FACS 1900 C
Arts and Ideas
Instructor: Robert Gill
Room: ACW 206 for lecture, ACE 006 for tutorial
Time: Friday 11:30 to 1:30 PM for lecture, 2:30 to 3:30 for tutorial
April 24, 2009
Discourse mediates what is known and knowable about human bodies and their
capacities. Knowledge is an organizer of these bodies and capacities.
We all feel confined as to what we can do in this body. We also discover that there is a
creative potential in our bodies we didn’t know existed when we go to art school. The
kinds of constraints we place socially on the body and what the body can do.
Foucault talks about the so called truth, which also includes falsehood, we thought the
sun revolved around the earth at some point in history, that was our truth. We have to be
very careful what we think is true and what we think is false. I am hoping when you leave
this course one thing you have as a new tool is the capacity to see and rethink what you
believe to be true and see it in a new way. These are all basic principles operating in the
philosophy of Foucault.
There is this framework of the body and the discourse around what it can and cannot do.
The city is the same way, as a shape it shapes how we imagine what we can do and what
we can be and what we become. The city is the frontier of the human body in many ways.
What new kinds of bodies we can invent. The city is a key space in thinking about
contemporary society and culture. How it shapes our knowledge, our truth about what we
can be in human society.
Human life in this context, I am not talking about it as an abstract thing but biological,
real, lived, messy, vulnerable, intimate human biological life. Through technological
things like TV, computers, animation, we are altering the human body and the way it
works. The brain itself is being changed at a cellular level. We have changed our bodies,
the flesh and blood vessels we live in. Urban space has also had this kind of impact. We
have become urban beings not only because we live in the city. The city has shaped our
bodies and how we live, how we smell, breathe, taste, perceive time.
The good news about the city. Cities are paradoxical. On the one hand they are chaotic
alienating, ugly, frustrating. At the same time they are extraordinary places, have the
potential for generating new kinds of life and experiences. A city like Toronto it is an
urban vanguard, the social experiment going on here is quite unique. It is the direction
that humankind is taking. This city has extraordinary potential to remake how we think
about human experience. We make the city and the city makes us. The city is a key place
that people have come to during the industrial revolution. London in the 19 century went
1 from a few hundred thousands to over a million people. Urban revolution, what does it do
to human society, as modernity continues to emerge, what impact does that have on
human life? What is the nature of urban life and experience?
When people moved into cities it posed a huge problem for governments, for monarchies.
A million people condensed in one space, talking to each other, that creates a social
momentum that is new and unique in history. Urban spaces have been a problem in terms
of control. We look at premodern cities, old cities in Europe like Paris, Barcelona, we can
gain some insight into how the city has changed, how the shape of the city itself has
In medieval times there were no cars, at minimum a horse and a cart. You can’t locate
yourself in a medieval city, everything is twisting and turning, a dead end, you go around
in circles. You experience the medieval body, the sense of the twisting body, things are
close by, no cars. That sense of the body is a very particular kind of urban experience
different from New York where there is an intense rational grid.
How do you get as many cars from one point to another is the logic of contemporary city.
Los Angeles used to have a very good system of moving people around through public
transportation. GM didn’t like the idea of trains competing with cars, they stepped in with
lawyers and legislation was put in place to shut down the transportation infrastructure in
favor of the car. Highways were built and LA lost the capacity forever to have a sound
public transportation system. It is now one of the most congested car riddled cities on the
We can think of space for people being quite different from place to place. The core of
medieval cities has a different feeling. Smaller, denser, closer, things flow through that
space in a different way. This is Barcelona from the air. In the middle this passageway is
a big wide street cut through this old city in the 19 century. You see the medieval core
of Barcelona on both sides. Neatly packed. Dense, convoluted, everybody bumping up
against each other, very intimate, meeting modern rationality in this central passageway
cut straight down to the water.
On the ground this is what it looks like. It’s all about walking, not about the car. People
making bread are two blocks away, you know them your whole life. There is a very
intimate sense of daily life. You are strongly connected to people that are making things
you are consuming every day. The chicken you eat you bought from someone who lives
around the corner.
This kind of city also produces a certain kind of body in relation to other bodies. In this
kind of space, the core of the city, this is who you are, it has a strong relationship to your
identity. You live in a small apartment, noisy as hell, the city is an extension of your
body. The square, the store where you buy bread, the fish seller. Your home is
fundamentally connected to public space. The plaza, the church, the school, the café, all
of these spaces are your living room. The city is like your living room. Public space is
2 integrally part of the body. There is a deep connection between your living room, the
plaza, an interplay between public and private space.
Our own city, the kinds of space we live in, we can make a comparison. If we only lived
on the grid space, that’s what we know. By comparison is makes it clearer how we live.
The overarching principle of urban space is this quest for control of bodies, of movement
of bodies on a massive systemic scale. Movement of bodies, goods, services through
space. The cities that we live in has industrial spaces that are quite different from these
more intimate spaces. The city becomes something that we can read, it becomes like a
text. It can be read, we can look at the way it is set up and we can understand something
about the logic that went into how it was set up.
A guy went around NYC documenting all these little spaces that came under some kind
of control. This is covering ventilation shafts, someone has installed teeth on top so you
can’t sit on it. An intimate space otherwise, two people could have sat down. You could
have a slower, a more sensual experience of the city, but that opportunity is blocked. A
lot of this stuff is designed to eliminate public space. You can end up with homeless
people, what are you going to do?
You might have an old woman sit down, have a stroke, die. Then the building owner has
to deal with it, let’s just eliminate this as a space, it solves the problem. The little teeth go
on and on. I want to back up and look a bit at Radiant City, touch on some of the
highlights from that film that point to characteristics of suburbia we might want to
It is not simply a film making fun of suburbia. It is saying suburbia does not work well in
some ways and we have to face that in a big way and think creatively about different
kinds of suburbia. It’s not going away, a lot of people like it, but how we recreate that
reality. You as a generation will see a massive transformation of suburbia. Rethinking
how suburbia works so these places are interesting for creativity as well.
This film is a response to the idea that documentary films are never just about the truth.
The film is experimental, it does not pretend to be a documentary, all documentaries are
always fiction in some way. They have aspects of truth in them, but there is always
someone’s story about how someone perceives reality. The point of view represented in
the film, how can you understand the point of view being represented. The point of view
of this film is coming from this experience of sprawl, the bodily experience of sprawl.
The city is Calgary, one of the fastest exploding sprawling cities in NA. When the kid is
shooting the cell phone tower with his camera, it never focuses on anything, there is no
horizon, no people, you don’t know what you’re looking at. There is no orientation
through space. You don’t know where you are. That is a point of view that the film is
taking. What kind of community or lack of community exists in suburbia?
The mother says, we moved here, we know there is no community right now, eventually
there could be. A lot of suburbia is based on an idea that further down the road there will
3 be something called community but for now the only community is represented on
billboards. It’s called a community as part of the brand but on the ground it is very hard
to find. We get a very powerful sen