There is a kind of film that I have been fascinated with as long as I can remember. This kind of film begins with a stranger arriving in New York City. It is always New York City and it is always about 1985. This stranger has never been to the city before, in fact they have never been to any city before. They are from the Australian outback or a little known African kingdom, or some small rural town in the far corner of absolutely nowhere, or they have emerged straight out of the ocean, or descended from space, or they only a child, seeing these skyscrapers for the first time, craning their neck upwards and upwards until they almost topple over. They stand perfectly still in the middle of the sidewalk whilst people flow around them. Taxis honk their horns as they walk unthinkingly out into the middle of a busy street. They strike up conversations with initially cynical strangers who are almost always won over by their innocent charm. Mainly though they just stare, open-mouthed in wonder, at the city in all its seemingly baffling, contradictory, exhilarating complexity.
This is their job, this visitor. They are here to stare. To bear witness to this thing that America has made. Their act of looking transforms the ordinariness of the city into something symbolic. The whirring of this urban machinery becomes a magic lantern show – a projection of ourselves; our ethics, our faults, our victories, our flaws, the mark we have left on the world. In the presence of this mystically innocent stranger, the city becomes a measure of modernity, or of America. And because this is a story we are telling ourselves, the stranger always falls in love with New York City, and New York City falls in love with them.
I don’t know whether it is nostalgia, or the obsession I have had with that city since I was very young, or just quality, Hollywood filmmaking, but I love these films. I think partly at least I love these films because despite their saccharine implausibility and their tendency to feature a young Tom Hanks, I believe in the story they are trying to sell. I believe that a really big city like New York really is a place where we go to see the world we inhabit at its most visible. A society’s ideologies, inequalities and possibilities spelt out in fragile bodies and huge buildings; buildings that are at once both real and symbolic. I think a city such as this is both a part of a society and a representation of it. So is the theatre. As such both are ideal places to begin to meddle with the programming. Places where small acts of re-wiring can have enormous consequences.
But how do we re-wire a city? The old way was with architecture. Paris’ streets were famously redesigned in the 19th century in order to pacify the populace, widening the boulevards like releasing air from a balloon. But architecture no longer has the freedom it once had. According to the head of sustainability at Innovate UK, around 50% of the build fabric that will make up our cities in 2050 has already been built. Architecture has exhausted itself.
Instead other people are re-writing the city by re-imagining how we look at and make use of the built fabric that already exists. The city, and by extension the society around it, is being recoded. In part it is being re-coded by terrifying tech giants like AirBnB, who have built a hotel empire larger than the Hilton Chain in a tenth of the time by understanding that it is easier to renegotiate our relationship to a city than it is to transform the built environment itself. But perhaps art in general and live performance in particular also have the potential to serve as a necessary counter to these maverick acts of unchecked capitalism? A way of similarly renegotiating our relationship to the built fabric of the city but that is less driven by commercial ends and more by some sense of a public good?
In an era beyond construction, might performance be one of the few ways we have left of changing the city for the better?
I am hoping that this project will perhaps be a way of answering these questions, bringing together some brilliant artists to explore and experiment inside cities as diverse as Cairo, London, Maribor and Lisbon. This project in Cairo is actually the second time that the artists involved with this project will have gathered together. The first was in Munich about six months ago for an introductory academy. For those that are interested some documentation of that event is available on the Urban Heat website here.
This Cairo event however is the first City Lab proper; the first time the artists are coming together to explore a city and a set of ideas. These daily reports will be a means of documenting the conversations they have and the things they will experience. Inevitably it will be partial and subjective. I will definitely miss or misrepresent some of the best conversations and the most interesting ideas that they have. I hope though that by accumulation I’ll be able to convey something of what takes place. Accompanying these daily snippets of writing will be recordings of talks and events, interviews with the artists and hopefully other bits and pieces by people other than myself, all of which will be available on the Urban Heat website. If you find yourself enjoying these updates, please do encourage friends to subscribe via the project website. The more the merrier.
For now though it is quarter to ten at night and I am still in the air. My flight lands in Cairo in about 90 minutes. It is a city I have never before been to in a country I have never before been to. I am excited, and nervous. I genuinely don’t know what to expect. I have been told it is noisy, and to watch out for the traffic. I imagine myself standing in the middle of busy streets as people flow around me, looking up at the delirious strangeness of everything, staring vacantly, a fish out of water, bearing some kind of witness to a place I know so little about.