Text on [city]Frequency

Maike Zimmermann, [city]Frequency, 2015-18

Since the beginning of modernism the urban way of life has strongly fascinated artists, writers and filmmakers. In rapidly growing cities they have found a vast play-field appropriating methods of the ethnographer or sociologist that encourage an embodiment of space and its mapping. The subjective camera, reminiscent of our participatory and highly selective viewing process within any environment, was crucial in Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kinoapparatom (1929). Photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt experienced a cultural epiphany on his first encounter with New York, arriving from Europe in 1935. The camera clearly helped those artists to find alternative pathways, to figure out the hidden and neglected face of the stereotypical ‘ultimative city’.

Photography and film have offered them means to transcribe and to structure a particular urban experience and to identify in an environment, alongside its recording. This is due to the fact that soon after its development the photographic and subsequently the film camera were discovered to be instruments most appropriate to register the phenomena of everyday life. The film camera especially became the tool of observation in order to capture an expansive urban environment. The mechanical reproduction of reality was said to be the most trustful translation of a reality, difficult to grasp otherwise. According to Sigfried Kraucauer, the smallest observation can become important in this exploration of specific facets – those “urban vignettes” which, interwoven, help construct a substantial and multi-layered social, cultural and political critique.

Maike Zimmermann’s new work is positioning itself in this rich tradition of artists experiencing and reflecting urban space in their work. She traces those Urban Vignettes, Kracauer describes, making us aware of the hidden beauty behind urban regeneration projects and hectic means of transport, filling the urban ‘cul de sac’ with fresh personal narratives. Places begin to become alive.

Zimmermann’s artistic approach appropriates methods of the anthropologist who is involved in participatory observation, such as taking notes, film and photographic documentation and conducting interviews. We see her walking and cycling through the city tirelessly, meandering, drifting, taking one turn then the next. Her quiet voice-over suggests that she has sunken into the city – a place you can get lost in and even change identity. Her multimedia installation invites us to experience city as dazzling and soaks us into a warm and floating dizziness that a city experience can bring along.

In his Passagenwerk, Walter Benjamin proposed the flâneur as a notion, drawing upon Baudelaire’s paradigm of someone who, while maintaining a certain detachment, nonchalantly experiences this new esprit of the vulgar-chic by strolling and meandering the streets. In Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) the narrator discovers the capital with the intention of newly apprehending a sense of the marvellous in everyday existence. In the 1950s and 60s the Lettrists and later the Situationists developed a method of drifting as a way of mapping the city according to certain rules, coining the term “psychogeography”.

[city]Frequency is such a psychogeographic investigation with urban space. Zimmermann escapes very quickly a clichéd view on New York and becomes submerged and carried away by the city’s contemporary concerns brought up by the people she meets. The city serves as a vessel for experiences and the influx of spontaneous thoughts. Her work positions itself in a vast cityscape, reflecting a collective memory in a rapidly changing environment via a personal voice over. It can be situated within a wide range of more recent artistic practice around spatial investigation and the ‘city’ as the research object. Chantal Akerman’s work News From Home (1977), a poetic documentary film consists of long takes of locations in New York City. Akerman’s voice-over reads letters her mother sent her between 1971 and 1973, when Akerman lived in the city. Sociologist William B. Helmreich’s book The New York Nobody Knows (2013) reflects his 6,048 miles walk, covering almost every block in New York’s five boroughs: Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Zimmermann’s video installation varying up to three different images in dialogue as well as one image expanded to fill the screen, “examines our emotional response to cities as places of transition and how we experience them through memories,” the artist says. “’Frequency’ means an unconscious, human, emotional disposition in relation to city: as a longing/nostalgia.” Cities overwhelm and can make us feel dizzy. They also can give us the feeling of belonging or accomplishment, a place where everyone can find a niche – a place of existence. “An idea of freedom, hope, love, adventure, success.” But also morbidity, in form of decay and destruction and a sense of loss. Thus, a city that offers all this – opportunities, coexistence, a wide range of sensual and emotional experiences but also ways of becoming invisible and anonymous in the rapid flow of urban life.

The Triptych, the interviews with residents about their most significant places in NYC and the multichannel video installation are woven together to give the viewer the opportunity to get immersed by an experience very similar to drifting through a metropolis. We are taken on a cinematic voyage, guided by Maike Zimmermann. She says, “New York (still) embodies this as the ‘City of Dreams’ for many people. I’m interested in how moving images and sound can be used in a new way to transfer this ‘frequency’.” The artist’s inner voice is regularly interspersed by other city dwellers’ thoughts and woven together with images from an urban landscape, a contemplative waterfront, archive material or the glowing skyline of NYC. The nature of the video installation being multi-layered and elliptical in its audio-visual editing process enables us to enter a cinematic derive, a drifting and halting at different places. Sound carries images or images carry sound, they help and enhance each other in carrying us away into the city’s swirl. The artist’s diary entries that guide us like a red thread through the dense thicket of audio-visual material, modestly remind us of the artist’s directive authorship on this journey, revealing her inner monolog. We are invited to be inspired or surprised by the unforeseen lingering around a street corner or by the personal accounts slowly unfolding by the random encounter. We meet a tattoo artist Mehai who grew up on the Bowery in the 70s or the nun Karol who lived in the West Village during the 80s (AIDS epidemic). We meander hand and hand with the artist and her friends behind city facades and along waterfronts before we realise that we have lost trace of our sweet and sacred child hood memories of space and place but are facing a more fierce reality today.

The protagonists’ accounts, as diverse as they seem, fall together on one shared concern: The environmental legacy caused by pollution and the emotional starvation by gentrification. In the eye of cities’ rapidly changing, the stories are filled with nostalgia about places lost, sentiments and memories being expelled and made homeless by the big urban developments. Words and images seem to clash which underlines the incongruences when our memory and thought process have difficulties keeping up with the pace of rapid changes in our urban environment.

Carmen Billows