Vagueing The City, 2022
Artistic research trajectory
@ University of the Arts Utrecht,
programme Scenography, NL
As the world’s population continues to grow, the urban fabric expands its borders, absorbing uncultivated land in all its unruly nature. The ever-improved stage of the built environment is rolled out for us citizens to perform our lives on. But how can we prevent becoming too comfortable with adapt- ing ourselves to such pre-scripted realities? To what extent is our urban landscape malleable enough to fulfill our bodily desires, and how can we resist becoming petrified creatures? ‘Vagueing the City’ considers what it means to enter the stage of the built environment as an embodied being. Through scenographic strategies it explores the potentiality of our urban building blocks, reclaims the malleability of the urban landscape, and investigates the crucial nature of imaginative layers in sensorily deprived environments.
This article charts, via a first-person narrative, my journeys through online and offline environments. Additionally, reflections of this fieldwork are interwoven with documentations of my own multidisciplinary interventions in artistic
environments and public space. Through this article, and within my own practice as a scenographer and visual artist, I am introducing the verb ‘to vague’. Finally, I will unpack existing modes of ‘vagueing’ and develop new artistic variations of this verb, aiming to cultivate more intensely visual, sensorial, and imaginative confrontations with the built environment.
In new cities built from scratch, such as Las Vegas was, the language of the city’s ‘text’ is often an easy read. For a city dweller, there doesn’t seem to be much to it: one simply be- haves according to the rules imposed by the infrastructure. In that sense, no alternative use of the cityscape is promoted. If we step into the shoes of De Certeau’s voyeur, navigating the back streets of Las Vegas using Google Street View (Fig. 3), we find ourselves in extremely polished environments. Those who are supposedly navigating the area on foot or in an air-conditioned car are battling the Mojave Desert heat and so seem narrowly directed and controlled: a pedestrian crossing, road markers, stop signs, fences, and red-coloured curbstones prevent those who are ‘lost’ from getting tripped up. A heavily armoured car underscores the atmosphere of control and surveillance. The street plantings are subjected to this rationalized scheme; palm trees and small bushes are neatly aligned in an artificial arrangement that matches and decorates the concrete jungle. In traditional Zen gardens, gravel beds are meant to represent a flowing river or a serene pond. Here, the gravel functions as a stone blanket, an ob- struction that prevents the natural from overtaking the urban stage. Overall, the scene depicted resembles the aesthetics of a first-person shooter video game. In such games, personal preferences and choices are challenged or even prohibited through the imposed comforts of regulation.
I wondered: To what extent does the built environment allow for prioritizing the senses when it comes down to its design? In my work The Urban Crust Is Not Flaky (Fig. 7) I developed a machine-learning programme that operates like a slot machine. The programme randomly places parts from a model landscaping catalogue alongside verbs from the gastronomical guide The Pastry Chef’s Companion. These engineered conceptual collisions yield results such as ‘concrete floor topped with dredged lamppost and frost- ed bridge pillar’ or ‘candy-coated sidewalk tiles with bride and illumination’.
Three-dimensional iterations of these generated scenes were performed in an exhibition space, suggesting the end- less possibilities for reconfiguring public space through the increase of its sensorial perimeters. However, when it comes to the implementation of these scenes, do our urban land- scapes allow us to interfere with their rigid rules in all of their complexity?