StadtLAge 2006 revisited

Johann Haslauer
Cities are individuals

Presentation at the Calgary Conference

Cities are individuals

StadtLage Revisited 2006. Presentation at the annual Conference of the Western Humanities Alliance at the University of Calgary, Canada Oct. 19-21 2006 on “What is a City?”

Johann Haslauer, Neue Galerie Landshut, Germany

Cities are Individuals

Collective Identity and Subjectivity in the Urban Context*

The globalisation-shift brings about the hypothesis of the planet being a hyper-complex entity with inner qualities, which/who can so far only be described in terms of philosophical and psychological projections. Cities are markstones for this trend towards social compression and the phenomenon of a “collective identitiy”.

In my presentation I’m showing eight city masks to illustrate eight theses about the city with the central idea that cities are individuals with a collective identity and dispositions for a collective subjectivity. What we see on these masks are city plans (or parts of it), giving the impression of a face. The word “mask” comes from Arabian “maschera” – witty disguise. Masks played a crucial role in the Venetian carnival as a device to hide one’s personality. For me these masks are a positive representation for personality – (the Latin word for “mask” is “persona”) –, a symbol for the vision, that city as a whole has a kind of personal character.

The idea that a city is an individual is not new and was common among German geographers in the early 20th century, as it was common to regard a people as an individual, a kind of meta-being, a kind of „kollektives Dasein“, to put it into philosophical terms of that era. So we see: we have to be careful with metaphors – but why not use them as tools of understanding? To illustrate some of the topics we are talking about I’ll put in some works from an exhibition of contemporary art, dealing with the city phenomenon, the project “StadtLAge” I was curating together with Franz Schneider back in my hometown Landshut.

Approaches: The arts and the city

The question put up by this conference is: what is a city? Which approach /approximation can the arts take for a city investigation? There are different ones in the different areas, where the arts have dealt with the city phenomenon. To begin with I want to make a claim for a “Philosophy of the city”. A few things have been said about the city throughout history of philosophy: the equation city – state in the platonic universe, as each city was a state of its own in ancient Greece, the organic-metaphorical use of a collective body in early Christian theory; – there are many hints, but only a few efforts towards a philosophy of the city.
But: A more complex view of the city asks for a corresponding attitude, a philosophical focus; the arts can provide tools for that.


Thesis #1: Cities are bodies

Thesis #1: Cities are bodies, as we see on the map on this Venetian mask showing Amsterdam in the 17th century with its rings of growth. Bodies, identified from the outside as complex material objects. And they meet some standards of living systems and metabolic organisms: they grow, react, shrink, and die.

Cities are „Specially integrated economic & social system at a given location“, geographers say – and among distinctive marks we find condensation of human activities, a market situation shown here with the StadtLage-Installation by Daniel Bräg: an irritating comment on the market-function of the city, for there is nothing being offered on the shelves. Then there is a spiritual sphere, a sphere of power etc. and forms of collective self representation and self image promotion.

And there is the dichotomy “inside – outside”, a contrast between the city and its surrounding, which has been changing at an enormous pace in the last century with the possibilities of modern transportation technology. The whole global sphere is turning into a urban sphere where the traditional city is disintegrating.

Philosophical approach

Let’s step back for a while. In the course of evolution the net of coordinated ganglia is condensating and forms knots to speed up evolution to even higher complexity. So evolutionary epistemologists would say, the city is an open community of cognition (offene Erkenntnisgemeinschaft) with the intention to stay alive and grow and finally form an even bigger entity: the global urban sphere. As Teilhard de Chardin and his idea of the noossphere state, that has inspired me in its evolutionary attitude..


Thesis #2: Cities have an “Inside” – both physically and mentally

The mask is showing Berlin after World War II – the East and West sectors are structuring a divided city.

Thesis #2: Cities have an “Inside” – both physically and mentally. The “inside” could be all what’s within the boarders of the city, it could also be what’s happening between people in the city, it could also be what’s in the mind of one (or several, or all…) citizen or also in a documentation concerning the city. But there might be many more signs of evidence, connecting to a net of interacting evidences. And there are diverse strata: density of population, traffic streams, profiles of the use of different media, voting profile.

But there are more strata: economic structures, historical layers, communication movements in forms of interests’ associations’ activities, telephone call and mail profiles etc. Life in its nuances as only literature can describe it in adequate complexity.

Approaches through literature

We all know about the access of poets and writers who shared their view and their ideas about their special city like Döblin’s Berlin, Joyce’s Dublin, to name just two examples – and we have heard about many others in this conference. They are mirroring the “insides” of their cities they’re dealing with, down to the sensual spheres of smells and sounds.
One example from the StadtLAge project: artist Raimund Reiter’s etching “Red City” is dealing with moods in his blurred flurry perception of a dangerous and hostile urban environment, inspired by Alfred Kubin’s novel “The other side”.


Thesis #3: Cities are structured in many ways

Venice is shown with its boroughs in different colours.

Thesis #3: Cities are structured in many ways; there is a centre, there are zones, grids of streets etc. Bigger cities are divided into boroughs and these again into neighbourhoods; each of them providing individual performances again and individual “insides”.

Architectural approaches
Another art category in the classical sense is architecture. This year’s theme of the Architectural Biennale of Venice is «Mega Cities«, confronting us with a frightening reality:

But also our StadtLAge had integrated this aspect with the photo work of Yukara Shimitsu: views of her home”town” Tokyo.


Thesis #4: Cities do perceive an image of their own being through reflections about it, manifested in views and models

The city centre of Landshut, Germany, founded in 1204 and capital of Lower Bavaria, – what would be called a traditional European town

Thesis #4: Cities do perceive an image of their own being through reflections about it, manifested in views and models. Reflections to be shared and communicated, opening the horizon for collective self-awareness.

The image-making of the city has a long history. Logos like coat of arms, city symbols on coins, early maps, views of townscapes, models were serving for orientation and representation. A highlight in the Renaissance is Barbari’s Bird’s Eye View from 1500, the beginning of a series of townscape prints, which gave the visitors a chance to find their way around and the city dwellers a chance to have a look at their town from a distance and so to see it as a whole. The arts are coming up as a mode to attempt world-understanding and orientation.

In psychological terms a reflexive self-relation is the basis for identity, and that could be projected to the collective level: the individuals see themselves as interwoven parts of the city. In the case of Landshut: “We, the town vs. the dukes up there”. And it was the self-confident pride of city dwellers in the middle ages, which let them build magnificent churches, but also these city walls for their protection. The feeling to be part of a bigger whole grew (and still grows) even stronger in cases of threatening and death – we remember the flooded City of New Orleans, and we remember New York’s 9/11, when everybody in this city thought “I am offended!” But has this wound changed the city? Can we measure reactions? We could see an organism act – or better: react –, could hear the whisper of fear and anger, could feel uncertainty and defiance, but also hear and read expressions of a belief in oneself to stay firm and keep on going. But the collective identity idea to me didn’t appear in the analyses of historians and writers throughout the 5-year-memorial of the attack. As if it wasn’t N.Y., that had been hit, but more so the American nation, capitalist economy and western civilisation.

Approach through traditional fine arts

When the town of Landshut celebrated its 800th jubilee in 2004, the Neue Galerie asked its artists for their reflections of the city. And though this is announced Gallery for contemporary arts, there were still many of the roundabout 20 artists, using traditional methods like etching, sculpture or photography. Here we see  transformation at work with a wooden sculpture on a private balcony by Angelika Hoegerl. And there were also installations in public space, there was an internet poll and video works – as shown by these video stills from Doris Würgert’ work “Please step back”, a video dealing with indoor public spaces in Landshut. 

For me as a curator in central focus was the active recipient to co-generate the project as a process, connecting subjective city-dispositions. But this didn’t work. The visitors saw the artwork, they said something like “how nice, but what has it to do with Landshut?” Maybe we should have given the visitors a hand and name categories like: Inside / outside, space, time, private / public, condensation / disintegration, transformation…? And attach a bundle of theories and invite a worldwide known guru of architecture to speek at the opening. But that’s part of contemporary art too: no final explanations, get the spectator involved to find his or her own solution – and communicate it.

:San José

Thesis #5: Cities are beings in time, they are subject to changes and transformations, and they feature continuity as beings throughout history

A prototype of the contemporary urban area is the region of San José, California, also known as the Silicon Valley

Thesis #5: Cities are beings in time, they are subject to changes and transformations, and they feature continuity as beings throughout history. The arts are and have always been tools for manifesting a world relationship and – as a part of that – reflections of this city-being-process. Subjectivity is based on personality, reflexivity and individuality. In terms of traditional philosophy self-relationship is a transparent fact.
StadtLAge-Artist Theda Radtke placed an installation in a bank window downtown Landshut mirroring the spectator, to show up: it’s YOU
But who would be the “author” in the case of a collective identity? are asking the sociologists. And what about cities, disintegrating into urban areas, the Silicon Valley are an example for. Obviously the old – European – town was only a mark stone on the path of evolution.

The concept of the city is no longer materialized in a corona of the city body but in the mind of the city dweller with his or her personal city disposition: the city is at hand through certain points of interest (work, socializing spots, learning facilities, leisure time areas. San José as a centre for the computer industry is a symbol for these changes, as well as the changes in communication technology and digital arts.

Approach: digital arts

The theme of the 2006 ISEA-Festival – a worldwide gathering of the electronic arts to be held this August in San Jose, Ca. – was the “interactive City” – with the tools of „new media. But let’s have a closer look at some of the interactive projects.

– Jenny Marketou and Katie Salen’s 99 Red Balloons, performing an interactive live street game to explore public anthropology and hidden geographies
– Peter d’Agostino’s @silicon valley-workshop for exploring many of the paradoxes of natural, cultural and virtual identities
– Anna Munster’s assemblage for collective thought with open machines that nurture collaborative authoring, technozoosemiotic processes, technozoomorphic forms and transvergent networks
– and more than a 100 other pieces of art to reflect the “interactive city”.

But what about that it looked like a PR-show of the electronic industry in the end, as critics said in an intense online discussion after the event. One of them found, that “the festivals imagination of the interactive city seemed to be characterized by a spirit of play which feels increasingly oriented towards middle-class consumer spectacle and the experience economy”. Technology seems to have taken over.


Thesis #6: In this reflection and in the continuity of their being cities produce identity

The mask is showing Brooklyn, N.Y.

Thesis #6: In this reflection and in the continuity of their being cities produce identity (as well as their fractions do) in being the local home for people who have commonly to care for this home as a basis for survival – a complex body and a bigger whole, which brings about not only material wholeness, the city body, but also picks up a mental dynamic of its own as a collective being. Art is a medium of expression and communication and with that, art could help unveil the communal constitution of urban life. The “talk of the town” – transmitted through various media, is a device of self-understanding of that organism “city” beyond a mere one-dimensional plot of survival. An important ground for communal life always has been public space, now going through major changes. An even more fundamental change is the switch to virtual spaces, which also has to be put into consideration.
StadtLAge artist Dagmar Pachtner has dealt with the old central public space in Landshut, currently a matter of discussion about the outfit of this place as it changed it’s function from a street market to a leisure time pedestrian area.

The situationists’ approach:

And art is a medium to explore urban life and create new forms of communal interaction. A special form of dealing with urban life has been created as an art form by the so called Situationists, who had their central meeting this September in Brooklyn. The Situationist International is a psycho-geographic movement from the 50ies in Europe, who promoted the idea that the arts of the future would be changes of situations, subversive, radical. This movement is having a revival in America during the last years. Glowlab Collective’s third annual Conflux festival hit the streets of Brooklyn, offering four days of psycho-geographic celebration. The participants explored contemporary urban life through exhibits, screenings, performances, talks, workshops, and happenings. Like Adam Greenfield’s talk about how information technologies are transforming our relationships to place, or the new project by Mark Tribe wherein he remakes historic protest speeches from 1960s and early 70s. If you felt the urge to engage in a little psycho-geographic drifting through the city, you could find Michele Gambetta’s RIDER project, a mobile art gallery in the back of a rented Ryder truck, or the graffiti walking tour and street party by Graffiti Research Lab & Jake Dobkin of If you were ready to take guerrilla gardening to the next level, you could participate in Mark Shepard’s Tactical Sound Garden workshop and learn how to use Wi-Fi access points to plant a publicly available soundscape of your own design. Or bring all of your nerd gear to’s laptop party, where Mushon Zer-Aviv and Dan Phiffer were on hand to solicit your contribution to the construction of an online public space. All of this brings up a break from the traditional ways of experiencing an urban milieu.


Thesis #7: Cities provide a horizon for collective subjectivity

The Calgary city plan as we know it from the University of Calgary-website. The subjective urban disposition has changed: we take what we need from our surrounding which is for many of us at this conference the airport, the University and the city centre with its museums and restaurants etc.

Thesis #7: Cities provide a horizon for collective subjectivity – in other words: intersubjectivity, performed through the people concerned. Public spaces have always been the local stage for this; interest groups and sociological strata are – among others – examples for structuring phenomena. Today mass media and the internet play a special role to structure the spheres.
But for us as bodily beings there is also a tendency towards integration in our perception, integration towards wholeness.
StadtLAge artist Sabrina Hohmann formed an ant-hill – another city metaphor for a working collective being, – one we wouldn’t consciously like to be part of.

Contemporary city investigation: Angela’s pilgrimage

When I came to Calgary a week before the beginning of the WHA Conference I wanted to see what’s going on with the contemporary arts in this city. And this really happened by incidence: right at this evening was the opening of an art project by Angela Dorrer (a participant of a project of our gallery at Landshut in 1999) at The New Gallery downtown Calgary at 9th Ave. Her “Pilgrimage for Calgary” is a city investigation which has something from all the art approaches mentioned before: traditional arts with her photography and installation at the exhibit in the TNG gallery, the interactive attitude, and it has a lot of the situationists’ approach, assembling personal views and opinions and try to connect these in a performance action. I’m glad to be able to welcome the artist here in this audience. If you want to get into the play, fill out the questionnaire about your feelings concerning Calgary and fax it to the New Gallery and be part of this City Investigation.

To name it “pilgrimage” brings in a spiritual dimension.


Thesis #8: Cities are individuals

Arcosanti, the „city“ shown on this mask, is an experimental, ecologically sound urban laboratory in Arizona – a 60ies project founded by Paolo Soleri. One example for a city in the making

Thesis #8: Cities are individuals. As to site, display of structures, skyline, image etc. they perform individually and they have individual histories. Whereas this performance for each city is very unique through its many components, the “insides” also show individual characteristics and very unique intersubjective dispositions picking up mental qualities.

Cities are the ultimate human frontier – exiting wilderness right before our eyes. Raw material to be explored and fermented through the arts, literature and sciences.

Cities have something to tell us. Let’s listen.