Speed
As
Habitat

by Fernando Ocaña (MVMENT)

 

 

The act of crossing territory is born out of the need for survival. Once man’s basic needs are mastered, strolling becomes a symbolic action through which human kind learns to occupy the land. As the meaning of such territory evolves, the journey becomes the first aesthetic act to penetrate the realm of chaos and build a new order, upon which the objects of space and their architecture are developed. Our movement is an art that holds sculpture, rhythm and landscape together. The act of speed, and the narratives it offers, reveal a new dimension in the relationship between humanity and the environments it inhabits.

Three and a half million years ago, two Australopithecus walk through wet sand. When a nearby volcano erupts, a layer of ash covers and preserves their journey. The sediment layer containing the Laetoli footprints, in Tanzania, is almost 27 metres long. Along the trail, seventy footprints hold the oldest evidence of human existence.

There are two spatial conditions that have marked the evolution of the way humanity belongs in its environment: sedentary, the space to be and nomadic, the space to move. The first is marked by walls, halls and connections between them. The latter is flat, marked only by signs that appear and disappear from our comings and goings. In this sense, sedentary space is dense and solid, thus full. Nomadic space is an infinite hollow, uninhabited, disorienting, a type of vastness where the only recognisable sign is the footprint left by our passing-by itself.

To the ceaseless walks of the first humans that inhabited our planet, we owe the beginning of the slow and complex process of appropriating and mapping the territory. Due to the lack of stable reference points, our ancestors developed a skill for building maps on the go. The nomadic map is a system of man-made signs from which early humans identified water and food sources, sacred places and sleeping opportunities. The emptiness of such map references a liquid space, where fragments of the need to rest and the need to move, float together. The skill to see and name such fragments was developed as early as the Palaeolithic and was first materialised in the shape of Menhirs, large upright standing stones used as territorial markers for religious ceremonies and burial sites.

As human journeys become represented in objects, they too become materialised in architectural form. Containing 134 columns laid across 16 lines connecting east to west, the Great Hypostyle Hall was built in Egypt in 2000 BC. The first monument ever to pay tribute to the act of walking, the hall was not a place to gather, nor one to rest, simply a place to pass by, the most colossal ever built. This transition from the experience of motion to its representation in architecture has had a profound effect on the way we understand geography and the role it plays in our conception of the self.

Throughout thousands of years, before the idea of building a physical structure for religious purposes was possible, walking was the symbolic act through which dance, music and tales connected us to religion and the geographic description of the origins of our species. In Australia, the Walkabout is the system of journeys through which the region’s earliest inhabitants mapped the totality of the continent. Every mountain, every river and every well belong in this collection of stories and chants which constantly intertwine the history of time and dreams. An entire culture, transmitted to this day orally from one generation to the next, is based on a complex system of tales that emphasises on erratic journeys as the story of mankind itself.

Eventually, the journey takes form as its own literary genre and begins blending with other artistic forms of representation. However, whilst works like The Odyssey or The Marvels of the World do capture the multifariousness of human existence and give their authors perennial influence on art and literature, it isn't until the 19th century that we begin looking at the urban journey as a specific topic of exploration. With his concept of Flânerie, the act of strolling whilst appreciating the details of urban life, Baudelaire begins asserting traditional art as insufficient for capturing the dynamic complications of modern life. “Social and economic changes brought by industrialisation” he states “require the artist to immerse himself in the metropolis and become a botanist of the sidewalk”.

From this notion, poetry as well as sociology, take an introspective look into the process of urbanisation and the meaning of public space. Georg Simmel, renown precursor of urban sociology, theorises on how the complexities of the modern city create new social bonds and new attitudes towards others. He points out how the modern city transforms humans, giving them a new relationship to time and space and altering fundamental notions of freedom and being. About the newly discussed possibility that the city might have more realities than the eye can see, Walter Benjamin, the influential german thinker, writes:

 

“Not to find one's way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one's way in a city, as one loses one's way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. The city is the realisation of the ancient human dream of the labyrinth.”

 

The avant-garde of the early 20th century and their pursuit to break traditional conceptions in art and theory open up an opportunity for the exploration of movement to leave the context of literature. As speed becomes a consolidated topic within the urban atmosphere, the Futurist Manifesto focuses on a new metropolitan condition produced by the energy flows of people masses. It points out how the city has lost its ability to remain static but that rather finds itself in constant movement due to the speed, lights and noise of the automobile. The speed at which we travel, they point out, has multiplied our view point and thrown us into the ever-changing nature of the modern urban space.

Whilst innovative, the Futurist idea stops in representation and has trouble venturing into the territory of action. Pointing out the need to evolve towards real-space explorations, Dada begins a series of projects that investigate the relationship between motion, landscape and the mind. In 1921 the French movement organises a series of “visit-excursions” through the most banal of Paris streets. For the first time, art rejects its assigned place and sets out to appropriate urban space. From their walks, they discover a dream-like, surreal aspect to walking and define this experience as “deambulation”, a sort of automatic writing in real space, capable of revealing the unconscious zones of space, the repressed memories of the city.

 

“Only in chaos are we conceivable.” Roberto Bolaño

 

The intention to surpass the real through the empiric, to go beyond the limits of spacial reality and into the depths of our subconsciousness, inspires the idea that a metropolitan journey can penetrate the mind all the way into its deepest strata, it can evoke images of other worlds, where reality and dreams live together. It can transport the being to a state of unconsciousness, where the self isn't yet determined. Amidst the emergence of psychoanalysis, the study of the mind inspires Andre Breton and the Surrealist movement into wanderings that consist of reaching, through walking, a state of hypnosis and a disorienting loss of control, a medium through which to get in touch with the subconscious aspect of the territory. The surrealists are convinced that the urban space can be explored the same way Freud explores the human mind, that the city can reveal a reality that isn't visible. Their investigation on this topic explores our psychological relationship with dreams and how this can be applied to the act of journeying across the city. Comparing the vibrance of the French capital with the ocean, Mirella Bandini describes, in her review of Louis’ Aragon’s Paris Peasant, how the city, “with its mobile and labyrinth like space, with its vastness, resembles the sea in the sense of a mother-like calmness and nutritious liquidness, of constant agitation and globality. In this amniotic liquid in which everything grows and is spontaneously transformed, behind our unexpectant stare, infinite journeys, unpredictable happenings and collective games take place”.

 

Contrary to the Surrealists, who left the fate of their wanderings to randomness, the Situationists emerge with a proposal for a type of journey that doesn't simply unfold to the wanderer, but that involves a planned structure. Because of their aversion to work life and their supposition that an imminent transformation of peoples free time is due to follow industrialisation, the Situationists propose a city that serves as a playground. They suggest the revolutionary (anti-capitalist) idea of a city that is based on desire, where the use of time and space escapes the rules of the system. By investigating what triggers peoples desire and designing situations to provoke it, the movement seeks to create new types of behaviours and new ways of experiencing the urban reality, thus liberating the citizen from a life dictated by doctrine. These ideas emerge behind their playful slogan: “to inhabit is to be at home anywhere.”

 

“Every hundred feet the world changes.” Roberto Bolaño

 

The representation of the places we traverse configures an abstract map. The journey can be represented through images and text that evoke the experience of meandering through geographic poetry: phrases and signs that can be interpreted as cartography of the sensations of places. The situationists find, with their theory of Derivé and their methods for psychogeography (the study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind or on behavior) a medium through which to experience the city under such poetic paramenters. They discover it as an environment for pleasure, a place to live collectively and in which to experience alternative behaviours, a space where it is possible transform wasted time into play time. Through these concepts, they attempt to debate what the bourgeois propaganda advertises as happiness. A notion that is sold, within the realm of 1950s urbanism, as homes with plenty of comfort and automobiles that can take you across the city without having to experience it. The movement suggests that society needs to move forward from journeys that follow work, to journeys that follow pleasure. Society needs to build authentic life, it needs to create adventures. ̈Playful wandering ̈, states Guy Debord, ̈creates new territories to explore, new spaces to inhabit and new routes to travel. It leads to the conscious and collective construction of a new civilization. ̈

 

"Walks are like clouds, they come and go." Hamish Fulton 

 

The metropolis has now been turned into a territory of aesthetics, an immense canvas that we draw on as we walk, not a blank one, but an intricate mix of historical and geological sediments, to which one simply adds his presence. As we traverse the shapes imposed on the territory, our bodies take notice of the happenings of the journey, of the sensations, the obstacles, the dangers and the variations of the landscape. The physical structure of the space is reflected upon the body in motion. In 1953, Unitary Urbanism becomes the manifesto through which the Situationists outline their mission to translate art into architecture. “The architect will have to change his job”, it states. “He will have to stop building isolated shapes and construct instead total atmospheres, the scenery of a day-time dream”. Architecture is given wider reach, a strategy through which to provide the interrelated pieces that give a city its heterogeneous quality with a connected narrative. A way to turn nomadism and city into one single labyrinth.

In spite of the Situationists’ effort to turn the act of walking into a work of art, it can be argued that it isn't until the emergence of the Land Art movement that speed, and the infrastructure that makes it possible, become the subject of artistic exploration beyond theoretical investigation. On a December night in 1966 Tony Smith takes his Cooper Union architecture students to walk the empty construction site of the then-being-built New Jersey Turnpike. He becomes the first person to make a sculptoric question about a highway. “How can something that isn't recognised socially occupy space? How do we interpret this object? As a highway? As an infinite carpet? Abstract floor? What do we feel about it? Do we want to follow it? Climb it? Or go around it? Can we describe this sensation or merely experience it? Can we replicate it?”

Irritated by the vagueness of these questions, Michael Fried, a leading art critic at Artforum Magazine, writes an article where he describes himself as worried for the emergence of external influences in the art world. Critical of Unitary Urbanism, he asks Smith to become aware of the limits of architecture and to stick to talking about ideas that concern it. It is at this historic moment that art, architecture and speed are finally looking at each other in the eye. When the scenic qualities of theatre, the rhythmic timing of speed and the profound importance of architectural scale reveal themselves to us in one single line of conversation. The question then becomes: how can we explore the interplay of narratives without sacrificing any of the qualities belonging to each one of these separate disciplines? And, perhaps more importantly, what kind of medium would welcome further exploration and contribution from other fields such as sociology, philolosophy and anthropology? How can the arts incorporate the poetry of Fulton with the theoretic writings of Debord and the questions raised by Smith?

To answer this questions, I propose we go back to another point of intersection, the one between cities and film. The year is 1927, video cameras have just become small enough to be mounted on a car. Amongst the various genres within avant-garde cinema, one stands out. City Symphony explores the dynamic relationship between film and urban modernity. The metropolis is shot for the first time as both external spectacle and internal rhythm, a dual sense of anonymity and intimacy. This new genre opens up a space that can be explored physically and conceptually and which has the power to transform the audience’s view on the territory. Albeit plotless, films like Manhatta, Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin, Symphony of a Metropolis confront both aesthetic and philosophic rhetoric under a single experience. A generation of film artists who discover the expressive possibilities of the modern city, the transitory character of matter, time and space, where nature recovers its wilderness, an ambiguous state that escapes human control.

Today we find ourselves attempting to understand the irregular distribution of fullness and emptiness that gives cities a certain liquidness, a kind of parallel reality. Beyond our houses and streets, there is an infinity of void spaces that paint the backdrop of our definition of habitat. Different from traditionally conceived public spaces such as parks, squares and gardens, these void spaces represent the nomadic qualities of our urban arrangement. They flow with the energy of the people that come and go, and they quickly fade away when order is imposed on them. They escape, in speed and agility, the possibility of administration. These are realities that have grown from, out of, and against, a capitalist project which seems resistant and incapable of recognising its own failure.

Whilst these nomadic traits might seem contradictory in the context of modernity, it is precisely this interplay of concave and convex expressions that gives the city its shape. It is this abstract sense of geometry that defines our environment and thus ourselves. When we slow down, we submerge in the amniotic liquid described by the Surrealists as the city’s subconsciousness. Such an image of the metropolis allows us to contemplate an immensity worthy of an empty ocean. However, as we begin journeying through this vastness, we come to realise that emptiness is never empty, rather, it presents different identities, few of which are hard to spot. Like an ocean, the city is formed by different seas, a group of heterogeneous territories scrambled together. If we’re willing to visit the depths of these waters, we’ll find ourselves discovering new ways of floating. And with the waves that flow across the consolidated geography, and whose break exposes the bizarre contrasts of a nomadic city that lives within the sedentary one, we will witness how new behaviours, new forms of inhabiting and new spaces of freedom are born.

Written like poems, edited like symphonies, the films made within the boundaries of the now-extinct City Symphony genre remain a powerful exercise of visual anthropology and one of the most valuable documentations we have of cities that no longer exist, as is the case of pre-war Berlin. In the spirit of Flânerie, it is my belief that we should throw ourselves at the city in search for the new nature of speed, that we should give representation in space and time to this territory of our existence that has none. We shall wander the urban periphery as a metaphor of the mental periphery, of the suburbs of our thoughts. And bring back the genre as a discipline capable of picking up the meaning of our constant and dramatic transformation, the mutation from the natural to the artificial and vice versa.

 

MVMENT is a collective of artists and creatives that explore the impact of transportation on individuals, societies, their cultural expressions and vice versa. In alliance with their video performance at Villa Stuck (August 4th, 8 pm CET), this article coexists as an exhibition catalogue, too, presenting a few thoughts and findings that they have encountered in the cultural ripples of mobility in general - and their work in Mexico City in particular.