By Jethro Brice
Screens, by artist Dani Landau, is a pop-up installation which recently featured in a contested public space in Bristol. The work explores themes of urban renewal through the affective, material dimensions of processes of construction and deconstruction. The installation mobilises tensions between the virtual and the actual, and speaks to an interest in the more-than-human aspects of geographical processes of spatial distribution and bodily encounter. My particular interest in Screens arises with my own research (see profile) which explores the use of art methods to elicit affective registers in geographical research, and more specifically, in processes of change that operate in landscapes at different scales. I met with Landau for a post-exhibition ‘crit’; while this review reflects my own impressions, it is also informed by a lively discussion with the artist.
Something is doing in the city. That much is hardly news – nor has it gone unremarked (Turner, 2015; Clement, 2012). Notwithstanding the UK’s experiences of economic and political stagnation in recent years, Bristol pulsates with the insistent, percussive buzz of demolition and construction, renovation and displacement. It is a transformation that has become so ordinary it hardly bears comment – hidden in stark visibility behind ephemeral screens of chipboard and scaffolding, the perpetual drone of activity recedes and is filtered out as white noise. On the daily commute (for those of us who have a job to go to), our transitory attention is confined to the felt effects of inconvenient bottlenecks and ambient road rage, and (for those of us who don’t drive) the prolonged ‘temporary’ disappearances of walkways and cycle tracks. Yet in all its ordinariness, this is a pulse that disrupts and displaces lives, alters flows and redistributes relations of power across the city. Back home, in rapidly changing residential neighbourhoods, the felt effects are more personal and sustained – heightening an awareness, that in among the busy-ness of the city centre, other intimately lived spaces and social relations persist or are obstructed and obliterated by the grind of the urban renewal machine.
One such space is the open cavity beneath a block of brick-and-concrete office blocks overlooking the juncture of Quay Street and Nelson Street, in central Bristol. Like more recent urban developments, such as Cabot Circus, the office block straddles and effectively encloses a public space. Imagined initially as a lively hub, with shops and adjacent pub, the blank module became (for a while) a social commons – a meeting point and sheltered “hang-out” for young people post work or school. Now, public right of passage through the space is curtailed by heavy steel gates that, while they do not lock, open only outwards. Office workers still use it as a place to smoke, but after hours this is a space where it is only possible to leave.
When I arrived there, however, on a dark evening towards the end of October, the space had been subtly transformed. Not a makeover – the walls were still laced with exhaust dust, and the hard, uninviting floor remained littered with a carpet of cigarette stubs – but something new inhabited the space. A tangle of gutted wires, broken bricks and disarticulated laptops lay strewn across the concrete terrace. On stripped-down, translucent screens perched precariously among the debris, something moved with the ponderous, deliberate grace of prehistoric reptiles. Light from recumbent spotlights caught in soft, drifting billows of dust. The shift of scale was at once immense and intimate. Drawn down on hands and knees to the gritty floor, I found myself perched knee-to-knee with strangers, straining to watch the delicate dance of high-reach excavators as they picked away at the towering carcass of an old tower block. Across the road, visible through the railings, bright slabs of new concrete rose tier on tier where a block of high-end student accommodation was under construction.
There is something decidedly animal about Screens – a temporary pop-up installation by Bristol artist Dani Landau (danilandau.com) that recasts footage of recent demolition work as an ephemeral but momentous presence in the now-disused space. The sense of liveliness is not merely figurative. ‘Life’ here is in the tensions made tangible: between enormity and intimacy; between the heavy materiality of buildings and machines, and fragility of translucent screens; between the virtual (of digital media; of possibility and change) and the actual (of concrete; of felt effects); between fixity and movement; growth and decay. Overwhelmingly the tendency is to situate politics in the world of cerebral thought, in rational decision-making – here was an immense and immediate reminder that politics is also, and always, both spatial and tactile. Politics plays out at the level of visceral, shocking encounters between moving bodies in space.
The city writhes in an ecstasy of perpetual becoming, yet it is a transformation so ordinary that it effects nothing new. Gentrification, urban renewal, studentisation – the words are effectively sapped of their power by that very same process of enforced novelty which they attempt to call into question. Familiarity, it is said, breeds contempt. The something, however, is still doing. Bodies and lives are relocated and social assemblages unravel; flows are truncated, overextended or subsumed. People and other beings (that heterogeneous majority who in different ways are quietly displaced by urban renewal) struggle to reinvent familiar lives and orientations in unfamiliar situations.
Structures, and the structural critique bound to them, become fatigued; they erode and crumble. We are left to hone our attention to distributed processes, a fine tuning of affective relations that elide categorical thought. This is the stuff of our world as we are coming to understand it (Roberts, 2014, p.974). Yet, distributed relations and affective encounters are effects of power accumulating and unearthing expression in emergent differential structures (Massumi, 2015, p. 92–3). How, then, is it possible to reinvigorate worn channels, to reawaken us to the micropolitical affects and effects of urban processes that iterate and endure? Where words fail us, might other modes of enquiry open up a space within which changing material ecologies can be re-encountered (Brice, 2015, p. 61)? Art’s relationship to gentrification is of course neither simple nor unproblematic – artists have been key actors in processes of “detoxifying” neighbourhoods, even as they themselves are eventually displaced by rising property prices. Entangled as it is within relations of class and culture, art can equally work to challenge or normalise trajectories of change. Indeed, it is not always possible to distinguish these two functions – a tension provocatively mobilised in Bristol by the Facebook group Get the Easton Look (n.d.), and in the ambivalent role of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (n.d.)
Landau’s Screens woke a presence in the concrete underbelly of the Nelson Street towers. It made, for a brief episode, something newly alive in a space generally closed off: a space in which to confront the very material affects and elusive political ecologies of the relentlessly “regenerating” city. For me, this was a welcome disruption to the processes of sensory and political attrition that accompany and effectively obscure familiar trajectories of urban renewal – and a promising experiment with the possibilities of art methods to elicit new modes of attunement when researching society and space.
About the Artist:
Dani Landau is an artist doing practice based research through working with images in relation to public spaces. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art currently based at Spike Island Studios in Bristol, he is engaged in AHRC funded doctoral research at the University of the West of England.
For more information: http://www.danilandau.com
Video URL for documentation – https://vimeo.com/145854904
Brice, J. (2015) ‘Uncertain Shores: Towards an Ecological Mode of Practice’, [unpublished dissertation] MSc Society and Space, University of Bristol.
Clement, M. (2012) ‘Rage against the market: Bristol’s Tesco riot’, Race & Class, 53(3), pp. 81–90.
Get the Easton Look (n.d.) ‘Get the Easton Look’, [Facebook Group], [online] Available from: https://www.facebook.com/groups/602904566472861/?fref=ts (Accessed 24 November 2015).
Massumi, B. (2015) The Politics of Affect, Cambridge, Polity Press.
People’s Republic of Stokes Croft (n.d.) ‘People’s Republic of Stokes Croft’, [online] Available from: http://www.prsc.org.uk/ (Accessed 25 November 2015).
Roberts, T. (2014) ‘From things to events: Whitehead and the materiality of process’, Environment And Planning D-Society & Space, 32(6), pp. 968–983.
Turner, A. (2015) ‘How Bristol 24/7 missed the mark on gentrification’, The Bristol Cable, 1 September, [online] Available from: http://thebristolcable.org/2015/09/how-bristol-247-missed-the-mark-on-gentrification/ (Accessed 24 November 2015).