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.