Ivaylo Ditchev

Space, Desire, the City

Space, Desire, the City
title: Space, Desire, the City
year: 2003
place: Vienna; Sofia
publisher: Springerin, Vienna; ICA-Sofia, Sofia
language: english
author(s): Ivaylo Ditchev
source: Double Bind, 2003, Vienna, Sofia: Springerin, ICA-Sofia
colaborators: in cooperation with the "Days of Vienna" in Sofia 2002

Desire, Lyotard wrote, has to do not with language1, but with space: it is the capacity to switch from one object to another. This goes back to Freud’s fundamental idea that replacement makes it possible for the ego to escape cultural sanction, as the link – the resemblance – between the substituted objects is repressed out of the subject’s consciousness. The archetype of desire is zapping (to speak like Victor Pelevin, Homo sapiens is in fact Homo zapiens2). In order to zap – to replace one object with another at will – you need to have them both present in space. In actual fact, the modern city crowns civilization’s drive towards the gradual condensation of desire: from the flâneur, who flits from view to view on the boulevards, to the internaut flitting from screen to screen. A city could be defined as the concentration of more and more otherness on a smaller and smaller area. Space is produced in cities, where there is simultaneity of difference (a desert is simply emptiness).

However, urban space is not only composed of objects; it consists of various layers where desire is staged differently. Let us take two extreme poles: the space created by the body and the space produced by power. Following implicitly Merleau-Ponty, Henri Lefebvre3 opposes historic space experienced by the living body to absolute space created by power, which is not space itself, but one possible representation of space. For the living being, spatial orientation is a tactile enterprise – we produce space as the spider spins her web (Lyotard). This has little to do with visual perception: the spider comes and goes, feeling for limits and supports. The web is but the chronicle of its activity. And again, the metaphor is misleading, as the web presents a beautiful picture under a certain angle of lighting. In fact, for the living body space is habit, that is, invisible. Consider your way home: why do you always take this sidewalk instead of the other, why always cross the street at that point, rather than elsewhere? Having lived at different places in my life, I often happen to drive through the neighbourhood of a former dwelling and absent-mindedly lock on to the trail “go home” to find myself in front of some place where I no longer belong. The cocoon of space that the body secretes is not transparent or rational: it forms discontinuities, shadows, labyrinths that are meant to conceal rather then to disclose.

The space produced by power is the opposite: it is the transposition of the space of experience into a visual mode by the suppression of all other senses – audition is there but to underline distance and grandeur (e.g. the echo in a cathedral), touch is banned as an offence, olfaction is repressed for being too animal, etc. The operation of power is thus essentially aesthetic if we define aesthetics as the expression of a larger set of codes through a narrower set. Pre-modern practices like touching a miracle-provoking icon or kneeling in front of the King still implies a certain syncretism of the senses; for modern man the view of a national monument or of a military parade is purely visual and excludes the shady labyrinths of bodily experience. Such images are what Guy Debord4 called “the spectacle” – a fascinating arrangement of power that aims at inducing passivity.
This sort of space (secondary space, represented space) could be compared to exhibitionism. The gesture of a flasher showing his private parts to an innocent girl in the park is highly ambiguous: it seems as though he wants sex but in fact what he wants is to frighten and it is precisely her fear of his penis that turns him on (if the victim were to respond positively and approach him, it is usually he who runs away). The purely visual space created by power is exhibitionistic: it attracts but at the same time keeps the living body (with its syncretism of senses) at a distance.
If the spider-like space of the body is concerned with hiding and survival, the exhibitionist space of power has to do with prestige.
The perilous visibility of power through the staged emptiness of absolute space follows the universal cultural pattern: the master is he who assumes the risk to be seen: identification combines love and envy/aggression.
The spectacle of power can be staged by means of software or hardware, that is to say through ritual or urban planning. In Rome, it was Augustus who shifted emphasis from the former to the latter. Saying he had acquired so much fame that no further triumph procession5 could possibly add to it, he decided to invest instead in hardware (“I found Rome built of bricks and left it clothed in marble”). The new permanent settings of the glory of power then make it possible to produce new, more lavish, temporary ones – thus Augustus’s monumental city became the arena of unparalleled fights and spectacles. From this perspective, city space could be defined as progressive saturation with (visual) distance. From the temples and the fortresses, to museums and art exhibitions6, the process of multiplication of distances goes on, even if, in certain epochs the most ostentations of them seem to shrink. Space is thus gradually loaded with the polarity of identification.

Then there is one more dimension. Space, quote Lefebvre, is produced by mimesis. On the level of dwelling and experience the main factor is proximity: the body imitates another body, a spider spins like another spider. It is only when we pass to the level of power that imitation can become global. The exhibitionist does not act the way his father or neighboor does; his mimetism is mediated by representation – film, porno magazine, fantasmatic scenes of all kinds. A master confronts another master in order to assert himself on the battlefield7 of representations: one will assume more of the ambiguous visibility in order to defy the other in
the way they assume more risk in combat in order to acquire more glory.
At this second level of (absolute, secondary, represented ...) space in the city tends to be trans-local. The very notion of city-ness starts being defined through distance, light, order, glory, rather than dwelling, shadow, pleasure, labyrinth. One city imitates another in order to present itself as a city. Thus Constantinople, inaugurated officially on May 11th, 330 AD, was built as an exact replica of Rome with its 14 regions, the sacred road, the miliarium aurem8, etc. Keeping in mind the efforts Rome itself invested to imitate the Greeks, who imitated the Egyptians, etc. Modernity massifies, internationalizes and radicalizes imitation in creating what I call the global scene of desire. On the one hand, it develops technologies of tradition, such as the neo-classical, neo-gothic or neo-baroque styles that accompanied the rise of nation-states in the 19th century looking for legitimacy. On the other, there are the functionalist settings of order, transparency and supervision from the panopticon of Bentham to the machines à habiter of Le Corbusier. Consider the very notion of style in urbanism and architecture: it implies space could be transported from one spot of the globe to another; you are able, so to say, to order the stage you desire to live in. Or take the tourist industry since the 19th century, creating strikingly similar uniqueness throughout the globe out of things like folklore, cuisine, natural beauty, promise of all kinds of pleasure and a couple of historical emblems thrown in. Take the technology of city-creation of the modern media, where red-hot news is juxtaposed with advertisements and weather forecasts with fashion. The situationist collage by Ron Herron “Instant City“ (1968)9 gives an idea of the result – you see a couple, real or photographed, you are never sure, surrounded by ads, or maybe real objects, neon lights, words: a surrealist constellation, producing city-ness as instant coffee.
Of course competitive imitation does not always go smoothly. When the metropolis designed a capital for New Zealand in the 19th century, they forgot to take into consideration the fact that the place where Wellington was to be constructed unlike London, proved to be quite hilly. At the beginning of the 20th century, the joy of the young Bulgarian capital at having a marvelous National theatre10 was tarnished by a scandal, touching national feeling and identity: it turned out that the Austrian architects had sold the same project to Zagreb and Odessa. During communism, Stalin was said to put his seal on most of the East-European cities having them erect monumental wedding-cake-like buildings following the Moscow model (the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, the Party House in Sofia ...). Ceausescu’s enterprise in Bucharest was certainly the most delirious, as it would destroy one fifth of the capital, evict 40 000 inhabitants who sometimes had to sell their property hastily on the sidewalk and even relocate old churches transporting them on wheels to get them out of the way in order to construct “the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon”, with an avenue leading to it “60 centimeters larger than the Champs Elysées”. The House of the People, started in 1984, was intended “to bestow dignity and grandeur to his capital”, employed 20 000 workers day and night plus another 60 000 working on the interior decoration.11 Sight was supposed to triumph over dwelling, the exhibitionist over the spider. The paranoid project was never finished and as a result Bucharest was dominated for years by the ghastly sight of rusting machines and monumental scaffolds.

Now consider the consequences of globalization of the space of power (the world becoming city-like) and the local resistance of the space of the body. Power stages its glorious exhibitions, but in a world of media transparency the absurdity of global empty abstract space of distances, where everything is the reflection of something else, is becoming more and more obvious; you see the flasher behind the bush and think, oh yes, I saw that yesterday on TV. Aesthetics, having been the primary resource of power, now turns against it.
The result is neither the global alienation from the (imported) space of power, nor some resistance through the construction of unique “here-and-nows” of urban experience as the situationists aspired. The response to the extension of powerscapes12 seems to be the globalization of bodyscapes, globalization of labyrinthic, spider-like, syncretic space experience through the practice of lifestyle. Consider the paradox: we hide by assuming “look” and “style”, we try to hide globally.



1 Lacan’s idea about the big Other and the language-like structure of the unconscious linked desire to absolute trascendance, to complete otherness. Lyotard saw it more along the lines of sameness, desire implies being able to do something about one’s desire. Jean-François Lyotard, Discours, figure, Paris, Klincksieck, 1971.

2 In his novel Generation ‘P’.

3 Henri Lefebvre, La production de l’espace, 2d edition, Anthropos, P., 1974.

4 Guy Debord, La societé du spectacle ; Commentaire sur la societé du spectacle, Paris, G. Lebovici, 1987_1988. Debord insisted that the spectacle is not visual, it is primarily a social relation and treated it much like Marx did the capital.

5 The victor entered the city on a chariot decorated with various symbols including a phallus in erection, clad like the statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, with a face painted in red like him, a slave behind him whispering “look behind you, remember you are a man”. Followed large wagons with the trophies of war, fresh slaves and enemy kings to sacrifice, as well as painted depictions of battles and events in the campaign, models of the captured cities, statues personnifying rivers and towns of the conquered territory...

6 Michel Rotenberg defined the modern city through cultural policy a city is a place where money is spent on culture.

7 If one wants to play with Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave.

8 The milestone Augustus put in his new Forum at the “centre of Universe” to measure distances (20 B.C.).

9 At the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

10 Naiden Sheitanov, reflecting on the Bulgarian national character, wrote “We constructed a gorgeous National Theatre in Sofia before having supplied Plovdiv with a proper sewage system”.

11 Sophie Martre. Bucarest. La mémoire mutilée, La Sept/Arte, 1991

12 This is meant to continue the series of cityscapes, ethnoscapes, technoscapes, etc. of Arjun Appadurai, who argues that things like cities, ethnic identities, technology, are no longer locally defined, but floating freely through the global cultural scene. Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large.

Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Published in Articles
Read 324 times
Last modified on Feb 10, 2021
Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme