Urban Wishes

Urban Wishes
Gutierrez + Portefaix
There is an attempt to master the new experiences of the city in the frame of the old
ones of traditional nature.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Cambridge (Mass.), 1999, p.560.
In his text the Wall of China, published in 1914, Viennese critic Karl Kraus tells the
story of a young Viennese lady, strangled by her Chinese lover and placed dead inside a
suitcase. This pamphlet about sex and morality founds an echo several years later in 1931, when
Walter Benjamin describes Kraus as a modern hero fighting against society corruption and foolish
journalism. This solicitor of natural order, by making deliberately things obscene and monstrous,
is for Benjamin a perfect example of the unmasking technique that he reused later in the Arcades
Project. In that sense, Benjamin’s theory of phantasmagoria or the technique “to make a ghost
alive”, is entirely based on the question of the mask and the notion of illusion that comes with.
The illumination in Benjamin’s case corresponds to Kraus’s battle not to dissimulate nor mask
information. Digging further into Kraus’s text, Benjamin exposes the similarities between the
spiritual work of the writer and the sexual activity of the prostitute. Here, Kraus faces the question
of the mask defined as a multitude of different characters for a single person. In the same way,
the story corresponds to the mask as women’s sexual morality in Freud’s discourse. The mask of
the Chinese lover – the other – and the women – the prostitute – concealed in the suitcase – the
mask – is waiting to be discovered by the writer. Merging both spiritual and physical concerns, the
question of the mask appears as a central focus of the modern period starting in Vienna.
1. Urban camouflage: the mask
On the public side of the wall, one speaks another language, the masked language
of information.
Walter Benjamin, “Karl Kraus” (1931) in, Reflections, New York, Schocken Books,
In architecture, the mask refers to the limit between the exterior and the interior, between
the private domain and the public one. Architect Adolf Loos – Kraus’s comrade-in-arms –
recognises in Vienna’s mask the villages erected by Potemkin (Adolf Loos, Parole dans le vide,
Paris, Champ libre, 1979, p.108), the temporary cardboard and cloth villages built along the
passage of the Catherine II. The strategy behind these décors is to transform the image of the
desert in a colourful countryside, and further to give the illusion of a prosperous country. In these
daydream villages, only the mask exists, with no distinction between an interior and the exterior.
The relation between what express the public face of the mask and the structure that supports it
becomes then arbitrary. In that sense, the city of mask forms a totality, an unfolded screen with
no perforation.
From Potemkin’s analogy, Loos reveals the real face of new Vienna’s bourgeois facades
and informs against the stylistic excesses of its architecture and product design. Exposing the
real structure, or in his words "the flesh below the tattoo", the architect aims to make the wall
silent. This silence might therefore be understood as a form of other camouflage that protects the
private interiors from public rumours. On the private side of the wall, the mask protects the
identity from the mass fakery, when on the public one the architect defends that no difference
should be expressed.
In the same time, the mask as a form of protection – a wall or a cloth with no
ornamentation – carries further interpretation. According to Loos, the substitution of the real
becomes entirely dependent on motion, as Potemkine’s success is obviously depending on the
princes’ vehicle movement. Whether they realise or not, that they are passing through a dream
landscape is not an issue. In that case, reality is not anymore given by a truthful physicality, but
through the movement from a place to another. The displacement becomes reality and the mask
its essential accessory.
2. In between reality and desire: the wish
Unlike the dreams of the sleep, daydreams in this instance are said to show their
meaning on the surface: there is no subterranean layer to be plumbed. As such they
can provide the varnish on a dream, appearing as a gloss for the unpresentable
materials underneath. In themselves, they are what they seem: straightforward unified and unidirectional - stories of wishfulfilment.
Rachel Bowlby, "The Other Day. The Interpretation of Daydreams", New Formations,
34, summer 1998, p.13.
Between dream and reality, the impression of movement is a voyage into one’s proper
imagination. Similar themes can be found in Robert Musil book’s, The Man Without Qualities,
(New York, Capricorn Books, 1965) or more precisely in KaKania City, an obsessive day-dream,
a kind of super-American city where everyone rushes about… In Musil’s words, it is a city where
we are shaving, eating, making love, reading books, working at our jobs as though those four
walls around us were standing still; but the uncanny fact is that those walls are moving along
without our noticing it, casting their rails ahead like long, groping, twisted antennae, going we
don’t know where. It is the principle of uncontrolled motion, the sensory excursion into unfold
objectives, that illustrates the urban potential for inducing a form of dream.
Intensified by capitalist production, dreams are the aspiration toward the possession of
goods, objects and simulation of product – advertising. As Benjamin demonstrates, they are a
wish image stimulated by a collective desire. From the original Arcades to the World Exhibition
and Department Stores, capitalist society moved towards Shopping Centre, Credit Card and
Digital Plasma Screen. Dematerialization and technological changes have definitely infiltrated our
reality, but without changing any of our wishes. Contemporary life holds out the promise of a
consumerist society and as Neil Leach observes, this promise is reinforced by new magical
methods of procurement. The credit card for example operates with the realm of a future
conditional that makes a dream potentially realisable. It serves as link between wish fulfilment
and an immediate reality, through the invisible flux of a banking transaction. In that sense, the
credit card is to the individual what advertising culture represents to a collective level. Both entails
the formulation of a desire situated somewhere between reality and utopia, a desire that is
simultaneously recognised as a challenge but yet carries an attainable objective.
The collision of markets, culture, media and technologies shape urban dreamland as a
highly attractive product. Advertising has invaded any potential surface so that the entire
environment becomes a hyper-surface supporting a message. Recent market strategies mean
that the material aspect of limits disappears leaving images attached to the floors, columns, walls,
ceilings, and further to any mode of transport. In this total environment, daydreams and
nightmares are combined into a series of grotesque and enormous apparitions – the promotional
culture - extending Benjamin and Kraus’ aspirations into our new living condition.
3. Urban wishes: the plasma screen
We speak about private property because private space does not exist any more.
Our desires, our phantasms, and our intimate dreams are directed and intercepted
by the public sphere.
Felix Gonzales-Torres (in, Robert Nickas, "Felix Gonzales-Torres : All the time in the
world", Flash Art 24, num.161, nov.-dec. 1991.)
Since architecture, and further the entire city, become the screen where social
phenomena are expressed, the impact of new technologies has directed a complete structural
transformation of public space. Associated to electric, then electronic lights, the increase in the
architecture scale raised a new way to perceive the urban phenomena and blurred the limits
between the private interior and the public place. The material limit between the exterior wall and
the interior is now blurred with a sensation of being continuously surrounded by information.
Transfer from transparency, correspondence between light and glass, is now developed in a
continuous flux from the image communication to its reception. These technologic and mediatic
drifting found a perfect medium in the Asian City,
Using strategies borrowed to information and pushed further by the media, cathodic
culture has surreptitiously been detached from the domicile in order to occupy any point of former
public place. Everywhere, in the lifts, along the façades or in public transportation, screen-wall
displays a non-stop and chaotic flow of images. At a larger scale, these screens group several
monitors, each ignoring the other is diffusing a specific information, often a global one. In this
context, spatial organisation is entirely dominated by speed – not a physical mobility, but the
movement of an unstable and elusive image.
To the importance of speed in the perception of the territory, plasma screen
expresses the deep surface of a collective aspiration. The screen – skin – is a sensitive epidermis
that replaces building walls and enables the domestic environment to interact with the urban
space. Absorbing light, sounds, and energies, the deepness of the returned image is not referring
to a private interior but to the collective mechanism of the global society: the weather information
of any city, the stock exchange of any stock market, global news. When Modernity aimed to
advocate a resemblance through silence, the tendency to absorb any difference and
contradictions into one landscape is directing the contemporary condition. By simulating
differentiated thought the mass media produces a kind of hyper resemblance through a series of
masks identified as illusive caricatures.
Once, cities could be identified by the given image of some pieces of urban and
topographical developments. Today, these developments are made of fragments, which are the
superficial replica of different urban nature. As digital plasma screens influence this
fragmentation, duplication, and repetition process, the city itself propagates through magma of
infinite associations and interference. Its extensions are in the invisible relations between
technologies of representation and the flows of the capital. Plasma screens are precisely showing
off the entrails and organs of the urban mechanism, a perfect alchemy of stock exchanges,
airports schedule, and ostentatious commercials, all parts of an invisible monstrous structure.
Exposing this mechanism, scattering our desires, cities have disappeared under the face of a socalled globality : Everywhere shopping and junkspace, less and less urban identity. Everywhere
information and no more politics. Everywhere exchange, and less and less substance. (Nadia
Tazi, “Fragment of a Net-Theory”, Mutations, Barcelona, ACTAR, 2000.)
August, 2001
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