Workshop: Performing the Urban Archive (and Messages From the Future…)

The Landscape Surgeons were recently treated to a wonderful interactive urban-intervention/creative-archive workshop run by Cecilie Sachs-Olsen, entitled Performing the Urban Archive. A new addition to the department, Cecilie completed her PhD at Queen Marys, University of London, under the supervision of David Pinder (Geography) and Jen Harvie (English and Drama). She has published work in Cultural Geographies (also see here for a piece co-authored with Harriet Hawkins) and Performance Research; and is co-founder of an exciting  urban performance collective, zURBS, which has run various urban interventions and workshops internationally.

The idea of seeing the city as an archive – to approach it as layer upon layer of compacted material detail that is in endless transformation – has always been of great interest and value to Cecilie as an urban researcher and artist practitioner working in and with urban space.

Cecilie writes… “I believe that this approach may imply a certain way of ‘looking’ that has the potential to challenge pre-determined and fixed understandings of urban space in favour of openness, instability and multiplicity. In turn, it may lead to a re-imagination and new understandings of our material surroundings”.

The idea of ‘performing urban archives’ then, seeks to resolve the binary oppositions that are often created between materiality – I’m here referring to the objects and material entities of urban space – and performance, as bodily practices. Each of these concepts is often seen as unable to encompass the essential traits of the other. For example, whereas the archive implies a form of placedness, givenness and nomination to remain, performance is often seen as being so radically in time that it cannot remain in material traces and therefore disappears.

Similar distinctions are made between practice and representation: In geography, representation has been critiqued for fixing and deadening the liveliness of things, resulting in a turn to new approaches that foreground the performative and practiced. The performative approach here tends to focus on an engagement with space that is oriented around immaterial and human-centred action, and risks neglecting substantial considerations of how social processes are bound up with the constraints of the material qualities of space.

Accordingly, performing urban archives turns the attention to how the ways we think about and inhabit cities are both shaped by and materialized in spatial forms, so that rather than seeing materiality as a fixed entity, it is seen as contingent and inherently performative. The idea of performance destabilizes materiality by making explicit the processes in which (the meaning of) materiality is constantly invented.

“When we know what a door is and what it can do we limit ourselves and the possibilities of the door…”  – Anne Bogart (theatre director)

The workshop activity started with an anonymous audio message from the future:

“This is an incoming message from the future. Listen carefully. I repeat, this is a message from the future. Dear people from the past. This message is sent to you by a team of archaeologists from the future.
You will be happy to know that in the future we found the time capsule that you produced today, March 3, 2016. As we understood it, the aim of this time capsule was to give the future an idea of what urban life was like in 2016. The time capsule was mainly filled with objects and some occasional drawings that we guess were an attempt to archive this urban life. But we are confused. The way we understand it in the future, it is people, and not things, that make society. The meaning of an object is determined by the social practices it is part of, and not simply by the object itself. Unfortunately, we have NO idea what these social practices were.
Yes, you might say that this is our job as archaeologists to find out, by digging deep, looking into significant detail, restoring damaged pasts, reading signs in traces of things that have gone before and so on. However, this would require a significant amount of time – and if it is one thing we are short of in the future it is time for substantial research. Luckily, we do have a time machine, so we decided that in order to save time, we would go back in time, just in time to deliver this message before you make the time capsule, so that we can give you some inputs that may help you make it more substantial.
You will all have been given copies of the original map that we found in the time capsule. This map indicates where the things in the time capsule were found. Inside the map you will find our interpretations of the things found in these places. Now, we would ask you to go to these places – as many as you can – and find similar or completely other objects and add notes, drawings, stories and other additions that you find relevant in order to give us a substantial idea of the present: how urban life is, what your experiences of the city is, how the city works, what is important, what is not important and so on.
You’ve got one hour out in the city to do this. Then you will come back here and present what you found and we will see if it will make a valid contribution to the time capsule.
Good luck! End of message.”

With this message in our minds we set out in four teams to try to archive the elements of the city described in a handout from the future, complete with a map of the area around Bedford Square and a set of clues and instructions.
Screen Shot 2016-11-24 at 15.57.24.pngWe could either collect items from the street; or take photos of things that we could not (practically or legally!) remove. Here are the results – our collective catalogue of the urban environment: our time capsule for the future. (Please click on the images for more details on which items relate to which clues, and explanations, where they have been added in the comments.)

We’d like to thank Cecilie for a wonderful afternoon, full of opportunities to challenge familiar ways of conceptualising urban materialities and performativity.

Katy and Huw

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