December 2009 / January 2010

The xurban_collective project at La Friche, Marseille constitutes a branch of ongoing research about seas as defined by various manifestations of the global trade and economy, and by the flow of bodies as a possibility for retributive justice. We believe that any statements made within the new global order should adequately represent the “negligibly small” actors in the creation of wealth, including the earth, the sea and all living things.

In La Ville Blanc, we regard the sea as the transmitter of a history (i.e. Mediterranean) and of wealth and culture as well as the source of biological richness. It is also the bearer of scourge, of oil spills and chemicals and of invading jellyfish and the disappearing reef. On it, the oil tankers and container ships sail to the effect of millions of tons, accumulating and transferring immense wealth at all costs. Refugee boats also sail across it sometimes to catastrophic ends either while at sea or at their destination. On all the charted and monitored waters of the world, these boats are the most invisible. The sea’s horizon metaphorically represents freedom, hope, and a decent life.

Port cities such as Marseille, Athens, Istanbul, New York, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, and Bangkok are the main hubs within their national territories, connected via highways and railway tracks to other smaller cities on their periphery. In addition to people from different localities and cultures, the constant flow of ships, trucks, cars and goods represent a heterogeneous set of activities. Ports offer a sea of opportunities for newcomers and a healthy flow of foreigners keeps their cities culturally and economically alive, relevant and interesting creating a direct anti-thesis of provincialism(s).

The technical viability of these ports within the global economy is ensured via the standardization of shipping operations and through their carefully planned infrastructures but more importantly through a legislative framework, qualified human resources and support industries. In appearance, ports depict a rational cut in the landscape. The terrain where the land and sea meet is transformed into a free zone of commercial activity. It is a temporary transitional district where various flows are merged, organized and distributed. In between, thousands of containers are waiting for their turns to be filled, lifted, carried and shipped. The constant beeping sound of the surrounding machinery is an indicator of a high alert zone and immanent danger.

When we look to the contemporary condition of these port cities, we may recognize an urban pattern characterized by large-scale commercial and residential developments currently under construction. Old and new commercial ports, city centers, shopping areas and old buildings are being rebuilt and packaged to cope with the transformation of the global economy. On the one hand, these cities -- all situated next to the sea -- try to establish their unique and important position within the global marketplace, and on the other, their governing bodies together with investors/developers tend to ignore the livelihood of their residents by specifically excluding the poor, immigrants and everyone else who cannot afford to be the part of the new panorama. Corporate managers, lawyers, city officials, architects, designers and the police collaborate in meticulous gentrification projects and announce these plans with architectural renderings.

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xurban_collective Project

La Ville Blanc
Die Weisser Stadt

“The best witness to the Mediterranean's age-old past is the sea itself. This has to be said and said again; and the sea has to be seen and seen again. Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment's concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.”

From Memory and the Mediterranean
by Fernand Braudel

We took the title La Ville Blanc from graffiti tagged on such an architectural rendering of a development project to be realized within the city center of Marseille. It seems that the term La Ville Blanc characterizes an imminent mistake, which is not directly translatable to Turkish or English. The gendered disposition of language underlines the patrimonial politics of development and gentrification. La ville, a feminine word is accompanied by a masculinized term, blanc (instead of blanche). This at first appears to be a mistake, a grammatical error clearly indicating that the owner of the graffiti is not language proficient. However, blanc, the masculine form of a city, located on a development plan for a new corporate trade center initiates a very precise critique. When walking in Marseille, we came upon this billboard as a vision of things to come and realized the similarities between other images in different cities of the world: an affluent “all-white” imagining of an exclusive urban life, from New York, Istanbul, Izmir to New Orleans. Here our aim is not to make an ethno-racial claim, yet it is important to identify the overlapping class dispositions on the racial, gendered articulation of bodies in the neo-liberal re-imagination of cities. This conservative re-imagination is mostly articulated by high-end design which functions as a form of neo-liberal packaging. In fact the de-facto failure of these projects lie just on the surface of these architectural renderings that simply ignore and exclude. It seems that the strategy of the new bourgeoisie is more ‘efficient’ and rather violent than direct antagonistic racist encounters—compared to fascist violence that constantly happens in various parts of Europe— which can be easily identified and fought against. In fact, condemning Nazis is a politically correct thing to do for a neo-conservative camp who has already perfected its ability to use extreme strength without weapons, to colonize without an army and to exploit without a factory.

Mediterranean port cities share a common fate throughout history, best explained by historians like Fernand Braudel: there are times of economic boom and periods of decline, and then again a surge in activities which necessitates the expansion of the commercial port and its relocation further out of the city center. In most of them, including Istanbul, the evacuated waterfront property is the prize of the neo-liberal governments, opportunistic developers and investors. While the containers full of merchandise, the crude oil, the tuna stocks and other fish and tourism roam the sea, the continents are interconnected via underwater power and network cables and by various pipelines. Within this intense flow on, under and around the Mare Nostrum, European cities still resist an influx of unwanted races, and zones of exclusion are on the rise in France, Germany, Italy and other countries. Many of today’s global issues surface in Europe, and they are especially more significant when looking to Western Europe from Anatolia.

Not since the specific instances of Carthage, Andalusia and the later Ottomans has the fear of the invading enemy been on the rise as today in Europe. The exploitation of the fear from the ‘other' (read Muslims, Africans, Asians) plays into the hands of the far right, as well as of big business and its collaborators in the conservative political spectrum. Throughout 20th century Europe there has been repeated hatred directed and channeled towards the ‘suspect race’ during times of economic downturn.

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What is new is that the democratic-egalitarian discourse claimed by the modern European state since the Second World War openly contradicts itself when equal rights for all citizens are concerned. The farce of a representative democracy is that the majority crushes the rights of non-citizens. In this instance, mainstream politics openly endorse the ‘sensitivities’ of the majority (as it happens in Turkey against Kurdish population) who claim to be the 'real' owners of the country. The prospect of 'being offended' (from symbolic gestures, symbolic gear, traditions and lores) is manipulated not only by the European right wing, but by the majority of political actors in order to give political leverage. Meanwhile, the 'defensive' reflex of the European Islamic communities left to their fundamentalist wings sharpens a conflict that is spiraling out of control.

On the other hand, the procedures of unified Europe distribute this conflict evenly across national borders, setting examples and precedents. While European national borders disappear, xenophobia roams free. The question at the end of the decade of the identity of Europe and its subjects is haunted by the minarets that try to spring up in the old continent. This propagated annoyance appears to be a kind of 'symbolic formalism', not only in appearance but also in the formalism of 'values', that old term brought out from the extreme depths of the history of civilization The vagueness of 'values' apparently is of no concern to policy makers, who consider European values to be crystal clear and, importantly, not compatible with other cultures.

Meanwhile since Marx, the thinker of old Europe, we should assume that the poor and the working class share the same fate, conditions, ideals and ultimately values, regardless of their religion, race and nationality. If there is a real 'value' to Western civilization, it has suffered most from the abandoned belief in the universal brotherhood of the proletariat, whereas the monotheistic god of the globalized world is employed for segregation along the lines. This is where we are left at the turn of the first decade of the 21st century, at the tragic crossroads where capital is diffused globally, labor is still being exploited shamelessly, and the masses are complicit in a sedated delusion of consumption and its mirage on the horizon. The so called social state is fast becoming a non-actor in the just distribution of wealth, meanwhile losing its role in the arbitration of disputes (i.e. among different faith) and in handling dissent. The first is left to the free market economics, and the second to the almost equally privatized policing. The hybrid private/state security complex is what keeps the white cities in Istanbul, in Paris, London and elsewhere well-guarded, clean and uncontaminated. The gated communities and residential complexes in world cities today are designed to keep racial and ethnic confrontation out of the premises and to insure homogeneity among its inhabitants. In a sense, they are the extensions of private schooling into adult life, sealed from unwanted mixtures. Even the architectural layouts bear resemblances, offering a number of extracurricular activities to an otherwise monotonous dwelling in one place. Looking closely to these renderings once again, one can recognize the fact that the cut-up faces, bodies, flowers and cars are mostly gathered from stock images sold online. In order to sell these images, stock photography companies trim, clean, package and identify them with metadata. They represent ideal cosmopolitan types suited for the new global order, a perfect coupling with the standardized design and production of shopping malls, office spaces, and business centers.

Finally, the new social-scape which is miserable enough not to be left in the hands of politicians, social reformers, technocrats and other actors directly bound to the neo-liberal (and conservative) mindset, offering solutions only from within the conformist order of socio-economic models. The new occurrences of resistance gives us indications that the fissures are not only along ethnic lines, but there is a nonconforming culture of youth regardless of race and with enough rage to paralyze the city. A similar frustration can be extended to include the underprivileged citizens and non-citizens of Europe, as seen in various cities such as Paris, Athens, Istanbul. Meanwhile the artistic gesture, as in this youthful energy, leads to an opening where habits are suspended, to a moment of reckoning when business is no more. One should hope that all the accumulated dissent will lead to a qualitative change in the dialectic order of things. For now we are looking out to the sea, knowing from experience that its serenity is suspect and its rage is beyond imagination.

Marseille, 2010

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