Wednesday, July 7, 2010

a tale of a few cities

Just having returned from Wien (Vienna) I am somewhat enchanted by the surrealist possibilities of that city. With surrealism's perspectives on urbanism (note for exemple one or another sketch previously posted here), "the surrealist possibilities of a city" is not just the case of differentiated personal sensibility towards the spirit of the place. It is that to some extent, but it is also concretely manifested in the degree of condensation and contrast, spatial and social heterogenity, signs of expectation, overlayering, dynamism of spatial phenomenology, and overall ambiance. Of course, pursuing a collective surrealist activity is fundamentally about revealing the surrealist qualities of your immidiate environment; any surrealist grouping will enhance and make explicit the process of disenveloping the surrealist sense of the city they are in. So this is not quite what I am talking about here. I am talking about which places will offer a temporary visitor the most distinct signs and ambiances suggesting this particular sense of possibilities. In this sense, my personal favorite candidates for surrealist cities in Europe are Wien, Berlin, Budapest and Helsinki. Of course they are cities that appeal to me personally, but I do think that they all have a specific objective sense of suggesting hidden possibilities that is central to surrealist urbanism.

And I have to contrast this against the perpetually cited surrealist aspects of Paris, Paris which many people consider as the Capital of Surrealism mainly because surrealism originated there and it has for long times been an important organisational center. Of course, if you live in Paris, and Paris is where you take your daily and nightly strolls, your drinks with friends, your intoxicated trajectories, your everyday conflicts and wonders, you will necessarily see and disclose surrealist aspects out of that psychophysical environment.

But it is another thing for visitors. Many people come to Paris to experience a surrealist city. Indeed, most neighborhoods in Paris do carry a load of anecdotes in surrealist historiography and mythology. There are memories of Breton's walks with Nadja, of the surrealist group's interventions and experiments for many decades, there are all kinds of souvenirs of things integrated into surrealist mythology such as the rich traditions of alchemy, of late 19th century occultism, of early 20th century popular culture, of dada, lettrism, situationism, pataphysics, etc; there are souvenirs of the french revolution, of the Paris commune, of May 68, etc. Not only did these things actually occur right there, but they have also been commemorated, giving names to streets and squares, cafés and statues, etc. The shops, galleries and museums are full of actual references to our chosen heroes. Placenames will be easy to associate with titles of well-known works, and the poetic aura of these names will be lying near at hand since, for us outsiders, so much of the french we know is primarily associated with this poetry and these works rather than with any everyday use. Anywhere you go, if you find a square with a remarkable ambiance, you will very often learn that André Breton already mentioned it in a poem, and if you see a strange gargoyle, you will very often learn that Man Ray or Brassaï already photographed it. The place is so abundantly colonised with anecdotes, with reified pieces of history, and then on top of that seasoned with an overflow of empty references, that it is far more a museum of surrealism than a surrealist city. It gives rise to a feeling that there is nothing to discover, it's all written out for you. It might be possibly to indulge in this, in some cases of recently arrived enthusiastic young surrealists who are happy to see traces of real surrealism recognised as real in the official world and the physical environment, and who will anyway just use them not as pillars in a lithified tradition but as glowing suggestions and hints that make stepping-stones in their own appropriation of surrealism as a shared and personal mythology – for those people, traditional surrealist Paris might still make sense. And of course anyone who is attentive could eventually make some original observations revising or adding to the already almost map-filling color-coding of surrealism-codified corners of Paris. But most of those who hail surrealist Paris are external surrealismophiles (academic, arty, or fellow travellers) who will find this abundance of references to surrealism o so blissful, and whose appreciation of such references might stand in exact proportion to their own inability to discover the surrealist aspects of things for themselves. Preferring the pre-labelled surrealist city before having to exercise any imagination and enterprise any investigation of ones own. Often a certain surrealismophilia of that tinge will prove to be nothing but culture-loving nostalgic francophilia in general, nicely arranging the facets of classic modernism into the big history of western society's art, with a certain predilection for the picturesquely radical and romantic - which is all clearly the opposite of the thorough radical departure and nonconformism central in surrealism itself. But worse for us, it will also be the form in which many of our most eager sympathisers will be happy to consider and consume surrealism as something titillating and even deeply felt – but only not dependent on ones own creative, demanding and risky participation and reinvention.

If we go back to my personal quartet of suggested surrealist cities, Wien, Berlin, Budapest and Helsinki, it is striking that neither of them has ever had a proper surrealist group in spite of a rich presence of avantgarde and radical movements in general. It is also, perhaps, notable that they all lie east of a line dividing Europe in halves. (And indeed, if we would extrapolate from this crude geographical division, we could try to count in Bucuresti, Praha, Brno, Bratislava, Beograd and Athina in this eastern axis, most of which have had a strong (brief or enduring) surrealist presence historically, and one of which (Praha) is indeed often cited as emblematic for surrealist urbanism along with Paris. I don't know. The only place of these that I've visited – so far – is Bucuresti, and I certainly don't mind recognising a particular surrealist potential of that city. And what would become of the western axis? it would also include London and Bruxelles, which are another two of surrealism's historical capitals, which most people would agree are largely boring cities, as well as Madrid, Barcelona and Lisboa, about which there are probably very conflicting views available. But no, I do not want to make a big issue out of these axises, it was just a simple thought experiment.)

I would just like to advocate discovering surrealist aspects of cities rather than consuming surrealist aspects of cities. (And I dream of eventually becoming a satellite member of surrealist groups of these four cities so as to be able to explore these surrealist aspects of the cities more substantially than a casual visitor may.)

M Forshage

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