sidewalk project: by Doug Lewis
October 27 – November 25, 2000
a response to the exhibition by mariianne mays
Community … has come to connote very much the “exclusive community” … and perhaps it may always have denoted that exclusivity … What I have sought to work with is directed entirely against that vision of community, and against any interiority of community … The impossible as jouissance (and not jouissance as impossible!) … Every community must share the impossible, lest it fall beneath the hallucinatory reign of an interiority, an identity, etc.
-Jean Luc Nancy
Ah yes. The politics of the city sidewalk. Do you make eye contact? Do you say hello? Move aside? Hold your ground? Hold your breath?
If you’re a self-described “flâneur,” like artist Doug Lewis, you may frequently find yourself negotiating these very questions. Sidewalk Project embodies such pedestrian concerns with care, humour and generous poetic insight.
I walk in, or we are gathered here …
Footsteps echoing, I climb the stairs, open the door and walk into the darkened, sound-dampened space, turn towards the warm centre of these long hardwood floors, white walls, to the warm centre where light is cast onto and reflected back from seven waxy-looking 2 x 2 x .4′ blocks cast from actual city sidewalk. Laid in a single line on the floor, one after another, with quarter foot gaps between them – a misplaced, otherworldly patch of sidewalk.
People are distributed throughout the space. A density of figures, silhouette-like, split by a yellow brick road. Drinks in hand, glasses catch the light, bright, extended points. Occasional laughter or exclamation. They are noising; stepping, munching, brushing, positioning and repositioning, clicking, chatting. They are kaleidoscoping, moving around and about, bending to touch the curiously greasy surfaces, to survey or touch the imprints there. Bumping into people they know. Bumping into people they don’t know. Speaking to some, slipping by others. There is a buzz and a sheen – the wine, conversation and movement, and the quality of light, these yellow-white squares centred under small spotlights in the main, open room of the gallery.
This is a “community” then. For the evening, a community with an immediate, concrete focus, perhaps easing some of the usual idiosyncrasies of pedestrian or community exchange and relation.
Chance, causal, casual time
The flâneur is a traverser of the city. The figure arises with Baudelaire and the modernist idea of the city, as a new type – a bourgeois wanderer, one away from home, losing himself, lost to his leisure in the urban crowd and spectacle and shuffle, moving without a predetermined course through the streets and alleyways, past buildings, storefronts and landmarks. The flâneur is particular to this landscape in his anonymity, his urban drift.
According to Elizabeth Wilson in “The Invisible Flâneur” the flâneur is a “key figure in the critical literature of modernity and urbanization … an archetypal occupant and observer of the public sphere in the rapidly changing and growing great cities of nineteenth-century Europe.”
The “ambivalence” Wilson attributes to this figure is synonymous with his desire, which seems to be bound up with an impulse to observe (and perhaps record) what he sees and experiences. Here, the drive for connection or community is muted, perhaps disoriented by the noise and tumble of a fragmented but totalizing urban environment.
The flâneur becomes a negative symbol of sorts for the industrial/ commercial condition, for the profound odds against the possibility for connection and community.
Prior, preserved time, real time
Doug Lewis may be a flâneur of a more gregarious nature. His regard for the context of his wandering is more than apparent in his luminous gelatin blocks of sidewalk. Rather than focus on the bustle and blur of urban spectacle (if Winnipeg can indeed qualify here), Lewis attends to the nicks, scars, wet-cement scrawlings and imprints under his feet.
Like a true flâneur, he walks lightly; he leaves not a mark. The markings already in place, however – the place itself, one could say – impact this walker. Resisting urban realities which, according to Michel de Certeau in Walking in the City, privilege time over space, this kind of walking willingly submits itself to the ‘intentions’ – even if coincidental – of the space. Rather than alienated or merely passing, it is involved, present to the place and its possibilities.
On a wall at the far end of the gallery hangs a bank of nine sidewalk photographs, chosen from two years of Lewis’s sidewalk snapshots. These squares echo their cast block counterparts. In neon print on their glass faces are framing moments and interlocutions of passersby Lewis archived from his sidewalk castings. The characters resonate through comments like:
a young boy walked cautiously by and asked, is that legal?
the woman said that her daughter regretted ever writing David’s name
traffic was so loud i couldn’t hear a thing
There’s a relatively minuscule amount of time during which concrete can be tangibly imprinted, and Lewis seems to have a soft spot for the happenstance opportunists that leave their mark. Some kind archeologist of the city, the artist rescues now-petrified impulses and arrested traces of its residents or passers-through. History and memory – rather than dismissed: banal, obscure, sentimental, etc. – are transformed into honourable and credible things that shape.
The recovery in Sidewalk Project of this “poetry in motion” also challenges the fate of sidewalks as urban pedestrian-management planning or functional passageways, and reinvents them as a record of – and luck of – particular and unlikely excess of human life in the face of bureaucracy and industrialization.
Slackers, sediment, dromocracy, revolution
In Paul Virilio’s long 1977 essay entitled Speed and Politics [or] Essay on dromology, the french philosopher makes a compelling case for an interpretation of history, politics and society in the context of speed.
Extending the definition of “dromomaniacs”1, Virilio argues that speed became the sole agent and measure of progress both for the industrial model and for the displacing, contemporary technology-communications-knowledge-information age. Virilio further contends, intriguingly, that “there was no ‘industrial revolution,’ only ‘dromocratic revolution’; there is no democracy, only dromocracy; there is no strategy, only dromology.”
With the premium placed on velocity – informed by and overtaking Western and American-style colonization, militarism, capitalism and (con)quest – it’s no wonder that Western models of civil engineering, economic trade and speculation, war and politics have become a “permanent assault on the world, and through it, on human nature. The disappearance of flora and fauna and the abrogation of natural economies,” continues Virilio, “are but slow preparation for more brutal destruction.”
This analysis is both startling and enlightening. If bodies and systems are mitigated by an imperative of speed; if velocity – instead of Marx’s division of labour or an industrial, technological or economic machine – is the underpinning that extends Western systems, then nations (and surely cities) uphold class inequities and power structures simply by ensuring the perpetuity of that motion. In other words, these systems, rather than being clearly delineated things in themselves, rather than marking or being marked by disparities, are simply regulators of flow. Bodies are merely, incidentally, carried along within it.
So much so that Virilio suggests that “the state’s political power … is only secondarily ‘power organized by one class to oppress another.’ More materially, it is the polis, the police, in other words highway surveillance [Virilio’s ital.] … confusing social order with control of traffic (of people, of goods) and revolution, revolt with traffic jams, illegal parking, multiple crashes, collisions.”
It is the jamming of this ‘flow’ that is problematic, and not any particulars associated with it. Appropriate, then, that Lewis has included among his resource texts a news clipping from Tempe, Arizona’s The Arizona Republic, entitled “Walking-only on sidewalks is the point.”
The piece is a rebuttal of the strong public opposition to a proposed ordinance that would “prohibit lying or sitting on sidewalks in Tempe’s downtown commercial district.” (Sound familiar? Witness squeegee and panhandling bylaws recently passed in Winnipeg and other Canadian urban centres.) The writer, one Marlene Pontrelli Maerowitz, who also happens to be a drafter of the proposal, refutes public sentiment that “Tempe’s proposed sidewalk ordinance is aimed at a particular segment of the population known as ‘slackers.'” [Pontrelli Maerowitz’s quotes]
Obviously the kind of circulation demanded by Western systems and megaelectropolises does not allow for such sediment. If progress, as Virilio interprets it, is a kind of revolutionary movement that privileges speed (and forward movement), the spinoff is going to constitute a hell of a lot of road-debris. Not “slackers” – that cajoling and decidedly middle class designation used here to soften and obscure what is in reality a systemic economic disparity and cruelty – but urban riff-raff. Human garbage: the homeless, the unemployed, the mad, the slow movers, the sitters.
Nicks in the concrete.
“The proposed ordinance is not about controlling a particular segment of the population,” Pontrelli Maerowitz clarifies; “rather it is about controlling inappropriate behaviour.”
Media & reel time, the specular foot, proximating urban community
In another room of the gallery, only partially separated from the seven square casts, is a looped, real-time video of sidewalk passing beneath a walker’s feet. Projected at near-ground level on an angled mirror attached to the wall, the viewer stands to see this sidewalk from the perspective of the foot. It’s not a typical view of the city.
Film and visual theorist Scott Bukatman notes that “the sense of displacement or disorientation produced by the environment of the industrial city gave rise to … a cognitive and corporeal mapping of the subject onto a previously overwhelming and intolerable space.”
The perspectival shift, suggests Bukatman – from the rationalist split between distinct subject and object to an “embodied knowledge … a new mode of spectatorial address… [i.e.] essentially you are there” – continues to be characteristic of our information-technology age.
While granting a wink to modern and urban technologies in locating the concerns of Sidewalk Project, Lewis’s video decisively limits its perspective. In essence, we get not the 3D experience of walking but this (mediated) experience of the ground passing under our feet. Instead of a realist or virtual optics of 3D space, we are presented with the rhythm of walking itself. The grit and cracks of the sidewalk may be our cue to a poetic empiricism of the urban – a coincidental community, a proximity of bodies and concerns, particular spatial quality.
Afterword: Not for all time
Later, I learned that the material used to cast these “concrete” blocks is a soluble gelatine product called VEE GEE 250 – material used in developing photographs. Returning to the exhibition, a gallery staff member draws my attention to the sounds of the product (and the blocks) slowly biodegrading. It is barely discernible, a slight fizz and crackle, like mini rice crispies.
The artist is casting seven more squares to replace the first set.
1 According to Virilio, a name given to deserters under the ancien regiem and in psychiatry, to compulsive walkers
mariianne mays briefly considered a support group for dromomaniacs.