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A Manifesto for the Nocturnal City
By Nick Dunn
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Nick Dunn
All rights reserved.
Strangely Familiar All that is solid melds into where?
Unlike promises we make to each other, the promise of the city can never be broken. But unlike the promises we hold for each other, neither can it be fulfilled.
— Victor Burgin, Some Cities (1996, 7)
What we are about to explore together is the nocturnal city. This is a place and time within which escape from the calibrations and shackles of the daytime is possible. More specifically, it is a state of being. Increasingly faced with infinite options of pointless choices, our ability to actually do anything meaningful seems to be exponentially disappearing. Thanks to the complex absurdities of neoliberalism, creativity and freedom of expression are left to wander about like the protagonist in The Truman Show, ever watched, measured and exploited, though we seldom detect it. But most importantly, they are contained and rarely work convincingly outside of its carapace. The acceleration of cities as the space within which to operate is reflected in the kaleidoscopic wormhole of economics, politics and, for the most part sanitized, culture. Capitalism's greatest achievement may reside in the urban landscapes that adorn our planet. In this sense, talking about specificity may no longer matter. We can, and some people do, discuss 'cities' and 'the urban' as if they are handheld objects; indeed this may be part of the problem. However, we also know this to be untrue. Thus, despite the increasing homogenization of different places, it is important to emphasize from the outset that cities are not neutral containers or aspatial. This may seem so obvious as to not be worth stating. But I just did, and for good reason. At a time when our encounters with the city are more mediated than ever before, it feels necessary. It is fundamental. This is because the essential qualities of our surroundings are disappearing. Urban landscapes have undergone significant transformation through their development as the context for civilization par excellence, a process that rapidly sped up through industrialization of cities and the subsequent predilections of neoliberal late capitalism for multivalent forms of business. The question is how and when to respond and break out of the dome.
In his seminal book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman argues that:
To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction ... It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts. (1988, 13–14)
In this way, Berman identifies the perpetual tensions between development and decay; the personal and the social, whilst encouraging the wider embrace of being modernist as a means of contemporary living. He necessarily draws upon earlier periods of modernism, including the works of Goethe and Karl Marx, the latter providing his book's title. However, it may be useful to query whether the same dialectic holds for us now. Although various claims for modernism's demise, resuscitation and legacy continue to haunt cultural discourse, not least with respect to architecture, the idea that it has gone and been replaced appears erroneous. As with many cultural and stylistic developments that inform society, modernism has been consumed and remains partially digested in the belly of capital, awaiting occasional bouts of flatulence. Considered in this manner, it is possible to understand the contemporary situation as one of plurality and diversity, wherein we are not post- anything but merely triangulated by a dizzying, psychedelic array of previous cultural identities and movements. The difference lies in their restless ability to meld together. As such, we find ourselves consistently presented with the 'new,' but it is typically anything but, concocted as it is from earlier eras albeit in variegated forms. The tensions between the will toward physical and social transformation set against the desire for physical and social stability still exist. The significant change has been the liquidity of both aspects since the time of Berman's writing. The endless flux of regurgitated ideas that appear novel is seductive. The process of assemblage has entranced us, belying its content, succoured in the knowledge that we have not seen something before yet comforted by its familiarity as it is born from the echoes of the past. This, then, raises an important question – can we step outside of this situation to garner some much-needed perspective? Further still, if it is possible to do so, how and when might this be?
With an overwhelming amount of information and options available to us, it is extremely difficult to make a choice about what to do that may provide respite from the coopted military-entertainment-complex. Faced with this dilemma myself, I found the force field of digital technologies unhelpful as my attention slowly yielded to their tractor beam. Similarly, attempts to subvert normative practices during the daytime were highly limited whilst total abandonment was neither desirable nor practical. At night, the jumbling of ideas and problems, the half-lives of previous projects and memories all stirred deeply within. Having exhausted various approaches to counter this restlessness I decided to take to the streets, which seemed sympathetic to this disquiet. More specifically, the nocturnal city was not simply a place and time that enabled me to explore my thoughts as I walked, but became a syncopated landscape, furthering and accentuating my own rhythms both physical and psychological.
Over the last few years especially, I have spent many, many hours walking through various cities at night. The history of walking through cities is as old as that of cities themselves, and as a practice subject to a multitude of different uses and interpretations. Walking at night, however, offers something different, having the capacity to alter our ingrained, seemingly natural predispositions towards the urban surroundings, and our perceptions along with it. This has an important dual function, as this book contends. It allows the architecture of the city to be sensed differently. Architecture, through its presence and function, is typically a reflection of the values of the society that built it. Yet no matter how permanent our buildings may appear, there are temporal relationships occurring inside and outside – weathering, occupying, adapting – that subtly alter the fabric of the city. By venturing into the urban night it is possible to experience the materiality of the city as distinct from its character in the daytime. It appears somehow more porous; the shadowplay across its edifices is rich, deep and gelatinous. In addition, and perhaps of greater significance, it fosters a different way of thinking. In an age of hyper-visibility, encountering anything genuinely new seems incredibly remote, weirdly distanced from us yet at the same time ever-present and depthless. As the feedback loops on all forms of culture tighten, we seem to have reached a terminal inertia of restless regurgitation. The need for a time-place to imagine alternatives becomes increasingly urgent. Oppositional strategies such as abject despondency or rejection through nonparticipation have their potentialities but also their limitations. The appearance of eschewal may be another way forward. For within this are myriad possibilities for recalcitrance and discovery, i.e. we can give our attention to things and ideas. The point here is not necessarily where this occurs but when.
Finding oneself in the nocturnal city can be a useful aphorism. Why might this be? Cities at night are distinct, constellations of light within shadow and tempos of spectacle that contrast with the daytime. Consider the city nearest to you. Perhaps you live or work there, go out to socialize, mingle with others or attend events etc. This city is not one but has a dual character. This is the crosshatch of two cities like China Mieville's Beszel and Ul Qoma, conjoined and overlaid yet also offset from one another. We can invoke the daytime city here but much is 'unseen,' strangely familiar but also otherworldly. This uncanny character of the nighttime city squeezes and stretches place. Staccato rhythms of the day are more fluid in the nocturnal hours, the hum and drum of the urban tribe instead replaced by streams and seams of stimulation which as the hours accumulate from midnight become trickles and abandoned mines save for the semaphore of bottles, cans, fast-food wrappers and cigarette ends.
One of the first obstacles is with regard to the everyday. We can develop a tendency to think of the places we live as being the same, static or even boring. Just because something appears commonplace does not make it so. Surrounded by what largely look to be identical backdrops to our lives, it is easy to forget this is an environment. The psychologist James J. Gibson (1979) would describe this as a 'niche,' not to be confused with the habitat of a species – i.e. not where it lives, but rather how it lives. It is within this difference that it is easy to miss the point about how we relate to the urban landscape. There is also a further layering of the relationship. The city is not simply out there – a built construction separate from ourselves – but in the here of our bodies: its particles inhaled and exhaled; its materiality and textures informing our gait and steadily reshaping our footwear; its smells, sights and sounds comforting us or perhaps causing concern. And, of course, pertinently the here of our mind where we reconstruct the city many times over, forging new maps and narratives in response to its restlessness. It lives within us and us within it. The artificiality of the built environment is transformed at night, a loose third place between the natural world and the stark configuration of the daytime city. This is the nocturnal city.
For darkness has long fingers and a multitude of pockets within its cloak. When we encounter the urban night its supernatural qualities unfurl depending on the mode and speed with which we move through it. Walking is an inscriptive practice, its rhythms are incantations, finding the fissures of urban space and loosening them up, bringing forth seizures of place. This is the nighttime city, thereafter doleful and spent in the predawn dimness awaiting reprisal tomorrow. The subliminal slowness of the city at night enables the urban landscape to be disinterred – clumsy histories plastered layer upon layer, increasingly disappearing remnants of yesteryear, symbols of forgotten promises, foreclosed desires and unspoken understandings. The peril is the perishable. The contemporary city is a redacted text, teeming with impoverished sentences and fraught punctuation. Overzealous editors commissioning and leading copy, previous articles shredded for noncompliance to the grand narrative. But dyslexia takes hold as the kerning of the streets is less assured and defined. Hieroglyphics are architecture's muted voice at night, incomprehensible messages jumbled together, the platen slipped and the urban type offset. Memory and the exorcism of personal notations, literal footnotes made through the passage of time and place. This renders the nocturnal city disturbing in its missive.
On the one hand it is very familiar, we recognize its streets, its architecture and its composition. Yet on the other hand we enter its strangeness, a different domain that yields its features: sometimes readily and sometimes requiring considerable excavation. This is where attention is required, an important facet of the nighttime city which we will discuss more of later. For now, it suffices to know that being present and attentive in the nocturnal city is quite different from behaviours and practices that simply extend daytime activity into the night. It also has emancipatory powers, allowing us to shake off worries of the daily grind. Leaving for tomorrow, walking at night is to make a claim for attention to be directed and maintained on the immediate environment. This is what is at stake. In the acceleration of culture, stepping outside both physically and psychologically is to reflect on a quickly eroding island of attention. Our minds are skewered. Penetrated and prone to the subconscious hauntings of unanswered emails, status updates and virtual check-ins to prove we really are not here. Our fear of missing out may lead to always being at the point of departure whenever we arrive, the constant distractions and anxieties of online profiles confused with being present. This now bristles to such an extent that the idea of being absent, to really embrace 'lack' of interference, seems like a surreal, utopian construct. Deliberately opting out of 24/7 availability, and therefore conventionally accepted accountability in the twenty-first century is a choice, albeit a very particular one. This option is especially difficult given the pervasive and mobile nature of technologies. Intrinsic to such a stance are connotations of regression, disconnection, impoliteness; all unintended signals generated through the act of doing nothing. Social media is a significant element of this composition. In a relatively short amount of time, i.e. the period in which digital networks have effaced mass communication, we have now reached a situation wherein many of us bypass actual face-to-face relationships and connections for those given by proxy. Online platforms and apps appeal to us since they suggest a lightness of touch, a never forgetting (but also never really being focused upon), 'I may not be here but I am there.' However, the cost of maintaining these 'connections' can be exhausting in many different senses, not least for our minds and attention. Where and when can we go?
Architecture may be the original situated technology, supporting social relations and connections. It is also time-bound and has a relationship to space, whether sensitive to its context, indifferent or defiant. Gleaning place from space is no mean feat. But this is what architecture does all the time for good or ill to our sense of our surroundings. At night, though, architecture's power transforms the sense of location and orientation in a very different manner. Hitherto barely detectable features take on an altogether different quality in the dark. Urban crevices, interstitial spaces and the city's margins loom forth in their confidence. The footnotes in these places are rich palimpsest, disclosing temporary inhabitation, sharp tangs of detritus and passage, dank and dripping, sunk and slippery against the more rational and acceptable materiality of the city. These charged voids of the night purr with anticipation of comings and goings, indiscriminate toward their dwellers' predilections and cravings. To be on your own in the city at night is not to be alone. The architecture follows you, in close conspiracy with the city's streets. Noctambulation is at odds with the contemporary city. To walk around, to enjoy the atmosphere and the ecology of the urban night, is to appear strange and questionable in the minds of others. Authoritarian figures may be even less enamored and more threatened by apparent motivelessness. 'You must be doing something?' Such deeply entrenched pseudo-authority must be queried.
The city, then, is on the one hand knowable but never completely captured. It eludes confinement as it reproduces itself in the mind into multiple versions, beckoning Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Interpretation of the city is how we locate ourselves and in relation to each other. We form maps based on cognition of memorable places, street names and other spatial cursors. During the nocturnal hours such cartography may be dramatically rescaled and retraced as daytime landmarks recede and new, often highly illuminated ones become signifiers instead. The beguiling effects of urban illumination tell a different story of the city. Indeed an alternative historiography for architecture could concern itself with the nighttime city. The 2014 film Neon directed by Eric Bednarski documents the history of urban illumination within Warsaw, political ideology wrought in glass tubes and inert gas. Whilst intentionally diverting, it is away from the bright lights we will go. Apart from the promenades and main thoroughfares, the secondary and tertiary arteries of the city are laid out under fitful incandescent filigree. Now the very materiality of the city is hewn again. Glass, duplicitous in either black mirror or virtual membrane between illuminated inside and the street outside. Stone features gurn with rugged shadows further accentuating their carved patterns and details. Brick walls, in collective planar agreement during the daytime, suddenly oust their discordances, the unsteady overhangs of mortar betraying their lack of uniformity. Metal gathers light, vagabond conductors for refracted electric bulbs. Meanwhile, the shadows refuse to conform to the allocated building plots, skewed, stretched and squeezed across facades and streets alike. A slipped mask, they fall away, loosening some edges whilst scoring sharp geometry when confronted with light source. The whole array quickly dispersed by the lights of a passing vehicle and then replenished.
Excerpted from Dark Matters by Nick Dunn. Copyright © 2015 Nick Dunn. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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