It's Fleet Week in New York, and late at night, in my admittedly hazy jet-lagged state, the whole place feels like it's about to explode. Steam coming up out of the ground, as the Tom Waits lyric has it. The opening tracking shot of the Zoot Suit riots in 'The Black Dahlia' springs to mind. Humid, sticky, the onset of hot weather peeling the clothes off. The sailors, top to toe in bright white dress uniform, couldn't be more different to, and yet more attracted to, the beauties parading in front of them. Downtown is heavy with sexual tension and latent violence. Allegedly the pregnancy rate rockets this week. This city is wonderful, it really is.
America always tempts the outsider to wax lyrical about it, in extremes of positive and negative, but it always in cliché, as above, save in the hands of an extraordinarily good writer. Which your correspondent isn't. So I'll just internally process the barrage of insane psychedelic contradictions that every day brings. Suffice to say that my TV set appears to have 1914 channels, each plumbing new depths of banality, with one appearing to feature 'America's Cutest Puppies'. And yet it's also a beautiful New York day, our show at the edges of architecture and urbanism is going well, and downtown is full of some of the smartest people on the planet. The tissue of the city is still laced with a sinewy civic pride, and yet last night's news has 4 people shot dead in the Bronx, with witnesses refusing to help police, and startling inequalities littered on the streets. Downtown, it's a picture. Blue sky, 28 degrees, with size zero fashionistas unfurling themselves over the perfectly-scaled streets, and yet there are people so out of-shape that, if you get stuck behind a couple of these wide loads side-by-side, you have to walk out into the road to get past. The place is devoted to drug-fuelled hedonism and puritanical prurience 24 hours a day. Go figure, as I believe they say. (Geoff has some good theories on this, which can emerge after a couple of beers.)
The event is going well. The Storefront gallery is a perfect example of the contradictions again, proving a blessing and a hindrance in equal measure. It's a gnarly building, absolutely lovely, but something to be worked at, shaped. Every angle is roughly hewn and unusual; doors don't just open and close, they are spaces to be calibrated – we are continually swinging the panels open at different times of day, to shape the acoustics in response to the number of people inside, or shut out the blazing sun or traffic noise. The place needs constant tuning, which is somehow apposite for much of the talk inside.
Inside is a variable term here, as the gallery, which is almost transparent concrete through the incisions in the side of the building, merges into the city around it. It's a wonderful thing, it really is. An architect friend raises an eyebrow at some of the approaches to meeting building regulations, but I couldn't have wished for a more appropriate functional space for Postopolis.
Fire engines sirens bulldoze through the space; traffic horns are everywhere. You can't keep New York out - it elbows its way in. But as well as the poetics of this, we get passing trade, which is fantastic. The idea that an exhibition could be part of the city is something I've been fascinated by for ages. However, I'd somewhat assumed it would revolve around some kind of complex ubicomp tech, rather than the more prosaic method of simply doing it in a space like the Storefront, which effortlessly blurs the distinction between street and gallery.
Perhaps as a result, there's a real ebb and flow of visitors throughout the day, as people show up for different sessions on the schedule and others just drop in. It really does have the feel we were going for, an unpredictable informality, akin to 'a happening' almost, if you'll allow me to get briefly Archigram about things. We didn't have too many people in the audience at start, but as we're trying to capture the whole thing and get it online, it matters less that the crowds were small at the start, though the dynamic of a live audience is very useful. However, it built throughout the day until we had people standing on the street outside by about 17:30, craning their neck into the space to hear. It was packed, hot, but good-natured and inquisitive, interested crowd. Tip: if you're coming, and you want a seat, get there early.
More on yesterday's speakers in subsequent posts, but we closed the day with a four-way Pecha Kucha session, which was hugely enjoyable. I'd never done one before, but enjoyed the adrenalin, discipline and slightly ludicrous constraints of the whole thing. We think it worked well as a way of conveying the subject matter of our various blogs, in an impressionistic rush. We'd rather the speakers had the spotlight, to be honest, as the show is more about us curating than performing.
Having said that, I did use the session to try to get across a few ideas around what we're doing. I attempted to convey what I try to do with City of Sound – to approach architecture, design and cities, from the periphery, from oblique angles and tangents. Recently, reading Juhani Pallasmaa, I see parallels in his notes on the importance of peripheral vision:
“The defensive and unfocused gaze of our time, burdened by sensory overload, may eventually open up new realms of vision and thought, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power. The loss of focus can liberate the eye …” [Juhani Pallasmaa, 'The Eyes of the Skin']
So I used the Pecha Kucha to explore a few City of Sound posts that I thought worked as a kind of deliberately unfocused peripheral vision around architecture, engineering and urbanism. Whether that came across or not is for others to say!
Shortly, I'll post notes I took yesterday on the four speakers. They were taken during the talk, so be gentle with them. I also created a Flickr group for Postopolis!, which is open to all – punters, speakers, etc. Joseph Grima, Storefront director, will shortly upload video taken yesterday to YouTube too. (Here's some pre-show prep, indicating how the lovely vinyl letters got there.)
Day two is start at 13:30, and has some cracking speakers, so if you can, come on down. The rest, stay tuned.