International artist Tom Estes has been invited by curator Rebecca Feiner to act as Honorary Mayor of DEN-City1. Estes describes himself as a “Sci-fi inspired Carnival Sideshow Conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternally adolescent, DIY comic-prank approach”. Organised with Middlesex University, DEN-City1 is part of The London Festival of Architecture, a month long celebration of architectural experimentation, thinking and practice.
I’ m sure I’m like most of you when I say Saturday mornings as a child were made up of animated shorts of an imaginary futurescapes like the Jetsons. However imaginary cities need not simply exist in fiction or the mind. Each city dreamt up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics has a real-life equivalent.
Estes’ work was inspired from an in-depth look at the metropolis of the imagination, as well as a work of creative nonfiction, the book, Imaginary Cities. Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, it charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. The book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds. In doing so, Imaginary Cities seeks to move beyond the clichés of psychogeography and hauntology, to not simply revisit the urban past, or our relationship with it, but to invade and reinvent it.
Following in the lineage of Borges, Calvino, Chris Marker and Kenneth White, the book examines the city from global macrocosm to the microcosm of its inhabitants’ perspectives. It proceeds through opium dreams, sea voyages, the hallucinations of prisoners, nocturnal decadence, impossible Soviet skyscrapers, marauding golems, subterranean civilisations, apocalyptic prophecies and the work of architectural visionaries such as Antonio Sant’Elia, Archigram and Buckminster Fuller. It rethinks the ideas of utopias and dystopias, urban exploration, alienation and resistance. It claims that the Situationists lacked ambition when they suggested, “Beneath the paving stones, the beach.” Instead, beneath the paving stones, we may just be able to discern the entire universe.
Recently it has become fashionable to talk about the “urban commons”, and it’s clear why. What we traditionally conceive of as “the public” is in retreat: public services are at the mercy of austerity policies, public housing is being sold off and public space is increasingly no such thing. In a relentlessly neoliberal climate, the commons seems to offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. The idea of land or services that are commonly owned and managed speaks to a 21st-century sensibility of, to use some jargon, participative citizenship and peer-to-peer production. In theory, at least, the commons is full of radical potential. Can commoning be scaled up to influence the workings of a metropolis – able to tackle questions of housing, energy use, food distribution and clean air? In other words, can the city be reimagined as commons, or is commoning the realm of tiny acts of autarchy and resistance?
The current popularity of the commons as an idea is partially driven by the internet and the fact that network tools make it so much more feasible for larger groups to self-organise. Open-source software, Wikipedia, the creative commons and social media make commoning possible while affirming the ethos of horizontal organisation. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities says:
“While it’s amazing to have information that far surpasses the Library of Alexandria online—a dream that’s haunted writers for centuries— in terms of interacting, there’s nothing online that wasn’t foreseen and described by Aristophanes or Plato thousands of years ago. You talk to people who restore your faith in humanity and then seconds later you talk to foul-tempered, frothing pedants who insist that a building you posted made entirely out of clouds couldn’t possibly be built and demand you defend imaginary buildings you haven’t designed. The mediums change but the humans remain, for better and worse.”
England has a particular history of commoning that is still written into the fabric of London. Wimbledon, Clapham, Ealing – they all have commons, where our forebears once had the right to graze their livestock. But the enclosures of the 18th century transferred the majority of common land into private hands, turning it into a marketable resource and creating a landless working class. And the problem of the commons today is that we still tend to think of it as a common resource, whether it be oceans and rivers or fish stocks.
Imaginary Cities demonstrates that each city dreamt up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics has a real-life equivalent and that the great Marco Polo was no liar. Imaginary Cities need not simply exist in fiction or the mind. DEN-City1 is a temporary city opening at the end of june in London. Curator of DEN-City1 Rebecca Feiner says: “The name is inspired by the overcrowded and precarious conditions many Londoners now live in… how space to be creative in has become increasingly scarce. “It also reflects the nomadic existence forced on people in the rent sector… and in Hackney Wick’s case how artists are being driven out by the ferocious profit-driven appetite of developers.” She also sees a “contradiction and tension” when artists have been “making over” an area not previously seen as attractive, “bringing colour and creativity”, then being moved on.
However, if this all seems a bit too grim, gritty and earnest for you, Feiner has invited international artist Tom Estes to act as Honorary Mayor of DEN-City1. Estes describes himself as a “Sci-fi inspired Carnival Sideshow Conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternally adolescent, DIY comic-prank approach”. For Estes “fantasy and illusion are not a contradiction of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives”. And fresh back from a Residency during the prestigious Venice Biennale, rumor has it that he is planning a Ferrero Roche inspired Ambassadors Reception for the opening nightof DEN-City1 .
Fish Island, Hackney Wick
London E3 2NT