Images of the city cycle
One of the unanticipated impacts of Covid and lockdown has been to change the relationship with the spaces of the cities where many of us live. Like so many people, when Covid first hit and the UK went into lockdown in March for the next few months I was stuck at home.
Then in July, the organisation I work for began ramping up preparations to re-open its buildings which meant that I would need to get used to coming back into work in south London (I live in the north east of the city). I knew more or less immediately that I would be dispensing with the daily underground commute which I had undertaken from 2018 and got used instead to the idea of cycling. I quickly bought a good quality second hand bike and prepared as much as I could for what would be a twenty mile round trip – initially a couple of times a week, but then ramping up to 5 days a week.
When I was first working and commuting within London about fifteen years ago I collected this cartoon strip from the free daily paper the Metro. It summed up one aspect of travelling by underground, that it is a visual kind of stasis field in which travellers are often (or mostly) suspended in a dark unspace of the indiscernible. It encourages a kind of detachment from geography that gives you the sense of an odd relativity where the primary means of differentiation in space becomes based on time, minutes between stations, minutes to the next station, a few short seconds as the doors open and close, then again…. into a howling dark…
In this context Rick Brookes cartoon also darkly de-temporalises the specificity of the journey in its habitual, its trapped repetitiousness. Drawing upon the degree of the identical and unknown in its facets that renders it as a constant potential kind of equivalence and more significant still that Brookes sends the question of the hapless commuter only into the past ‘…is this today, yesterday or the day before…?’
The future it seems lay elsewhere…
…and so to the surface.
Moving from the subterranean, the passive and herded, de-autonomised, to the surface world of the individually haptic, kinetic, of navigation, energy and flow, among the elements, among the metal flows and the mega structures of the city. You become responsible for your own flow, your route and your progress, the minutiae of each moment of your journey. In this sense, you are also connected more intimately with each space of your passage.
It soon becomes apparent that there are a number of specific psychologies and systems of psychologies which you see emerging in relation to how people move and navigate traffic and traffic streams; pedestrian, cycle, motorcycle and four wheel or more vehicles from cars to lorries and busses. Sometimes its possible to see these psychologies mutate and change, for example when a person crossing a live car traffic stream is with a group, their will and sense of power can immediately ramify in a confidendence to stop or counter the flow.
There is the sense of the inviolate, that the flows have in their solidity and their stratification, an unyielding normality, occasionally roads are blocked off or flooded, but only once have i seen the normalisation of the road flow upended. When a teen pack of cyclists, curving across the rush hour traffic created their own island of flow, doing slow wheelies and swerving between each other, strangely tolerated and alien, like a wolf pack among cargo ships. The introduction of a second order of consistency, a pack versus a flow albeit in the most dangerous of circumstances (at least when I encountered it, they were a moving space-island and not filtering the traffic).
A few weeks ago, this street art appeared on the corner of Whitechapel High street and Leman street, a busy junction with a traffic light where more often than not, its necessary to stop and wait in the bicycle lane.
Its definitely a very striking image and the neon pink on black colouring demands attention. For a long time, the effect of this contrast and the impact of a neon pink in general carried connotations of high 1980’s culture with its foregrounded worship of style, wealth and (indirectly power) the clarion for which would be something like the Michael Mann conceived Miami Vice and with its Cocaine driven power-insanity; Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Its notable that this very visual effect was used for the relatively short-lived 2015 animated comedy Moonbeam City which had its moments but used the setting of a neon 80’s city primarily to establish the idea of style as (vacuous) intelligence (certainly in its male lead characters) and status, one of its most memorable moments being the Rob Lowe voiced ‘Dazzle’ attempting to put a fire out by shooting it.
Along with a general resurgence of 80’s styled cultural productions – especially from America (Stranger Things and a host of Spielberg inspired offerings from JJ Abrams and others like Super 8) its also interesting that this is the effect which has been used by John Frusciante for the artwork to his latest album the 90’s inspired electronic album Maya – dedicated to his music loving cat of the same name.
All of which suggests that returns to this effect, this imagistic tableau as a re-apportioning of its meaning, offer something in addition – a partial freeing up from the specificities of its first meaningful positionings in the culture. Of course Neon never went anyway, in signwriting and in lettering and yet it remains a city-associated phenomena which became synonymous with the tropes of its emergence when it was a futural designation, an electrified hyper-bright enlivening of traditional text and lighting, libidinalising both. To have been caught up with the time of its catalysing abundance was somewhat inevitable and yet as with a return to the signs and signifiers of 80’s culture, it feels like a return for this mode of colour and expression is also now possible that gives it potential to return with a different dimension of involvement.
As an emblem of the electronic in the image, it feels like it would be a stretch for it to make an intense form of contact with an intent of the wild or of nature and this brings about the question of what lines of flight might be involved in the city-sprung intensity of its expression.
Perhaps one of the best possibilities here is in following through the work and arrays of the Frusciante output, as with this video of the first track from the Maya album ‘Brand E’ directed by Amalia Irons. In which a doubled retro-futurism appears to be at work (in the sonic and the luminous), and which curiously does specifically splice the natural with the neon.
In fact, while the city is the backdrop, we are simultaneously almost always given its molecular outside. Frusciante himself credited as ‘Observer’ is a semi-alienised outsider, who disappears and reappears while moving around (often located in the hills outside the city). While we are also given visual instances of the alien-female, becoming-cat and a laser lit tree-scape (although this is presented as an internalised space). The ingredients are powerfully provisioned, alongside the music, which throughout the album is apparent as a taking up of the abstract machine of early to mid 90’s British Jungle (and peak Techno). Suggesting that Frusciante and the creativity of this project are interested in re-threading the future via these seeds, located in time, now positioned with an outsight that seeks to escape the city except as a space of observation, a space of becomings which must lead beyond it, or have their trajectories go beyond it. All this despite Jungle being the most urbanised of instantiated forms, which always has as its nucleus that it is a music of the body (and that bodies are lines of flight and oceans of escape) and that its very name gives it that wildest of outsides; the Jungle itself.
For me, John Frusciante is one of the foremost artists of the last twenty or thirty years and to have his productions offered in this way brings the sense of impact and realisation to an approach which is picking up on the potencies and potentials of the near-past as tools and abstract equipment of escape and intensification with one foot already beyond and outside the interiority of mainstay individualised-societal productions of reality.
In terms of this image itself, when I first encountered it, It was something that I initially dismissed as excessively ‘cool’ male-image power dreaming (with unlikely parallel to Cartman’s mirror shaded cop in South Park), but with the repeated visits during my daily cycle (and this being a part of the route I do not often have the chance to deviate) I began to see something different.
It was only afterwards that it began to take on a mode of critique, that the problematic it first represented is crucially and critically part of its depiction. That it carries the charge of ‘coolness’ is somewhat inescapable, and yet I also became aware that the line of neon purity is actually circling the man’s throat, that it is almost in this sense noose-like, strangulation by a technological modernity (the neon as inert gas invention). In this case doubly intensified as an image by being the only abstract element which is a line and while being part of the image, can stand for and represent something else, a line of trajectory, a force of realisation, a luminosity which also lights the scene in its monotone, but crucially threatens at the same time, if only a little tighter, then everything in the image will change.
And yet as a piece about reflection, it is also critical, the image in the sunglasses, is the foreboding city skyscape and skyline, it is the only chance we have to see beyond the male subject’s head, to get a setting, a scene or a location and while it is outside, we are crucially in the city, in this strangulating neon of the city and where the sky itself is eaten and blocked by the encrustations of city block architecture. One of the unspoken, unstated lines of flight of human beings in the terrain of the planet is the sky. The unbroken continuum of breath which spans countries, unites terrains and oceans and which we are all connected to with every finite organic giving and taking of air. When this became apparent, the entire dimension of the piece changed.
The reason I feel it was so easy to initially miss these aspects is because it is largely devoid of immediately prescient lines of flight for human beings, it is male, insular, minimally abstract and emboldened in the cool imagistic. And yet it is also precisely these things which totalises it as a fundamentally critical piece, giving us the striated architecture of human power obsession blotting out the sky-ocean of becoming, and the manufactured, mono-lux neon of our abstracted enlightenment. Had I been stuck underground, in the un-now of tunnels, I would never have seen it and had I not also been following the work of John Frusciante, it would never had resonated with Maya and its first video, which gives us outways through the city, through being and through becoming, vital now more than ever in a world besieged within a viral grip of containment… to sharpen our sense of the abstract and become its lines of flight, in the Jungle of the waking body, become more fundamental than ever.