STEREOSCOPE: BERLIN / DAMASCUS
a project by Kari Rittenbach
STEREOSCOPE: Berlin, Damascus The metropolis is a common world, everyone's product – Not general will but common aleatoriness. —Negri[i] STEREOSCOPE is a process of both reading and recording the vernacular visual language of the “post-global” urban environment. Contrary to prior predictions[ii], the digital age has not yet led to the death of the city; nor has it affected a downturn in the rapidly increasing physical translocation of people[iii]. The city remains a dynamic space, perhaps even more in keeping with Negri’s rule; the opportunity for confused chance encounters, transcultural exposure and the gaze of strangers keeping pace with the growing efficiency of aerospace technologies. The flaneur’s footstep traces a wider path. How, then, does this extended and more diversified traffic descend upon and disperse itself within the urban space, today? When linguistic or cultural cues might ultimately fail, through what means does the contemporary metropolis indicate itself—let alone imprint itself on the imagination of the wayward traveler, the transitive inhabitant? Pre-packaged, well-preserved monuments in the style of state-sanctioned spectacle do not always lend themselves to characterization. The TV tower-dotted skyline of Shanghai, Chicago’s antennae-spiked Sears Tower, the monolithic Hallgrímskirkja on the hill in Reykjavik are not much more than cliché, superficial indicators; offering picturesque postcard impressions of the city that are as easily collectible as disposable. And yet the traveler constantly seeks to define the city in which he has only just arrived, comparing it to those he has since left, and in fact to all of the cities he has known in his life. In the street, a woman remarks that the size of the cobblestones remind her of a certain back alley in Brussels; Calvino recalls Zirma with “distinct memories: a blind black man shouting in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper’s cornice, a girl walking with a puma on a leash”[iv]. Perhaps the city exists more sustainably, more surrealistically, in the memory of its tenants (however temporary), revealing its particularities through seemingly mundane physical, topographical and atmospheric traces. These subjective ephemeral qualities may perhaps be understood as a type of urban topoi koinoi, defined by Aristotelian philosophy as the “common places” of language, or the “most generally valid logical and linguistic forms of all of our discourse [that] allow for the existence of every individual expression we use.”[v] STEREOSCOPE contemplates the “common places” of urban language—recognizable, accessible "topoi koinoi" in the cities of Berlin, Germany and Damascus, Syria—“logical” forms or structures present in the everyday life of the metropolis that necessarily allow for the “individual expression” of a specific region. It is an examination of the extent to which the model of the multi-national corporation and consequent exchange of goods, people, and information has proliferated codes of standardization and cultural homogeneity; and whether this phenomenon is locally visible at street-level. Is the complex organ of the city more or less than the sum of its interchangeable parts? Zizek has articulated the paradox of the post-global state: Today’s resistance to capitalism reproduces the same antagonism. Calls for the defense of particular (cultural, ethnic) identities being threatened by global dynamics coexist with the demands for more global mobility (against the new barriers imposed by capitalism, which concern, above all, the free movement of individuals).[vi] How does the "topoi koinoi" of the urban landscape—the crosswalk, the subway rails, the café, the street sign in neon lights—either support or refute this paradox? Describing philological "topoi koinoi", Paolo Virno writes: “These common places, and these alone, are what exist in terms of offering us a standard of orientation, and thus, some sort of refuge from the direction in which the world is going.”[vii] So too do the intuitive common places of the city; comprising a number of signs (in the semiotic sense) along the personalized route of the displaced inhabitant’s Benjaminian Einbahnstrasse, in which each encounter becomes an opportunity for observation and reflection. The pedestrian thus becomes at once cipher, reader, ethnographer. Calvino writes: The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s…If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel…Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting [Tamara] you are only recording the names with which she defines all her parts.[viii] The observational method of STEREOSCOPE is also metaphorically functional. Using low-fi technological means, more or less similar Tamara-esque street views are recorded from slightly different perspectival angles and juxtaposed in particular ways to widen the experiential space of the exhibition; providing the illusion of a greater depth of field, at least within the representational limitations of a virtual reality. Berlin is a burgeoning city of students, creative artists and thinkers with a history of division and revision. A city of over three million only recently opened (in its entirety) to capitalistic development since German reunification in 1989, it is the largest and arguably most cosmopolitan of the nation’s cities. Damascus is also the capital and largest city in Syria, home to a diverse population of approximately six million and a storied past as the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world. Open to foreign investment since Bashar al-Assad’s succession in 2000, Damascus has the capacity to develop into a significant global presence on cultural, political and economic levels. Historically, Berlin and Damascus have experienced periods of Soviet-socialist influence, evident in the angles of certain administrative buildings scattered throughout both cities; but mere surface similarities are not wholly relevant to STEREOSCOPE. The dynamic position of each urban center as a newly emerging, newly developing global city is more substantial cause for comparison;[ix] but in fact, every city can potentially be so surveyed or “read.” Furthermore, this collection of images is not intended to overtly emphasize particular political or social hegemonies; traversing both Berlin and Damascus from the point of view of the stranger will perhaps eliminate geographical subjectivity and lead to a constructive study of the subtle ways in which the new global metropolises—either stylistically or structurally—differentiate themselves and blend together again into an even tighter internationalist fabric of interdependency and shared cultural experience. What beloved being does not envelope landscapes, continents, and populations that are more or less known, more or less imaginary? –Deleuze[x] [i] Negri, Antonio. “The Multitude and the Metropolis.” (2002) [ii] “Techno-futurists, from Alvin Toffler to Nicholas Negroponte, had forecast that computers would have a decentralizing impact on work. Power, population and wealth would no longer need to be concentrated in metro centers.” (see Ross, Andrew. “Dot.com Urbanism.” Mediaspace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age. Ed. Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy. Oxon: Routledge, 2004.) [iii] “Given such a capacity for presencing at a distance, or for multiple (imaginative and virtual) ‘mobilities’ via electronic media, why is it, then, that people continue to feel the need for corporeal travel in order to be with others in physical places?” (see Moores, Shaun. “The Doubling of Place.” ibid.) [iv] Calvino, Italo. Trans. William Weaver. Invisible Cities. San Diego: Harcourt, 1972. [v] As described by Virno in: Virno, Paolo. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson. “A Grammar of the Multitude.” Semiotext(e). (2004) [vi] Zizek, Slavoj. “The Ongoing ‘Soft Revolution’.” Critical Inquiry. 30 (Winter 2004) [vii] Virno, Paolo. Trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, Andrea Casson. “A Grammar of the Multitude.” Semiotext(e). (2004): 37 [viii] Calvino, Invisible Cities. [ix] For a more data-comprehensive comparative analysis of supercities, see Richard Saul Wurman’s base map standardization project at http://192021.org. [x] Deleuze, Gilles. Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. “What Children Say.” Essays Critical and Clinical. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
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