October 3, 2010
These are the first paragraphs of a longer essay written for the “Futureland” exhibition catalog of Portuguese photographer Nuno Cera. The project is supported by the Fundação EDP in association with Trienale de Arquitectura de Lisboa.
No matter how much we hear and read about them, we still can’t fully grasp what ‘megacities’ are. The towering skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong or the birds-eye sprawls of Cairo, Mumbai and Los Angeles are what often come to mind. But what does a megacity look like from the street level? How does it look from down below and at the edges? Is it still “mega”? And what about the “city” itself – when exactly does it dissolve into its neighbourhoods or connect to the movements of its people?
The ‘megacity’ is a strange animal. Outsized and unruly, it seems to escape all definition and defy any representation. Maybe the megacity is just a myth. A pure product of the imagination. A chimerical creature that only appears when we invoke it through an elaborate ritual that involves flying around the world and calling its name in as many languages and from as many sites and angles as possible. In, out, up, down, over and under.
This is pretty much what Nuno Cera did. He flew over Mexico City, dived deep into Shanghai, got lost in Dubai, searched for the edges of Jakarta, followed fictional paths driving through Los Angeles and walking through Istanbul, looked up at Hong Kong from the streets, jumped out of random train stations in Mumbai, and visited the roof tops of Cairo. Travelling through these multiple yet interconnected realities, he also reappropriated each of these cities as fictional constructs.
Such fictional moves consist primarily of evacuating the cities of their teeming humanity. Like a poet who pares down sentences so that the barest of fragments provide a powerful resonance of the whole, the fictionalized accounts of these mega – cities basically imagining them through their emptiness -, is another way to convey their immensity. They are mediated by images you have seen in cinema, they remind you of a walk in your own neighbourhood and they speak to you through their emptiness.
Time and space expands and contracts in the world of high speed, information-inflected global travel. In this roller-coaster ride of fragments and wholes, tiny pieces and the larger picture all seem to have the same proportion. They become slivers of uneven but manageable experiences giving us the superficial sense of having taken it all. They consolidate themselves at airports, when each place condenses itself neatly into the destination and arrival labels on flashing electronic boards, giving us a sense of departure and arrival with temporary definiteness.
When we land and take in the new landscape shooting up towards us through the aeroplane window, a new opening emerges and we feel we have walked into another whole city. In fact, we may only be moving into yet another frame of the same movie. What the photos show is not a variation of the same creature in different parts of the world, nor is it nine distinct megacities. But rather one contiguous experience. The megacity appears when we see all the images collated together, in a continuous stream.
None of Nuno’s images actually shows their object – the sharply defined megacity itself. It is to be found only in the quick blur occurring when we switch our attention from one image to the other. As if made from the gutter-space between each frame of a graphic novel. The megacity is nothing but a blur. A blur that swallows towns, villages and neighbourhoods. A global megacities blur. A giga globurban spread that fuses everything together, even cities as distant and distinct as Los Angeles and Cairo. The globurban spread is the new Babylon. Welcome to Futureland: A greyish continuum stretching around the world like a gigantic cloud unifying all humans in a shared sense of utter confusion.
The nine cities Nuno explores in his work were surely selected for what they share as much as what sets them apart. All of them are experiencing rapid urban growth. They have expanded tremendously, both horizontally and vertically over the past decades. They are all acting as regional hubs and global nodes. Their power often exceeds that of their own nation states, yet they are themselves victimized by capricious economic forces that they have no control over.
The skyscraper, the suburban housing block and speedways are the architectural symbols of the global status of the megacity. These artefacts are rising defiantly, ever greater and more numerous. Nuno’s photos show them as quasi-totemic entities, as if they were impersonations of an obscure and all-pervasive power. From one city to the next we see the same markers: the glittering rise of Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the suburban sprawl of LA and Istanbul, the endless urban maze of Cairo and Mexico City, the alternatively crumbling and shining structures of Mumbai and Jakarta.
These cities are all restructuring in response to the same global impulses and imaginaries. They are connected through road, sea, airways, information networks and consumption patterns. However integrated this overarching system may be, it is also deeply fragmented at all levels. It suffices to get off a car in LA and start walking the streets to realize how local and disconnected most places really are. People don’t actually inhabit a network or a symbol. They live along roads and inside buildings which, whether we want it or not, belong to the immediate context at least as much as the global one. At the end of the day, the final frontiers of lived urban experience are the concrete moments of occupying space and time. Where the historical and cultural trajectories shaping particular urban experiences become visible.
The smells of Mumbai’s urban masala, the electric heat of the million feet going up and down Istanbul’s alley ways, the cries of retailers in Cairo, the contained temperate climate in desert-defying Dubai, the bubbly pop/sub-cultural landscapes of LA, the exhilarating architectural ambitions of Shanghai, the unruly markets of Mexico City, the audacious streets of Jakarta are as distinct as the worlds they have emerged from.
As soon as we get local and start feeling the social and cultural fabric of a place, we are out of megacity bandwagon and the “global”, “mega”, “city” categories seem meaningless. The only things left are here and now, what’s near and immediate. Yet, we also know that this local reality is not only made of buildings and roadways. There are multitudinous presences everywhere. Millions of bodies congregating in streets and markets, busily coming and going, operating in enmeshed worlds of local and global boundaries, often unconscious of where one begins and the other ends. Entering Nuno’s juxtaposed images, we immediately see through the impersonality of the mega structures and touch the teeming humanity they encase.
All images by Nuno Cera