"New Babylon ends nowhere (since the earth is round); it knows no frontiers (since there are no more national economies) or collectivities (since humanity is fluctuating). Every place is accessible to one and all. The whole earth becomes home to its owners. Life is an endless journey across a world which is changing so rapidly that it seems foreverother.”
Nuno Cera is a traveler who undertakes journey to the world’s megacities. Journeys that, like photographic expeditions, serve to reveal the questions that he poses to the world. He is an artist, above all a film maker and photographer. His films are shown on screens in traditional cinemas and presented in complex installations. He utilizes the same media used by other travelers – video and photo cameras.
From time immemorial humans have been drawn to cities. In fact, the larger a city, the greater its force of attraction seems to be. In the past century the trend towards urbanization has gotten continually stronger. While in 1950, about 30% of the world’s population lived in cities, now it’s already 50%. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 60% of all humans will live in cities. Presently about 9% of all city inhabitants – or 280 million people – are crowded together in megacities, a number that will grow to 350 million in the next 10 years.
Nuno Cera is interested in the principle of civilization behind these cities as it is found in different cultural groups and seeks to experience these civilizations and their urban forms. He documents this in many of his films and photographs. Civilization is now often defined metaphorically as a kind of “cultural roof” – a roof for similarly positioned cultures that aren’t necessarily geographically connected. According to this idea, countries that share civilizations have the same world view. In this context culture is defined as a locally defined production of common values and norms that provide meaning. Yet in the globalized world of megacities these different civilizations have ceased to exist. Instead, within a single global civilization there is a heterogeneity of cultures, as well as societal niches and blank spaces. These niches and blank spaces are specifically channeled from the culture of cities and made to spread. They spread to the point of overflowing and are impressed upon the image of a city through urban codes – either in a fleeting street culture or in the provisional and informal “architecture” that develops from these street cultures.
The “big city” has replaced the “great narration”. The “great narrations” – Jean Francois Lyotard would say – have been abandoned. In their place we find a variety of discourses that emerge with their own rules of constitution and linked statements and that can include unique criteria for rationality and normativity. Lyotard calls these discourses isolated “language-games”. This is a term borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein used the concept of the “language-game” as a heuristic tool to analyze certain basic elements of human communication. Here we apply the term language-game to the Babylon-like languages of megacities.
Nuno Cera is fascinated by the profound and somewhat bizarre beauty of cities. Hong Kong becomes the City of Fragrances, as it is known in Cantonese. The variety of scents corresponds to the variety of language-games. As early as 1908 the art nouveau architecture of August Endell celebrated “The Beauty of the Big City”. Le Corbusier was fascinated by the unintentional aesthetic of technological facilities. In the 1960s Robert Venturi, the father of post-modern architecture, praised the contradictoriness of trivial construction. And Rem Koolhaas, now probably the most influential architect in the world, speaks of the “terrifying beauty” of our urbanized environment. One of Rem Koolhaas’s most important books is Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto of Manhattan, which appeared in 1978. Here Koolhaas attempts to describe the implicit urban philosophy behind Manhattan. In this work he interprets Manhattan as a prototype of the Megacity, the character of which manifests itself above all in the “culture of congestion”. According to this interpretation it is the concentration of the big city and its confusing inner aesthetic, social and cultural contradictoriness that lend it its attraction and essential qualities. This congestion in its architectural, urban and cultural manifestations and the ingenious solutions, improvisations and urban creativity that emerge are the basis for this artist’s works.
FUTURELAND brings the results of the artist’s research together in an extensive exhibition. This project examines the influence of the imposing and overwhelming development of new “big cities” in terms of their inhabitants and principles of civilization. Here the focus is the connection between architecture, open space, society as civilization and the time period in which all of this exists – a focus brought out by means of film and photography. The cities that were visited by the artist for the FUTURELAND project are all megacities or even “giga cities”, and are known as the urban, architectural and cultural centers of our age: Istanbul, Cairo, Dubai, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Moscow.
In this context these megacities are equivalent to a contemporary Babylon. No other ancient city calls forth such vivid associations as Babylon. Babylon is seen as a metaphor for the dark side of civilization – dominance and suppression, terror and violence, hubris and insanity. In European art and culture, the myth of Babylon is linked to humanity’s most primitive fears. Here the visitors experience the mythical story of Babylon’s rise and fall as a city of sin and tyranny, as the setting of an endless confusion of languages and as the city of eternal apocalypse. The visitors set out on an expedition to the secret sources of the city’s image, its origins and the legacy that has survived through the centuries up to the present. Not only is the historical truth of Babylon told, but the truth of a civilization that needs the myth of Babylon to understand itself is revealed as well. Babylon is understood as a modern parable of the Biblical tower and brings to light the difference between cultural codes and the difficulty of communication. In 2006 the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu recreated the parable in his film Babylon. The director himself once commented, “I did not try to show what is now happening with us. We always see the ‘other’ as something abstract. Being different means being dangerous and not being able to understand the other. This doesn’t just happen from one country to the next, but between fathers, sons and husbands as well […]. We are no longer capable of listening.” Nuno Cera watches, observes and documents from his own perspective. He doesn’t listen to the individual and his or her language-game but to the symphony created by the totality of diverse language-games. In 1927 the German Walter Ruttmann made the experimental documentary Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis. Ruttmann recreates Berlin – which at the time was considered a thriving international metropolis – as a symphonic work. He conceived his film as a documentary work of art that depicted Berlin as a living organism. Nuno Cera is a part of this tradition and recreates the megacity as a symphonic experience.
“A ROOM WITH A VIEW”: It is a magic moment to go to your hotel room in a foreign city, push back the curtain and look through the window at the city and skyline. The impressions take you aback and inspire you to enjoy the moment in silence. You will remember this view throughout your stay. You will recognize more and more details as you remember more and more places and buildings on the skyline and their significance within the stereotypical hotel room. Parallel to this process of feeling at ease, you will bring things to the room, you will spread out your clothes, you will leave your newspapers and boxer shorts there. And then the miraculous phenomenon will come at the end of the day, when everything is cleaned up and put back in order. The room will be filled with your own layers of experience, desires and wishes and you will project these onto the view of the city. The room will be filled with these experiences. Nuno Cera is interested in these layers of meaning, emotion, joy and fright. His photos fix these layers in place by showing the reflections in the window. Light from outside, colorful billboards next to the silhouette of a woman and the light from the bedside lamp. The result is elegant and sophisticated mind maps of the night, the view and experiences with another person.
The connections between intellectuals and hotels are endless. Hotels stand for service and comfort, but for dis-connectedness and homelessness as well. They are a surface of projection for longings and a setting for self-dramatization. In this way hotels inspire our imaginations and serve both as a place of origin as well as a setting for artistic and literary masterpieces. A great number of works were created in hotels. Stays in hotels and literary assimilations of the experience are to be found in the works of such authors as Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Graham Green and Agatha Christie. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie and The Quiet American by Graham Green are just three of many examples. All three of these authors lived for years at a time in hotels or were inspired by stays in hotels during their travels. The hotel room is both a place of refuge, comfort and luxury, as well as a literary and artistic setting.
Nuno Cera travels to cities, takes up residence in high-rise hotels and creates images of other high-rises and the city skyline. The artist looks for hotels according to specific criteria. They must stretch a certain distance over other city structures and have oversized, top-hung glass windows. This is important in the creation of a view of the city and urban agglomeration. The glass surface also enables the all so important reflection of the interior of the room. In addition there is the time window of the dark city and illuminated cityscape. The artist embarks on these journey with his partner. Their blurred reflections are to be seen in many of the works.
Buildings with large glass windows are sought out. In 1926 Siegfried Ebeling published a book on architectural theory entitled Der Raum als Membran (The Room as Membrane). He developed a theory based on biological membranes regarding the connection between rooms and walls. He sees the wall not as a functional or load-bearing element or as a (de-)limiting component, but as a membrane that creates a diaphanous medium between the interior and exterior. As such, it should be open not only to light and air, but also to communication and social interaction. For the German pavilion at the Barcelona World Fair in 1928-1929, Mies van der Rohe (who knew Ebeling’s book) created walls as clear “open borders” in a permeable, transparent frame making use above all of glass surfaces.
Let’s look at the idea of the glass window as a diaphanous, translucent, transparent medium. Glass as a transparent or translucent material, or as a fleeting, ephemeral appearance. Both apply here. In the long exposure photographs we see the reflections of the activities and furniture in the room and of the cityscape that lies beyond. To some extent the photographs of the artist can be seen as complex self-portraits. One self-portrait has been intentionally projected onto the window. The artist’s presence and the city’s reflections are captured in an image. In this way private moments are combined with the view of the city and urban agglomeration. The result is a layered reflection that consists of a self-portrait as well as a portrait of the city. A portrait of the city that beneath the bizarre beauty of the image itself serves to emphasize the aesthetic expression and vital tension of its inhabitants. In order to clarify this point, we refer to an observation once made by Michel Foucault. Foucault writes, “The mirror is in fact a utopia in that it is a place without a place. In the mirror I see myself where I am not – in an unreal space that opens up virtually behind the surface. I am there where I am not – a kind of shadow that lends me my own visibility, that makes me visible in a place where I am absent.” If we look at the somewhat blurry silhouettes of the reflected interior in the unreal space of the mirror we see what Foucault means. Roland Barthes observes, “What you see in the mirror is a rigified object, an imaginary entity.” In this way the city silhouette becomes an imaginary, collage-like and labyrinthine manifestation of the city’s image. The artist is present in absence. He makes the phenomenon presented even more complex in that he extends the exposure of the photograph over several hours and thus adds the element of time to the observation. In this way he can not be seen in the images, even though he is in the space for a long period. What he sets down is a virtual subtext of cities and of his own existence in these cities. In linguistics and in art subtext is defined as a level of meaning that lies beneath the explicit statement of a phrase or of a work, thus creating an additional dimension of expression. In contrast to the explicit statement, which ideally is clearly comprehensible, the subtext only reveals itself to readers, listeners, etc. that have access to special additional information. Understanding the subtext is seen as an act of interpretation or of “reading between the lines”. For the artist the most important thing is this personal subtext as well as the subtext of cities as metaphors for the urban experience. It is a poetic and analytical assimilation and documentation of the artist’s fascination for the moment of the city, which in our civilization has irrevocably come. “Its subtext is fuck context.”