Urban Heat: Goodbye

Hello friends,

This will be the last update from Urban Heat, until the final academy at Spring Festival in Utrecht in 2018. 

Thanks very much for reading. I've had a really good time, and I hope you have too. 

Andy

Departures

We leave Maribor in the early hours of the morning. A man called Uroš has agreed to be our driver for the four-hour journey to Venice’s Marco Polo airport; from one side of Slovenia to the other, then across the border and beyond. In the darkness we head out of the city and on to the empty motorway. Uroš tells us about his bands, about the electric guitar he is making for his woodwork degree, about the difference between death metal and heavy metal. Almost imperceptibly the darkness is replaced by sleepy grey. On the hillside beyond the motorway thick mist wraps itself around the dense green forest making everything seem ancient. Medieval, primordial, timeless.

Venice feels like an appropriate place for this phase of Urban Heat to come to an end. A city state shrouded temporarily by a country, like the old forest caught in fresh morning fog. A city that will go on existing, even if only as an idea, long after the end of the nation it currently, temporarily resides in.

Cities are an organising principle much older and more resilient than countries. This is something I have been reminded of through the journeys of the last year. They outlive empires. They outlast ideologies. In only the last 100 years the territory in which Maribor sits has been reconstituted on six separate occasions, and whilst in part this speaks to Europe’s turbulent recent history it also offers a kind of reassurance, that the idea of the city is something to hold on to in times of uncertainty and a reminder that life, usually, persists. Every empire is finite. Every ideology will be supplanted. The world does not come to an end, and in these old and populous streets the hard business of going on living is carried out daily. 

I think this might potentially be the most radical thing about cities. Not their high-gloss, post-modern newness, but their resilient old bones. Not the fantasies of flying cars and ever-taller towers, but the collective memory of how to relate to one another; of old antagonisms, negotiations, conciliations, short-cuts, neat tricks, acts of hope, survival and resistance.

Perhaps buried in this intangible bone marrow are the solutions to the seeming hopelessness of the current situation. Ways of operating that transcend the failing ideologies and the brittle and fracturing nation states that currently contain us. If we understand cities as receptacles of centuries-old knowledge that transcends any given historical moment, then perhaps through excavating this knowledge we can find the tools to create for ourselves a space of transformation and possibility within the present political system. In other words, beneath the streets could lie a possible means of salvation – an escape not out of but into the city.

What we have encountered in Cairo, Lisbon, Dro, London and Maribor are places struggling under the weight of some familiar challenges; income inequality, a changing climate, the concentration of power and property amongst a small elite who prioritise private gain over public good, the fraught social conditions created by centuries of political violence and economic exploitation. This is the world we live in, and this last year has undoubtedly felt like a tougher one that most. And yet this project has also been an unfolding of the numerous ways people are finding, have always found, of challenging these conditions; of creating space for themselves out of mutuality, generosity and resourcefulness.

In each place we have visited, we have met people doing remarkable things, ‘poets of their own affairs, trailblazers in the jungles of functionalist rationality’ as Michel De Certeau might describe them. People drawing on centuries of human knowledge, strategies learnt or inherited, a muscle memory of how to survive.

In Cairo Omar Nagati introduced us to the idea of the informal city, of Cairo as a space of possibility and flux in which ordinary people worked together to transform the built landscape. In Lisbon we discovered an alternative kind of sanctuary; a place of community and care in the neighbourhood of Carnide that exists outside of the institutional hierarchies of organised religion. In Dro we explored forgotten non-human rhythms, unfamiliar ways of working and living that might offer an alternative to the remorseless thrum of capitalism. In London we were reminded of much-needed histories of community-organisation and solidarity, of how to fight alongside our neighbours to resist the seemingly irresistible. And finally in Maribor we learnt about patience, and commitment, and time; about the unspectacular strategies of mutuality and co-operation that can slowly transform a city in apparently interminable decline. 

In every instance the hope we found was buried in people. In communities. In ordinary acts of quiet purpose, sometimes supported by local and national governments, sometimes in defiance of them, but always with a faith in the idea of the city as a collective thing, made up not of buildings but of people. A sense of civic place that gestured towards both the Athenian idea of the polis, and a kind of communism for a de-industrialised world. In each case the role that art could play or was already playing was as a culture, in the scientific sense. A petri dish in which new (or indeed old) ways of operating could be nurtured. A utopian space in which we could imagine new ways of living and then attempt to enact them.

At Marco Polo airport we stand in the rain, looking out across the lagoon at the invisible city. We will not make it Venice this time. We decide not to risk the bus journey there and back in the thin hour of spare time that we have left, but we make a promise to ourselves that we will come back and see it properly. It will still be there next time, we hope.