Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Uncanny sewing machines

I believe in synchronicity. And when several threads come together I have to write about it. So this time I'll write about uncanny sewing machines.
I'm scouring Rotterdam for places with atmosphere. They are difficult to find. But last December I started exploring the Feijenoord area, on the South (poor) side of the river. And here I found this upholstery shop.
Feijenoord was the first expansion area of Rotterdam south of the river Nieuwe Maas. The district is surrounded by old docks, the old harbours and the river. It is bisected by the railway line between Rotterdam and Dordrecht. The district was founded in 1870 when the Rotterdam population grew with 32,000 inhabitants. Speculators had free reign and the quality of the housing was low. Most buildings were demolished after 1970 and replaced by social housing. The majority of the inhabitants are immigrants.
The upholstery shop is a surviving relic of the 19th century and the industrial revolution. The ancient atmosphere is enhanced by the collection of old radios and sewing machines in the shop window. It fits the area perfectly.
The repressed retains its initial impulse, its urge to penetrate consciousness.
There is something old lurking in this area. The 19th century is still alive with its smoky, greasy and metallic atmosphere. With ghosts made of soot and poverty. With vampires hunting for drunks in dark streets. With working class mothers mending clothes for large families. Maybe the atmosphere of poverty and class struggle has never left the district.
The patterns on the sewing machines remind me of medieval armor and tarot cards. I'm sure that the owner of the upholstery shop is a master of occult arts and that he's been practicing his secret craft here since the 1800s. If I walk into the shop and say the right password I will be initiated in the secrets of this area.
Repressed contents are not destroyed in the unconscious: rather, they are forever re-emerging in the form of "derivatives of the unconscious". Such derivatives include fantasies, slips of the tongue, parapraxes and even certain character traits. They are expressions of the unconscious manifesting itself in consciousness, without this necessarily implying that the repressed becomes conscious: The repressed returns, but often remains unrecognizable.
The interaction of this area, the shop, the machines and the patterns enhances the uncanny atmosphere of this district. I'm pleasantly bewitched and obsessed and I have to return regularly. A weird kind of pilgrimage. The place charges some spiritual batteries I didn't know I had.
Freud describes uncanny effects that result from instances of  "repetition of the same thing," including incidents wherein one becomes lost and accidentally retraces one's steps, and instances wherein random numbers recur, seemingly meaningfully (here Freud may be said to be prefiguring the concept that Jung would later refer to as synchronicity).
So I have been sensitized to the uncanny character of sewing machines. Some of this is explained by their power to do real damage.
I learned that if a sewing machine will sew through quadruple-layer canvas coveralls, it will also sew through an eleven-year old's thumb. Thankfully, I did not have to learn that on my thumb; I learned it on my cousin Stacey's thumb. I also learned that it's better to learn from other peoples' mistakes.
This power to damage is recognized by Kafka, who has written a famous (and widely interpreted) short story about a sewing-machine like device.
"In the Penal Colony" describes the use of an elaborate execution device that carves the sentence of the condemned prisoner on his skin before letting him die, all in the course of twelve hours. The condemned prisoners experience a religious epiphany in their last six hours in the machine.
And the fantasies of Kafka are echoed in reality.
A 52-year-old man, called Zhou, has been arrested for injuring his girlfriend (42) by etching words across her body, a report said today. When the victim wanted to end their relationship, Zhou detained her in their residence and dipped a sewing machine needle in ink and carved out defamatory phrases, consisting of more than 100 Chinese characters, over her body.
There are more uncanny sewing machines in Rotterdam. I had forgotten about their existence. But during a recent visit to Boijmans museum they called to me and I came. The first sewing machine was in a painting by the magical realist Pyke Koch. I had picked up the signals correctly.
The radar tower could symbolize  consciousness, picking up signals in the dark, not using the normal senses.
The objects around the girl show an undeniable erotic connotation. In a Freudian way the artist investigates his own psyche, in this case his problematic feelings towards women: the candle, pin-cushion and sewing machine all seem to point in this direction. More specific, the girl's fruitless efforts to light the candle may indicate a physical or psychological impotence on the artist's part.
This fits wonderfully with my attraction to the district of Feijenoord and its strange atmosphere. I wonder what I'll discover if I visit the area more frequently. I don't think it is anything erotic. I suspect it is the lost city of Prague that I'm trying to rediscover. I miss that eternal city.
Basically, the Uncanny is what unconsciously reminds us of our own forbidden and thus repressed impulses perceived as a threatening force by our super-ego. Thus, the items and individuals that we project our own repressed impulses upon become a most uncanny threat to us, uncanny monsters and freaks akin to fairy-tale folk-devils, and subsequently often become scapegoats we blame for all sorts of perceived miseries, calamities, and maladies.
And there is another, hidden, sewing machine in Boijmans museum. And this one was also calling me. But it was also warning me: Do not disturb!

"The Mystery of Isidore Ducasse" from 1920 refers back to "Les Chants de Maldoror" that Ducasse wrote under the pseudonym Comte de Lautréamont. The book appeared in 1869 and was rediscovered in the 1920s by the Surrealists, who considered Ducasse to be a kindred spirit. In this book, which seems to have been written in a fit of delirium, they recognized their method of automatic writing. They also encountered anew their preference for absurd combinations of things which they believed were poetic sparks that would kindle a great fire. They adopted one sentence from the book as their motto: "as beautiful as a chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table".
Maybe I should be careful with my explorations of Feijenoord and stop trying to uncover the hidden secrets of this district? Should I be careful with absurd combinations of things, because they are poetic sparks that can kindle a great fire? Or should I just bring an umbrella next time?

References and sources of quotes
Pyke Koch - Sleeping Somnabulist - Better reproduction
Pyke Koch - Sleeping Somnabulist - Description
Sewing machine horror  Mighty_Emperor on Fortean Times forum
Old sewing machine restoration
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
Chance encounter of a sewing machine
In the Penal Colony
Man Ray Enigme Isidore Ducasse Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Mis-interpreting the Saints

The Caesar clothing store in the Karel Doormanstraat is modern, luxurious and surprisingly expensive. It is not unusual to see sneakers priced at 300 euros and t-shirts priced at 100 euros. Like the store says:
Caesar Donna is one of the leading stores in luxury fashion. A visit to Caesar Donna can be compared with a treat in superior service and a qualified shopping experience in a luxurious atmosphere.
Looking in their store window is a heady mix of curiosity, amiration, envy, and disgust. Some designs are sleek and elegant, others are pompous and overdone. All are expensive and all are optimized for conspicuous consumption.
Last April I looked in the store and saw this elegant combination. An interesting mix of cultural memes. Especially the t-shirt with black lace and the 19th-century engraving of some saint. A remix of modern club-culture with bourgeois religiosity. How had the designer arrived at this result? Possibly influenced by Latino gang-culture with their Roman Catholic symbolism? Or an echo of the modern popularity of the rosary? Would the owner of this t-shirt ever realize this cultural incongruity?

At that moment I was only thinking about the iconography. I never realized that the story was even more complex. But somehow the name of the saint stuck in my memory.
Later that month I was in Prague for private business. I also visited the bell-tower of the St. Nicholas church in Mala Strana. And there I met Saint Agatha again. But in a very different context.
Saint Agatha (+225 in Sicily). Patron saint of bell-founders. She was cruelly tortured for her Christian faith. Among the tortures she underwent was the cutting off of her breasts. The shape of her amputated breasts gave rise to her attribution as the patron-saint of bell-founders.
Now this is weird!
  • The picture of a martyr is put on a t-shirt designed for partying.
  • The picture of a saint whose breasts were cut off, is placed on top of the breasts of the wearer.
But it gets even weirder!
  • The saint on the t-shirt is not carrying breasts on a platter, like St. Agatha most often does. The saint on the t-shirt is carrying pliers and a palm branch.
  • St. Agatha is rarely depicted with pliers, as an indication of an even more gruesome torture (and even less suitable for a woman's t-shirt).
  • The saint most often depicted with pliers is St. Apollonia, the patron saint of dentists (obviously).
It is possible that the designer simply mixed up the saints. Or he didn't dare to put breasts on a platter on the t-shirt. Or he knew what he (she?) was doing and made a conscious ironic joke. We will never know.

This says something interesting about our culture. But I'm not able to put it into words yet.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rfzappala/7756092034/ - Martyrdom of St. Agatha
http://www.flickr.com/photos/23748404@N00/4331746575/ - Martyrdom of St. Agatha

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hopeless geology - 3

Beach visit
On our second day in Barcelona we visited the beach. It is impossible to describe this area with its combination of 17th, 19th and 21st century architecture so I will concentrate on the shoreline.
Barcelona beaches are a little dirty (sand and sea), especially the ones near the downtown. [8]
Catalonia is full of beaches since it is located in the east side of Spain and at the border of the Mediterranean sea. By coming at Barcelona, you are only at 25 minutes of the beach by walking from Plaza Catalunya. I will add that I don’t like much its beaches particularly the Barceloneta area, because it is dirty (sand and sea) – you can swim but it exists a high probability that you cross over a plastic bag in comparison to other ones. [10]

The gravel band
We dipped our feet in the water and I was immediately captivated by the mix of sand and gravel. The gravels were concentrated in a band of 2-3 meters width, parallel to the sea shore. There are two possible explanations:
  • This is caused by the size sorting effect of the waves.
  • This is a band (lens) of gravel that is enclosed between two layers of sand.
I can only speculate about the provenance of the gravel band. It might be local geology, but it might even be artificially transported foreign soil. In the city anything can happen.
The port area was quite amazing – the biggest floating mall in the world, a man made Egyptian sand beach, and lots of other businesses. [9]
Gravel sample
I did not have time to collect a large and representative sample. It was getting dark quickly and we were tired. And collecting stones is an antisocial activity if the others are not interested in geology. On my own I would have stayed longer and would have a more complete collection.
It is notoriously difficult to determine stone types. From this sample I can only recognize:
  • Granite - upper left
  • Limestone - center right - I should do an acid test to be completely sure, but I don't have hydrochloric acid available
  • Flint ? - lower right
  • Quartz ? - top middle right
All the others are a total mystery. Especially this one. 3 cm long with beautiful rectangular Crystals, a porphyritic structure. Very hard, certainly igneous rock.
If the gravel band is natural it is most probably a river sediment. The rounded shapes are consistent with a long transport. It is most probable that the rounded shapes were not produced on the beach by wave action but during the river transport. This might have happened recently but also during one of the last ice ages.
Most likely the gravel comes from the Pyrenees or its promontories. The gravel might be relatively recent (1000-100.000 years).
Barcelona's coastal location and the proximity of the surrounding coastal mountain ranges leads to frequent flash flooding in the region. Many of the seasonal rivers on the outskirts of the city continue to pose flood risks. A normally dry river channel near Sant Pere de Ribes has evidence of a past flood level line in a river cliff. [3]
But the gravel might also be older (5-2 million years).
The lower Quaternary deposits overlie the Pliocene series, which is formed by a regressive sequence composed of marine blue marls followed by sands and marls associated with gravel lenses that pass progressively to the lower Quaternary sediments.
Quaternary alluvial detrital sediments are mainly composed of layers of red clay, yellow silt, and minor sand and gravel. The thickness of the alluvial detrital sediments is variable, attaining 20 m in the creeks. [2]
And the gravel might be even older (12 million years).
Twelve million years ago, the Mediterranean was taking on much of the shape it has today. Sea levels were dropping, and it would not be long, geologically speaking, before the Mediterranean became isolated from the Atlantic and, literally, dried up. Rivers were working tirelessly at the erosion of uplands old and new, pouring gravel, sand, and mud down to the ever-shifting coast. A great delta formed close to where Barcelona is today, its sediments eventually heaved up to form the mass of Montjuic. [11]
 And it might even be that the source of the gravel is an even older, conglomerate stone from the surrounding mountains.
 A spectacular example of conglomerate can be seen at Montserrat, near Barcelona. Here erosion has created vertical channels giving the characteristic jagged shapes for which the mountain is named (Montserrat literally means "jagged mountain"). The rock is strong enough to be used as a building material - see Montserrat abbey front at full resolution for detail of the rock structure. [4,5]
The granite
 The three rounded granites on the right are from the beach. The angular one on the left I picked up in a Barcelona park. They are definitely the same stone type.
For economic reasons the granite I picked up in Barcelona must come from a nearby (max. 100 km) source. It would not be efficient to transport the heavy stone over long distances. This is confirmed by the same type granite I saw in the station at Figueres. (The colours look different in the pictures but in reality they were the same.)
Most probably it has been mined in one of the local stone quarries, like this one. I saw this one from the train between Barcelona and Figueres, but it is more probably a sandstone quarry that a granite quarry (from the shape of the incision).
This is further confirmed by this sample from the Barcelona museum. It is 600 - 300 million years old:

Granite: plutonic igneous rock - Dating:Upper Paleozoic - Provenance: Espanya,  Catalunya, Girona, Alt Empordà, Cantallops - The sample comes from the old quarry at Lamas, located on the highway from La Jonquera to Cantallops. The area is marked by widespread granite outcroppings from the axial zone of the Pyrenees, from the Upper Paleozoic superior. The granite has a granular texture with equigranular crystals of 4-6 mm. [6] 
And by this description of local Barcelona geology:
The Collserola mountain range forms the northern barrier to Barcelona's expansion. It overlooks the city. The Collserola is composed of two types of rock: metamorphic (slates, quartzites, metamorphic limestones) and igneous (granite). [7]

http://www.planetware.com/map/spain-rivers-lakes-and-resevoirs-in-spain-map-e-e2.htm [1]
Variscan and Alpine structure of the hills of Barcelona: geology in an urban area,
Estructura herciniana y alpina de las colinas de Barcelona: geología en una zona urbana
P. Santanach, J. M. Casas, O. Gratacós, M. Liesa, J. A. Muñoz, F. Sàbat [2]
http://geographyfieldwork.com/besos_valley.htm [3]
http://geographyfieldwork.com/CovesdelCollbato.htm [4]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conglomerate_(geology) [5]
Granite sample [6]
http://geographyfieldwork.com/Collserola%20Park.htm [7]
http://www.world-rt.com/travel/beach-barcelona.php [8]
http://sidetracked.gravel.co.nz/821 [9]
http://www.world-rt.com/travel/best-beaches-catalonia.php [10]
http://throughthesandglass.typepad.com/through_the_sandglass/2009/03/sandstones-of-barcelona-1.html [11]

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Beginners Guide to Consent

Yesterday I participated in the Beginners Guide to Consent workshop. Under the guidance of Eleanor Greenhalgh we experimented with different voting methods to make group decisions. It was an interesting and pleasant experience.
I especially liked the manner in which the discussion was initiated. First voting session. Then all text fragments we had consensus about were put aside. The discussion continued about the fragments we did *not* have consensus about. In this way two hours passed quickly. The most interesting insights (for me) were:
  • There exist many voting methods, more than I thought.
  • All of them are logical and defensible.
  • They all lead to different results. Sometimes the differences are striking.
  • Interesting feedback loops exist. The voting results of one member influence the voting results of other members.
  • The results of voting don't always produce satisfaction in all group members.
  • Discussion about the results does produce more satisfaction than straight voting.
  • Voting is scalable to large groups. Satisfying discussion is difficult to scale.
The exercise raises some interesting questions about group dynamics:
  • Can consensus be reached in all situations and for all group compositions?
  • Do groups strive for an optimizing or a satisficing strategy?
  • Does discussion and voting bring groups closer together? Or can it create factions and harden the differences between them?
In hindsight these results might seem obvious. But there is a big difference between reading about group decision processes and experiencing these processes. My awareness of these processes has been sharpened. I like self-experimentation, and this was an interesting experiment. And I also have a nice zine booklet, as a tangible result of our work.

The Beginners Guide to Consent is a zine-making workshop. Come and create your own edition of The Beginners Guide to Consent: A pseudo-democratic group experiment on consent, curation and collaboration, facilitated by Eleanor Greenhalgh. (In V2_Institute for the Unstable Media.) [1]

What do you think should be included in a beginners guide to consent? Come and create your own democratically-edited print edition of The Beginners Guide to Consent zine. During the workshop we will explore the problem of editing a zine democratically, and experiment with different 'consensual' systems. By the end you will have three different zines to take home. [2]

http://v2.nl/events/the-beginners-guide-to-consent [1]
http://www.worm.org/home/view/event/7620 [2]

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Barcelona - first impressions

On Friday afternoon the trip form Barcelona Airport to the Ibis hotel takes 1,5 hours by bus, metro and foot. The tourist spends a lot of time orienting himself and figuring out the directions. But it is an interesting self-experiment in (psycho-) geography and topography.
One of the abilities a psychogeographer needs is reading the city. And driving from the airport to the hotel is a good exercise in studying the growth rings of the city. Below I record my first impressions and rough conclusions. Then I try to verify them using Wikipedia and the guidebook.
Emptiness next to the airport. The airport was built far away from the city and a highway was constructed. Now the highway and cheap land are attracting investors.
An area in stasis, waiting for future development. Nothing happens here because the paper plans have to be finished first. And the crisis has struck and all planning has stopped. This area will stay semi-wild for a long time to come.
Surprising how the airport areas all look the same. The country around Prague airport looks almost the same!
I was not totally right: The airport is surrounded by nature reserves!
Somewhat closer to the city big supermarkets combine with small industry and road infrastructure. This area cannot be used for anything else, like housing or office space. The small industry was here first but now it is being pushed out except in these useless enclaves.
Surprising how these areas all look the same. This could be Northern Italy as well! The country around Milano looks exactly the same.

Metro lines are stretching their tentacles towards the airport. Housing and offices follows in their tracks.
Before the metro arrived cheap mass housing was built here in the 1970's. There were no shops and only bus connections. But people came anyway because of the housing shortage.
Surprising how these areas all look the same. This could be Berlin as well!
I was right: The 1960s and 1970s saw a second population boom, caused by immigration from poorer regions of Spain: however this was not matched by construction of the necessary amenities and it was only in the 1990s that public investment resulted in additional schools, leisure facilities and housing.
An empty factory. Probably built in the 1900's when this was the outer edge of the city. Now it has been closed down but the area will be gentrified and the buildings will be re-used.
It is near the metro station Magoria la Campana. I could not find any other information.
Other factories in this area have been demolished. Modern housing and sports fields have taken their place. Bicycle lanes are a modern innovation.
Large housing projects from the 1950's. Now a stable, lower middle class area.
The scooter or motorbike is ever present. Helmets are worn but otherwise no protection, just sneakers, shorts and T-shirts. They pass the cars with just centimetres to spare.
My speculation - Plaza d'Espana. In nationalistic times - 1900 - this was the outskirt of the city. That's why the soccer arena was built here. And that's why the fairground and exhibition area was built here. These institutions are always built on the outskirts of the city.
I was mostly wrong: The square was built in 1929 for the international exhibition. And it's a bullring, not a football stadium.
My speculation - The 1900 areas of the city. A lot of Art Nouveau. Rich buildings with highly ornamental facades. The new upper middle class of a booming capitalist society. Important to remember that this style was very modern in those times. These were innovative areas of the city.
I was right: The late 19th century urban planner Ildefons Cerdà included this street as an essential part of his draft of the new "Projecte de reforma i eixample de Barcelona".
The metro teleports us to a totally different part of the city. You never know how it will look up there. The metro looks modern. It does not feel panicked by terrorism.
My speculation - On the map this looked spectacular, like a big round city park. But in reality it is construction site. The park on the left looks closed and dead. The roads and tramways on the right are so big that it's impossible to orient yourself. Everything is so new that nothing seems to work yet.
I was right: Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes is a large square in Barcelona, first designed by Ildefons Cerdà to serve as the city centre in his original urban plan, but nowadays relegated to quite a secondary position. Resembling nothing of what it was intended to be, most of the current Glòries was built in the 1960s, with further additions in the 1990s. Large portions of the square are occupied by parking lots and its central area is surrounded by concrete walls, part of the not very aesthetic elevated highways.
Extreme gentrification in an old part of the city. How much this looks like Berlin! The modern tower is generally called "The Dildo" or "The condom".
According to the architect Jean Nouvel, the shape of the Torre Agbar was inspired by Montserrat, a mountain near Barcelona, by the shape of a geyser rising into the air, and by the male genitalia.
This was an industrial area from the 1900's to the 1990's. Still a few car workshops are left. But some industrial property has been cleared. New and spectacular buildings are put inside the empty spaces. Hotels, offices, university buildings. Some small shops, bars and restaurants are still surviving.
I was right: During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, Poblenou was the epicenter of Catalan and Iberian industry, earning it its sobriquet of the Catalonian Manchester. Surrounding the extensive cluster of factories stood mostly working class residential areas. After a period of decay, the neighbourhood has undergone a dramatic transformation.
The new Ibis hotel has been built opposite a 1900 factory façade. The backyard looks out on a highly technical industry building from the 1920's. On the corner the T-Systems mobile company has built a new skyscraper.

Reading European cities is not too difficult. Their history and architecture is very similar.
Don't go to an unknown city without doing research. You will feel lost and ungrounded.
Even a tiny bit of factual research (Google, Wikipedia) helps tremendously.