RED FRACTION

Catalogue text for The Red Space by Francis McKee, 1999

If someone were to write a secret history of the city in the twentieth century three people would have to be mentioned. The first is ‘Pray’ – an almost mythical figure in the New York street world of the 1970s. At a time when graffitti had blossomed into pumped up, day-glo typefaces emblazoning teenagers names across walls and subway trains, one person became known as the most persistent tag artist in the city. ‘Pray’, a name given because that was the only word tagged, managed to cover more of the city than any other graffittist. The word was scraped into the metal casings of public telephones, along walls and across fire exit doors and roller blind shutters without care for gangland boundaries. Seldom seen but a respected legend among her peers, ‘Pray’ was said to be a very old woman who used the metal tip of a crucifix to carve the word in every surface she could find.

The second person to feature in this secret history would be the artist Joseph Cornell. Always on the search through the flotsam and jetsam of the city, he wandered obsessively through the streets of New York in the ‘30s. For Cornell, it wasn’t simply the possibility of finding an old photograph, book or seashell. It might as easily be a batch of discarded film footage such as East of Borneo which could be recut to create a new surrealist movie called Rose Hobart. Just as importantly, he might stumble across a streetscene or fellow pedestrian, whose image could be stored for the future – ‘a mental picture to be filed away in his inner archive’. Later (often years later) these finds would surface again in his enigmatic sealed boxes.

The final person to be described in this secret history is Charlotte Wolff – doctor and psychoanalyst. Prominent in Weimar intellectual circles of 1920s’ Berlin, Wolff wrote several pioneering feminist studies in analytical theory and bisexuality. She enjoyed roaming the city, visiting the bars and dance halls or exploring the shopping arcades with her friend Walter Benjamin. Forced to emigrate when the Nazis came to power, Wolff returned to a divided Berlin in 1974 on the invitation of the lesbian group “L74” and in her memoirs entitled Hindsight, she retraced the paths of a female flaneur and attempted to reintegrate the city into her ‘emotional map’.

The three protagonists of this secret history all share a desire to possess the city in various ways. For all three, traversing the city was a regular experience and a crucial one. Each charted a daily course and set out to discover its possibilities. Implicit in their journey was the knowledge that it would be fragmentary, revealing only a small percentage of the city’s landscape. For each of them, the specifics of any given street or district was essential – every experience was a local one and all knowledge acquired was equally parochial. Underlying their progress was an understanding that it was never fully possible to gain a complete view of the city. Their experience was always partial and incomplete and that alone justifies their importance in this secret history.

By contrast, the public facade of the modern metropolis has been founded on unity. Each city propagates an image of itself based on a series of commonly agreed landmarks and sites of interest. Certain characteristics are said to typify individual cities – one is reserved and cultivated, one generates raw energy, another is the cradle of democracy. No city openly admits to its fragmentary nature or to the dislocations it is capable of producing. These unified, public images are presented within a culture where the tools of vision are designed to appear disembodied - all-seeing but themselves unseen, representing but themselves evading representation. One of the visual techniques that epitomises this process is the panoramic photograph.

Developed in the last decade of the eighteenth century, the panorama came to prominence as a means to depict the bourgeois cities of the following century. Mirroring the Panopticon, a panoramic photograph of the city placed each spectator in a central tower viewing the highly ordered environment surrounding them. The technique became popular at a time when European cities were overflowing their Enlightenment boundaries and rapidly swelling to accommodate an influx of factory workers. Divided by class, culture and functions, the modern city had splintered into a vast array of multiple views - each offering its own competing narrative. The panorama rose above all of that to provide a private, crow’s nest perspective of the city. Its vantage point was elevated and safe from the random dangers of the streets and alleys. Most importantly, the panorama reconstituted the city as a unified entity and placed the human body securely at its centre.

Ironically, just about the time the cities began to grow exponentially, the image of the human body became equally complex. As anatomists began to map the finer nerve networks and the cellular divisions of the body, the traditional alliance of artist and doctor was rendered inadequate. New technologies were developed to depict these webs of nerves and cells and, as with the city, these visualising techniques appeared to be all-powerful. In a feminist critique of technology, Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Donna Haraway summarises this culture saying:

The visualising technologies are without apparent limit; the eye of any ordinary primate like us can be endlessly enhanced by sonography systems, magnetic resonance imaging, artifical intelligence-linked graphic manipulation systems, scanning electron microscopes, computer-aided tomography scanners, colour enhancement techniques, satellite surveillance systems, home and office VDTs, cameras for every purpose from filming the mucous membrane lining the gut cavity of a marine worm living in the vent gases on a fault between continental plates to mapping a planetary hemisphere elsewhere in the solar system. Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all perspective gives way to infinitely mobile vision, which no longer seems just mythically about the god-trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice.

For Haraway, the danger lies in ‘seeing everything from nowhere’ and in the possibility of limitless vision. Instead she advocates a partial perspective, arguing that ‘feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence…In this way we might become answerable for what we learn how to see’.

The Red Space embodies this notion of partial perspective. High above the city, this red room offers security and a womb-like warmth. The panoramic photograph and the MRI scan which decorate the space appear to promise unity of body and civic space. The photograph, however, presents a view of the city that is impossible to see from that particular room. Likewise, the scan strips away as much humanity as it reveals, eliding the subtle surface signs – eyes, wrinkles, lips etc – which more accurately build a human portrait. Finally, only the window delivers exactly what it promises - a partial perspective of the city. The Red Space successfully frames this detail of the metropolis, teaching us to see it positively as a fragment – a limited location and a situated knowledge.

The security offered by this space is, then, given to us within a more knowing context. The very fact that the elevated room functions as an imaginative refuge highlights the more volatile situation in the streets below. The contemplative mental theatre of The Red Space also underlines the ambivalent nature of the urban landscape and a woman’s place in it. The art of taking a walk in the city has only been extended to women relatively recently and it remains as much a performance as an action of spectatorship. By celebrating the fragment and detail of the city in opposition to the more official unities of body and space provided by the panorama and the MRI scan, Sam Ainsley demonstrates why it is worth undertaking that walk.

Musing on her pioneering days as a female flaneur, Charlotte Wolff asked herself ‘Why was I drawn to wander along these streets?’. Her answer was that ‘Berlin opened itself up to me more and more’. Wolff’s increasing knowledge of the city is at once a private experience and a public act as it informs her reading of the world around her. Her fragmentary perceptions of the streets and the subsequent reworking of them in her writings help to broaden the conception of the modern city and the aesthetics of its design. Similarly, Ainsley’s refusal of the metropolitan and medical unities on offer today persuade us to look at things differently. At a time when each city increasingly portrays itself as a comprehensive entity, it is useful to be shown a partial perspective.