'The City and the City': London writers and artists bring tales of dual realities
A fictional front page of the Evening Standard is part of the installation "Greenwich Degree Zero" by Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy. They based the work on a French anarchist's failed attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894.
A short film is included in Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy's "Greenwich Degree Zero," imagining the destruction of the Greenwich Observatory in 1894.
Rachel Lichtenstein's sculpture of books and velvet is part of the installation "Sight Unseen."
Poet Caroline Bergvall created a series of "broadsides" -- this one is "Dame Just Is No Longer" -- for the installation "Middling English."
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When we walk through a city, we may think what we see is what everyone sees. After all, there it is: a bus, a Victorian manse, a wooded park. But what we see is based on what seeing it means to us.
A bus may look different to someone who is running to catch it than to someone who thinks riding a bus is beneath him. Some people seek haven in a wooded park and others avoid it, afraid wild things might jump out.
Emotional and cultural underpinnings shape our interpretations of place, a phenomenon that makes geography a little more complicated: psychogeography. When people talk about there being two Pittsburghs -- one among the nation's most livable, the other not so much -- they are hitting upon this concept.
Psychogeography began in the mid-20th century but gained force in a 21st-century movement of artists and writers, mostly in the Western world and most notably doing cross-disciplinary work in London. This week, it's coming to Pittsburgh.
"The City and the City: Artwork by London Writers" opens Friday at the Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, and runs through the end of the year. It's curated by Pittsburgh conceptual artist and writer Justin Hopper, who frequently works in Britain as well. He calls the world premiere installation "the intersection of psychogeography and contemporary art and writing."
The cast is illustrious, if not widely known in the United States: poet Caroline Bergvall, artists Iain Sinclair and Rod Dickinson, filmmakers Chris Petit and Emma Matthews, conceptual artist and writer Sukhdev Sandhu and novelists Rachel Lichtenstein and Tom McCarthy.
The Friday opening night party, free to the public and linked to the Cultural District Gallery Crawl, is from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Wood Street Galleries is at 601 Wood St.
On Saturday, at SPACE, 812 Liberty Ave., a free salon at 7:30 p.m. will feature conversations and readings by several exhibitors, people whom Mr. Hopper said are among the most influential "at finding new ways to explain what it means to live in the city today."
Mr. Hopper said the idea of psychogeography is particularly relevant now that we live in a global society and economy.
"The global society uproots the idea of living in a place we have a relationship to," he said. "Your livelihood is not tied to the ground on which you stand. We have placeless capitalism that celebrates capital more than the things that come out of it, such as, say, steel."
But globalization also brings into sharper focus the attachment people have for place, he said. "The English understand their relationship to place through memory, which is what Pittsburgh does all the time, which is why Pittsburgh is a very European city."
The title of the show is borrowed from China Mieville's 2009 novel "The City and the City" in which two cities exist in the same place but are separated by a law that requires people to unsee anything they see in the city that's not their own. It is a murder mystery, but the overarching instruction of the story is that sense of place depends on whose sense of place you mean, and whose place you mean.
Mr. Sandhu's exhibit "Night Haunts" focuses on the night as a different place than day and "a subject that is very floaty and invites speculation," he said in a phone interview from New York, where he teaches English literature and sound at New York University.
To create his exhibit, he joined night workers, among them flushers, men who work in the sewers and use ice picks to break down solid stuff that includes "icebergs of fat" from the proliferation of "cafes, restaurants and other pleasure places," he said.
"Night Haunts," in which a soundtrack and floating text interpret his images, has been turned into a four-part film series on prime time in Britain and performed in various European cities. Mr. Sandhu will return to Pittsburgh to perform it on Oct. 20. He will be scouting for a location during his visit this week.
"A lot of cities celebrate being quick because it is supposed to be a synonym for excitement, to get 20-somethings into places where older people don't feel they can go," he said. "There is a kind of age apartheid, and I wanted to go against speed, so the text moves very slowly" to engage people who might typically "graze text on computer screens" without absorbing the words.
Mr. Hopper said several of the works in the show will be seen for the first time in this country.
Those include "Greenwich Degree Zero," an alternative history by Mr. Dickinson and Mr. McCarthy. It is based on a failed attempt to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in 1894. Their take is this: What if the French anarchist Martial Bourdin had succeeded in destroying the observatory?
"They have created a history-center style exhibit of the aftermath," with newspaper accounts and displays of what was in the man's pockets and other memories, Mr. Hopper said.
"It's a very deep piece, an alternative history but with detailed research," Mr. Hopper said. It provokes thoughts about how our histories and memories were and are filtered through mediated interpretations that become the narrative of our cities, he said.
"It also deals with the way we mediate information about terrorism, so it's extremely contemporary. This is the first time it will have been shown in America; it's been around the world."
One of the writers visiting from London, Ms. Bergvall, a French-Norwegian, is known for her tangible expressions of poetry: She publishes on banners and broadside scrolls. In an email, she wrote that the use of new media and electronic technologies by writers "is still a fairly unusual way of dealing with writing." At the Pittsburgh show, her work will feature scrolls that appear to be in Middle English and reminiscent of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."
One of her re-takes, "The Fried Tale," is "a pretty savage satire about the city and the bankers that work in them," she wrote. "It's written in a language that is both very London today and infused with archaisms and weird sci-fi lingo taken from 'A Clockwork Orange.' "
People at the exhibition will be able to take the scrolls home.
Chaucer's "reclaiming of the English language in the 14th century inspired me to think about what English represents today, as a global and major postcolonial language," she wrote.
Of the show's writers, she said, "I feel many have a complex sense of belonging and non-belonging to London and to Britain, and this creates investigations that dwell on the unfamiliar, on the invisible, on the trace."
Her own sense of belonging and not belonging informs her work and springs from her non-British accent, she wrote.
Having an accent "always affects the way one can inhabit a place, even such a gigantic and multiethnic and profoundly multilingual city as London."
Mr. Hopper said he hopes the show will make people curious to read and start thinking about this subject. "But maybe it will just be a cool, wonderful show about ways to look at a city through language and art. This is what Pittsburgh is doing right now. We are investigating a modern identity. In my 20 years here, it has become one of the most vibrant places in America."
Mr. Sandhu, the conceptual artist and writer, was impressed that Pittsburgh is host to this exhibition.
"People have been hearing about this show, and they say, 'It's in Pittsburgh?' as though they expect it to be in California or New York or even Chicago. They say, 'Let me know how it goes because we'd like to do it here.' "
First Published September 23, 2012 12:00 am