Review of: Grierson, Elizabeth and Kristen Sharp, editors. Re-Imagining the City: Art, Globalization and Urban Spaces. Intellect, 2013. 288 pages. ISBN: 9781841507316.
Come let us make bricks
And burn them hard
We’ll build a city
With a tower for the world
Brett Gurewitz, “Skyscraper”
There is no small irony in the neoliberal city’s reversal of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Whereas the Tower’s destruction was said to have led to the scattering of the world’s people, the move towards planetary urbanization and the concomitant construction of global cities has disembedded and deterritorialized localized cultures in favour of a more sanitized and homogeneous universal culture of the kind that is more readily transmitted across data networks, packaged for resale, and duplicated in advertising. A modular culture vibrant in colour and energy but in which the smog and acid rain of the past have given way to multicoloured islands of plastic detritus floating in our oceans. Post-industrial cities have shed their manufacturing districts, or rather, have transplanted them to other regions of the globe where they remain conveniently within reach but tastefully out of sight.
This is the context from which Re-imagining the City: Art, Globalization and Urban Spaces proceeds, taking up the contingent relationship between culture and the urban—even as aesthetic practices are shaped by urban space, so too do they occupy, modify, challenge, and ultimately re-imagine the spaces out of which they emerge. The editors situate their book within the context of a globalized world, in which transnational communications networks and flows of capital have had a transformational effect on both urban space and creative practice. Art, the editors hope, can provide an inroad towards re-imagining and reconsidering the all too comfortable myths of inexorable progress by making plain the tensions and contradictions between our understanding of urban space and the aesthetic practices that engage with it.
Re-Imagining the City seeks to provide a multidisciplinary examination of a variety of artistic interventions in, and interrogations of broadly defined conceptions of, urban space within the context of globalization. While the book is interested in globalization, its scope is not quite global insofar as the sites it takes up are located to a significant degree in Australia, specifically, and to a lesser degree in the Asia-Pacific region. The editors foreground this focus in the introductory chapter, noting that of the scant books that have focused on the intersections of art, globalization, and urbanism, most have been primarily interested in interventions located in the trans-Atlantic region.
The book is divided into theme chapters. “Art and Urban Space” collects essays that take up the question of where cultural production fits within the urban environment. Malcolm Miles’s “Art and Culture: The Global Turn” serves as a crucial access point to the book itself, tying culture, art, and economics together in an evocation of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that “space serves and hegemony makes use of it” (Lefebvre 11).
The second section, “Transforming Spaces and Experiences of the City” considers the ways in which artistic practices can reframe and transform the quotidian experience of city life. The embodied experience of traffic and travel are the focus of the first two chapters in this section, which are followed by Maggie McCormick’s application of the concept of Rhythmanalysis to the works of Ai Weiwei and Hou Hanru in arguing that the transient nature of the city produces an urban mindscape—that is, a consciousness of urbanness.
“Exchange and Transaction” is the third section of the book and is preoccupied with responses to the shifting relationships of exchange that arise out of the urban space. Pamela Zepelin’s “The Liquid Continent” examines the relational character of art and culture in Oceania and the South Pacific. Les Morgan considers the performance of negotiated identity and marginality as a site of protest in “Abdul Abdullah: Art, Marginality and Identity.” Finally, Kevin Murray takes up the offshoring of manufacturing and production through the lens provided by an interrogation of the relationship between designers and artists in “The Visible Hand: An Urban Accord for Outsourced Craft.”
The last section, entitled “Interventions in Public Space,” features articles on aesthetic challenges to myths about the relationship between the state, urban space, and the larger world. SueAnne Ware’s “Border Memorials: When the Local Rejects the Global” features an account of “anti-memorials” which give testimony to the fates of refugees and undocumented workers while also throwing into question societal expectations surrounding conceptions of nationality and what Judith Butler has termed “grievable lives” (41). Elizabeth Grierson’s chapter on Singapore’s Elephant Parade considers the relationship between activism, art, ecology, and business interests. Grierson sees the interlinking of these narratives and interests as a means to bring together ecological conservation and urban consumer cultures.
The book’s final chapter, Chris Hudson’s “Cities as Limitless Spaces of Simultaneity and Paradox,” considers the role that aesthetic practices have in producing and interpreting urban spaces. Hudson’s chapter takes up the representation of urban space in the works of various artists and groups including Charles Dickens, Liu Na’ou, Mao Tun, and Rimini Protokoll in the production of an urban space that is ultimately a space of difference, multiplicity, and contingency, a space that inherently problematizes totalizing conceptions of itself.
The wide net the editors cast in collecting critical responses to a diversity of artworks provides a particularly rich overview of aesthetic practices and the spaces they critique or create. For that fact alone Re-Imagining the City has a great deal to offer. The book is multidisciplinary, transgressing the borders between such fields of inquiry as art, art history, philosophy, architecture, geography, media, urban studies, communications, and cultural theory. The aesthetic practices covered in the book are varied and include both mainstream exhibitions and tactical interventions in the realms of installation art, mobile gaming, squatting, visual art, design, and architecture. Theories of the urban are applied to actual aesthetic practices in interesting and original ways, often producing a reciprocal relationship in which art helps to elucidate theory and theory demystifies art. However, other than Hudson’s reference to Rimini Protokoll in the concluding section of the book’s final chapter, considerations of performance seem to be conspicuously absent from the book, which I would have thought to be particularly fertile aesthetic ground for interrogating daily life in the city.
University of Toronto
Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable. Verso Books, 2016.
Gurewitz, Brett. “Skyscraper.” Recipe for Hate, Epitaph, 1993.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.