The Readable City

Location Angell Gallery
Dates April 7 - 29, 2017
Curator Bill Clarke

How often have you crossed a city park using a path worn into the grass by others before you rather than walking the route laid down by the park’s designers? When describing how to get from point A to point B, are you more likely to think in terms of street names and numbers, or landmarks and buildings passed on the way? Have you walked in a parade or occupied a public space during a demonstration?

In “Walking in the City” and “Spatial Stories” — essays found in his book The Practice of Everyday Life* — French scholar Michel de Certeau examines how we unconsciously navigate urban environments by using “tactics” (like those above) in response to “strategies” employed by institutions and governments to control our movements and influence our behaviours. Certeau, surveying New York City from the top of the then newly built World Trade Center towers, describes how governments and corporations view the city as a unified whole, structuring streets in grids, naming parks or squares, and raising buildings and monuments that “historicize, hierarchize and semantically order the surface of the city.” The city’s inhabitants, meanwhile, resist these strictures by creating shortcuts, seizing control of public areas or defacing surfaces. For Certeau, cities are sites of struggle between forces of control and those of expression.

Unlike the capital cities of Europe, New York hasn’t “learned the art of growing old by playing on all its pasts,” according to Certeau. The same could be said of Toronto, which, like New York, seems always to be “in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future.” (The same may not be said of a city like Montreal, which has done more to preserve a sense of its past.) Cities, however, are more than architecture and infrastructure. They are places where people seek success, acceptance and community, and arenas in which social movements coalesce and ideas ferment.

The exhibition also picks up on another thread in Certeau’s writing; that is, how people’s presence in spaces turn them into places. The artists here closely observe the surfaces of the city and give them new form. The exhibition presents an opportunity to reflect on our built environments, and consider how, through collective action, we can produce cities in which all inhabitants can say, “I feel good here.”

Text by Bill Clarke

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