The Body and The City (2011)

First Floor, Architecture Building, The University of Melbourne, 4-25 March 2011
and also exhibited at the
 XV Generative Art Exhibition, San Micheletto Gallery, Lucca, Tuscany.  (Curated by Professor Celestino Soddu), 9-12 December 2012.

The Body and the City: A Poem in Three Parts by Julie Clarke. Sound Design by Erin Powell. Technical Assistance by Mark B. Harris ABC IT and Dr Steven Middleton. Essay by Francesco Paolo Vitelli. Curated by Rosanna Verde. Many thanks to Shaun Harper

Fifty-two photographs I'd taken in 2010 of people from the city of Melbourne were interspersed with a poem I'd written and projected onto both sides of the gallery wall, these images were accompanied by a soundtrack of ambient sounds I collected from within Melbourne CBD. They were remixed into a sound design to complement the installation. Installation catalogue essay follows:

Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe (Roland Barthes)

Julie Clarke’s installation The Body and the City, like her previous studies and art works developed over the last twenty years, deals with the relationship between the body and technology. However, this is the first time she has examined the relation between the body as a site of spontaneity and change and the en-framing qualities of the city as site in which a critical understanding of this relationship is reproduced.
The central theme of Clarke’s work is identity, which is fluid, changeable and developed as a dialectical relationship between self and other; the individual and the social, the subject and object. Her work makes problematic the nature of identity within a social and political context that controls and produces identities, what Michel Foucault refers to as docile bodies in panoptic societies. Clarke examines a tactic used by Michel de Certeau in which the individual resists imposed subjectivities of a surveillance society and of what Guy Debord refers to as the society of the spectacle.
In 2005 Clarke participated in the on-line project Cracks in the Pavement curated by Heather Johnson in Austin, Texas, which called for artists selected from a global context, to produce an object to be placed in five different city locations. The object Clarke constructed was an image of her face overlaid upon that of a young man with the text ‘have you seen this girl’ beneath the image. Replication of the new identity in five different locations suggested that identity is fluid and raised the question of gender and the city, as well as revalorising the importance of the feminine body in the space of a city dominated by patriarchal authority. The image of a female face over that of the male to which a provocative text was attached, sought to question the fixed identity of the city space by defacing the face on which its authority rested. The intrusion of the absent subject into the space from which the subject had been excluded declared that a review of the dominant ornamentalism of the city was required. In this review, the other ornaments whose identities could not be fixed by the authorial symbolic space of the city should be considered not as abstract entities but as bodies associated with the marginal and ephemeral; qualities often associated with the feminine and the changing faces of the city. This highlights that identity is a process of subjectification and that the latter is related to space. It also raises the notion of Jacques Lacan’s where of being as identity or subjectivity; spatial in nature and associated with the assignation of a position within a social order as process.
The notion of a mass ornament proposed by Siegried Kracauer is one in which individuals are subsumed within aesthetic controls that exalt a fictionalized unified mass and are organized by an abstract ratio that serve to distract, amuse and produce social conformity. He called for another form of urban ornament or art, one that celebrates the ephemeral, the individual and the gestural. This is what Clarke achieves in her current installation in which she returns to the theme of identity. What unites the two projects is the city as referent, a representational gendered space of power as a mark whose trace testifies to the efficacy of a banished voice which Clarke seeks to re-inscribe in and through the imaginary of the installation. Cracks in the Pavement replaced the lack of representation with an image that defaces the partial body portrayed by the face that stands in for the city. The project asks for the absent to be assigned a place not in a city characterized by a fixed identity but one comprised of diverse and changing spaces.
The city is the site par excellence of a dominant fixed identity and represents the overriding technology of subjectification that conditions the body into becoming a symbolic fixed entity. It attempts to revisit the problematic of subjectivity, identity and representation as a spatial projection in which the city is fragmented and invaded by the real of the body undertaken as a dialectical journey between body and space. It highlights ‘a permanent tension between the free appropriation of space for individual and social purposes, and the domination of space through private property, the state, and other forms of class and social power’ (Harvey, 1989).
Clarke deploys photography, sound and text as components, which form an imaginary and symbolic recreation of the metropolis. The use of photography stems from her memory of reading Roland Barthes Carmera Oscura (1981) in which Barthes maintains, abused in the commercial realm, photography is a powerful medium which has been relegated to the reproduction of images, what Pierre Bourdieu calls the lesser art (un art moyen), without questioning its potential or its ‘fatality’. Barthes suggested that it was ‘Odd that no one has thought of the disturbance (to civilization) which this new action causes...(f)or the Photograph is the advent of myself as other, a cunning dissociation of consciousness from Identity’ (1981). The photograph for him was/is a discourse with the body in its most essential experience, that of death; a catastrophe as a consciousness of the fatality associated with being, desire, becoming, identity, subjectivity and real death.
Whilst Barthes’ study was animated by a search for his mother’s image., Clarke’s installation stemmed from a memory of her grandmother’s relationship with photographs and those who are dead. As a child Clarke would extract photographs from a tin secreted away in her grandmother’s wardrobe. After retrieving a photograph she would ask her grandmother ‘whose this’ and the reply would be a peremptory ‘they’re dead’. This is the status of most photographs as un art moyen, which represent images of friends and family, consigned to a place of forgetting.
The photographs in her grandmother’s tin were of people photographed in Melbourne’s colonial legacy, delimited by its orthogonal street layout and stately, elegant public buildings. Indeed, these people were shown waiting outside the iconic ‘palaces’ of Flinders Street Railway station, the General Post office, State Library and Museum; all remnants of nineteenth century culture, which sought identity through juxtaposition of the body and city architecture as totalizing experience. Clarke has also photographed people in these locations as a return to past remembering. I've been here before across from the stairs where people waited ~ already dead, their husks ornamenting large, white columns (Clarke, 2011).
The ephemeral nature of being and the body was supplanted by the objective body of an architecture designed to express solidity, permanence and a unified public realm. The Classical metaphysical fantasies symbolically ornamented the fragile subject with a sense of totality and certainty. Identity is extinguished by the permanence of stone and the monumentalizing of space as extension and magnitude. My claustrophobic brain constantly aware of its own parameters bound in bone and stone (Clarke, 2011). The phenomenological self, silenced by materiality of the city constructed through the metaphysical solidity of nineteenth century scientism and positivism becomes the main subject, and Clarke’s installation monumentalises the instant of its fragile being. Waiting and watching warm flesh on polar crust that will not yield (Clarke, 2011).
For Barthes the photograph reflects an image of death, but not of forgetfulness. Space and identity is put in the service of the body and the space of the body in the service of the certainty, of what he calls the fatality of death as a catastrophe. For Clarke this knowledge is not one that consigns images to a tin but, which liberates meaning by highlighting the nature of things as catastrophe, a process of metamorphoses in a constant cycle of signification punctuated by reflection that insists on a dialectical relationship between the body and space.
Clarke acknowledges the colonising nature of photography which captures the image and reduces the subject to an object, however her practice as a photographer attempts to capture the gesture, the frail and transient nature of being and the dependence upon and dynamic interrelation between the subject and spaces they inhabit which unsettles and blurs the relationship between them. The colonial nature of photography associated with binary representation and hierarchy is transformed into a relation of interdependency that breaks down this order associated with coloniser-colonised, subject-object relations. The hierarchical relationship between photographer and subject dissolves in this reciprocal play of absence and presence. Moments of action and those shrouded in uncertainty are revealed. The ornamental lace which covers the face of the young woman in the first image we see, or the young woman standing like a sentinel in her top hat on the steps of Flinders Street station, who looks defiantly outwards into the city and claims it as her domain, projects onto that space a gendered dimension from which that space was excluded. Fixed and elevated like the stake she braces, looks beyond the metropolis that announces itself in reverberation (Clarke, 2011). It is the ephemeral, the ornamental, the feminine, which begins the process of signification and subjectification and examines the implication between the (feminine) body and the (male) city as a catastrophe of death in the heart of the technological universe of modernity. The other ornament re-vindicates the representational space that suppressed the body and its desires, surveys a space no longer subject of the panoptic, but of synoptic gaze (Matheson, 1997).
The photograph of the elderly woman with arthritic hands and rouged cheeks catches simplicity, lingering innocence and hope, and the temporality of life in her inept attempt to present a public face. The infirmity expressed in her hands read against her rouged cheeks constructs a meaning that works against those sanctioned by dominant culture, such as youth, beauty and vitality. This disparity is also noticed in the various images of those less privileged that Clarke has photographed.
The poem that accompanies the photographs tells us that the city bleeds freely for those who built it although those who have made other spaces have yet to be recognised. The making thus, represents death and subjugated history.
The city is dominated by what Henri Lefebvre (1991) calls representational spaces that deny concrete qualitative and differential space. Clarke’s installation on the other hand celebrates bodily and experiential particularity and its cyclical quality, the two projectors showing the images in reverse, making and unmaking, weaving and unraveling an imagined other space outside that of Kracauer’s mass ornament.
The installation evokes community and belonging, the relation between public and private spheres, inequality, justice and entitlements and reminds us of an anxiety felt before the masses, before the city as a field of signification and symbol of might and grandeur. Its colonial legacy, reminiscent of the empire of racial segregation on which it was built, the anxiety of the alienated individual, regimented, classified and catalogued, which is now exsanguinated. We are reminded of Giorgio Agamben’s (2007) work on exclusions, of the permanent state of exception under which subjectivities and identities are formed and in which the city as locus of capital, produces aggression and a state of insecurity.

Francesco Paolo Vitelli is an Architect and tutor currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Also see THIS LINK, which partly explains my exhibition