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Fragmented City: Visualizing the City-psyche Relationship of Cairo

Heba Amin, M.F.A.
American University of Cairo, Egypt
hebaaminyahoocom

ABSTRACT

Fragmented City seeks to address the urban landscape of Cairo and its emotional impact on its inhabitants. The visual characteristics of the city display the deterioration of urban life where masses of abandoned and haphazard structures attest to the government’s laissez-faire attitude in dealing with urban planning. As inhabitable structures take up space and resources, inhabitants of the city begin to clash, rather than coexist with their built environment.

I have explored visual re-interpretations of fragments of the city by translating and relocating visual information through various media. These visual manifestations attempt to portray an emotional experience and perspective of the current political and social climate of the region. I am working from the hypothesis that Cairo’s urban landscape negatively impacts the psyche and plays a significant role in influencing behavior. My visual explorations move from photography, to drawing, to web based environments, installation and projection work. By immersing the viewer in a particular environment, each visual displacement constitutes a re-assessment of scale and visual engagement intended to elicit sensations comparable to those experienced in physical space

Introduction

The city, an intricately ordered system, instigates and enforces specific behavioral codes on its inhabitants, imposing a level of control that is often contradictory to the philosophical themes of metropolitan life. Architectural manifestations are not only dictated by, but also come to represent political power. The moment at which social beings begin to clash with their fabricated environment is when the fragile stability between city and human disintegrates. The planned city is seldom brought into question until it conflicts with a desired existence and compromises people’s control over identity. It does not represent itself merely via its structural construct but further articulates something about the human condition.

Fragmented City seeks to address the role urban infrastructure plays in instigating unrest amongst the inhabitants of Cairo. As a country potentially on the verge of social and political upheaval, Egypt presents a unique case study for the impact of failed infrastructural planning on the morale of a people. It is perhaps most visible in its capital Cairo where the topography reveals the social stratification of urban life and portrays a visual metaphor for the political unrest in the region. Urban structure is typically addressed through the technical lens of urban planners often disregarding the emotional impact of its execution. In a city like Cairo, the relationship between emotional unrest and the physical city structure is quite apparent. It is visible not only in the chaos of the metropolis but also in the masses of abandoned structures populating an already overcrowded city. Because of this, I have explored fragments of the city through visual translations that address an emotional narrative. Using immersive emotional experiences that expose audiences to a psychosomatic narrative, these visual manifestations attempt to relay a more human facade to the level of desperation and frustration that exist in the region. The intention is not merely to relay existing conditions of the city but rather to instigate arousal that contributes to the understanding of, in this case, the negative impact of the urban experience on the psyche.

Project Concept

I regularly observe the clash between Cairo’s inhabitants and the structures of the city which, rather than coexisting, are competing for space. Through visual documentation of the many unfinished and abandoned buildings of Cairo I found an odd appeal in the repetition of raw and exposed structures (See figures 1-2). Inherent in their structure exists an apparent pursuit towards modernity and progress, yet they possess an eerie omnipresent feeling, like an aftermath of disaster. I am struck with the internal emotional conflicts of inhabiting such spaces that, both visually and conceptually, are disjointed on many levels. While abandoned and left to decay, they neither exhibit a record of life nor a historical context. They do not provide snap shots of the past nor windows into the future. Instead, inhabitants of Cairo are confronted with static spaces frozen in an undefined realm. The city’s structures illustrate the government’s incapability in nurturing a healthy physical and social environment. They present visual evidence for individualistic attitudes of the privileged few and apathy for the overall well-being of the city and its inhabitants.

Figures 1-2: “Untitled” Cairo photographs 2001, Heba Amin.

Manifestations of the City: Process and Context

In the traditional sense of the word, a map plots an accurate translation of three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional plane. Traditional maps create a passive interaction with the city through architectural blueprints that reveal little about our behavioral and emotional qualities. As communication networks become more accessible in more technologically advanced forms, users need new maps to make sense of the world. A geographic map is inherently political, often designed as an official document from the perspective of power. Today, the notion of mapping has been redefined by individuals who are re-evaluating urban space through technologies that allow for individualized narratives. Electronic media has opened the possibilities for further exploration of our perception of space, our role in space, and how it makes us feel. Programs like Google Maps, Google Earth, Map Channels, OpenStreetMap, Yahoo Maps, and flickrvision allow people to share their personal experiences with the world through geographic mapping tools. Mapping has become less concerned with the accurate depiction of the structured environment and more concerned with how people inhabit space.

In an attempt to map the unrepresented, I seek tools that aim to communicate spatial developments. Images migrate through different supports and genres through a visual language that is easily decipherable and relates to human experiences. Using photographs of the city as my starting point, I developed hand-drawn renderings that resemble architectural drawings. These drawings exhibit subtle peculiarities that contradict the accuracy and perspective of a structured drawing. Following outlines of the photographed buildings with linear marks, I consciously shifted perspectives by adding vertical and horizontal lines to disrupt dimension and realism. Cumulatively, the drawings took on a decorative form, like tiles of repetitive urban patterns (see figure 3). This visual database facilitated variation in visual experimentation and, with tools like SketchUp and Google Earth, allowed for more experiential and spatial exploration.

SketchUp and Google Earth are interconnected programs that enable users to present and exchange physical and social geo-information through the web. SketchUp helped me develop spatial simulation with a range of cityscapes created from my drawings used as ‘skins’ or surfaces of 3D structures (see Figures 4-5). The resulting 3D models present scary landscapes with irreconcilable dichotomies of absence and presence. Implementing these models within Google Earth provides users with access to the city narratives while allowing them to navigate on their own terms. Because of its open coding standards, Google Earth promotes the sharing of user-created content through architectural models, photographs, story-based mapping, and venue locations, or anything else that is map-able. The program also functions as a platform for real-time information for the gathering and mapping of sensory data providing real-time visuals within the program itself. However, the models are confined within the restrictions of the computer interface that stands as a barrier to spatial experience.

Figure 3: “Untitled” Cairo Drawings 2008, Heba Amin.

Figures 4-5: “Untitled” SketchUp Models 2008, Heba Amin.


Despite the fact that the virtual world is stuck behind the two-dimensionality of the computer screen, it provides a dynamic conceptual experience that simulates how we interact with the ‘real’ world. The body takes on a different role as it consolidates its physicality with the mechanized characteristics of the computer interface, thus transforming the ways in which we interpret space.(1) Yet as we become more and more comfortable and accustomed to the virtual realm, the computer simulated experience (a construct of human consciousness) is starting to define our existence in the same way that the built environment does. Technology is becoming an extension of the body itself, enabling simultaneous experiences within both worlds.

Google Earth is quickly becoming a popular platform for public daily life, incorporating important data and research as it relates to the human experience. The notion that we, as users, can now interact with maps in an emotional way is revolutionary, providing incredible potential for bridging gaps between people. There are still few fantasy-scapes on Google Earth, particularly since other programs already explore the realm of the fantasy (in Second Life one can design and create environments that bare no resemblance to the real world.) However, Google Earth can potentially present ‘theoretical’ or contrived spaces that conceptually translate real world places. With the ease of transition between SketchUp and Google Earth, uploading my SketchUp models onto Google Earth was a natural next step (see figure 6). Because Cairo has yet to be modeled entirely in 3D, my imagined spaces allow for contemplative envisioning of the real and instinctual interpretations of space, without the influence of structurally depicted space.

In his essay The Immaterial City: Representation, Imagination, and Media Technologies James Donald states that “[t]he traffic between fabric, representation and imagination fuzzies up epistemological and ontological distinctions and, in doing so, produces the city between, the imagined city where we actually live.”(2) A city like Cairo is particularly misleading on Google Earth when its 3D representation boasts monuments and temples of nostalgic pasts, skewing our understanding of the city’s experience. My imagined cityscapes tend to the experience rather than to accurate representation thus bridging technical with interpreted renderings of the city towards a more accurate depiction of reality.

Figure 6: “Untitled” Google Earth Model 2008, Heba Amin.

The City as the Stage

Technology poses a threat to many as it grows and develops at a faster speed than most people can cope or compete with. Today, the interrelated nature of technology and urban space has, for many, instigated discomfort over the lack of control over daily life. Franco Berardi writes of the collapse of modern culture as a result of its state of panic: “The interaction between cyber-spatial sprawl and urban physical environment has destroyed the rationalist organization of space.”(3) He attributes urban panic to the over-stimulation of the metropolitan experience, much of which is aggravated by technology and the speed at which it is progressing. The contemporary culture of fear has fabricated today’s hyper-securitized urban surveillance landscapes.

Many artists, however, are embracing technology not only as a means to address its role and effect on society (whether negative or positive), but also as an opportunity to utilize it in unexpected ways thus bringing to light new perspectives on societal constructs. A lot of new media work delves into the ‘invisible’ electronic world thus dissolving the physicality and tactility of the art tradition. Artists are at the forefront of exploring the conjunction between our physical presence in tactile space, and the ambiguity and ethereal nature of the electronic world. Jill Magid is one such artist who uses technology intimately as a means to better understand herself and her body in relation to the built environment. In 2004, she exposed her every move throughout the city to the CCTV cameras of Liverpool for thirty-one days, for a project she titled Evidence Locker. Magid prompted a relationship with Citywatch (England’s largest citywide video surveillance) when she asked police to film her staged navigation. In place of the Subject Access Request Forms required to request CCTV footage as evidence, Magid opted to pursue a fantasy narrative by offering letters to a ‘lover’ outlining the details needed for the police report.(4) Her relationship with the surveillance camera transcends the role of the victim where she, instead, utilizes it as a tool. Rather than being submissive to the gaze of the camera, Magid exploits the system to make her permanent mark on the city, to single herself out as a heroine amongst faceless bodies.

Magid’s flirtation with the city presents a positivistic effort in merging city and body. She negates the mindset of antagonism towards the city and instead uses it to achieve self-permanence. Using the city as the stage allows for a reclaiming of ownership and an acceptance towards the corollary relationship between humans and their surroundings. Through her performance, Magid shows us that perception is a tool and can be used to create one’s own reality.

While there is much to analyze in Magid’s piece (the sexual undertone of her character, the relationship between her and her watchman, the transformation of the camera’s gaze into a game, the fetish-izing of the body, etc.) my interest in her piece, as it relates to my work, is her utilization of the cityscape as a playground for exploring the self/psyche. Because the deteriorating buildings in Cairo depict a sense of resignation in society promoting a dislocation between body and city, I was moved to use the city itself as a component for my work, and as a backdrop for large-scale projections. Projecting the SketchUp cityscapes on physical buildings created an expansive environment where the visuals of the ‘real’ city contributed to the aesthetic and scale of the projected city, creating a skewed amalgamation of time and space (see figure 7). On the one hand the ‘real’ city is predominantly static, with buildings fixed in space as humans move about it, while the projected city is in constant motion as the spectator watches from a fixed point. The use of the cityscape as a backdrop, in this case, visually corresponds to the SketchUp model in form and shape; the observable correlation between the two conjures contemplation of the overall space. Viewers are not just looking at a flat projection but are also responding to the site of the projection. The city itself becomes a visual facade and viewers begin to question their relationship with it.

Figure 7: “Untitled” Projection Warehouse District, Minneapolis 2008, courtesy of Gabriel Cheifet. Heba Amin.

Conclusion

In the spirit of the Situationists, many contemporary artists are attempting to redefine the relationship between human and city, particularly addressing the electronic mediation of contemporary culture. These artists provide an inquisitive and (mostly) positive outlook on how humans can interact with the city, striving for a reduced sense of foreignness and a heightened enjoyment of urban space (often in conjunction with electronic tools). While technology has frequently been criticized for its isolating tendencies, artists are exploring an exciting range of projects that utilize technological tools in interactive and socially engaging ways (such as personal narrative mappings, interactive city walks and games, and cell phone-based projects). Utilizing the city spatially as their setting, performance artists, political activists, and new media artists have spearheaded a new revival of Situationist ideas exploring perspectives of the city that surpass the hegemony of urban theory. These productions have inspired me to translate and to ultimately relocate “Fragmented City” into the physical space of the city through large-scale projections.

With the technologies available today, there are many achievable possibilities for data gathering and creative mapping within which “Fragmented City” develops in order to convey meaningful content about Cairo’s infrastructure and its effects on the city-dweller’s psyche.


Endnotes


1. Elizabeth Grosz, “Bodies-Cities” in The Blackwell City Reader, Eds. Bridge, Gary, and Sophie Watson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002), 303.

2. James Donald, “The Immaterial City: Representation, Imagination, and Media Technologies,” in A Companion to the City, Eds. Bridge, Gary, and Sophie Watson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002), 47.

3. Franco Berardi, (2007), City of Panic. Retrieved November, 2008 from http://rizomatic.wordpress.com/2007/10/29/city-of-panic-franco-berardi-bifo/.

4. Jill Magid, (2008), Evidence Locker. Retrieved December, 2008 from http://www.jillmagid.net/EvidenceLocker.php.