2014 Abstracts‎ > ‎

Track 4: Urban Imaginations


Urban imaginations have become increasingly important to academic accounts of cities. Engaging with the different ways of seeing, writing and narrating urban life, this track seeks to engage with a broad range of academic disciplines in order to explore the rich intellectual and artistic energy of the urban imagination. We are keen to explore the ways that these different methods of imagining cities, and the mediums through which they operate, can assist researchers across various disciplines in re-imagining conventional narratives of the urban. We invite submissions for visual and paper presentations for Urban Imaginations. We are particularly interested in research from diverse theoretical and empirical backgrounds (literature studies, art and theatre studies, music, social anthropology, urban studies, geography, development studies, media studies, etc.). We invite proposals on themes and subjects including: ‘Fictional’ city imaginations, utopian and dystopian imaginations, visual, musical, and dramaturgical representations of cities, media accounts of cities, extracts from ethnographic urban fieldnotes, and contested city narratives.

Key Words: imaginations, city narratives, utopia, dystopia, artistic representations, cultural representations, ethnography.

Chairs: Hayley Peacock and Cecil Sagoe


1.Uzma Ansari, Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, University of Amsterdam, Year 2

Remembering the Ottoman City

In this presentation, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s fictional city imagination will be discussed as an alternative city narrative that contests state sponsored, ‘official’ historical narratives. The objects of this study are Pamuk’s two Ottoman novels My Name Is Red and The White Castle and, within the framework of these novels, his reconstruction and production of the memory of the Ottoman city will be analysed by employing the concept of ‘palimpsesting’. The focus will be on Pamuk’s cultural representation of the temporally distant Ottoman city of Istanbul circa 1600 A.D and the purpose behind re-constructing the city as it existed several hundred years prior to the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1928. Through his palimpsestuous engagement with the city from this specific time period, Pamuk strives to foreground the cosmopolitan and heterogeneous social structure of the Ottoman city and East-West relations in an historical setting. By doing this he is able to off-set the Republican era’s obsession with modernisation via coercive westernisation of the Turkish nation state vis a vis a ‘pre-modern’ cosmopolitanism. This study will focalise specific sites of the Ottoman city in Pamuk’s fiction, for instance coffee houses and artistic guilds, that functioned as spaces of dissent and creative historiography as a means of contesting the discourse of the modern Republic. The role of imagination in ‘creative memory’ and liminal narratives will also be addressed as aspects of Pamuk’s unique city narrative. 

2.Emma Fraser, Department of Sociology, University of Manchester

Imagining the end of the city: Contemporary representations of mass urban ruins

Emerging from cultural and urban studies, this paper discusses the development of a contemporary ‘ruin imaginary’, informed by both experiences and representations of large-scale urban ruin.

Real and imagined cities in decline provide repositories for remnants and fragments, useless things on a large scale. As Walter Benjamin perceived in the Parisian arcades of the 1930s, progress and renewal generate refuse and decay, which manifest in topographies of neglect and obsolescence. It is from this detritus that we begin to imagine the end of the city, and to engage with the possibilities offered by ruins in urban spaces.

The ruined city is an important indicator of underlying anxieties about how urban spaces might cease to be living and active metropolises, while also providing fertile ground for fictional imaginings of dystopian futures, as well as vital material for representations of large-scale ruin (such as the recent ‘ruin porn’ of Detroit). Real and imagined ruins are increasingly omnipresent in news, film, media, and online, as questions of economic decline, overconsumption and catastrophic climate change begin to dominate projections of the future; perceptions of the present, and representations of the contemporary city.

This paper will explore the notion of an urban ‘ruin imaginary’ as a work-in-progress, expanding on previous research on Benjamin and modern ruins, and reflecting my ongoing PhD project Self and Ruin: Imagining the end of the city, which considers sites of contemporary mass-ruin and hypothetically ruined cities through fieldwork, archival research, and media analyses.

3.Georg Drennig, Advanced Research in Urban Systems/Anglophone Studies, University of Duisburg-Essen, Year 3

Greenest Games or Thunderbird Shitting on the Olympic Rings: The contested narrative of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics

The organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games intended to showcase Vancouver as the green city of the future, while those opposed to hosting the event both challenged that narrative and subverted the organizers’ visual language for their purposes. An analysis of the media strategies involved can shed light on both the hegemonial production of urban imaginaries and on the means available to marginalized groups to counter such works of cultural articulation.! The Vancouver Olympic Bid Corporation and the local Olympic Committee created a strikingly coherent narrative of hosting the ostensibly greenest games in history, making extensive use of First Nations imagery and the support of tribal elders, mobilizing existing narratives and symbols of spectacular nature and an intact environment, building supposedly-sustainable showcase sports venues, and even materially reshaping the landscape in support of an image of an environmentally sustainable urbanity of the future. The groups opposed to the games did not have similar resources, and thus turned to guerrilla media in which they used the visual language of the games’ promoters to challenge this narrative and instead draw attention to the specifics of their opposition. Their image of Thunderbird defecating lightning onto broken Olympic rings has since become a symbol not only of resistance against the Olympic Games in the city, but also against the urban image the event’s organizers strove to assert, and against the interests behind promoting that image.

4.Edwards Jones, Bartlett School of Planning, UCL, Year 2

The economic imaginations of inner east London

Literary and media portrayals of inner east London have emphasised several themes which have proved persistent over the centuries - the area's creativity, productivity and deprivation. This paper examines how these themes relate to ways in which the economies of inner east London have been thought about and governed over the past 30 years. Operationalising the concept of 'economic imaginaries' (Jessop, 2008, 2013; Sum, 2009), this paper considers the rise of the much lauded Tech City in relation to other forms of economic activity found in the area. The way in which actors imagine places and economies, simplifying 'a complex reality by selectively defining the ‘economy’ as an object of calculation, management and governance' (Sum, 2009), will be considered with reference to the material and semiotic co-constitution of inner east London.

From the Greater London Enterprise Board's support for traditional clothing and furniture manufacturing industries in the mid 1980s in what was defined regionally as a 'community area' under threat from 'commercial' development, to the present coalition government's support for the export potential of Tech City firms, this paper will outline the lineage of economic imaginaries which underpin different approaches to governing the economies of inner east London.  The different ways in which the area, and forms of creative production, are thought about - a manufacturing-based working class area, a key node in global digital economy – will be examined with reference to way in which the aims and content of governance approaches have changed over time.

5.Johanna Steindorf, Media Arts Department, Bauhaus-University Weimar, Year 2

Unfolding Spaces of my Memory: Female migration through audio

How is it possible to make the subjective experience of walking in the city as a female migrant perceptible through audio? In my PhD project, I examine the hybrid art form of the Audio Walk in its different aspects. The insights of this analysis served as a basis for a series of experiments conducted in public space with a group of women that have newly arrived to live in the city of Cologne in Germany.

In this paper, I will present different artistic forms and examples of participative performances in public space that make use of mobile devices and headphones, in combination with the act of walking. The hybridity of the art form of the audio walk is expressed in both subject and form: performance, theatre, radio and walking come together in these locative pieces, while the content is composed of narrative fiction, documentary, music, directions and/ or the construction of atmospheres. Aspects such as immersion, spatiality and movement will be taken into consideration, as well as the influence of subjective perception, place attachment and memory.

Furthermore, I will present the first results of my own artistic research on the subject. Throughout the first trimester of 2014, I am conducting several experiments with a group of 15 women that have recently moved to Cologne from another country. Using various elements of the Audio walk and adapting techniques and methods of psychogeography, I walk the city with these women and carry out individual interviews and group discussions on their own experience and direct perception of the city.

6.Sarah Thomasson, Departments of Drama and Geography, Queen Mary, Year 3

Churches to Corpses: Contestation of the Urban Imagination at the Adelaide Festival

The Adelaide Festival, hosted annually by the capital city of South Australia, is recognised as the premier arts event in the nation. Since the 1970s, the Adelaide Festival has been instrumental in reinventing the conservative ‘City of Churches’ into the self-styled capital of the ‘Festival State’. In promoting the city’s cultural credentials, the South Australian government also seeks to evade Adelaide’s alternative moniker of the ‘City of Corpses’, a label which alludes to a number of high profile serial killings in and around the city over the past fifty years. This dystopian city narrative highlights a darker underbelly of the urban imagination, pointing to the social disadvantage in Adelaide's outer northern and southern suburbs revealed by census data, and exposing tensions within the Festival City.
Rob Shields theorises place myths as socially constructed meanings that are ascribed to places and are formed through a layering of meaning over the physical geography of the city. I argue that the Adelaide Festival and Fringe form the ‘set of core images’ (Shields 1991: 60) that are widely held and used to promote the city. I explore alternative imaginings of Adelaide – Churches to Corpses – in order to examine its construction as a Festival City and reveal the stakes involved in obscuring economic inequality and displacing alternative cultural constructions. By investigating the role that cultural events play in mythologising and promoting place, this case study offers a model for interrogating economic and social inequality through the urban imagination.

7.Charlotte Whelan, Department of Geography, UCL, Year 1

Experimental art practices and alternative political space in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Based on my PhD research, this paper examines the role of artists and art practices in countering the ethnic and spatial fragmentation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and in forging alternative political spaces. The aim is to examine not just how artistic groups are using space, but the extent to which this is effective in reimagining the relationships between people and spaces within and between three cities – Prijedor, Banja Luka and Mostar. The people and politics of BiH have been subjected to constant reframings by external and internal political actors, and separated accordingly. It is therefore necessary to shift the focus from these political framings to the ways in which citizens think and act in their everyday lives. Placed in the wider regional history of art as a form of resistance to imposed divides and nationalist violence, the hope is to both present and engage with the alternative practices of politics employed by regional artists in BiH. Contributing to the study of reconciliation, intercultural interaction, and the role of culture in addressing the legacies of violent conflict; the aim is to go beyond this and examine the everyday lived realities of young people in BiH. Art provides a useful tool to re-engage with and reposition these issues outside of the labels that have permeated existing studies – ethnic, religious, victim, perpetrator; providing a medium for people to redefine their future by sidestepping the political realm they so distrust to renegotiate their connection to the past.

8.Cecil Sagoe, Department of Geography, UCL, Year 1

Looking for London 2012’s Housing Legacies: Exploring Visual Representations and the use of Photographic Methods

Campkin (2012) has argued that there are currently visual representations circulating, with regard to London 2012, that are playing a powerful role in promoting and implementing a particular form of top-down development in and around the Olympic Park. This presentation will examine and discuss visual representations, attempting to represent London 2012’s housing ‘legacies’, that are being produced and disseminated by a broad range of state and market actors involved with London 2012’s organisation, delivery and after management. I will explore how these representations are currently being put to work by these state and market actors to: (1) shape public understandings of London 2012’s housing ‘legacies’; and (2) subsequently gain broad public support for these actors’ top-down housing development plans. Adopting a semiotic approach I will situate the visual representations I discuss within the broader contemporary dynamics of regeneration and housing delivery in London. Contextualising my discussion of these visual representations in this manner will assist me in illustrating how the positive messages encoded within the visual representations I discuss may come to be decoded negatively by those living and around the Olympic Park. Following from this discussion, this presentation will consequently also examine and discuss visual representations produced by civil society actors that are attempting to shed critical light on London 2012’s housing ‘legacies’; particularly those that challenge visual representations of London’s 2012’s ‘housing’ legacies as indubitably positive.