Out of Nowhere

Catharina Gabrielsson

"What is new is not that the world lacks meaning, or has little meaning, or less than it used to have; it is that we seem to feel an explicit and intense daily need to give it meaning."

Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity

What makes a place? Can it be recognized by sight alone, or is it a matter of more subtle qualities at work that demand you to be there, sensing it, breathing? A cat has its favorite places, so does a child. The shadow of a big boulder or under the branches of a pine make good places to disappear from view. Indeed, hiding places make up a category of their own where the experience of time, vision and the body are put to an extreme. How long can I stay here before being discovered? How long can I stay before my body begins to ache? Hiding places are inarticulated spaces that can only be related to directly, without mediation, through the body itself. They do not show on a photograph.

Just as a room cannot be represented without a loss of some sort, a transformation of its vital characteristics, it appears as though the real and most specific qualities of place escape the camera s lens. The photograph reveals something else. In "Walking In the City" (from The Practice of Everyday Life, French original in 1974, in Eng. 1984) the French social anthropologist and historian Michel de Certeau describes how the city, viewed from above, transforms into text; legenda, that which can or should be read. From the 110th floor of the World Trade Center the eye is able to discern patterns and meanings that are unattainable from the street, as part of the forever-moving masses. This elevated position above city life below grants the same kind of detachment as do the passing of time and cultural or geographic distance; "the exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more".

In fact, this vantage point is strikingly similar to the focus of the camera and bears the same illusory promise of "unmasking" reality and explaining it unequivocally. But what story evolves through the eye of the camera? What kind of place is evoked by the pictures of streets and urban environments such as in Mikael Levin's series Common Places?

These are not public places in the usual sense of the word, that is, identifiable and architectonically defined spaces like those reproduced on postcards (which, paradoxically, appear to have lost their place-specific role as bearers of authentic memories). Rather, these are the spaces in between, cut-outs of intermediary zones, anonymous with no specific qualities. Just as "landscape" in art-historic terms is the product of an observer and a section of the whole -- the result of nature being framed - it is as though these zones are invented as "places" by the act of photography in itself, the delimiting function of the camera.

If the physical and concrete place is impossible to reproduce, then these images must imply something else, a "truth" or a "fiction" based on the outside perspective of the observer. But there is no traditional subject in these pictures. If anything is in the center or constitutes a focal point in a composition of some sort it is usually a matter of something transient or trivial; a passing figure, a traffic post. The gaze seems deflected, as if there is something that cannot or must not be seen; as if the real motive is outside the picture, beyond the observer's scope. Perhaps this is why there is such a strong sense of emptiness and loss in Mikael Levin's photographs. Not only because of an absence of people, but because of the lack of apparent motive. The subject matter is rendered as an absence, a negative impression in the photograph itself.

As the pattern of everyday life cannot be grasped when "inside" it, when pulled along by the suction of the street, the camera consequently creates meaning out of that which at first glance seems meaningless. In the project "War Story" (or "Suche" as in its German title) Mikael Levin quotes passages of his father's descriptions of a war-torn Europe next to documentations of the same places today. The most evident sign of war, as put across by these photographs, lies not in its monuments or cemeteries but in the complete lack of recognizable traces. As if the war had erased a portion of reality, creating a void where there ought to have been people and buildings. The infinitely expanded field of gravel that covers the site of the former concentration camp Buchenwald is therefore, in the true sense of the word, the real monument of war: a complete and nameless void, the negation of place.

Such dislocation of the actual motive is a frequent feature in Mikael Levin's work. Whether he is capturing abandoned border stations in a consolidated Europe or refugees seeking asylum in an immigration camp outside Katrineholm, the sense of loss and absence is ubiquitous. In this respect, it appears that the series Common Places is an endeavor to represent the meaning of urban space by showing it at its most insignificant. Out of the disregarded, the ordinary and the banal, a narrative evolves about the necessity of public space in its most pared-down state -- without name or cultural claim.

This "nothingness" of place draws associations to what sociologist Marc Augé has put forward as "non-places" i.e. the opposite of the anthropological sense of place as loaded with cultural, social or historic values. Augé describes a contemporary state of "supermodernity", the successive and comprehensive elimination of difference initiated with industrialism that continues today on an increasingly large scale and with greater force. "Supermodernity" is that which delineates places whose only defining characteristic is their lack of meaning, their lack of context and continuity. They are places designed for one specific function and are devoid of the kind of semantic layering traditionally inherent in place. Non-places generate solitude instead of relationships. It is what one passes through on the way to something else, leaving no impression.

The term "non-place" derives from de Certeau and as Augé notes, it may at first seem paradoxical that he gives the name (le nom propre) a definitive role in the "hollowing" of place into non-place: "These names create a nowhere in places; they change them into passages", transforming the place into an abstract form, a mere way-station or a point on the map, implying the city as ratio. Augé points out that it is the quantity of such way-stations that makes each of them a non-place: the named and thereby "eroded" place is actually the place created by traveling, the world of tourism. It is the place on a postcard, and de Certeau writes: "Travel [...] is a substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different."

The postcard-image specifically has fascinated Mikael Levin in his work with portraying these four cities. If there is a historical monument or some other "sign" of the city, however, he does not seem to have noticed it. Instead, every picture has a strikingly neutral feeling about it, displaying various kinds of urban situations as if they were leveled. On closer examination, there is much in these images that acts as a kind of negation of the postcard -- both in terms of what a postcard depicts and what it signifies. The postcard's "greeting" from a frequently overexposed, over-commercialized place is replaced by views that are almost impossible to localize even if one has been there. The tendency of a postcard to objectify buildings and situations is pitted against complex and shapeless spaces; simplification and idyllism against a series of urban images whose true meaning is indefinable. The postcard as "surrogate-memory", as a verification of "I was there" resonates in the complex construction of passing time and traces of events that once took place there. If the postcard is the epitome of a collective and therefore to some extent "false" memory, then these images tell of the opposite: of memory as the most personal of cultural constructions, the subjective pointing-out of "I knew someone who lived there" or "I remember what used to be there". The place in these images becomes, in effect, the presence of absence. What appears is what no longer is.

The most important function of memory is to shape identity. Without memory, one is "nobody"; without shared memory nothing collective can exist. It is by comparison between then and now that we come to understand ourselves, "the deciphering of what we are in the light of what we are no longer" (Pierre Nora in Lieux de mémoire). The photographs from these four cities reveal similarities and differences in the type of urban space that habit blinds us to and in this respect they supply us with the possibility of discerning our own identity in comparison with others. In the case of Katrineholm there is a striking parallel between the industrial society which quickly built up the city and reshaped it only to become obsolete, and the desolation conveyed by the images. It is as if the emptiness left in the wake of the entire Swedish welfare-state is brought to the foreground in the photographs of the municipality of Katrineholm. The narrative that emerges is neither a description of the character of non-places, nor of the place that we meet on postcards. These are photographs of experienced places. Their subject matter is essentially place as appropriated by personal experience: the necessity to be there, to see and, by extension, the necessity of personal responsibility. To endure the emptiness in these pictures is to endure that sense of futility that sometimes overwhelms you when you are walking alone in the woods. That everything simply continues. That there is no other meaning than the one we construct.

Catharina Gabrielsson

Catharina Gabrielsson is an architect and critic who lives and works in Stockholm. She has been member of the editorial board of MAMA (Magazine of Modern Architecture) since 93 and is a frequent collaborator in various other contexts, such as exhibitions, seminars etc. Apart from teaching architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology, she is associated with the National State Council of Public Art as a project leader.

(translation by Eva Pankenier)