Visions of the City

Inside Out and Outside In


photos by Kevin Biderman


Summary | Thematic Structure | Methodology | Team Members | Project Management | Visions of the City Magazine


Project Outline

1. Summary

The urban metropolis has long been a place of connection, of refuge and regeneration, for multitudes of peoples who have been attracted by economic, social, political and aesthetic forces. Certain great metropolitan centres, however, have particularly unique qualities, whether from their special history, their topography or their physical and temporal location. These exceptional places become urban hubs, trans-national in scope, having a powerful magnetic force which attracts a great diversity of peoples and cultures.

More than the sum of buildings, parks and avenues, these cities are complex organisms, combinations of flows, symbols and mineral matter although most often viewed in stereotypical and lifeless form through iconic structures such as bridges, towers and monuments. Yet each urban metropolis we have chosen to explore is a throbbing concatenation of people from a multitude of backgrounds and origins, weaving a cultural tapestry in a continuous state of vibrant transition. What attracts people to these special metropolitan centres is as much cerebral energy as safety or food. Sometimes there is a particular period when a city captures the imagination.- Paris in the 50s, London in the 60s, San Francisco in the 70s. These were particular times of social and intellectual fermentation. But great cities have a special quality that transcends these cycles. To explore the magic of these cities one needs to go beyond the bricks and mortar but also beyond rational, explicit and direct reportage.

There are visions of the city that express a special insight through “otherness” or a kind of non-belonging. This “outside-in” vision is best exemplified through the eyes of urban immigrants (from both the provinces and foreign lands) and is often the obverse of what is usually transmitted. Their perspective is initially one of innocence and naivety, subject to their abrupt entry into the urban cosmos. This vision encompasses a wide range of views and a diversity of myths. It also expresses a point of view of those who are struggling to survive, lacking even the most basic needs while all around them glittering goods beckon from the windows of brightly lit shops.

“Outside-in” perspectives of the city also come from writers and artists who visit the metropolis for a length of time to use it as a canvas or a backdrop or even a central character in their work. These visionaries are immigrants of the mind, refugees of the spirit in search of intellectual freedom, who, more often than not, see themselves as citizens not of a particular place but of the world. The border between travellers and immigrants can often be very porous.

There is another vision as well which we will explore by tapping into the urban memory of the outcasts and those on the fringe who may help reveal what is lost or forgotten in the development of the city through individual experiences which collectively expose the city’s unconsciousness or misplaced soul.

This project, therefore, is about the city within told by the people without – informants whose stories are used to cast light on the inner landscape of three metropolitan centres and who share three attributes: cultural references from elsewhere; a sense of “otherness”; and a desire to be of the city (if only for a short duration). It is an exploration of place, people and the conjunction of geography and energy which creates, in the three cities we have chosen, an exciting microcosm where the present, past and future collide and “the new” is continuously taking shape and re-moulded in sometimes invisible underground workshops.

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2. Thematic structure

2.1 Entry Points

Ports, rivers, highways, stations, airports and other points of arrival. City gates and passages. Flows of people; stories of coming in and going out. What is it to be in or out of the city? How clear are the boundaries? How do theses cities relate to their provinces, the suburbs, the world at large?

2.2 Urban myths and realities

The city as a refuge.– Down and out in London, Paris and San Francisco. Survival strategies. How do these cities invent or resist the new, the strange, the bizarre and how do they incorporate them? The sensual aspects of the city – sights, tastes and smells. Is there a real city and where does one find it? Who controls the great stories, the city myths, and how are they transmitted?  How does the city react to its legends? Who are the masters, real and fictional, of these mythologies?

2.3 Urban sanctuaries

Cafes, Bistros and watering holes - Salons for the masses. What does it mean to belong to one of these cities? How do people generate and regenerate?  How do they hide from dangers or escape the numbness of alienation. What are the specific places that foster creativity? What are the cracks and chinks for hidden love, sex, politics and business - for dark transgressions? How do night and day respond to one other? How do these sanctuaries change from winter to summer?

2.4 Markets

The distribution of sustenance and information. Bartering and trading. Recycling the old and touting the new. How, when and where do these cities offer information on sex, food, fun, drugs, art, escape, money, goods and services? On what basis are the prices or exchange rates fixed? Who works where and which sectors of the city are dedicated to which activity? How the city interconnects its different functions.

2.5 Common Grounds 

Public spaces where people congregate – to play, to wander, to think.  Little green and concrete patches. How and where people show themselves off or hide from one another. How much is the city an accomplice in those games? How do these cities differ in what is public and what is private? What spaces fall in-between and escape those categories?

2.6 Public Art 

Stone, earth, graffiti, monuments: imprints on the surroundings. Iconography of the neighbourhoods. How does the city grow and shape itself? Who contributes to this shaping and transition? How does the city views itself as a work of art? The city as a creation, the city as a stimulant for creativity, the city as a shelter or a canvas for created works. Relation between urban shapes and politics.

2.7 Psycho-geography

The gestalt of the metropolis. What makes a city tick? Underworlds and Undergrounds. Subways, sewage and sweatshops. Crowds and mobs. How cities choose their leaders, their patrons, their saints, their villains. What are the rhythms of the city and how different rhythms interfere, syncopate, congregate, synchronise or clash. What are the highs and lows of the city, what is its relative pace over the day, the week, the year and the century?

2.8 Celebration

Various ways the cities celebrate themselves. What are the great events, characters, sites celebrated by the city, what are those deprived of celebration and those reluctant to be celebrated? How is history told inside and outside the city? What is open to public eyes and what to private ones? On what grounds is pride of belonging built? How is it said, sung or sculpted?  Statues and popular songs, movies and festivals.

2.9 Visions of the Urban Dream

The Commune or Alphaville? If time past and time future are both present in the city, how do they interact with those dreams and how do they project themselves into fantasized and real time? What are the dreams of a city? Who dreams them and who or what makes these dreams come true (or stops them from happening)? Our three cities are places of many dreams, for themselves as well as for the world. How can one explore or share these dreams, and how do dreams contribute to the vision of the city, past or future?

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3. Methodology

There will be a mix of techniques used to gather data including current and historical observations, interviews with key informants, stories and photos. Use will be made of literary and visual artefacts. Each member of the investigating team will spend time in all three cities collecting references and resources.

Three techniques will be used to gather data, all of them opting for a vision of the sideway, the slantwise or the askew as an access to a more substantial reality. We expect those techniques to cast a new perspective on the three cities. They are the real and profound originality of this project.

3.1. Interviews of immigrants

What we call immigrants are the persons, groups and families coming from distant lands or places geographically close but distant socio-economically, to seek asylum or shelter or intellectual freedom, be it for a while or more permanently. We expect the intensity of the migrant adventure to offer a keen insight into these cities. The search for new ways of living, loving, working and the fear of an unwanted return sharpens the eyes of the migrants in a way no ethnologist will ever match on their own. It is this look we want to capture, not for the destiny of the migrants but for their insight on the cities. Our three cities have, for different reasons, in different periods of history, become the repository for ceaseless waves of immigrants that still continue undiminished and unabated.

We shall interview twenty-five to thirty persons in each city. The interviews will treat all the aspects of our research: ideas and fantasies about the city, gates and ports, flows, symbols, secrets and mysteries, labour, politics and culture. Our grid of investigation will carefully follow the pattern of the above written themes. In each city, we shall define a sample of persons, ranging from the fresh to the ancient, from different parts of the world, different abilities, both genders and with different purposes in the migration process. For each person we shall apply the same grid as far as their particular history will allow.

We shall have, for each city, material of life stories from which we shall be able to extract the pertinent data we require. As we want to rely on maximum confidence from our informers, we expect to need a full year from the first contacts to the last investigations. For this material we shall apply the very strict rules of anthropological surveys.

We do not expect the immigrant narratives to deliver a truer version of the cities but a more acute look leading to an original vision of the cities. We shall then correct the bias of the delivered discourses as is done in a traditional investigation using direct informants by introducing the surroundings of the survey and explaining the relation between investigator and interviewed.

3.2 Decoding Rags and Bones

We will interview and collect the stories of those unsung urban heroes who often live on the fringe, but who are instrumental in the evolution of urban life.  The dandy, the prostitute, the “chiffonier”, the “flaneur”, the eccentric: they all have a special take on the underbelly of the metropolis and thus allow us entry into hidden worlds which give resonance to the city as graffiti may give life to bare concrete walls.

3.3 Fictional characters

Fiction is another way to explore a city through fantasized characters. The cities of London, Paris and San Francisco have been rich settings for many novels, plays and films. Sometimes the cities even tend to be portrayed as characters, themselves. We shall incorporate diverse fictional characters living in or exploring these three cities. Depending on the specific fiction and the author's knowledge of the city we shall exploit the resources of different narratives and descriptions to offer a contrast to contemporary observations.

For each city we expect to find from six to eight fictional characters. We shall insert the fictional characters amidst the narratives of immigrants giving relief and depth to our descriptions.

3.4  Photos and images

As complementary material, with the sole purpose of underlining some of our discoveries, we shall include original photographs of the three cities. The photos will follow the pattern of the described themes. We shall illustrate the narrative with a number of photos on each theme.

Similarly, we shall also underline our discoveries by means of pictures by other artists, painters and sculptors of the cities including one or two pictures for each theme as illustrations of our research.

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. Team Members

Bob Biderman (project coordinator)

Bob Biderman is an editor, social historian.and novelest. He spent his early adulthood in San Francisco and Berkeley, where he did his university studies in science and literature. During the 70s he helped develop a local arts-in-education programme which he managed for several years. He also started an alternative publishing house which produced a number of significant books focusing on social issues of the time. He moved to Europe in the 1980s, living in both France and Britain, where he settled in 1984. Bob is the author of seven novels which use cities as cultural backdrops including KOBA (Gollancz, 1987) set in San Francisco of the 1970s and JUDGEMENT OF DEATH (Gollancz, 1988) set in London of the 80s.  He currently edits two magazines – Café Magazine, an historical and literary review of the café experience in urban cultures, and Ozymandias, a review of European arts and politics.  He also is the editor of a series of historical novels focused on 19th century London for Black Apollo Press.

Marc Hatzfeld (writer/researcher),

Marc Hatzfeld is a sociologist, writer, poet and filmmaker. He has travelled widely and has lived, worked and studied in Madagascar, South America, the USA and India.  He currently works in Paris as a consultant for city councils, local communities and associative organisations on subjects related to suburbs and other urban issues. As a researcher he collaborates on sociological and anthropological programs launched by ministerial bodies concerning issues of cities and labour. Marc’s recent publications and films include: Petit traité de la banlieue, Dunod, Paris, 2004; Tisser le lien social, guide des régies de quartiers. Editions du CNLRQ, Paris, 2003; Quand la marge est créatrice. Editions de l'Aube, La Tour d'Aigues, 1998;  Portes et passages, 52 mn documentary about immigration in the heart of Paris, Films du Village, Paris, 1997; Pas de problème, 52 mn documentary about young fellows in search of employment in a suburban environment, Films du Village, Paris, 2002.

Yann Perreau (writer/researcher)

Yann Perreau has lived and worked in Senegal, Japan, South Korea, Paris and London.  He studied at the Sorbonne where he received his Masters of Philosophy in 1999 and Diplôme Etudes Approfondies  in Art Theory in 2000. Yann was the book attaché for the French Embassy in charge of promoting French books and authors in the United-Kingdom. He also worked as cultural events and conferences organiser at the Institut Français, South Kensington. His editorial work includes Berg Publishers (Oxford), series on Talking Images and Gallimard (Paris), books on  “Verdi” and “Tokyo”. Since 2003 Yann has been the London editor of Blast Magazine and has been a contributor to (among others) Libération, France Culture, Beaux-Art magazine, Nova, The Idler, Tank and The London Review of Books. Yann has set up a number of conferences and events at the ICA, Tate Modern, Centre George Pompidou in Paris and the Institut Français, London. He has also produced a radio documentary for France Culture and is currently working on a book, Villes en mouvement, Londres, to be published by Editions Autrement, Paris, in 2005.

Kevin Biderman (photographer),

Kevin Biderman received his degree in Fine Arts from Sheffield Hallam University in Combined Media. He has lived in San Francisco, Toulouse, Cambridge and now works as a lecturer at a London College teaching photography, multimedia and semiotics.  His photographs have appeared in numerous publications in France and Britain including: Blast Magazine, Paris, Nova Magazine, Paris, Time Out, London and Agenda Magazine, Cambridge. He is currently working on a book, Villes en mouvement, Londres, to be published by Editions Autrement, Paris, in 2005.

David Cutting (designer)

After graduating from the Central School of Art in London, David Cutting began DCG Design over twenty years ago and in 1982 established his company’s presence in Cambridge. Since then he has serviced the design needs of a wide variety of clients from high-tech and industrial sector companies to public sector organisations, educational institutions and charities. David is chief designer for Black Apollo Press and is on the board of directors of Germinal Productions

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5. Project Management

Germinal Productions is multimedia company of writers, visual artists, film makers and graphic designers.  Our focus is on the integration of image and word exploring history, thought, art and expression.

Recent projects:

  • Livres d'Artistes: The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry..  Publication coordinated with exhibition at Fitzwilliam Museum and sponsored by the French Cultural Delegation, Trinity College, Cambridge and Fitzwilliam Museum celebrating the collaboration between visual artists and writers in 19th century Paris.
  • Exploring The Victorian City: – a collection of novels from the late Victorian period which cast light on forgotten aspects of 19th century London

In Production

  • Cities and Movements: a film discussing the interaction of people outside the mainstream and events that changed the nature of urban life.
  • Living in Limbo: a documentary concerning a Lebanese mother caught in legal limbo for twelve years under threat of deportation.

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Or visit:  Visions of the City Magazine