“… we all live in an almost constant state of crisis, in fact an economic crisis, not just of material economics, but also of the economy of desire, with the result that no sooner do we succeed in articulating a certain way of living than it becomes obsolete. We are constantly out of synch with the actuality of our experience.” Suely Rolnik, Molecular Revolution in Brazil, 1986.
The silvery form of Canary Wharf defines our skyline; towering grey shiny suits by day, jewel light box by night. Audible and visible from miles around, Canary Wharf is difficult to ignore and resolutely nameable. It is a centre of global finance, an iconic urban redevelopment project, a glorified shopping centre. The appropriate rhetoric comes thick and fast. But what happens when we stop asking what Canary Wharf is and ask instead: how do we know Canary Wharf and what does Canary Wharf do?
At a moment in time when the world of global capitalism is being fundamentally shaken: by events in the financial markets; by ongoing degrees of global recession; by challenges to the European Union and the Euro, there is an atmosphere of questioning which pervades further than political and economic debates in seats of government and in institutions.
This seems an interesting moment to look more closely at a space called Docklands. What are the economies that formulate the space, and what can they tell us about the actuality of experience in this capital city? What unexpected connections emerge when we immerse ourselves in Docklands’ Canary Wharf, delving inside, around, behind, before, below? Can this moment of financial ‘crisis’ be read through other economies? How do social yet unconscious flows mingle with the material reality of Canary Wharf and the city that surrounds it, to produce Capital Space? What is invested in capital space?
The contemporary city privileges only things of use or exchange values. In this current moment the landscape of the modern city bears the imprint of successive cycles of investment (the ebb and flow of capital investment) in the built environment. New waves of construction leave their mark through characteristic architectural styles or morphological arrangements of different elements, a complex layering of forms and structures. The economy is now so complex it seems pertinent to inquire: to what extent can we recognize the abstract systems on which it relies? To what extent can we decode and endure the contemporary condition of capital space?
Something for Nothing
The strange economies of Canary Wharf
[A response to Capital Space by Dr Simon Harvey]
“In vain, great hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades’ curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Capital Space is a cartography-influenced research project into London’s Docklands and its people; it focuses on its micro, as much as macro, economies. The Isle of Dogs, at the heart of docklands is, of course, now dominated by the sheer verticality of Canary Wharf with its own `bastions`, `arcades` and metallic scales. Along with the older banking district in the `City of London`, it seems to have rudely dominated our lives over the past couple of years and so why, then, does this city within our city yield us so little? As with Marco Polo before Zaira in Italo Calvino’s fiction Invisible Cities, a direct approach tells us precisely nothing.
In order to counter the unreadablity of Canary Wharf, Capital Space, this project made by masters students from the ‘Geographies’ course within Goldsmiths Visual Cultures Department, adopts strange and elusive tactics. It takes a tangential and paradoxical approach that on the one hand assails the bastions, but on the other hand works just as effectively through dissolving itself. As such it is as much excursion as incursion.
In the first case it penetrates the circuitry of its apparent object, Canary Wharf, creating passages of interference and static between clear critique of the financial machine. It `makes strange`, in the language of the Russian Futurists, with the logic of this coolly rational glass city.
In the second instance it creates its own interruption. It is a website that is very much more site than place, playing to the strengths of the medium in this respect. Perhaps it doesn’t so much dissolve as perform a series of transitions – storytelling – from room to room such that one never feels that one is within a definitive chamber of exposition. If archaeologists were to recover Capital Space, the website, in hundreds of years time it would not yield itself as might a palimpsest, a Rome, that rewards a little digging, rather it would only hint at definitive fields of enquiry. To cite Michel de Certeau from The Practice of Everyday Life, it performs a non-lieu: “It does not have its own discourse, it does not say itself”, it is both “there and not there”(1). As one experiences the site, a maze if one wants a typical but not entirely satisfactory virtual reality metaphor, one has the sense of partial but seductive disclosures, of entering rooms or fantastical chambers with paths and tunnels leading away, but with these passages also leading us back and across each other, re-emerging in other clearings, the same but different.
Canary Wharf has an anaesthetic architecture. It is a pill that requires dissolving, transforming rather than swallowing whole. Capital Space breathes some life to the Isle of Dogs in a perverse kind of way: where it surveys there is a transformation through making it strange. In 1925 Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky coined the term ostranenie to describe the practice of illumination of objects by defamiliarizing them – `making strange`(2). Here, with Capital Space, given this metamorphic treatment, the reflective surfaces of Canary Wharf become at once sinister and fascinating. There is still a temptation to stare up at the skyscrapers, imagining oneself vertiginously above them, or else at eye level blinded by the glare of reflective glass, but in response to the perilous architecture this multifarious project builds an interstitial architecture of its own out of tales from the ground. Moving beyond a fascination with conceiving things as surface, morphogenesis, it overcomes verticality and practises an `epigenesis` – creative analysis in the form of storytelling that emerges at ground level and spreads laterally.
As already suggested, Canary Wharf doesn’t tell itself. History has been erased from this `island` exclave of London’s East End. The clearing-out of vernacular historical meaning is perhaps emblematized in the choice of the Isle of Dogs as set for Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket (1987) in which a derelict and crumbling factory and its hinterland stands in for a battleground of the Tet offensive. After this scene – post industry, post East End, post Hollywood – up went the towers.
Given the shopping mall dimension of Canary Wharf one might expect, in part, an approach in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, flaneurial and reflective. In some ways Capital Space is like this, but more broadly speaking it is perhaps also flavoured with his advice on storytelling in his essay ‘The Storyteller’(3). Herein, stories are no longer about `information`, particularly news – after all the FTSE 100 and any number of economic stats tell us little beyond the story of boom and bust – but rather about embodied knowledge. Capital Space is interested in the people of Docklands, the range of characters and actors. Stories are ongoing and slow to unfold, always open to the question ‘how does this tale continue?’ In other words a possible other outcome than the perpetual line of share vagary, and the spectacular truism that what goes up must come down, (and then go up again we are told). Instead of hearing “statistically we are now out of recession”, tracking Benjamin we note quietly that the story never expends itself, and Capital Space likewise leaves room for what comes next.
The Canary Wharf complex, after the suspension of construction following the 1990′s recession, saw its completion just prior to this larger financial crisis. There is another way of thinking this architecture, not just in terms of the health of the economy, but rather as an open ended project, one linked to knowledge production. In his essay `Parapoetics and the Architectural Leap’ poet and architectural historian Steve McCaffery suggested that: “The architectural leap involves the knowledge of how and where to delay knowing”(4). So too the project of Capital Space in that, confronted with the simplistic nature of high finance’s news story and the inscrutable nature of its architecture, it avoids a totalizing knowledge of its object and continues the story of what seemed like a completed venture.
The new architecture of this website project is a kind of mapping, but the maps generated therein are like all embodied maps in that, as anthropologist Tim Ingold has stated, they are but by-products of storytelling(5). Capital Space is a web-site that performs like a live sculptural installation, nebulous and open-ended, resisting that ultimate discursive urge to `map out`. As we wander around the web-site’s rooms and chambers, we sense some kind of mapping taking place but it is not really a map of the territory. Philosopher and mathematician Alford Korzybski suggested that `the map is not the territory`, but the choice taken here by this working group produces neither map nor territory in the sense of the former as a measured representation of space and the latter as a stable geography. This is a tactical decision: Capital Space refuses to execute a negative analysis and deconstruction of the territory of Canary Wharf, this would be to rise to the provocation of the predominating economy of high finance; it would look at best like a conditioned response, and at worst like just another envy. The project takes the measurable city, unpicks its plated armour, but rather than revealing all, instead, in its place gives us other stories, partial answers to questions never asked. It yields us elusive and shifting constellations of knowledge formation and clusters of production, strange economies that need not fit precisely into the discourses of mapping, anthropology, or economics: something special but infinitely strange.
1. Michel de Certeau The Practice of Everyday Life University of California Press (Berkeley) p80.
2. Viktor Shklovsky `Art as Technique`Theory of Prose 1925.
3. Walter Benjamin ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt, Verso (New York) 1985
4. Steve McCaffery `Parapoetics and the Architectural Leap’ A Time for the Humanities: Futurity and the Limits of Autonomy eds. James de Bono et al. Fordham University Press (New York) p166.
5. Tim Ingold ‘To journey along a way of life: maps, wayfinding and navigation’ The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill Routledge (London) 2000.
Dr Simon Harvey