Rethinking the city
By ucyow3c, on 3 December 2014
Written by Jasmine Popper (MA student, UCL Anthropology)
Shown in the appropriate setting of the expansive Slade Research Centre, the eighth edition of Cities Methodologies questioned how we design, navigate and imagine cities as places. The exhibition and event series, organised by the UCL Urban Laboratory, represented an overall sense of investigation into what constitutes the lived experience, and the social and political construction of urban environments.
After a call for proposals, a number of artists, academics, researchers and students from across the world working on urban topics showcased their research at UCL. Of these, a number of contributors unraveled day-to-day urban narratives and political issues as lived at a ground level.
As soon as I entered the fifth floor (where the exhibition took place), I was transported back outside by an atmospheric soundscape of road sweeping and birdsong. It was part of Cally Calls, a project in which seven artists collaborated with seven local inhabitants of the Caledonian Road area in north London.
Each pair engaged in a discursive and creative journey relating the personal and political experiences of this locality as home. What struck me was the idea of the Cally as not an officially defined locality and not drawn on any map, but as a region understood and defined individually by its local inhabitants. The same could be said of any locality and also the city as a whole.
The thought-provoking nature of the exhibition carried on throughout topics such as urban decay and regeneration, localised narratives and contemporary digital technologies.
For me, one of the most impressive exhibits was 7 Isles Unclaimed, by an international team of researchers based in Mumbai. The fantastical drawings and wall-mounted constructions depicted ancient Mumbai (then Bombay) as it might have been thousands of years ago, or how it exists in the minds of its present-day storytellers. The city becomes an idea, and we are reminded of the infinite possibilities of how it could be both described and documented, both factually and fictionally.
Work from UCL Development Planning Unit’s Nikola Antaki also stood out – an intricate tapestry map created in collaboration with schoolchildren of Mariamma Nagar, India, through an exploratory journey through their local area. Translating their discoveries into this intricate fabric, the piece resonates memories and emotional attachments at specific points on the map, illustrating community networks and senses of home.
At the end of the nine studios of work, I reached Katie Beinart’s Saltworks, a sensitive and atmospheric room in which she explored both the materiality and sociality of salt. Although perhaps not immediately an urban-focused installation, the individual works included drawings, video and a striking large cone of white salt delicately resting above a pool of water. Through this everyday material this last installation contributed to the city discussion through a translation of one small piece of the vast and intersecting local and global networks of people, things and ideas.
Throughout the four days, the exhibition was accompanied by a series of innovative events that saw many visitors participate in discussion surrounding the works and issues raised here. The show also accompanied the launch of the Urban Laboratory’s third issue of their Urban Pamphleteer publication, with its topical focus on the relationship between design and trust in the contemporary city. Although I have only discussed a handful of research shown, the exhibition was a vibrant setting for open and necessary debate, and inspiring in its suggestion towards integrating more progressive approaches towards urban design and living.
Cities Methodologies is an annual exhibition organised by the UCL Urban Laboratory. The 2014 edition took place 28-31 October. Details of the 2015 edition and a call for proposals will be released in Spring 2015.
Images from the exhibition and events can be found on the UCL Urban Laboratory Flickr page. Audio guides to the exhibition can still be found on the UCL Soundcloud page. For more information on the work of the UCL Urban Laboratory, visit their website.