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The Liverpool ETIC Reading Group Seminar took place on Tuesday 26th November in the School of Arts Library from 1-4pm.

Focus on ‘Visual Representation and the City’.

Invited speaker: Kathleen James-Chakraborty (Professor of Art History, University College Dublin).

Dr Ian Magedera introduced the afternoon and detailed the current work being done on the four Indian cities. He spoke of the combined interest in water, citing the PhD being undertaken by Cleo Roberts as part of the ETIC project. Speaking on the visual currency of the city, Dr Magedera introduced Professor James-Chakraborty’s extensive work on urbanism internationally including her forthcoming book Architecture since 1400 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) and appointment as Vincent Scully Visiting Professorship in Architectural History at Yale University in 2015.

Thanking ETIC for the invitation to speak, Professor James-Chakraborty opened the discussions with her paper ‘Kolkata and Berlin: A Tale of Two Cities’. Stating the importance of interdisciplinary research when studying the city, James-Chakraborty drew attention to the work of architectural historians in mapping shifts in the social landscape of a place. In understanding the presence of space and the built environs of the city, visual representations provide a valuable resource. Material culture pertaining to Kolkata and Berlin provided a framework for the investigation of the social inhabitation of space and the exploration of the respective visual shorthand of the cities over the last twenty five years.

Comparative images were employed to discuss social and spatial dynamics in the city. A crowded courtyard scene capturing Holi celebrations in Udaipur was demonstrative of the artistic conventions exchanged between Europe and India and a conscious eschewing of Western visual plains conventionally rendering the city in one point perspective. Ludwig Kirchner’s Potsdamer Platz (1914) evidenced the continuation of this visual exchange and growing access to and collection of ethnographic pieces through facial depictions derived from African masks.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1914, Potsdamer Platz

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1914, Potsdamer Platz

The understanding of a city through images was emphasized as a meditated impression. The question of what is visualized was discussed as forming an important transcription of the city. Scholarly work on Berlin as a site of memory referenced Libeskind’s design of the Jewish Museum. The sensitivity of the city reflected in its contemporary architecture was juxtaposed with the predominant discourse on Kolkata as colonial achievement. Work by Thomas and William Daniells demonstrated the empty vistas characteristic of the colonial preoccupation with space. The emptying of the street detracted from the energetic life of the city. James-Chakraborty suggested this had impacted on scholarship today which overlooks the study of urban spectacle such as Durga Puja in Kolkata. The ensuing discussion elaborated on the picturing of large urban space as the space of modernity. The fascination with the depictions of emptiness in the city was thought through with reference to Naghsh-e Jahan Square, Isfahan and the images of high rise buildings in the Salt Lake City region of Kolkata which proliferate the billboards of the city. How this visuality affects the internal relations of the city was a point for further consideration.

After a short break, two roundtable sessions began. Chapters one to four from Dell Upton’s (2008) Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic, were introduced by Professor James-Chakraborty as a text that successfully reads space as inhabited by its users. Concerned with the diverse social demographic of Philadelphia and New Orleans, the seminal text was discussed in terms of the skill in which it animates these cities. Professor Popp commented that the writerly style and focus upon the lower social systems provided a rich perspective and demonstrated a resistance to European theory.

The ability of Upton to penetrate the cities was appreciated, particularly his work on the oral and sensory dimensions of these spaces. Professor Das cited the disregard for topographical mapping in Kolkata and the use of olfaction as a means of navigation. Dr Magedera referenced Dr Chris Pearson’s work ‘Sniffing the Past’.

The position of water in the city was a further point of interest. Waterfronts as spaces for inhabitation and population growth were discussed as characteristic of urban settlement. The presence and function of water in the city continued as a line of enquiry. Christopher Pinney’s theoretical text ‘Notes from the Surface of the Image’ in Photography’s Other Histories’, Pinney, C.and Peterson, N. (2003) (eds) was introduced by Cleo Roberts alongside a series of  photographs illustrative of the depth and surface dimensions of these objects. Images from the Frank Bond and Glenn Hensley collections of the Digital South Asia Library were read comparatively to Indian visual sources such as Laal Deey Daal and Nikhil Chopra. The content and practices of the ‘postcolony’ were understood as a more playful and humorous engagement with the medium.

Frank Bond, 1944, The Calcutta Post Office

Frank Bond, 1944, The Calcutta Post Office

Professor Popp shared his latest paper exploring the use of postcards as a methodological approach to understanding the city. An annotated postcard from 1904 depicting the Liverpool Exchange provided source material for revealing the nuances of the cotton trade. Dr Magedera spoke of the narratives  held in images and details of a city that can be inferred from them. Professor James-Chakraborty emphasised the fictionalization of space through visual reportage as alluded to in her presentation of ‘orderly’ Berlin in the 1800s.

Dr Magedera closed the afternoon by thanking all participants for creating a lively reading group that was able to bring interdisciplinary perspectives to addressing the city. The ETIC project looks forward to meeting again in early 2014 after the inaugural international workshop at Jadavpur University, Calcutta.