Conference Report: Cities in Crisis

Christopher Holliday reports on the recent Cities in Crisis symposium held at King's College London.

Cities and their inhabitants can be displaced and impacted by a number of competing catastrophes. From global financial and socio-economic crises to moral and urban forms of ‘decay’ (overpopulation, gentrification, pollution), the contemporary metropolis certainly poses, and indeed faces, an array of new challenges. But as we enter the muddy waters of a post-Brexit, post-Trump, and ‘Alt-Right’ age of the political neologism, the function and future of cities within these heavily politicised narratives has become increasingly fraught with concerns over whether such moments of national reform may dislodge more fashionable notions of urban locales as vibrant centres of innovation, diversity, and progress. Despite the recent Far-Right defeat in Austria at the presidential polls, the question of what Right Wing populist movements and other simmering socio-political conflict mean for the city, for how we feel about cities, and for the prospect of trans- or post-national citizenship, remains somewhat conflicted. Since Brexit, London – like many other U.K. cities – now has to ensure its position within the global market, rather than as simply a European city. Indeed, the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has assured the world’s network of Eurocities that London will remain ‘open.’ But the question of for whom London remains open creates a critical space to think about how far the capital has atrophied, or been energised, by the stakes of the current political climate.

These were just some of the issues that the one-day “Cities in Crisis” conference, held on November 19th at King’s College London, sought to address, targeting the very nature of ‘crisis’ as both seismic emergency and as a multivalent urbanised discourse. Although not directly concerned with the fluctuations of the British capital, many of the papers and speakers took their cue from the cosmopolitanism and citizenry of contemporary London. Placing filmmakers and media scholars side by side, “Cities in Crisis” successfully looked back to the capital’s socio-political peaks and troughs, mining elements of its cultural history to reflect upon the impact of cinema and media on cities in crisis and to speculate what constitutes a crisis for cities.

The conference’s first panel stayed close to home, with King’s College doctoral candidates (and “Cities in Crisis” co-organisers) Jingan Young and Anna Viola Sborgi opening proceedings with papers on the geographical specificity of London through a consideration of its regional economy. Taking up residence in Central London and Soho, Young’s paper engaged in an articulation of Soho’s coffee bars, where youth culture was born during the 1950s, with particular focus on how themes of youth rebellion and socialisation manifest stylistically in Expresso Bongo (Val Guest, 1959) and Beat Girl (a.k.a. Wild for Kicks) (Edmond T. Gréville, 1960). Young argued that such films occupied the missing link with British New Wave cinema through national discourses of an increasingly permissive society. The formal style of Expresso Bongo and Beat Girl were, for Young, rooted in perpetuating Soho’s own cultural mythology and celebrating its corrupt subcultures of lively cosmopolitan convergence.

Sborgi’s paper was likewise invested in the rearrangement of London’s spatial practices through more explicit notions of loss and gain. Sborgi examined how the narrativisation of the capital’s housing crisis across a multitude of television texts (following the dismantling of social housing in the 1970s) literally ‘found a home’ on Channel 4 as a publicly owned, commercially-funded public service broadcaster. Performing cultural work through the documentary format, Sborgi noted that programmes such as How to Get a Council House (2013-2016) have drawn frequent attention to empathy and outsider, us and them, values that, since the U.K.’s membership of the European Union was destabilised, have only been exacerbated by discourses of who belongs in London and who continues as a stranger.

The conference’s first keynote paper, presented by Myra Georgiou (London School of Economics) and titled “Post-Brexit Blues,” continued to reflect on London’s turbulent history, and interrogated the reduction of urban trauma (whether structural or cultural) to particular historical moments of crisis. The author of Media and the City: Cosmopolitanism and Difference (2013), Georgiou shared work on digital citizen-centric domains that have enabled the voicing of concerns about the city’s fragile geography that have been triggered by the national Brexit vote. As Georgiou argued, many Londoners’ progressive use of social media (though often self-congratulatory) marked the translation of intensely emotional moments within a city’s lifecycle into a passionate commentary across a variety of digital forums, such as Harringay Online. It seems that within these heavily politicised views of openness and assimilation, London’s own post-Brexit narrative (involving the trials and tribulations of Article 50) is still being told, and virtually so.

The conference’s afternoon session was inaugurated by Rahoul Masrani (London School of Economics) and Sander Holsgens (University College London), who offered competing visions of the city/crisis dichotomy. Masrani’s paper unpacked the interplay between London and cinema as one that unfolds along the fault lines of ‘grit’ and ‘glamour.’ Citing French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power, Masrani sought to understand London’s global image and increasing marketization through its attractiveness to both domestic and transatlantic filmmakers. Anchored to developments in film policy under New Labour in 1997 (and, one might add, the then-Mayor Ken Livingstone’s marketing campaign that London was “On”) as well as David Cameron’s views on tourism in the post-2007 Conservative government period, Masrani argued that offices such as Film London successfully brand the capital across disparate media as a desirable consumer good within a neoliberal framework. Screening parts of his own contemplative film Reverberations (2017), Holsgens moved away from London to present his unique vision of Korea in crisis through the behaviour of skateboarders. Opening out the city’s topography rooted in a phenomenological engagement with architecture, Holsgens’ film visualised the lived experience of Seoul’s skateboarding community. Through long takes and static camerawork that imposed intentionality via elongated temporal arcs, Reverberations showcased the skateboarder as liminal figure between public and private moving effortlessly through cities without walls.

Continuing the shift towards foreign spaces, the second keynote paper was delivered by Lawrence Webb (University of Sussex), whose talk “Nostalgia for Decline? Reimagining New York’s Urban Crisis” transplanted the notion of crisis onto the current media turn towards the image of a crumbling New York. Using the film A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014), Webb sought to interrogate the attraction and affordances of the historical period within the film’s narrative, but also to speak more broadly about the kind of cultural work that such ‘period pieces’ do and what is at stake politically in this cinematic process of remembering and reconstructing. Outlining the etymology of ‘crisis,’ Webb then worked through the film’s promotional material and marketing campaigns as a way of framing how the film’s specific time period nostalgically, if problematically, reimagines 1970s America.

The conference’s final panel comprised of papers by Martha Shearer (Royal Holloway/University of Surrey) and Jennifer Wallace (King’s College London), who took on Noah Baumbach’s American comedy/drama Frances Ha (2012) and the work of canonical French filmmaker Agnès Varda, respectively. Within the context of the post-‘romcom’ and post-feminist media culture, Shearer built on her recent work on Hollywood musicals and New York City to argue for an urban reading of the creative city. By allying creativity to recovery, Shearer noted that the personalised space of a city in crisis could be mapped onto American Independent Cinema, and in particular the forced mobility of the individual who must navigate their own frayed femininity as well as the construction of urban utopianism. Wallace’s focus on Varda engaged not with the filmmaker’s pre-New Wave work as part of the Rive Gauche movement, but instead closely examined Varda’s 1984 documentary Les Dites cariatides, which reveals the many ornate female statues hidden across the corners and crevices of Paris. In its examination of the uniquely gendered view of the city present in Varda’s film (all matched to the poetry of Baudelaire), Wallace’s presentation and personal footage of the splendorous Parisien architecture reminded us that the meaning of a city as it ebbs and flows through time is, unlike the carved caryatids, certainly not set in stone.

Following a screening of Enrico Masi’s Sur Les Jeux Olympiques (2012) that documented the impact of the 2012 Olympic Games on communities around East London, the event concluded with a lively roundtable both as a reaction to Masi’s provocative short, but also as a way of suggesting how multimedia forms part of a wider visual anthropology project on cities experiencing their own crisis moments. Chaired by Scott Rodgers (Birkbeck, University of London), the roundtable speculated as to how media functions as intrinsic to urban practices and the shaping of material spaces. Given the conference’s distinction between cities in crisis and a crisis for cities, it was perhaps appropriate that during the day’s enlivening debates and discussions, Sadiq Khan would himself take to social media to proclaim “Now, more than ever, we need to build bridges not walls.” Within this ongoing scenario of real-world urban disaster and immediacy of the current political landscape, “Cities in Crisis” offered an extremely rich forum that disclosed how visual media has a dominant part to play in how we can continually make sense of the shifting urban experience.

Cities in Crisis was organized by Researchers from the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London and funded by the King’s College Arts and Humanities Small Grants for Research Students Scheme. It was the inaugural event in the new London Media Cities Research Network.

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