Textures of Visibility: The City/Essay/Film Symposium

Laura Rascaroli delivers the closing keynote at City/Essay/Film - image courtesy of UCL Urban Laboratory
Anna Sborgi discusses the recent University College London symposium on the essay film and the urban, concentrating on the form's potential to depict socially marginal positions as well as capital's embedding in the city.

Lisbon: tiny boat lights flicker in the darkness of the port at night, a boy skates back and forth in a courtyard in the bright daylight, sounds from the home blend with traffic noise from the street below, city life unfolding from the unique perspective of an apartment window. London: up in the air, we witness a day in the life of the capital from the perspective of crane drivers in its countless redevelopment sites. New York, early morning, a multitude of “invisible” workers are on their way to the gigantic construction site of the Hudson Yards. Buenos Aires: as the contemporary city appears on screen, voices in different languages read the chronicles of the conquest of the Río de La Plata. Janela (Left Hand Rotation, 2019), The Solitary Life of Cranes (Eva Weber, 2008), Work (Gamar Markarian, 2019) and The Expansions (Manuel Ferrari, 2017) screened at University College London on June 6, 2019 at the start of a month-long series of essay films shown across London. The films offered a rich introduction to the multiplicity of perspectives, formats, and temporalities through which the essay film portrays the complexity of the urban experience. On the following day, the University College London Urban Laboratory brought to London international scholars, filmmakers and practitioners for a day of interdisciplinary reflections.

The impressive, global range of the work brought together by curators David Anderson and Jordan Rowe (UCL Urban Laboratory) signals the liveliness of this form of filmmaking, which, from its origins as a mainly European and Western experimental form, has travelled widely internationally, similarly to the historically intertwined city symphony. The expansiveness of the essay film’s aesthetics, shifting geographies and reconfigured histories was at the core of the interventions throughout the day. Unpacking the history of the genre, the symposium demonstrated, means following from close distance the development of urban modernity itself, and mapping out within the cityscape the parallel technological transformations and geographical expansions of capital.

Image courtesy of UCL Urban Laboratory

How can film, however, render the invisible flows of capital? This question, set by Nora Alter in her morning keynote, informed a core part of the conversation. While Eisenstein’s project to film Karl Marx’s Capital in 1927 eventually failed, Hans Richter’s avant-garde silent short Inflation (1928), set in New York, visualizes market instability and its repercussions through an animated collage, where piling dollars and the faces of the enriched are super-imposed on the faces of those impoverished by alternate economic fortunes. Alter observed that while in 1929, a crisis of capitalism with global effects was still a very new phenomenon, more recent films reflect our stronger awareness of the precarity of the economic and political. Hito Steyerl’s The Empty Centre (1998)1Also explored by Brenda Hollweg and Laura Rascaroli in the 2018 Mediapolis Roundtable The Essay Film and the City establishes the essay film as a deeply-layered and multi-textured device tracing this transformation. By super-imposing footage documenting the site diachronically, graphs and architectural models, Steyerl digs out the different spatial configurations and previous functions of the huge empty site left by the Wall in Postdammer Platz in post-reunification Berlin. As squatters and other inhabitants are replaced by the architecture of corporate money, the square becomes the symbol of the new capitalist order of the world. A sense of the inevitability of capital is shared with two later works discussed by Alter: Isaac Julien’s two-screen work, Kapital(2013), developing from a filmed conversation with David Harvey, and Raoul Peck’s Profit & Nothing But! (2001). The latter, however, ends with an open question: “Capital has won, for how long?”.

Because, as Harvey notes, we “can really only intuit that capital exists by its effects”, like gravity, the essay film emerges as a powerful form for decoding the traces of cyclical economic crises and transformations in the urban texture. Attention to renewal projects and city branding–both state-driven and privately-funded–becomes crucial in this context. The morning and afternoon sessions went on to explore some of these concerns, historicizing them, but also mapping out new geographies and previously overlooked formats of the essay film. Claire Thomson discussed Danish filmmaker Jørgen Roos’s creative use of state-commissioned city promotions in the 1960s. Through attention to the films themselves but also their production histories, she demonstrated how commissioners wanted to produce “films with an idea”, beyond tourist clichés. While the films were not labelled as essays at the time, the success of “The Roos touch” in A City Called Copenhagen (1960), which other administrations tried to imitate, can be explained by its typically essayistic strategies.

In contrast with this kind of state-driven promotion, which, despite its bureaucratic limitations, was still infused with progressive ideas about urban planning and welfare provision, Martin Abbott and Jennifer Minner brought our attention to top-down neoliberal regeneration projects in Brisbane in the 1980s, in the run-up to the 1988 World Expo2The role of essay film and documentary in tracing counter-narratives to mega-events has become increasingly prominent in recent years, as testified by the consistent film production around London 2012 and Rio 2014 and 2016. Films like This City is Dead (1985), Expo Schmexpo (1984) and City for Sale (1988) provide powerful counter-narratives to the official triumphalism surrounding mega-events. The films exemplify history relationships wiped clean, not only illustrating the destruction of architectural gems but also articulating the question of the right to the city through the specific issue of land rights in Australia, as the new developments erased previously working-class areas home to Aboriginal communities. A visual archive of disappearances, the films do not, however, indulge in nostalgia, but retain a strong potential of social critique and belief in community action.

Practitioner Roundtable Conversation at City/ Essay/ Film with Ayo Akingbade, Eva Weber and Karen Alexander – image courtesy of UCL Urban Laboratory

A similar focus on communities at the margins characterized Richard Bolisay’s discussion of Jewel Maran’s observational documentary work on urban poverty in the Philippines. In his talk, Bolisay firmly rejected the label of “poverty porn” often applied to her work as the result of a western gaze, which only reiterates an oppressive dynamic if applied to the Global South. Ayo Akingbade’s work on gentrification and social housing in London also articulates a perspective from within marginalised communities. In particular, Street 66 (2018) combines documentary footage, archive photographs and interviews to reconstruct the work of Ghanaian housing activist Dora Boatemah (1957-2001) and her leading role in the community-based regeneration of Angell Town Estate in Brixton, South London. The archival function exemplified in the Australian films and reiterated in Akingbade’s work, emerges as a key aspect of the urban essay film as enquiry in the different layers of often conflicting histories within the urban palimpsest.

The potential of the essay film as a tool for spatial research was in full evidence in the presentation from the students of the MA Situated Practice at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture. MA Co-director Henrietta Williams introduced a fascinating live performance, where the students surrounded the audience in the lecture theatre–in turn filmed and projected on the main screen in the room– and their reflections on the practice of site writing, inspired by the work of Jane Rendell and developed in the course. This performance was followed by a roundtable conversation, where they showcased their films and research from the starting point of  the transitioning site of the Walworth Road, in South London.

The multi-sensoriality of the essay film, not only relying on images and text, but also on sound, recurred in the performance and in the experimental soundtracks of many of the films, leading the way to the exploration of sound in Laura Rascaroli’s closing keynote. If Alter’s opening intervention had reflected on the ways in which the urban essay film could make the invisible flows of capitalism visible, Rascaroli’s talk provided a fascinating journey across the soundscapes of capital and the city. As she also notes in her most recent book on the essay film, sound beyond the verbal is an extremely meaningful though overlooked element in the study of the genre.3Laura Rascaroli, How the Essay Film Thinks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 115-142. From Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger’s British Sounds (1970)–where the sound of the factory assembly line is counterpointed by a male voiceover reading from different sources, including the Communist Manifesto–Rascaroli moved on to explore contemporary Honk Kong in Many Undulating Things (Bo Wang and Pan Lu, 2019). The film, she argued, reflects the mutated sonorities of both contemporary capitalism and architecture. Differently from the earlier noisy manifestations of capitalism in urban modernity, contemporary digital flows are not only invisible but silent. In the film, we witness the erasure of sound by design in a contemporary luxury hotel and in the removal of a music fountain in a shopping mall. While people used to gather around the fountain–its memory now only surviving in archive images–uniform mall music now disorients customers and keeps them constantly on the move.

As the audience left the lecture theatre with an exciting watchlist of newly and re-discovered films, it was clear that City | Essay | Film had succeeded in reframing the critical discourse around the genre and its expanding concepts and practices, by emphasizing its performative, multi-sensory and transmedial quality. The symposium also reinforced the sense that the essay film really conveys “the outsider’s perspective from the margins”4A crucial feature of the genre, as Igor Krstić notes in his opening for the 2018 Roundtable, but does so by constantly reconfiguring the margins themselves–globally, but also within the city itself–and projecting their counter-narratives. The only apparently empty zones and construction sites–recurring in many of the films shown–demand our attention and prompt us to interrogate through the un-layering of their different strata, the fabric of film and the city itself.


1 Also explored by Brenda Hollweg and Laura Rascaroli in the 2018 Mediapolis Roundtable The Essay Film and the City
2 The role of essay film and documentary in tracing counter-narratives to mega-events has become increasingly prominent in recent years, as testified by the consistent film production around London 2012 and Rio 2014 and 2016.
3 Laura Rascaroli, How the Essay Film Thinks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 115-142.
4 A crucial feature of the genre, as Igor Krstić notes in his opening for the 2018 Roundtable
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