Editorial – City Imaginings and Urban Everyday Life

Johanna Ylipulli
johanna.ylipulli[a]oulu.fi
Postdoctoral Researcher
Center for Ubiquitous Computing
University of Oulu

Seija Ridell
seija.ridell[a]uta.fi
Professor
Media Studies, Faculty of Communication Sciences
University of Tampere

Jenni Partanen
jenni.partanen[a]tut.fi
Research Fellow
Architecture
Tampere University of Technology

WiderScreen 1–2/2018 focuses on the spatially and temporally multidimensional axis that spans between imagining and inhabiting the city. The starting point of the double special issue is the observation that diverse forms of imagining entwine with practices of urban living and governance, and structure how the city appears in different media and genres. The five peer-reviewed articles and three overview articles direct variegated lenses at the issue’s core problematics forming together a fascinating kaleidoscope.

The editors of the special issue come from cultural anthropology and HCI (Human-Computer Interaction), media studies and architecture. Despite differing scholarly fields, we have all focused on urban space and media/technologies in our research (e.g. Partanen 2016; Partanen 2018; Ridell 2010; Ridell & Zeller 2013; Ylipulli 2015; Ylipulli et al. 2016). Partially due to the fruitful heterogeneity of the editorial team’s backgrounds, we wanted to compose an interdisciplinary collection of articles. The special issue authors represent fields such as communication studies, political and social history, contemporary art research, art history and design studies, their approaches in the articles providing a rich array of theoretical and methodological perspectives on the imaginaries that underlie and shape urban realities in different parts of the world.

The empirical cases the authors study paint a vivid picture of significant tendencies of and similarities between urban cultures globally. Yet the case studies also illuminate drastic, even shockingly deep, differences between urban forms of life and the ways they are represented. Geographically, the articles offer glimpses of mediated urbanity in different continents from Asia to Europe to Latin America and back to Europe. More precisely, with the articles we can travel discursively from Hong Kong and Macao to India, from Finland to Cuba to Ukraine and, again, to Finland, and from there to Germany.

While many of the phenomena analyzed by the authors are born from site-specific social, political and economic struggles and lived locally, they are far from parochial as the contemporary media efficiently give them global visibility and sometimes even turn them into global issues. One side of the coin is that our conceptions and opinions of cities elsewhere are largely based on fictional and factual media genres. We may never visit Hong Kong or Macao, yet we can have a strong mental image of them, one that draws from seeing these cities as scenes in films or as advertised on online tourist sites and ranked high or low on social media. Partly related to this – often strongly visual – mediation of cities, a theme that cuts through, directly or indirectly, the special issue contributions concerns how representations of present-day cities in the media take part not only in shaping urban futures but in constructing urban public memory as well. A key question is which stories and imaginaries structuring them remain as the legitimate or privileged version of urban history. Is it possible to make visible, politicize and contest the dominant urban histories in the making, through counter-narratives or by other means? On a slightly different note, depiction of future cities in fiction, such as cyberpunk movies, not only comments, often in a deeply dystopian manner, contemporary urban problems and power relations, but also contributes to how imagining future urbanity today will be remembered tomorrow.

There are several possibilities to juxtapose the special issue articles and address their relations; depending on which vantage point one chooses the intersections between the articles appear differently. One option would be to discuss the ways the articles are positioned on a conceptual continuum that spans between the far ends of symbolic representation and tangible materiality. In exploring city imaginings through their respective cases, the authors mobilize notions that can be placed at varied distances from the two poles, closer to either one of them; between these poles, as if on a gradient scale, one finds discourse, narrative, story, spectacle, simulation, presentation and performance that function as analytic lenses at or, to use a less visual metaphor, as probes into the problematic at hand. Many of the articles are strongly inclined towards the representational end of the conceptual continuum, but some of them address the aspect of urban materiality (or even the materiality of (re)presenting a city) by combining it with a focus on representation. Another way to look at the potential resonances and dissonances between the articles would be to direct attention to how they articulate time or temporality with regard to the special issue topic. In this respect, one finds (sometimes internally) varying emphases on the urban future, present and past.

In our view, there are two broad and multiply layered aspects that the discussions in the articles touch in particularly interesting ways, even though the authors themselves address these metalevel questions only indirectly. On the one hand, the articles discuss, with distinct emphases and takes, the city and, more particularly, urban space as (re)presented in the media (film genres, news and other printed materials, posters, online social media, scale models, graffiti and murals). On the other hand, the physical urban space appears as a medium in itself, that is, a public platform of cultural (re)presentation and contestation (graffiti, murals, loitering, performances). In the remainder of the editorial, we use these two aspects to loosely frame and introduce the special issue articles.

Cities imagined in the media

The refereed article by Brian Sze-hang Kwok & Anneke Coppoolse and the overview by Benjamin Hodges approach urbanity as imag(in)ed in the audiovisual media of fiction film; focusing more particularly on popular films that are distributed globally. Such filmic representations of cities have vast audiences all over the world and hence their role in constructing collective urban imageries cannot be overrated. The overview article by Somdatta Bhattacharya and the refereed article by Kai Ylinen, in turn, focus on news media and other mostly printed materials with a more locally oriented take. At the same time, the empirical cases explored by these two authors have wider relevance, as both of them shed light on how public understanding of urban phenomena is (re)produced by constructing stories and narratives. Below, we offer a more detailed introduction to this group of articles.

The article by Brian Sze-hang Kwok and Anneke Coppoolse titled “Hues on a Shell: Cyber-Dystopia and the Hong Kong Façade in the Cinematic City” examines the rearticulation of Hong Kong’s urban space in the American cyberpunk adaptation (Sanders 2017) of Mamoru Oshii’s anime Ghost in the shell (1995). The authors suggest more generally that Asian cities have provided an ample source for imagining future capitalist urbanity cinematically, in particular as concerns the density and verticality of using space in cities and the emphasis on the dark sides of city life. In their article, Kwok and Coppoolse analyze Hong Kong in the recent cyberpunk film both as “an actor and a shell”, framing the city as a mediating and mediated space. The article provides a reading of the cyberpunk city not as a copy of an actual city but as a spectacular simulation of urban future that is both familiar and alienating.

The overview “Kick the Dead Rabbit: Tuxedos, Movies, and Cosmopolitan Urban Imaginaries in Macao” by Benjamin Hodges discusses how urbanity appears in movies and videos that use Macao as their scene, either as a stand-in/replica for some other city or as representing itself. The way Hodges describes Macao in these audiovisual representations resembles the idea of a heterotopia of illusion (Shane 2005) – an island or microcosm that offers escape from the weariness of everyday life to consumerist experiences. The article directs particular attention to the cosmopolitan urbane subject that is constructed in the cinematic images of the city and how this construction resonates with and is reinforced by the luxurious and escapist promises made by the gaming industry.

Compared to Kwok & Coppoolse and Hodges, Somdatta Bhattacharya turns a drastically different lens at the representations of city life in her overview “Constructing the Moral Landscape of a City: The Narrative Exclusion of Delhi’s ‘Floating Populations’”. Using the globally known brutal gang-rape case in New Delhi as her point of reference, Bhattacharya discusses how fear and insecurity structure from within the ethical-politico-legal-cultural discourses that build on capitalistic, middle-class values in India. Through examples picked from a variety of newspaper articles, opinion pieces and interviews, court verdicts and government reports on the Nirbhaya Case, the author explores how ideologically loaded narratives and spatial metaphors are used to construct Delhi as a pristine landscape threatened by floating population as invaders.

Analyzing a similar pool of research materials as Bhattacharya and with a take that resembles hers, Kai Ylinen discusses two different urban planning cases in the Finnish context in his refereed article “The Graffiti Storyline and Urban Planning: Key Narratives in the Planning, Marketing, and News Texts of Santalahti and Hiedanranta”. Ylinen’s focus is on the narratives that structure the planning, marketing and news discourses on the Santalahti and Hiedanranta reconstruction areas in the city of Tampere. The article explores the tones and angles of discussion in presenting the plans and strategies of these areas to the local audience. The author discovers an emerging shift in attitudes towards graffiti art in urban space, one from traditional hierarchical control in urban planning towards a more tolerating approach that embraces actor-based dynamics.

Urban space as a medium

The three refereed articles by Benita Heiskanen, Tetyana Lokot and Simo Laakkonen & Susanna Siro and the overview by Julia Weber, shift the focus from media representations to urban space as a medium in itself. At the same time, media understood in terms of representation remains an important component in these analyses as well.

In her refereed article “Imagi(ni)ng Urban Transformation in Post-Détente Havana” Benita Heiskanen investigates how urban transformations are visually expressed in the context of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States at the end of 2014. Heiskanen depicts differing ways in which various stakeholders, such as local officials, citizens, and street artists utilized “visual statements as tools with which to take a stand on societal developments”. The article evokes questions concerning the importance of studying (urban) visual imageries not only in Cuba but also elsewhere: their analysis can provide radically new understandings of the effects of cultural and political discourses by revealing the multiple tensions and interpretations on the street-level.

In the refereed article by Tetyana Lokot titled “Urban Murals and the Post-Protest Imagery of Networked Publics: The Remediated Aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan on Instagram” the dynamics created by bottom-up actors are likewise seen as pertinent, the discussion resonating strongly with Ylinen’s and Heiskanen’s articles. Lokot examines urban murals that appeared in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital in the post-Euromaidan period (spring 2014 – present day). According to her, this form of street art transformed into a collective effort mirroring the political, social and cultural changes taking place in the country. Moreover, Lokot studies how the murals were remediated on Instagram. She classifies the types of images through which the material street art was represented on this social media platform; the array of visual topics ranging from national identity and war to love and coexistence. Lokot’s article in particular combines in an interesting way the analysis of visual-virtual representations and art as physically present in urban space, bridging in this way the material and immaterial cities.

In their refereed article “Pienoismalli menetetyn kaupunkimaiseman kuvitelmana. Kulttuurinen elinkaarianalyysi Viipurin pienoismallista” (Imagining a lost urban landscape: Cultural lifecycle analysis of the historical Vyborg’s physical scale model), Simo Laakkonen and Susanna Siro discuss a strikingly similar phenomenon to Lokot – the confrontation of two nations – but with a drastically different take. The authors address the relationship between micro and macro levels of urbanity from a historical perspective by analyzing the physical 3-dimensional miniature model that depicts the old city of Vyborg shortly before it was destroyed in 1939. Soviet Union conquered the city of Vyborg from Finland during the Word War II; the miniature built after the war freezes an image of a lost and nostalgically cherished city. At the same time, the model is a material reminder of historical, geo-political and cultural struggles, continuing to generate new meanings for new generations. Introducing what they call “cultural lifecycle analysis” the authors explore the characteristics of a specific type of imaginary city, a “could-have been -world”. They consider the physical miniature as a particular medium that can be examined by combining a diversity of methods from reconstruction to ideological to material-cultural and experimental analysis.

The special issue closes with Julia Weber’s overview “‘Loitering’ in Urban Public Space – Wandering with a Street Poet in Berlin”, which addresses human experience and appearance to others in the physical urban space. With an ethnographic take, Weber explores a ‘poet loiterer’s’ daily walks around the city of Berlin as both public performances and a particular way of urban living. The partly theoretical, partly poetic discourse of the author has resonances with the article of Ylinen in considering the importance of bottom-up tactics in urban everyday life in contrast to cities as strategically planned and governed top-down objects.

As guest editors of this double special issue, we would like to warmly thank all the authors and referees for their hard work! We hope readers will enjoy this versatile compilation of excellent articles and overviews. We also wish to express our congratulations to the WiderScreen journal: Issue 1–2/2018 is at the same time the journal’s 20th anniversary issue. WiderScreen has been online since 1998, which makes it one of the oldest continuously published scientific online journals in Finland. In our rapidly changing times, this is no small achievement.

 

References

Partanen, Jenni. 2016. Liquid planning, wiki-design—Learning from the Case Pispala. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 43(6): 997–1018.

Partanen, Jenni. 2018. ‘Don’t Fix It if It Ain’t Broke’: Encounters with Planning for Complex Self-Organizing Cities. Tampere University of Technology, Publication 1514.

Ridell, Seija. 2010. The cybercity as a medium: Public living and agency in the digitally shaped urban space. IRIE: International Review of Information Ethics 12(3): 14–20.

Ridell, Seija, and Frauke Zeller. 2013. Mediated Urbanism: Navigating an Interdisciplinary Terrain. The International Communication Gazette 75(5–6): 437–451.

Shane, David Grahame 2005: Recombinant Urbanism: Conceptual Modeling in Architecture, Urban Design, and City Theory. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ylipulli, Johanna. 2015. A smart and ubiquitous urban future? Contrasting large-scale agendas and street-level dreams. Observatorio (OBS*) Journal, Media City – Spectacular, Ordinary and Contested Spaces: 85–110.

Ylipulli, Johanna, Jenny Kangasvuo, Toni Alatalo, and Timo Ojala. 2016. Chasing Digital Shadows: Exploring future hybrid cities through anthropological design fiction. Proceedings of NordiCHI ’16: Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. Gothenburg, Sweden 23-27 Oct 2016. ACM Press: Article No. 78.

 

Cover image edited from Geo Leros’ photo. Original photograph: http://kyivmural.com/en/mural/113.