering from a thousand–kilometre altitude, to them has drowned out all other sounds.
And on a paper tape, data-recorders traced a pattern that looked like a city sky-line, with peaks like the steeples of high-rise buildings.
It was beating, beating, beating – the beating heart of a living space passenger. [1]

On the one hand this representation of Laika’s space journey is true to fact. The scientists of the Soviet Space Programme really were focused on the animal’s vitals, purely because they wanted to make sure that life could survive the significant stresses and strains of space flight. On the other hand the passage goes beyond mere description. The language and imagery are tinged with ideological symbolism. In the context of the Soviet Space story, this literary image of the cardio-city symbolizes scientific progress and raises space travel and the urban to the status of religion. The authors of this text have made the city corporeal by placing it into the body of a sentient being. Interestingly, by referring to the ‘steeples’ of high-rise buildings, they have also linguistically linked the image of a space-travelling dog to the church. The language used makes space travel almost sacred: Soviet Russia is reaching into the heavens and has created an alternative religion with new icons. Laika – both in the passage above and later when her image became so ubiquitous it could be found on cigarette packets, postage stamps, and children’s toys not only in Russia, but also around the world – is one such icon. Laika’s heartbeat fills the audio-visual world of the passage. Usually a symbol of domesticity, here the dog is metaphorically and literally raised up into the heavens – so much so that she takes on an almost sacred role. The story was written after Laika’s flight, when it was known that she had died in space. As the story unfolds, Laika is seen as a heroic being, a martyr to scientific progress. This city, drummed out by the heartbeat of this martyr thus becomes a kind of Holy Ghost for the Space Age. The city is, quite literally, at the heart of Soviet space exploration. Laika carries civilisation, for which the city is a metonymy, into the unexplored region of space.
Soviet ideology was, from its inception, an ideology based on urban expansion and progress and so this image is not surprising. Yet, while undoubtedly ideologically motivated, this notion of a connection between the city and the heart is not altogether far-fetched and invites us to theorize the city in an interesting and unusual way. It is possible to invert the Soviet image and read the city skyline as a visualisation of the heartbeat of a city: peaks and troughs making up an urban organism’s cardiogram. Skylines can be built up in moments of financial and technological boom; they can also be torn down – dramatically changed by architectural design, changing tastes, and occasionally cataclysmically by moments of violent rupture or seismic motion. Earth’s cities as organisms are constantly growing and dying, changing and evolving. And their skylines can be theorized as an indication of health, an urban ECG.  While cities full of skyscrapers are not necessarily healthy cities, it could be argued that the kind of urban growth associated with the building of high-rises can be linked to a certain kind of economic prosperity.
Furthermore, as we have seen elsewhere in this blog, modern urban spaces are replete with signs: advertising billboards, road-markings, or traffic symbols. Skylines are thus the ultimate expression of the city as they are a conflation of the city and the sign. Just as a cardiograph writes a heartbeat by scratching out a thin line of ink, a city skyline is text, urban writing. It is graphic shorthand for a geography, an iconic signature: permanent and visually distinct, yet as ephemeral and changing as the beating of any heart.

[1] Translation appears in Turkina, Olesya, Soviet Space Dogs, Fuel Publishing, 2014, Translated by Inna Cannon, Lisa Wasserman.

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The Stasi Headquarters: A Nodal Point in Past and Present Topographies of Walls, Escapes, and Access

This November, the former headquarters of the GDR Ministry of State Security (MfS, or Stasi) have begun to accommodate refugees. Twenty-five years after demonstrators stormed this remainder of the East-German dictatorship to secure the accessibility of the innumerable surveillance documents, the headquarters again negotiate the question of open doors.

The bone structure of the infamous Stasi building complex in Berlin Lichtenberg is today the same as a quarter of a century ago. The historical moment is different, yet not without parallels to the past. Both German reunification in 1990 and the 2015 migrant crisis have been labelled as pivotal moments in recent German history, which is inextricably linked with European history. The reunited country has re-awoken fears of a dangerously powerful German nation-state at the heart of Europe.[1] Germany’s further interlacing in a community of nations has thus been central to European politics since the 1990s. The establishment of the European Union in 1993 is tied to these efforts.[2] This union faces at present an enormous influx of refugees. Again, Germany is a key actor – as the destination to which most migrants are heading.[3] And again, the political rhetoric connects the challenge to the viability of Europe as a whole.[4] The Stasi headquarters, a single physical complex, link these two vital moments in past and present Europe.

Then and now, the architectural site has been a manifestation of the same themes, yet each time pulling in opposite directions. The section now appropriated as refugee quarters had formerly accommodated the MfS department for espionage in foreign countries. As part of its activities, the department was concerned with thwarting escapes from the GDR to these countries.[5] At the same spot, the incoming refugees currently complete successful escapes to a foreign state.[6] They thereby redefine the building’s role in the international geography of migration. In a historical turn of events, some of the migrants coming to Berlin Lichtenberg have fled from dictatorial regimes that monitor or regulate people’s freedom of movement. The former headquarters now invite arrival instead of hindering departure. The people dwelling here hope for freedom instead of exercising suppression.

The Stasi building has historically not only communicated that there was no way out but also that there was no way in. The GDR surveillance apparatus engaged in secretive operations.[7] The accumulated materials about the people were kept out of reach of the people. Two months after the fall of the Berlin wall, East Germans stormed the formerly closed-off headquarters. On 15 January 1990, the disgruntled citizens sought to ensure the preservation, and ultimately accessibility, of the countless secret surveillance documents that the Stasi was in the process of destroying.[8] Twenty-five years later, the repurposed architecture opens its doors to people at a moment when the image of an inaccessible “fortress Europe” keeps reappearing in the refugee debate.[9] The rhetoric is reminiscent of retrospective descriptions of the GDR and its surveillance headquarters as fortresses.[10] Today, the vocabulary finds its material expressions if not in walls then in fences that currently threaten to rise along European borders. Amid these developments, the MfS site as a former hallmark of seclusion practises inclusion.[11]

The Stasi headquarters have become an intersection of space and time. The construction unites central questions – of geopolitics and migrant geography – that have continued to matter throughout recent European history. The past and present coincide in a particularly vivid way on this site since this year a new exhibition has opened in another part of the headquarters. It explores the workings of the Stasi in its former operating spaces.[12] The building complex thus synthesizes two major historical moments of both freedom of movement and freedom from authoritarian control. The Stasi site crystallizes how central the question of basic human rights is to the definition of modern Europe.

[1] Marla Stone. “Introduction.” In When the Wall Came Down: Reactions to German Unification, edited by Harold James and Marla Stone. Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2013, 19.
[2] Manfred Görtemaker. “Verhandlungen mit den Vier Mächten.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 19 March 2009.
[3] Jörg Diehl and Anna Reimann. “Flüchtlinge auf der Balkanroute: Zehntausende wollen nach Deutschland.” Spiegel Online. 22 October 2015.
[4] E.g. “Sondertreffen in Brüssel: EU-Innenminister beschließen Verteilung von 120.000 Flüchtlingen.” Spiegel Online. 22 September 2015.
[5] Stephan Wolf: Hauptabteilung I: NVA und Grenztruppen (Handbuch). Berlin: BStU, 2005, 8.
[6] This success is, however, merely physical and, as such, temporary. Whether the refugees will remain in the country or whether their escape was futile, will be a legal question.
[7] Jens Gieseke. Der Mielke-Konzern: Die Geschichte der Stasi 1945-1990. Pantheon: München, 2011, 10.
[8] “Die Erstürmung der Stasi-Zentrale.” Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. 13 October 2010.
[9] E.g. “Auf dem Weg zur Festung Europa.” Handelsblatt. 15 September 2015.; Dirk Schümer. “Nur die ‘Festung Europa’ kann jetzt noch Leben retten.” Die Welt. 14 September 2015.
[10] Frank Herold. “Sturm auf die Stasi-Festung.” Berliner Zeitung. 14 January 2015.,10808018,29567534.html; Hans Michael Kloth. “Im Herzen der Finsternis.” Spiegel Online. 15 January 2010.; “Filme zur DDR: Dokumente einer bröckelnden Festung.” SRF. Accessed 23 November 2015.—dokumente-einer-broeckelnden-festung?id=c9605ad2-e949-4b78-9cbc-9bc4be29b918; Marius Zippe. “‘Mit Fantasie gegen Stasi und Nasi.’” Zeit Online. 15 January 2015.
[11] An element of regulation remains in this inclusion as the refugees have no say as to where they are accommodated. Their stay at the MfS headquarters is no active choice.
[12] Stasi Museum.

‘Spectre’ and the City

After the long-anticipated new James Bond film Spectre (Sam Mendes, 2015) hit theatres last month, the most talked-about scene was undoubtedly the opening shot. The film opens with a minutes-long tracking shot set in Mexico City, during the Day of the Dead. We see Bond (accompanied by a beautiful woman, of course) follow a masked man in a white suit; go up to a hotel room with the woman; change into his classic tuxedo and weapon outfit; and walk the roofs of Mexico City in order to take aim at the masked man. The scene required thousands of extras to walk around in Day of the Dead fancy dress. It also visits one of Mexico’s oldest hotels, and neatly establishes Bond as the womanizer-and-professional-assassin that is at the core of the franchise. It is without question a skilfully realised sequence. But how does it compare to the film’s scenes set in the other three cities that Spectre visits: Rome, Tangier, and, of course, London?
By setting the Mexico City sequence on the Day of the Dead, Spectre clearly opts for visual impact. The holiday gives the opportunity for dressing up and disguise, and for large crowds that impair Bond’s ability to catch the villain and which increase the risk of casualties. However, the setting also plays on stereotypical views of Mexico by only representing the city on what is an extraordinary and world-famous day. It is a fairytale background that plays on already existing ideas about Mexico, and does nothing to redress viewers’ knowledge to a more realistic viewpoint.
The scenes in Tangier are mainly set inside a hotel room except for the brief shot of Bond and his travelling companion (another beautiful woman) navigating the streets towards the hotel. Yet at no point are the Euro-American views of Tangier challenged. There are steps and windy streets, peeling paint on the walls, and mice in the hotel room. It is romantic but poverty-stricken.
Rome and London are treated differently by the film. The Italian capital’s grand architecture is the backdrop for a meeting of a top-secret and highly powerful terrorist organisation. The criminals are business-like and use modern techniques. Bond’s visit to them ends in a car chase on the banks of the Tiber, in which Bond is driving the high-tech Aston Martin that has been widely used in Spectre’s publicity material. This way, the film’s representation of the ancient city is intertwined with cutting-edge technology. London is also shown to be a combination between old and new: Q’s advanced lab is located in a stone cellar under the Thames, and MI6’s old headquarters in Vauxhall are replaced by a glass and steel column on the other side of the river. This tension between the old and the new is at the heart of the film, with its conflict between the ‘00 programme’ and the new data-collection laws.
Although the film ultimately reveres the old-fashioned (as it must since its main character has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950s), it allows London and Rome to combine the old with the modern. Tangier and Mexico City, locations outside the Western world, however, remain in some sense represented as primitive and backward. For all the – justified – admiration for the technical skill of the Mexico City sequence, Spectre does not dare to challenge what it expects to be the assumptions of an imagined American-European audience.

Spectre_DdM​The Day of the Dead in Spectre (UK/USA, 2015)

Bond treading the rooftops of Mexico City

Spectre_car chaseThe car chase along the Tiber, Rome

Water: Prerequisite for all life known to man

Ambition is a 2014 short film by Tomek Bagiński, available to watch for free on the BFI Player. In this film, which is set in the distant future, humans have learned to create with the power of their mind. But, the master explains, the key to all life remains water. Comets – celestial objects of ice, dust, and molecules – are the key to understanding water. The European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission was the first to explore a comet. The student has learnt this by accessing the information in an archive. In Ambition, the master teaches the student what is most important for any creation. Then, he declares her ready and she proceeds. First: water.

Particles controlled by the human mind to shape creations. (Ambition, Tomek Bagiński, 2014)

     The creation of water starts with fire. Not one shot of the film shows water in any form or shape. The mise-en-scène is filled with particles, dust, gradations of blue, wind, and fire. For all its importance, water is conspicuously absent. This inspired a few questions that I briefly address here. How does water affect people and their habitat? How is water used in fictional narratives?

Fire to create water. (Ambition, Tomek Bagiński, 2014)

     Water is the original shape shifter: fluid, solid, and gaseous. It exists in ephemeral states yet it is ubiquitously present. On Earth, anyway. How does it affect a city? How does it affect people? There are harbors with water routes for resources and transportation. There are fountains and pools for pleasure, and indoor plumbing as an everyday luxury in the western world. It takes gallons of water for the production of your morning latte. Rain, snow, and ice are obstacles to be avoided and removed during your daily city routine.
I am about 75% water. I complain about the rain. I love the snow, but not in the city. I don’t think about ice, only ice cream. I don’t know about water vapor in the air because it is invisible. Yet, without water, I don’t exist. The city does not exist.
In fiction film, water is rarely acknowledged unless it is part of a narrative that explores extreme circumstances. In Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015), a post-apocalyptic world has become a desert desperate for water. On the opposite end of narratives imagining a catastrophic future are films like The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004) or Waterworld (Kevin Reynolds, 1995). Frozen or liquid, too much of anything, even if it is essential, is still a bad thing.
Mad Max_Immortan Joe_Water

Immortan Joe releases a huge stream of water. (Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller, 2015)

The Day After Tomorrow

New York is frozen. (The Day after Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich, 2004)

     What about outer space? Well, for one thing, we don’t do laundry in space. Water behaves differently in zero gravity. And a big part of space exploration is the search for water and inhabitable planets that man can potentially colonize. Research for NASA’s Journey to Mars shows that the red planet held vast oceans in ancient times, which makes it an ideal candidate for further exploration.
In The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015), a human mission to colonize Mars faces considerable obstacles. Before they are forced to leave the planet in an emergency, the astronauts manage to create the basic structures for human inhabitation. This includes housing, transportation, lots of plastic, duct tape, and their trash. Just like any other city on Earth. The situation changes when one astronaut is stranded on the planet and has to grow sufficient food to survive long enough for the rescue team to arrive. Nothing grows without water so he creates an environment that is essentially a tiny eco system. Here too, the creation of water starts with fire when the astronaut burns rocket fuel in his new greenhouse. Without fire, there is no water. Without water there is no survival.
Fictional narratives that explicitly explore the relationship of humans with water invite viewers to contemplate H2O and what its availability or scarcity may mean for individuals’ daily routines. While not all narratives focus on water per se, they address vulnerabilities of human existence. This short exploration into the representations of water onscreen indicates that, if it is part of the narrative, it is because there is too much or too little of it. Otherwise, if there is just the right amount of water, it is a life-giving luxury that is taken for granted.
The Martian_Fire and Water

​A failed attempt to create water with fire. (The Martian, Ridley Scott, 2015)