Geographies of Colonial and Postcolonial spaces: Research Paper
(Re)presenting the postcolonial city: Urban Earth Mumbai
Visual technologies, in particular photography, play a crucial role in constructing geographical imaginations and shaping our perceptions of place (Schwartz and Ryan, 2003), yet have also often been deeply implicated in colonial power relations (Ryan, 2003). This essay will analyse a novel of mode of representing the city – “the visual symbol of postcolonialism” (Triulzi, 1996: p81, cited in Yeoh, 2001: p461) – through an examination of the stop-motion film Urban Earth: Mumbai.Urban Earth is a project initiated by “geographer/educator/activist/adventurer” Daniel Raven-Ellison (Urban Earth, 2009a), which aims to (re)present cities “to show what they are really like for the people who live there” (Urban Earth, 2009). Rather than reducing the heterogeneity and complexity of the city to a handful of symbolic images, Urban Earth aims to represent the “daily living geographies” of the world’s urban areas (Here on Earth, 2008). “Urban Earth is not about following the tourist trail or tracking down the most extreme places…it is about finding normality” (Urban Earth, 2009b). This representation is achieved through the production of a stop-motion film created from thousands of photographs, taken every eight paces whilst walking from one edge of the city to the other, following a predetermined route which is proportionally representative of the gradations of wealth present in that particular urban area . One of the first cities to be the subject of an Urban Earth film is Mumbai, the financial and commercial capital of India, and “a vibrant mega-city with a rich colonial and post-colonial history” (Pacione, 2006: p238).
This essay will interrogate the relationship between visual technologies and the representation of the postcolonial city through a critical examination of the film Urban Earth: Mumbai. I will first give an explanation and description of the film, focusing on how the mobile, fragmentary, street level view of Mumbai both reinforces and challenges dominant images of the city as simultaneously the “city of debris” and the “city of spectacle” (McFarlane, 2008). From this starting point I shall elaborate three key themes. First, I will examine the manner in which the film is produced, through the practice of walking the city that facilitates engagement with the “living geographies” of the city, yet is also potentially analogous to colonial “urban exploration” (Pinder, 2005). Secondly, I shall focus on the film itself as an alternative mode of visual representation that provides a stark contrast to totalising colonial landscape perspectives. Finally, I will consider how the mode of production and the ensuing representation of Mumbai produced through the Urban Earth film relate to postcolonial critiques of urban theory, in particular Robinson’s (2006) “ordinary cities” thesis, thus highlighting the potential value of this form of representation.
Representing Mumbai: The Urban Earth Film
Urban Earth: Mumbai was filmed in August 2008, and constitutes a seven minute long film containing 4743 images, taken every eight paces of a 24 kilometre walk from the western boundary of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the north of the city, to the coastline on the southern edge of the city. The film captures Mumbai from a pedestrians point of view; an embodied perspective that gives a sense of immersion in the fabric of the city (see Figure 1.). This perspective is particularly productive in representing Mumbai, where the “street” or “footpath” is commonly represented as a “powerful and mythic space in the city” (Mazumdar, 2007: p4). The images that constitute the Urban Earth film are shown at a rapid speed, generating both an impression of constant movement and momentum that is evocative of the flux and flow of the contemporary city, and a relentlessly changing and fragmentary representation of the city. The viewer is never able to focus for too long on a singular image, with streets, buildings and people captured only in fleeting glimpses; the urban landscape changes from makeshift shacks and crumbling roads, through colourful stalls and dense crowds, to modern apartment blocks in a matter of seconds. The overall impression generated of Mumbai is a chaotic, diverse and densely populated city, that appears neither as a site of “failed” modernity nor as an exotic urban Other.
The representation of Mumbai generated by the Urban Earth film is reminiscent of many popular geographical imaginations of the city. The fragmented and disorientating nature of the film conveys clearly the common image of Mumbai as a site of chaos and claustrophobia (Mazumdar, 2007: p114), where “the cityscape encompasses islands of cohesive aspects amid a vast sea of disparate structures” (Patel: pxxvii cited in Mazumdar, 2007: p114). Similarly, the vibrancy and disorder of the Mumbai street (Appadurai, 2000) is clearly apparent in the film. However, Urban Earth: Mumbai does not simply reproduce the spectacularised juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty that dominate the imaginative geographies of Mumbai (Mazumdar, 2007: p46). By traversing the breadth of the city, the film represents an image of Mumbai that is much more hybrid and heterogeneous than a simple and stark opposition between the “city of spectacle”, of skyscrapers and glamour, and the “city of debris” of slums and squalor (McFarlane, 2008). While landscapes of extreme wealth and poverty are evident, the “reality” of the city depicted through the film demonstrates an urban geography that is much more complex than this polarised image.
Walking as Urban Exploration
The unique characteristics of Urban Earth: Mumbai are the result of the method of walking in the city used to produce the film. The embodied practice of walking is mobilised in this case as an act of critical “urban exploration” that aims to “challenge norms about how cities are framed and represented” (Pinder, 2005: p385). While the structured nature of the walk and the emphasis placed on the ensuing visual representation of the city as much as the experience of the walk demonstrates a break from the many walking practices influenced by psychogeography (see Bassett, 2004), the use of this method in order to represent the ‘reality’ of the city does correspond to many critical perspectives on urban walking. For de Certeau (1984), the practice of walking provides a powerful resistive counterpoint to the voyeuristic, totalising view from above the city; a view which can be corresponded to the totalising colonial gaze. Crucially for the purposes of the Urban Earth project, walking enables encounters with “the apparently ‘ordinary’ and ‘unimportant’ activities of the city (Pinder, 2005: p400), and complicates the “concept-city” by going beyond representing the city in terms of a fixed set of symbolic landmarks.
However, the value of walking as a practice for engaging with the postcolonial city is somewhat unclear. If, as Yeoh (2001: p459) argues, “it is often in the buzz of the street and the thick of urban encounters…that the postcolonial is enacted and lived”, then the engagement with the everyday activities of the street that is predicated in the act of walking appears to be a potentially productive method for representing postcolonial urbanity. Yet on the other hand, the very notion of “urban exploration” or “adventure” (Urban Earth, 2009a) carries certain colonialist connotations. As Pinder (2005: p388) notes, much “venturing into cities”, both past and present, is deeply implicated in colonial power structures, where urban exploration is framed as a means of shedding “light on the ‘dark’ and ‘undiscovered’ urban geographies at the heart of empire”. However, the Urban Earth project does overcome these problems to an extent, as it explicitly rejects the construction on non-Western cities as the Other, emphasising instead the commonality of all cities (Here on Earth, 2008). Likewise, while the walk used to produce Urban Earth: Mumbai was led by Daniel Raven-Ellison, local residents also participated. The Urban Earth project is premised on democratic participation, with the goal of encouraging people to produce films of cities across the world (Urban Earth, 2009a), and thus cannot be reduced simply to an act of “appropriation” by a “colonial” explorer.
A Postcolonial visual technology?
Despite the common association of photography with colonising practices, Urban Earth: Mumbai provides a mode of visual representation that forms a stark juxtaposition with colonial visual techniques and technologies. Colonial visual technologies are characterised by an elevated, detached landscape gaze “offering objective, authoritative and wide-ranging vision” (Wylie, 2007: p127), that enables the powerful viewer to “characterise, appropriate and judge non-European scenes” (p125). In the context of the urban landscape, this colonial visuality is perhaps most clearly expressed in the nineteenth century panoramas of cities, which provided an aestheticised, panoptic and totalizing view of the city from above (Comment, 1999). The representation of the city provided by Urban Earth: Mumbai can be seen as the complete antithesis of this colonial perspective. Whereas the panorama was conceived as a way of regaining control and mastering urban space through passive detachment, the immersive view presented in the Urban Earth film creates a sense of being overwhelmed by the crowded city streets. Thus the film embraces the very opacity of the city that the panorama was designed to overcome; the viewer is not permitted the illusion of mastery, of understanding the city as a whole, but is instead subjected to a continually changing, partial and fragmentary view, recognising the impossibility of grasping the city in its entirety (Huat, 2008: p3).
This mobile, fragmented view, produced as a result of the constant embodied movement of the walk across the city, provides another break from colonial visual traditions. As Wylie (2007: p177) states: “mobility might be appropriated as a deliberate vehicle for opposing and transcending notions of landscape as static and sedentary”. Thus it can be argued that the Urban Earth films constitute a visual manifestation of this alternative understanding of landscape, in contrast to lifeless, static colonial representations. This contrast is further reinforced by the manner in which the photographs that make up the film depict constantly bustling streets that are full of life. As Gregory (2003: p224) notes, colonial photographic practices commonly rendered urban landscapes devoid of people, suggesting “a vacant space abstracted from the modern world and awaiting (re)possession by the forces of European history”, a visual technique clearly rejected in the images of Mumbai presented in the Urban Earth film, where the crowds inhabiting the street dominate the view.
Postcolonialising the Urban: Representing “Ordinary Cities”
The combination of the street level view produced through walking, and the diverse, fragmentary nature of the images that constitute the Urban Earth: Mumbai film, whilst clearly challenging colonial visual techniques, can also be productively linked to recent developments in postcolonial urban theory. Robinson (2006) argues for a comprehensive postcolonial revision of urban theory based around an understanding of all urban areas as “ordinary cities”, suggesting that rather than categorising cities hierarchically, it is essential to recognise the “diversity and complexity” of all cities (p1). Robinson suggests that theories of urbanism have repeatedly employed the metaphorical tactic of synecdoche, or “letting the part stand in for the whole”, in order to “represent cities through only partial aspects of their incredible diversity” (p171). The visual representation provided by Urban Earth: Mumbai is clearly in line with these critiques. The motivation underpinning the Urban Earth project can too be understood as a critique of the deployment of synecdoche in common representations of cities, which distort popular geographical imaginations, reducing the complexity of cities to a narrow set of symbolic images (Urban Earth, 2009a). Thus if a postcolonial urban theory, in this case, is identified as one which valorises the diversity and complexity of cities, refuses to distinguish between “first-world” and “third-world” cities, and resists oversimplifying their complex nature, then the Urban Earth films appear to offer a visual representation attentive to these concerns.
Urban Earth: Mumbai embodies a number of key themes which resonate with postcolonial critiques of both visual technologies and urban theory. Two key elements can be drawn out which are evident in the conception and production of the film, and the ensuing representation. First, the privileging of the immersive street-level view over a detached landscape perspective allows the film to embrace the opacity of the city which the colonial gaze attempts to overcome, and thus enables a visual representation of the “everyday living geographies” of the postcolonial street. Secondly, the fragmentary, continually changing images of the city presented through the film provide a way of avoiding the reduction of cities to a “fixed set of signifiers” (Edensor, 2000: p127), instead embracing their complexity; as evidenced the film’s representation of Mumbai as infinitely more heterogeneous than a mere dichotomy of “skyscrapers and slums”. However, the claim that the film represents what the city is “really like” (Urban Earth, 2009a) must be tempered to a degree. The film does only offer a partial view of one walk across the city, and should itself be viewed as a representing only a fragment of the city. Similarly, in reducing the embodied experience of the walk to a merely visual representation, much of the multi-sensory complexity of the urban experience is lost. Nevertheless, despite these limitations, Urban Earth provides a unique mode of representing the postcolonial city, one which challenges many norms of visual representation, and powerfully challenges popular imaginative geographies of the world’s cities.
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