Women’s right to the city

September 2016

I am so humbled to be one of the speakers at this year’s Nuart Plus, the academic component to the annual Nuart Festival in Stavanger. Being the only woman this year, I chose to debut a new piece of research I am working on about women’s right to the city. While certainly a feminist through and through, I am rather new to working on issues related to gender. And so it feels a bit cliché to be the woman talking about gender but someone’s got to do it, right?

Graffiti and street art are consistently portrayed as masculine practices despite women’s participation. Women generally remain a minority, however, and I suggest that this underrepresentation has more to do with women’s differentiated rights to the city than the mere fact that it’s a bit of a boys’ club. I shall specifically be talking about forces in the city which have the potential to further impede women’s right to the city, focusing on the proliferation of sexualised outdoor advertising in Oslo.

The programme this year is, as usual, outstanding and includes a keynote by my new co-supervisor David Pinder. Be sure to check out the programme for more information and do stop by if you happen to be in Stavanger.


Oh bondage, up yours!

August 2016

It is now nearly 2:00 in the morning and I have just arrived home. I was painting late in my studio, a short 15 minute walk from my apartment in a fairly centrally located neighbourhood in Oslo.

Walking down a main street which the tram runs along, I noticed a man on the other side turning back and frequently looking at me. Feeling instantly and instinctually uncomfortable, I stopped at the corner pretending to fumble with something in my bag just to give some distance between us, to allow him time to be on his way. But he too stopped and turned toward me.

“Which way are you walking?” he asked from across the intersection. “Because if you are walking this way, we can walk together and talk.”

Good to know that my Norwegian comprehension is now at the level of understanding basic street harassment.

I ignored him. He mumbled under his breath and dejectedly walked away.

The thing was, I was walking that direction.

I write about how women mediate their movements in the city based on the time of day and where they are walking though I rarely share my own experiences in the city. Tonight, I had to not only completely alter my route, but was also forced to take an alternate street which I prefer not to walk precisely for the reason that it is poorly lit, sparsely trafficked, and I am pretty sure I saw a badger there a few weeks ago.

I spent the remaining walk home feeling everything from foolish to violated to unsafe to annoyed but mostly fearful. Fearful that I would run into him again as I approached my apartment, fearful that he would see where I lived, fearful that I would have to politely deal with his continued unwanted attention, or worse that I would have to deal with his anger at my rebuffs.

To be perfectly honest, all I really wanted to do was have a nice chat with my Mum back in Canada on my walk home and get some advice on the painting I started tonight.

I recently finished writing a short essay on this topic, more specifically on women’s right to the city. I wish I did not have to live my research quite so authentically but the simple fact is, women deal with their inequalities every day and every day in the city they live it through their movements, navigations, and interactions. I look forward to sharing this piece soon. Until then, oh bondage, up yours!

Aesthetic appreciation of tagging

2016 (forthcoming). ‘Aesthetic appreciation of tagging’
Article in book: The Urban Planet: Knowledge towards Livable Cities
Editors: Debra Roberts, David Maddox, and Mark Watkins
Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Filming the city

I find myself experimenting more and more with video. The themes and patterns of my research have been emerging with more fluidity in recent months and film has helped me to both validate and feel more confident in my analyses. Using only a small point-and-shoot camera or my mobile phone, I find that these themes resonate so well in moving images.

I see my research come alive with film, even more so than with photography. Perhaps this is because with film, the movement of my body and my gaze is also captured so that the viewer may in some way experience how I navigate and see the city. I am hoping to work more with film in the future and see it as a fascinating medium to convey and communicate the complexities and beauties of the everyday.

I have just returned from the International Visual Sociology Association’s annual meeting which took place in Lillehammer this year. This year’s conference theme ‘Visualizing Sustainability: IMAGINED FUTURES’ was a great fit for my research and my interests. It was fascinating to meet so many wonderful scholars doing really innovative work who also identify so well with the challenges of working in the margins of one’s discipline.

The following is a short film I produced for my talk at the session ‘Playing with Methods’, at this year’s Association of American Geographers meeting in San Francisco. The session was organised by Jana Wendler and chaired by Tim Edensor, both at Manchester Metropolitan University, and was a wonderful introduction to some creative and playful methods in geography. It’s a bit rough in places but I hope that lends it a bit of charm.

2000 layers

Standing over a beautiful heap of colour and chaos at the entrance to Gamlebyen Skatepark — one of Oslo’s three legal graffiti walls — a graffiti artist approaches. I am with Marianne and Trond of Snöball Film, who are making a short film funded by the Norwegian Research Council about my research and innovative methods.  We are scouting locations. The artist explains that these are layers of accumulated spray paint, built up progressively in layer upon layer, piece upon piece. The sheer weight of this paint collapsed the underlying structure. He took a piece home, and studying it counted over 2000 layers. What a wonderful thought and a beautiful sight; that successive creative expressions weigh so heavy, that the space is used and valued so much that it collapses, moves, changes. He asked my name, and with quick even motions, spray-painted my name in red upon these layers, adding a small heart; the sickly-sweet xylene smell of the spray paint lingering in the humid air afterwards.

As I think about urban policy these days, I keep returning to concepts from the natural sciences to explain issues and develop my critiques. Words like ‘organic’, ‘breathing’, ‘evolution’, ‘self-organising’, ‘life’ and ‘vitality’, and ‘energy’ keep circling  my thoughts. Perhaps these metaphors betray my interest in nature and an academic past in the environmental sciences. But, perhaps such notions have a lot to contribute to how we think about the city, about creativity in urban space, and perhaps also to how research could be done.

I fell in love with street art because of its immediacy and freedom and because of its nature as a self-organising system in which a network and culture arises out of simultaneous, unintentional collaborations happening in the street. It is in this culture of artists and those who work on issues relating to urban art in which I feel most at peace, where the world makes a little more sense; amongst individuals who stroll leisurely through the city, who are so keenly aware of their surroundings, people who touch walls, and interact with the materiality of the city.

A self-organising system is order from disorder, creation from chaos. In a biological sense, think of the origins of life on Earth: some chemicals coming together in the right conditions, molecules are formed, amino-acids, the building-blocks of life, and suddenly a singular cell.  Graffiti and street art are spontaneous, and though generally illegal practices, they are democratic. Anyone may write graffiti and street art and have it visible to the world in the most public and open of galleries. There is power in that freedom, and perhaps this is why it has been so rigidly controlled and so frequently misunderstood in policy. Give anyone a marker or some paper, some glue or some stickers, a spray can or two, and the city. And an artist is made, an artist who makes their own gallery out of the spaces of the city.

The internet facilitates this self-organisation and facilitates connectivity between other artists also making their own galleries out of the city. This is something which struck me so much while being in Montréal this past spring. An artist I never met before — though someone I knew of —  agreed to meet me at midnight on a dark street corner, by the edge of a small urban park in the Montréal neighbourhood of St-Henri. Though we never met before, we spoke a similar language of art and the streets, navigated aimlessly (much like psychogeographers), talked fluidly about art, and walked for hours leaving behind a wet trail of wheat-paste and changing our city in small actions. That is freedom. Freedom of art. Freedom of expression. Freedom in the city. This was us exercising our ‘right to the city’ because this is our city, our space too. But there is something so organic, something so informal in this, something which just cannot be written into policy. And why should it be`? How do you, from the top down, inject creativity into the city from a policy document? How can you attempt to organise something which is so powerful and moving by the sheer fact that it is not organised?

I don’t have an answer but I know I will be thinking of those 2000 layers for some time to come.

Oslo Postcard Project

March 2016

And so begins another pedagogical experiment.

I have asked graduate students in a course in Qualitative Methods to participate in an optional exercise I have dubbed the ‘Oslo Postcard Project’. It is inspired by a wonderful account that I found through Instagram called ‘The Postcards Project’ by photographer Ilaria Vangi, who takes dreamy black and white photographs of postcards in situ. I have a bit of an obsession with postcards and, truth be told, sending me a postcard is a direct route straight to my heart. Perhaps my fascination lies in the meeting of the visual and the geographical, of travel and the moment, and connections to a past before the impatience of email and text. A time when my best friend who lived in the same city would write me letters and my father would send me one line postcards informing me of the local weather when he was travelling on business.

The exercise was developed for a lecture in visual methods for students in both human geography and technological and innovation studies. Though the geographic overtones are rather explicit, connections to place certainly transcend disciplines and I hope that the task is a playful and interesting exercise for all students. The images in the postcards relate to a very particular type of place-making and urban identity, linked with tourism and an often narrow representation (and geography) of the city. However, I did manage to procure some cards from art galleries whose images presented very different and interesting (maybe also peculiar) views on the city. I asked students to choose a postcard, to visit the location pictured, to take a photograph of the postcard in that place, and to write me something and post it back to me.

It was most interesting to learn why students chose particular postcards from a pile at the front of  the class. Many students chose postcards for very personal reasons, such as selecting one which had some semblance or link to home or childhood, while others seemed to choose based on purely aesthetic preferences. I worry my instructions were too complicated and that I should have maybe given students sufficient postage. But I have already received two photographs so far meaning that two students have ventured out into March Oslo greyness to visit the site of their postcards. I absolutely love these photographs and it made me so happy to receive them. I hope more will come and that they will have also written me something in that place and that their bits of place writing make it back to the university.

The Royal Palace, Oslo (March 2015)
The Oslo Opera House (March 2015)

Rome in black and white

December 2015

There is something a bit sexy about an oversaturated black and white photograph. On an overcast day where colour photographs are washed out in an unappealing way, a few simple adjustments can transform a seemingly dull but otherwise well-composed photograph. Simply convert to grayscale and play around with the lighting and contrast.

This is something I have begun to do more frequently in the past few years, partly inspired by an Instagram account @tagsandthrows which posts quite saturated black and white photographs of graffiti tags and throws. The black and white of the photograph suits the subject well. There is something special and satisfying about the crisp lines and strong contrast of a well-executed tag or throwie which are so often done in black ink or black and white spray paint. A black and white photograph reminds me of this pleasant contrast that I love stumbling upon in the city.

This technique is particularly helpful when living (and undertaking fieldwork) in a country and at a latitude where lighting can be so tricky: either too much or way too little. But, it works equally well on days with sun and mildly overcast days as evidenced here with a few shots from a recent trip to Rome.

Buffed walls by the Colosseo, Rome (2015).
Self-portrait, Rome (2015).
Tags and Roman ruins, Rome (2015).

Slums, Rome (2015).

‘Cosi cosa deve fare’ (‘So, what to do’) in Barberini, Rome (2015).
Running from boys, birds, and hashtags in Monti, Rome (2015).
Art of tagging in Testaccio, Rome (2015).
YOSH in Trastevere, Rome (2015).