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Urban imagery in the systems of communication (from XV to XXI century)

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

Goal of research: the purpose of the 2015 project, in which scholars from a number of disciplines studying various time periods are cooperating, was to identify the mechanisms that were at work in constructing cities’ images, and to trace the forms in which these images historically were used in European culture communication systems. 

By studying urban imagery and its uses, the project was expected to demonstrate continuity in perception of the city and its space and to describe the relation of traditional and modern elements in the reproduction of city images. The fifteenth century was chosen as a starting point for research because of its experience of revolutions in a number of disciplines (from optics to theoretical aesthetics, from the theory of painting and architecture to the art of war, from political thought to metaphysics) and social and cultural practices (e.g. town planning, fortification, control of social life in the city) that had a strong impact on the design and reception of urban spaces. The period under study ends in post-modernity with its ramified media and numerous new urban communication contexts. This project arose from an awareness of the importance of communication about history in modern urban environment and its main task is to trace back the origin of city image making and using city images in social communication as well as to outline the history of modern ideas about the tasks and functions fulfilled by visual images of urban space and urban culture in general.

Methodology: The research methodology was formed integrated and interdisciplinary. Firstly, it is urban studies, analyzing urban space and perception of its development at the intersection of sociology and geography (Henri Lefebvre, Nigel Thrift, Edward Soja et al.). Secondly, it is visual studies, giving a framework to analyze urban images in the systems of communication (Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Ann Friedberg, Tom Gunning et al.). Third, it is cultural history and urban history with historical approaches and techniques to study the specific historical and cultural contexts, from XV to XIX century (Erwin Panofsky, Pierre Francastel et al.).

The first chapter of the report delineates the theoretical framework for understanding communication and urban imagery issues in contemporary social sciences and humanities. Paragraphs 1.1. and 1.2. discuss these matters in a general theoretical perspective that is shaped by debates in cultural geography and urban studies, on the one hand, and in media studies, on the other. Here, the discussion focuses on the media’s role in the making of urban culture and on the potential such method as representation analysis has as a tool to study urban media culture. This analysis allows to observe the differentiation of approaches to do both with the development of media and with different communication orders.

In further paragraphs of this chapter (1.3, 1.4, 1.5, and 1.6) urban imagery issues are considered in connection with the evolution of disciplines and research fields studying specific communication intermediaries such as literature, film, popular music, and new media. This analysis allows us to find out why and how urban context became important in social sciences and humanities (an important stimulus for urban issues to become popular as research objects was the Spatial Turn in social sciences and humanities between the 1980s and 2000s). This leads project members to focus on the link between the media and urbanization as well as the media’s impact on urban environment and urban communications. This perspective relativizes the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ city and encourages researchers to follow Edward W. Soja in regarding the two as mutually convertible. Among other things, the development of research into the medialization of the city helps to develop research tools and to question the existing methods of knowledge production and presentation.

Empirical base of research:Chapter 2 draws on a variety of textual and visual sources to analyze early modern urban imagery (fifteenth through eighteenth centuries). Paragraphs 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 cover a whole spectrum of visual arrangements of urban space. The starting point of the study is the impact of competing perspective concepts in architecture theories on urban space planning practices between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Besides the aesthetical side of this matter, our analysis includes the struggle for monopolizing the production of representations in which architects, clients, the authorities, and the public were involved on equal terms (2.1). Paragraph 2.2 explores the space of a villa, which acted as a space for the ideal utopian city to be designed in, anticipating the future function of country estates as architectural experimentation grounds. In paragraph 2.3, the evolution of visual representations of urban landscapes in seventeenth-eighteenth-century European art (especially within the veduta genre) is traced so as to demonstrate how the status of city views was rising and pictures showing everyday city life were becoming a full-fledged fine art genre, and also how the methods of presenting a subjective view of urban environment were developed. Drawing on sixteenth-century narratives and visual representations of cities, paragraph 2.4 shows the importance of ceremonial context for the construction of these representations. Early modern documents that are analyzed in paragraph 2.5 allow us to view the formation of urban images through the prism of municipal government, a system within which various urban actors interacted. Finally, in the last paragraph of this chapter (2.6), traveling practices of fifteenth – seventeenth centuries are the subject of analysis, showing how they helped shape cities’ images and became the embryo of modern tourism.

Chapter 3 focuses on the formation of city images in the classical modernism (eighteenth through twentieth century). In paragraph 3.1, the representation of the city in literature, the key cultural medium of the modernity, is characterized. A study of the changing literary depictions of St. Petersburg in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries shows how the representation of the city evolved from mythological to realistic. There were, however, many more levels of transformation, associated, firstly, with the differentiation and competition of various kinds of literature and literary reflection; secondly, with selectivity in representing urban space; thirdly, with the changes in the communicational context of literature, etc. Paragraphs 3.2 and 3.3, concentrating on the image of cities as reflected in guidebooks, show the significance of the traveler and the travel guide for the representation of the city. Paragraph 3.2 draws on early-nineteenth-century guides to the small German town of Erlangen to show how this genre so important for the modern culture evolved and what differentiated strategies of presenting an urban object were used in the process. In paragraph 3.3, the functioning of guide-books (as well as albums and other types of texts for tourists) is studied drawing on Soviet sources reflecting the making of the famous ‘Golden Ring’ tourist route. In paragraph 3.4, the study concentrates on the influence of commemorative practices involving different institutions and groups on the formation of urban imagery and concepts of local history. Paragraph 3.5 analyzes urban environment itself as a communication mediator and carrier of historical meanings. A study in the history of the Lubyanskaya square in Moscow and its literary and visual representations allows us to trace the transformation of its perception by the public.

The final paragraphs of the chapter focus on the role of utopian projects and utopian city representations in the contemporary urban culture. The starting point here is the characteristic of modern utopian thought in architecture and urban planning and its post-modern transformations (3.6). The implementation of utopian ideas in practice is analyzed using the example of architectural projects in the Siberian city of Kemerovo. Also, our analysis of manifold utopian representations of the city draws are on such sources as traditional Russian ‘fairytale’ lacquer-work miniatures and Soviet photographs, traditionally regarded as a realistic medium (3.8). Summing up, this chapter shows the functioning of the modern city as a place “both real and imagined” (E.W. Soja).

The final chapter of the report describes the current stage of urbanization and urban imagery formation, covering the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the post-modern context, mechanisms of urban imagery production that emerged in the modern era are changing and fundamentally new types of communication are emerging due to socio-cultural and technological changes of recent decades. Thus, the rise of public history, which is covered in paragraph 4.1, involves new ways for historians to perform their public role that has been so important for the intellectual history of modernity: they are now becoming experts in urban heritage management and in creating urban imagery together and in cooperation with various groups and communities of city dwellers. Another major institution involved in the making of urban images is the city museum. It is the subject matter of paragraph 4.2 that analyzes the development strategies of the Museum of History Moscow to show their underlying ideas of the museum’s role in making the image of a modern city and of the resources these ideas rely on. Paragraphs 4.3 and 4.4 deal with the functioning of images in the (post)modern city. In paragraph 4.3 an analysis of graffiti and street-art culture is presented, particularly those of Berlin, a city in which this culture demonstrates the highest degree of differentiation and an enormous potential to produce urban solidarities. The final paragraph of the chapter (4.4) focuses on the role of musical culture in the everyday life, regeneration and development of contemporary British cities. The conclusions at which this chapter arrives are as follows: (1) the development of new media is becoming the engine of changes in redefining the borderlines between intellectual communities and traditional institutions, on the one hand, and grassroots actors appropriating the urban environment, on the other; (2) the differentiation of urban dwellers’ experience brings to the fore new channels of communication the operation of which proves essential to the making of urban environment; (3) the production of urban images today largely takes place within the so-called ‘culture of participation.’

Results of research: This project is a continuation of IGITI’s 2014 project on “The Construction of the Past and the Forms of Historical Culture in Contemporary Urban Spaces.” The main objective of last year’s project was to analyze the structural conditions in which the historicity of the modern city took shape and how they differed depending on the city type and national context. Historicity was conceptualized within the framework of city-shaping practices such as urban planning and heritage preservation and in the interaction between institutions (authorities, church, museums, etc.), infrastructures (tourism) and communities (local communities, local historians, subcultures, etc.).

The research in 2014 showed gaps that had to be filled out by a new project. It showed also the prospects for the study’s further development towards creating a more comprehensive and up-to-date model of urban environment. Speaking of the gaps remaining, firstly, it had been the goal of last year’s project to systematically describe the various transformation vectors of urban historicity in the transition period from modernity to post-modernity. What remained beyond the scope of that research was the relationship between contemporary representations of history and the historical consciousness of urban dwellers who lived in the past. Secondly, the communication media and the transmission of historic images of cities weren’t fully elucidated in the 2014 project. They are, however, of key importance for doing justice to the variety of forms in which the historicity of cities exists, and they are also crucial for the correct understanding of the modern attitude towards the past when historical consciousness was formed without mass communication and new media, which today act as a stage for different groups and ideologies existing in modern culture to wage their conflicts. Addressing the issues of communication and transmission of cities’ images will make it possible to systematically characterize the role of realistic (literary, cinematographic, etc.) representation of the past in contemporary culture and also to raise the question of the role played by new means of communication, new media spaces and new media technologies in shaping the modern city culture.

One of the major achievements of the project is offering a historical perspective considering the mechanism of constructing the urban imagery. It can be argued that such a focus overcomes the disadvantages of contemporary media and urban studies: their unhistorical and discrete consideration of the past. Another important feature of the project is a combination of sensitivity to particulars and characteristics (for example, non-mainstream urban communication agents or forms of existence) from theorizing, allowing to designate the basic configuration and the general line of development of urban systems of communication. Modern urban researchers have repeatedly stressed the importance of creating spatially, temporally, socially and culturally sensitive theories. The key to its development seems detection and analysis of phenomena, which will make it possible to reveal a complex network of interactions. The third achievement of the project is testing the analytical capabilities of the two major theoretical perspectives of modern cultural geography, urban studies and media studies – representative and/more-than-representational approaches. The line separating these prospects are understanding of agency of urban images production, the main media involved in it, the power hierarchy, governing the production and circulation of images. We propose not to combine the most important vectors of analysis, such as the distribution of power, the forms of the urban imagery, variety of agents of production, and communication channels in some fixed circuit with fixed values of each element. In our view, it will be much more productive to try, firstly, to supplement the existing vectors included in them, such as mold and interoperability within symbolic production or other categories that are sensitive to historical states; secondly, to use combination of the most relevant characteristics for analysis and description of certain urban cultures or epochs. Thus, the contemporary research of the city should be focused not on the well-fixed approaches with their specific and pre-fixed characteristics, but on a set of criteria and analytical toolkit, allowing capturing and articulating the existing values, creating unique or typical assemblages.

Level of implementation, recommendations on implementation or outcomes of the implementation of the results.The project results have been presented at international seminars, conferences and symposia and also in the numerous publications of the Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI) stuff. Findings of the participants of the project, methodological innovations and new empirical data have been already widely used in different courses teaching by the IGITI staff at the Higher School of Economics. Practical results of the project may be used for the interests of different multi-leveled cultural institutions who deal with city’s communications, transformation of urban environment, creation of urban images and forming cultural activities for different urban communities.


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