Foolish Journeys: Urban Research for the City yet to Come – Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Keywords: Tarot. Urban. Research. Methods. Maps. Walking. City. l’avenir. The Other. The future. Strangers. Strange encounters.


Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

Photo by: Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan

 

Foolish Journeys is an urban research project, which begins from Jacques Derrida’s distinction between the future and l’avenir: “the future is… predictable, programmed, scheduled, forseeable; but there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected… totally unpredictable. The Other…”

The tarot is also called “The Fool’s Journey,” in which a seeker sets out to meet the Other and reach The World. The Fool is an ignorant wanderer. He is often depicted as a young man of few possessions, which are tied in a handkerchief at the end of a stick balanced jauntily on his shoulder, as he walks off the edge of a cliff.

The tarot is a guide to encountering l’avenir. If l’avenir is the meeting with the Other, the unknown, the unpredictable, then we might lock eyes with this unforeseeable future, this Other, every day in chance encounters with strangers on the city’s streets. Foolish Journeys asks: How can we research the unpredictable in urban life? How can we prepare to meet the city yet to come?
– Coupez, mademoiselle. Choisissez neuf cartes de la main gauche.
– Je sais: trois pour le passé, trois pour le présent, trois pour l’avenir.
– Connaissez le tarot?
– Un peu, comme ça[1].

TROIS POUR LE PASSÉ

XX. Judgement: Lagos

We are inside a small Baptist church at dusk, on the outskirts of a Lagos neighborhood in the mid 1980s. I am here for a rare event–the screening of a film depicting the second coming of Christ. This Baptist church is not my church. In my family, going to church is a special event—piling into the station wagon wearing special shoes and hats, sitting still for what seem like hours—reserved for a few Sundays a year. There are certainly never any films shown at our church. I come to this new lively church on a regular weeknight at the invitation of my friend, a neighbor. I am allowed to go because it is just a short walk from home. The Baptist church is part of the grounds of the neighborhood secondary school. It is the same school where my father taught Mathematics and coached football for a few years. The walk is familiar. We pass my cousin’s apartment building, the general grocery store, cut through the quiet marketplace with its stalls shuttered for the evening. I have never been to a public film screening before, never sat in the dark with strangers, silently sharing emotions. The large doors close on a crowded room, blocking out the evening breeze. A short speech by the pastor and the lights go out. In this dark place, we are rapt, focused on the portable hanging screen set up in front of the pulpit. What we see is a moving picture of the end of the world: radio broadcasts frantically announcing the mysterious disappearance of millions; irons left on, burning hot; eerily empty streets; abandoned cars; desolate shops; and a few very blond, very afraid stragglers screaming, running, left behind in the big American city. We emerge bewildered. Outside it is already night.

O. The Fool: Manhattan

It is August, 1995 and I arrive from Seattle with two suitcases and $1500. My path to the city follows a shaky finger running west to east, reversing Manifest Destiny, along a map of the United States taped to the wall of the high school counselor’s office. The finger stops on a small island off the coast of the United States. There is a tiny black shadow of a plane, nose north, the letters “JFK” hovering just above my fingertip. “I want to go here,” I say to the counselor. The first few days I wander underground. Exiting at Christopher Street, thick night air envelops me. I cross 7th Avenue and into the labyrinthine streets of this old city where it is impossible to walk in a straight line for long. Passing a narrow town house, I am drawn in by the sound of revelers, friendly voices laced with laughter. Someone calls to me and waves, and soon I am navigating a crowded kitchen holding a glass of wine, sipping slowly, listening to conversation. Outside, I am back on 7th Avenue, spit out into Sheridan Square. I follow a group of young men wearing colorful bandanas, singlets and jeans into the Monster. Around the piano, middle-aged white men sing smoky songs from musicals. I continue down a side staircase, trailing the young men, into almost complete darkness, broken by rhythmic strobes. I feel the sound before I hear it, rich bass traveling up from my feet, exploding just below my navel. Around me there is a mesh of brown bodies, shining with sweat. It is impossible to stand still now, and so I dance.

The Knight of Cups: Brooklyn

On a freezing night, Vida calls. Her voice is difficult to hear, almost drowned by bumping music and shouts. In the silence of my apartment, this sound is deafening. Come out tonight! I resist and she threatens to keep calling. Reluctantly, I write down the address. I put on a t-shirt, threadbare hoodie, blue jeans, sneakers, puffy white ski jacket with one diagonal red stripe. I walk to the A train station, change to the F, marveling at doing the unthinkable—leaving Brooklyn on a Sunday night to wander the arctic-like streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Exiting at 2nd Avenue, I trudge east on Houston across filthy ice floes and desolate intersections, and then north on Avenue A. Reaching 14th Street, I realize I am lost. I search my pockets for the address, which is at home, next to my immobile phone. I cross the street, turning south to make the journey back to Brooklyn. At the next block I hear the raucous sound of a big salsa band, a roaring crowd. Through fogged windows and happy faces, I see someone I recognize. A former coworker: a safe harbor in this miserable cold. I rush in, hugging him, so-good-to-see-you-let-me-get-you-a-drink. Two drinks later, yelling over the din, he says, “I’m not who you think I am. I am his twin”. I laugh in disbelief. Certainly the hair is different yes, but the features are… those of an identical twin. My expression is despair. The Twin says, “Wait, don’t go, stay and listen to the band. Here let me introduce you”. The band is good, and the walk home long, so I stay and meet The Twin’s friend who is the flutist in the band. Eight years later, I am still great friends with The Twin. And I live in Brooklyn with The Flutist.

TROIS POUR LE PRÉSENT

II. The High Priestess: Excavating the Present

Hakan Topal[2]: What is [Walter] Benjamin’s archaeology?

Adeola Enigbokan: In [Benjamin’s] Arcades Project, he talks about it in little blurbs. He says your research—your real research—is always an excavation through layers of the self.[3]

H: Exactly.

A: I also consider his techniques of finding things, looking for debris, trash. One of my professors, an archaeologist, actually studies trash—present-day trash, as opposed to old-time archaeological trash. This is what archaeologists do, anyway. It’s not like Indiana Jones or something. Most of it is just finding piles of everyday things that people threw away, buried underneath layers of sediment.

H: Mmm hmm.

A: So this idea that Benjamin had of looking for trash is related to an idea he had about history, which is that the past is never really past, but is always available in these “flashes.” There are things you can do, techniques you can engage in to generate the “flash.” This idea is important to me because it’s my feeling about research: research is this digging through trash, systematically looking, although you don’t know what you’ll find. I look through trash because it’s been discarded, because it’s what people want to put away. This is why it’s important for me.

This is why I’m talking to you. I need to follow these kinds of resonances. Each person that I interview, or whose work I’m interested in, has this similar feel for archaeology—looking for what has been lost or thrown away.

XII. The Hanged Man: Peripheral Visions

A: The other thing that has come up a lot [in my research] is “peripheral vision.” I’ve been keeping track of all the places I see peripheral vision mentioned.

H: Mmm… where the focus is not direct.

A: Yes, where the goal is to see by looking sideways.

H: Yeah.

A: With normal social science methods—the kind we refer to when writing a proposal for government funding—there is the need to isolate the object, look directly, zoom in, zoom out, to microscopically look. In this kind of research, the “frame” through which one looks has to be clear. I wonder how that approach differs from looking peripherally?

H: I think this is very interesting. In photography it is the frame that matters, not the object, especially if you are doing landscape photography, [which] shows everything, but doesn’t have a focus. Roland Barthes[4] talks about the punctum in photography—the focus object that takes your attention immediately. Editorial photography, or journalistic photography always has a punctum that draws you in. But I agree that the peripheral vision is important when you are looking for something. The whole thing actually is important. For example, when an event occurs in the Kurdish region [of Turkey], TV personalities go there immediately and cover the thing. Then serious journalists go there afterwards to report, yes? Then maybe a couple of years later there are the researchers who go and do academic studies.

I feel that as artists what we do is totally irrelevant to what is happening urgently, because we look at things that have no relevance to the current urgent conditions. We go there when nobody is interested [any more]. If I have a mission as an artist, this is the mission: to look at the places that have no importance to anybody, then bring them into the discussion.

A: Mmm.

H: I’m from Anatolia. Obviously it’s impossible to remove yourself from what you belong to. Like if you focus there, then it’s [no longer] peripheral vision. My interests come from Anatolia, but I don’t feel that they are local interests because the nature of the discussion has to be brought back to us [here and now] again. If you are studying the earthquake in Turkey, it’s not different from studying [Hurricane] Katrina in the US. I feel that they are very relevant [to each other]. There are connections between those two events.

A: Yes.

H: The understanding of a particular event has to be global.

XVI. The Tower: State of Emergency

A: I’d like us to talk more about the technique or orientation that goes along with having peripheral vision, or finding what appears to be uninteresting to people right now and bringing that into the picture. I think this connects to Benjamin’s approach, especially in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In that essay he’s talking about National Socialism [in Germany in the 1930s] and how that [kind of] politics create[s] a state of constant emergency to explain why horrible things have to be done all the time. Benjamin also says that our task is to bring about a real state of emergency. I think this is connected to maintaining a peripheral vision, or as you pointed out with landscape photography earlier, a panoramic vision—to be able to bring into the story things that appear irrelevant. This must be part of bringing about those flashes, those moments of recognition, of ‘Oh! This is what it is!’

H: Right. True. I think that Sociology and Anthropology are disciplines, and disciplines have to work within disciplinary practice. While I am very much influenced by Sociology and Gender Studies, I think that art or an artistic approach is a kind of opening that I couldn’t [make] in Sociology. Within the discipline, you have to tell the story in a particular way in order [for your work] to be understood as a sociological practice. Whereas artistic practice is itself a kind of discipline, especially if you think of the institutional art practices—it has a certain anti-disciplinary opening that allows us to make light assumptions. You see, I am not an archaeologist, but I can talk about archaeology. I wouldn’t call myself a sociologist, but I can talk about sociology. I can bring in lots of different elements and I can be a naïve scholar. This naïveté is an opening for me. I can bring a lot of things together and present them, and take those risks and be a naïve scholar, or naïve artist or whatever it is. These things teach me a lot during the process of playing.

TROIS POUR L’AVENIR

Encounter Strangers

The Fool begins his story by taking a step off a cliff and into the unknown. With this step, walking becomes the practice of opening the body and its capacity for sensation up to the city. Anke Gleber, in her discussion of flanerie as research method, presents walking as “a visible mode of writing” and as “an aesthetics of reflection in, through, and of images.”[5] For Gleber, the flaneur “is the precursor of a particular form of inquiry that seeks to read the history of culture from its public spaces.”[6] The flaneur, strolling against the daily traffic of scheduled appointments and wage labor, depends upon the chance encounter, the glance of a stranger—on what cannot be foreseen, l’avenir.

Take up the deck of cards and shuffle them. As you shuffle, focus on one question. If you have no question, keep your mind clear. When you are ready, hold the cards in your left hand. Drop the cards into three piles to your left. Re-stack the cards in any order. I spread the cards out in front of you. Pick a card, and another, and another: three cards, face down. I turn them over one by one to read them. I ask you to put your hand on the card you would most like to encounter in the street.

Become Strange

Qui aimes-tu le mieux, homme énigmatique, dis? Ton père, ta mère, ta soeur ou ton frère?
– Je n’ai ni père, ni mère, ni soeur, ni frère.
– Tes amis?
– Vous vous servez là d’une parole dont le sens m’est resté jusqu’à ce jour inconnu.
– Ta patrie?
– J’ignore sous quelle latitude elle est située.
– La beauté?
– Je l’aimerais volontiers, déesse et immortelle.
– L’or?
– Je le hais comme vous haïssez Dieu.
– Eh! Qu’aimes-tu donc, extraordinaire étranger?
– J’aime les nuages… les nuages qui passent… là-bas… là-bas… les merveilleux nuages!”[7]

I scatter folded pieces of paper on the tablecloth. The tablecloth is made of cut up pieces of New York City’s subway map, glued together to create an impossible geography of New York, with some segments of the city repeated, mirrored and distorted, as in a dream. Each folded piece depicts a section of New York City’s subway map. Take one and open it. In this area, you will experience the tarot card you most want to encounter. Immediately you find some connection to the place—your first girlfriend lived there, you will attend a picnic tomorrow at this park. The area becomes a site for pilgrimage and further research. The next time you visit this part of the city, you will find it unfamiliar and every encounter will be pregnant with the unexpected.

Estrange the City

A basic premise of this project is the idea that the city is built in layers of time. Look at the crumbling walls in Tel Aviv, the scaffolding in New York, pass workers digging into the vast maze of sewers, pipelines and wiring under the ground in either city. Or look at the buildings with their facades from different times and imagine the constant movement, the rotation of occupancy and design: sense how the city is built in these layers of time. The city is full of different pockets of time that one can fall into or out of just by walking around. To move through the city is to move through time itself. This is what the tarot is for: learning how to fall into and out of these different times and layers, how to recognize them, and how to pay attention.

Rethinking our notions of experience, and reorienting ourselves towards what is ephemeral and unpredictable in urban life, reveals the need to reconsider our methods for producing knowledge about the city. Methodology in urban social science generally comprises a series of techniques, recounted ritualistically in journals and monographs, by which researchers aim to gather information, ‘usable’ data, about the social world. This data may then, through equally ritualized analyses, become fact about the social world, and might be used as evidence to support arguments or hypotheses. Often in the United States, social scientists have the express aim of influencing policy and the government of populations. To explore my interest in the phantasmagoric, energetic and ephemeral qualities of urban experience—indeed, in time travel itself—this sort of methodology, in which research is conceived as the gathering of evidence for the purpose of argument and policy, will not do. Ghostly or fantastic things demand a certain flexibility of method—creating and walking a path proper to the object or phenomena that is being approached. In fact, it is the path, and the manner in which it is walked, that shape the object which is re-searched, or searched after.

References

[1] Cléo de 5 à 7. (1962). dir. Agnes Varda.

[2] Hakan Topal is an artist, social researcher and founding member of xurban_collective, an international artists’ collective focused on the “questioning, examination and discussion of contemporary politics, theory and ideology.” To learn more about xurban_collective visit http://www.xurban.net This conversation took place in New York City, on June 28, 2010, around lunch time.

[3] Walter Benjamin. 1999. Selected Writings Vol 2:2: 1927-1934. M.W. Jennings, H. Eiland & G. Smith, eds. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p. 576.

“Language has unmistakably made plain that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but rather a medium. It is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the “matter itself” is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation… It is undoubtedly useful to plan excavations meticulously. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam.”

[4] Roland Barthes. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. R. Howard, trans. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, p. 42.

“In this habitually unitary space [of the photograph], occasionally (but alas all too rarely) a “detail” attracts me. I feel that its mere presence changes my reading, that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value. This “detail” is the punctum.”

[5] Anke Gleber. 1999. The Art of Taking a Walk: Flanerie, Literature and Film in Weimar Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 5.

[6] Ibid. p. 4.

[7] Charles Baudelaire. 1869. “L’étranger” Le Spleen de Paris. Online edition, accessed July 1, 2011. http://baudelaire.litteratura.com/le_spleen_de_paris.php?rub=oeuvre&srub…

Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan is an artist, researcher, writer and teacher based in New York City. Her artistic/research practice involves creating interventions, which provide an alternative framework for approaching urban “problems.” The goal is not to locate “solutions,” but to ask questions about the way of stating the problem. This practice has often involved the use of historical artifacts and archives, everyday public spaces, practices and language to create opportunities in which participants might reconsider their own ways of thinking and moving in the city. She has presented work in diverse venues: at El Museo del Barrio, ConfluxCity Festival, Anthology Film Archive in New York, The Royal Institute for British Architects, London and the Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem. She teaches undergraduate courses in Urban Studies, Media Studies, Sociology and Anthropology, while completing a doctorate in Environmental Psychology at the City University of New York. http://archivingthecity.com

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Foolish Journeys: urban research for the city yet to come by Olatokunbo Adeola Enigbokan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

Based on a work at http://nomorepotlucks.org. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://archivingthecity.com.