Jan Svenungsson

Kymäläinen, Päivi. "Imagining the urban II: Framing the visual", in: Geographies in Writing – Re-imagining Place, Nordia Geographical Publications Volume 34:3, Department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland 2005

The visual has always been important in geographical thinking: not only have geographers’ ways of describing been visual, but also the materials have been that. Visualising has belonged to the sphere of geography, even though it has not been discussed too much. One reason for this silence may be that it is taken for granted that the world that a geographer explores is the visual one. And whenever something is taken for granted, there is hardly any need to discuss or question it. Geography has been acknowledged as a visual discipline, and not until recently have there been doubts about that matter.

In the era of science, images began to function as “windows on the world” or as observation. Verbal texts were there to identify and interpret images — burdening them with norms, cultures and imagination. Similar commenting is seen in classic documentary films, in which the viewer is first confronted with “windows on the world”, and then with the authoritative voice of a narrator who identifies and interprets the images. Contrary to this, visual text is an independent message — it may be connected to the verbal text, but it is in no way dependent on it. (Kress & van Leeuwen 1996:17.) Pictures are texts in themselves; they have the ability to tell, to narrate, or to create, due to which it is not enough just to look at photographs. Photography must also be understood as writing, which requires reading rather than merely seeing (Jay 1994: 521).

Today, the question of the visual is much more complicated than ever before. Throughout cultural studies, visual evidences and representations have been contested. Also in human geography, the consequences of the hegemony of the vision is an important theme. By discussing the conceptions of the visual, one may be able to find out something about the borders of visual writing, as well as get clues of how the visual could be refigured. The visual does not have to stand for evidence, representation or presence, but there are also other possibilities to deal with it. Relying on visual evidence means that if something cannot be shown, it does not exist at all or is not worth discussing A difference may also be seen with spoken or written language, which means that if something cannot be told, it may be shown anyway.

In recent years, the hegemony of the eye in Western culture has been questioned. Burgin (1996: 120) writes:

 “In the classical mimetic theories of representation which dominated Western thought before modernism, the image was a mirror of reality — not of any contingent reality but an ordered reality, the anticipation of a perfected reality. Today that mirror has shattered. Its fragments, perpetually in motion, reflect nothing reassuring.”

 This questioning has evoked important discussion, but it has also had negative impacts as visuality and vision have turned out to be bad or unwanted. Almost as a counter-reaction for emphasising geography as a visual discipline, many scholars have become accustomed to avoiding visuality if they have associated it with the objectifying and detached gaze. M. Crang writes that visuality has, in geography, meant presenting the world, and privileging its visual realities. It has meant using visual metaphors and visualising data in maps, tables, and charts. It has also meant the gaze of the geographer that operates in a masculine economy of desire. Due to these critics, some human geographers have turned away from the visual to avoid accusations of objectifying. But at the same time, alternative visions and modes of visualising are dismissed. (M. Crang 2003: 500.)

Although vision has been used as a means of objectifying, that is just one aspect of the visual. The visual does not have to mean objective and distant; nor does it have to mean representing reality. Like any other textual material, visual material can tell about social, political, and economic issues; it can tell about the ways of inhabiting and experiencing places; and it can also tell about the conventions and alternative ways of writing places. All in all, it gives hints of the whole aesthetics and ethics of the relations between human beings and places. Discussing or questioning the visual practices of geographers does thus not have to lead to rejecting the visual, but the challenge is rather to rethink the visual beyond the realm of realism.

Here, the visual and the frames of visual writing are discussed through Jan Svenungsson’s “Nine Cities” (Figures 6, 7 & 8). “Nine Cities” is a photographical exhibition that was presented in Helsinki, in Galleria Hippolyte in 2001. The reason for choosing Svenungsson’s cities here is that his strategies of writing offer new visions into urban spaces. At the same time, his cities challenge one to rethink the visual and the conventions, limits and frames that are included in visual discourses. For “Nine Cities”, Svenungsson has photographed cities that differ from each other in many respects. The cities are Avignon, Bergen, Bologna, Brussels, Helsinki, Krakow, Prague, Reykjavik, and Santiago de Compostela. His choice of the cities is not random, for all these cities were Europe’s cultural capitals in 2000. In the pictures of “Nine Cities”, the cities do not appear as separate. There are nine groups of photos, but in all groups but two, there are mixed photographs from many cities — so that the groups actually form new, virtual cities instead of representing the concrete ones. Following Shields (2003), I refer with the virtual to that which is not tangible or concrete even though it somehow exists. Shields, moreover, notes that virtual worlds become important when they diverge from the actual, or when they are favoured instead of the actual ones. (Shields 2003: 2-4.) I will next explore the nine cities in Svenungsson’s exhibition and discuss the question of the visual through five themes. The themes are:

* The order of reading

* From representational to non-representational

* From narratives to events

* Images of the other

* Frames and framing contexts

 The order in reading

Visual writings have been ordered in many ways: there may be the order of reading, order in hierarchy, or order in the relationship between the spectator and the world. In “Nine Cities”, there is some sort of order of reading, since the cities are numbered, and one easily assumes that the right order of reading is from City 1 to City 9. Whether this proposed order is obeyed or not does not have much impact on the experience of reading: even if the order is followed, a coherent story of the cities will still not form.

The world that is described in visual terms has at least traditionally been ordered. If the world has been thought of as exhibition, it has meant separating oneself from it and setting the world as an object. The observing subject or the spectator is detached from the world, and this separation makes the world seem ordered and organised. Spectatorship has been associated with the look, gaze, glance, surveillance, visual pleasure, and the practices of observation (W.J.T. Mitchell 1994:16). These all may produce world as exhibition, since in them world is a clear object of gaze, surveillance, or observation, and is understood in terms of foundationalism (Gregory 1994: 70). Modernity has also been seen as the age of the world picture, which also sets world as an object as it is conceived as a picture (Heidegger 2000).

There may also be hierarchical order in visual writings. Also Svenungsson’s cities play with the hierarchical order of scales. If one assumes that one composite of pictures represents one particular city, the scale would then appear as the hierarchical order suggests. The cities and the photographs of them would refer to a local level. The experience of the city would be embodied, which tells that the city would happen concretely and the experiencer would be involved in it. As these nine cities would relate to each other in the exhibition, they would be connected to the question of the urban Europe. Also in the exhibition, urban would then communicate with European scale. But as one realises that the “Nine Cities” as groups do not have equivalents in reality the idea of hierarchical scale is at the same time disrupted. Because there are pictures from many cities in one collage, they no longer refer to local level, but there are multiple localities that are mixed with each other. Something that is usually absent (the other cities) is brought to the presence of cities in the form of images. These multiple localities are connected to other scales as the exhibition also creates one European city that is created as these nine virtual cities relate to one another.

 From representational to non-representational
Photographs have had a historical and cultural role in picturing people and place. Through photographs one can see, remember, imagine and picture place. Photographic image has been trusted and valued as visual evidence, due to which it has been a popular practice among various disciplines. (Schwartz & Ryan 2003: 1-6; W.J.T. Mitchell 2003:286.) It is problematic to consider photographs primarily as representational, since such a view restricts the possibilities of visual materials by connecting them to realism. The challenges of representational thinking are nowadays encountered in many occasions, since the everyday lives are filled with visual material which cannot be comprehended if it is seen from the viewpoint of realist thinking. Svenungsson’s photographs are an example of visual material that would be much damaged if it was approached realistically. That is because the photographs are not first and foremost representational. Since most of the nine cities in the exhibition are composites of the photographs from different cities, they simultaneously refer and do not refer to concrete material places. In addition to these references, they also form completely new cities that can exist only virtually.

The ever-increasing centrality of vision and the visual forms of conceptualising are most likely connected to the habit of thinking space as presence (Strohmayer 1998: 117). Many aspects in the present can be observed or realised through senses — especially through vision. Films or photographs have been considered natural and direct in opposition to the supposed artificiality of writing (Brunette & Wills 1989:61). If one expects that moments can be frozen in time and translated into visual form, photos and films may give an impression of their connectedness to the present. Derrida (1980/1987) rather sees representations as sendings of a kind, which never reach their final destination, or never reunite with the object or idea they represent. Because there is both difference and deferral, visual material appears beyond the ideas of realism. When photographic images are regarded as representations, they may be seen as supplements to reality. They are conceived within the perspective of reality’s absence. They are meant to be received without that reality, and therefore the images are marks of absence. They appear as an original and a copy, whose relation is usually founded on the hierarchy based on the temporal primacy of the original over the copy But when changing a point of view, this relation no longer seems so simple. In any operation that involves copying — for example photocopying — one never uses the word original until there is a copy. In a way, a copy retrospectively creates the originality of the original. In this sense, the original can be constituted only by the copy There is still not much point in reversing this hierarchy and claiming that the copy always creates the original. Instead, the relation between reality and texts may be displaced when realising that the original and the copy constitute each other. The relation between them is not hierarchical; it is rather intertextual. (Brunette & Wills 1989: 74-75.) Whichever way this relation is understood, it is questionable whether photographs can ever be regarded as copies of places. The practice of photographing creates places anew, and recognising this also challenges the devaluing of visual material. Devaluing appears when images are not seen to have value of their own, but considered important only in relation to something else of which they can be copies.

“Nine Cities” ruptures the differentiation between texts and the world. Svenungsson’s photos problematise a belief in the capability of images to represent the reality. The assumption that there is the original world out there, and that images are mere copies of it, is questioned. Svenungsson’s images may at first be interpreted that way: if one supposes that each city in the exhibition is equal to one “real” city the images may then appear as quite representational. But as one finds out that the cities from 1 to 9 do not refer to “real” cities, the images turn out to be more non-­representational than representational. This is an important translation to understand, because it is always challenging to claim against the common beliefs that “seeing is believing” or that “visual images represent the truth.” “Nine Cities” thus plays with that which is taken for granted: the belief that images are most of all evidences of the world that cannot be perceived at the present moment.

 From narratives to events
In addition to the realist belief in representations, there is a need to challenge another assumption connected to visual writings. That is the idea that photographs tell stories about places. Like the enthusiasm for representation, also this presumption often fits well into photographs.

An alternative for seeing images as narratives is to interpret them as events. Laakso (2003) explains the relations between narratives and events in the following way: if there is a narrative in an image, that does not mean that the photographs mediate stories. Instead, there is a possibility for narratives. A photograph always refers to an occasional or single event. If earlier it was emphasised that pictures mediate stories, now narrativity is connected to a certain event, in which there is a possibility for a story (Laakso 2003: 162.) A lot thus depends on the textual strategy that is used with photographs. If so desired, images may easily be turned into the form of narratives. But if they are allowed to remain events, they work much more independently: giving impressions while remaining events.

In Svenungsson’s cities, there is no such order and coherence that makes the work appear as unity. Since the photos are taken from several cities and then combined, there is no clear narrative connected to the images. The images are not arranged in a way that would create a story immediately The succession of the images is disturbed as one realises that a picture is not connected to the earlier one or to the next one as coherently as is presumed. Should the photographs be arranged temporally (so that the picture that has been taken first, would also be presented first); logically (so that one image would lead to another and affect it); rhetorically (so that the pictures would promote some aims by creating a story); or in some other way? The point is just there: it is assumed that there should be some arrangement and order. Without that, the interpretation of the work is disturbed. In Svenungsson’s photos there is not a story about European cities, but the responsibility of such story is given to the viewer. Svenungsson’s cities are events in which there is a possibility for a narrative, but one right narrative is not offered. This changes anonymous observers into participants that narrate, define, tell and question the work.

Even though the arrangement of Svenungsson’s photographs’ does nor promote the creation of narratives, some stories will appear at least momentarily. If the nine cities equalled with “real” cities, there would be no problem creating stories: the pictures would tell what the city looks like or what sort of views can be taken to the landscape. The images would promote narratives by giving some hints about society, culture, economy, and politics of the city. In every one of “Nine Cities” the story would not be created the same way. That is because some of them consist of several photos, whereas some of them include only one or two photos (Figure 7).

But since the question is nor of real cities, the story is different. As Svenungsson’s cities are arranged differently, there appears to be what Derrida calls narrative freedom: there is no ready-made story, but you have the authority to tell stories yourself and to position yourself in relation to pictures. Even though you are free, there are rules: laws that assign the right of inspection. You ought to stay within the frames of this law; without violating it. Interpreting images thus concerns one’s entitlement to look at, and to arrange what is looked at. Often narrative freedom may feel too liberal, since people have the desire for stories and for giving images an order by narratives. Even though there will remain forbidden (the ones that I will not tell you) and untellable (for which I have no means to tell even if I wanted) narratives, the interpreter will have some stories. The interpreter is nor primarily a subject who looks, reads, and writes, but rather the one who tells what s/he thinks s/he sees when looking at photographs with respect. (Derrida & Plissart 1985/1998.)

Svenungsson’s work consists of fragments of cities. If these fragments are, after all, translated into coherent narratives, what is then their use in this different strategy of writing? If compared to a work in which a ready-made story is available, the difference is that in Svenungsson’s case the story will not be the same all the time. There necessarily remain doubts and questions; uncertainty about the end and about the order of sequences. That is what prevents multiple textual strategies from becoming insignificant: instead of one story they offer possibilities for several stories with different ends. Because the closure is not seen in the work itself, no one has knowledge of it. It has to be imagined.


Images of the other
After hearing the names of the cities in “Nine Cities” project, one probably has preconceptions about what each of these cities looks like, or what characteristics they have. Svenungsson’s pictures do not mainly show these characteristics, but in many images, the cities remain unidentifiable. Individual photographs may resemble each other to the extent that one is not able to tell whether the picture is of Reykjavik, Brussels, Prague or Avignon. Still, the cities in Svenungsson’s work seem as wholes. One reason for that may be that the cities are in many pictures unidentifiable, due to which photographs could be of several cities. In the pictures there are some landmarks, but also a whole bunch of marginal urban spaces with pavements, construction sites, railway yards, undergrounds, squares, basketball grounds, or wastelands. The anonymous features of the cities are combined with only a few landmarks.

For example in the “City 7” (Figure 8) there are two images of Helsinki: the Parliament House, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma with its surroundings. Anyone who knows the city recognises these sites, since they are landmarks of the city. But that is not all about Helsinki. Different views are offered for instance in the “City 2” (Figure 6) in which there is an image of a block with three storeys. That represents more anonymous landscape that is not recognisable similarly to the two previously mentioned landscapes were. The mixture of the well-known and more anonymous views from nine cities make a combination that gives no easy answers for the questions of those urban spaces.

“Nine Cities” brings visible such aspects of cities that are usually not considered worth describing. These are marginal spaces, wastelands, or ordinary urban spaces that tend to remain outside the images of cites. The framing has happened differently from the usual, since the framing of the cities is not done in a way that is self-evident. In a way, the binarity of insides and outsides is deconstructed in “Nine Cities”, since the landscapes of the city are not valued in the expected way. Instead of primary landscapes, the focus is on that which is generally considered secondary. The marginal sites in Svenungsson’s work are non-places in urban spaces: they are and are not at the same time. By that, I mean that even though these places would be present in landscapes, they are not given the status of place in the sense that they would be recognised or appreciated — at least not unless they become visible if encountered in “wrong” contexts that would make them to be noticed. In Svenungsson’s work, half places are found that fit neither into the customary categories nor into the logic of exclusion that have guided the evaluation of landscapes. “Nine Cities” makes non-places also by creating virtual cities that do not have concrete equivalents.

Through cultural descriptions, representations and preconceptions, people are told beforehand how cities should be conceived and experienced. What cultural texts present is easily considered natural, and therefore these suggestions are taken as given. Disruptions like those of “Nine Cities” are needed, since they help one to recognise that the naturalness of certain conceptions is only an illusion, and they do not belong to place. Taken-for-granted assumptions are problematised in “Nine Cities” also because the project does not offer a focused glance at cities. The collages of photos do not have a clear centre on which one would automatically focus one’s gaze. In addition to the centres, the margins define the city. There is not only one point of view to the cities, and therefore the cities do not appear as ordered. Nor do they appear as objects, as they are not treated as an exhibition that the spectator would observe from the distance. Instead, there is a participatory relationship between the cities and those who read them from Svenungsson’s images.

Frames and framing contexts
Not only frames are significant in images; the framing contexts are of equal importance. How has framing been done, and what is beyond the frames? That which surrounds the frames is also of interest. Burgin (1996: 169) writes that one can be fascinated two times: first by the image, and secondly by that which surrounds it. The surrounding is important, for meanings do not develop “at a glance”, but they are derived from a broader cultural context beyond the frame of the image (Burgin 1996: 60). Meanings are thus not traceable inside the image that is delivered to the audience through a camera. Pictures do not themselves carry meanings with them, but signification happens in relation to contexts.

By framing, it is possible to define what is included and what is forced to stay outside. The question of framing is still not simple. When it comes to images, certain things can be left outside in the physical sense: that which is not shown in the picture is outside. It is more difficult to exclude these issues otherwise, because that which is not said or shown is of equal importance to that which is included. In “Nine Cities”, the practice of exclusion is not as clear as in many other photographic works on cities. As was mentioned earlier, in “Nine Cities” the marginal is not excluded, but rather the division into centres and margins is mixed. Nor are other cities excluded from the pictures. Since the cities consist of parts of many different cities, the focus is not in one city. As the other cities are not excluded, there is a mixture in which there is no clear inclusion and exclusion anymore.

It seems that the traditional division between still image and moving image is not strict in “Nine Cities”. It is assumed that still image is about stability, whereas moving image has the capability of transmitting movement. Here, there seems to be no reason why still image could not be about movement. Since there is not only one point of view, and the glance is nor focused into one target, movement is included already in the strategy of writing. Perhaps it is not so clear in one picture, but it is created in the relations and tensions between photographs.

Pictures of “Nine Cities” do not offer clear frames and borders for cities. The viewpoints are rather multiplied due to these pictures. In a way the assumed frames are out of their joints as the cities are presented in a different form than one would expect. For example, in the City 2 (Figure 6) the idea of the line between inside and outside is reformulated if one first looks at the picture from afar and then closer. At first sight, one would easily think that a composite consists of photos from one European city, since due to some familiar landscapes, the city may first begin to look like some particular city. To me, City 2 first looked like Prague, since I identified the Ginger and Fred Building. A picture of a little Skoda and some texts by the street supported my view. It took a moment until one city turned out to be many cities and vice versa.

Brunette and Wills (1989: 74) write:

 “Documentaries.., institute borders and construct frames around an inchoate reality, thereby making it meaningful, but always in a way that intends to be perfectly natural and that claims to follow the contours of reality itself.”

 Instituting borders is thus a signifying act. Something is made meaningful and at the same time given the status of being valuable; something that can be located inside. Creating borders thus creates the possibility of belonging (cf. Paasi 1996; Migdal 2004). The end of the quote above still brings out the most important point:
the borders that are created are claimed to be natural and to be drawn according to reality. In order to be able to explore visual materials and their frames critically, the naturalness of the frames has to be questioned also in human geographical thinking.

The nine cultural capitals that were involved in “Nine Cities” are different from each other: there are cities from the Western Europe, whereas Krakow and Prague represent Eastern Europe; there are cities from the north (Bergen, Helsinki, Reykjavik) and cities from the south (Santiago de Compostela). If the cities were introduced one by one, dominant dichotomies would readily be promoted. Reykjavik would look like the city up north; in Santiago de Compostela some features of Spanish culture would be seen; in the images of Krakow or Prague there might be some hints about their socialist pasts. The art in Svenungsson’s images is just in the point that they do not reproduce the previously assumed categories. Instead, by composing new cities, the questions of similarities and differences become more clearly into view. And note, as questions; not as perfect answers that would be given.

“Nine Cities” does not primarily tell facts, but it tells about framing in visual culture. “Nine Cities” plays with many arguments and beliefs that prevail both in Western culture and in human geographical thinking. It plays with the idea of representation; it plays with the hegemony of the eye; it plays with final meanings; and it plays with the hierarchical order of scale. “Nine Cities” challenges the ideologies of transparency and representation that are involved in realist thinking. In order to be able to discuss visual culture, the challenge has to be taken seriously: to think what is beyond the world as exhibition, and beyond the image as the reflection of that world.

Päivi Kymäläinen