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Soja on the conjunction of art and the city

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The huge impact of the Tate Modern on the economy and culture of London, both at local and metropolitan level, made it an appropriate venue for last week's discussion of the impact of art, and art culture, on cities and vice versa.

According to Ed Soja, urban geographer, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of California, and recently appointed centennial professor on the LSE's Cities programme, 'what we call art is and always has been quintessentially urban . . .art is produced by the distinctive spatiality of urban life.'

Soja's keynote address to the Association of International Critics of Art Congress took as its theme the 'interesting coming together of critical art studies and critical urban studies' since 1995. During this period, he says, there has been 'a resurgence of interest in all things spatial', and in a more 'transdisciplinary' form than ever before. 'For the first time in 150 years, ' said Soja, 'people are thinking about space with the same expectation of insight as with time and history', the latter having been 'hegemonic' for most of modern history.This sea-change is largely due to the influence of writers such as Walter Benjamin, which has led to 'the realisation that narrative form is strangling the visual and the spatial'.

Cities, clearly, offer the most developed and fascinating manifestion of human spatiality, emanating from the individual body. Throughout their history cities have been villified for their disadvantages (crowding, pollution and so on), while at the same time exciting enormous admiration for the human cultural achievement which they represent.

Soja views the 'conjunction of art and the city' as fundamental - but not necessarily something that needs to be channelled through architecture.While saying he didn't want to leave out architecture altogether, he urged his audience to look for 'other alternatives . . . that involve a larger-scale imagination' and opening up 'larger-scale vistas'.

Soja's words offer encouragement to those in public art to free themselves of the trammels imposed by working in the immediate context of buildings, with architects. But he did not expand on what those 'largerscale vistas'might mean in material terms, except in one particular form - the mural. Showing work by the Los Angeles mural painters of the '30s and '40s, notably David Alfaro Siqueros, Soja argued that this particular art form can communicate powerful, politically-charged, new visual representations of the city, expressing the particular mood of the time.

The interesting question, with which he concluded, is how such visualisation may start to reveal the extent to which the emerging 'post-metropoli' are beginning to represent a globalised world rather than any form of localised urban culture.

Ed Soja was speaking on 'The City as a Vehicle for Visual Representation', at the AICA Congress, Visual Art, Visual Culture? , at the Tate Modern, London

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