Posts Tagged ‘art’

First-Person Flaneur

November 1, 2015


(c) 2015 Laurence Lek


Bonus Levels is a series of beautifully realised recreations of London locations, re-imagined as Ballardian dreamscapes, elements of an impossible city. In After Us, creator Lawrence Lek describes his work as ‘architecture as site-specific simulation’, in which existing parts of the cityscape and its institutions are ‘reconfigured and subverted’ by some apocalyptic or economic shock. I think this can help us think about real-world urban change too. Let’s look at a couple of examples.


In ‘Dalston, Mon Amour’, some familiar landmarks of the Kingsland Road – the Rio Cinema, Gillett Square and once on-trend Efes Bar are rendered empty and open to the elements after a biblical weather event. Terraformed by desert and water, Renais’ film plays in the background as the sky darkens.


(c) 2015 Laurence Lek


You can certainly treat this work as satirical – hipster touchstones crumbled into dust – and Lek is clear that this is part of the point. The use of video game aesthetics is also nice, although as Lek points out, ‘the player begins when the game is already over’: it’s first-person flaneur. The game framing also exacerbates the dreamlike quality of each episode – background sounds pan around, and there are sudden changes in perspective or time of day.

There’s also a deeper, uncanny power to it. Places we knew and hold dear, transformed into dreamspaces. As Adam points out, Vermilion Sands, The Sprawl or De Chirico are never far away. But also – for some viewers – their own memories are reconfigured. As Lek argues, the more time you spend in each episode, the more meaning your own mind layers over it.


I experienced a real-world retelling of my own world a few months back, in farcical form, as a group of us were taken on a guided tour of ’Silicon Roundabout and Tech City’. The tour had felt like a good idea as part of a new paper we’ve been writing on the East London tech scene: in practice it involved much psychodrama.

As the tour went on, for example, I was alarmed to find that the guide’s spiel included numerous factoids taken from my own research, fed back in slightly distorted form. Even worse, as we left Old St roundabout we were taken to the Foundry, a now-deceased bar and venue my friends and I spent much time in during years gone by, and which was shut down amid much protest. The guide described it as an ‘important cultural institution throughout the 90s and some of the 00s’: opening up a chasm of lost time in the process. The site now houses the Hoxton Pastry Union, an almost comically resonant symbol of the changes the neighbourhood has since gone through.

Sharing this moment with friends afterwards, it became clear what a powerful charge it packed.



A more formal way to think about Lek’s project is a series of spatial imaginaries, Bob Jessop’s term for the mental maps we all use to get purchase on everyday life. More formally, Jessop means imaginaries to act as mapping systems or ‘fixes’ that allow agents to navigate otherwise impossibly complex late capitalism.

Imaginaries – like Silicon Roundabout / Tech City itself – are necessarily partial, pushing some elements to the fore and ignoring others. They are thus ripe for the kind of reconfiguring and questioning Lek engages in.

Part of the paper I’m working on looks at Here East, the vast Olympic Broadcast and Media Centre which is being rapidly transformed into a new, maker-focused neighbourhood. On a recent visit the site was still under construction, but we got a clear sense of the developers’ vision.


(c) 2015 Max Nathan


Notice how the rebrand involves both a new name, a new industrial niche, and a spatial repositioning of the site, away from Stratford and into Hackney, specifically the artist-centric milieu of Hackney Wick which sits just over the canal.


I was happy to see that Bonus Levels has also engaged with this territory. ‘Delirious New Wick’ is a hysterical rebuild of E9 and the Olympic Park, in which the Games’ iconic structures float above the park and are accessed through teleporters. A gorgeous Burial soundtrack runs in the background as we float high above the city, before descending onto the ruins of the Westfield mall, now partially submerged in an Arthurian Lake. It is heady, brilliant stuff.

Minor fame

September 2, 2012

The Guardian‘s Weekend Magazine have chosen this photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge as one of their pictures of the week. Marvellous!

Sadly we didn’t get out of bed quick enough to buy the paper, but the moment lives forever on their website.


The picture was originally used to illustrate ‘A Hidden Geography’, written in the Bay Area in late 2009.

The Terminal Beach

January 5, 2012

Orford Ness is one of the most extraordinary places in England. A spit of land on the Suffolk Coast near Aldeburgh, it was used as an experimental weapons testing site in both world wars and during the Cold War.

It’s now a National Trust nature reserve and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. However, it still holds traces of its mysterious former life.

Old military bunkers and pagoda-like blast chambers dot the landscape. From viewing towers, vast diagrams are visible on the ground, purpose unknown. Parts of the spit are still off-limits.

Reuben and I visited the site in October with our cameras. You can see some of the photographs on Flickr. The full set of pictures are in this lovely microsite.

Lie down and be counted

January 10, 2011

A new year’s present for you all. I’ve got a new (old) mix out on the Broken20 label, a spin-off from the all-conquering Numbers empire. The mix is part of Broken20’s series of podcasts (here’s the iTunes feed) which is well worth signing up to.

Click here to download the mix. Blurb and tracklisting below.

Thanks again to Broken20 and to Rauridh for putting this out.

Happy listening!


I put this mix together in summer 2005. It was originally designed for playing on Sunday afternoons at the Foundry, East London, where slow sound system ran sporadic listening sessions from 2003 to 2009.

I took a fairly loose-limbed approach in assembling the thing. There’s a lot of the new weird america and free-folk / psyche stuff my friends and I were listening to at the time, alongside some field recordings, lo-fi stuff, electronics, outish rock, John Fahey and Can. Heroically, I included pretty much the full 18 minutes of ‘Augmn’ which seemed like a good idea at the time. You’ll have to judge for yourselves.

The mix was recorded on three portable cd players to minidisc. One take, no edits or post-production.

Chris Watson – The Crossroads (Touch)
Growing – Primitive Associations / Great Mass Above (Kranky)
Rafael Toral – We Are Getting Closer (Touch)
Masaki Batoh – Benthos (Drag City)
Janek Schaeffer – Love Song (Room40)
Black Dice – Skeleton (Fat Cat)
Can – Augmn (Spoon / Mute)
Kammerflimmer Kollektief – Unstet (für Jeffrey Lee Pierce) (Staubgold)
Beta Band – The Monolith (Regal Recording)
Jackie-O-Motherfucker – Lost Stone (ATP / Ecstatic Peace)
John Fahey – Untitled With Rain (Revenant)
Saya, Takashi Ueno, Koji Shibuya & John Chantler – Mizumitaida (Fat Cat demo)
Motion – Dispersal Patterns (Motion)
Motion – Outlev (Motion)
So – j (Thrill Jockey)
Chris Watson – The Crossroads (reprise) (Touch)

Fortresses of Insanity

November 14, 2010

Der Spiegel, one of Germany’s biggest papers, has published some of my sea forts pictures, and run a fascinating backstory (in German) about life on board. Enough said. See it here.

You can also find out more about the forts, including how to visit, at the Project Redsand website.

A hidden geography

December 3, 2009

Eleven weeks in, five more to go, and I’m still finding my way around this place. It’s got me thinking about the different ways we can get to know a city. How to get under the skin?

The job of geography is to explain the production of space, place and the everyday life of those places. Jane Jacobs tells us to think about cities as ‘problems in organised complexity’. We should pick an angle and work around it, pick another and connect to the first, and so on.

Why and where

This works for me. My way in is via urban economics and economic geography. The first task is to draw a line. In practice, it’s many overlapping boundaries – from satellite images, terrain maps, political units, transport networks.

We identify hubs and start linking them up. Then we can begin to fill in what happens where and why. At base, economic geography is about understanding the push and pull forces that help explain location. At the heart of successful places are increasing returns – from matching, sharing and learning. Feedback loops amplify these returns; bad luck or bad choices can run them down. Each local recipe is always slightly different.

So we start with people’s ‘demand for urbanness’. Then by looking at who gains and how, we can factor in the institutional, class and political forces shaping production.

The best geography of this kind – Jacobs, Michael Storper, Ian Gordon, David Harvey – succeeds in connecting macro to micro, megatrends to real places.  But a lot of everyday life falls between the lines – the ‘Bay Area-ness’ of the Bay Area is gone. What can bring it back?

The city as conversation

The local mediascape is more powerful than you’d think. As Jane Jacobs says, we should look less at the front pages and more at the small ads to understand what’s truly valued – or what isn’t. Dave Eggers’ San Francisco Panorama is a fantastic piece of street-level writing, if nothing else.

The city as story

Fiction helps us intuit urban experience. Each of the eight million stories in the Naked City reveals a little more of New York. The Wire does the same for Baltimore, to the point that it’s hardly a crime show at all. David Simon says it aims to be “…a show that would, with each season, slice off another piece of the American city, so that by the end of the run, a simulated Baltimore would stand in for urban America, and the fundamental problems of urbanity would be fully addressed.”

The city as you find it

Benjamin and his disciples in psychogeography show how powerful wandering, image and imagination can be for understanding urbanity. Essentially you are wiring the city into yourself, from your own impressions and resonant memories. These are Lefebvre’s ‘representational spaces’, or lived space. Yours is only one of eight million stories, but if intuition is a kind of hyperlogic, others will share it. This excellent post by Owen Hatherley on seeing Sheffield via Red Riding, brutalist architecture and Warp is a great example.

The city as game

The mobile and social web is – finally – starting to help us multiply urban possibilities. Matt Jones talks about a better kairos – more opportunity, richer knowledge – as technology tells us more about where we are, what’s happened, or who’ll be around. And one level up, we’re using the data itself. Here’s Dan Hill mapping a building from the wifi cloud. Or MIT’s Senseable City Lab using mobile phone data in real-time urban heat maps; or Mapumental linking access, price and quality of neighbourhood life. Urban Tick has masses of interesting real-time stuff.

For me, this is exciting but risky: the danger in this perspective is that urban life reduces to codeable routines or design solutions. A city can’t always be hacked.

Being there

As Benjamin says,  ‘the power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane … Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.’

The most knowledgeable people I’ve met here have simply spent a lot of time in the Bay Area. They’ve walked the roads; they know it inside out. So I leave you with A Hidden Geography, an awesome piece of spatial synthesis by UC Berkeley’s Richard Walker. As a layering of image and text, framework and dot-joining, it’s hard to beat. Enjoy it.

Money for nothing

October 31, 2009

buy it

Some of my photographs have been on sale at Getty Images for a few months now. The other day I received my first royalty cheque. Like Facebook, I finally have a revenue stream, if not a profit margin.

I’m not about to give up the day jobs. Putting most of my pictures online for free, then selling a few of them isn’t really a business model. As Will suggests here and here, it’s hard to see how you can sustain yourself purely through creative / artistic activity. In the case of photography, cheap digital hardware has democratised picture taking, but also flooded the market with images. Sites like Flickr function as a kind of Long Tail art gallery – nothing in the vaults, everything on the walls. And IP is all over the place.

I use a Creative Commons license for most of my pictures, largely because I want to encourage people to use them (with credit) rather than just steal them. So far it’s worked out quite well. Various shots have appeared on sites like Londonist, and on random photo blogs, bringing people back to my Flickr pages. That bumps up my stats and my place in the Flickr universe, which makes me more visible when people like Getty come calling.

As I said, I couldn’t live off this. But most creative people don’t survive purely on their creative work. For example, as part of this report for NESTA, I interviewed various fashion designers, all of whom had a portfolio of fashion-related activity – modelling, consulting, organising shows, lecturing, even some sewing – as well as designing their own collections. The pro-am economy argument has always felt a bit specious: looking back at the history of music, for example, ‘amateur practitioners’ have always been the norm. And the chance to move from ‘am’ to ‘pro’ is going to stay vanishingly small.

For bigger companies the challenges are different. As Matt Mason suggests in The Pirate’s Dilemma, the toughest issue is IP. He suggests companies find ways to embrace ‘pirates’ – by which he means both actual copyright breakers, and people doing radical innovation in the same marketplace. Getty has done this quite neatly. A company selling pictures at a premium is faced with a universe of free or cheaper online content, some of it done by professional photographers. Rather than trying to close down the internet, it imports some of the free content, exploiting its brand power and creating a (fairly) exclusive members’ club [group link]. Those 60,000-odd images then get sold through one of Getty’s existing royalty regimes, giving them a fat 80% of the selling price. Trebles all round!

Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk

September 8, 2009

images by suki chan,

My friend Suki has made a new film / installation about life in the city, using footage from around London and interviews with various urbanites (including me – fame at last!). Sleep Walk, Sleep Talk is part of Free To Air, a four-year programme of commissions and events loosely organised around the idea of urban freedom.

The installation is showing at 198 Contemporary Arts in SW9 from 14 September to 19 October. There’s a private view on Monday night – email me if you’d like an invite.

The gallery says:

A London of fast-blinking lights and speeding commuters, where cars and trains leave luminous comet-trails marking their passage through the night, and where individuals reflect on freedom in the urban metropolis, or seek escape from the repetitive habits and conditions it enforces.

Inspired by ideas of freedom of expression in contemporary society, Suki Chan’s new video installation is an impressionistic study of London’s diverse population … Chan’s work weaves together a series of evocative video portraits highlighting people’s different responses to the hubbub of London life. Groups of skaters, unimpeded by traffic, move freely through the twilight city, tracing an intuitive map of the metropolis. Nigerian security guards gatekeeping a deserted high-rise office block compare the ‘freedom’ of London with their rhythms and aspirations of their former life. While city commuters embody the regularity of everyday urban existence.

I’d recommend going even if I wasn’t in it – Suki’s film work is always very beautiful to look at. In the meantime, or if you’re not in town, you can watch some excerpts here.

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