The City Outside the Window

By Gareth Millington

Recently I have been thinking about two images. Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Young Man at his Window from 1876 and Jeff Wall’s colour photograph A View from an Apartment from 2004-05. In both works, the city (Paris and Vancouver respectively) is framed by an interior window within a domestic setting. Caillebotte’s painting is especaillebottecially significant for its time because it is an urban rather than a ‘natural’ scene that can be seen through the window.  The painting portrays Caillebotte’s younger brother René rising from his chair to nonchalantly stare, hands-in-pockets, at a female figure in the street (at the intersection of rue de Miromesnil and rue de Lisbonne). Rapetti (1995: 148) states of Caillebotte’s painting that it ‘stage[s] a confrontation between interior and exterior’. Moreover ‘[…] the modern world, and not only its exterior aspect: modern iconography was to go hand in hand with a modernity of feeling, with evocations of the effect produced by the new environment on individual human lives’ (ibid).

 

Jeff Wall’s photograph (below) also stages a combination of inside and outside.  It produces two pictorial worlds in a single image: the domestic interior occupied by two women, one reading a magazine in chair and the other attending to domestic chores; and the panorama of the port of Vancouver that is seen through the window. The household objects that are scattered, or cluttered, around the room provide the picture with a sense of everydayness that contrasts with the view from the window. As Wagstaff (2005: 18) comments, it is a ‘commonplace scene that functions as a quiet iconography of modern life’.

wallThese images are fascinating because they offer an insight into the relationship between the interior of urban homes and the boredom, desires and despondencies that are intertwined within this private space and the city outside—an element of urban enquiry I have come to think is under explored. More importantly I think, these two images, produced over a century apart, offer a remarkable mediation upon presence or being in the centre of the metropolis. In this way, interiority gains a triple meaning; the subjectivity of the lens and the actors, the domestic interior and its geographical location in the heart of the metropolis buttress each other to provide glimpses of an existential space; a haven that is a retreat from the modern world outside, but is also itself modern. These two images are not, at least relatively speaking, products of the gaze of the alienated; of a flanêur who is confined to the margins. The quiet, everyday quality of the presence depicted in these images is, as we now know, historical; it is no longer something to be complacent about, such are the centrifugal effects of rising rents and staggering property prices, not to mention forced relocation and dispersal from great metropolitan centres. There is also the issue of a generalised urbanization that has slowly erased the distinctiveness of the city and the metropolitan experience. Each image—Caillebotte’s in the style of high modernism and Wall’s photographic invocation of a late modern ‘urban lifestyle’—provides a reminder of an epoch of urban modernity that, we might argue, is eroding before our eyes.

I’m sure this contention will be too strong for some, such is the enduring vivacity of the city-image in common sense, popular culture and political discourse; a trend I have recently called ‘cultural cityism’ (Millington 2016). And yet, the easy, commonplace attitude of ‘nothing much in particular’ that pervades these artistic works—which prioritise interior tension over the exterior, materialist tension of ‘dialectical urbanism’ (Merrifield 2002)—provides a deep sense of uneasiness (that strange mix of desire and melancholy that Walter Benjamin saw combined in the ‘wish image’) when contrasted with the increasingly exclusive rights to urban inhabitability that are predominant in cities today; which is, of course, the place from where we view these images today. And yet, I am often wondering how the privations of our current urban age are being/ will be depicted. The nagging doubt, as Marshall Berman (1982: 24) once put it, is that maybe we have ‘lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognising ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time’. I’m not an art historian so I would genuinely be interested in receiving recommendations of art works from the last few decades that do convey a contemporary sense of displacement, loss or the new blossoming of urban life in unexpected places.

 

Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Verso

Merrifield, A. (2002) Dialectical Urbanism: Social Struggles in the Capitalist City. New York: Monthly Review Press

Millington, G. (2016) ‘Urbanization and the city image in Lowry at Tate Britain: Towards a critique of cultural cityism’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40 (4) 717–735

Rapetti, R. (1995) ‘Paris seen from a window’ in Distel, A, et al (eds) Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist. Paris: Abbeville Press

Wagstaff, S. (2005) Jeff Wall: Photographs 1978-2004. London: Tate

Archiving the City/ The City as Archive

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Registration is now open for this event in the UK, co-organised by Gareth Millington (University of York) who is also an assistant editor of JUCS:

Archiving the City/ The City as Archive

Thursday 16 March 2017, University of York, UK 10.00am-6.00pm

Confirmed keynote speakers: Sharon Macdonald (Humboldt), Paul Jones (Liverpool), Rebecca Madgin (Glasgow) and Graeme Gilloch (Lancaster).

This event, hosted by the Centre for Modern Studies and supported by the Department of History and Department of Sociology at University of York, considers the cultural forms through which the modern city is archived. It critically examines the different ways—via institutions, public art, collective practice, and more—in which urban history and memory are organised and presented in contemporary culture. It also engages with how the spaces and architecture of the city may themselves present as an archive, offering up reminders of social and cultural processes, imaginaries, struggles and events.

The symposium engages with Henri Lefebvre’s (2014) argument that the reign of the city is ending; that the city now only exists as an image and an idea. In addition, the importance of heritage in gentrification processes and the museification of the historic urban core reveals, at least in part, the sense of loss through which that the modern metropolis is remembered. This connects more broadly with Derrida’s (1996) notion of ‘archive fever’, which, he understands, is part of a compulsive, repetitive culture; a ‘homesickness’ born of a ‘nostalgic desire to return to the origin’ (ibid: 167). Through keynote speakers and panels the symposium will explore perspectives that make links between contemporary archiving processes, city museums, visual culture, heritage urbanism, ‘authenticity’ and the cultural regeneration of historic urban spaces.

Registration costs £10.00. You can book your place here: http://store.york.ac.uk/product-catalogue/centre-for-modern-studies/conferences
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‘Urban society is the battle ground for new forms of radical and progressive politics: it has to be’: Andy Merrifield on fifty years of the right to the city

Andy Merrifield is one of most cogent and absorbing writers on the French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. I have fond memories of reading his chapter on Lefebvre in the excellent collection of essays on Marxist thinkers on the city that Merrifield published in 2002, MetroMarxism.51c1w4lefel__sx335_bo1204203200_

I was coming towards the end of my PhD thesis at the time–in which I’d drawn upon Lefebvre a great deal–but I was still unsure whether my interpretation was ‘correct’ or whether it had any place at all in a thesis about racism on the periphery of the city and how some of the answers to overcoming this lie in urban space itself. Andy’s chapter provided the reassurance I needed. He is that kind of writer.

Just a few days ago Andy published another excellent piece on Lefebvre, this time celebrating (and commiserating) the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Right to the City. It’s an insightful and hopeful read in these worrying times and you can find it here:

https://andymerrifield.org/2017/01/22/fifty-years-on-the-right-to-the-city/

Another new JUCS assistant editor: Introducing Gareth Millington

Hello, I’m Gareth Millington, another of the new assistant editors on Journal of Urban Cultural Studies. I’m a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at University of York, UK. An urban sociologist ‘by trade’, I’m a member of CURB, University of York’s Centre for Urban Research and I also co-convene a research stream with David Huyssen in the University’s Centre for Modern Studies called Archiving the City.

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My work thus far has focused on ‘race’, racism, migration and urbanization. This culminated in my 2011 book ‘Race’, Culture and the Right to the City (Palgrave Macmillan). I have also written about urban protest and resistance, notably papers on the 2011 London riots (see ‘I Found the Truth in Foot Locker’ in Antipode last year) and a paper on resistance to territorial stigmatisation in a Parisian banlieue (co-authored with David Garbin and published in Urban Studies in 2012).

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My theoretical inspirations have tended to be authors such as Henri Lefebvre, Marshall Berman, Iris Marion Young and Paul Gilroy although more recently I have engaged considerably with the work of Jacques Rancière on the relationship between politics and aesthetics. (A short article on Berman, titled Right to the City (if you want it) was published in JUCS in 2015.)

In recent work I have attempted to examine some of the neglected cultural dimensions of so-called ‘planetary urbanization’. A paper from 2016 (published in IJURR) considers the clash of city images found at a recent L.S. Lowry exhibition at Tate Britain. My most recent book, published late in 2016, is the most significant product of this work. Titled Urbanization and the Migrant in British Cinema: Spectres of the City, the book closely examines the urban ‘content’ of a series of independent films made about migration during the late 1990s and early 2000s, arguing that together they comprise an incipient aesthetics of expansive urbanization; a mondialising aesthetic that differs radically from and counters that of the ‘classic’ mid-century metropolitan way of seeing the city.

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My current projects include a study of urban aesthetics in interior design magazines during the ‘long’ pre-Crash decade of 1997-2008 (using a cultural political economy approach) and a revisit of the territorial stigma study in La Courneuve, Paris with David Garbin, taking into consideration recent developments such as urban renewal, increased Islamophobia and the resurgence of Le Pen’s far right.

Anyway, that’s a quick-ish introduction. More from me soon!