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Books and bombs: Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here

A street becomes a symbol of the power of words on paper; when it is destroyed, a project seeks to rebuild it in words and paper.

The pictures of maps here are from a book made by my friend Mona Kriegler for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here, a really interesting project that makes explicit the relationship between place and the imaginative, between symbolic and physical realities.

The project began in March 2007 when an American poet, Beau Beausoleil, read about an incident in Iraq the previous day – a car bomb exploding on Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, killing 26 people and wreaking devastation. The street, named after a revered 10th-century Iraqi poet, had been home to bookshops, stationers and cafes where writers and artists gathered, and the bombing was widely seen as an attack on the country’s literary and intellectual life.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

In truth, the area had started to transform in the 1990s after western sanctions started to wreak havoc on Iraqi cultural life without any need for explosive; rather than a flourishing bookshop quarter, it had become a place where impoverished intellectuals came to sell the contents of their personal libraries, spreading out their books on the street, and a rash of photocopying shops had sprouted to cater to those starved of reading matter by the dearth of imported publications. Al-Mutanabbi Street was not so much an address as a symbol of traditional art and culture. The image of a street of bookshops being blown to smithereens is a powerful one, though, and Beausoleil’s response is an equally powerful symbolic action, seeking to rebuild an area of the city in words, images and paper.

Beausoleil first asked poets and writers to contribute poems in memory of the victims of the bombing, and this became a call to letterpress artists to make broadsides – large posters, of the sort traditionally used for publishing news, ballads and proclamations – as a visual response, focused on text and typography. The next phase was a callout for book art, and between 2010 and 2012 260 artists contributed to an alternative library, which has become a touring exhibition. The third phase is a call for submissions from printmakers to contribute on the themes of absence and presence. The project as a whole already has almost 500 contributors from around the world, so it has clearly harnessed something powerful around the symbolic connections between site and art.

Attacks on culture through the actual destruction of objects, buildings and places is a common feature of conflict throughout history, of course. In a recent talk at the Mosaic Centre in London, London-based Iraqi artist Rashad Salim pointed to the burning of a library in Tripoli, Lebanon in January as just the most recent example. In the real world, Al-Mutanabbi Street was rebuilt in bricks and mortar in 2008 (before-and-after pictures here), generating conflict over whether the government was prioritising its symbolic value over the needs of other parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country that were destroyed in the war and/or fell into disrepair. The street’s continuing symbolic reconstruction in words and paper (an inversion of the Demolition Project) can perhaps be extended to a wish to restore all the culture that is lost in war or to iconoclastic rampage – all the vanished streets where artists once met, all the burned books, demolished libraries, smashed statues, ruined archives, ripped paintings…

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The book art contributed to Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here includes ingenious and beautiful work, some of it drawing on the image of the map. My friend Mona’s contribution, Pain and Memory, is one of these, using gold thread to stitch together the “scar” of Al-Mutanabbi Street on hand-drawn and aerial maps of Baghdad, an idea that draws on the Japanese wabi sabi tradition of repairing broken objects with a thin gold line along the cracks. The book is largely made up of photographic portraits of people who have been injured or broken in some way, with their scars (some of them invisible) traced in gold paint, thus drawing out relationships between the city and the body. A very different take on the aesthetics of destruction and repair, making beauty out of the tracks of repair.

Mona’s gold-stitched lines made me think about the debate between those who want to build anew and those who want to restore – similar arguments have taken place in Baghdad over Al-Mutanabbi Street and in New York over the World Trade Center site. Do we want to wipe out any sign that destruction has happened – whether by building something completely different or by constructing an exact copy of the original – or do we want to reveal and memorialise it? There is a small round plaque high up on a wall on a street near my house, commemorating the first bombing in the first Zeppelin raids in London in 1915; I walked past it a thousand times before I noticed. London is full of such small, discreet nods to damage caused in long ago wars. Beau Beausoleil’s project could prove a more enduring and constructive way to acknowledge damage through the fragile medium of paper.

Mona Kriegler, The Autonomy of Pain

More on Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here book art here, here and here.

A long piece on the project here.

Book photographs: Dafne Louzioti, Mona Kriegler

real underground

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine solution for organizing exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of pictures and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

In the urban exploration culture there is a very straightforward but, arguably, most genuine concept for organising exhibitions. Where to make an exhibition of photos from the roof-tops if not on a roof-top? Where to make an exhibition of drawings and photos from underground if not in an unfinished construction of the heat header?

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In July 2011 a group of ‘diggers’ (those who explore the underground world of the city) led by moscowhite, have organised an exhibition featuring drawings by hatever and kreazot_13. It took place in a heat header right in the central district of Moscow. During one day (due to the illegal and spontaneous nature of such events they essentially have a very short life span) dozens of people would be climbing down not only to see the works but also to get the real feel of urbex life. While most of the guests were from the community itself, there were quite a few for whom the process of getting to the location was a real adventure. The location was specifically chosen so it was not very dangerous and illegal (the header is abandoned) and everyone who wanted could get to the location without getting lost in the tunnels. The exact address was not revealed – only the nickname of the place. Thus, everyone from the community knew it and could get there straightforwardly while all other guests could write a message to organisers and get directions. During that one day several hundreds of people have come down and walked along the tunnels to see the exhibition.

The organisers have installed lights (apart from candles and torches brought by spectators) and played ambient music which could already be heard in advance, as you were approaching the location along the tunnel.

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Have a look at the very atmospheric video from the event: ‘Real Underground’ by Anastasia Zotova.

Photos: w-molybden, huan_carlos, jst-ru

The Star Road

Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you will meet: roads, authorities, fences, closed doors, rivers and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organizing a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.

Have you ever tried simply to walk out of your house and keep walking in a straight line through your city? Imagine how many obstacles you would meet: roads, authorities, fences, high walls, closed doors, rivers, ponds and forests. Recently a Russian artist Anastasia Ryabova has explored this topic by organising a ‘Star Road’ expedition, where the participants were invited to walk through the city recreating the shape of a star.

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When I say ‘through’ I do literally mean it. The emphasis in the project, a bit similar to the urban practice of parkour, is on the physicality of the experience of the city with your own body. Also, it is not simply a spontaneous act of walking through the city following a certain pattern but is an expedition which is researched into and prepared well in advance. It engages with the history, the structure, the bureaucracy and the authorities of the city. Thus, it offers a new experience and engagement with the city.

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As Anastasia puts it in her own words:

The Star Road is a heroic expedition, which aims to carve out a new route over existed urban landscapes. A group of pioneers will overcome all kind of obstacles, and walk through existing concrete/administrative barriers. This new street will be inspired by the form of a star.

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Il Viale della Stella 

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sites we like

Personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it.

The Tour of All Tours is a blog by performance artist Bill Aitchison, described as:

A creative review of guided tours worldwide and thinkpad for art and tour projects more generally.

This seems to have started as a diary of Bill’s work of the same name in Stuttgart last year, but a lot of the posts are personal, detailed and highly enjoyable accounts of guided tours he has taken, with lots of photos, offering a subtle critique of an aspect of the tourist industry via an enthusiastic engagement with it. The latest posts are about tours around the area of Shoreditch, east London, as research for a site-sensitive performance of the Tour of All Tours he is giving at Rich Mix in July. Easy to spend hours wandering round this absorbing blog and we’re looking forward to taking Bill’s Tour …

Tour of All Tours

Bill Aitchison Company

Picture by Bill Aitchison, from the Alternative Tour around east London

the Lenin House of Culture, Nizhny Novgorod

More than 1 200 people used to seat in this huge hall. And now it is totally abandoned with only a giant chandelier hanging in the middle. The round stage itself has apocalyptically fallen down.

More than 1 200 people used to seat in this huge hall. And now it is totally abandoned with only a giant chandelier hanging in the middle. The round stage itself has apocalyptically fallen down.

The Lenin House of Culture in Nizhny Novgorod was built in 1927 to commemorate 10th anniversary of the Great October revolution. Lenin is still present here: there is a giant smashed head of Lenin and the other bust is standing facing the corner. A lot of artifacts are scattered everywhere: books, film rolls, slides and course materials. As a souvenir we took tokens, which would be given to people in the cloakroom.

Standing as it is, a sort of contemporary ruin, the former Lenin House of Culture could be a great sight for a performance. So I really hope to come back one day – if it will still be there as life of such buildings is unsecure and unpredictable.

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a letter to freedom

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Ahead!, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?

‘I live in Freedom!’ Not many people can say that – but some people can. Idea, Freedom, Hope, Forwards, Happiness, Ideal, Future – if you look hard on the map of Russian Federation you can find out that these are the real names of towns and villages. Do they stand as signs of forever gone soviet utopia? Does it make one feel happier to live in a town called Happiness or it sounds more like a mockery?

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At his recent show in Vinzavod (19.05-17.06 2013) a Russian artist Mikhail Zaikanov exhibited envelopes, which he has sent to all of the above cities. He addressed them to the non-existed people so that the post office had to return the letters back and make a stamp, which would confirm the existence of these places.

Together with those letters the exhibition consisted of canvases with fragments of the map. All of the colours and details were erased making these beautiful titles of towns and villages as if hovering in the created pauses.

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So can you imagine how it feels to write, when filling your address, that you are not from London but from Happiness?

Photos by Anastasia Blyur

Demolition of the day: the Thames

In August 2013, Annalisa drained all the water from the Thames:

Keep the bridges, but the water (life) of that Thames River has to go! Bleurgh! Bring the mountain to London!

In conversation, she promised to replace it with clear blue Mediterranean water. It’s not entirely clear which mountain she brought to London (or where she’s hidden it).

the lost world

I am Russian. I was born in 1989. When I fill in a visa application form I need to write that I was born in USSR, Moscow. I was born in the country, which you can no longer find on a map and in which I only lived for a little more than two years. From the 21st of August 1991 it no longer existed…

I am Russian. I was born in 1989. When I fill in a visa application form I need to write that I was born in USSR, Moscow. I was born in the country, which you can no longer find on a map and in which I only lived for a little more than two years. From the 21st of August 1991 it no longer existed.

Urban exploration (urbex) is popular in many countries. However, it is very specific on the post-Soviet territory. In this particular case we are dealing with the abandonment of a whole country, an almost century-long historic period and a never fulfilled utopia.

These buildings stand as phantoms, often with complicated ownership situation, abandoned and in decay. Although not completely destroyed, they are as if suspended between existence and absence.

Together with my friends I have been practicing urbex, travelling around the former Soviet Union countries, for more than three years now. In this blog I will be constantly sharing with you some of the photos (both by me and my friends) of the abandoned buildings we’ve been to.

an abandoned factory ‘Zarya’, Dzerzhinsk, Russia

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Photos by Alisa Oleva

Demolition of the day: White City flyover

Frances demolished White City flyover in August 2013, because:

Underneath this flyover are is a load of temporary housing; so families are having to live with billions of cars flying above their heads the whole time… so getting rid of the flyover [will] give them a bit of peace & quiet.

Almost lost in the ancient future

Who needs actual historic buildings if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us? Time-travelling through a couple of tourist attractions…

The other day I came across a new (or revived) walk that allows walkers to make a modern pilgrimage between Lichfield and Chichester. Called the Two Saints Way, it describes itself as both a new route and as having been “recreated” (it follows existing footpaths ) – it’s not entirely clear how that works – and it boasts a whole bullet-point list of “themes”, one of which seems to sum up the way the enterprise messes with the concept of time: “Journeying forward to the ancient future”.

I was sort of hoping this would involve a time-travelling immersive sci-fi/fantasy experience including aliens dressed as medieval monks (okay, yes, an episode of Doctor Who), but it seems to mean that the pilgrimage trail includes “high-tech interpretation panels” as well as virtual tours you can download to your mobile. And if you’re lucky, as those on inaugural pilgrimage were, you might be joined along the way by Saxon pilgrims from the Poor Cnights [sic] of St Chad re-enactment group (“They fitted in brilliantly and answered everyone’s questions about their get-up,” according to the walkers).  This is now on my list of things to do when the rain stops. The project cost £86,000 so those high-tech interpretation panels must be worth seeing.

There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment which sounds as if it’s doing its best to recreate the ancient future – or perhaps the futuristic ancient.  Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed shows an alternative London in the form of digital reconstructions of proposed and rejected developments. You can see how Covent Garden would have looked if the sweeping 1968 demolition plans for the area had gone ahead, the result of a 1950s scheme for “a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho” and what Westminster might offer tourists if 1960s proposals to wipe out the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square had gone ahead.

Other digital animations show London developing over the years, with buildings and streets disappearing and others being constructed as you watch.

Of course there’s an agenda – it’s produced for English Heritage who are keen to demonstrate how awful the capital would look if conservationists hadn’t rushed in to save its historic buildings. The publicity for the exhibition vaunts its use of “the latest digital technology” including “Augmented Reality” on iPads and something called Pigeon-Sim, which allows you to take “an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city”, getting a bird’s-eye view of all the historic buildings that have been saved for future generations.

So, what do we take from this? History = good; high-tech history = even better? Then again, who needs actual historic buildings and pilgrimages if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us – not to mention all the futures that might have been? Did someone mention simulacra? Worth going on either or both of these outings to rub up against the contradictions and see if there’s something to learn, I reckon.

Almost Lost is at Wellington Arch until 2 Feb. You can walk the Two Saints Way at any time (weather permitting); some suggestions for planning an itinerary are here.

Debbie Kent