The Mask of the Red Death or the limited geographical imagination of the European North

Illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” by Harry Clarke (1889-1931). Published in 1919.

by Ares Kalandides

I just came back to Berlin from a two-day conference in Zürich called re:ART:the:URBAN, where I was invited to chair a panel on “Urban Manufacturing”*. I am very grateful to my hosts, Kees Christiaanse and Tim Rieniets, for this opportunity and their hospitality. It is great being in Zürich and ETH is always an important centre of academic reflection. Yet, I also want to air some other thoughts – a “malaise” as I called it during the conference – hoping that I am not alone.

This malaise is related to my feeling that the political is absent in many of our discussions about places – cities in particular. We talk about artists, their role in the city; we talk about citizens as “users” (oh! what horror!); we talk about urban interventions, the “creative class”, migration etc. in a feel-good bubble. As if the crisis we have experienced around us for the past 4 years is taking place in a parallel universe; as if such a crisis (political and cultural as much as economical) could leave anything standing; as if there were a place where we’re safe from it. Do you remember Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mask of the Red Death”?

In the best tradition of the Gothic novel, it is the story of Prince Prospero and his attempts to avoid the horrible disease that has befallen the country, the Red Death. Together with other nobles he barricades himself in his abbey, carefully guarding every entrance to make sure nobody gets in. While the countryside around is dying a horrible death, Prospero throws a masquerade ball. A stranger, wearing the costume of a victim of the red death makes his way through every single of the seven rooms of the ball, bringing with him the Death they thought they’d locked outside.

I know this is a horrifying tale, but I sometimes feel we are living in horrifying times. And Zurich was a little like Prospero’s Abbey: while the Crisis is turning several countries in Europe into scorched earth, we were playfully discussing how we should best enjoy our luxury. And it’s not just Zurich. The examples we had were from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria – all of them countries only marginally touched by the Crisis.

Zurich on a grey day in October

I am probably being unfair. What did I expect? Are we supposed to weep and deplore the condition of the world all the time? Aren’t we supposed be happy with what we have and enjoy it? Isn’t Zurich a good place to live and produce art? I do not disagree, but that is not my issue. I am trying to make two points here:

First, that one place’s richness and another’s poverty are somehow related. As Erik Swyngedouw dared suggest in his keynote speech (and was heavily applauded) Zurich banks hold the billions that Greek tax-evaders have taken out of the country. Zurich’s richness is Greece’s poverty. Are the Zurich artists who participated in the conference responsible for that? No. Probably they are the last ones to profit from it and only marginally. But yet they do profit: every sponsoring of the arts by those banks is done with that money; every financing of culture by the Swiss state is done with that money, too.  I do not expect them to reject that money – quite the opposite – but I expect them to use their “geographical imagination”, as Doreen Massey called it, to think about where it can come from. And if they do think about it, then somehow pay tribute to it in such a context, such as this conference in times of crisis. Which brings me to my second point:

I am sick and tired of the constant depoliticization of our discourse. Our cities evolve, not naturally as some say, but as consequences of very political (i.e. societal) relations, power-constellations and decisions. How can we pretend to be outside and act as observers? I have noticed that there are conferences where anything political is polished down as if it could bother the sensitive ears of the audience. Even very political interventions take great care to avoid anything controversial. Raumlabor Berlin (which I personally consider to be one of the best in their trade) gave an excellent example of the very political project,  “Cantiere”, in Torino. They also insisted a lot on the good work they did with the local citizens, many of whom were of immigrant origin. And thought they referred both to the broke municipalities and the corroding civil society, they somehow treated it on its own, as if it were a local phenomenon. Anybody who knows Raumlabor also knows how deeply political they are. And since the presentation started with an Henri Lefebvre quote on cities, I am sure that the speakers did not mean to avoid politics. But they did. I am not questioning the presentation itself here, I am questioning the context that forms discourse.

Erik Swyngedouw during the conference (pic taken with a smartphone)

I could go on forever on depoliticization. I could talk about the keynote speaker (a Greek-American marketeer of dubious ethics) who only last March in a Greek conference on Place Branding – where I insisted on the political nature of the matter – attacked me with a contemptuous “I don’t buy this”; or of the very talented young people who waste their energy on soft urban art projects in derelict neighbourhoods hit by the crisis, etc.

Of course we are not all made to get to the streets or to engage in political activism (and neither am I). All I am trying to say is that even Prospero’s abbey was finally hit by the Red Death. At this point in history, every single one of us is asked to contribute with what arms we have – our minds, our pens, our hands, our voice – to change something before it’s too late.


*I’ll write about the panel later

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2 Responses to The Mask of the Red Death or the limited geographical imagination of the European North

  1. Pingback: Denys Zacharopoulos empfiehlt folgenden Artikel zum Thema Griechenland « Notizen aus der Unterwelt


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