Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

7. Voices of "invisible cities"

One popular song starts with ‘cry me to the moon’, while another one apologizes that it is ‘just my imagination’ which led to falling in love. Then, the voice of the Blues describes a world falling apart while there is this star, leaving here and there being divided by a lot of in-between. That makes the city in such a metaphorical landscape, equally into a stumbling bloc while people attempt to fulfill not their night but day dreams (Ernst Bloch). The latter is dreaming about beautiful vacations while working.

Through voices and poems emotions are kept alive, while hardships are encountered and often the emotions at risk of being given up due to a break-up of a love relationship. Once that special person has left, loneliness grips the man who misses her smile and who wants to hold her. Interestingly enough, even when it comes to these kinds of break-ups, certain norms have to be kept. It is not just about keeping a ‘cool head’, but also a matter of not forgetting that something new awaits one just around the corner. In other words, what does not seem to be possible with the one person, there is always someone else. Thus the transformation can be noted when it is now much more about ‘fly me to the moon’ then remaining merely in the phase of just crying.

Most of these norms are centered on beauty making possible life in cities. Hence they are linked with certain patterns of beautification - another way to describeman's strife for perfection. Ideal are always the perpetual young or a beauty staying forever beautiful but also a beautiful car. As if life does not move on without these things, it means that with time these faces do take on the appearance of first secretive, then ever more self evident masks. All of it complies with a world which wants to be perceived as being ‘nice, beautiful, wonderful’. It includes the fashion show with models showing on cat walks the newest designs of clothes meant to entice. It is a world of glamour with everything meant to sparkle and to shine, including the teeth when smiling and for which people spend a fortune on such an appearance. And the video shown by Bart Verschaffel underlines it even more so: a woman looks at herself in the mirror many more times before a man's glance falls upon her face.

However, that is only one side of reality. On the other, there are children growing up in such a world very much determined to protect trees, to love animals, to clean the beaches and to give back to cities the light they need, if they are to remain confident about the future of humanity. Their needs stem from experiences of having to dash in-between cars on the way to school. Only few of them experience still the pleasure of walking to school. Most of them are taken if not by the car of the parents then by the school bus: an American invention, itself a reflection of the growing distances between private quarters and public amenities offered by the state or public authorities such as schools. In the absence of adequate public transportation, these distances have to be covered by private vehicles (car, bus).

That system of transportation imposed by now upon all European cities has changed the landscape and left nothing just the same as it was before. As a matter of fact, it has become almost the general rule which casts doubts on anyone claiming to have still a strong affinity to local spaces. In an age of everyone and everything apparently just passing through, on the way from one to another destination, it is no longer clear in which direction lies still the future. As a matter of fact the tension between the present and the future is ‘invisible’ as the linkages between present and past disappears. A service station can be constructed beside the ancient walls still indicating where the old fortress stood. Consequently not every poem can address this missing tension and therefore does not come around to articulate through an imagination coming to life in the poem as to where would lie future goals.

Invisibility’ is a part of the problem of a city having gone abstract and based on invisible networks to survive. That collective connectivity cannot be made easily concrete. It cannot be made evident on hand of obvious artifacts which characterizes this specific city e.g. the old part standing on elevated heights overlooking the port below. If anything, the theme of ‘invisibility’ has remained to date an unresolved theme running through not only urban poets, but also urban plans as both are missing that all important visionary element which could uplift words as much as a glance when walking through the streets.

Sofia Yannatou refers very often to writings she did for her sister, the singer Savinna Yannatou, when she was doing a radio program for Radio 3 around the theme ‘voices of cities’. Departure point for the program was Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities”.

Indeed, it is interesting to think about identification means of cities in terms of what is not visible, but can be perceived through other senses e.g. smell or even ears. In Greece, composers of modern music wanted to learn how different church bells sound when not beside the sea at the port, but deep up some valley or on top of a hill. The same may apply to the sound of streets. They reflect the heartbeats of a city. They are unique in terms of rhythms of time, but they can also reproduce just an apparent sameness e.g. motorbikes roaring past or else cars just honking during rush hour. Some call this the new oceanic noises when they live close to a busy street with cars rushing past their house day and night. Breaks in the sound relate to the changing traffic lights just a bit down the road.

Insofar as ‘invisibility’ refers to things, they are not immediately perceivable by the senses. A philosophical remark needs to be made here. In philosophy Kant stated that concepts without perception are blind; Hegel added a variation to that by claiming people without ‘myth’ are blind. That has certainly relevance to this conference. It has been touched upon already by referring to Adorno’s criticism of Benjamin insofar as the neglect of ‘dialectical images’ to link what people experience and think to the city as a whole. The question is whether the city is the appropriate physical metaphor for that missing whole, especially when cities expand and their borders becoming more and more obscure. That is the same when crowds gather but disband to leave behind litter in otherwise empty streets. More appropriate would be exactly this not knowing what shall build up in the city used as backdrop for new political theatre after people have gathered strength, conviction and opinions as to when to stage the next demonstration. At times it appears like a relentless wave after wave spilling often too meek to make a difference against the walls of Parliament. Then one day the revolution comes and everything is changed over night. That volcanic like strength hidden for years, no centuries can be considered to be a part of that invisible city slumbering in knowing its own strength and weakness.

Andre Loeckx describes cities correctly as a compound or synthesis of equally remembered as forgotten things. As if the city is half completed, the reference to half forgotten things describes best how meaningless they have become in the present, but how much they still remind of once existing patterns of former times. 1 The strength of a myth of a city is to keep visible those things of the past without determining anymore present life. It is like the palace remaining while the king is gone and with it the aura of a certain era.

A lone pillar against the sky can describe the non-contextual, contradictory syntax of cities: there a fence, after that a high office building and beside it an abandoned one. The latter abandoned one stands right next to the museum and the park. It does not make sense for someone viewing a city only from street level. Things are attainable or not according to real estate values and what land and real estate speculation imposes quite another strategy upon the city. Some speculators would want to bide their time till the building vanish in value beyond cultural heritage regulations and therefore can be torn down to make way for the completely new. On the other hand, those needing space to work and to live turn into squatters and take over empty standing buildings, thereby challenging the entire system of speculation. As the city of Berlin West shows that conflict became a pattern of different political strategies attempting to resolve these different interests with the ‘line of reason’ being pursued by the Social Democrats, but then they are replaced by the party of the property owners who want a tough police line while accepting only those who are willing to become like themselves property owners. The face off in the streets between police and those siding with the squatters ends as a face to face dialogue between those who gain property over and beyond any attempt to retain collective ownership as no ownership claim as such, but being accessible to all like all public spaces. It is a far cry away from that lone pillar standing still 2000 years later at Cap Souion in Greece to remind what upholds the sense for those things not to be forgotten.

Some call it confusion what emerges out of this dialogue with the past while facing an uncertain future in the present. Others would say it is more a matter of disillusionment as if the city no longer fulfils what it used to promise. Out of it results a mix of very different reactions: angry demonstrators protesting against further cuts in their salaries, their fists raised high above the bobbing heads; at home, households tend to over consume everything even though scarce resources for any city: water, electricity, air and how to manage the transition of things needed to live, including food, to managing the waste. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that space in a city is the key resource, most often more rare than readily available. It is possible to distinguish the poor living in crowded quarters compared to the rich who have their villas set back from the street with a large plot of land around the building to allow even for a swimming pool. There is a constant demand for certain services underlining the different levels of consumption and desires to live. Again on the streets these differences may not be visible. While a lady takes her dog out for a walk, a man purchases his newspaper at the nearby stand and while that goes on the grocery man piles the green apples in neat rows on the stand outside his store at the corner.

Observant eyes will notice two or three guys lingering around as if they are in search for a job. It appears that they also have immediate needs which deviates them from their search. They search for a bench to sit down in order to recuperate. In their faces is written the hopelessness. They look with longing eyes over the other side where some sit in a café and sip away on their drinks as elongated tones of conversation drift occasionally over to the guys sitting on the bench when an interruption in the traffic flow allows for some unexpected silence. Such seeming silence is again interrupted by someone talking suddenly loudly at the nearby telephone booth. Such invisible linkages are being created constantly or if things do not go all well, they are broken off before they can be realized out of a lack of communication.

Brendan Kennelly recalls his shock when upon arriving in New York he was advised not to look into other people’s eyes lest he wants to provoke a violent reaction directly against him. On the other hand, every woman knows when a man sets eyes on her or vice versa, this can be the beginning of a new, even compassionate relationship. A lot can be deduced out of how each person wants to be perceived by others and this means not merely in terms of visible beauty or attraction, but more definitely in terms of hidden potentialities. Cities are after all not just about human relationships, but reflect a constant dealing and wheeling in-between the realized and the potential still waiting around the corner to be recognized and realized. Often that explains as well the twists and turns in existing relationships as they can be challenged by potential new ones. To whomever whenever reference is made at personal level, the self partakes in a struggle to survive within the urban grid. That may be anything but poetic. Rather it is filled too often with agony, if not such pain not heard but rather drowned out by the noise a city produces day in, day out and even on Sunday when it is supposed to be a day of rest. That normal rhythm of villages has been left behind whenever it suits the city to stir the crowd and may it be only for a football match.

Since 1945 and the introduction of the car on a massive scale the urban grid has been transformed and not only that of the city. The interface between poet and city has changed as a result as well. While Hagelstange, the German poet who had to write immediately after the war about those men forgotten in bombed out houses or literally ruins as they remained buried underneath in hidden cellars (Die Verschuetteten), modern poets had to step outside the shadows of that war which left everything marked by the color grey (Guenter Grass). What they found after the fifties and sixties left behind a trail of still further destruction of cultural heritages in cities, are spaces without comparison. If it were not elongated railway tracks, then there were empty car parking places to remind of different consumers of space.

Alone when entering a city by train, it means to see derelict housing fencing in the tracks. Whether that is Milano, Munich, Paris, Cologne or Warszawa, always these entry points are elongated with ever more railway tracks running off, converging, or just continuing straight ahead in a parallel fashion towards the Central Station. The low housing estate at the edges of this expanded space for the railway lines spells out very clearly what it means to end up living in such conditions. Most of it is just beyond the imagination. The people circulating in the area can be reached mainly by cheap entertainment. It may be via television or some red light bar at the next corner. And around the next corner it was always likely to bump into someone with a bad smelling mouth and who shows that he misses many teeth as if evidence that he does not mind getting involved in a brawl or two. That is not so much compassion but anger spilled out into the streets and left more often empty handed, that is without the needed change in the pocket to have some strength left to go back to the bar and order another round of beer.

It leaves few alternatives for city planning when it comes to deal with such areas. Yet it is still important to be very perceptive as to what and how cities fill with life. If at all, once shops are closed and the people with income rush past those derelict areas, what can be done to overcome this social but also spatial indifference to the others? A closer look will reveal a deeply disturbed rhythm. It follows no tune and cannot be put into songs as used to fishermen and even pirates to give themselves all the courage while the things get rough. Rather these people abandoned within the city are nearly voiceless. They utter no sounds safe the guttural one which a drunkard can make when attempting to say ‘sorry’.

The modern city is unable to cope with all its losses while even not sure if the stories of success the privileged claim, is really authentic. Indeed, to link 4 million inhabitants with the fate of the city’s football or basketball team may be stretching things, but to keep the economy and with it a sort of acquiescence to a certain way of life going, there has to be stirred that kind of frantic search for fanatic supporters who rally around their team and thereby overcome loss of identity within that specific community.

Yet life cannot and should not be cheated. Emptiness leaves a bitter taste behind, if not it can become a dangerous ground for all kinds of violence, football hooligans but just one example. Lucid efforts to bring back life into the cities will not do. Something more substantial is needed then creating still more streets freed of cars and transformed into “Fussgaengerzonen” – zones for pedestrians when they become in turn mere places for still more consumption and this within often hideous settings, unattractive buildings and cheap solutions designed merely to facilitate masses. Once no true substance of life is expressed within the urban realms, then the motor of all activities becomes a kind of aggressive dissatisfaction. Lost are unique forms of expression while the spreading out of a common malaise befalls almost everyone. Instead of going to the centre to exchange opinions and to deepen one’s understanding of life, shallowness follows the mere headlines of the boulevard press. People are then an easy prey for distractive gossip about the sexual affairs of a top athlete than about the real knowledge needed for a good policy to be implemented. Without the latter substance, there is moreover no guarantee for citizen participation despite of all the rhetoric referring to it. City life is a far cry away from such participatory democracy. Rather the individual is confronted by huge construction projects, over arching bridges and therefore by just another flow of just cars. As the movie ‘asphalt cowboy’ underlines, the basic surface of the earth has become the hot pavement. Along with all the cement poured into the ground for yet another parking garage or high rise building, the cold neon lights leave no provision for eyes to perceive something coming close to a warm and human touch.


1 Andre Loeckx, “Urban place and flow: Towards a Culture of Ambivalence”, Speech given in the Second Plenary at the Fifth Seminar, Athens 1994. See http://poieinkaiprattein.org/cultural-actions-for-europe/second-plenary-session/urban-place-and-flow/


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