Pompeii

Our recent blog posts on the Spinalonga island off the Greek coast got me thinking about other deserted cities that are tourist destinations. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is Pompeii, in southern Italy. After its burial under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city was not properly rediscovered until 1748. As soon as excavations started Pompeii became a tourist site, and it currently attracts around 2.6 million visitors every year. The main appeal of the city is seeing a world frozen in time, as everything is so perfectly preserved. What can we learn from this fascination with the permanent and enduring, and how does this interest in the city reflect on changing views of what is worth remembering, over time?
The appeal of Pompeii is in the quotidien, ‘the loaves of bread and hair pins’ as cultural historians Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul put it. [1]  But it is precisely its ordinariness that makes it so extraordinary today. Normally cities disappear gradually, they crumble away and then they are gone. Pompeii is the opposite of that, and the fact that it has been naturally preserved for so long makes it now all the more important not to allow any type of decay to impact on it. When the House of Gladiators collapsed in 2010, the general response was that Italy as a nation had failed to protect the city. [2]The city is no longer seen as a living, developing thing, but instead as something that must be preserved exactly as it was, forever.
This is directly at odds with how tourism to Pompeii has developed. Soon after the initial excavations started in the mid-18th century, Pompeii became established as part of the Grand Tour; aristocratic gentlemen from England visited the city on their longer journeys across Europe. The Tour was supposed to give the young men a solid grounding in culture, and an acquaintance with classical culture was part of that. When rail travel made tourism accessible the middle-classes were also able to visit Pompeii, and its popularity has not flagged since. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy today. The modern town of Pompei (with one ‘i’) was founded in 1891 and now provides the train station and hotels for all the visitors. The site is struggling with balancing its need for preservation with the increasing number of tourists, and the income that they bring. Large parts of the city which had been open to tourists in the 1960s, have since been closed off. At the same time a restaurant and cafe have now been constructed in the centre of the town, to cater for  the tourists. Previously, there were no amenities in the old city. So while the social function of Pompeii lies precisely in its status as unchanging city, the fact of its popularity has forced it to adapt, both for commercial and archaeological reasons. Additionally, some of the wall paintings, such as the one of the God of Fertility Priapus, are locked away from public view or put on display, depending on the morals of the age.
So when we visit Pompeii and believe ourselves to experience what it was like to live in a Roman city, we must remind ourselves that this is a myth. The city is as much a product of our own times as it is of the Pax Romana. Its very existence today is a reflection of what we value as history, what we think of as important to preserve, and of the apparent belief that a city should be kept static. The derelict, abandoned city is an empty canvas on which beliefs can be projected.

[1] Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 2.
[2]  See ‘House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii’ BBC News, accessed 5/8/15 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11704720

Dirt and Humanity in Elysium

In the 2013 science-fiction film Elysium (Neill Blomkamp), which is set in the year 2154, the action takes place in two distinctly different built environments, one on Earth and one in space. On Earth, we are in Los Angeles, which has turned into a vast, poverty-stricken city, with a Spanish-English bilingual population which is kept in order by a robot police force. Earth’s wealthiest inhabitants have moved to space, to a space station called Elysium, where life is idyllic and immortality is an option. The main plot of the film hinges around a body-scanner capable of curing all injuries and diseases, and thus extending human life. These are only available in Elysium, and the main plot of the film concerns Max, a LA inhabitant who receives a fatal dose of radiation, after which he attempts to reach Elysium to be cured.
Rather than exploring the overtly political message of the film, I would like to turn my attention to a representational aspect of the urban environment that is perhaps less obvious to the viewer: the depiction of dirt throughout the film.

Elysium1

Nineteenth-century literary representations of modern cities had a tendency to use the underground world as a metaphor for poverty, dirt and the lowlife. [1] In Elysium, the underground/overground juxtaposition has been replaced with Earth/space. At no point in the film does the action take place underground; instead, the planet’s surface has become the space equated with the lowest life-forms. It is no coincidence that this future Los Angeles is also littered with dirt. Every street-shot shows plastic bags, empty bottles and other debris on the ground. Elysium, by contrast, is spotlessly clean. In our Western culture, what we perceive as dirt has long been seen as something that should be avoided.

Elysium2

At the same time, it is an inevitable by-product of human life. Elysium’s clinical cleanliness feels cold. The environment is reflected in the characters of the humans that live there: they, too, are cold and impersonal. When some of Earth’s ill and injured inhabitants attempt to reach Elysium in a guerrilla ship, Secretary Delacourt kills them all, seemingly without any emotion or moral qualms. By contrast, human relationships in Los Angeles are shown to be more meaningful: Max’s neighbour and friend Julio helps him after he has become ill, and there is the possibility of romance with Max’s childhood sweetheart Frey.

Elysium3

Elysium shows a dystopian future: one where technological advancement has taken a bad turn, but where there is still hope for humanity to triumph. Thomas Moylen explains that a ‘typical dystopian conflict’ is ‘between the established order and the potential dissident.’[2] In the case of Elysium, the conflict is also between cleanliness and dirt. When Max and the other ‘Earthlings’ reach Elysium, they bring their dirt with them. When a group of ill and injured people try to land in Elysium in a guerrilla spaceship, shots inside the spaceship show rubbish floating around in the zero-gravity environment. When one of the guerrilla spaceships crashes on Elysium, it creates rubble and disorder. Yet this dirt is necessary for humanity to outstrip the cold order of Elysium. Although dirt is never explicitly referred to in Elysium, it’s representation at the edges of the frame subtly reinforces the ideology of the film.

[1] Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, London: Methuen, 1986, as quoted in Campkin, Ben and Rosie Cox, Dirt: New Geographies of Cleanliness and Contamination, London: I.B. Tauris, 2007, p. 64.
[2] Moylen, Thomas, Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia, Oxford: Westview Press, 2000, p. 112. 

London Road: The Ephemerality of the Spoken Word

The film London Road was recently released in British cinemas. The film is based on a National Theatre stage production, which in turn is based on interviews with residents of London Road, Ipswich. London Road became infamous in late 2006 when five prostitutes were found murdered in the Ipswich area. The police arrested a resident of the road, Steve Wright, who has since been convicted of the murders. In the aftermath of the arrest, writer Alecky Blythe visited London Road and interviewed a number of the residents. She used these recordings to create a musical, which uses verbatim transcripts of the residents’ words. The production first ran in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe studio, and was later transferred to the bigger Olivier stage in 2012.[1] And now, in 2015, it has been turned into a film.

The biggest selling point of the production is this exact use of the resident’s words. All the ‘uhms’ and ‘ahs’ and all the grammatical errors are preserved. However, using the exact words also means that the musical preserves comments from residents that would otherwise have been long forgotten. The spoken word, in conversation, is normally extremely ephemeral. Humans do not usually have the capacity to remember things that have been said to them, word for word. The consequence is that when things are said, they are said to be forgotten: ‘a throwaway comment’ is called that for a reason.

By recording the interviews and then composing the text of the musical around them, Blythe gave them a different, more permanent quality. This was only preserved up to a certain point in the stage production, which of course again is a fleeting medium. But now that the words have been committed to (digital) film, they are seemingly recorded forever (or at least until technology moves on so much that we are no longer able to use current file formats).

What are the implications, ethical or otherwise, of making something that is ephemeral, permanent? When the London Road residents were interviewed, they knew they were assisting in the creation of a stage production, and they knew that their words would be recorded. They did not know, at the time, that eventually these words would find their way into a feature film. They were perhaps also not aware that their words would not be used plainly, but that they would be layered, repeated, and spoken by multiple characters, in order to create the rhythm and flow of the musical piece. Would they have said different things, if they had known all this? Would they have said different things if they had just been speaking to a neighbour, without a microphone in front of them?

When London Road claims to be using the residents’ exact words, this does not mean that it is reflecting the residents’ actual thoughts. The words have been mediated several times over in order to arrive at the current text. London Road explores something very interesting with its use of the spoken word: not the supposed realism of using verbatim texts, but what happens when speech is reworked and recycled.

[1] See Ben Lawrence, Alecky Blythe: ‘I revere the way people speak’, Telegraph website, 28 July 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/9433269/Alecky-Blythe-I-revere-the-way-people-speak.html Accessed 24 June 2015

The Fleeting and the Enduring: A Salt Photograph of Nelson’s Column

nelsons-column

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square, William Fox Talbot, 1843 ©The Wilson Centre for Photography

During a recent visit to the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’, which displays early salt print photographs, one image in particular caught my eye. Nelson’s Column (1843) shows the construction of the eponymous column on Trafalgar Square. The viewer sees the bottom of the famous London landmark, shrouded in scaffolding. In the background is St Martin-in-the-Fields church. What most interests me, however, is an apparently irrelevant detail: the advertising posters displayed on the hoarding around the column. The contrast between the enduring column and the ephemeral posters and playbills is mirrored in both the transience and permanence of the photograph itself.
Salt photography was one of the earliest types of photography, invented in Britain in the 1830s by William Fox Talbot, who also took the photo under discussion. This type of photography used a salt-based solution to fix images created by a camera obscura on paper. [1] Along with the French invention of the Daguerreotype this innovative process gave photographers the ability to record a fleeting moment, seemingly forever. Over time it became apparent, however, that the photographs printed on paper were not enduring; any exposure to light degrades the image. Talbot’s photos, although an attempt to capture the beauties of the world forever, in fact turned out to be most ephemeral.
The image shown on the photograph Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square reflects this tension between the lasting and the fleeting. The column was built between 1840 and 1843. As a commemoration of one of the greatest naval commanders in British history the column is closely linked to Britain’s imperial identity. The column was built to last, and serve as a constant reminder of the country’s achievements. The church of St Martin’s was erected, in its current form, in 1726 and represents the enduring importance of the Anglican Church to the British state and society.
These two Classical structures are the centre of the viewer’s focus. At the bottom of the photograph, the posters on the hoarding around Nelson’s Column represent the transient aspects of the built environment. They display a mixture of text and images, advertising shows and spectacles which could be visited around the capital. The display as a whole would have been ever-changing as billposters layered new adverts over the old ones. The use of advertising posters became mainstream practice at the start of the 19th century, and is perhaps most famously represented in John Parry’s ‘A London Street Scene’ (1935). As Sadiah Qureshi demonstrates, Parry’s image also juxtaposes the transience of the posters ‘to the seeming permanence of St Paul’s Cathedral.’[2] Nelson’s Column serves a similar purpose in Talbot’s photograph. Whereas in Parry’s drawing the juxtaposition is an artistic invention, Talbot merely captured a scene already available on the street. His artist’s eye spotted the suitability of the composition, but the posters were already there, right around the column. His photograph shows that on the streets of the Victorian capital, there were tensions between the permanent and the temporary. At the same time, the newly invented art of photography was trying to find ways to make fleeting moments last forever, but was not able yet to shed/overcome those tensions between the eternal and the ephemeral.

[1] For a more extensive discussion of the invention process see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

[2] Qureshi, Sadiah. Peoples on Parade: exhibitions, empire and anthropology in nineteenth century Britain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 49.

Danger is: A Woman on the Street at Night

The recent release of the documentary India’s Daughter, about the brutal gang-rape and murder of the 23-year-old Jyoti in a bus in Delhi in 2012, prompted me to reconsider the freedom of women to walk around at night. In the documentary, a lawyer defending the rapists suggests that it was Jyoti’s own fault that she was raped, as she was outside on the street, after dark. Worldwide movements such as Take Back The Night, which organises night-time events across the world to draw attention to sexual violence, indicate that the night is still a dangerous time for women across the world to be out of doors.
The perceived danger of the night for women in particular is not just reinforced by news reports and documentaries, but also by fictional representations of violence against women. Cinema has from the outset portrayed the night as a time especially dangerous for women. Early Hitchcock films like The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929) feature women who are murdered and raped, respectively, when they walk around at night without a reliable man to protect them. A girl being chased through the woods at night is a staple of the slasher genre (see the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This trope has in more recent years also been adopted by other formats such as television: the opening episode of the first season of the Danish The Killing (Søren Sveistrup, 2007) shows the soon-to-be-murdered girl Nanne Birk Larsen running amongst the trees in her underwear.
The premise of the feature film American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) is wholly based on one man’s lust for violence, against women in particular. The 2014 horror film It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) used the ‘woman out at night on the street’ as a visual shorthand for danger and imminent attack in their marketing materials (Fig 1).
It is not just mainstream productions that utilise this trope: the French production Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) features a lengthy scene in which a woman is raped in a pedestrian subway after leaving a party in the middle of the night. And the Russian film Cargo 200 (Aleksey Balbanov, 2007) – loosely based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary – sees a young woman being raped with a vodka bottle, and subsequently kidnapped, after she dares to leave a nightclub with a boy she does not know very well.
All of these examples show that in film and television, a woman going out at night is always in danger of being attacked. Cultural historian Joanna Bourke recently argued that rape is used more and more as a plot device, which disregards the seriousness of the offence.[1] In combination with real-life examples of women being punished for going out after dark, the films mentioned above work to create a sense of peril for women, which pre-emptively limits their mobility. When you are constantly told and shown that going out at night is dangerous, you will think twice about risking it. The other side of the same coin is that if popular culture women being attacked at night is a common occurrence, it can perpetuate perpetrators’ beliefs that it is acceptable to engage in this behaviour. This skewed representation of women in public spaces at night do not do anyone a favour. Women’s needs and wishes of navigating the night are the same as those of men, but until the world after dark is safe for them both in reality and in representation, women will not be able to fulfil these needs.

it-follows

 Fig 1: UK poster for It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)



[1] Dr Joanna Bourke speaking on the Women of the World festival, as quoted on The Independent on 7 March 2015 ‘Use of rape as plot device is ‘shifting’ sympathy from victim to perpetrator, warns academic’ http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/use-of-rape-as-plot-device-is-shifting-sympathy-from-victim-to-perpetrator-warns-academic-10093655.html (accessed 14 April 2015)

Visiting the Ladies: Public Toilets on Film

Toilets are arguably the most marginalised of essential spaces in the modern world. Every human needs to urinate and defecate, and in the 21st century, most communities require purpose-built toilets to ensure that this relieving is hygienic. As I am writing this, I’m struggling to name the action: pooping and peeing – it feels unsavoury to use these direct terms. In a similar way, the act of going to the toilet is not commonly represented in written fiction or fiction films. Characters are only shown to be visiting the restroom if this has a narrative purpose. Otherwise, this common fact of life is usually elided from the story.
Although in recent years there has been increased interest, especially in the Western world, in making toilets unisex in order to accommodate people with non-heteronormative gender identities, the vast majority of toilets are still segregated for men and women. This gendering of the toilet space means that not all toilets are as marginal as others. The documentary Q2P (2006), made by Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra, makes this point very clear. The film investigates the public toilet provision in Mumbai and Delhi. Often there are more public toilets available for men than for women, or the male toilets are free whereas women’s are charged. But beyond this inequality at a practical level there is also cultural control: the women Vohra interviews say they are not comfortable going to public toilets, so they arrange their lives in ways that mean they do not need to ‘go’ in public facilities.
Vohra experiences not just the gendering of toilet space but also that of language about toilets: when she interviews some male officials about the public toilet provision in the area, they are uncomfortable with the way she directly addresses the issue. It is not seen as language fit for a woman to use. The language on bodily functions and women are not supposed to discuss them. The female street cleaners she asks about which toilets are available to them also respond with embarrassed laughter. Women are not supposed to use the public toilets, and they are not supposed to discuss them either.
A final striking aspect of Q2P is that, for all its talk about toilets, it actually very rarely shows the spaces itself. Only near the end of the documentary does the camera enter a female public toilet, panning swiftly inside a cubicle. The film overcomes the taboo of talking about toilets – and raises very real and important development issues in the process – but it cannot break through the final restriction and openly and unambiguously represent the female toilet space on film. When the camera finally enters the toilet, it is only for a brief shot and there is no-one actually using the toilet. It is just an anonymous hole in the ground, without any signifiers of its actual function.

You can watch the full documentary Q2P here.

Crime mapping: creating a false sense of security?

In recent years, two interactive maps have been published online which allows nyone to look up current crime rates in London. The Metropolitan Police launched their ‘Crime Mapping’ project in 2008; three years later the UK government backed the publication of a crime map of the whole of England and Wales, Police.uk. Both maps allow users to access recent crime data in any part of London. The Metropolitan Police’s map lets a user divide the city into boroughs, police wards and sub-wards, whereas the Police.uk map can be narrowed down to individual streets.
Both websites received press attention when they were launched. Although these articles debate the ‘pros and cons’ of the interactive maps, none seem to critically engage with the format or validity of the data provided. These maps are presumed to represent the ‘truth’, and not a socially constructed representation of the city that by its design highlights some aspects and obscures others. In the press, politicians and Metropolitan Police staff stated that maps like these would increase public safety, help communities to engage with the police, allow for a more accurate distribution of police resources and reduce public anxiety about crime.[1] The press also reported on concerns, both from politicians and the public. These included the fears that the anonymity of the victims of a crime would not be guaranteed, that housing prices would be reduced in areas which were reported to have ‘high crime’, and that inaccuracies or mistakes in the computer algorithm misrepresented actual crime rates.[2]
Despite the attention given to these potential issues with the maps, there has been no apparent questioning of the political implications of these crime maps; as long as the data is accurate and the privacy of victims is ensured, it is generally perceived as a positive development. This attitude does not acknowledge that maps have the potential to be used for political means. As Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn explain, maps can be ‘about social control and are usually created to serve the designs of their creators rather than to inform ‘the public’.’[3] The maps are presented as reflecting an absolute truth. However, like any map, these maps construct the London streets in a specific way. Both maps, for example, group types of crime in categories, ostensibly so that victims cannot be identified by the information provided. But by using categories it becomes less transparent which types of crime are included, and which are not. Moreover, the use of categories gives the impression that all groups of crime together represent the total amount of crime, but that is not necessarily the case.

Both maps are based on data from the last few months, creating a picture which is apparently as up-to-date as possible. In reality, using this short-term data can be misleading. Looking at the total crime rates for the ‘West End’ ward on the Metropolitan Police map, there appears to be a big increase from November to December. But when one compares it with last years’ figures, this increase between the months appears to be expected, and is perhaps caused by the influx of tourists and shoppers in the holiday season. This might be the biggest problem with these maps: they provide a snapshot of a situation in constant flux and little background on exactly how these figures are collected, or what the possible social causes of these criminal activities are. Rather than questioning which social circumstances lead people to committing crime, the maps present crime in the big city as a given, and as something that the general public has the right to be informed about. Readers of the map are not encouraged to see it as a cultural representation, which should be interpreted accordingly. There is consequently no regard for the notion that these maps can encourage stigmatisation of certain social groups or areas of the city.
Rather than reducing public anxiety about crime, these maps can actually increases such feelings by not distinguishing between long-term developments and short-term peaks or troughs. Instead of seeing them as websites which help the public be aware of crime rates and police activity, I would argue that these maps are political tools which present the city in a way that is far from objective, and should therefore be approached with scepticism.

[1] See ‘Street-level crime maps launched online’, BBC News website, published 1 February 2011: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12330078. Accessed 17 January 2015; Jemima Kiss, ‘How safe is your neighbourhood?’, Guardian website, published 15 August 2008: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/aug/15/digitalmedia.ukcrime. Accessed 17 January 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Daniel Dorling and David Fairbairn, Mapping: Ways of Representing the World, Harlow: Pearson, 1997, p. 65.

Tangier: The Hidden and The Intimate

OLLL

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013) juxtaposes the wide, industrialised cityscape of Detroit with the narrow, winding roads of Tangier. This covered alleyway gives a sense of intimacy and privacy, which is at odds with ideas about the city as a lonely, alienating place. In Tangier the material reality of the city intimately surrounds the lovers as they go on their way. At the same time, the highly structured nature of the city dictates their available routes. They cannot go in direct lines, but instead are forced to take detours, which lead them to both pleasant and unpleasant unexpected encounters. This old Moroccan town is full of hidden corners and doors behind which treasures hide. The staircases and passageways force characters Adam and Eve to explore the city by foot, even when they are exhausted. The city is demanding, but also rewarding, for example by allowing Adam to witness a performance by singer Yasmine Hamdan, whom he finds ‘too good to become famous.’
The walls of the town are crumbling, yet in the graffiti and the hand-made electrical wiring there are also markers of modern living, however haphazardly they are implemented. The name of the café in which Eve’s friend Marlowe stays references the mystical stories of the 1001 Arabian nights, but it is a modern coffee house.  The layers of history show in Tangier, in a way that is denied by modern industrial cities with their constant renewal and re-construction. In all these ways Tangier is opposed to Detroit, with its open spaces and wide motorways, which make it almost necessary to navigate the city by car. It is a lonely place, but also one full of freedom and possibility. In these ways, the cities both reflect the different histories of North Africa and the US, and the different internal lives of Eve and Adam respectively. Eve is warm and full of love, whereas Adam is desolate and solitary. The movement of the action in the film from Detroit to Tangier mirrors the movement of the balance of their relationship. Adam’s depression initially defines the relationship, but staying in Tangier lifts his misanthropic attitude, as the lovers decide to continue ‘living’. The cities are thus both reflections of the characters, and characters in their own right. They define what Adam and Eve can do, but also how their inner selves operate.