Short Takes

    Damascus: Tourists, Artists, Secret Agents
    Reloading Images
    The Green Box/Prince Claus Fund Library

    In 2008, representatives of Reloading Images, a loose network of research-oriented artists from Syria and elsewhere, gathered to delve into the psychic depths and urban spaces of Damascus. The product of that ten-month journey is a self-proclaimed “collective narrative” that positions the artists as secret agents, limning an imagined Damascus by way of cryptic collages, coded language, and palimpsestic texts. The results add up to more of a sketch than a map, a conversation without a conclusion. “We were fascinated by the secret society of Bataille and his Surrealist friends,” they write. “We wanted to imitate the rituals of the Acéphale, reading de Sade in the forest, romanticizing orgies and sacrifice. We almost slaughtered a lamb, but winced in the decisive moment; the animal ran away, leaving us behind, ashamed, silent, and sheepless.”

    New Geographies 1
    After Zero
    Harvard University Press, 2009

    According to the inaugural issue of the journal New Geographies, “zero” represents the flattened landscapes to be paved over by so-called “new cities” (Norman Foster’s Masdar in Abu Dhabi, Rem Koolhaas’s Gateway City in Ras Al Khaimah); the emissions goals of progressive design; the amount of context often afforded cosmopolitan mega-developments; and the quantity of resources now available to realize forward-thinking architectural plans. After Zero, then, considers what might follow our current state of crisis, and what might replace the modes of thinking and building that got us there. The discussion lacks programmatic constraints and is pleasantly digressive, running from Keller Easterling’s analysis of the proposed Africa Optical Network, which would encircle the entire continent with a submarine fiber optic ring; to Thomas Campanella’s exploration of China’s “suburban revolution”; to Yasser Elsheshtawy’s exploration of the history and context of Abu Dhabi’s recent development surge, the “Arabian tabula rasa.” The result is a web of theories, proposals, arguments, and critiques, none of which tell us where after-zero may lead us, but all of which, cumulatively, offer an array of paths forward. It will be intriguing to see where this Harvard-based journal takes its readers when it tackles the “landscapes of energy,” the subject of its next issue, to be published this winter.

    Perspecta 41
    Grand Tour
    Edited by Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, and Thomas Moran
    MIT Press, 2009

    In the eighteenth century, elite young Englishmen set out on a standard itinerary across Western Europe to learn about art, architecture, and music and to hobnob with the ruling classes of foreign locales. The trip, known as the “grand tour,” came to play an integral role in the education of aristocrats and lay a foundation for the cultural tourism of the future. Perspecta 41, the latest issue of the cult student-edited journal of the Yale School of Architecture, uses the idea of the grand tour as its overarching theme and its point of departure for a meditation on why architects travel. The issue aims to counter the current barrage of globalization hype in urban discourse by taking a step back and (re)inserting personal nuance into the very idea of architectural travel.

    In these pages, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi share their experiences with foreignness and marginality; Peter Eisenman and Edward Burtynsky reflect on their personal travels; and Rem Koolhaas, perhaps the ultimate architect-traveler, is challenged critically, though conventionally, by Esra Akcan. Photographer Ramak Fazel takes us through the mechanics of his road trip to every capitol building in the continental United States, Ljiljana Blagojevic writes on the tumultuous history of Milorad Pantovi’s Belgrade Fairgrounds, and Sam Jacob reflects on tourism architecture via the Villagio Mall in Doha. Jeffrey Inaba of C-Lab shares his plan to save Venice. Essays are broken up with photo-stories—the Venturi, Scott Brown home with all its tchotchkes — images, and short texts, including excerpts from Yuichi Yokoyama’s wordless graphic novel Travel and a series of his laconic observations on it: “A mass of rocks is visible on the mountaintop. The landscape seems to symbolize something. A new house can be seen at the foot of the mountain.” Excellent.

    China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa
    Serge Michel and Michel Beuret with photographs by Paolo Woods
    Nation Books

    While the West has been divorcing itself from much of Africa over the last twenty years — America’s blundering intervention in Somalia’s civil war has remained fresh in the minds of politicians, and myriad intractable social and economic problems have made investors queasy — China has been, in the words of Michel and Beuret, “making waves across much of what was long considered a stagnating continent.” Their survey of China’s booming business throughout Africa shows an ascendant superpower anxious to turn a profit wherever it can.

    It’s not just oil China is after; its minions are developing land, building real estate, setting up manufacturing firms, mining ore, and building highways. In Cameroon, “there’s hardly a single aspect of the country’s life that hasn’t been upgraded, replaced, or otherwise improved by Chinese intervention.” The draw of the nearly $100 billion traded between the two regions is apparent in the authors’ numerous portraits of Africa-bound émigrés, who are willing to trade the increasingly unattainable goal of making it in China’s cities for the promise of a few hundred extra dollars per month in a land that is strange, but becoming less so.

    Cairo Portfolio
    A Public Space #9
    Edited by Brian T Edwards

    In “Bordering the Marvelous,” Mohamed Al-Fakhrany’s contribution to this special supplement to the New York literary quarterly, three nervy kids from the slums — Farawla, Naeema, and Awad — eke out a living selling drugs on the Nile Corniche, until one is arrested for the crime. Rather than abandoning the characters or narrating their fates, the author invites the reader to investigate: “Why don’t you picture it, or find out, for yourself? Go to the Corniche… Beside the hotel… Try it… Shout: ‘Farawla… Naeema… Awad…’”

    Edwards, the author of Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express, has compiled a highly specific, if limited, sampling of Cairene literary and artistic currents. Omar Taher’s introduction, translated by Edwards, situates a generation of Cairenes in the maw of global pop culture and Egyptian TV, soccer stars and the last half-century’s innumerable historical traumas. Those who came of age in this era contend with a globalized world fraught with the restrictions of the Egyptian state and society; they are not only products of the age, but children of images. The numerous footnotes provided by Edwards and Amina Mohamed turn the brief essay into a kind of primer on the twentieth-century history of Egypt, and an apt preface to what follows: Al-Fakhrany’s story; an interview with the veteran documentarian-turned-filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout (Eye of the Sun) about censorship and the future of independent film in Egypt; a story by Muhammad Aladdin; and a comic by Ahmed El-Aidy.

    The Novel of Nonel and Vovel
    By Oreety Ashery and Larissa Sansour
    Charta, Milan, 2009

    Oreet Ashery is Israeli, Larissa Sansour, Palestinian, and for outside observers, they acknowledge in the foreword, there’s nothing more appealing than such a dialogue: “A mutually extended olive branch is about as sexy as it gets.” Their graphic novel aims to address “the problematic nature of the very kind of dialogue we — as collaborating artists from opposite sides of the divide — are in some shape or form engaging in.” The artists, both now based in London, worked on the book under alter egos, Nonel and Vovel, names taken from rapid-fire, typo-laden Skype conversations between the pair. The subjects in their comic strips and photo-stories are caricatures of hardworking artists with noble intentions, presided over by the Lab Man, who gives them the option to swap their fruitless efforts as artists for the chance to become Palestine-saving superheroes. Each chapter is designed by a different artist persona, taking in quizzes, questionnaires, cut-out dolls, and knowing Facebook exchanges, as well as more traditional drawings and illustrations. Ashery and Sansour then handed over the second part of the story to the writer Søren Lind and the more usual traditional comics illustrator Hiro Enoki, as a final self-destruct on the part of the artist-as-hero. (The book also includes essays by curators Reem Fadda, on the ‘Palestine Question’, and Nat Muller, who contributes a proposal to the Venice Biennale for the “2212 Intergalactic Pavilion”.) There could be fewer photos of Nonel and Vovel (or is it Ashery and Sansour?) at play in London, and at times the commentary slips into beyond-character earnestness, but this is a playful, beguiling book; keep an eye open for what Ashery and Sansour do next.