Considering derelict urban spaces as metaphor for escapism and reflection
In his unfinished collection of writings on the city life of Paris the Arcades Project¹ (Passagenwerk, 1927 – 1940), Walter Benjamin asserted that the modern city is experienced in a passive state of distraction. This suggests a coping mechanism for everyday life: a perceived need to adhere to accepted codes of public conduct, numb fear in relation to the authority of urban planning and the wilful projection of consciousness into the world of the advertising poster, aspects as relevant today as when they were first articulated. The message is clear; everyday life is mundane and as such there is a demand for escapism (that can be exploited). Certain things are necessary but they are not what dreams are made of, and so the expanding popularity of escapism becomes prone to commercialisation.
Henri Lefebvre expands Benjamin’s ideas in the Critique of Everyday Life² (Critique de la Vie Quotidienne, 1947) which was a powerful influence on the activities of the Situationists. Here he observes the experience of everyday living to be undermined by the experience of capitalism. Accordingly, the mundane is subordinated by a perceived need or desire to escape, perpetuating a sense of powerlessness. Instead, Lefebvre posits, everyday life finds its assertion through festival; a self-governing collaboration that celebrates and elevates aspects of the everyday with revolutionary potential. Nonetheless the festival, once a key element of community cohesion and self-pride, is centred on celebration and moments of ecstasy. Ultimately it translates to instants of self-effacement which fall easily under the banner of consumerism as leisure comes to be one of the major strands of free enterprise. It is a question of perceived powerlessness much like the hangover that follows, and whether the desire to escape can ever be politicised.
The revolution of the ordinary and commonplace evokes the politicising of escapism and it has frequently manifested itself throughout recent art history. Often it takes the form of an antidote to the alienating impact that an advanced technological society has had on the individual, primarily within Western Europe and the United States. From Impressionism to Dadaism and Surrealism, then more recently Situationism, each movement proposed an architectural blueprint to build the critical space needed for reflection from which man would be able to master his world once more. In 1968 as Modernism was giving way to Post-modernism, the Situationists proclaimed themselves to be the last avant-garde during the French Social Revolution in the spring of that year (before dissolving as a group four years later³). This juncture with Modernism illuminates the complex relationship that an artistic approach to empowerment has with urban life in present day consumerist society.
The Situationists had largely rejected the gallery white cube in favour of the construction of situations employing the city streets (particularly the Parisian streets) as their canvas. Establishing self-determination in the navigation of life as a series of constructed situations was to blend the theories of Existentialism and Lefebvre. The advocating of practices that might disturb or re-appropriate the rationalised efficient order of the city has in some respects meant that the Situationist ideas have a legacy as we can see with such practices of derive (drift) and detournement (the practice of making detours, thereby re-routing or re-ordering a given formation) in graffiti and skateboarding today. By extension, it would be tempting to define graffiti art to be the last painterly gesture in which a democratic conception of individual creative intent becomes manifest. Graffiti undermines the commercial order of society by visualising a voice of discontent, at least until it is washed away, tagged or sprayed over; its ephemeral nature resists a notion of art as material practice that contributes to the production of sellable artefacts. Nevertheless, to settle at such a conclusion now is problematic when a building is dismantled to auction a piece of graffiti (taking the graffiti artist Banksy as an example).
The tendency for rebellious artists to eventually be embraced by the art market, or more generally the system, is well-documented and does not require elaboration here. An industrial system can applaud those voices of discontent and even elevate the financial value of such statements of resistance to its very existence. This begs the question of whether we can continue to understand everyday living to be undermined in the same manner posited by Lefebvre or at least in the manner in which the Situationists understood it and translated this position into artistic practice. The exploitation of escapism and the appetite for participation in shaping its development has been the very undoing of such philosophies espoused by the avant-garde. It is plausible to contend that we need only turn on a TV set to witness a parade of ordinary or even trivial aspects of everyday life alongside the stories of those attempting its transformation. In other words, the minutia of everyday life asserts itself through festival and we can now subscribe to the channel.
The creative efforts by ordinary people to change their circumstances of living span music, dance, drama, but equally, design, business and competition. These come to be assimilated by the entertainment industry (reality TV, talent shows, docu-dramas) thereby usurping a given norm in favour of implementing diverse encounters which is in many respects welcomed. Not only is it likely to provide the stuff of prime-time viewing, an entrepreneurial culture needs such a state of affairs for its continual evolution through innovation and novelty. Intervention transpires to be a means of interaction, whether critical or playful; the Situationist belief in appropriation is now appropriated and employed in the mantra of consumption as advantaged via collaboration and participation. Everyday life comes to be fetishized in all its grim detail whilst new media provide the plinth upon which we can place our dirty laundry or simply come to gaze at each other’s.
Industrialised society recognises that people require opportunities for reflection as well as escapism; to reflect upon experiences we value and to acquire experiences of being valued. By interacting with our surroundings we validate our surroundings, both actual and virtual, but while we participate we are fully aware that this is consumerist in nature. Such a state of affairs gives rise to a situation repugnant to the left or liberal minded. The potential for self-expression through consumption might convey an ambiguity of power relations but thinking that way is a potential trap. A struggle for recognition of equal aesthetic rights amongst art forms is not resolved as the emergence of collective consensus drives content, even if some ivory towers are toppled by interactive media (particularly the internet) in the process. The architecture of urbanity is not so much faceless, rather it is reflective, like an internet cache our searches reflect back upon us all the more poignantly when we consider our increased awareness of surveillance. Marginalisation emerges as a flip-side to the power of the entertainment industry to absorb potential discontent.
Such disenfranchisement with our everyday encounters leads to an attempt to distinguish between the predictable and the genuine response. One common observation is that anger achieves little media exposure or popularity in contemporary art and music; instead we are presented with irony. This is pretence because to attain an ironic vantage point with which to address an issue, is to suggest a privileged position from which to take it all in. To separate ourselves from the things that impact upon our daily life is to play dead; it is to aspire to be aloof. Yet what reaction might we expect, when we see the attempt of a graffiti artist to reclaim abandoned space, giving voice to thoughts and frustrations transposed to the art gallery or when we hear politicians telling us to ‘hug a hoodie’ other than despondency? Such manifestations of protest are not taken seriously in the west, why not?
We are familiar with mass demonstrations; a vision of resistance suggestive of the potential of people’s power to bring down a prevailing political order. Protest is global; movements connect up across borders. Participants unite under a common aim, to state their anti-capitalist slogans and to demand change. This is an aesthetic of dissent; the creation of a sublime image of discontent. But it suggests that political leaders are little more than a minor part of a given (capitalist) establishment i.e. a regime that should be overthrown. It is mass expression of anger, perhaps because that is seen as absent from contemporary culture. However, directing our efforts against officialdom or ideology misleads because individuals do count, they do make a difference; undermine them at your peril. Ideas matter, but the implementation of change is alas, more prosaic, less grand and in need of greater precision.
It is arguable that what remains a challenge is the intensification of a sense of encounter with the everyday and the urban, in order to re-ignite a sense of possibility and transformation. It would follow that the utilisation of disused space for creative practice enables the setting up of new situations that re-configure social exchange and interaction. To locate the opportunities for such practice is to reveal the gaps in the story of a city’s development; the cracks in the ostentatious façade of brand particular to that city. This leads us to the derelict, the dilapidated and the overlooked – for what better critique of a city is possible other than a focus on its own decay?
The de-naturalisation of meaningful encounters within the city arises as commonplace interaction becomes absorbed by a narrative of consumerism, which equates to an experience of alienation. Here, we might contend that derelict space offers something altogether more ambiguous for the explorer: a place where an interface with urban nature is revitalised. Urban nature thrives amongst the dilapidated and decayed spaces of the city. Rats, mice, birds and insects are rife. Floors, walls and windows are distorted by arboreal intrusions for here is the arena in which the feral elements of nature disrupt the normality of the built environment. The bare essentials of survival become tangible, the explorer’s senses are heightened, and we can no longer be aloof.
The uncompromising vitality of nature’s determination to survive in the derelict building distorts and disfigures structures that would otherwise define the psychological boundaries of private territory. Order is undermined as the explorer is confronted by the fragility of the manufactured separation between private space and public space. Should the house be considered in terms of a metaphorical extension of the self, its decay renders it open to a stream of ideas, possibilities and departures; conjecture free from imposed order or consensus, where the dark and disagreeable may reign. There is no preconceived manner of conduct; we must interact on our own terms.
When undistracted by the familiarity of function derelict sites provide an environment where spatial experience is intensified, for without functional purpose, they could be considered as intermediate sites, places without fixed meanings. Their ambiguity demonstrates a resistance to the rational allocation of spaces for specific purposes within a materialist model of the city. A more uncompromising view of the city and the past can be conceptualised which is significant when we consider how persistently the societal problems and struggles of the past tend to slip into nostalgia. This reveals escapism to be an inherently critical action as it enables us to look at what we have and to say it is not good enough.
Neither one thing nor another but in-between; it indicates the adulation of the non-committal, however in order to conceive of alternatives to a given societal structure it must first be possible to imagine this undistorted by the pervasive market-oriented narrative that shapes everyday life. The derelict, the dilapidated and the overlooked provide such places of escape, the retreat from which it is possible to collect thoughts and reflect upon the world outside. It is narrative space that allows for the utterance which can suddenly assert previously unheard dialogue. How we occupy what was isolated or overlooked will empower us to rethink existing models of collaboration and exchange thereby bringing about the steady flow of subtle amendments to our everyday environment. In sum, it is within such spaces where we might learn that urban space is fluid and open to challenge, albeit on the small scale we as divided individuals are capable of.
¹ Benjamin, Walter (2002) the Arcades Project, (Rolf Tiedemann Ed., Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin Trans.) Belknap Press, New York [1927-1940]
² Lefebvre, Henri (1991) Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1 (John Moore Trans.) Verso, London 
³ For a detailed discussion of the rise and fall of the Situationists please refer to the Situationist City by Simon Sadler (MIT Press, Massachussetts, 1998)
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