Radical Cities, Radical Narratives

Radical Cities.pngImage Courtesy of Emily Hopkins

Radical Cities, Radical Narratives was an inter-disciplinary conference held by English and the Centre for the GeoHumanities on October 20th 2017.  I was really lucky to be invited onto the Radical Cities, Radical Narratives conference committee alongside Laurie, Serge, Ahmed and Gareth from the RHUL Department of English. The conference wanted to attract academic work that dealt with the themes of both narrative form and practice in relation to the social, material and aesthetic contemporary city.

When planning the day, the committee referred back to the three overarching questions of the conference:

  • In what ways might the new and challenging forms and experiences of the contemporary city provide paradigms for the critical study of contemporary narrative?
  • How might thinking about the contemporary city in narrative terms expand our understandings of it?
  • In what novel ways are contemporary narrative practices informed by the city as we experience it now?

Planning began last May, while I was undertaking my MA in Cultural Geography, so this opportunity gave me great experience that I know will be incredibly useful during the rest of my PhD. It made me realise how many elements go into planning these days – from organising refreshments and room bookings, to inviting speakers and abstract submissions, and designing websites and handouts. There were so many small elements to consider when planning a single day! I created the conference website, giving me the chance to choose a complimentary aesthetic for the themes – I chose to use my own photos of Barcelona as the conference image. I adapted the design into digital handouts for the attendees, which included information on logistics, the panels and, most importantly, the location of the pub for post-conference drinks. All of the committee were involved in the abstract reading and panel selection – this was an engaging process, and made me realise the scope of disciplines that the theme of radical urbanism can be applied to.

Professor Matthew Beaumont from UCL’s English Department kindly gave our keynote talk at the beginning of the day. As co-director of UCL’S Urban Lab, he runs the Cities Imaginaries sector, with previous writings on nineteenth-century literature, avant-gardes and utopian/ dystopian themes. Matthew’s speech encompassed many elements of urban studies: architecture, security, private/ public space and aesthetizication. Using the example of a buildings façade, he discussed how societies feel they fit into their cities, and how a visual façade and architectural aesthetic impacts our own feelings of belonging in space.

The day was split into 6 panels, each addressing a different but broad element of the contemporary city. ‘Global Cities, Local Perspectives’ dealt with issues of identity, community and locality, while ‘Walking the Contemporary City’ reflected on the act of pscyhogeography and spatial poetics. Works on conflicting opinions and environmental events were addressed in the panel ‘Narratives of Conflict, Protest and Disaster’. Papers focusing on many different forms of the arts helped to discuss the theme of ‘Performing the City/ The City as Performance’, including work on participatory art, dance and theatre.  Marginal spaces were dissected in discussions on the ‘Edges and Peripheries of urban spaces’, whilst questions on home, identity and city encounters were addressed when discussing ‘The Domestic City’. These panels were formed by speakers in various academic stages and from numerous disciplines – English, Geography, Linguistics, Cultural Studies, Arts and Planning. The breadth of material covered was both intriguing and inspiring, showing how many elements of the city are important in our social and material worlds.

SenatehouseImage Courtesy of Emily Hopkins

Radical Cities, Radical Narratives was a thought provoking and deeply interesting conference to be involved with. Being able to be a part of the organising committee is something I’m grateful for, and has given me skills and experiences that I know will be incredibly useful when planning more conferences and events during my PhD. It was great to see how adaptable and important geographical theory is to spatial studies from all sorts of disciplines, and how interdisciplinary work can add substantially to my own geographical research. It has made me realise how beneficial literary and performative narratives can be to the understanding of our cities and their communities, and this is definitely something I’m going to try and include in my own research.

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