Artistic 'Simulation' of Prisons and Cells

"Prison and Cell with Smokestack and Conduit" (1985). Source: Mary Boone Gallery

Peter Halley describes his geometric paintings of the past thirty years as "engaged in a play of relationships between 'prisons' and 'cells' — icons that reflect the increasing geometricization of social space." Squares and rectangles overlap or stand separately, often with additions that evoke prison bars, smokestacks and conduits.

"Nowhere" (1992). Source: Peter Halley

"Elsewhere" (1992). Source: Peter Halley

Halley's early work is considered part of a loosely defined branch of post-modern art that has been given various names, including post-abstract abstraction, neo-conceptualism and neo-geo. Halley has expressed a preference for simulationism, which he explains in the following passage:
Simulation, the fact of technical mediation replacing the natural thing, is such a big experience in our society. Air conditioning is a simulation of air; movies are a simulation of life; life is simulated by bio-mechanical manipulations.
Shapes and symbols often associated with oppression are presented in vibrant colors, revealing creative nonconformity within regimented space.

"Exchange" (1996). Source: Peter Halley

Halley was once featured in an article titled "The Artist/Critic of the Eighties," in connection with his writings on post-modernism, post-structuralism and digitization. He is actually more theorist than critic, reflecting upon art in relation to cities, media, technology and other sides of post-industrial culture.

His paintings, prints and installations have been exhibited worldwide, including the recent exhibition "Prison" at Disjecta Interdiciplinary Art Center in Portland, Ore. For more on Halley's work, see the lecture he gave this year at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York (video below). 

This post is part of an archive of featured artists who relate in different ways to cities. We welcome you to submit new additions any time.

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William H. Whyte on Urban Expansion

Map of Moscow from 1818. Source: Старые карты Москвы (via Eto Mesto)

"A metropolitan area can take care of a great many more people by only a very slight expansion of its radius. ... if there is to be any hope of having open space in the future, there is going to have to be a more efficient pattern of building. The mathematics is inexorable. The only way to house more people is either to expand the present pattern of sprawl and cover vastly more land, or, alternatively, to use less land and increase the carrying capacity of it. The latter is by far the best approach ..."

William H. Whyte, "The Last Landscape" (pp. 6 and 200), 1968

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

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London’s Urban Foxes

by Andrew Wade

Urban migration isn't just for humans. It turns out that in London, foxes are also drawn to the density of urban life. With access to leftover food from millions of human inhabitants and leafy green spaces, from secluded back gardens to sprawling Royal Parks, foxes have a lot to admire in The Big Smoke. Istanbul has cats, and Berkeley a notorious squirrel, but London is a fox town.

London's foxes have commanded attention from the media for some time, with reporting ranging from the bizarre – bullet-point recommendations on “how to outfox the fox” – to the playful. Most recently, foxes seemingly staged a protest against London's imminent Olympic Games by disrupting a shooting test event. For a nation with an ingrained yet controversial legacy of fox hunting, this reads as a ripe moment of well-timed retaliation. With a fox population of around 33,000 and a comparatively well-organized human population of 7.8 million, a “Rise of the City of the Foxes” seems unlikely. But they are notorious enough to have pubs and car services named after them.

We often lose the thread of our connection to the natural world, especially in urban environments of our own creation. Foxes remind us that we weave the fabric of the city with other creatures.

Credits: Photos by Tim Ferguson.

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Moscow Protests Recall the Situationists

by Shriya Malhotra

The goal of the situationists is immediate participation in a passionate abundance of life by means of deliberately arranged variations of ephemeral moments. The success of these moments can reside in nothing other than their fleeting effect. The situationists consider cultural activity in its totality as an experimental method for constructing everyday life, a method that can and should be continually developed with the extension of leisure and the withering away of the division of labor (beginning with the division of artistic labor).
— Guy Debord, "Theses on Cultural Revolution," 1958
The Occupy movement in Moscow is a response to very different political conditions than those of Occupy movements in other parts of the world. However, it shares an orientation toward performed resistance based on a desire to claim the right to space and challenge the abuse of power. Occupy tactics call to mind the Situationist International in their creative integration of art, politics and everyday life in cities.

A symbolic representation of Constant Nieuwenhuys's "New Babylon." Source: Vague Terrain

The Situationists: Art and Urban Activism

The Situationist movement emerged as a critique of capitalism in 1957 and played a key role in the May 1968 uprising in Paris. Although the organization officially dissolved in 1972, its ideas and tactics have been adopted in social movements throughout the world. Recent financial and political crises have spurred a particularly strong revival in cities like Paris, New York and now Moscow.

According to Simon Sadler, author of "The Situationist City," the Situationists argued that professional architecture had led to "a sterilization of the world that threatened to wipe out any sense of spontaneity or playfulness." They believed that people should have a say in how the spaces they inhabit are designed and organized. "This would instantly undermine the powers of state, bureaucracy, capital, and imperialism, thereby revolutionizing people's everyday lives," Sadler writes.

Ideas for a Situationist city exist in texts, drawings and films by members of the movement. Dutch artist Constant Nieuwenhuys envisioned a "New Babylon":
The need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up... Social life becomes architectural play. Architecture becomes a flickering display of interacting desires.
The Situationist city is more of an approach to urban living than a prescriptive plan. Cities once dedicated to work and capital accumulation become sites of playful experimentation based on the involvement of urban inhabitants in shaping their environments. Art and technology are combined in creating places that more fully coincide with human needs.

The Situationists developed a series of concepts and practices aimed at realizing their visions of societal change, including psychogeography (an often ambulatory exploration of the ways different environments influence human feelings and actions), dérive (drifting, or walking without a set course through landscapes primarily in cities) and the situation (a "revolutionary" moment arranged to inspire people to examine and improve their daily lives through creative exploration).

Such practices — whether adopted with the Situationists in mind or not — are evident in Occupy movements worldwide, and most recently in Moscow.

A street sign near the site of Occupy Abai, hacked with a white ribbon that symbolizes the Russian pro-democracy movement. Source: Shriya Malhotra

Occupy Abai: Performed Resistance

Moscow's Occupy Abai movement is part of a new pattern of tactical resistance to the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The name refers to a statue of the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbayev, located along the Boulevard Ring, a tree-lined path that curves around central Moscow. People began camping there to protest the violent suppression of a rally on May 6, just before Putin's inauguration. Many others visited to show support. Some gave speeches and engaged in debate, reflecting on current conditions and collaborating toward change. The atmosphere was festive and peaceful, unstructured but somehow orderly.

There was a strong element of art and performance at Occupy Abai, characteristic of Occupy movements around the world. Participants displayed a humor and poetry in their signs, reminiscent of Situationist tactics. The movement included lectures, discussions and small participatory concerts. It transformed at times into mass strolls through the city to avoid restrictions on congregating in public space. The events have become an ever-changing mix of performed resistance.

Moscow's protest movement is both a stand against corrupt autocratic rule and a response to daily living conditions of massive traffic jams, unaffordable costs of living, environmental degradation, income inequality and exclusion. A lack of pedestrian-friendly streets alienates many in Moscow. Walking and cycling become a form of resistance when prohibited or highly restricted. This "movement" includes a call for more healthy, vibrant, people-oriented street life, in keeping with the ideas of William Whyte, Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl.

Politics of the Everyday

The practice of daily life is part of the resistance, and its performance is in public space. People appear to be performing a version of daily life in the city that they would like to see come true — one of free expression, wandering, social life and gatherings in public spaces.

Particularly interesting is the role of the Internet, which may be seen as a form of wandering in the virtual realm. It is part of what Debord called the society of spectacle ("a social relationship between people that is mediated by images"), but it also serves as a tool for interaction in the physical world. In Moscow, the use of online "public space" for community-building is blossoming in urban spaces where it didn't comfortably exist before. In the process, these spaces are being reconfigured and reclaimed.

Philosopher and investigator of daily life Michel de Certeau, in his book "The Practice of Everyday Life," asserts that a person walking on the street moves in ways that are tactical and can never be fully determined by the plans of governing bodies. This may take the form of mundane private transgressions as well as collective public protest. In Moscow, protesters have been detained for "wandering." In response to social, political and economic alienation in cities, people are reinterpreting notions of strolling and loitering in hopes of revitalizing public space.

A Situationist map of Paris. Source: Spatial Design

Like the Situationists, protesters in Moscow are calling for greater participation and collaboration in creating the city. People are engaging in public life through activities like cycling, walking, conversation, sharing food and planting flowers. They are acting within legal limits, moving about in public and using public spaces for what they were meant for: public use!

The Occupy movement has sparked a re-examination of urban space and how it is used. As the Situationists understood, cities need the ability to reinvent themselves based on the expressed requirements and dreams of the people living in them.

Shriya Malhotra is an urbanist from New Delhi, India who believes in arts-based participation and mapping to create better cities. She writes for Pattern Cities and is an editor at Partizaning.

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Functions of Rectangular Cloth on the Streets of Mumbai

by Gopal MS

A rectangular cloth finds many uses in Indian cities. It becomes a woman's sari, a man's dhoti or lungi (sarong) or a turban. It is also used as a bag by local traders, a bright and beautiful carry-bag that plastic will never match. It is also worth mentioning that they are reusable and made from natural material — cotton.

I took these images outside Grant Road Station in Mumbai on a Sunday morning. Here there is a big concentration of street traders carrying cloth bags full of household wares to sell in the local market.

Gopal MS is a photographer who documents street life in Mumbai. He shares his photo-essays at Mumbai Paused.

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Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza

by Melissa García Lamarca

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

During my visit to Havana a month ago, several taxi drivers eagerly pointed out the “Tribuna Anti-Imperialista” (Anti-Imperialist Platform, also known as Plaza). Such keenness, added to the space’s intriguing name and design, made a closer visit irresistible.

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

One of the most eye-catching elements on the site is a life-sized statue of the Cuban icon José Martí, clutching a child in one protective arm while pointing vehemently in the opposite direction. The child represents Elián González, the sole survivor of a boat of Cuban refugees that capsized on its way to Miami in 1999, who was the center of a dramatic conflict between the two countries. Martí’s finger is pointed accusingly at the U.S. Interests Section Office located at the end of a linear plaza capped in several places by metal arches.

Source: Geneva Guerin

Built in 1952, the U.S. Interests Section Office was originally the U.S. embassy. The area in front, as pictured below, was known as Dignity Plaza. After Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution, the building was used by the Swiss embassy, which represented U.S. interests in Cuba until the U.S. opened its own office in the 1970s. The statue of José Martí and Elián, as well as the metal structures, were erected hastily in 2000 while U.S. courts were reviewing Elián’s case. At the time, the area became a site for daily protests organized by the Cuban government.

The U.S. embassy in the 1950s, with Dignity Plaza in front. Source: ETH Studio Basel

Anti-Imperalist Plaza in 2006. Source: ETH Studio Basel

The plaza’s most recent transformation took place in 2006, when the Cuban government built a mount of flags (el monte de las banderas) with 138 flagpoles. I was told this was done to block the Interest Section’s view of the city, although other sources say it was to obstruct an electronic display board on the side of the U.S. Interest Section Office that displayed messages about Cuba’s social situation and human rights.

A February 2006 inscription at the base of the flags tells yet another story:
This mount of flags serves as a response from the people of Cuba to the clumsy arrogance of the U.S. government: 138 Cuban flags will wave with dignity in front of the eyes of the empire, to remind it, starting today, of every year that the Cuban people have struggled, since our founding fathers gave the cry for independence in 1868. Like then, before the bright shadow of this great mount of flags, we continue fighting as free men and women.

Source: Juventud Rebelde

Today, the site is used largely for rallies and protests against the U.S. The flagpoles sometimes carry black flags adorned with a single white star to represent those fallen in Cuba's fight against terrorism. As I was wandering around, I noticed a group of kids who had appropriated part of the plaza to play a pick-up game of soccer, giving the space a more lived in feel. Concerts sometimes take place as well —Audioslave was the first U.S. rock band to perform an open air concert in Cuba, attracting 50,000 people to a free concert in 2005. As the country is poised on the brink of massive change, with a new regime likely to emerge in the not-too-distant future, time will tell how use of this space evolves.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

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On View: Midwestern Spectators and Spectacles

by Vivien Park

Source: Jen Bekman Projects

Photographer Mike Sinclair's scenes of fairs, rodeos and other attractions shift the viewer's gaze from the spectacle to everyday people in attendance. These dusty portraits don't rely on dramatic scenes; the reason for gathering is less important than the gathering itself. Sinclair presents an unassuming and completely engaging series of spectators and spectacles.

"Public Assembly" will be on view at Jen Bekman Projects in New York City through June 24.

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The ‘Teeming Silence’ of Condemned Social Housing

by Cristiana Strava

In the words of its most passionate biographer Peter Ackroyd, London is never silent. Even in its hushed hours, the city “teems” with the very present absence of people or business. This teeming silence can be felt and heard most acutely at the condemned Heygate Estate in Southwark.

Designed in 1960 by architect Tim Tinker in the “Brutalist” style and completed by the Southwark council in 1974, the Heygate Estate had been hailed as one of many successful designs in modern public housing architecture. The council’s website describes the estate as the embodiment of a “brave new world dream” of the post-war welfare state.

Built to house 1,260 households a mere 40 years ago, the Heygate has been awaiting demolition since 2008, when the council began “decanting” its 3,000 residents as part of a regeneration project in the Elephant and Castle neighborhood. Council authorities claim that the estate had become too expensive to maintain and heat during the winter. No longer “an ideal place for people to live compared with standards that are expected today,” buildings that until recently bustled with activity have been condemned to erasure, to be replaced with much-contested middle-class housing and offices.

The Heygate, together with the Robin Hood Gardens estate in East London, are only the most recent victims of ongoing gentrification in London. By portraying the estate as failed utopia, the Southwark Council can appeal to a common narrative about the death of Modernism, most famously illustrated by the demolition of St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe housing project in the mid-1970s. What was initially a plan for communal living that provided a social hub for residents meant to eventually move up the social ladder becomes a representation of a gritty, crime-ridden reality of chronic poverty and social disenfranchisement.

As the Heygate awaits dismantling, measures have been put in place to prevent access to the empty units. For the most part, windows and doors have been boarded up with metal panes that give the estate an eerie, uncanny look of early decrepitude and blindness. Last February, the Southwark Council announced on its website that the walkways — some as high as 20 feet — linking the estate's buildings will be “closed before the end of March to allow the next phase of the estate's demolition process to commence.”

Once again appealing to the trope of failed utopia, the council claims to have learned much since the heady days of the 1960s. Stairwells and alleys “in fact turned to dark spaces which encouraged crime and antisocial behaviour.” As to the “aspirational walkways in the sky” designed to hover above the car traffic, the council concludes that they were simply too awkward to use, as “pedestrians were tempted to avoid them in favour of walking on dangerous verges by the road." On my most recent visit to the site on April 5, there were no signs that the council had taken any steps toward closing the walkways or made efforts towards opening a replacement pathway “on the ground” that will afford potential pedestrians a much safer, “welcoming environment to walk from one location to another.”

Cities constantly use various mechanisms to regulate movement through space, be it of cars or humans. In his multimedia project that explores industrial ruins in Britain, Tim Edensor points out that cities encourage "perpetual movement," while begging, loitering or other unconventional forms of using urban space tend to be policed.

Thanks to the slow-paced demolition schedule at the Heygate Estate, however, various groups have come to claim different parts of the estate for their own uses and subvert the council’s agenda for now. A guerilla gardening group, perhaps mockingly named the Heygate Regeneration Scheme, is using plots adjacent to low-rises at the center of the estate for growing vegetables in neat rows. The gardeners are also part of a group fighting to protect the Heygate Urban Forest. Young people from the neighborhood creatively use ramps and walkways for parkour or cycling, and during recent sunny days, small groups improvised barbecues on the central lawn as tourists timidly explored the estate, expensive cameras in tow. Every Sunday, Ghanaians pour into the United Reformed Church that holds mass in a small annex at the Northeastern corner of the estate.

As such, the site could not be more misrepresented in the words of a Guardian journalist who claimed “there are no human sounds or traces of life left at Heygate.” One does not have to listen too hard to hear the teeming silence of 3,000 relocated residents, or the resounding presence of resistance at the Heygate.

I recently compiled a sound recording (embedded below) of my visits and explorations of the Heygate Estate, part of my contribution to an ongoing project to create a vast sound-map of London. I used the vilified walkways, and my route was determined by the “stop-go” character of walking through unregulated, decrepit space. My recording practice was one of playful meandering, gleaning sounds along the route that were inevitably filtered through my subjective inclinations and attentiveness as a listener. The resulting piece is layered in a way meant to reflect the fragmentary experience of walking along obstructed paths, climbing over rubble, or stopping to listen as church sounds blended with bird song. It is an acoustic record of a space that speaks back to official discourses about marginalized, criminalized urban space and seamless, positive regeneration processes.

As London faces increased privatization and commercialization of public spaces, as well as the sale and eviction of social housing, one wonders wether there will be room left for the type of alternative urban practices encountered in the liminal space of the Heygate Estate.

Cristiana Strava is a PhD student in the Anthropology of Architecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In her previous life, she studied Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, but her fascination with the built environment dates back to a Romanian childhood spent in drab communist housing.

Credits: Photos and sound recording by Cristiana Strava.

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Street Art for Redevelopment in Miami

by Hector Fernando Burga

A walk through Wynwood, a neighborhood north of downtown Miami, brings an encounter with two-dimensional fangy creatures that transform the physical and social landscape of this once-industrial zone into a spray-painted cultural destination.

Wynwood has become the epicenter of Miami’s artistic rebirth. Over the past decade, Art Basel Miami, the burgeoning collections of local private galleries and the savvy entrepreneurship of developers have converged here to harbor Miami’s status as a primary location in the global art market circuit.

In Wynwood’s streets, developers and gallery owners are deploying a place-making strategy of murals and diverse types of graffiti to attract residents and tourists. The production and patronage of street art here is deeply embedded in the interests of urban redevelopment. Many of the artists who adorn the walls of Wynwood are contracted by local developers and gallery owners to cosmetically alter the public realm. Color and surface become instruments for bringing pedestrians of all types to the neighborhood. For many who actively partake in this colorful transformation, such artistic interventions foster community and make the streets safer and more attractive.

While the use of art as a force of urban revitalization is not new, the case of Wynwood raises questions about the lasting impacts of art for the sake of redevelopment. The streets are visually appealing to visitors, yet access to affordable housing and the erasure of local social histories become important concerns as real estate prices increase.

A walk through the Wynwood neighborhood reveals its visual transformation.

In many cases, street art is used as signage and advertising.

Artists travel to Miami in December during the annual Art-Basel Fair. Many are invited by real estate developers to decorate Wynwood properties.

The Walls of Wynwood initiative adds life to vacant lots. The walls of adjoining properties form a series of meandering courtyards connected by murals.

Industrial workshops, garages and warehouses also receive the street art treatment.

A wall is dedicated to female artists.

Across the street, a building on the edge of the I-95 expressway becomes a boom box.

Credits: Photos by Hector Fernando Burga.

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Culture in Universal Street Signs

by Min Li Chan

The next time you stop in front of a red light at a bustling intersection, consider the remarkable state of traffic signs. Ubiquitous across cities around the world, they provide a shared experience that transcends language and culture.

If I know when a right turn is prohibited or when a full stop is mandatory while scooting around London, I'd recognize similar directions amidst the egalitarian morass of car, rickshaw, scooter and pedestrians in central Hanoi.

Source: Min Li Chan

Some cities have found ways to express local culture in the universal language of traffic signs, such as the crosswalk in Oakland's Chinatown (above) and the famous Ampelmännchen in the former East Berlin (below).

Source: icadrews

In addition to the universal language of traffic symbols, local interpretations of the rules they enforce lead to entirely different traffic dynamics. How each culture bends the rules or adheres to them partly defines the thin line between collision and collaboration among the strata of motorized and ambulatory populations.

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