Here, there, and everywhere or a city is a city is a city
Lisa Mazza, 2012
Starting from a random location outside a city and walking towards the centre, the camera, which is the companion of Wolfgang Lehrner in his explorations, is capturing moments of a journey to what he calls the world city. The artist undertakes his journeys following his gut feeling. The result to be seen by the viewer is not the artist's journey, but an accumulation of moving images recording seemingly accidental observations whilst the camera is not in motion. It is not the creator of the image who is in motion but what is filmed – provided there is an action to be documented. The immobile camera stands in opposition to the explorative moving of the artist and the reverberations of a city.
Barcelona, Chicago, Doha, Hong Kong, Istanbul, London, Mexico City, Moscow, Mumbai, Naples, New York, Paris, Rome, Shanghai, Tokyo, ...
But it is not that important to name the places Wolfgang Lehrner is visiting. It is rather an attempt to understand a city as a space independently from its national boundaries and to look at it from a global perspective without denying local properties. Space, as Lefebvre elaborates on extensively in his influential oeuvre The Production of Space, is in a constant becoming, and defined by multiplicity and interrelations between the mental, physical and social fields. The contemporaneous intensities of the global and the local, and the intersections of overlappings, make the differentiation impossible, and thus enable an unfolding of the ongoing investigation World City: 21st Century Cosmopolitan Investigations.
An image archive is created which denies a categorization of space through geographical place and time and rethinks the notion of space by using different modes of representation of the same material. The growing collection of images omits to credit the place of origin, but uses the very same material for all the three categories: "global random," "local loop" and "glocal still." The first is a projection of a random sequence of takes following each other with no break, the "local loop" as a collection of single video loops running on screen, and the "glocal stills" in the format of c-prints produced from video stills. The viewer can explore in segments single realities or a process of random composition – local becomes global and vice versa.
Still, a city is a city is a city.* The word itself evokes an imagery and associations that inform the notion of a city. This should not be misunderstood as a plea for universalism, but as an appeal to understand a city as a set of tensions within a broader context that exceeds physical boundaries and geographical parameters.
A girl is sitting on a staircase with her suitcase, in front of her is a pedestrian crossing; she is keeping herself occupied with her mobile phone. When a guy asks her for some street indications her gesture seem to indicate that she is foreign to the place and unable to help.
A stretch limousine drives down an empty road. The landscape is structured through poles and their suspended power lines; the poles of the streetlights give a rhythm to the pathway of the road.
The tire on the small beach belongs to a truck; it is the only sign of civilization.The entrances of the building are shot, which makes the building look without life but the noise, which is to be heard in the background alludes to the vicinity of a trafficked road.
In the middle of a busy walkway the two men are playing chess; neither the strong sun nor the passers by and observers prevent them from focusing entirely on the game without paying attention to their surroundings.
On the other side of the trafficked road a hotel is to be seen. Its best days have long past and the repercussions of the traffic caused pollutions are clearly visible; the few cyclers on the road are surely inhaling a great deal of smog.
The mirror behind the three red phones that are lying next to each other shows the light of the cars that are passing by outside on the noisy street.
Different fabrics of different sizes and colors cover the scaffolding at the outside of a big building; the wind makes the textiles slightly move.
In 1972 Italo Calvino published the structuralist novel Le cittÃ invisibili ** (Invisible Cities), with a similar impetus of Lehrner's, to try to comprehend the city as a space outside of categories of nation state or explicit geographical boundaries. Over years Calvino collected notes on cities and landscapes he had encountered or that were a product of his imagination until he decided to use them as the grounding for his book. He thus decided to send the fictional explorer Marco Polo on a journey to fifty-five cities all holding women's names.
Polo's travels lead him through the reign of the Tartars whose emperor Kublai Kan is also the interlocutor for his travel reports. When talking about the city Zaira Marco Polo contemplates that the city consists of "relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past . . . The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the grating of the windows, the banisters of the steps . . . every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls;" in Tamara he observes that "the eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things;" when he talks about the city Irene he only describes it from a remote position stating that "there is the city where you arrive for the first time; and there is another city which you leave never to return." All the places Marco Polo meticulously recounts, however, only exist in his imagination.
Wolfgang Lehrner also describes a place, that doesn't actually exist. By collating random places one to another, he creates a new city of his imagination and which reconstitutes itself with each projection anew; the city as the central site of globalization's political economy, in which new temporalities and spatialities are enabled.
The fair- skinned girl waiting on a staircase is asked by a man of darker skin color for directions: it could be read as an allusion to the city being a place, where an agglomerate of cultures, languages and histories encounter each other. A specific alphabet that appears in street signs, or the way traffic is regulated or energy is supplied, gives a small hint to the region of origin without pointing at a specific locality. Big construction sites become a symbol for the current accelerated expansion of the corporate business world. The viewer catches herself constantly trying to relate images to places by mingling memories, lived experiences and medial imaginaries. In Lehrner's World City random images serve as a portrayal of a random city which distracts us from any pre-configured concepts.
The formal regular systematization in both Lehrner and Calvino's pieces fail to show the irregularities of reality, but accomplishes the apprehension of the city without reducing it to a static object, which does not allow for a multiplicity of experiences to unfold.
By the juxtaposition of the "global random" and the "local loop" Lehrner does not intend to create two opposing positions, but to break with a linear narrative and allow for a dialectical tension between the universal and the particular. The encounter of the singular (the artist) with a place reinforces the perception of the global reality without trying to construct new identities. Instead, new cities can emerge out of the piece in the imagination of the viewer.
A constant questioning of meaning through structures and signs is undertaken by separating the referent from the sign. Neither of the works seem to indicate a clear entry and exit point to enhance the multifaceted ways of reading them both literally as well as from the perspective of the contents they produce. Contrary to Marco Polo though, the artist remains invisible as an interlocutor; Lehrner does not disclose the explorative journeys, neither by way of a fictional nor real persona.
World City: 21st Century Cosmopolitan Investigations instigates a reflection upon the terminology around world city and cosmopolitanism, often iterated in the context of urban sociology. According to Vinay Dharwadker, cosmopolitanism is a point of reference in the mid 1970s, primarily in the framework of aesthetics of early and late modernism. In Lehrner's World City cosmopolitanism seems to inform the perspective of the accelerated globalization of capital and consumerism of post- 1989, which altered the relations on an economical as well as political level between the former West and the East, but beyond that “one should add to this“ increasingly achieved importance in the North-South relationship***
The Greek word kosmopolites ("citizen of the world") is common to both economical as well as moral questions, in conjunction with a community created regardless of linguistic, political or ethnic differences. Notwithstanding, it stays in opposition to Plato and Aristotles' idea of a citizen that evidently belongs to one polis.
There is always a risk in affirming a discourse on globalization that lacks the awareness of underlying problematics, oppresses criticality, and fails to go beyond the analysis of the relationship between the city and its greater field of relation, i.e. the nation-state and/or global world. The world system, a theory that to a large extent has been informed by Immanuel Wallerstein's thinking and writing, describes the world as a non-homogeneous system in relation to culture, politics and economics defined by fundamental differences, which create a gap in social development and power accumulation, both on a political as well as capital level. The inequalities manifest themselves in a field of tensions between the centre (core) that belong to the world-system and the excluded peripheries.
If we assumed that the world city is forming part of the world system, one cannot avoid reflecting upon the inability to comprehend the world in its totality outside of any systems of categorization. A tension is thus activated that raises fundamental questions such as restrictions around immigration politics and policies, accessibility to knowledge and labor, and returns to the dialectical opposition of local versus global.
The tire on a beach as a foretoken for civilization, but also inevitably triggering associations with the landing of immigrants on new territories via the sea: Could this also be a sign of a globalized world in which labor opportunities, enabled by multi-national companies operating outside of nation-state legislations while following the laws of global political economy, attract the workforce at all costs?
Is the world city, per se, a heterogeneous system and therefore will never have a singular identity? And is an investigation on the world city as a mere process of reduction to the point where those elements that belong to each single city remain, independent from where it is located, even possible?
Marco Polo's explanation to the emperor could be Lehrner's: "I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all others. It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, and contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities, which, always as an exception, exists. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real."
Maybe this investigation can never end, and like a Sisyphus, the production of spaces has to be re-negotiated eternally. What remains for the viewer is a multiplicity of ways to read, look at, and approach World City in an attempt to construct their own understanding of it.
* This is inspired by Gertrude Stein's "A rose is a rose is a rose" from her 1913 poem Sacred Emily, which appeared in the 1922 book Geography and Plays.
** Calvino, I., Le cittÃ invisibili, Milano: Oscar Mondadori, 1993
*** See Dharwadker, V., " Introduction: Cosmopolitanism in Its Time and Place ", in Cosmopolitan Geographies: New Locations in Literature and Culture, New York and London: Routledge, 2001