International Biennial of Contemporary Art Ljubljana,
23 June - 24 September 2000
News Archive
Micro Talks
Cankarjev Dom
M1 & M2

What's in the cities?

In Belfast the gates between the walls which divide Protestant and Catholic communities close at 6 pm on Fridays and stay closed through the weekend. I remember particularly well the pleasure in the taxi driver's voice as he explained this quirk of historical necessity to me. He approved of the separation and admitted that it felt comfortable. This is how I was reminded that it was for personal reasons - fear and safety - that the walls were erected in the first place.

I believe we are accustomed to the various dichotomies of everyday life; the borders of nation-states are one such dichotomy. These feel much less tangible than the walls of Belfast, and more abstract. I live in Slovenia, a country where the national borders, not to mention the name of the state, have changed seven times in the course of this century. Slovenia is currently desperately attempting to shed its most recent identity in order to join the European Union. As for me, I can say that the borders have been formed, developed and enforced without me doing a thing. I stayed in Ljubljana and my national identity changed overnight - not that it really matters that much to me. The borders of eastern Europe felt a bit absurd anyway. They did not necessarily offer a feeling of security either, the way the walls of Belfast do.

Dnepropetrovsk and Brooklyn
I was recently leafing through a book of Boris Mikhailov's photographs. The prostitutes and others on the edge of existence were showing off their decrepit bodies on the grassy no-man's land of a Russian suburb. The scenes were strangely familiar. I recalled two places, Dnepropetrovsk and Brooklyn, both of them related in my mind to frightening personal experiences. The most recent was the Brooklyn disaster when, last year, the apartment I shared with a friend caught fire and the kitchen burnt down. The Dnepropetrovsk experience was also linked to an apartment where I stayed for a brief time. Though it did not affect me personally - I slept there only one night - I thought the building was in such bad repair that it certainly provided disastrous living conditions - all the more when I learned that it was just a few years old. What would happen in the future when the building was already derelict? At that moment I realised that what I was looking at was permanent disorder. All the stairs and mailboxes were demolished, the facade was falling away, cardboard was used to fence in the balconies and, most surreal of all, the whole basement of the building was flooded.
I remembered the fleeting moment when I caught sight of a floating chair through the basement window, as Ilya Kabakov was talking about Boris Mikhailov taking photographs of streets and cities he knew so well. Mikhailov apparently felt or thought a man was falling down behind him, when he turned around and took the picture. It was said that he did this without thinking. That caught my imagination.
Indeed, Mikhailov's photographs are not predictable. They are not structured - but neither are the lives of those he photographed. He shows life in a disordered society. People in his pictures seem to be left on their own: without nation-state or other social structures to support an individual dealing with urban life (or, I should say, in contemporary urban life). Russians have been living on the brink of a dysfunctional social system for so long that their existential experience has suddenly come close to that of the global society. This is probably why I was able to relate to and, in a way, personalise both Dnepropetrovsk and Brooklyn in Mikhailov's pictures. These cities might be separated in space, but they are certainly not separated in time. Moreover, both are disordered cities. The same can be said of Johannesburg, Belfast, Sao Paulo and Sarajevo. These are considered to be uncomfortable even dangerous cities. Yet these are precisely the cities I like to encounter. It is because of cities like these that I think about the world in terms of cities and not in terms of nation-states.
People certainly need and desire social structures, but more often than not these are not embodied in nation-states. Come to think of it, ordered societies offer safe and dull cities; these are few and far between in the world today. The gaze of the Third World, and of all the disturbances and disorder it engenders, must surely seem threatening enough to ordered societies. A good example of this angst is represented in the gated communities of Johannesburg and elsewhere. I see them as new structures and strategies that are inventive yet quite basic. They are thought up by people themselves in a global society. There are many gated communities and they seem to feel comfortable. I do not think of them as rational structures. People build walls around themselves to bring order and borders closer to their bodies.

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