The Non Place

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

There was a time when people explored cities with just an eye and a notebook or perhaps, even a camera. Today, however, explorers are more keen to remove themselves from their immediate surroundings and mediate the world through a digital interface. Consider this paragraph from Kazys Varnelis’s Networked Place,

“You’re in the café with your Moleskine notebook—a non-networked object ubiquitous among the digerati—trying to start an essay on the role of place in network culture and finding that the only way forward is to detach yourself from the network as much as possible. But the people surrounding you have other ideas. The man behind you is trying to commit himself more deeply to the network, purchasing a plan that will allow him to talk on his mobile phone for one-tenth of his waking hours every month. A woman next to you is browsing the Internet with her laptop, a late-career executive is thumbing his Blackberry,two students are studying together, and some teenagers are hanging out listening to music on their iPhones. While one texts her friends, the other downloads music from the iTunes store. A thirtysomething man is on his laptop working on a screenplay, while a few people are just reading books or the paper. You are all somehow drawn together by the lure of the generic (but branded) caffeinated beverage and the desire to share a similarly generic, but nonetheless communal, space with other humans with whom you are likely not to have any direct interaction.”

How has technology changed our cities? By converting them into non-places.

In her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs links the collapse of the public sphere to the lack of “architectural infrastructure” that encourages face to face interaction. What we have today are a profusion of transitory places – malls, supermarkets, airports, hotels, restaurants, cafes, modes of transport – purposeful, commodified and mediated by text rather than speech. Otherwise called the Non Place

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Each place or (non-place) requires a certain protocol of behaviour, which minimizes interaction with strangers. Take the airport, for instance. After you’ve traveled once, the protocol becomes familiar. If you’re lost, look for the signs that lead you to where you want to go. Your identity is checked once when you enter and once when you leave. The airport is the perfect embodiment of the non place.

Coined by Marc Auge, and explained in this video about “Architecture and the Non Place” the non place is the most significant aspect of supermodernity. While places are created through identity and memory, are finished and ordered, non places are distinguished by the fact that they’re constantly changing, are created to meet a certain end, they’re mediated by text and are governed by spectacle (Auge, M (1995) From Place to Non Place. Non-Places Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, London: Verso)

As Auge says, “it creates the image, produces the myth and at the same stroke makes it work”.

Today, most cities of the world build “sights” for the explicit purpose of attracting people to enjoy them for a brief periods of time. Their marketing machines go into overdrive, giving rise to a proliferation of literature that together produce the myth of the city. The experience of the city is then packaged as a product and sold to be consumed in a particular way. Today the world is a an interconnected network of non places.

The drawback of this whole operation is the inability of places to shake off the myth created so aggressively by their tourist offices. Even inhabitants of cities that are market aggressively, buy into this image and, in the process lose a deeper, more meaningful engagement with the city and its inhabitants. Interaction become purposeful and driven by expectation.Cities are now consumed and used like products to meet certain ends.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

On the flip side, the confluence of globalization and the technology enabled networked economy that brings to life the non place, can also give rise to “place” in the most unexpected way. Like in this fantastic  TED talk by photographer Iwan Baan, “Ingenious homes in Unexpected Places”, he documents the lives of people who took over an abandoned high rise tower in Caracas, Venuzvela and how through ingenuity, creativity and a little hacking, have made it their home. In another Ted Talk, Robert Neuwirth talks about “Shadow Cities”, or squatter sites in which more than a billion people live.

Do you unconsciously endorse the non place? Are you ready to break out of structure and discover something truly unique about the city you live in and yourself?

Go for a drift today!

 

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The Flaneuse – Women in the City

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

“Whether women are seen as a problem of cities, or cities as a problem for women, the relationship remains fraught with difficulty” – Elizabeth Wilson, The Invisible Flaneur (1992) 

Now, here’s a contentious idea. The city has been, for the most part and still continues to be, a predominantly male domain. The 18th century flaneur (or poet explorer) constructed by Baudelaire, held both the city and its women at the end of his gaze. Janet Wolff in her essay, “Feminism and Modernism“, wrote:

“The experience of anonymity in the city, the fleeting, impersonal contacts described by social commentators like Georg Simmel, the possibility of unmolested strolling and observation first seen by Baudelaire, and then analysed by Walter Benjamin were entirely the experiences of men. By the late nineteenth century, middle-class women had been more or less consigned (in ideology if not in reality) to the private sphere. The public world of work, city life, bars, and cafés was barred to the respectable woman . . “

In Baudelaire’s Paris, “the women of the street” participated in the flesh trade, creating the perception of the wandering woman as unvirtuous or loose. According to Wilson, the flaneur himself was a marginal figure, hyped by the poetic gesticulations of authors such as Baudelaire, Benjamin and Simmel. But his “gaze” characterized the male threat to women in the city.

If one were to think about the persistent rhetoric one hears about single adult women, unrestrained by family or law chat,  who “roams around”  even for perfectly legitimate business, one could perhaps attribute the roots of such thought to the “gaze” of the flaneur.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

The flaneur was seen as a free willed figure, who experienced the city as he willed, with no thought to boundaries or division of any kind. His experience was whole, not limited to or any type of space; he was moved by the spectacle that was the city. In contrast to this almost omnipresent privilege was the woman’s relationship to the city. Marsha Meskimmon, in her book “Engendering the City: Women Artist and the Urban Space” talks of the woman as a pedestrian, rather than a flaneur, who is aware of the physical limitation of the space that surrounds her. She writes:

“She is not a disembodied eye like the theoretical flaneur who wanders through the city “invisibly” and untouched, but a sentient participant in the city. She realises boundaries as embodied and refutes the flaneur’s privileged boundary transcendence and Utopia, unified city.”

The pedestrian is more aware of the local space, the communities, the politics of that space, while the flaneur is flighty, seemingly free of anything that might hamper his consumption of the city.

The appropriation of the city by women is seen as a crucial outcome of the feminist movement. And to a large extent, in the West and in certain countries of Asia, this has occured. West of Rome, a multi experiential urban art project, recently hosted an ongoing viral art exhibition focussed on “Women in the City“, which “showcased the art of women in empowered positions”

However, major cities of the world still struggle to balance the safety of women with their rising economic empowerment. In the light of a recent spate of violence against women in India, an organization called “Women in Cities” released a set of videos portraying how women in vulnerable communities were taking responsibility for their own safety. A safety map was created, through dialogue with young girls in the community, which highlighted the most dangerous spots for a girl to visit.  Unfortunately, these included common public places like parks, bus stops and even the communal toilets.

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

Photo credit: Marwa Chihab

For true progress and political stability, it is imperative that women have equal access to a city as men. Dubai is possibly the safest place for a woman to live and work. In this article published by the Huffington post, the writer states:

“Dubai allows you to be you. And controversially especially if you are a woman. I’m not the only woman to think that. I feel safer here in Dubai than I do in London or Paris. There is a healthy respect that means you are just left alone, so long as you in turn respect the local values and customs.”

And that is how every city in the world should be!

 

 

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!

About

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The Middlesex University Dubai’s Urban Writer’s Lab grew out of a journalism module called Writing the City. In this module students are invited to develop a critical understanding of the relationship between individuals, media and the urban environment. If we … Continue reading

The Travelogue

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Cities were first described in travelogues. Accounts of journeys were recorded as early as the 2nd century, when Pausanias, a native of the ancient city of Lydia undertook an expedition of Greece.

Several travel accounts or  “Rihla” which is Arabic for “Journey” were undertaken by prominent Muslim geographers and writers. The most important among them being Abu Jubayr and Ibn Battuta.

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Abu Jubayr was a resident of Granada who accompanied the Muslim army of the Caliphate of Damascus to quell a Berber uprising in the area. He undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca which he chronicled in his “Rihla”, one the earliest pieces of travel writing available. Abu Jubayr’s journey takes him through Saladin’s Ayubbid kingdom which at the height of its power, included Egypt, Syria, Iraq, parts of Turkey and Iran, Kuwait, western Saudi Arabia, Yemen and parts of North Africa.

Ibn Battuta, often said to be one of the greatest travelers ever,  whose life and journey is chronicled in our local Ibn Battuta Mall, undertook a journey that spanned 30 years. He journeyed from Morocco, across Northern Africa into Somalia, stopped at Mecca for a while, and continued into Persia, India and China.

Consequently, travel writing became increasing linked to pleasure trips, the earliest account being Italian poet Petrarch’s account of his climb of Mount Ventoux.

John Eade, in his book, “Placing London: From Imperial Capital to Global City” often likens the traveler to an explorer, who has to “construct a narrative that will make this strange place familiar to the reader”. Travel writing allowed the reader to form impressions of a place, without ever leaving home. As travel became more and more affordable, the “guide book” became more popular. The birth of the tourism “industry”  warranted investment in a plethora of literature that allows the visitor to feel like he’s undertaking a journey unlike any other, much like the explorers of the past!

How travel has changed!

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Once thought to be an adventurous undertaking, today the travel experience comes in a customized, carefully crafted, time bound, plug and play box which requires no effort, no research and no surprises.  In an increasingly globalized world, our conversations while on holiday  with “local” people might be restricted to hotel staff and tour guides who might be foreign themselves. We stay in hotels that make us feel “at home”, eat food which aren’t too unfamiliar to our own, and check off  “must see” sights which could include well rehearsed cultural programmes which give us just the right dose “of the local experience”.

To counter this growing commodification of the travel experience is the urban “drift” or “derive”. It is possible to experience uniqueness even in the most familiar neighbourhoods. Click here for a primer.

An introduction

VIDEO: Check out this brilliant compilation, depicting people and their lives in cities around the world.

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

In a world that is shifting rapidly from rural to urban, more than half the world’s population live in cities. The ability of cities to concentrate financial, technological and political resources make them hotbeds of opportunity. Money flattens the playing field, enabling people with the best talent and ideas to get ahead.

“The efficiency of urban association underlies the basic process of human invention and innovation. People of all backgrounds are drawn to cities to break from the restrictions and injustices of traditional rural societies and to reorganize themselves into new communities. By facilitating new forms of association, our cities increase the pace and variety of human invention and social change” – Jeb Brugmann, Welcome to the Urban Revolution

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

Photo credit: Dilwin Kaur

On the flip side, increased migration to cities increases competition for resources within them. The race to get ahead, demotes every transaction to a purely quantitative level. Individuality and personality becomes invisible in the city and people tend to become part of, as Georg Simmel describes, “the faceless crowd”, caught up in an infinite loop of a time bound life. Wake up-work-socialise-sleep-repeat. Over burdened resources, if improperly managed, widens chasms between the rich and poor.

The primary challenge of every 21st century city is the same. How does she remain efficient and productive while offering equality and access to resources to all her inhabitants? Can the urbanite utilise his urban advantage in more responsible, socially beneficial ways? Can we build cities that allow people of diverse interests to meet and connect without the pressure of having to “gain” something at the end of every interaction? Can cities be less about purpose and more about life?

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

The students of this course, while ideating about possible solutions, try and find creative expression to the issues faced by cities; and in the process, discover much about their environments and themselves. Creativity always attracts a following, thus allowing for greater public engagement with the issues facing cities. From all the research available what is undeniably clear is the fact that well structured public private partnerships will drive the design, structure and execution of the cities of the future. Inhabitants cannot continue to be indifferent to the challenges facing the city. Instead they must become co creators, fashioning their environments to serve the greater good.

In order to include residents in the discourse about the metropolis, cities have to make people feel like they belong, which is counterintuitive to its very innate purpose. How can cities nurture a sense of belonging?

Exploration. Experience. Connection. Reflection.

IMG_4083

Photo credit: Ayesha Islam

The above can occur in myriad ways, through photographs, books, film, music, sound and imagination. Through this course, we look at how cities are perceived and explored by writers, theorists and artists. We look at how they are deconstructed, how they take apart the elements of the city to negotiate a better life within the urban environment. We look at how cities are built layer by layer, network upon network to create the urban “jungle”. We look at the effects of the city on our psyche and how we unconsciously and consciously choose to engage or disengage with our surroundings.

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

Photo credit: Sharmeen Khan

We are fortunate to have Dubai serve as our veritable playground. It is an international, multicultural city whose residents enjoy a fairly high standard of living. Resources are incredibly well managed and the regular challenges of urban life seen in other parts of the world, do not feature here. How does Dubai manage this? It embraces a unique and innovative urbanism: by marrying futuristic architectural and technological ambition with a strong emphasis on areas which promote play and social cohesion.

While Dubai has been featured increasingly in travel literature, films and books, we are hoping to use social media tools in conjunction with multimedia to allow for higher levels of engagement and exploration. We want to discover Dubai in ways not discovered before and we wish to share what we learn with you.

Get in touch to know more.