‘’City Talks; Transcripts from Post-Urban Modern Spaces’’ is a photo-book in which I explore the urban, architectural and cultural landscape of Cairo, Paris and New York in order to understand the relationship between space and society; spatial dialects and socio-political reproduction. My interest in these three cities – all of which are unique, thriving urban capitals – arises from a personal relationship with them: these are the cities that I have occupied and that in turn have occupied my thoughts, vision and body.
The project was inspired by German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project and the image of the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s ‘flâneur.’ As Baudelaire’s ‘flâneur’ wanders the city and animates it with his thoughts, the city itself animates his mind. It is that particular exchange of impressions and reflections in which I am interested: the mapping of a city through thoughts and the mapping of a mind through fragments of the city. The focus is on how Modernity in its specific domains of urban design, architecture and cultural production has manifested itself in these cities and how, by extension, various forms of authority, discipline and control are implemented and how they can be resisted and rejected. In Cairo, Paris and New York, I find examples of how modernity shifts in its reproduction of social norms and values depending on the geo-political and socio-historical landscape.
Originally entitled ‘City Walks,’ the project was meant to be a series of automatic reflections produced as I wander in the streets of the cities. However as I conducted in-depth research about each of the cities’ cultures and histories, it became evident to me that the project inevitably existed in a political sphere; that if my thinking and body moved differently in each of these cities, it was contrived and designed; that these urban spaces were far from neutral, but rather quintessentially political. From Haussmann’s Paris to Downtown Cairo to Robert Moses’s Manhattan grid, these systems and organisms of urbanization are designed to contain and shape society and culture in ways that extend from the sidewalk culture of Parisian spectacle societies to the white cube gallery and institutional space in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The lived experience of these cities – these cultures and the space created at their inter-section – their in-between is the space I’m interested in looking at. How have these spaces affected me? Socially? Psychologically? How does my body occupy these spaces and how do they occupy me? I use my body as a microcosm to understand these dynamics and the relationship between physical space and the body, the forms of subjectivity produced by these spaces, which are physical manifestations of modernism.
Further, these three cities are extreme geo-political and cultural examples: New York being the center of the Capitalist western world; Paris being the in-between – a European culture that both shaped and is being shaped by the Capitalist ideology as much as it has influenced and been influenced by Middle Eastern and Arab societies; and Cairo, as the cultural center of the Middle East and the ‘motherland,’ to me and to all civilization.
To observe the many different ways in which modernity has taken shape or harshly resisted in these three cities and under various socio-political and economic factors has helped me better understand the ways in which forms of authority, discipline and control are implemented and how they can be resisted and/or rejected. The final body of work attempts to embody this experience of both submission and resistance.
The creative writing aspect of the project took the form of transcripts – literal reflections of these cities and what they ‘say.’ I chose to take the photographs with my mobile phone so as to mimic and convey the ‘modern eye/I.’ Ultimately, the formal elements of this book are but reflective of ideology, and more specifically, the body politics that exist in the very formal elements and gestures of our everyday lives and planes.
It is by that token that I attempt to make the pages of the project an anti-political – and not a-political – space in which the walls and barriers of the politics of seeing, here predominantly linearity, are broken and replaced with non-rules or directions of seeing and understanding. In other words, the collection is direction-less, number-less, beginning-less and end-less, cover-less, back-less, limit-less. It can be read in any direction and can be picked up from any page. Furthermore it is important to note that the writing form of ‘Transcripts’ and ‘Loose Thoughts’ which I employ are not merely reflections of flânerie and overheard voices, but are also a gesture at the very system of serialization and reproduction that is at the crux of the Capitalist market system that I aim to critique.
The re-contextualization, re-configuration and re-arrangement of the existing texts, words and ideas not only mimics the system of a constant reproduction of variables within a large constant, but also speaks to the way in which the untold and unseen space between these things, that very space in which I interject and try to embody, is the space in which the mold that is being poured can be solidified but also, and more importantly for me, diluted and shattered.
Ultimately, it is important for me to note that my 20-month research on these issues has led me to take up a very critical position on the effects of ‘Modernity.’ I have concluded that it is simply the reiteration of the classic feudal system, under the novice disguise of the city and its ‘new’ tools of control, which are urban design, architecture and cultural production. In spite of that, I do not end this project a cynic, for I am left, if with only one thing, the firm belief that it is people, the sun and the earth that move us, and not cranes.