City of tomorrow?
EndCommercial: Reading the City Edited by SBA/Scheppe Böhm Associates. Hatje Cantz, 2002. 544pp. £29.95.
Distributor: Art Books International 01993 830000 This is a book of photographs about a city, but not quite like any other that I know. The city in question is New York but its monuments or landmarks are hardly in sight; the thousand or more images that make up the book are almost all details. The disparate urban phenomena they record are grouped into 32 separate sections: for instance, pavement displays of street vendors' merchandise; facades of defunct shops and businesses (commercial casualties); the coloured codes and instructions on roads awaiting excavation or repair.
The authors try to locate each of these sections in an overall taxonomy, which has three main headings: System, Order, Identity. The branching diagram of this is the book's only text, and without any other explanation the structure seems tenuous.
But the photographs - especially when seen in series - are compelling.
What they record is often reminiscent of Richard Wentworth's long-standing photographic project, nurtured on London's Caledonian Road but flourishing around the globe, called 'Making Do and Getting By' - his focus on objects out of place, serving unintended purposes (a melon props open a window); on improvisations with whatever is at hand, by which people comes to terms with recalcitrant reality.
So one section of EndCommercial features plastic crates upended to serve as seats for street-food salesmen; another shows multiple examples of DIY cack-handedness, in the sticky-tape repairs that keep damaged cars on the road. A hard-pressed, sometimes desperate ingenuity surfaces. Elsewhere, the city spawns strange forms. Left strapped to lamp posts or railings by their absent owners, mutilated bicycles look like chance sculptures.
In the absence of any text, a visit to the website www. endcommercial. com supplies an interview with the book's progenitors, Wolfgang Scheppe and Florian Böhm, who regard their undertaking as a harbinger of things to come. 'The real landmarks of the city of tomorrow, as being demonstrated and incarnated in NY, are elements of normality, standardisation, and of everyday life at the low end of the economy NY offers a first glance at the loss of uniqueness. The substance of a city lies in its normality rather than its uniqueness.'
But in shifting attention to this supposed 'normality' (by implication overlooked), and documenting and categorising it so compulsively - there are frequent updates at www. digitalslum. com - Scheppe and Böhm undermine their thesis as well as promote it.
The material in every section of their book is just too protean to be contained by the headings they propose. That is one consequence of seriality: in the succession of related images, tiny differences are conspicuous as well as similarities. Generalities succumb to the contingent. 'Uniqueness' reappears.
Cities always elude classification, just as they can never be totally determined by design (whether thoughtful or negligent). And above all, EndCommercial reveals a multitude of ways in which - whether through accident or human contrivance - design prescriptions are simply sidelined. The Urban Task Force it is not. Instead, it is messy and pragmatic; its textures and materials are tangible; it is full of words and signs and competing voices; and always round the corner is the unexpected.