The flaneur

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In the streets of early nineteenth century Paris, a new figure emerged. Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur. The urban observer, a poet-wanderer, a reporter of everyday street life, an artist, a loiterer, a city dweller who was as Baudelaire describes, “a lover” of  “universal life”.

In his La Pientre de la vie Moderne, he writes:

“the crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world – impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”

Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project (1939), resurrected the flaneur when he wrote:

“For the flaneur, a transformation takes place with respect to the street: it leads him through a vanished time.”

And about the lost art of walking he says:

“An intoxication comes over the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets. WIth each step, the walk takes on greater momentum; ever weaker grows the temptations of the bistros, of shops, of smiling women, ever more irresistible the magnetism of the next street corner, of a distant square in the fog, of the back of a woman walking before him.”

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

This romaticism of urban exploration, of bearing passionate witness to movements of city life, of being an almost insatiable observer of the human condition, is an indulgence our techno-economic lives deprive us of. There is an undeniable spiritual characteristic to the existence of the flaneur, which Walter Benjamin called “auratic”. This urban explorer was enveloped in an aura of transcendence; he was almost other worldly.

This idea gets even more interesting when placed in our present context.

One wanders to become familiar. People usually explore their surroundings when they’ve arrived in a new city or when on holiday. There is already a sense of “longing to belong” about wandering. One almost has to feel uncomfortable and unfamiliar to become a flaneur. So walking and exploring becomes a medium to feel united to the spirit of the city.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

One of our class’s favourite texts, is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” from his infamous Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Equally popular is Virgina Woolfe’s, Street Haunting. (Check out our intervention inspired by both these writers) Both describe “a hunger”, as Benjamin wrote, “to prowl through unknown districts”. Both Poe and Woolfe take to walking as an excuse – the former to satiate his curiousity about a distinct looking man, the latter to buy a pencil. Both evoke images of their cities with magical detail; offering charming spectacle to life on the streets.

To nurture a sense of belonging, one has to lay claim to the city by traversing it on foot. Paths forged in the city, through our imagination and curiosity, create indelible connections in our minds and entwine us in a unique relationship with the city.

Try it. Our Urban Writers are here to help. 

 

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Our urban interventions

It’s time to introduce our Urban Writers and their urban interventions. Made up of third year journalism students at the University, these students are working to recontextualize the city in new and creative ways.

Amina Waya:

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Amina is exploring the personification of cities. Inspired by the writings of Poe, Woolfe and Sukhev Sandhu, Amina will be playing the part of a Dubai resident who “leaves notes for other residents around the city, asking them thought provoking questions that should help them understand how their city has been personally personified for them i.e. who their city is to them.

The notes will contain a simple question about the receivers relationship to the city. “Are you a part of of your city or is your city a part of you?”

She says: “It fascinates me how Dubai transforms from day to night. It’s like watching a woman get dolled up for a night out or seeing a man put on a mask and go pretend to be someone else for a few hours every night, only to wipe off the make up, slip out of the camouflage again before dawn”

You can post your answers on her Twitter page.

Ayesha Islam:

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Creator of the Instagram page @discoverdxb , Ayesha has been looking at the city through her camera. Inspired by surrealistic narratives of the city, she dreams of a city where people converse in images.

Many of us don’t act upon our dreams and passions… Often people push their dreams aside, only seeing them before heading to bed, as they close their eyes. The fast paced city life is demanding and constantly makes us aware of time. Everyone is running on a schedule and forming relationships for a rational purpose. We should ask ourselves this question on a regular basis: when is the last time we did something for the first time?”

Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

A gaming enthusiast, Danill takes his passion for video games and recontextualizes the city as a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). He takes on the guise of a Game Master who sets simple tasks for players to accomplish. In accomplishing these tasks, his goal is to create a new “lore” for Dubai, one made up of the achievements of the common resident.

“Dubai, the way I see it now, is a virtual world where you are your own protagonist who moves, interacts and develops his skills as well as makes moral choices about his actions…It is like a social MMORPG with different hub areas and zones, all connected by the Metro. The intervention would work on the basis of getting people to talk to each other more and interact with their environment for the sake of improving their skill.”

Join the conversation and add to the new “lore” of Dubai. 

Dilwin Kaur:

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

For me Saed Al Suwadi represents Dubai completely.

Saed Al Suwadi is an old Emirati Man, his father was a pearl diver and also owned a museum which he then later on sold, but not before parting the hobby of collecting old trinkets to his son.

On one hand we have Saed Al Suwadi, son of a pearl diver; an Emirati who values and respects the olden ways and on the other hand we have Saed Al Suwadi, proud father of Fatima, a civic engineer now an offshore engineer. Not only is he literally from a past long gone, but he has a future vision. He appreciates history and looks forward to what the future would bring.”

Dilwin wishes to forge new relationships in order to understand the city better. She’s convinced that an appreciation of a city lies between the spaces between people. The city and its emphasis of timeliness and productivity, rob people of the time to be truly social; to slow down and appreciate everything the city has to offer. To fix this, she plans on placing social furniture in a place not necessarily used for that purpose. She wants to allow strangers to converse with each other in a setting otherwise reserved for “passing through”.

Dilwin’s intervention will take place in Knowledge Village in the week of the 30th March – 3rd of April.

Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

An inspired psychogeographer, Marwa is making maps of her urban explorations (or derives) of the city for people to enjoy.

She sees the city divided into 2 halves, each half on either side of Sheikh Zayed Road. To encourage movement between these two halves, she’ll be taking people from one side on “purposeless walks” to the other side. The aim is pure exploration and hopefully a deeper appreciation for the city as a whole.

Download Marwa’s maps (displayed below) and get started on your very own drift of Dubai.

Made by Marwa Chihab

Made by Marwa Chihab

Meena Bazaar

Made by Marwa Chihab

Al Ras

Made by Marwa Chihab

BUR DUBAI

Made by Marwa Chihab

DOWNTOWN

Made by Marwa Chihab

Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Permanent residence in Dubai is a luxury only few can afford. For most, Dubai remains a very comfortable transit city. In the context of this situation, Sharmeen is interested in exploring the concept of “Home”. How does one create home in a foreign city?

“What I really love about the area I live in, is that it is really lively, even though the signals are jam-packed almost every evening, the area is well lit, lots of supermarkets and eating joints, parlours and petrol stations. Something I have noticed, peculiar to other parts of Dubai is that people in this area make an effort to talk to each other, be it the supermarket cashier, the watchmen, delivery boys or even people in the lift. Personally, I have had people in the lift with me in my building who have made an effort to say a simple hello, or even ask about college and work.”

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on all our forums!

The City as a Canvas

We’re getting a lot of eyeballs and support from the digerati community already, and just for that, we’d like to say a big THANK YOU!

Image credit: WAM

Image credit: WAM

We were in a truly celebratory mood this past week with the announcement of the metro makeover by the city of Dubai. The Metro Museum Project is set to “enhance the quality of life and transport, and transform Dubai Metro stations into destinations of culture, creativity and aesthetics,” said Shaikh Mohammad, following the launch of the project.

What a fantastic idea for an urban intervention!

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

Photo credit: Daniil Shilov

The city itself, being an assemblage of architecture, technology and media, becomes a veritable communication device. Acknowledgement of its power to enable better social relationships amongst its residents and inspire human ingenuity, allows it to be one of the most effective and important  incubators of human potential of our time.

In “The Culture of Cities“,  Lewis Mumford wrote:

IMG_0400“The city … is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn urban forms condition mind. For space, no less than time, is artfully reorganized in cities … With language itself, it remains man’s greatest work of art.”

Cities across the world are using art to revitalise urban communities. While some artists work anonymously like the infamous Banksy to draw attention to the issues around urban decay,  others invite the community to lend its voice to a growing urban regeneration movement. One of our favourites is Broken City Lab Project situated in Windsor, Ontario. An “artist led interdisciplinary research collective,” they look to “explore and unfold curiosities around locality, infrastructures, education, and creative practice leading towards civic change”

In the lead up to the London Olympics, a London based design studio Hide and Seek created 99 Tiny Games designed “for real world play on specific sites” for every borough in London. These were placed in public areas and had to be played by strangers, like “like Eye Contact, a race where you can only move when you’re making eye contact with someone else – another player, a stranger, whoever you like.”

Typerventions, brainchild of designer Kriti Monga of Turmeric Design, uses “experimental typography installations from everyday materials to spell meaningful messages in Delhi’s public spaces”

Starting the first week of April, residents of Dubai will be able to participate in a series of urban interventions created by students of this lab.

More on that in my next post. Stay tuned!

Urban Intervention

Photo credit: Ayeesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayeesha Islam

The primary function of any place is to encourage social interaction.

The Situationists, rightly believed that space has the ability to shape interactions and create new “situations” or experiences. While city planners have to focus on creating cities that are efficient, orderly and functional, places of social interaction are increasingly either commodified (coffee shops, restaurants, malls etc) or controlled by access.

Because of its focus on productivity and economic prosperity, George Simmel in his seminal work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”,  explains how  cities tend to reduce every interaction to its most quantitative level. Emotional or intellectual investment in any relationship is based upon the perceived “return” in terms of value, one might receive.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

This “calculating exactness of practical life” in the metropolis, along with  the constant bombardment of the senses that occurs in the city, leads to what Simmel calls “the blase attitude” – the ultimate renunciation of response to stimulus.

In many cities across the world, this attitude has led to a disengagement with the local environment. People in cities tend to come across as indifferent, uncaring and wholly focussed on personal well being and self centered progress.  In an effort to counter this trend, city authorities  now  use art and cultural activities as means to revitalize urban life

Thus, the urban intervention.

Photo credit: Amina Waya

Photo credit: Amina Waya

George Yúdice, Professor of Latin American Studies and Interim Chair at the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Miami,  defines the term as referring to “public or participatory art through which publics constitute themselves and experience something extraordinary in the process.”

Here at the lab,  students are currently developing intervention ideas for the city of Dubai. The ultimate aim is to ignite new conversations about the city and develop a deeper appreciation for its uniqueness and its complexity. Students are using a combination of multimedia and social media to creates new experience for the residents of Dubai.

Stay tuned for more.