‘The Sky is Falling’, distributed across an exhibition, printed matter and events programme, is a broad and layered project concerning the histories and dispositions of city spaces as an aesthetic and their operation as the site for utopias, dreams and social visions. It documents the abrasive and contradictory experiences of citizens as the potential that urban utopias offer declines and fails. Meanwhile, the exhibition’s title suggests that the contemporary world and its narratives might be framed through the allegories of a children’s fairy story. A prediction of devastation incites fear, paranoia and hysteria within the population, a method wherein cities and its inhabitants might be controlled by authorities.
Twilight City, directed by Reece Auguiste in 1989 as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, is an elegiac poetic video essay on London’s changing economic forms: its enterprise zones, its demolition of social housing to make way for private housing (described in one voice-over as ‘architectural murder’), its foreign capital investments, the City’s stock exchange, and Conservative political policies originating from the Thatcher government. The video documents this bulldozer of modernisation, privatisation, gentrification and private capital and gain. The pace of Auguiste’s video resembles a sleepwalker taking indirect passage through the city as diary or archive: footage, interviews, anecdotes and observations layer up to describe London as a site of endless conflict. This is further revealed through subjects of protest, with a focus on civil disobedience and activism pertaining to Clause 28 and its laws to prohibit local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality or gay ‘pretended family relationships’, intertwined with narratives on immigration and race.
This video cartography on the shaping of personal identity set alongside the dreams of utopias and social visions finds equivalences with Susan Buck Morss’s 1995 essay The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe which is republished for the exhibition’s Reader – a pamphlet of essays and encounters printed on vivid pink paper, featuring writings by Peter McGurn, Ainslie Roddick and Remco de Blaaij and the artist Laura Oldfield Ford. All of which also points to the exhibition’s extended programme of film screenings, discussion groups, artists’ talks and performative readings. Organised as a ‘primer’ to the exhibition, this programme included works by Chantal Ackerman, Jean Luc Godard, Jonathan Glazer, Charles Atlas, Giles Bailey and Martha Rosler. These contextualising endeavours, which give substance and detail to The Sky is Falling’s elicitation of abstracted urban experience, expand on its root examination of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s articles on the ‘space of appearance’: the highly fragile realms of public action and speech, the potential energy of collective engagement and political gatherings. Auguiste’s video might chart the Clause 28 demonstrations but it also points to the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter, bringing its evidence from the past into the urgency of the present moment.
Glasgow-based artist Carol Rhodes’s meticulous depictions chart the city as imaginary unpopulated spaces. On the same flat surface they ‘sense’ the realistic but are impossibly positioned. These are alleged places, illusions composed of familiar modernist architecture: industrial units, landscaped gardens, broad highways and intersections. These images exist at a tense interchange between depiction and deception. Rhodes’s paintings are fictions, just as Dora Meija’s The Garden of Eden installation images are factual. Made up of 98 satellite images of global cities, they set the city to the immaterial and impartial proportions of satellite technologies. These are abstracted maps of the growth of humanity but actively deny its human presences.
Hurtling back to earth, both Laura Oldfield Ford and Ciara Ianni’s works draw upon the individual’s movements in and moments of the city. Ford employs the theory of dérive, or drifter, to accumulate stories, extracts and passages from encounters with the city taken with chance and serendipity. They bring to mind visual anthropologist Andrew Irving’s work that records, as a stream of spoken thoughts, people’s – mostly – hidden interior dialogues as they navigate the city. Ianni’s video is formed of an interviewer demanding responses from city planners Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer to the social upheaval and subsequent workers’ strikes caused by the building of their utopian and politically-charged vision Brasilia, a new capital city for Brazil in the late 1950s. Meanwhile an accompanying drawing renders with a simple graph and line a contemporary domestic worker’s lengthy commute, aligned with her paltry monthly income and set alongside those of her wealthy middle-class employer. These disparities, like the tones, voices and concerns exposed through the entire exhibition and its satellite activities, often demonstrate that the contemporary city is lived as a stark and cruel task of endurance.