Urban Pores as Media: Questions of Aesthetics and Access

A public mural in Napoli
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

As I mentioned in my first introduction, urban pores, especially if we consider the word’s connection to biology, are media: they allow material to pass, for instance ensuring photosynthesis in plants and sweating in humans. Thus, pores are crucial for the health and sustainability of a larger organism of which they are part. They are the built-in media that regulate circulation and exchange for the benefit of a larger structure. In the particular case under consideration, the larger structure is presumably the city. For instance, the idea of mixed-income housing supposedly enables a social porosity that in turn counters disinvestment, decline, and violence, even as the reality and practice of mixed-income housing have proven to be much more complex. We want urban pores to function as media—to mediate contact, balance inequities, and assure the sustainability of the city.

All the contributions to the first round of “The Porous City” considered urban pores as media. Anna Sborgi emphasizes how historical urban pores (specifically the London docklands) not only changed connotations in the 1980s, but did so because of a transposed, porous aesthetic that mixed aspects of documentary, art film, city symphony film, and essay film. In Erin Schlumpf’s analysis, Liu Jiayin’s films set in a porous apartment providing no shelter from the transformations wrought by global capitalism mediate the urban environment and provide a different model of porosity, so that its characters and spectators can roam in alternative ways, can be absorbed differently by the city. In Annie Dell’Aria’s discussion of urban projections, screens themselves are pores, and create new pores by turning walls into windows, allowing the elsewhere and the elsewhen to be present. Site-specific artworks can thus create more balanced and sustainable forms of porosity. And last but not least, Carrie Rentschler explores how feminist “auditing” of urban spaces and new insertions into urban pores (such as posters and chalk drawings) can be understood as forms of activist intervention that change the very nature of urban porosity to make it safer for particular users.

Taken together, these responses raise at least two large questions worth developing further. If the built environment is not only porous, but also overlaid with coats of aesthetic porosity like those described by the contributors, how would we define aesthetic porosity? What kinds of forms does it take? Or can it take any form? But if it can take any form, what external factors, including the built environment, determine the forms it should take? Does content—which as as Annie Dell’Aria and Anna Sborgi show may come from another place and another time—matter? How should we think about the immaterial content that is being passed through such urban pores? I am asking the question because I am wondering how aesthetic porosity relates to other forms of (avant-garde) aesthetics, from montage techniques to slow cinema.

Porous cities are known to have invigorated aesthetic innovation. For instance, in the 1920s, a cohort of avant-garde filmmakers were attracted to the Southern French port city of Marseille, known as the “port to the Orient.” Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein, Alberto Cavalcanti, and László Moholy-Nagy all made films in this particularly porous city, yet developed very different aesthetic styles. In Coeur fidèle [Faithful Heart] Epstein created impressionistic superimpositions and blurred images of a young woman working in a bar as seen by her dock worker lover, suggesting the porosity of subjectivity, as well as quasi surrealist image compositions of the dock worker in the port. By contrast, in Impressionen vom alten Marseiller Hafen (Vieux Port) [Impressions of the Old Marseille Harbor (Vieux Port)], Moholy-Nagy foregrounded the same port infrastructure to exacerbate mobile, changing points of view with montage techniques, even if later his camera would obsessively document the adjacent working-class neighborhood. It would seem, then, that at this particular moment the porous city nurtured aesthetic creativity writ large. Is this still the case today? Are there similarly “characteristic” aesthetics of today’s porous cities?

And second, the contributions of the first round raise the question of audience: for whom are particular forms of the porous city being created? In the case of feminist protocols, as discussed by Carrie Rentschler, this is clear. But I’m less sure about the porous art works Annie Dell’Aria discusses, which may serve both a local population (if so what parts of the population?) as well as tourists. And I would love to hear more about the intended and actual audiences of Liu Jiayin’s Beijing films, or London docklands films.

I am not asking the question of access lightly, for again the 1920s may help us conceptualize what is at stake in it. While Delluc, Epstein, Cavalcanti, and Moholy-Nagy all made films set in the porous port city, they were invested in filming working-class characters within it. In this way, their works on the porous city also struggled with questions of social inclusion. That becomes particularly apparent in Moholy-Nagy’s film, where the camera ultimately lands in a poor, and very porous, neighborhood between the city’s ports, documenting a social reality that seemed to resist Moholy-Nagy’s form of fluid orchestration. As Carrie Rentschler asked, can urban porosity be used strategically for social inclusion, as a way of rebalancing urban power structures, and as a way of increasing the sustainability of the larger organism? This is a question for all of us who write on mediated urbanisms. 

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