Distorted space

Last Breath: exploration and art practice as research

In the previous post I mentioned a project I have been working on that I want to delve into a bit further here (this was also posted on Royal Holloway’s Landscape Surgery blog). Over the last months I initiated my first two ‘real’ academic adventures: a participation in UCL Urban Labs’ Cities Methodologies exhibition (showcasing innovative means of investigating the urban) and in the Reconfiguring Ruins research project (an AHRC-funded platform bringing together museums, academics and artists to reconsider our current understandings of material and immaterial ruins and the process of ruination). Apart from the disastrous technological breakdown minutes before the exhibition’s opening night (no surprises there), it proved to be an exciting experience to present a project I have been working on intensely throughout 2013 and 2014, where the ‘traditional’ boundaries of the researcher were questioned and blurred into spheres of curation, art practice and film making.

Last Breath

Last Breath is a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions that travelled from London to Phnom Penh and Melbourne in search of architecture soon-to-disappear. The identified condemned spaces were opened up to artists through an invitation to contribute a piece of work. This was done on the understanding that their work would not outlast the lifespan of the building. The buildings, then full of interventions, were made public, with the organisers (myself) offering tours. The selected construction, the performing artists and their work were audio-visually captured and wrapped up in 2-minute videos (memento mori) that were shared online and contained invitations for others to take part in future manifestations of Last Breath. At its core, the series is a practice-led study into the potentiality of extending the immaterial lifespan (urban memory) of inherently temporary space through affective, ephemeral material interventions. Perhaps unsurprisingly however, the project did not start of with specific, detailed research intentions in mind; rather these grew with every extra manifestation that took place. As probably the case with all forms of research, the more I started digging (i.e. searching for locations, exploring, organising the events, curating, film making) the more questions emerged beyond the topic of urban memory: what does a non-Western understanding of ruination and demolition look like? Can we consider architectural dematerialisation as, counter to current conceptualisations of (human-induced) ruination, potentially productive of matter and non-human life? What credible role can mediation and representation play in processes of material disintegration? How to ‘reproduce’ affective events? Of course, the list went on beyond the scope of any singular research project.

The sort of process I went through and the kinds of output I created are unlikely to find a place in an official research (funding and publishing) context. However, I believe certain ways of thinking and ‘doing research’ that were accomplished are equally applicable in more official spheres and might have their own specific benefits. First, acknowledging and putting forward the geographer not merely as a distant bystander, but as an active and creative producer of space, appears productive in the ways it prioritises practice-based knowledge. Automatically, in forcing the researcher to take on different roles and engaging with the topic differently (often awkwardly in the beginning), new kinds of knowledge are achieved. Second, and similar in terms of effect, actively engaging with non-academics in the research process (in this case local established and non-established contemporary artists) offered the opportunity to gain alternative insights from differently-schooled, differently-minded individuals. Their perspectives are still too infrequently captured in academic papers/books. Third, knowing that I was producing work that would resonate primarily with non-academic fields (local visitors, news papers, magazines, blogs) forced me to prioritise the notion of relevance over theoretical complexity. I had to be able to explain what I was doing, why I was doing it and what I was learning from it in a limited amount of (accessible) words. Although this was limiting at some points, it allowed me to make sure throughout the entire the process that I was not getting lost too frequently in unnecessary complexity (although I did of course at moments) without returning to lived relevance.

If anyone is interested in getting actively involved in any of the next iterations or is interested in discussing any of the questions the project put forward, please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime, see other episodes here to get a better, more in-depth feel for the project:http://www.lastbreathproject.co.uk, or email me: thomas.dekeyser.2014@live.rhul.ac.uk

Moving away from madmen, magic and manipulation

There is something profoundly alienating about radical career shifts. Until 14 months ago, I was investing precious time in the job I had fought so strongly for during the course of my practical/academic education and my work-based internships (see here for the unnecessarily long list). But at the same time, I must have always somehow known I did not want to advertise stuff to people that don’t need it on a planet that does not need it. The moral questions I had always received standard answers. ‘The economy needs to keep going, right?!’, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, practically all jobs have as their ultimate goal a greater consumption of products/services’ and – one of my personal favourites – ‘What are you, a Marxist?’ are some of the classics that eventually fuelled my departure from the glittery world of madmen, magic and manipulation. Perhaps even more integral to my move away from (outdoor) advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi London was Michel Serres’ innocent-looking little bookMalfeasance: Appropriation through pollution?’ and more specifically the following quote:

It makes me suffer so much that I need to say it over and over again and proclaim it everywhere; how can we not cry with horror and disgust confronted with the wrecking of our formerly pleasant rural access roads into the cities of France? Companies fill the space now with their hideous brands, waging the same frenzied battle as the jungle species in order to appropriate the public space and attention with images and words, like animals with their screams and piss. Excluded from those outskirts, I no longer live there; they are haunted by the powerful who shit on them and occupy them with their ugliness. Old Europe, what ignorant ruling class is killing you? (Serres, 2011: 54-55)

Six months of travelling, thinking (often of the existential nature only a 25-year-old with a quarter-life-crisis can experience) and launching projects (a series of unofficial pre-demolition exhibitions here) after my official resignation, I decided to start off on the MA Cultural Geography (Research) course at Royal Holloway, University of London, with the only certainty being that I knew I did not want to go back into advertising and that I knew was interested in those artists/activists who critically engage with the spheres of advertising. A few months down the line, my PhD proposal on the topic of ‘subvertising’ was outlined and accepted for full-funding for a start in October 2015:

From Walter Benjamin’s romantic ode to the “inhabited interiors” of Paris to his threnody of that same space infiltrated by the “cancerous tissue”of commodity fetishism: the non-singular urban is swamped by apparent contradictory processes. Its condition is a fluidity of dreams and nightmares, of spontaneities and limitations, of territorialisation and deterritorialisation. Along these lines, recent scholarship in the fields of urban geography, political theory and cultural studies, has focused on the urban public as an increasingly contested site of spatial appropriation and re-appropriation. Essential to this is the popularised artistic/activist practice of ‘subvertising’: the attacking and altering of corporate advertising in public urban space, a political space where consumer culture is occupying an increasingly prominent place. However, from shoewear brand Vans sponsoring illegal graffiti practices, to luxury brand Marc Jacobs subverting activist Kidult’s assualts into a commercial opportunity; various attempts to reclaim urban space have proven to be paradoxically successful in feeding the brands of corporations. Although there have been studies into broader concepts of consumer resistance and cultural jamming, the domain of subvertising and its inherent political relationship with the urban remains critically almost untouched.

The proposed research seeks to examine the politics of subvertising and its tense ongoing relationship with dominant acts of place-making. To investigate the practice of subvertising, its subjectivities and its affective potential adequately, the research methodology requires a multi-media, practice-led approach with a theoretical contexualisation that ranges across disciplines.

This blog will/should bring together some of my thoughts, writings and audio-visual productions that emerge on my journey away from advertising into the often political realm of critical geography as a PhD Candidate (and hopefully beyond). All of these are likely to walk the thin lines between geography, arts and activism. For now, there is not much to look at yet, but times will change.

Let it all begin!