a sinclair A-Z: g is for ghosts

  • An occasional series on the work of Iain Sinclair
    rodinskyThe book Rodinsky’s Room (1999) is a collaboration between Iain Sinclair and British writer and artist Rachel Lichtenstein. By focusing on Sinclair, it is not my intention to marginalise Lichtenstein’s contribution to the book and to he project behind it. Rather, I am using Sinclair’s treatment of David Rodinsky and his room as a way of assessing Sinclair’s larger, ongoing project on spectral London.

 David Rodinsky, a member of London’s East End Jewish community, left his lodgings above the synagogue in Princelet Street, Spitalfields in 1967 and never returned. His room was discovered, untouched since his disappearance, more than a decade later. As motif, Rodinsky’s room travels throughout Sinclair’s work, and the book with Lichtenstein marks the apotheosis of an enduring fascination that began, in written form at least, with an article in the Guardian in the late 1980s. This article was later re-written as fiction to as a chapter in the novel Downriver (1991). Sinclair then turned the Rodinsky story back into non-fiction with references in Liquid City (1999), and in two dedicated volumes: the joint work with Lichtenstein, and a shorter small-press non-fiction Dark Lanthorns: Rodinsky’s A-Z (1999) which reimagines Rodinsky as a psychogeographer. Pieces of these numerous textual Rodinskys re-appear in a short story, ‘The Keeper of the Rothenstein Tomb’ (2000), in the non-fiction London Orbital (2002), and in the novel Dining on Stones (2004). Sinclair’s edited volume City of Disappearances (2006) shares the Rodinsky book’s approach to historiography, and even though its remit is far wider can thus be viewed as connected to the body of work on Rodinsky.

At its heart, Rodinsky’s Room is a ghost story (with elements of the detective genre) that is intimately connected with the social, cultural, and spatial history of the Jewish East End. Sinclair’s preoccupation with the spectral has not gone unnoticed, with critic Ian Penman (2001) noting, ‘Sinclair writes ghost stories, of a sort: whatever his subject, there is always a low, persistent note of something mourned, spectral, lost.’ I’m not so interested in the tropes of the spectral in Sinclair’s writing.  I want, instead, to suggest that Sinclair’s deployment of the spectral —and I am including references to the occult within the category of the spectral—has a number of objectives.

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markets in the mall

When I was researching the Sydney chapter of Markets, places, cities, I came across a speech delivered in 1971 by Frank Lowy, founder of the global shopping centre behemoth Westfield, and republished in Australian Property Journal in 2006. In his speech Lowy situated shopping centres within a genealogy of urban marketplaces, declaring that ‘Shopping centres are essentially market places’. For Lowy, the shopping centre was not only the technological and teleological evolution of the market, it was the modern market place. When Westfield started building in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne in the 1950s, they were keen to emulate some of the sensory characteristics and experiences of place in markets (‘‘The shopping centre makes it possible for all who enter its exciting atmosphere to participate … to share an experience … through the visual, aural and touch senses’), as well as the functions of markets as sites of community and sociality. The picture that Lowy drew was of a socially inclusive space and place that met both tangible and intangible community needs.

The centre involves people of all ages – it makes provision for all age groups.
A shopping expedition is no longer a bore to children for the shopping centre touches their imagination as well. There are nurseries, playgrounds and all kinds of entertainment. Teenagers make it their gathering point. Their tastes in clothes, music and food are catered to. It is the hub of their suburban life.

From their inception, shopping centres in Australian suburbs included civic spaces such as community radio broadcast facilities, childcare centres, and open spaces (central atria and courtyards, rooftop gardens) where (potential) consumers could pass the time.

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Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1968
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Southland’s Rooftop Garden, 1979

Westfield Southland, which was opened in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham in 1968, had a tranquil garden on its rooftop. However, by 2000, the garden was gone and the shopping centre had spread across the Nepean Highway via a pedestrian bridge to take over the former Lucas factory site. (Incidentally, after the Lucas factory shut down, a short-lived market was built on the site.) The current scale of the complex and its virtually non-existent interaction with the local streets and built environment, except as conduits to its car parks, are the antithesis of a marketplace.

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Aerial view of Westfield Southland, 2000
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Southland, street level, Nepean Highway (File photo)

When I first moved to the Randwick municipality, I was surprised that both my local library and early childhood health centre were located in a local shopping centre. The history of shopping centres in Australian cities illustrates that situating civic spaces within such a milieu is hardly unusual. It is also makes sense in that contemporary shopping centres in major urban centres in Australia are regulated environments, which means they are often clean, climate-controlled, well-lit and the presence of other consumers and visitors reassures and enhances a feeling of security. If you are not put off by artificial light, shiny surfaces, loud music, and the insistent multi-sensory clamour of consumer culture, their conditions provide good spaces for civic services. Walking through another shopping centre as a casual observer recently, I noticed that it was a site of lively, everyday conviviality where a diverse mix of people sat chatting in the few seating areas provided and in the cafes set up in the thoroughfares between shops. I could see that there were correlations between the shopping centre and the marketplace, as Frank Lowy asserted.

However, shopping centres are also quite different places to local markets. As has been noted widely in the literature on contemporary urban space, the shopping centre’s ambivalent status between public and private is problematic, particularly for whose capacity to engage actively with consumer culture is limited – groups like the elderly, the socially and economically disadvantaged, homeless people and teenagers. Moral panics regarding anti-social behaviour become the impetus to discourage or even prohibit certain groups from congregating, and ‘hanging out’ can very easily be reframed as ‘loitering’, and even criminalised.The primary social, spatial and material rationale for the shopping centre is consumption. Even if other types of making take place there simultaneously, they are subsequent to this overriding factor.

On the other hand, local markets and marketplaces form part of the consumer ecology in cities and towns, but they serve many purposes outside of consumption, a situation that is acknowledged,and even encouraged to varying degrees, by market vendors, consumers and managers alike. In Markets, places, cities, I talk about the atmospheres that emerge from place in markets.The atmosphere of the market comes not solely from the goods on sale and the presence of shoppers, but from multiple forms of making that emerge from correspondences between practices, materials, bodies, spatial relations, senses, affects and so on. (I am borrowing from Tim Ingold here with my thoughts on making.) The atmosphere of the market, which has multi-sensory dimensions, is frequently evoked when the marketplace is described in reportage, literature, visual culture and so on.

The shopping centre makes gestures towards atmosphere through its lighting, sound, climate control, visual cues. However, these are teleologically directed towards consumption, and as such a product. Atmosphere can only ever be accidentally emergent in the highly regulated environment of the mall, even when a marketplace is reproduced within it specifically for the purpose of creating and providing atmosphere and place.

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decommissioning and recommissioning: first day at frontyard

IMG_8726On my first day at Frontyard, it is hard to sit in one place and write when there are places to explore here in the building,

outside on the street,IMG_8759IMG_8720IMG_8788and further afield in Marrickville.IMG_8689IMG_8703IMG_8697IMG_8701

Frontyard has set up in a building owned by the erstwhile Marrickville Council (now the Inner West Council, but that’s another story). Prior to its use as an arts space, the building was an early childhood health centre. When I mentioned on FB that I was going to be in residence here, one friend, a long-time resident of the area, commented that she had ‘spent many a teary time’ here when her now teenage daughter was a baby. She also pointed out that across the road is the SDN childcare centre, which was established in 1944 to provide care for the children of local female factory workers. The construction of the SDN building was funded by Marrickville Council and through fundraising by the local community.

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Image: Brian Yap

These two spaces form part of the infrastructure of community in Marrickville, and in establishing an independent multi-disciplinary community arts space, Frontyard has recommissioned the building for the continued provision of that infrastructure. The types of making going on here go beyond conventional notions of what the role or function of the gallery or studio space might be. One of the directors told me that when they participated in the Marrickville Open Studio Trail (MOST) earlier this year, visitors were perplexed and disappointed upon walking into the space. They wanted to know ‘where is the art’? Frontyard is, above all, concerned with the future of the arts as grounded, emplaced practice and theory within wider communities, and part of that involves decommissioning the arts from the discursive positions into which it has been forced by neo-liberal political and cultural economies.

To recommission something is to give it a new commission or to validate an existing commission. It can also mean to put something back in service, thereby undoing decommissioning. Decommissioning can mean to take out of service or to render unusable; to remove or revoke a commission; or to remove or revoke a formal designation. There are multiple instances and intersections of recommissioning and decommissioning, both material and metaphorical, happening at Frontyard. I am sitting in one of the health centre’s old consulting rooms at a table with metal legs and a wood-grain veneer, which has surely been decommissioned from an institutional interior. From my chair at the recommissioned table, I am looking directly at a decommissioned heater that, design-wise, looks like it dates from the time of the building’s construction, (which Anna-Bella Silva at the Marrickville Council Archives tells me was in 1955).IMG_8681Another more overt example of recommissioning is the Australia Council’s research library, which has found a post-decommission home at Frontyard.IMG_8662.jpgBrowsing its shelves I find a copy of Peter Read’s book Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership, the opening words of which ask, ‘How can we non-Indigenous Australians justify our continuous presence […] while […] Indigenous people remain dispossessed and their history unacknowledged?’ (Read, 2000, p.1). It is impossible to write about place in Marrickville (as it is to talk about place in Sydney, in Australia, and in other settler societies) without acknowledging the violence of displacement; in this case, of the Cadigal Wangal people. Read’s question is therefore directly linked to the task I’ve set myself whilst in residence here: to decommission discourses of place – particularly those attached to urban transformation, development and renewal – which efface or negate existing place, and which seek to install or produce places that re-affirm hegemonic agendas. Concurrently, I want to recommission place as a phenomenon emergent from processes of making that (with thanks to Tim Ingold) entail entanglement and correspondence between bodies, senses, spaces, materials and affects, and which are infinitely generative. Frontyard is an example of this kind of place.

rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste

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This is a version of a paper that I gave at the Global Garbage conference hosted by the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis’ (ASCA) Cities Project in Paris last year. It is included in the collection Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment, to be published by Routledge in December 2015.

At the end of each day, very little rubbish remains on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s affluent and middle-class suburbs. Through the night and early morning phalanxes of sanitation workers and scavengers, working in both the informal and formal economies, sort and clean up much of it. Some of that rubbish is handpicked and re-classified as waste, and bound for secondary markets where it can be sold and bought anew (Coletto, 2010). Informal and formal secondhand or ‘flea’ markets are a node within this network of secondary economies that generates valuable social, economic, and material infrastructure in cities (Evers & Seale, 2014; UNHabitat, 2010).

From 1979 until the end of 2013, the Feira de Antiguidades da Praça XV set up every Saturday in Rio de Janeiro in an otherwise unused channel of land hemmed in on the sides and from above by roadways. The flea market took its name from a nearby square, Praça XV de Novembro, that is both national monument and tourist destination. The square and the area occupied by its namesake market are incorporated in Rio de Janeiro’s ‘Cultural Corridor’, a central urban precinct geographically demarcated because of its heritage and cultural attributes (del Rio and de Alcantara, 2009). Following Mary Douglas’ (1966) influential formulation, the flea market is ‘matter-out-of-place’ because it is at odds with the official place-image (Shields, 1991: 61-62) of historic, touristic Praça XV, and of Rio de Janeiro itself as an egalitarian, modern metropolis (Seale, 2014). The market’s conspicuous display of waste in the street resists hegemonic projections of what constitutes liveability in urban contexts (Coletto, 2010: 59). This, combined with the visible congregation at the city’s political, financial and cultural centre of market’s community of ‘urban outcasts’ who are usually pushed to the social and spatial peripheries of the city (Wacquant, 2008), is interpreted by some as a failure of urban governance (Hiebert, Rath and Vertovec, 2014). However, counter to the secondhand market’s discursive positioning within the representational and material orders of the city, Feira da Praça XV instigates order in an arena where many assume there is none to be found. The market as a space, a set of practices, and a community reinstitutes order amongst previously discarded objects through inventory, exhibition, and above all, commodification. The vendors at the market are entrepreneurial (Seale, 2014), re-incorporating waste back into circuits of exchange in a process that provides employment and waste management for the city.

We are socially and culturally pre-disposed to view waste pejoratively (Elias 1978; LaPorte, 2000). Some of our rationale for marginalising it may have sound physiological basis. Nevertheless, waste is an obligatory, insistent, and above all, valorised component of global, neo-liberal capitalism. Waste is neither abject, nor excessive; rather it sustains capitalism’s growth. We might even say, as David Trotter does, that in capitalism ‘the success of the enterprise can be measured by the waste-matter it produces, by the efficiency with which it separates out and excludes whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’ (2000: 22) As indications of the status quo, we can look to the existence of a globalised industry whose driver is the management and movement of the catastrophic amounts of material waste we produce, or to the deliberate configuration of products to deteriorate or to become technologically or stylistically obsolete. To be measured successful, such industries and innovations are dependent on generating increasing amounts of waste. The disconnect between waste’s symbolic role and waste’s actualised role in global capitalism is what I understand to be the paradox of waste. Through diagrammatic reference to Feira da Praça XV, I aim to construct a theory of waste that acknowledges this paradox. Continue reading “rio de janeiro’s Praça XV flea market: the paradox of waste”

markets and non-place: haneda airport, tokyo

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It’s been 20 years since Marc Augé’s work on non-places, or the spaces of super-modernity, was published in English. The non-place is a space which is ‘formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure).’ (Augé, 1995, 94) In other words, the non-place functions as a conduit for flows of human and material capital; it is negotiated, as opposed to inhabited, and as such it inhibits the development of, or identification with place.

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The volume of bodies passing through it leave little impression, and in turn, those who pass through this space are left unmarked by their contact with it. The non-place is ultimately absurd because it is replete with the physical presence of humanity while effacing human inter-relations with the material environment. Jacques Tati in his 1967 film Playtime used the non-place – the airport, the office block, the hotel foyer, the convention centre – to comment on the absurdity of modernity and on the society of the urban spectacle (in a far more charming way than Guy Debord).

In Playtime the contemporary city is an agglomeration of non-places that eliminate the local and domestic, and by extension, the personal and the intimate. Playtime’s opening is set in a space that has characteristics of an airport, yet could be any other non-place where people are instructed by functionaries and signs on how to maximise the efficiency of flows. In this scene, language that is articulated outside the language of the bureaucratic and the regulatory is a global patois, belonging to nowhere and everywhere at the same time.

The airport is therefore a non-place par excellence. With the explosion in global travel, and increasing numbers of people moving through these non-places, airport designers have attempted to make the transit time experience more distinctive or pleasurable without really moving beyond the leisure/entertainment/consumption paradigm. Airports now have cinemas, swimming pools, koi ponds, butterfly enclosures, and giant slides. Some of these are articulated within a discourse of the local; for instance, locally inflected souvenir shops, chain stores, or services – such as a Thai massage at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. On the whole, however, these local iterations are placed within an infrastructure and architecture of consumption and mobility that connotes the global in its design and delivery.

At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (also known as Tokyo International Airport), the reference point for place within the archetypal non-place is the market. Haneda’s Edo Marketplace models the standard formula of airport consumer culture (shopping and eating) on the intimate scale of a market street in Edo-period (17th century) Tokyo.  Dining options that offer yatai or Japanese street food can be eaten under the Nipponbashi Temple Bridge in emulation of a marketplace experience.

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http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/spot/transfac/hanedaairport.html

The spectrum of consumer options is typical for an airport, and their presentation is themed as historical, and therefore as belonging to a past urban landscape. However, the small wooden shopfronts with noren hanging at the entrance, and their organisation along narrow alleyways approximates the spaces and scale of the contemporary built environment one encounters in the backstreets of Tokyo’s neighbourhoods like Asakusa.

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The market, as it is conceived in Haneda airport, is nostalgic, yet the involvement of architect Yoshiaki Nakamura, a specialist from Kyoto in Sukiya-zukuri design and craft, suggests a serious engagement with the construction of the market’s ‘streetscapes’, rather than merely creating a scene of historical re-enactment.

Edo Marketplace’s deployment of the scale, practices, and spaces of the local market is surprisingly successful in distinguishing Haneda from the average airport. Indeed, the airport’s experiment with place is ongoing through the staging of the festival, the market’s counterpart. The notion of a festival in an airport might seem bizarre at first, but if we think about it, the carnivalesque of the festival, its licenced, topsy turvy inversion of the hegemonic, is completely apposite for such a highly regulated environment.

Works Cited

Auge, M. (1995) Non-places. London: Verso.

Tati, J. (1967) Playtime.