Writing the City

Josh Widera

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

“Who Controls the Past Controls the Future. Who Controls the Present Controls the Past.”

George Orwell, 1984

 
 
 
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Walking through Skopje’s center feels like walking through the Las Vegas version of Skopje’s center. Modern cubes have been covered with cheap, white plaster. At times Doric, at times Corinthian columns are topped with triangular pediments. Neoclassical facades on contemporary structures. Side by side stand the newly decorated Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Archeological Museum of Macedonia, exemplifying the dual trajectory of the nation’s course: outward and inward; looking towards the past and also the future. “Skopje 2014,” a $90 million project (at least), saw the erection of hundreds of statues, monuments and buildings on roughly one square mile of Skopje’s city center in less than a decade. The bridges and streets leading up to the buildings are littered with statues. Mythos (μῦθος) and logos (λόγος), which over time developed a dialectical opposition, were not always seen as polar concepts. They were simply two different modes of thought, neither of them closer to the truth than the other. Thus, Chiara Bottici argues in A Philosophy of Political Myth, myths are not necessarily defined through their truth-relation. Instead, what makes political myth stand out compared to other narrative or history projects is its teleological connection to significance. Political myth is shaped in its continuous work on a basic narrative in order to present political subjects with a way of orienting themselves and finding significance in political discourse and projects. Macedonia’s political myth-making is working on at least two claims: firstly, that Macedonia is a state of past and current political significance. And secondly, that Macedonia is an independent and homogeneous nation that spans from ancient time right to the present moment.

 
 
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“In Tito’s times, everyone got an apartment.” People still speak endearingly of the former leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. People remember an intact and extensive social welfare net, a booming economy, low crime rates, and a general sense of communal luxury. They still live in the same apartment blocks; however, most of them have not been renovated in decades. City-sized tombstones of a socialist welfarism. Scarring ruins, monuments of a better past. In Tito’s times, not everyone got an apartment; in fact, housing shortage was a constant issue. Yet those affected seem to have forgotten. Yugo-nostalgia is a barely researched, but well accepted cultural phenomenon in most of former Yugoslavia. Nostalgia comes from the compound Greek of νόστος (coming home) and ἄλγος (pain) and is often associated with certain personal biases. “Life was better under Tito.” But an element of misremembering at work in nostalgia might not be a bad thing: in The Aesthetics of Decay, Dylan Trigg argues that the spatio-affective workings of ruins and urban remnants, which cause nostalgia and similar responses, reduce our rational capacities and thus open up a possibility for the critique of progress.

 
 
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On April 5 1992, Serbian forces began a siege of the city of Sarajevo in what would become the longest and one of the most brutal sieges in modern warfare. The city was a daily battleground for 1,425 days and during that time almost 14,000 people were killed, among them 5,434 civilians.

Theorist Maria Tumarkin speaks of “traumascapes” as the “distinctive category of places transformed physically and psychically by suffering, part of a scar tissue that stretches across the world.” Hailed as a beautiful, multiethnic and culturally diverse city, Sarajevo today is a magnet for tourism. I walk through multiple bazaars, pass souvenir shops and sit in picturesque cafés. But I also visit the war sites, the tunnel that was used to smuggle arms and food into the city and the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. Tumarkin notes: “In a time when terror and tragedy flourish these locations exhibit a compelling power, drawing pilgrims and tourists from around the world who want to understand the meaning of the traumatic events that unfolded there. In traumascapes, life goes on but the past is still unfinished business.” Unfinished —— and profitable.

 
 
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Since the project “Skopje 2014,” Macedonia’s capital is littered with statues. But on Macedonia Square, one overshadows all others: Alexander the Great, the Macedonian, the Conqueror. He straddles a prancing horse, bareback, ten meters above the heads of the plebs. Even his father, King Philip II, who stands atop his own plinth on the adjacent square, looks small in comparison. A water curtain drips from the top of the column. Colorful lights illuminate it in a changing cycle. The installation reminds me of sauna facilities at a public bath. On some days, loudspeakers fervently blast classical music at onlookers and passersby. Alexander has become a ubiquitous figure. Until recently, Skopje’s airport and the country’s large north-south highway Автопат Александар Македонски both shared a name with the famed ruler. But at stake is not just Macedonia’s past. Its southern neighbour Greece had long been denying the existence of the country outright, only recognizing the republic without ever mentioning the name “Macedonia.” The dispute continues and Greece is still blocking the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” as it is officially known, from entering the EU or NATO until it changes its name. In this conflict, King Alexander has become a pawn. In How Propaganda Works, Jason Stanley speaks of not-at-issue content —— the unspoken, the implied. Skopje, or what I have seen of it, is full of not-at-issue content; though as this statue shows, that does not mean it is subtle. And that the not-at-issue content holds significance is certain: Macedonia’s new government recently agreed to rename the airport and the adjacent highway. And on top of the sauna-pillar, Alexander the Great has become “Warrior on a Horse,” with the prospect to disassemble the fountain altogether.

 
 
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In Pristina, Kosovo, there is an 11-ft bronze statue of Bill Clinton on a boulevard which also bears his name. But Bill is dwarfed by a sizeable Soviet-style apartment block. To amend this, a larger-than-life poster of the president —— larger than the larger-than-life statue —— is smeared on the facade of said building. The portrait is in turn ridiculed by an ad for flavored potato chips. City as palimpsest has become a way to describe how cities, similar to old parchment manuscripts, contain spaces that have been written on more than once, with earlier text still visible underneath the new. Andreas Huyssen speaks of selective memory and memory erasure in the urban palimpsest: a “disparate city-text that is being rewritten while earlier texts are preserved, traces restored, erasures documented.” What had been separate texts written onto the same space now reads like a poetic joke. Bronze Bill —— Yugo building —— Poster-Bill —— bag of chips.

 
 
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Close to the town of Konjic, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies Tito’s Bunker. Officially known as Армијска Ратна Команда (ARK) D-0, it is a nuclear bunker, burrowed deep into the Bosnian mountains. Finished in 1979, this Cold War relic took a quarter century and $4.6 billion to build, and was designed to protect Tito and his inner circle in the case of military escalation. The impressive, claustrophobic, and haunting structure now houses an art biennial, in which artists regularly engage site-specifically with the bunker. But its primary performativity has never been fulfilled. Yugoslavia was never hit by catastrophe, or at least not one the bunker could have offered protection from. Thus, the place, designed to keep 350 men and one woman (Tito’s wife) safe —— but not sane —— for up to six months, has never actually fulfilled its function. Does this make it inoperative? In Topophobia, Dylan Trigg sets out to investigate how our experience of the world is shaped through our bodily relation to it. In particular, he discusses the phenomenological impacts of spatial anxiety on our understanding of self and environment. How does where we are make us feel? And how does this feeling shape our understanding of where we are? Did political leaders of the time build bunkers because the Cold War was making them worried, or did the Cold War worry them because they were building bunkers like these?

 
 
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The “Palace of Youth and Sports” in the center of Pristina is nothing if not impressive. Viewed from above it evokes the skeleton of a gargantuan whale or dinosaur. Over its more than 10,000 square meters of area, there are two full arenas, and multiple smaller halls and facilities. A public referendum in 1975 resulted in the huge enterprise. Most of that funding came in through voluntary donations of the public. The tour guide tells us that for two years, families in Pristina were encouraged to donate half their income to the construction of the building. In 1977, the Palace of Youth and Sports opened, offering free classes and sessions in a variety of different sports to the Kosovar public. The palace has since fallen into partial disrepair; a postmodern ruin. One of the two great halls has become a car park. In Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida coins the term “hauntology” to describe temporal, ontological disjunction —— something that is simultaneously present and absent, and that Andrew Gallix calls a “nostalgia for lost futures.” On quiet Wednesdays, when the wind blows from the east, you can still hear in the ruins of the palace the sound of spectral kosmonauts playing photon non-alignment hockey to the eerie chants of the Red Star Android Workers’ Choir.

 
 
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I leave the city center of Skopje, walking across a main road sidelining the Varda river, when suddenly, I stumble upon a piece of Soviet Brutalism. Like the heads of giraffes, two concrete pillars peak over a set of billboards onto the road below. Rounded towers and ledges next to sharp blocks. Small arrowslits and portholes of glass run throughout the slabs of coarse concrete. What looks to me like something out of a science fiction movie is Skopje’s central post office. I am instantly intrigued, but at first it is hard to find a good vantage point to observe it. Though large and centrally located, the building is easily overlooked next to a large intersection, billboards and hedges. This is strategic: vistas of the socialist past are often obstructed by statues, newer buildings, urban landscaping, and advertisements. In his reader-response-theory, developed in The Act of Reading, Wolfgang Iser speaks of effect potentials (Wirkungspotentiale) in how a text effects the reader. While the author’s intentions do play a role in the text’s meaning, it can only ever offer a platform —— a platform shaped by certain effect potentials —— upon which a reader constructs meaning through her own act of reading. Similarly, I believe, collective memory operates on a platform of memory potentials. Cities are in parts intentionally created, regulated and limited through layers of memory potentials, forming experiential platforms that we can “read.” Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Macedonia has been trying to build its identity as a legitimate nation-state, but the post office of concrete, glass, and steel still offers us certain memory potentials of past Yugoslav socialism, albeit minimised by the attempts of erasure and distraction.

 
 
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After the trip through former Yugoslavia, I find myself again a flaneur in the city of light. The streets of Paris have been the object, location, and muse for many poets, psychogeographers, urbanists, and phenomenologists. Its historical and romantic draw is unmatched. I only have one day, so I walk as much as possible, somehow hoping that a stern regiment can make my dérive more efficient. This is, of course, a paradoxical hope. I stroll through Parc des Buttes-Chaumont: colorful leaves, a small lake, a pavilion on the top of a rock, a small suspension bridge; romanticist fantasies come to life in this park. Later, I learn it was built atop a landfill. At the turn of the century the site of Buttes-Chaumont had a mischievous and dire reputation. The area was first a refuse dump, then a site for sewage disposal and where Parisians went to cut up and deposit horse carcasses. It was known as one of the most disease-ridden and infectious locations around, its toxicity spreading over large areas of the city whenever the winds were unfavorable. I think of the flirting couples who delight in the charming environment and of a word Iain Sinclair coined: Obscenery.

 

Josh Widera is a performance thinker and maker and part of the Glasgow-based experimental theater collective The Doing Group. He holds a first class degree in Politics and Theatre Studies from the University of Glasgow and an MA in Aesthetics & Politics from the California Institute of the Arts. He is a Fulbright Scholar and supported by the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes. His interests include radical politics, performance philosophy and cities, among others. He gets excited about cycling, cooking and non-formal education.