Negotiating Invisibility

Reflections on a workshop-series by zURBS
By Cecilie Sachs Olsen

An important struggle of power in current processes of urbanisation is to determine what should be visible and what should not. Once something is invisible we cannot properly control, categorize or define it. We seem to be afraid of that. Invisibility tends to be seen as representing urban problems and ills such as for example criminal activities that need to be hidden from the public, while visibility and transparency are hailed as means for controlling and securing urban space.

In the following we will present a series of workshops that points to the possibilities, rather than the problems, of invisibility. We believe focusing on invisibility may help us address the imaginative potential of cities, and thus open up for new ways of perceiving urban and public space, as well as new ways of thinking about how cities are formed, how we live in them and how they function.

Image 1: Reflections and mirror-images of the city (Rabot/Ghent)

The workshops were conducted in the multicultural neighbourhoods Langstrasse in Zurich and Rabot in Ghent, under the names “Invisible Langstrassen” and “Invisible Rabots”. As the names testify, the workshops were based on the book “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. The book is framed as a conversation between the aging emperor, Kublai Khan, and the merchant Marco Polo, who comes to describe for Kublai Khan the state of his expanding empire. In short prose poems, fifty-five cities are described, apparently narrated by Marco Polo. At the end of the book Marco Polo admits that all his described cities are in fact the same city: Venice, his home. Thus, the book addresses the many different layers of reality that can be present in one city. It emphasizes that cities are imaginary as well as real spaces, and that questioning the ways in which cities are imagined and how these imaginings are realized in particular urban settings is equally important for dealing with urban space as is technical control, such as surveillance, and rational planning strategies connected to the built environment. In this context invisibility may be seen as a framework to help us visualize how our cities can be when our imagination is not limited by rational urban theory or the laws of physics. Take for example the city of Tamara, described by Marco Polo as a city that does not consist of things, but of images of things that mean other things. Now, what if we look at the city through the lens that anything could be something else, even though still consisting of the same parts? Or take the city of Valdrada, which is built on the shores on a lake so that it actually is two cities reflecting each other; one city being the mirror-image of the other. What if one reality of the city actually lies in its mirror-image? Or in its reflections? Or repetitions? Or what if certain places or elements of a city, may actually reflect the city’s spirit as a whole? And then there is the city of Chloe, in which all the people who move through the streets are strangers that imagine a thousand things about one another at each encounter. What if these strangers would talk? What stories could we find?

The participants of the workshop were sent out in the neighbourhoods of Langstrasse and Rabot armed with exercises and questions relating to six cities from the book. Their task was to look for, capture and document the different realities and perspectives evoked in the descriptions of the different cities. The participants were, for example, asked to find a building or a place and deconstruct all the parts that tell what it is (the colours, the shapes, the materials), and draw a new building or place of what this could be if it was not what it is, they were asked to take pictures of reflections and repetitions, which they thought reflected the mirror-image of their city, and they were encouraged to find two strangers that had not yet met, imagine their stories and maybe even make them actually meet.

The exercises were used as a tool to question our surroundings, and thus challenge the “taken-for-grantedness” prevailing current perception and use of urban space. Public space, for example, tends to be taken for granted as being public simply because it is defined that way by the government and its urban planning departments. The possibility to see space as becoming public through a co-production of its users and multiplicity of actions, relations and performances seems to be eliminated within this approach, as it tends to see urban space as an immutable container with a pre-given signature and intention that decides its use and function. This approach then, does not leave much room for imagining alternative spatial relations and forms that are not already given and taken for granted in the pre-determined construction and perception of public space. Questioning space and how it is imagined then, is crucial in order to open up for seeing space not as a fixed and given reality, but as a co-existence of endless different and parallel realities that are constantly verified through processes of co-production and participatory, collective fantasy. Thus, we wanted to encourage the participants of the workshop to imagine and articulate the city as it could be(come), rather than accepting the monopoly of the given.

At the end of the workshop all the material, stories and experiences the participants had collected during their journey were presented and discussed in plenum; What unexpected and inspiring insights and stories came out of these discussions and the material gathered! The factory pipe that was deconstructed by slicing it up and turning its parts into urban furniture, a construction site that was turned into an alternative city map, a church turned into a green-house, and a male-dominated Turkish pub turned upside down so that the comfort zone was given to the women and not the men. The capturing of sensible experiences, such as the unique smell of chicken inside the local church, or the smell of peppermint in the street, or the combination of the sounds of fire trucks and seagulls. Observations such as that of chewed gum so frequently spit out in the street that it created a reverse universe of gum-stars, or the observation that the neon signs in this particular street reminded of a gigantic film set creating an impression of being in a staged traffic scene. Imagined or staged encounters such as that between the Polish waitress and the Turkish business man, brought together by the exchange of a piece of chocolate and ending up drinking tea and discussing the fact that the future is actually in Turkey, or the failed attempt to make two cats meet that were looking out at the same street from their separate windows.

Image 2: Deconstructing a male-dominated pub (Rabot/Ghent)

These observations and stories, bear witness of a process in which the participants were active as interpreters, rather than merely being passive observers. Thus, the workshop blurred the opposition between they who look (observers) and they who act (observed). This way the act of looking became itself an action that confirms or modifies the conditions, which creates certain possibilities for visibility and exclude others. Looking and interpreting the world hence can be seen as a means of transforming and reconfiguring it. By taking the role of active interpreters, storytellers and translators, the participants appropriated the story of the city for themselves and made their own story out of it. Through these stories and narrations new forms of visibility and invisibility were co-produced and appropriated, informing an understanding of urban space as defined by a radical openness productive of diverse and multiple outcomes, rather than as one fixed and given urban reality. As Calvino puts it in his book:

Marco Polo: “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.”

Kublai Khan: “Or the question it asks you…”

The series of workshops conducted in Zurich and Ghent, will be further developed in the project “Invisible Z¨richs”, which will take place at the theatre Gessnerallee in Zurich from October to December 2013. During this period one of the stages at the theatre would be turned into a living laboratory from which workshops will be conducted, and in which the findings will be collected and exhibited together with artistic interventions and contributions by a wide range of artists, urbanites, city-users and other stakeholders. For more info see:

Image 3: Neon signs reminding of gigantic film set (Zurich/Switzerland)