Big city (everybody I know can be found here)
I recently read comedian Mark Thomas‘ book Extreme Rambling which documents his stroll along the vast Israeli constructed barrier wall as a method of highlighting the divisive and blunt issue of land loss experienced by the Palestinian people. I’m not going to enter into the politics of the conflict apart from pointing out that it passes far beyond the internationally recognised border to wrap around illegal settler towns across the territories and annex swathes of natural resources and homes. However, it is as Thomas points out ‘mile after mile of self delusion’, a supra-architectural militarised structure which penetrates everyday life to organise habitation along geometrically and culturally imposed arcs, deluded because it also paradoxically modulates the life of the occupiers. There are parallels with the prefabricated blast walls of Baghdad’s imperial Green Zone, the snaking Berlin Wall of the Cold War as well as the zig-zag mine laced ‘demilitarised’ zones of Korea. It is a raw manipulation and reduction of navigable space to a singular loci, what artist Julia Scher describes as ‘a space threatened by sleek mechanisms of dominance’.
Bethlehem separation wall © Ched Myers
The urbanscape thus is apparently no longer a plasticised realm, within which people are free to make life as they see fit. Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz documents the evolution of Los Angeles as the wealthy seek to reinforce their entrenched position. He describes its increasingly inward looking privatisation of civic space and announces ‘welcome to post-liberal Los Angeles where the defense of luxury lifestyles is translated into a proliferation of new repressions in space and movement, undergirded by the ubiquitous ‘armed response’. Davis regards LA in the light of repressive quasi fascist control, a medieval walled city of dynastic influence, public occupation as a result has been sorely degraded. Numerous guerilla popup movements have arisen, fighting this crushing fortified backdrop. Embattled individuals now seek to reassert a degree of control over the corporate tranche, through topologies of creative independent thinking and commerce.
Seventeenth century Digger Gerrard Winstanley wrote ‘the Earth is a common treasury for all’. When the primal act of growing your own food is illegal then no wonder that Guerilla Gardening was born. With a foundation in communal allotments and land sharing, individuals such as Richard Reynolds as well as more militant organisations like Reclaim the Fields seek to subversively inject foliage into our drab lives. Community led endeavours such as Todmorden’s Incredible Edible also utilise marginal hinterlands to grow free food and enrich the lives of locals, reasserting a degree of influence and placing agriculture and flora at the heart of our towns. Exuberant gardeners venture into the homogenised locale and through illegal cultivation sprout a blossoming vista embracing what Vladimir Krtstic says ‘can never be more than partial or fragmentary’, that is asserting a vibrant, localised and discreet fractal metropole.
The guerilla popup movement of course also embraces art, music and a myriad array of street based creative outputs whether that is graffiti, architecture, farmers’ markets, activism from groups such as the Space Hijackers or simply the potentially contentious act of perambulation. German graffiti artist Oxboe embraces this as a system of reconnecting with the gritty fabric and says ‘designing space means sculpting space’, thus the marginalised painter seeks to reshape what is beyond his immediate influence. Writer Markus May regards this interaction as part of a broader explosion of consideration and fuelling a feedback loop of hope, he observes ‘the city influences the architecture of writing’, graffiti thus cloaks the crumbling walls in a visage of fierce independence, an antithesis to the glaring and bland billboards grimacing above.
Architect and theorist Bernard Tschumi investigating our place in the tangled streets comments ‘architecture is not simply about space and form, but also about event, action, and what happens in space’, for him (echoing Walter Benjamin’s earlier arcades project) the guerrilla action be that festival or installation is a critical aspect of the wider consensus of the city’s purpose. The interplay between public and private becomes a primer. Recent English shopping malls have sacrificed historically municipal streets in Plymouth, London (Olympics) and Bristol for example to the developer in return for their creeping malignant influence, rakish thoughts eviscerated in exchange for gleaming credit. When one can be banned from a thoroughfare for simply not participating in rampant capitalism the guerilla popup vector emits a staunch rallying cry. Urban theorist Paul Goodman takes this further and observes ‘no city is governable if it does not grow citizens who feel it to be theirs’. The alienation of the mirror world, one of disengagement and paralysis perhaps emboldened the summer riots as well as helped motivate the occupy movements we currently observe on the world’s streets.
Thomas’ simple ramble becomes an act of defiance, free thinking perambulation very much in the spirit of the original Ramblers Association. Musician David Byrne famous for his love of cycling regards this free wheeling wanderlust as a calculated and human response to the blinding overwatch of the connected twenty first century. He writes in Bicycle Diaries ‘all that interconnectedness that facilitated much of the explosion of megawealth over the last decade also facilitated the interpenetration of everything, so no one or no building is truly isolated and ‘safe’ anymore. Safety is in getting along.’ These tiny acts of frail guerilla popup beauty grow like flowers amongst the claustrophobic canyons of concrete shards, ultimately offering a protective and emboldening spirit of community for the drifting inhabitants of the liminal city.