The City & the City: Artwork by London Writers 9/28/12-12/31/12

The City & the City

At the Wood Street gallery in Pittsburgh, The City & the City aims to bring about a psychogeographic analysis of the concept of “the city”. The exhibit borrows its title from China Miéville’s novel of the same name, published in 2009, in which Miéville creates two fictional cities that inhabit the same location. That is, an urban environment in which citizens of one “city” must entirely disregard any aspect of the other “city” by legal mandate, though they occupy the same space. Pittsburgh is often cited to be one of the most livable cities in the world, while simultaneously regions within the city are often ordained by the masses as unlivable. This split idealism of Pittsburgh as a city makes it a prime location for a discussion that these London artists hope to bring about.

Middling English by Caroline Bergvall portrays cultural language generation and degeneration through solely English. Borrowing the writing style of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bergvall mixes modern slang, terminology from Clockwork Orange, and a litany of Cockney verbiage to create an incomprehensible telling of tales. A narrator eloquently recites one tale from headphones upon the wall. His professional tone mentally persuades you to believe that you are capable of understanding what is being said. Above said headphones is a speaker projecting a melodic chant, which utilizes amalgamations of text lingo and street slang to disorient your sense of understanding of the modern English language.

Video artists Chris Petit, Emma Matthews, and Iain Sinclair collaborate to createFlying Down to Rio, which presents a disillusioned version of the fast-paced modern car ride through the city streets of London. By filming forward, backward, and both sides out of a car window with a high-speed camera and dramatically slowing down the footage, the resulting peaceful car ride allows viewers to observe bicyclists unhurriedly pedal down the road as pedestrians move by at a snail’s pace. Projecting the four videos on the four walls of a room which features only a bench for viewers’ comfort successfully reimagines the city space in a slower state of observation and leisure, as opposed the hustle and bustle we know it to demand.

Night Haunts: A Journey in the London Night was perhaps the most poignant of the pieces. Artist Sukhdev Sandhu interviewed a variety of individuals about their life in the nights of London and displays their stories in an interactive format designed to avoid the “TLDR” online culture of skimming text and have viewers absorb the story in bite-size pieces. One collection of tales featured taxi drivers describing the world of the night cab; dehumanizing use of cabbie drivers as confessionals, drunken individuals speaking their mind too freely, muggings and inebriated refusals to pay among other topics.

The individual pieces were successful. And while these London artists may have attempted to discuss the city as a concept, discussing the city of London alone comes across as purely an analysis of London rather than a case study of the conceptual city.  → Leave a comment


Review: The City & The City at Wood St. Galleries

At the Wood Street Galleries in downtown Pittsburgh, The City & The City, an exhibition curated by Justin Hopper, displays works by authors based in the London area and making work about the city.  The presentation of fact and artifact to create truth and the relation of narrative as a way of capturing place and time connect the works that claim “London” as their central theme.

On the second floor, you become a child in a Mercedes Benz in Chris Petit, Emma Matthews, and Iain Sinclair’s piece Flying Down to RioFour wall-sized projections show the view out the windows of the vehicle as you are driven in slow motion, London drifting by as if you were on a boat. Suddenly, the projections change to an almost purely white, silent body of water, and you are left to float on an endless and beginningless sea for eight minutes.

In Night Haunts, an interactive installation by Sukhdev Sandu, you make your way through the stories of London’s night dwellers. Projected onto a wall, the narratives wind to create the violent and tragic candidly relayed tales of London’s night walkers without glorifying the darkness.

Caroline Bergvall’s Middling English explores the evolution of language and its usage through recordings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales coupled with those of street vendors shouting and modern day slang.  Each recording is printed and pinned to a wall repeatedly, as if a crowded noticeboard were advertising the same narratives one hundred times each.

On the third floor the recontextualization of object and happening in museum display create new histories that present the past in a curated environment.  While Rod Dickenson and Tom McCarthy completely rewrite history and falsify the evidence in their piece Greenwich Degree Zero, Rachel Lichtenstein uses words and stories as grounds to create a fabricated reality of artifacts and small objects presumed to be made by the artisans of Hatton Garden in her piece Sight Unseen. What used to be commonplace goods are collected and arranged in jewelry cases: a little circular box full of watch gears, a cracked watch face delicately sleeping on a velvet cushion. They are dimly lit and displayed as precious relics, telling a story of their own falsified past.  Placed together, the question arises of if it matters whether or not these objects are “true,” or whether the object is simply the stories portrayed. In a corner of the room, a recording of stories detailing the lives of the artisans in Hatton Garden and interactions with them acts as an origin for the work. A small diorama serves as a conclusion to the rest of the small display cases in its inclusion of the human presence through the small table and tools left out, remaking a scene with an absence left by the lack of human presence.

The City & the City questions the viewer’s perception of reality and truth in history.  Although London is used as a significant point of congruence, the exhibition is ultimately held together through the artists’ mention of the malleable nature of the past.  → Leave a comment


Wood Street Galleries

Guest Curated by Justin Hopper, The City and the City: Artwork by London Writers explores “new ways to combine art and literature in an examination of the modern city.” Wood Street Galleries, with its location at the heart of Pittsburgh’s cultural district, is the ideal location for such an exploration. The exhibition itself, spread out over two-floors, features work in a variety of mediums, from wall to wall video displays to row-upon-row of newspapers and other textual media. Unsurprisingly, given that the artists are also primarily writers, a great deal of reading is required. However, the exhibits themselves incorporate varying degrees of text, from Greenwich Degree Zero, which is largely language based, to Flying Down to Rio, which is almost entirely visual. (Several street signs appear in the video.) This textual asymmetry does a great service to the exhibition as a whole, preventing the viewer from getting bogged down within the sheer deluge of information. Overall, the show is very successful at conjuring the experience of urban life, especially on the second floor, where the three exhibits meld together to form a startlingly affective portrait of modern London.

But any guest for the show will first be dumped on the third floor, as the elevator which ferries people throughout Wood Street Galleries appears incapable of initially stopping at the second floor. At any rate, upon exiting the elevator, one encounters a rather dimly-lit environment – reminiscent of an area in which one would not linger long in an actual city – split into two exhibits: Greenwich Degree Zero and Sight Unseen. The former offers a enormous amount of textual data, organized around a failed bombing attempt of the Royal Observatory in London’s Greenwich Park in 1894. The latter features a series of physical materials related to London’s diamond and jewelry quarter, a “site-specific installation that coincides with the launch or Lichtenstein’s new non-fiction book”.  Taken together, the two exhibits seem positioned to play off one another – with Greenwich functioning as a manifestation of those different voices that inhabit London and Sight subbing in for a physical environ. However, the sheer volume of text in the first and the relative “calmness” of the second ensures that the two exhibits do not play off one another, but instead drain each other of whatever vitality they might otherwise have possessed.

The show fully recovers from this slow start on the second floor, however, where three different exhibits collude in conjuring a effectively spectral London.Middling English and Flying Down to Rio serve to add texture, in the form of audio and visual information, to the true star of the show, Night Haunts: A Journey through the London. Incorporating the writings of Sukhdev Sandhu into partially-interactive audio-visual display, the exhibit casts an enthralling spell, drawing the viewer into numerous distinct realms of the London night, from the experiences of cab drivers to that of custodians. Coupled with the other two exhibits, Night Haunts manages to enchant the viewer, giving him or her access to a once off-limits world.

Works Cited

“The City & The City: Artwork by London Writers – Wood Street Galleries.”Wood Street Galleries. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012. <;.  → Leave a comment


The City & The City: Wood Street Galleries

“Go where we may, rest where we will, 

Eternal London haunts us still.” 

-“Rhymes on the Road” by Thomas Moore, Irish poet, singer, and socialite of London

‘Haunting’ definitely describes the exhibit currently at Wood Street Galleries.  “The City & The City: Artwork by London Writers” is curated by Justin Hopper, and features seven British artists who have created works utilizing fiction,  poetry, video, and installation to investigate various aspects of the city of London.

Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy alter history in Greenwich Degree Zero,which reimagines the outcome of the attempted bombing in 1894 of the Greenwich Observatory.  Visitors get a sense of intrigue and excitement from their ability to examine real newspapers and pamphlets up close, which have been altered to portray French anarchist Martial Bourdin’s attack as a success.  Dickinson and McCarthy’s artist statement voices their desire to interrogate the notion of an ‘event’ through media in this recreation, but although this notion is conveyed, the reader is left without a sense of the impact or importance of the event itself.  The newspapers condemn the anarchist movement and Bourdin, but one would imagine that they would do so anyway, in the actual course of events.

Another piece that left me wanting is Rachel Lichtenstein’s Sight Unseen, in which she has created an homage to the jewelers and craftspeople who work in London’s Hatton Garden, which she describes as “the most secret street in London”.  Found objects and artifacts are displayed inside glass cases, and no text accompanies these objects, save for an audio clip that is playing  near a display case featuring a doll-sized jewelers desk. The audio is from an interview with Dave Harris, a 90 year old diamond dealer, but it is muffled and of poor quality. I found this piece frustrating in that Lichtenstein references such a fascinating section of London’s history through artifact, but provides nothing else to enable the viewer to imagine the community behind the objects. This installation coincides with the release of her book Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden, which may provide the information lacking in Lichtenstein’s exhibit.

The most successful piece was Sukhdev Sandhu’s Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night, a hypertext fiction featuring eleven chapters, each telling the story of a different tribe of London’s night wanderers, ranging from cab drivers to ghost hunters.  This piece also exists as a physical book (commissioned by Artangel) but Sandhu’s narrative translates beautifully into an interactive installation.  One viewer controls the pacing of the narrative, virtually ‘turning the pages’ by clicking a mouse.  The music is just as haunting as the text itself, composed by London-based artist “Scanner” (Robin Rimbaud).  The eerie music and the ghostly white glow of the text on the screen creates a magical atmosphere that perfectly complements the complex narrative itself.

Though the work of the artists varies greatly in terms of their focus and medium, each contributed to an overall ethereal, ghostly tone throughout, which imbued the show with the kind of magic contained by the ancient city itself.  → Leave a comment


The City & The City, Woodstreet Galleries

The urban landscape has long been described as a living organism, with a distinct temperament that morphs both with the flow of time and those that inhabit it. Currently on view at Woodstreet Galleries in Pittsburgh, The City & The Citypicks apart what belongs to the modern city, and looks at humans carve out spaces in its landscape. The City & The City is a collection of installations by artists who are internationally known for their work in nonfiction, novels and poetry. Caroline Bergvall, Rod Dickinson, Tom McCarthy, Rachel Lichtenstein, Chris Petit, Emma Matthews, Ian Sinclair, and Sukhdev Sandhu delve into a cross-disciplinary exploration of psychogeography.  The works deal with the cultural interaction with urban landscape, which these artists model after London, England, their hometown.


The exhibition takes its title from China Miéville’s 2009 fictive crime novel, The City & The City.  Parallel cities share geography, but citizens are psychologically blind to the city they do not inhabit, fabricating a third city that is dictated by perception and perspective. Justin Hopper, the writer and conceptual artist who curated this show, has traversed the line between tangible and intangible. Hopper has a background in journalism that has arguably motivated his artistic and curatorial work to pull at the seams between what we understand via tangible data, and specter-like, origin-less psychological intuition.


Night Haunts by Sukdev Sandhu is a study of the nocturnal London and those that populate its lonely and despondent geography, like cab drivers and cleaners. Sandhu, like Hopper, is well known for his journalistic work that is primarily film criticism. In this case, he takes on the role of narrator, illuminating the nocturnal city which surfaces when the sun recedes.  Commissioned by UK curatorial organization, Artangel, this installation was originally manifested as book, and was performed live in Pittsburgh. The second floor of the gallery is filled with the soundscapes that accompany the projected text, which scrawls across the screen with a limping gait. Some words linger while others spill forward, one after the other, calling forth pictures of a cityscape that has multiple faces, not all of them pleasant.


French-Norwegian Poet Caroline Bergvall’s Middling English toys with expressions of poetry through print and spoken word. Leaflets flock on the wall; text is punctuated with powerful black ink splotches. While there are headphones mounted on the gallery wall for personal listening, Bergvall’s voice breaks the ambient sounds of the gallery every so often. With the swooping articulation of a street hawker, the half-recognizable words of O Sis! hang in the air. Within the private world of the headphones, Fried Tale borrows from the argot of rhyming slang sci-fi/horror of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange. Its Middle English cadence permits you to grasp narrative while the muddle of jargon and slang keeps content just out of reach.


These, as well as the works in The City & The City, evoke a visual and written poetry that calls to question the objectivity of the architecture of urban life.  → Leave a comment


Woodstreet Galleries: The City & The City

“The City & The City”, guest curated by Justin Hopper, is not a portrayal of London that one might ordinarily see on a trip as a tourist. From wandering, observing, and contemplating, selected artists (who are primarily writers) give us a sense of how geographic environments affect the human psyche. All the reading asked of visitors is unusual, but in skipping it, one would leave with a very different experience. The artists bring us new awareness and ways to interpret our surroundings through their works on their city’s history, memory, language, and its contrasting existences during daylight and darkness.

Depending on with what floor you begin, you either start with London’s history, or end up there after seeing explorations of the present the floor below. In “Sights Unseen” Rachel Lichtenstein draws from her roots, her grandfather being a watchmaker/jeweler, to uncover quarters of London where diamond merchants have thrived, unobserved, over generations. However she does not go much further than documentation with her display cases of artefacts, whereas Dickinson and McCarthy rewrite an historical event, making an anarchist’s failed bombing attempt successful in “Greenwich Degree Zero”. In a darkened room stands, softly lit, prop up journal reports, letters, and photos, as if they were light-sensitive documents in a museum or library archive. They are altered to fit the new story; history, memory, and the way events are recorded are part of the city even if we don’t see it.

Sukhdev Sandhu’s  “Night Haunts” records impressions he had amongst the night-dwellers of London, from the avian police to Samaritans, cleaners, and graffiti-artists, who see the city in an entirely different light and mindset than other Londoners. The rules of the day do not seem to apply. Through writing so perceptive and poignant, we feel the same darkness, loneliness, and beauty of the city that they do while the rest of the city is asleep. The eerie ambiance sounds and curious noises, the fragmented images, and the trickle of words, slow down the time and help us empathise with the stories being told. A title like “Night life” would not quite capture the “different texture and gravity” of the night. Petit, Matthews, and Sinclair’s “Flying Down to Rio”, on the other hand, is a voyage in daylight; the screens act as windows simulating a car ride through East London. Very little makes it differ from Google map’s streetview – a strange soundtrack, the ornament on the bonnet, the lines of the defroster on the rear window. But at certain moments, all four screens are identical and the scene quickly becomes unreal.

London is explored in ways that we might not be able to, as it exists in people’s minds, and as it exists in reality. Pyschogeography changes our perspective of the world around us, relating our immediate environment to our subconscious. Although the history of Pittsburgh is hardly as long as London’s, it seems an appropriate place to hold the exhibition because of how rapidly it has gone through change.  → Leave a comment


The city & the city

The “city” is a geographical concept as well as a psychological one, the meaning of which oscillates between reality and imagination. London, a place of complex urban landscapes and dynamic cultural interactions, a place imbued with psychological associations made by modern writers, continues to sustain creative interests. The city & the city, currently on view at the Wood Street Gallery, features five installations and new-media artworks by eight UK-based artists, who are influenced by the Psychogeographic movement—a literary movement focusing on the specific effect of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviors of individuals. In the exhibit, the artists explore how the seen and the unseen, the real and the fictional aspects of the city, interweave and complicate the urban experience. Best known as writers of nonfiction, novels, and poetry, the artists employ language, images, sounds, and material objects to create innovative forms of conceptual art that rely heavily on text.

One way to interpret the duality of the city implied in the title of the exhibit, is to focus on the real and the fictitious elements that the artists deploy. In their joint project, Rod Dickinson and Tom McCarthy worked from extensive research into historical events and created scenarios that subtly diverged from the historical record. Dickinson and McCarthy’s Greenwich Degree Zero is an installation of recreated 19th century media, one that creates a fictionalized version of a real attempted bombing of Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The whole installation is silent, and designed to resemble an archive or reading room. The exhibited newspapers, journals, and ball tickets, which possess the aura of authentic objects, easily trick the viewer into believing that the bombing attempt—in reality a spectacular failure —actually succeeded, as the fake reports on display say it did.  The installation questions the ways in which the media constructs events, and the degree to which one can trust the knowledge it claims to supply. Rachael Lichtenstien’s Sight Unseen also blends fiction and reality, re-imagining the materials and artifacts in Hatton Garden, a London street that hosts a secretive world of family businesses in the jewelry trade. The installation resembles a jewelry store with display counters wrapped in ultramarine velvet cloth. The counters are, however, material representations of Lichtenstien’s own written work, Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden.

Strolling around these reconstructions of specific events and districts in London’s history, viewers will feel plunged into temporally remote places. They will not retrieve their consciousness of the contemporary until  experiencing work such as Sukhdev Sandu’s Night Hunt.

Sandhu’s Night Hunt deploys the new technology of electronic reading to create a journal about London’s contemporary nightlife, a journal that imitates the Victorian genre of the midnight traipse through the metropolis. Reading Sandhu’s account of London nightlife on the big screen, one encounters marginal characters such as mini cab drivers, street cleaners, and samaritans who live like ghosts in the nasty, depressing capitalist city. While Sandu reconstructed the events in a journalistic manner, the visual and sound effects that accompany the text cause the real to appear fictitious.  → Leave a comment


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