Membanes into the past

London Essays – Issue 4: Culture

Membanes into the past

Digital technologies offer a new kind of public life, and a way into the history of the city.

By Geoff Mulgan

Cities attract, excite and energise. They have always been places of light, movement and surprise, giving people a spring in their step, the city air making them freer. Since ancient times, cities have also been stages, at least in their central areas; and the greatest public architecture, parks and piazzas, always did more than offer beauty. They also offered a stage where people could show off to each other and see themselves in new ways.

Today, cities are being offered new generations of technology that erode the boundary between private and public, the physical and the virtual, reanimating the experience of city life and changing what it feels like to walk, cycle or drive through a city’s streets. London is particularly well placed to pioneer these new tools because it is rich in public places, endowed with digital skills, with a population happy to experiment. But, despite the potential, London has so far lacked a patron or leader able to combine vision and resources to make this happen on a sufficiently large scale.

What might be possible? There are many smaller projects that point to a possible future. Some of the many projects backed by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts 20 provide snapshots. Sing London’s Talking Statues, now dotted around the city, offer a QR code so that a statue can talk to you (as channelled by famous actors). There are new tools that turn festivals into vivid online games that spill over into the city streets with chases and hunts (Sheffield DocFest is a good recent example which has shown how physical and online could be interwoven in festivals). Haptic technologies create a theatre of touch, while augmented reality can make the very fabric of the city malleable.

The public appetite for these ideas can be seen in light festivals, like Lumiere in January 2016, which peppered the city with strange objects, floating angels, phone boxes turned into fish tanks, and projectors beaming precise new skins over buildings. Philips has experimented with ways of transforming city squares with roving lights that follow you as you walk, and many firms have developed digital walls that respond to your movements or refract them back with distortions.

This more conversational and interactive city can even be found in retailing. Burberry has been a pioneer of a new fusion of theatre and shopping and, in its Regent Street shop, created ‘Burberry World Live’, with a 22ft-high screen, nearly 500 hidden speakers and a hydraulic stage. RFID microchips are embedded into clothes so that customers can see through a mirror-like screen what the item would look like on a catwalk.

All of these tools take art out of the galleries and into everyday life. They inject excitement and fun into mundane activities. But for a very old city like London there is also another appeal. Most cities are oddly mute about their own past. If you walk down Oxford Street, Euston Road or Brick Lane it’s not easy to read what these places meant. Tourist books can offer little bits of congealed history: here was where someone was murdered; here was where someone else wrote a famous book.

But the general experience of walking through a modern city is that the buildings are silent. The environment talks loudly but mainly in the language of business, which claims any available space through advertising hoardings and screens or displays in shop windows. By contrast, past lives, battles and intentions are hidden, buried under new buildings, new facades, or simply new uses.

For most of human existence people learned from an early age how to read their environment, interpreting the seasons, plants and flowers, and the movements of animals. Some of this was legible but often what was offered up to us was more like a riddle; opaque, obscure, a natural world that was unwilling to give up its secrets too easily. So we invested things with magical properties connecting us to a transcendental world beyond our own experience, a world scattered with clues to survival and meaning.

This is one of the reasons why museums have retained their power. We evolved in a material world made up of objects, which we attempted to read because so often they were unreachable. It was that same imperative that made people invest their lived environment with meanings. In old villages there are longstanding memories of wells and walls, or sacred places, oral memories overlapping with written records.

The modern city, by contrast, can be alienating, literally, even though we still try to make our favourite places magical. One reason is that the rich meanings that past inhabitants invested in are lost: we forget what mattered to our predecessors. So how could we make the past more present? Part of the answer may lie in the very distant past, at the dawn of art. Recent writings about prehistoric art have suggested that the famous paintings of bison and deer in Lascaux or Alta Mira were not sympathetic magic, or teaching manuals for aspirant hunters, as was once thought. Instead, they were ways of connecting to another world and their walls were membranes. On the other side lay the past: the world of ancestors and spirits. This past was present but distant, removed but not unreachable.

“The museums that collect objects from a city’s history already provide a sort of membrane through which to peer at a certain kind of past.”

In the writings of David Lewis Williams a vivid portrait is built up – partly from comparisons with the Kung of the Kalahari and other contemporary cave painters – of shamans banging drums (evidence can still be found of where they had found the most resonant walls of rock to bang on), probably intoxicated with drugs and dance, using the paintings to communicate with, and bring forth, the animal spirits on the other side. Hands were placed on walls and then painted over so that the shaman became absorbed into the walls. What we see now is the enigmatic outline of their fingers – but they must have felt that they were passing through to the other side.

Like their later counterparts, it seems that they assumed that life was only meaningful as part of a chain of actions and reactions, of births and deaths, and that the physical world was full of partly porous membranes through which it was possible to pass, a vision not so different from the builders of ziggurats and pyramids, catacombs and tombs.

We have lost that sense of permeability. But all the tools I described earlier are ways of turning the hard walls of the city into something more like a membrane – something that reacts, illuminates, talks as if from another dimension. The museums that collect objects from a city’s history already provide a sort of membrane through which to peer at a certain kind of past – albeit placed in rather unusual buildings and taken out of their contexts, sometimes to an extreme degree in the great imperial collections of the Louvre, Metropolitan and British Museum. But this capacity is now being transformed – for example through the augmented reality experiments of Nottingham Museum, which show the full experience of the riots of 1832 or, equally, through the use of AR to show what a city could look like in the future.

Another membrane is broken through when the thin fabric of the city’s soil is temporarily disrupted. Archaeological digs make past eras briefly accessible before they are covered over with steel and concrete (and one of the progresses of recent years is to provide, at least in a few cases, transparent screens around developments rather than billboards, so that we can see the layers of the past being gradually stripped away). Yet another kind of membrane comes from literature, the books that tell the stories of a city – like James Buchan’s recreation of enlightenment Edinburgh, or Peter Ackroyd’s many books on London; while others exist on television and radio, in oral history, and in the burgeoning field of genealogy that seems to be possessing millions, energised by the combination of the internet and longer retirements. All are windows to the impenetrable past, means of breaking through the skin of time.

The reshaping of old or abandoned buildings plays a similar role. Brewer Street car park has recently hosted an extraordinary series of exhibitions on the boundary between science and art, achieving a magical experience as you walked through the dull, concrete entrances and staircases. Punchdrunk managed to transform buildings on the brink of demolition with wormholes. Many of the projects backed by the Nesta/HLF/BLF parks fund have similarly transformed the experience of public spaces, combining the physical and virtual worlds in new ways. 21

The internet was expected to delocalise human life, taking us ever further away in space and time from daily corporeal existence. Instead it turns out to have some opposite qualities. It can reinvigorate geography – as Google Earth and Street View have shown. And it makes it possible to repopulate streets with meaning and history and possible futures – to peer behind the walls and facades, the forbidding entrances of public buildings, the levelled building sites.

What follows is a very different experience of walking, where we can choose to let the buildings talk to us – switching our smartphone into a variety of receive modes, with layers of information added onto digital maps. Historypin at the Imperial War Museum showed just how far the idea of curation could be extended, as thousands of members of the public offered links to letters, pictures, memories that connected to paintings of the First World War, again offering new membranes that enriched the meanings of the war. On top of maps of a city like London we might imagine many other kinds of typology: moods (places associated with love, or hate); genealogy (the places and items linked to a family tree); places associated with a piece of music. We might imagine new ways of revealing past occupants, rather as in Australia and New Zealand public events are started with a recognition of the traditional guardians of the land so that, in time, with easy accessibility through more mobile devices (the fully wi-fi’d city is nearly with us), the tradition of the flâneur, celebrated by Walter Benjamin nearly a century ago, would gain a new lease of life.

“The internet was expected to delocalise human life, taking us ever further away in space and time from daily corporeal existence.”

Britain is replete with historical societies, groups engaged in oral history and local history. But one of the best ways of populating this space would be to make it part of the curriculum: to encourage schoolchildren to take charge of their locality, digging up what happened in the past, interviewing the elderly to find recollections, searching archives for photographs and film. An interesting app­roach would be to link these new maps to newcomers. Across the world there has been remarkable innovation in how museums have coped with migration – taking the idea of the museum away from its traditional role as a statement of a settled national ideal towards something more open, fluid. So the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York is situated in an old tenement dating back to the 1860s and claims that 7000 migrants lived in it, with exhibitions that attempt to connect their lives and experiences to today. In a very different vein, Te Papa in Wellington in New Zealand has tried to come to terms with a bicultural society, including a gallery where every two years one of the Maori tribes, or iwi, can present its treasures and heritage. In Australia, Melbourne and Sydney both have famous museum spaces devoted to migrants (in the latter case located in the Powerhouse). Closer to home, Glasgow’s Sanctuary project a few years ago involved 1000 local people in projects reflecting on asylum and sanctuary, and linked its artistic creations to the less fixed lives of asylum seekers in the city. Bristol’s exhibitions on the slave trade have done the same.

All of these show how the city’s history as a place of entry and incoming can be brought to life with personal histories, memories placed on houses and streets, docks and public buildings. Together, these ideas could transform our sense of now: a big ‘now’, that stretches far back into the past and, hopefully, equally far into the future. They would also contribute to a bigger ‘here’ – a here that encompasses not just depth of our place, its layers and segments, but also reaches across the world. Both may help to combat the pull of a truncated eternal present, a here and now without connections or depth.

  • 20
  • 21