A list of things I wanted to include in a blog post about lists

My application for British Citizenship paperwork has been collecting in piles on my kitchen table since Brexit was little more than a glint in a politician’s eye. It requires me to be an excellent archivist of self. It includes sections for listing the last five years of trips into and out of the UK; family history; the last ten years of employment history et al. I’m not an excellent archivist. I’m forever almost completing the form. The Home Office seems to issue a new and improved version of the form each time I come close and I have to begin the listing process all over again.

The presence of so many lists, unbound and semi-finished, written and re-written, makes me strongly aware of all the lists in my life. They call to each other, replicating, and turning my kitchen into their ideal habitat by force of numbers. They flutter on post-its, the backs of scrap paper and old envelopes, bits of cardboard. Lists of characters and their motivation for my fiction writing; lists of books to read; to-do lists; shopping lists.

I’ve become obsessed with lists. I bought a book by Umberto Eco all about lists in art and literature. Followed by a book about lost and found shopping lists. I’ve been collecting articles about historical lists and I even started listing all the things I found while trawling the internet in our Ephemera Online section.

The truth is I’ve also been meaning to write a piece of sustained prose about lists for some time now, but all I’ve managed to generate are further lists. So I’ve decided to let form be informed by content. Here’s a list of all the things I wanted to include in my piece about lists, which, a bit like my application for citizenship, I can never quite seem to complete:

  • Kinds of lists I want to write about: shopping lists. Other types of list. Are all lists shopping lists?
  • The aesthetics of the shopping list – visual culture and lists. Visual lists. Eco. Ciphers. Symbols. Barthes.
  • Lists in the movies; lists as plot device. Who writes the lists? Why?
  • Shopping lists as writing:
    • Shopping lists as journals – private writing. Private lists in public places – the mall/market
    • Everyday writing – ephemeral and domestic. The everyday.
    • Gendered writing: Over 70% of female shoppers are likely to carry lists. Only 59% of male shoppers do – find where you found this statistic! UK? US? Is this the same everywhere?
    • Cultures of lists. Consumerism and archives. Is a receipt a list? ‘Retain for your records’. Self as curator and archivist. Shopping as writing or defining. Foucault??
  • Shopping lists as ephemeral history:
    • The shopping list they found under the floorboards in an old stately home (find that article…)
    • Cities as lists. Bureaucracies. The postal service. Codes and coding.
  • Lost and found shopping lists
  • The meaning of the space between the list items. Shorthand. Handwriting. Back to the private/public thing
  • Scrap all of the above and simply do a detailed textual and visual analysis of the shopping list below (found stuck to a tub of humous in a shop in Bloomsbury):

 

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Maybe this list will one day become a fully-fledged blog post. Or maybe I can no longer think in prose, only list form, which is a kind of banal poetry. Until then, I hope the intellectual shopping list above — with its ideas half-way formed, not quite yet purchased — gives anyone who has ever thought deeply about lists (shopping or otherwise) some food for thought.

NOTE: If the list pictured above belongs to you, tweet us and we’ll credit you!

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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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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Jonas Mekas’ ‘Diaries, Notes & Sketches’: City Chamber Music

A little while ago we looked at the city symphony on this blog. This got me thinking about how we could use the term to think about the American Avant-Garde film movement. More specifically, how the term could relate to Jonas Mekas, and his 1969 film Diaries, Notes & Sketches a.k.a Walden. The film is essentially made up of six reels of home-video footage that plays out like a stream of consciousness, a collection of impressions in high zoom. The often jittering visuals, which fluctuate between slow and static and chaotic and sped up, make for a viewing experience that is both tense and nostalgic at the same time.
This diary of city life has a lot in common with the city symphonies of early cinema. Most obviously perhaps, the film has no clear narrative structure. Instead it focuses on the ebbs and flows of urban life. The film even invokes the silent tradition using text inserts. There are also remarkable similarities to Dziga Vertov’s city symphony Man with a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929). The film plays with the notion of linear time. As Man with a Movie Camera takes place over a day in the city, Diaries, Notes & Sketches is seasonal, charting an elemental year in the city, including snowfall, leaves, and rain. The birth of a baby boy (announced by an intertitle as the birth of Blake Sitney) has its parallel in the birth scene at the beginning of Man with a Movie Camera, and the footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in their famous bed towards the end of the film is reminiscent of the opening scenes in Vertov’s masterpiece that show the moment before the city (metaphorically and literally) wakes up. However, crucial differences are immediately obvious – the positioning of the birth and bed moments towards the end of the film symbolically turns the Man with a Movie Camera on its head. Diaries, Notes & Sketches is in dialogue with this cinematic tradition and subversive of it.
The classical overtures and piano concertos we might associate with the soundtracks to the city symphony films (played as a live accompaniment and constantly changing) are still present in Diaries, Notes & Sketches but are supplemented by everyday sounds such as radio static and the tapping of typewriter keys, as well as Mekas’ own voice-over. These audio-visual allusions to the printed word and to the man behind the camera evoke hand-written diaries and journals, and play on the traditional role of the diarist as an archivist of urban daily life. Diaries, Notes & Sketches can thus be thought of less as a symphony and more like chamber music – performed on a hand-held Bolex camera. The film’s visual music is in its editing, which oscillates between ponderous languor and breakneck speed. Like any good piece of classical music, it has moments of crescendo and moments of stillness and diminuendo.
Unlike many city symphonies that bring a kind of geometric visual order to urban chaos, and thus attempt to grasp the city, the style of observation of Diaries does not pretend to own or know the city space. The viewing experience mirrors the experience of using an editing table: fast-forward, isolate an individual shot, linger over it, cut, and continue. The camera’s is not the proprietary gaze of modernity and progress, but rather a furtive peek from an upstairs window into a confusing melee. The gaze in Diaries is also nostalgic somehow. We are reminded that New York does not belong to this diarist: Mekas immigrated to the United States in the 1940s from Lithuania. The film is peppered with intertitles referring to some distant and elusive notion of ‘home.’ Titles like: ‘thinking of home’ or ‘I thought of home.’ Longing becomes a daily activity, a habit just like riding the bus. Thus, rather than isolate the migrant experience, the film seems to universalise it. This is also true on the level of visuals. The speed of the editing rhythms and the constantly twitching camera mean that habitual actions never become habit. The viewer is constantly positioned as an outsider, adjusting to a strange, psychedelic experience: the experience of watching the city through a kaleidoscope. The camera is placed on public transport and takes journeys at strange speeds that distort time – twice sped up, once on the mode of transport and then again in the editing room. The images now whizz past so quickly that they appear superimposed. Commuters become geometric shapes, impressions rather than people. This implies that a city is beyond ownership, beyond citizenship and beyond property – we are all just passing through its streets. Diaries, Notes & Sketches makes no distinction between the citizen and the migrant or tourist. Instead it invites us to read the city as a travelling space. New York, and by extension any metropolis, turns us all into migrants – on the subway, in cars, buses, and thoroughfares – constantly on the move.
And in this chaos, there are spaces that remind us of what it feels like to be at home. In a sense then, the film becomes a symphony only when it dwells in the private sphere. Everyday objects (dinner plates, books, household implements) are shot in extreme close-up, with a focus on texture and geometry. This layering of texture is the visual counterpart to leafing through a family album or touching clothes left hanging in a wardrobe after someone’s passing. Private moments are juxtaposed to public experiences – dinnertime and bedtime reading are intercut with wedding scenes, walks in the park, flashbacks to protests in the streets, and newspapermen selling public events. The private dimension of this lived urban experience is visually grounding and gives the viewer solid, stable points of reference in the moving city. The camera rests in enclosed, intimate spaces after it rushes through the streets. Long sequences are shot in private rooms, looking out into the public sphere at a remove.
Nature is also an important visual theme for Mekas, and in the context of the film seems to be associated with childhood experiences, stability, and home. It can be read as symbolic of a return to innocence. The final sequences of the film take the viewer out of the built-up city streets and into a wide-open green space, evocative of a trip to the country. We watch in close-up as bare feet walk through green grass. And then we return to a private interior, missing out the city streets altogether. Private spaces are linked to nature – with their tiny windowsill gardens that are made to appear as large as Central Park as they are filmed in extreme close-up, their window-box flowers taller than trees.
The film begins and ends on the diarist in his private room. The banal and quotidian is thus elevated to the status of the grandiose and exceptional. Mekas raises personal memories to the status of public memorials. Private gardens become as important as public parks. Form and content seem to reflect each other: this personal history of the city runs counter to national narratives and is told in a cinematic form counter to national cinema (i.e. Hollywood). Diaries, Notes & Sketches is less a symphony performed in a concert hall, and more quiet music playing in a private room – a symphony to private space.

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Tourism, Un-knowing, and Wim Wenders’ ‘Im Lauf der Zeit’ (1976)

The BBC recently ran an article about a Wim Wenders’ photography exhibition, showcasing roadside architectures and desolate landscapes. [1] The images, snapshots taken at various points on an itinerary known only to the photographer that took them, reminded me of a film (by the same author): Wim Wenders’ Im Lauf der Zeit (1976). Wenders himself has given interviews and written widely on the theme of film as architecture.[2] Wenders’ visual obsession with cities and their peripheries is therefore well documented. But for the purposes of this blog entry I am not interested in the cities themselves, but in the hyphens that run between them: roads, and the modes of transport that create trajectories between them. I take a look at these hyphens, to explore tourism and travel in Im Lauf der Zeit. It seems fitting that the look (this blog entry) should be, like the act of tourism itself, a short, sharp glance, a snapshot taken from a car window, a moment captured on a journey.
As Bruno Winter travels along the border between the then West and East Germany, moving from picture house to picture house, repairing projectors, he takes us with him, through a fluid architecture, the gradually unfolding expanses of small towns and cities. The camera visits and explores abandoned places and in-between spaces: petrol stations, out-posts, train stations, public toilets and disused quarries. There is always the awareness of a border, of inhabiting the spaces in between. The title itself, ‘In the course of time’ suggests being caught up in a flow, a current.
Visual journeys are frequently metaphors for journeys of the soul. The natural expectation that comes with a genre like the road movie is one of change, growth brought about by cumulative experience. The fact that Bruno travels in a removal van, labelled ‘Umzüge’[3], is further suggestive of change and development. The film invites us to draw parallels between the travelling duo Bruno and Lander, and the way-faring apprentices of the German Lyric tradition. This is a tradition Wenders had referenced earlier in his adaptation of Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahr, his film Falsche Bewegung (1975). We recall Goethe and the German literary tradition of the Bildungsroman (roughly translatable as a coming-of-age story). The reference to literature is heightened by the use of shots in which roads and tracks crisscross the screen. We are invited to read the film, to scan the roads by following the vehicles that traverse them, like fluid sentences, punctuated by toilet breaks, food stops, and pauses for refuelling.
But these expectations are only evoked to be subverted. The final scene of the film invites the audience to view this inverted, almost perverse Bildungsroman as an unlearning. When Bruno’s travelling companion Lander befriends a young boy who is writing in his notebook, the return to a naïve kind of looking is made explicit. Film Studies scholar Daniela Berghahn, referencing this particular scene, calls this kind of looking the ‘unverstellte “Kinderblick”’. ‘Unverstellt’ has the meaning here of being straightforward, undisguised, open. The term ‘Kinderblick’, means child’s gaze. [4] The focus is on the moment rather than the future and the outward image of things rather than their hidden meanings; the literal versus the lateral.
In this attempt at a return to childhood, Im Lauf der Zeit can be read as a cinematic Bildungsroman in reverse – in which we move into a state of un-knowing. A state in which signifiers – images – become just that: images. Life has no overarching meaning. The film takes us on a journey of un-discovery. To borrow from the work of the architects and theorists writing in The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space, Wenders is making the world ‘strangely familiar,’[5] or, perhaps more accurately, he is making the familiar strange. Travel becomes an apparatus, a passage through which the viewer can pass and reach the other side: un-knowing. Tourism can achieve this because there are no habitual actions any more, no habitual activities in places that are familiar to us. The only habit is leaving. The traveller in her car, train, motorcycle or boat (and all these modes of transport are used by the protagonists of the film), behaves like a perpetually moving cinematic lens – zooming in and, before focusing, zooming out again.

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[1]The article and a selection of exhibition photographs can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-34266916
[2] For collected writings and interviews, see Wim Wenders: On Film. Essays and Conversations (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), especially ”Find myself a city to live in – conversation with Hans Kollhoff,” 394-402.
[3]‘Umzüge’ can be translated as ‘removals’ or ‘relocations’.
[4](Translation mine). The discussion is fascinating and can be found here: Berghahn, Daniela, ‘“Leben…ein Blick genügt doch”: Der utopische Augenblick in Wim Wenders ‘road movies’”, Monatshefte vol. 91 no. 1 (Spring 1999) http://www.jstor.org/stable/30153762, accessed 22 September 2015.
[5] Iain Borden, Joe Kerr, Jane Rendell and Alicia Pivaro, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), x.

On Travel, Cities, and Ghosts

Travel makes cities. As people, goods, and ideas flow in and out, a series of arrivals and departures allows traces to form and aggregate – the ephemeral gives birth to a site of geographical permanence.  It is this, the motion of travel as well as its sites, the ephemeral in the city, which Charles Harbutt succeeds in capturing in his book of photographs: Departures and Arrivals. [1]
Harbutt once described the photograph as a ‘blink’ in human perception[2]. In this book he turns his artificial blinking eye on traces and textures in the city. He captures travel itself. The camera examines interiors and exteriors of modes of transport: trains, carts, and automobiles. Harbutt also photographs the in-between spaces associated with travel, places of liminality and flux: doorways, vacated chairs, road crossings, stairways, and (with a wry smile) the interior of a funeral parlour – a photograph I will return to in more detail below.
Many of the images are out-of-focus, grainy texture-scapes, or photographs of people and places mirrored in reflective surfaces. They are photographs of ghosts. One particularly remarkable image (entitled Englishtown, New Jersey, 1987) [3]looks like a superimposition of a human shadow on a landscape distorted by motion-blur.[4]
Harbutt photographs that which, in the moment immediately after the close of the shutter, and possibly even during its blink, is already barely there, elusive, escaping, gone. Perhaps paradoxically, by capturing journeys, Harbutt hints at permanence. And he does this precisely by dwelling on that which is ephemeral. Each image is a tightrope walk between death and immortality.
The photograph in the book which most powerfully expresses this concern with passage and permanence – and evokes an intriguing reading of the urban condition – is an image of a funeral service. The caption in the book’s image index labels it: Italy, 1989.[5] The photograph is developed as a kind of enlarged contact sheet. It consists of three individual shots or (to put it in more Harbuttian terms) three stages in one photographic journey. The first image depicts two out-of-focus, empty chairs in the interior of a funeral parlour, further blurred by burnt-out artefacts on the film and a curious light pattern that flows across the frame-divide into the next shot. Here we see an open casket. An elderly man mourns an elderly woman. The third and final shot is a close-up of the body in the casket. The focus is on a bouquet beside the coffin. The body of the deceased is blurry and soft – an impression, a wisp rather than a cadaver.  The blurring and light artefacts that Harbutt has taken care to retain in the final image may have come about as a result of the film development process or they may have occurred in-camera. However they came to be there, they hint at the movement of light – they are visual ghosts, literally haunting the final image. One early use of the photographic medium was the attempt to capture evidence of ghostly presences in haunted houses. When combined with Harbutt’s subject – a death, a passing – the presence of smoky chimeras on the photographic paper seems to deliberately allude to this history. The visual ghosts are a clear reference to death and the metaphysical. However, less literally and more importantly, they allow the viewer to think of the photograph itself as the point of permanence in the exchange between the human being and the capture of reality. The image is not the ghost: we are. The shot is the material proof we leave behind of our existence.
We have previously in this blog mentioned the salt photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot. For Talbot, the photograph was a ghostly reminder of the real. In a lecture he gave at the NYU in 1970, Harbutt recalled Talbot’s description of photographs as ‘…fairy images, creations of a moment, destined to fade away…’[6] For Harbutt, however, the very opposite of this is true. [7] The photographs themselves are lasting. They are the afterimages of passing that remain. In the same speech, Harbutt cited the words of Talbot’s wife, describing the camera as a ‘mousetrap’. ‘Photographers’, he said, expanding on this idea, ‘are trappers – reality trappers.’[8]
Reading the city through Harbutt’s images by way of this notion, we can think of the urban space itself as a kind of photograph. At the same time, we can read the city in motion as a camera, a reality trap. Harbutt’s focus on texture and surface when he shoots hotel vitrines in Mexico, brick walls in New Jersey, or the concrete flatness of a parking lot in Merida, Yucatán, invites us to think of the metropolis as a light-sensitive emulsion on which we leave behind the traces of our trajectories through time. The city is both a photograph and a camera – a mousetrap for ghostly voyages, literal and metaphorical. When describing the cities that we inhabit, we often speak of our usual ‘haunts’. When Harbutt describes the city as an image, he captures this haunting.

P.S. Sadly, Charles Harbutt passed away on the 30th of June this year. As I look through this album of spectral departures and arrivals, in cities around the world – the remains of a presence now gone – I mentally wish him bon voyage.

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[1] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, Damiani, Bologna: 2012.
[2] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer”, speech given at NYU, Spring 1970, transcript, Visura Magazine, http://www.visuramagazine.com/charles-harbutt-unconcerned, accessed 17 August 2015.
[3] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 90.
[4] I believe the superimposition is not a photographer’s trick but that it was captured in-camera, a reflection on the glass surface of a train window.
[5] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 87.
[6] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”
[7] Mara Arts has made the observation that, while both Talbot and Harbutt were working with photography, Talbot’s salt photographs really did fade with time. The difference between their views of photography is thus more than a conceptual quirk – it is one resulting from a changing medium, photography itself in flux.
[8] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”

 

 

‘L’ordre’ (1973): Spinalonga and the Utopia of Wellness

Last week I focused on the rehabilitation of the island Spinalonga, and the themes of time, space, and memory. Writing on these subjects reminded me of an essay film by Jean-Daniel Pollet that explores related ideas of mortality, spatial organisation, and illness as difference on Spinalonga. L’ordre (1973) is a poetic and philosophical exploration of the island, shot almost entirely as a travelling POV (sometimes fast-moving, sometimes still and contemplative). It depicts the spaces of Spinalonga proper, as well as the outhouses and corridors of a compound for leprosy sufferers on the outskirts of the Greek capital, Athens. Images of deteriorating spaces, ruinous landscapes, and dilapidated architectures are interwoven with black and white archive footage. A voice-over narrates the experiences of the inhabitants. The archival footage includes several excerpts from an interview with a man named Raimondakis, a leper and long-time inhabitant of Spinalonga. Raimondakis’ story alternates with old footage of Spinalonga’s unwell inhabitants.[1] In his interview Raimondakis makes several interesting statements that contextualise the documentary itself as well as allowing us to think differently about the idea of sickness in society and the organisation of space in cities and other smaller communities.

‘When’, asks the voice-over,[2] ‘does one become a leper? When one contracts the disease? No. Surely one becomes a leper when it becomes visible.’ Our social architecture, our definitions of the sick and the healthy, are predicated on visual difference. Our notion of ‘sickness’ is superficial, frequently based on limited understanding and prejudice. Raimondakis speaks of the ‘betrayal’[3] of filmmakers and photographers who visited Spinalonga and its captives, who took photographs or shot cases and cases of film. Quite apart from ethical questions associated with the documentary and anthropological gaze, it is the act of looking, in the context of Raimondakis’ words, that determined his own ‘sickness’, that categorised him as unfit, that designated him as different. The act of looking was the moment of betrayal, the moment of difference; the moment at which he was seen (in his own words) as a ‘different species’ of person.[4] Looking, therefore, is treated with suspicion, as a kind of original sin in L’ordre. Pollet’s camera does observe – but it seeks to evade human faces, and instead watches space or darkness. The film theorises the documentary gaze as clinical and cruel – a gaze that labels and separates. In an attempt to restore dignity to the people of Spinalonga, Pollet becomes an architectural anthropologist. The film’s extreme close-ups of building textures bring to mind anthropological sketches, or the cell samples and bacterial cultures common in anatomy. They also create an unavoidable visual analogy between leprosy and decay, an analogy between the human body and the buildings it inhabits.

Raimondakis’ speech is full of the language of spatial segregation. He defines his world in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ill and the healthy, the lepers and social order. Pollet’s camera reflects this linguistic idiosyncrasy by focussing on gates, closed doors, barricades, shutters, window bars, and walls – all of these constructions are also constructs, dividing lines, representing in architecture the need to keep people in and keep illness out. These borders, and with them law and order, are imposed on the sick by the healthy. Until 1957, leprosy was a badly misunderstood malady, and social space was organised in accordance with this fundamental misunderstanding. How contagion occurs is now better understood. As notions of the disease have changed, so too have the spaces in which it is treated.

The film thus demands that we interrogate the notion of health, of sickness, and of how far we are willing to go to protect the well. While Raimondakis affirms that Spinalonga was a positive solution that gave lepers autonomy, allowing them to take back control of their own spaces, he also sagely warns us about the dangers that lurk behind society’s need (especially prevalent in modern cities) to protect the healthy and imprison the sick. Our mentally ill citizens, the elderly, and the infirm, frequently live out their lives in institutions, behind closed doors. While this is often unavoidable, and, in many cases the best available solution for those with serious health problems, Spinalonga asks us to rethink how our social spaces are structured and to interrogate the deep-seated beliefs this structuring of space implies. Raimondakis speaks of looking at the ill as ‘phenomena’, examples, a different breed of human being. By compartmentalising our city spaces, this thinking, the idea of the patient as Other, becomes physically entrenched. We place barriers and blockades around spaces designated only for the healthy. And yet, as the voice-over cautions, ‘what we define as health is becoming more and more specific and harder and harder to protect.’[5] In Pollet’s film, Spinalonga is what lies behind the velvet curtain of the utopia of wellness – health is a lonely island, ultimately a non-place. By the end of the film, the islet is no longer synonymous with contagion, isolation, and death. The cracks in the skin of the buildings on Spinalonga are not the scars of leprosy – rather they are fissures in our thinking, the cracks in our notion of health itself.

– Sandra Bekvalac

[1] The footage looks much older than the other scenes. It is deteriorated and shows conditions of living and treatment that seem to belong to the early years of the leper colony. However it is difficult to date the footage with certainty, or even to say whether it was shot by Pollet, though no other filmmaker is credited.
[2] I believe the voice over is Pollet reading words attributed to Raimondakis – however I cannot be sure of this as no context is given. Two writers are credited, though what they wrote is unclear. This blurring of the lines between director, writer, and subject is, in itself, a strategy that allows L’ordre to blur the boundary between the healthy and the sick.
[3] Translation mine.
[4] Translation mine.
[5] Translation mine.