City at a Time of Crisis



Tracing and researching crisis-ridden urban public spaces

in Athens, Greece.

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Something along this line, part 2 of 3



“Caution! One train may be hiding another.” [1]

How easy is it to lose sight? Even for the most avid of the French railway crossers, it would only take a tiny moment of deflection from the furiously moving objects lying ahead; focus on one train alone, even for a split second, reads the warning –– and another might very well come right at you from the opposite direction. Walking, jolting at one’s own pace, would require a special occasion, an exception ––a railway crossing, in the French case–– for the unforeseen and therefore, the threatening obstacle to make its appearance. But in the urban structure, the unforeseen lies all around us: what exhilarates us is our participation ––collective, to be sure–– into a structure, a scale that exceeds us and by doing so, grips us every single moment. A contradiction? Urban space is contradictory by default... our sense of intimacy lies in its anonymity; our feeling of serenity stems out of the never-ending franticness engulfing us when we stand inside it. What surrounds us is a sensationally infinite capacity yet one that we have to succumb to, nevertheless.

In the middle of the French countryside, the sign comes as forewarning and confirmation that losing sight is unlikely; to be caught off-guard is unexpected, potentially lethal. And in the city? Here, to lose sight is quintessential to the urban experience; to destruct, to interfere, to obstruct our line of vision is what we can only expect, as urbanites. For the urban rail commuter, the line of sight most often cuts off inside the train carriage or, at best, somewhere in the narrow space between the carriage and the closest building it swings by. Conversely, in a long-distance train the traveller sees her line of sight matched by the sense of purpose of her travels: a train travel might move her between discreet, distant places –– potentially, and often enough, between livelihoods.

Even if the narrowness of perspective deprives the urban rail commuter from her full line of sight, this is a line no longer required in order for her to survive in the urban whole. All mediums of so-called guideway transit [2] rely precisely upon this principle of guidance: the idea that our trans-cendence through the city is not only mediated or controlled, but entirely fixed upon a specific, set trajectory. Urban trans-it, here, the notion of transience in itself (neither here, nor there: merely in-between) is entirely pre-dictated. And so, being driven ––and much the more so, upon a predetermined line––  comes as the absolute antithesis to the situationist dérive, of being purposefully lost in the city. To the vastness, the seemingly chaotic range of choices available to the urbanite for transcending the city,  guideway transit juxtaposes just one. To the spontaneous, it collates the predetermined. To the ostensible permanent moving presupposed, even inherent in long-distance travel, it contrasts the endless retrogression of urban transit, of commuting.

Commuting is travel that is not. It is as painfully, painstakingly real as pre-dawn awakenings and fourteen hour shifts. As real as sleepless nights and tired mornings; howling inspectors and fatigued train rides. But it is as fake as the retrogression of commuting, the endless coming back to base. As with the train traveller, the commuter is neither here, nor quite there –– and her previous presence, turns into mere re-presentation: existing, in the urban whole, only through the presence of the guideway transit vehicle, following its trajectory blindly. As per Debord, of course, in modern society “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation” –– and in exactly the same way, in the urban whole, commuting becomes the representation of actual movement, of travel. The guide- in guideway transit is, in perverse irony, what deprives the commuter of her quintessential urban quality, the ability to roam. It is here, under this complete guidance, that she is at complete loss.


[1]: “Attention! Un train peut en cacher un autre”. A notice at a panel to be found at every railway crossing in France –– and the opening words to John Berger’s funeral tribute to Henri Cartier-Bresson; August 8th, 2004.

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[2]: Guideway transit includes all urban commuting mediums that are built (literally: guided) by rail; the metro, tram, monorail and so on.

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City at the Time of Crisis is a research project tracing and researching the effects of the ongoing financial crisis on urban public spaces in Athens, Greece. Read more...