Feb 2, 2015

Ghosts in the city | In search of missing pieces

In continuing to make sense of what is and has been happening in Albania the past twenty some years, I'd like to take on the challenge of explaining it to anyone who's not familiar with these flawed ways of rehabilitating a country after half a century of totalitarian rule and complete isolation. Flawed (even cruel), because they have managed to debilitate it further.

However, I will not be doing it alone. I will use the words of Michel de Certeau. I am reading his book again, The Practice of Everyday Life: Living and Cooking Vol.2, and right under Intermezzo (‘in-between’ how fitting) is his wonderful essay Ghosts in the city. Important, because he so wonderfully captures the struggle between ‘spirits’ or ‘resistances’ of the past and much speculated [albeit contradicting] ‘restorations’ or better yet, ‘salvations’ in the near (or past) futures. 

A city as a product of compromise, no doubt. But, according to which criteria? What are the Crown Jewels of Albania (and the Albanian city)? What are its ghosts? How are we defining ‘National Heritage’? How's ‘National Heritage’ been used by the gov apparatus to restore/change/communicate (through gestures and narratives) with Urban Planning? Architecture? Culture? Arts? People? (All caught ‘in-between’.)

** This is a long read. I am using solely excerpts from de Certeau's essay. The reading emphasis is mine. I have selected them (sometimes out of the original context) as a tool to understand what's been happening in Albania, in order to question the intentions and methods (gestures and narratives) used. 
(Granted, de Certeau has written this book with Paris in mind and on paper, but the points he brings up cannot be ignored in today's Albania. Thus, my interest in posting it. I recommend you read the original essay to draw your own conclusions.)

Ghosts in the City

All photos are mine via diagstudio. (pardon the quality)

An Uncanniness of the “Already There”

The strategy that, yesterday, aimed at a development of new urban spaces has been little by little transformed into a rehabilitation of national heritage. After having considered the city in the future, does one begin to consider it in the past, like a space for journeys in itself, a deepening of its histories?

The watch-word: “I don't want to know about it.” The remnants had to be eliminated in order to be replaced. This urban planning destroyed. Yet, some old buildings survived, even if they were caught in its nets. [T]he debris of shipwrecked histories still today raise up the ruins of an unknown. They burst forth within the modernist, massive, homogeneous city like slips of the tongue from an unknown, perhaps unconscious, language. They surprise. [S]educe the nostalgia attached to a world on its way toward disappearing. Ancient things become remarkable. An uncanniness lurks there, in the everyday life of the city. It is a ghost that henceforth haunts urban planning

Naturally, this uncanniness did not come back all by itself. It was brought back by the protectionist economy that is always reinforced in periods of recession.

This ghost is exorcised under the name of “national heritage.” Its strangeness is converted into legitimacy. [T]his tradition articulates the protection of selected monuments that have a “national” interest over the necessary destruction of a bygone past. First placed under the sign of “treasures” to be extracted from a body doomed to die, this museumesque policy already takes on [...] the character of an aesthetics. Today it encounters the point of view of urban planners who notice the premature aging of modern buildings rapidly changed into obsolete and outmoded constructions. (read: Piramida, Paint the City project - or, any new construction for that matter) Must we then renew our buildings every twenty years? For economic as well as national and cultural reasons, one comes back to this past that has often aged less than that which is new. Therefore, renovation is preferred to innovation, rehabilitation to development, and protection to creation.

But something insinuates itself here that no longer obeys the “conservative” ideology of national heritage. This past is generally looked on as imaginary. A stranger is already there, in residence.

Quite far from aligning itself with the historian pedagogy, that still often organizes the museum into one of a small or a big “motherland”, the new renovation distances itself from educational or state-controlled perspectives that inspired the protection of a treasure “in the public interest.” It is less interested in monuments that in ordinary housing, less in the circumscriptions of national legitimacies than in the exogenous historicities of local communities, less in a privileged cultural period [...] than in the “collages” produced through the successive reuses of the same buildings. The new renovation still undertakes to “save” things, but now this involves complex debris that it is impossible to classify within a pedagogical linearity or to lodge within a referential ideology, and that is disseminated throughout the city like traces of other worlds.

A population of “Legendary” Objects

In the urban imaginary world, there are first of all things that spell it out. They impose themselves. They are there, closed in on themselves, silent forces. They have character. Or, even better, they are “characters” on the urban stage. Secret personas. [T]hese inanimate objects acquire a certain autonomy. They are actors, legendary heroes. They organize around them the city saga. They are witnesses to a history that, unlike that of museums or books, no longer has a language. Actually, they function as history, which consists in opening a certain depth within the present, but they no longer have the contents that tame the strangeness of the past with meaning

These wild objects, stemming from indecipherable pasts, are the “spirits” of the place. [T]hese objects play the roles of actors in the city, not because of what they do or say but because their strangeness is silent, as well as their existence, concealed from actuality. Their withdrawal makes people speak - it generates narratives - and it allows action; through its ambiguity, it “authorizes” spaces of operations

But where does one stop, how does one demarcate the population from these things that are “spirits”? Trees too are a part of them; they are the “sole, true monuments.” But also a fountain, the detail of a facade, the corn or ham hung from the ceiling of a small cafe, [...] the curved shape of a table leg, toys, family photos, the wayfaring fragments of a song... This population spreads out its ramifications, penetrating the entire network of our everyday life, descending into the labyrinths of housing, silently colonizing its depths. [T]his population traverses time, survives the wearing away of human existences, and articulates a space. [T]hey teem, transforming our streets into forests and our buildings into haunted houses; they extend beyond the dogmatic borders of a supposed “national heritage”; they possess places even though we believe to have shut them in, stuffed, stamped, and set them under glass in the hospitals for popular arts and traditions. Some of them undoubtedly died in these museumesque zoos.

The promoters of urban renovation are thus rightly suspicious. They should be even more suspicious when they open up the city and accord legitimacy to these unknown immigrants. From all these ancient things, they only admit what can be tenured as “national heritage.” According to which criteria? This remains unclear. [A]s with all things tenured, in return for conforming to the law of renovation, they become modernized. These stories corrupted by time, or wild ones from who knows where, are trained in the present. Certainly, the pedagogical processes of which they are the object include an internal contradiction; they must at once protect and civilize that which is old, make new that which is old. The products that come out of restoration are thus compromises. They are passageways on the multiple frontiers that separate periods, groups, and practices. They play an important role in the urban polyphony. Whatever the framework in which this “salvational” will is inscribed, it is true that restored buildings, mixed habitats belonging to several worlds, already deliver the city from its imprisonment in an imperialistic univocity.

A Policy of Authors: Inhabitants

Restoration [...] tends to transform these heterodoxies into a new cultural orthodoxy. Even distributed outside the patrimonial temples of memory and placed at the inhabitants' disposal, restored objects turn into museum pieces. Their dissemination works yet again at extending the museum outside of its walls, at museifying the city. It is not that the museum is a plague or that it can be transformed into a scarecrow or a scapegoat. The museum often exercises the role of laboratory, ahead of urban planning. But it functions in its own way. It conceals from users what it presents to observers. The question no longer involves renovated objects, but the beneficiaries of the renovation.

If one refuses to accept the logic of conservation, what other hypothesis will take over? When the museum pulls back, what wins? The law of the market. Such is the alternative presented to the interventions of the state: either uphold the institutions of preservation (more or less pedagogical), both public (museums) and private (associations and hobbies of all sorts), or enter into the production-consumption system (real-estate agencies, project developers, architectural firms). In the second hypothesis, the museumesque “subtraction” (building taken away from private housing in order to be transformed into public theatrical institutions) is replaced by an economic misappropriation (building taken from disadvantaged inhabitants in order to be improved and sold to better-off buyers). This urbanistic restoration is a social “restoration.”

A politics of renovation seeks to play between the “conservationists” and the “merchants.” Some rules aim at limiting or controlling one group by the other. Certain intermediary powers insinuate themselves into these power relationships. But the first “intermediaries” to be promoted should be the people who practice these places to be restored.

Through its own movement, the restoration economy tends to separate places from their practitioners. A misappropriation of subjects accompanies the renovation of objects. 

They obey this rule precisely as therapeutic institutions. Renovation participates in the medicalization of power. Passing from the individual body to the urban body, this therapeutic power does not change its methods. It treats organs and circulatory systems by not taking people into account. In this widened medical administration, the misappropriation of subjects remains the prerequisite for a restoration of the body. This is the hospital system.

[S]till very marginally, within the field of medical technocracy, the dynamic relations between inhabitants and specialists must be restored. It puts power relationships into play between citizens who are supposed to be equal before the law. A policy is involved here that goes beyond and controls any economic management.

Inasmuch as a policy takes its inspiration from the principle that “national heritage,” must “become the business of all [...] people,” a particular but fundamental form of it must be underscored, the right to creation, in other words, an autonomy in relation to the draconian regulations fixed by certain specialists. The inhabitants, especially the disadvantaged ones, [...] have a right to select their own aesthetics.

Among many other reasons, urban futurology itself requires these unrecognized artists to regain their authorship in the city. A democratization of artistic expression must correspond to this democratization of techniques. How can one expand the latter if one censors the former?
It wastes the true capital of a nation or a city because its national heritage is not made up of objects it has created but of creative capacities and of the inventive style that articulates, as in a spoken language, the subtle and multiple practice of a vast ensemble of things that are manipulated and personalized, reused and “poeticized.” In the end, national heritage is made up of all of these “ways of operating.”

The everyday artists of ways of speaking, dressing, and living are ghosts in officially recognized contemporary art. It is high time that an urban planning still seeking an aesthetics recognize the same value in them. The city is already their permanent and portable exposition. They turn the city into an immense memory where many poetics proliferate.

Mythical Texts of the City

Within the perspective of a democratization, a condition for a new urban aesthetics, two networks in particular hold our attention, gestures and narratives. They are both characterized as chains of operations done on and with the lexicon of things. In two distinct modes, one tactical and the other linguistic, gestures and narratives manipulate objects, displace them, and modify both their distributions and their use.

Gestures are the true archives of the city, if one understands by “archives” the past that is selected and reused according to present custom. They remake the urban landscape every day.

The wordless histories of walking, dress, housing, or cooking shape neighborhoods on behalf of absences; they trace out memories that no longer have a place - childhoods, genealogical traditions, timeless events. Such is the “work” of urban narratives as well. To the visible city they add those “invisible cities” about which Calvino wrote. [T]hey render the city “believable.”

These narratives also constitute powerful instruments whose political use can organize a totalitarianism. (They exploit.) [T]hey make people believe and do things. They require a democratic management of urban credibility. Political power has known for a long time already how to produce narratives for its own use. The media has done even better. Living is narrativizing. Stirring up or restoring this narrativizing is thus also among the tasks of any renovation.

Narratives are certainly not lacking in the city. Advertising, for example, multiplies the myths of our desires and our memories by recounting them with the vocabulary of objects of consumption. (including photo-ops as publicity stunts) But the city is a stage for a war of narratives. [T]he grand narratives from television or advertising stamp out or atomize the small narratives of streets or neighborhoods. Renovation should come to the aid of these latter. 

Renovation does not, ultimately, know what it is “bringing back” – or what it is destroying – when it restores the references and fragments of elusive memories. For those ghosts that haunt urban works, renovation can only provide a laying out of already marked stones, like words for it.


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