Urban Questions: Personal and Political Interrogations

andy merrifield

Previously published in March 2014 at Pluto Press Blog

By Andy Merrifield

In 1977, when Manuel Castells’ classic book, The Urban Question, was first put into English, I’d been a year out of secondary school, in Liverpool. It was five years after its original French publication, four years since an OPEC oil embargo had sent advanced economies into giddy noise dives, and a year on from the Sex Pistols’ debut hit, Anarchy in the UK. These were heady times, the 1970s, full of crises and chaos, a post-1968 era of psychological alienation and economic annihilation, of Punk Rock and Disco, of Blue Mondays and Saturday Night Fever. The decade was also a great testing ground for a book bearing the subtitle, A Marxist Approach. Indeed, the same year as The Urban Question: A Marxist Approach became available to Anglophone audiences, the Sex Pistols were screaming, “THERE’S NO FUTURE, NO…

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The Beach Beneath the Street

Andrea Gibbons

10325403If anyone can rescue the Situationist International from a descent into artistic inconsequentiality, it is McKenzie Wark. I always saw amongst their work sparks of interest, but limited sparks. Dying embers maybe. This shifted some of my thinking, and there is a lot here, I think, that continues to demand theoretical and practical work. Perhaps because it is firmly rooted in practice, written by someone who wishes to change the world. Changing the world is always where I though the Situationists fell down the most, their self-published words and collages  greatly removed from the very really battles then and now shaping the dialectic between our physical environment and our lives and the shape of our thought. Where their work is useful for imagining change, you can find it here, and in a lovely selection of their own words in tom mcdonaugh’s edited collection the situationists and the city. But…

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The living building


Buildings – even the most cement-filled – are organic; they change through interaction with the parasites that infest them (us, mostly). How often do architects consider this? Ask any scientist who moves into a new laboratory building and you’ll be met with eyerolls and exasperated stories. The new neuroscience institute that I work in is fantastic in many ways, but has some extremely puzzling features such as the need to repeatedly use an ID card to unlock almost every door in the lab. This is in contrast to my previous home of the Salk Institute which was a long open space separated only by clear glass allowing free movement and easy collaboration.

I mostly mention this because the video above – on How Buildings Learn – has a fantastic story at the beginning about MIT’s famous media lab:

I was at the Media Lab when it was brand new. In the…

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[New issue] Journal of Urban Cultural Studies [2.1-2]

The new issue of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies is available in print and via pdf through library subscription. In addition to an editorial, 4 research articles, and 4 short-form articles, this one features a special section on Urban Soundscapes guest edited by Aileen Dillane And  Tony Langlois And  Martin J. Power And  Orfhlaith Ní Bhriain.

Volume 2 Issue 1-2

Cover Date: June 2015

Text to street: Urban cultural studies as theorization and practice

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Cape Town and the sustainable city in the writing of Henrietta Rose-Innes
Authors:  Loren Kruger

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‘X marks the spot’: Urban dystopia, slum voyeurism and failures of identity in District X
Authors:  Martin Lund

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Electronic music scenes: A comparison of the diverging spatial contexts of the electronic dance music scenes of Berlin and Amsterdam
Authors:  Hade Dorst

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Vagón fumador: Desire and dissatisfaction in the neo-liberal nocturnal city
Authors:  Fernando Sdrigotti

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Urban soundscapes and critical citizenship: Explorations in activating a ‘sonic turn’ in urban cultural studies

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Dead industrial atmosphere: Popular music, cultural heritage and industrial cities
Authors:  Giacomo Bottà

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At home, I’m a tourist: Musical migration and affective citizenship in Berlin
Authors:  Luis-Manuel Garcia

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Our sounds, our city: Urban soundscapes, critical citizenship and the ‘LimerickSoundscapes’ project
Authors:  Aileen Dillane And  Tony Langlois

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Ragged places and smooth surfaces: Audio walks as practices of making and doing the city
Authors:  Kate Moles And  Angharad Saunders

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‘Our Sonic Playground’: A model for active engagement in urban soundscapes
Authors:  Eric Leonardson

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The right to the city (If You Want It): Marshall Berman and urban culture
Authors:  Gareth Millington

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Neo-liberalism: Persistence and resistance
Authors:  Linus Owens

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Public art practice and urban change: An interview with public art activist Jack Becker

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Madrid’s Gran Vía: An urban cultural history and digital project
Authors:  Benjamin Fraser

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The Time of Seoul

The city is a tangle of temporalities; a privileged time-space where the physics of relativity and lived everyday reality meet.  It is not a mistake that Einstein chose a resolutely “modern” example like the “train thought experiment” to illustrate a relativist understanding of space-time.  Yet it’s not that the city is qualitatively different than either earlier, “pre-modern” or non-urban spaces, it’s that the city is sine qua non a space where different temporalities are produced.  Indeed, that may be the primary draw of the city, and the reason for its growing popularity–to the point where we are an urban species, so inured to the city’s ecologies that we cannot help but think about the “rural” as a series of negative values (cf. Raymond Williams, “The Country and the City”).  And in South Korea, a supremely urbanized nation (even in our urbanized world), it is no accident that travel to small towns and provincial cities during the holiday seasons is often likened to travelling back in time.  That said, though, it would be a mistake to miss the essential heterogeneity of urban time.
In other words, the urban gives us what me might regard as contemporary time, but also eddies of relativistic time.  This is at the core of LeFebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, where “linear” time collides with “cyclical” time.

The relations of the cyclical and the linear–interactions, interferences, the domination of one over the other, or the rebellion of one against the other–are not simple: there is between them an antagonistic unity.  They penetrate each other, but in an interminable struggle: sometimes compromise, sometimes disruption.  However, there is between them an indissoluble unity: the repetitive tick of the clock measures the cycle of hours and days.  In industrial practice, where the linear repetitive tends to predominate, the struggle is intense. (85)

LeFebvre’s focus on the chrono-struggle of the city is an important insight.  In the ruinous, “creative destruction” of the capitalist city, corporations wring value from the urban by manipulating temporalities.  One need only consider the recent investigative journalism from the New York Times on abuses at Amazon: the corporation exploits temporalities to a dizzying degree–to the lasting detriment of their employees.  But this “struggle” can take many forms; power (and exploitation) take on a different calculus in different examples.  This, of course, is another benefit to the city: it is both incubator and laboratory for temporal disjuncture, with, for example, different development strategies being examples of not only spatial experiments, but (and oftentimes disastrously), temporal experiments.
Let’s take these two photos taken along Seoul’s principle North-South axial boulevard, Sejong-no.

The first shows adherent of Falun Gong (法輪功) meditating on a corner of Sejong-no and the Cheonggye-cheon (청계천).  They’re there, of course, to both publicize the plight of Falun Going in the PRC, as well as gain new adherents. Given the importance of meditation to Falun Gong, it’s not particularly surprising that they would choose this method to spread their message.  However: the power of the practice lies (at least in part) in the juxtaposition of temporal rhythms: the rhythms of meditation against the linear rhythms of traffic and commuting.

The second photo shows Sejong-no from almost the same spot.  I’m standing just a few meters north of where the Falun Gong supporters were meditating.  It’s Seoul’s annual Lotus Lantern Festival (연등축제): thousands of people converging on the center of Seoul for a festival, huge parade, and various speeches from Korea’s 조계 (Jogye) order of Buddhism.  This year, the festival occurred close to Buddha’s Birthday (a cyclic event) during the year 2559 of the Buddhist calendar.

Of course, both of these involve religious ritual practice, and therefore carve out distinct temporalities from the urban flow around them.  But the similarities soon end.  Falun Gong adherents occupy a small corner of Sejong-no, sharing space with tourists, evangelical Christians, right-wing nationalists and others.  Moreover, they hold an extremely marginal position in South Korea society, with the government reportedly under pressure from China not to accept Falun Gong refugees.  The Lotus Lantern Festival, on the other hand, is a powerful spectacle of religion and nation: the entire street is closed down and festival attendees’ attentions are focused on the main stage stage set directly in front of the Gwanghwamun (광화문), with the festivities broadcast on a couple of huge digital screens for those of us without front-row seats. During the short time of the festival (and culminating here on Sejong-no), the different temporalities of Buddhism and nation coincide along a spatial axis that connects Gwanghwamun with the rest of Korea and with the world.  Indeed, the speeches themselves tied Buddhism and the Jogye order directly to the health of the Korean state–a nod to the importance Buddhism has held in the formation of Korea (despite its political and geographic marginalization during the Joseon Dynasty).

So: while temporality, power and religion are closely linked in any ritual, I would also suggest that, in the city, power inheres in the (temporary) alignment of different temporalities.  Perhaps this is one reason for the marginalization of Falun Gong.  With adherents quietly meditating on the corner, the practice stays bottled up in what onlookers might regard as an insouciant temporality.  But were it able to line up with other times?  What then?

New Dotmasters Works In Camden Town

London Calling Blog

Last week in Camden Town stencil based Street Artist Leon Seesix, aka Dotmasters, was about in order to lay out a series of his newest stencils. Earlier this year Dotmasters’ was busy at work placing up his ‘Rude Kids’ works all around the East End of London, for his most recent wave of pieces in Camden Town, he has placed up one feature work featuring the tagging of the Mona Lisa and a series of pieces making fun of the modern obsession with social media Instagram, and its relationship with Street Art. These works were placed up with support from The Real Art of Street Art.



‘Made For Instagram’ in ready to made square framing.




Dotmasters has made the piece more interactive by offering up the correct viewing, and therefore photographing point,


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Screening “Unmappable” in Rio


Poster_Unmappable_MDMD_Rio2015The Art & Cartography commission will be pretty active at the 27th International Cartographic Conference in Rio. We are organizing A workshop entitled Mapping Ephemeralities / Ephemeral Cartographies (Aug. 21-22, 2015) +  a few paper sessions + our commission meeting on August 25th (17:20 to 18:30) + a film screening.

Indeed, following a tradition started in 2009, this year we will be screening “Unmappable” a 20 min. documentary directed by Diane Hodson and Jasmine Luoma, that presents an original perspective on the life of the most famous (and controversial) contemporary critical cartographer: Denis Wood. This “thought-provoking and disturbing” documentary (as described by Wired) has received several awards in film festivals. This screening will be preceded by the world premiere of a short collective film entitled “Let’s get lost.” This “cartomentary” is about the secret development of a multimentional mapping device designed to map fictional places…


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DIY Utopia: Floating Cities, Crowdfunding, Disruptive Technologies

The Dark Fantastic: Literature, Philosophy, and Digital Arts


J.G. Ballard believed that our surveillance society of unfreedom would soon lead its citizens into the dangerous territory of personal and collective forms of psychopathology ‘in order to enlarge the scope of their lives and imaginations’.1

The future is no longer a fictional site for your dreams, instead in our time the future is nothing more than a DIY Toolkit for your psychopathological dreams: a crowdfunding enterprise for building experimental utopias among the ruins of global capital.

Nicole Sallak Anderson tells us that for any technologically advanced society to move forward and truly become a technically and socially sustainable, we must change the story of our lives from competition to collaboration. She also lists the aspects of such a successful transition will entail universal access to information; decentralization of food, healthcare, education, currency, and manufacturing; decoupling of work and personal definition; universal basic income; servant leadership; and a participatory and cosmopolitan democratariat.


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“Through A Window” application of Rhythmanalysis at SFU

Society for Radical Geography, Spatial Theory, and Everyday Life

An exhibit at Simon Fraser University is exploring the application of Lefebvre’s rhythmanalysis in art! “Curated by Melanie O’Brian and Amy Kazymerchyk, Through A Window traces the history of art at SFU of the past 50 years. The inspiration behind the project stems from Henri Lefebvre’s book Rhythmanalysis (1992), particularly the chapter “Seen from the Window,” which allows us to consider three social, spatial, and material windows of SFU, and explore different rhythms since SFU’s inception in 1965.

Lefebvre’s method of rhythmanalysis begins with observing the rhythms of the body and how they are impacted by the natural and synthetic rhythms of the economies and cultures we live within, which in turn produces social practices and public spaces.

‘It is such a big idea, and SFU is a portal,’ explained Melanie O’Brian, the director of SFU Galleries. “Here we can look at those big and small rhythms in a…

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