The current confluence of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and popular political demonstrations has provided strikingly urgent examples of how city space may be actualized as a projective medium. By “projective medium” I mean to describe a repurposing of urban environments wherein public space serves as a canvas not only for the circulation of artistic representations or political slogans but for the staging of interventions of imagination, a testing ground for potential futures. Within the past few months we have seen dramatic and unprecedented reconfigurations of public space: first in the widespread “lockdown” and “stay at home” measures designed to mitigate the viral transmission of COVID-19; and secondly with irruption of mass protests against police brutality and extrajudicial killings of people of color. Both of these “moments” have offered profound illustrations of the social production of space, as well as ways in which the physical infrastructure of the built environment is an inherently politicized terrain.
In the early days of the Coronavirus quarantines reconsiderations of urban space focused on absence and withdrawal. Photographs of unoccupied Los Angeles freeways and deserted downtown districts circulated widely online. At the end of March the New York Times published a photo essay documenting quietude throughout the five boroughs with the title “New York Was Not Designed For Emptiness.” The fascination with emptied city spaces is certainly linked to visual tropes of apocalyptic fiction and representations of humanity’s end depicted so often in popular culture: the silent streets and vacant plazas served as visual confirmation of the otherwise “unseen” virus, and visceral reminder of our ultimately precarious civilization. The allure of these images may also be linked to a desire for (psychological) distance from the biological threat. Writing in the Verso Books blog, Rob Horning credited such photographs with reinforcing a sense of “exemption” from the vagaries of the natural world and from the virus itself:
“Our ability to appreciate these images doesn’t underscore our ultimate harmony or interconnection with the natural world and the life that purportedly re-emerges when the highways are finally vacated. Rather it lets us use mediation (our ability to consume representations) to rearticulate our exceptionality. We can assume the subject position of the camera and pretend that makes us immune to being objects in the world.”
The onset of “social distancing” induced an attitudinal shift in how we related to the shared spaces of everyday life. The withdrawal from public places to the atomistic dwelling of self-isolation created a sort of vacuum, opening up a space in which new meanings and relations could be introduced. In many cities around the world residents rediscovered the balcony as a link between the individual and communal worlds. Balconies have always served as liminal spaces between the publicity of the street and the privacy of the home. During quarantine these sites gained renewed significance as spaces for performance and communication. Neighbors socialized from across their respective railings, and a new routine developed where residents would gather to applaud medical workers from their balconies at appointed shift-change times.
The mass migration indoors prompted rediscovery of the built environment as communication medium in other ways. I am particularly fond of the various projects that involved projecting films onto the sides of buildings. In Rome the cinema organization Alice nella Città began scheduling regular projections of classic films, and encouraged any citizens with the ability to do so to implement their own screenings. In Berlin the Windowflicks project hosted screenings by projecting movies on the walls of residential courtyards. (On a somewhat related note, I was disappointed to learn that Vulcan Video, a beloved DVD rental business in Austin, TX and one of my most frequented locales when I lived in that city, did not survive the Coronavirus outbreak.)
At the end of May the insular isolation of “stay at home” measures reversed into a dramatic reclamation of the streets. In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands police, residents of Minneapolis turned out en masse in the neighborhood where he was killed. The initial days of the demonstrations saw vandalism and destruction of corporate businesses in the neighborhood beginning with an AutoZone store. (In addition to semiotically presaging the eventual advent of “autonomous zone” in popular discourse and U.S. urban imaginaries, the prominence of the AutoZone and other automotive businesses in the subsequent unrest throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul testifies not only to the dominance of car culture in U.S. spatial design, but also to the legacy of highway expansions and car-centric development that decimated predominantly Black urban communities throughout the 20th Century.)
During the first two days of protests a Target store nearby the site of Floyd’s death was thoroughly looted and vandalized. In addition to the store’s interior being effectively gutted, the exterior walls were blanketed with spraypainted messages. In the days that followed political graffiti and anti-police slogans became a ubiquitous visual element of the demonstrations unfolding in cities throughout the United States, even occupying part of the backdrop for Donald Trump’s infamous bible photo-op in Washington D.C. Here again the latent potential for the built environment to serve as a projective medium was dramatically actualized. The pervasive presence of political graffiti messages recalled the spraypainted slogans of the May 68 demonstrations in Paris, just as the scenes of civil unrest evoked the 1968 U.S. urban riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the past three weeks the urban uprisings have continued to spread throughout the U.S., perhaps reaching their temporary apogee with the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). The CHAZ designation refers to the occupation of a six-block area in central Seattle centered around the vacated East Precinct police headquarters. Since it’s emergence in popular discourse the message and meaning of the CHAZ has been the subject of public debate. Authoritarian discourses have demonized the occupation as a terroristic takeover, while more amicable readings of the space have characterized it in terms of a festival atmosphere with arts and music. Several early accounts featured images and accounts of a film screening in the CHAZ: participants watching Ava DuVernay’s “13th” on a projection screen set up in an occupied intersection.
As with the aforementioned outdoor cinema projects implemented under Coronavirus quarantine, the urban reimagining of the CHAZ features film screenings in urban space, a repurposing of city streets as movie theaters. It thus offers another opportunity to consider the built environment as a projective medium. Again, this sense of “projective medium” extends beyond merely repurposing urban infrastructure as a material support for communication. Yes, the occupied urban space of the CHAZ features murals, spraypainted slogans, and other forms of artistic and political representation. But the greater “message” of the occupation is a radical rethinking of the logics underlying the organization of urban life itself. The various artistic interventions launched in response to the COVID-19 outbreak similarly call into question certain unspoken assumptions undergirding collective dwelling.
(In distinguishing between the “form” and the “content” of these creative repurposings of urban space it is important to recognize that the content in the respective cases is obviously significant. The CHAZ occupiers were screening a documentary about racial inequality in the United States, a subject clearly connected to the broader socio-historical context and political intent of Black Lives Matter protests. Would we interpret the scene differently if the CHAZ audience was watching “The Wizard of Oz,” or “Trolls 2”? Similarly, how would our understanding of the outdoor screenings in Rome and Berlin be altered if the organizers were projecting political documentaries instead of classic films?)
Both the Coronavirus pandemic and the urban demonstrations have prompted a reimagining of the structures that shape our daily lives. Rather than idle speculation or “mere” philosophical musings, the emergent issues underlying these provocations present themselves as urgent and unavoidable. They reveal the necessity of the radical reassessment of social reality.
Most of the questions prompted by the Coronavirus have to do with resuming “business as usual” in a way that will prevent another outbreak. What will work and schooling look like after the lockdown? Will telecommuting become the new norm? Should theaters and concert venues reopen to full capacity? Will any area of life return to its pre-pandemic state? The questions and demands voiced in the ongoing anti-racism protests feature a different focus, but they also call for sweeping structural reforms. Calls to “defund the police” have been explicated as a “reimagining” of what public safety and community-oriented state initiatives can look like. These twin crises thus raise awareness of infrastructural and social failures (of the healthcare system, of adequate preventative measures, of policing procedures, of systemic racism, etc.), but they also draw attention to failures of imagination. Questions about what kind of world we want to live in are increasingly superseded by questions of what kind of world will enable us to survive.
While the twin events represented by the global pandemic and anti-oppression uprisings therefore share significant similarities, they may be productively differentiated by the directional orientation of their respective inciting elements. The shock and disruption of the Coronavirus outbreak can be characterized as a movement inward driven by an outside impetus, whereas the protests represent an outward movement compelled by inner antagonisms. Social distancing and “safer-at-home” self-isolation measures were restrictive responses to an outside foreign force (foreign or alien in the sense that the virus is not human, not in any sort of xenophobic or Sinophobic sense as conveyed by the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” dysphemisms). The mass occupations of city streets and other urban spaces was an expansive outwardly-directed response to failures and contradictions within the society itself, including inherent racial injustice, class antagonisms, and a generalized precariousness engendered by neoliberal capitalism. The two movements thus represent two imperatives to reimagine our world: one compelled from without, the other incurred from within. (There were, of course, many interrelated and exacerbating factors connecting the pandemic response with the protests, such as the economic disruption, soaring unemployment, disproportionate health outcomes along racial lines, etc.)
One way to interpret the sudden transition from vacant, socially-distanced public spaces to massively occupied city streets is to view space as a blank slate onto which various forces or groups project their politicized messages. However, it would be misleading to consider the urban as an empty signifier, or city space as a neutral container subject to contestations over who gets to fill it with meaning. The built environment is always already a politicized terrain, shaped by value-laden design decisions and governed by policy and force. Urban space emptied of content does not reveal the material landscape as a merely objective fact or value neutral background for social life. Instead, both the images of emptied city streets in the time of Corona and the scenes of massive demonstrations in public space attest to a fact that the urban form shares with all communication media: the medium is the message.
On April 4th 1968 Martin Luther King Jr was killed by an assassin’s bullet. In the immediate aftermath African Americans took to the streets of several U.S. cities in a wave of riots and unrest that lasted for days. The killing of the most visible and influential figure of the civil rights movement provoked an irruption of anguished anger which was further stoked by years of simmering tension and resentment in America’s disinvested and disenfranchised urban black communities. Pittsburgh was among the U.S. cities to see significant tumult, with nearly a week of riots erupting in the Hill District, the city’s center of black life and culture. I still occasionally encounter Pittsburghers citing the Hill riots as an example of blacks “irrationally” destroying their “own” communities as a historical rationalization for longstanding social and economic plights facing Hill residents, as well as implicitly justifying the American apartheid of residential segregation and uneven spatialization. The King assassination riots became emblematic of what came to be known as the “urban crisis” in the United States. A young Richard Sennett responded to the urban unrest of the late 1960’s in his classic work of urban sociology, “The Uses of Disorder.” Sennett’s timely and prescient text presaged the advent of affluent “gated” communities and other emerging forms of social stratification and segregation. Defying the forces of entropy, Richard Nixon made the urban crisis a substantial element of his 1968 presidential campaign as the “law and order” candidate, a rhetorical strategy echoed in Donald Trump‘s 2016 presidential run.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has created an excellent interactive retrospective titled “The Week the Hill Rose Up.” Another Post-Gazette story explores the history behind August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running, which dramatized the fallout of the Hill riots.
From CityLab: “Cities on Fire 1968 – Urban America after MLK”
The Washington Post has marked the anniversary with an article on how then-mayor of Cleveland Carl B. Stokes “helped save his city from burning” following the King assassination.
Writing for the ACLU, Jeffrey Robinson reflects and observes that fifty years later “we remain two societies, ‘separate and unequal.'”
- Addendum (4/6/18): How the Pittsburgh Pirates persuaded the MLB Commissioner to postpone opening day in the wake of King’s death.
2001: A Space Odyssey had its world premiere 50 years ago today. I plan to have much more content commemorating the Semicentennial of this masterwork throughout the year, but in the meantime and in order to mark the anniversary of the premiere, check out 2001: A Book Odyssey from Paolo Granata which showcases 2001 book cover designs created by more than 180 students from the University of Toronto.
Of course, my take on the Clarke book is summed up by Heywood Floyd in the film: “More specifically, your opposition to the cover story…”
Since this past summer I’ve been immersed in my dissertation project, and this increased workload has not only affected my overall output on this blog but has diminished my ability to draft content based on its mere timeliness. I was photographing the Monroeville Mall (of Dawn of the Dead fame) the day before George Romero died last October, and failed to seize that kairotic moment to observe his passing and my personal history with his films. I had a second opportunity around Halloween when there were a series of zombie-related events in Pittsburgh, including a screening of Day of the Dead and discussion with cast and crew. I’ve also been planning on writing up my thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, yet this still hasn’t materialized more than five months after the film’s release. Now that we’re seven weeks into 2018, I’m trying to at least recognize some contemporary cultural resonance before the whole year passes.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the myriad soul-stirring, heartbreaking, and perennially radical events that transpired worldwide in 1968. A time in which, amongst other things, the war machine seemed to rage out of control and a peace movement formed to meet it. A time when revolutionary leaders emerged to galvanize collective action and imagination, and assassins rose up to cut them down. A time of unprecedented protests and street demonstrations which were often subdued with violence. It’s the revolutionary energy of the late 60s zeitgeist that Hunter S. Thompson beautifully eulogized in his famous “wave speech.”
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I was born nearly three decades after these seismic cultural shocks, and am still trying to grasp the sheer scope of the various events. Many of the movements and moments associated with 1968 involve irruptions in media and urban culture, and so have great resonance with my own area of inquiry. I began my dissertation last year, which was the 50th anniversary of Lefebvre’s writing on “The Right to the City.” Lefebvre was of course a significant intellectual influence for the May ’68 events in Paris. The year is also a watershed date for U.S. cities and the country’s “urban crisis.” My current home university, the University of Pittsburgh, is hosting a series of events through April considering the impacts and lessons of 1968 from global perspectives. Throughout the year I have the opportunity to engage with speakers, texts, and places connected to this legacy, and will be remarking on them in as timely a fashion as possible. I will try not to squander too much felicity. As expressed in a May ’68 slogan: “If we only have enough time…”