Joke Brower, Arjen Mulder, and Laura Martz, editors, Rotterdam: V2Publishing/NAI Publishers, 2002.
The City is dead – long live the city. This inherent paradox is the core of TransUrbanism; a collection of essays that attempts to interpret the change globalization has wrought on urban space, world culture and social interaction. Rampant growth and instantaneous forms of communication have transformed cities from separate pockets of urban space to what co-editor Arjen Mulder calls an “urban field, a collection of activities instead of a material structure.” This field is not defined by a geographical, a political or even an architectural boundary, but by a technological one – the availability of cell phone service. Urban edges are defined by the ability to avoid roaming charges. This analogy seemed strained, even silly, to me until my roommate visited her relatives in rural northeastern Nevada: without her cell phone, she seemed to have traveled to another planet. Technology has indeed wrought vast changes on what we discern as urban.
This urban field is by no means homogenous. It is scarred by the tumultuous transformation of cities defined by landmarks, unique cultural practices and rigid discernable grids into cities built to support urban activities. Reflecting this manifestation, TransUrbanism seems intentionally chaotic; the editors juxtapose manifestos on the urban experience, interviews of prominent urbanists and descriptions of interactive art installations with dizzying speed, and intersperse deliciously mind-boggling graphical analyses of the urban fabric. The organization of the essays is disconcerting at first, but each essay has a degree of merit in and of itself. Eventually they coalesce into a ragged, but intriguing, whole.
Although varied, the pieces share two conclusions about the current nature of urban space. The first is that unchecked, unplanned urban growth is inevitable, whether it is new cities in developing countries or suburbs in developed countries. The second is that globalization is diluting the identity of individual cities, blurring their unique characteristics into the black-and-white duality of urban versus rural. Commercialism figures heavily in the causes of both these phenomena. Capitalism overtly defines the urban fabric, from providing funds to build urban areas to spreading identical stores from São Paulo to Shanghai. Andreas Ruby’s essay, “Transgressing Urbanism,” postulates that market pressures have driven cities to evolve into symbolic representations of themselves. Every city, in order to promote business or tourism, emphasizes certain areas and landmarks while downplaying others. This is taken to one extreme in Las Vegas, with its representations of famous cities distilled into hotel theme parks and to another in Bilbao, where the previously unknown city, through association Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, has become a household brand name.
Mark Wigley’s essay “Resisting the City” takes this idea still further. He argues that all urban areas now consist of nearly identical continual streams of commercialized images. Like the medieval city, today’s urban areas are merely idealized portraits that suit our imaginations far better than the real thing. A certain level of idealism does seem necessary to sustain a sense of security in the face of unpredictable metropolitan life. Feeling homesick on a lengthy trip to Japan, I visited a Starbucks in the center of Osaka that, from menus to music, could have been wholly built in Seattle. This short visit helped me to cope with the many differences in language, culture and weather that I encountered. It is the inevitability of a Grande Frappuccino or Big Mac that shows the influence of globalization and commercialism on the city.
The most intriguing essays in TransUrbanism, however, chronicle how visionaries utilize the intersection of random activities within the urban field to create interactive art. An interview with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, an electronic performance artist, illustrates how two of his art installations attempt to create “coming together” – individually participating in an activity where other people’s actions have an effect on your own. It is chaos theory on a community scale. One of his earlier works, Vectorial Elevation, allowed users to manipulate light sculptures over the Internet, and see their creations in real time at Mexico City’s Zocalo Plaza.
This effort, though intriguing, seems more flashy than collaborative; the separation imposed by the Internet relegates it to the mere spectacle of distant spotlights. Body Movies, a more recent work, projected portraits on the walls surrounding the Schouwburgplein Square in Rotterdam that were only visible in the shadows of people in the square below. Through the intermingling of shadows, people had the opportunity to participate in a community event. Although the results of this interaction are limited, with only a certain number of both portraits and participants, the installation begins to develop the potential that Lozano-Hemmer envisions.
D Tower, an interactive sculpture located in Doetinchem, the Netherlands, attempts to go beyond mere interaction – it directly responds to emotions collected through Internet-based surveys. The tower changes color depending on what emotion was most prevalent during the day in each quadrant of the city. Therefore, people passing the tower can react not only to the form of the sculpture, but to the emotions it is displaying. Although the concept, and especially the survey itself, is interesting and even amusing, the truly intriguing fact is that none of these interactive installations can exist properly outside of the new global and technological urbanism and the potential it has for random interaction. These artistic pieces show that, while the city may no longer have an individual identity, it may be able to create community.
Art installations and urban criticism are strange bedfellows. Yet as a collection of ideas, the book holds together quite well. All of the essays attempt to explore the potentials that exist within the changing urban fabric and all of them present subtly unique visions. TransUrbanism has the potential to overwhelm or enthrall, but read at a reasonable pace, the essays present several fascinating views of the complex technological system that has replaced the city.