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Photo: Christina Juhlin

– notes on Københavns Museums VÆGGEN seen in an interdisciplinary field between performative art and the city

an assignment summary by Christina Juhlin, student at performance design, RUC

My interest in VÆGGEN derives in my interest in the relationship between the city and performative site-specific art. The city can be seen as an expression of an expansion of the notion of ’site’ (Kwon 2002: 92), which allows performative site-specific art to deal increasingly with spatial politics and various spatial concerns (Wilkie in Pearson 2010). The following notes reflect upon how site-specific art and performativity have not just become strategic tools in urban planning, as Kristine Samson (2012) points out, but also how the city as ’site’ gives performative art and the art institution new opportunities to intervene in social space. The notes can thus be seen as a contribution to the interdisciplinary field which Rosalyn Deutsche calls ”the urban-aesthetic” (Deutsche 1996).

VÆGGEN is a large interactive screen, which gives access to an enormous archive of pictures from Copenhagen throughout the times. The viewer/citizen can also upload pictures, histories or videos, by which they uncensored can contribute to the museums archive. The technology of the screen allows the viewer/citizen to easily zoom in and out of streets, buildings, histories and people, and thus explore Copenhagen across time and place. One can either choose to follow a timeline or skip between streets and histories by association. In the essay ’The Storyteller’ Walter Benjamin writes: ”When someone goes on a trip, he has something to tell about” (Benjamin 1969: 84). VÆGGEN similarly to Benjamins words, VÆGGEN points towards the spatial dimension of memories and insists on the relation between memories and histories.

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Photo: Christina Juhlin

With its strong intention to involve the viewer/citizen (the very technology of the screen means that something will only happen if someone does something), and its placement in the middle of the street, VÆGGEN can be seen as a comment to both the museum’s and the city’s limitation when it comes to viewer/citizen involvement. This becomes even more obvious as the narrative of VÆGGEN is Copenhagen’s history, and the subject, which the viewer/citizen is invited to contribute to, is their own take on that history. For instance: I press on an old picture of the place which today is Føtex on Vesterbrogade, but what used to be Havemanns Magasin. Here, an anonymous viewer/citizen has left the comment: ‘My grandmother used to work there’. Mike Pearson describes mythogeography in which ”the personal, fictional and mythical are placed on an equal footing with factual, municipal history: ’the whole city becomes a field of transitional objects, part created, part discovered’ (Turner, 2004, p. 386): the city becomes a ’potential space, a place of enquiry and invention.” (Pearson 2006: 25) This helps to understand how simple comments such as the one cited above can actually constitute new realities in the city.

Exactly because VÆGGEN is open towards subjective experiences of the city – and consists of a technology, which underlines the point that the city’s history can only be written with the help of those who live in it – VÆGGENs function as an archive can potentially become performative as opposed to just collective. VÆGGEN has potential to function as a method of gathering local empirical knowledge precisely because it involves all those subjective experiences, which the city is made of besides from architecture and infrastructure. This is in line with a new paradigm within urban planning, which recognizes the importance of local knowledge and sensitivity towards place – a sensitivity, which is also indicative of new site-specific performance. By being situated on the street instead of the museum, VÆGGEN exemplifies an expanded engagement with the social. Miwon Kwon (2002) points out that site-specific art today is no longer just critical towards the ‘site’ of art (the art institution) but also includes a criticality towards other sites, in this case the city. This further blurs the boundaries between art and non-art.

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Photo: Christina Juhlin

In Den performative by – design, planlægning og oplevelser Kristine Samson (2012) shows how planning and aesthetics blend together in a new planning paradigm. Samson analyses how the city is used as a scene, and how urban planners have started to think in terms of performative strategies when developing cities and cityscapes (Samson 2012:221). The obvious advantage for urban planning is that performative strategies help to involve citizens in urban development. The performative element implies processual thinking, openness towards co-creation and sensibility towards the atmosphere of places – all of which are characteristics of a democratic, creative bottom-up approach to urban planning. VÆGGEN can be seen as an example of this blurring of a new performative planning paradigm and site-specific art’s growing engagement in social spatial issues.

In VÆGGEN, technology both creates the parallel universe, which allows the viewer/citizen to be immersed, and creates a perceptual distance. On the one hand, technology helps to create a different city, which enables an alternative and co-created city. On the other hand, technology also makes VÆGGEN very anti-sensual and thus limits it’s capacity to create new imaginations: The screen only activates sight, and the viewer/citizen is not physically immersed into something. On the contrary, one is left outside the screen, on the outside of the container. In this sense, the archive stands in contrast to a more bodily experience of the city.

VÆGGEN shows how effects from the world of site-specific art can be used to understand the city as experienced reality, as collectively performed history. Through an implicit institutional critic – VÆGGEN is placed on the street and open towards the influence of everyone and everything – it also criticizes the structures, which shape the city. VÆGGEN was initiated with the construction of Copenhagen’s new metro and inspired by all the archaeological findings, which the construction work would inevitably lead to. The construction of the metro is considered by many a project, which is happening without the saying of citizens: Former public spaces are closed off by green fences, noise and detours become controlling mechanisms in the experience and use of the city. As a counter act, VÆGGEN seems to remind the passer-by that the city is and continually will be collectively created and that also memories, feelings and senses have their right.

I press on ’Nørrebro’ on the big screen in order to learn more about the neighbourhood. I then press on a picture of Nørrebro Station, because I’ve always been fascinated by the building and would like to know more about it. From there I unexpectedly move on to old photos of all train stations in Copenhagen. The way in which one navigates in the universe of VÆGGEN is similar to what the situationist Guy Debord calls derivé: Associative, although not random, ways to move about the city. The way in which VÆGGEN shapes experience is thus related to the kind of experience, which is staged by the very city, in which VÆGGEN is situated.

The assignment in its entirety can be read in Danish here: ET PERFORMATIVT ARKIV – byen som udvidet site i Københavns Museums VÆGGEN

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