by Christiaan Fruneaux
Published in The Make Yourself at Home Guide to Warsaw (2015, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle)
The first time that I saw the Milky Way I was nineteen years old. I was travelling with a friend in Egypt. We were camping in the Sahara desert, a six-hour ride west of the Siwa oasis. The desert night sky was a complete revelation. I do not think that ever since I have seen anything that made such an impression on me. Until that surprisingly cold night in the Sahara desert, when the landscape was flooded in sliver radiance and clear, powerful constellations emerged from the darkness above, I had never have realised how powerful the night could be.
I grew up in the eighties, in a suburban development about forty minutes north of Amsterdam, the Netherlands – one of the brightest spots on NASA’s famous image of Earth’s city lights1. My father commuted to Amsterdam and back. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by history. I always browsed the local library, looking for newly arrived history books, or history books that I had not borrowed for a while. There was always much in these books I could not relate to, or did not understand, but one thing always stood out: the idea that you could navigate from one place to the next by looking at the stars. It seemed an important premise throughout history, and I just did not get it. I could not see anything worth remembering looking up in the night sky. (It is perhaps superfluous to mention that light pollution was not an everyday topic in the place where I grew up.)
Until some decades ago, we knew that nocturnal darkness was also a very illuminating affair. We knew that stars were both signifiers for everything unknown in this lifetime as well as beacons that could, quite literally, guide us home. They were as mysterious as they were practical – a comforting presence in the night sky.
Today, it is estimated that eight in ten children born in the United States or the European Union will, in their lifetime, never lay eyes on the Milky Way2. They will never experience navigating the landscape by starlight. They will never know that on a clear moonless night, when the Milky Way appears, it is possible to read a book by the light stars cast3. Perhaps, it does not matter. Contemporary eBooks cast their own light these days. But losing the memory of what lies beyond the glare of our man-made world, clear of the glamour of the metropolis, outside our immersive electronic reality, might have unexpected cultural repercussions.
It is easy to forget how artificial our expanding urban world has become. Ordering my thoughts for this piece and typing them on my laptop screen, I am sitting on the couch of my fourth-floor Amsterdam apartment. It is a small place, even for Amsterdam standards. Looking around me, I am surrounded with my furniture and my belongings. For most things in my apartment, I do not know who made them, where they were made, or when. They arrived in my apartment via the mysterious ways of the global economic system. At one point, the materials of which my belongings consist were extracted from nature and processed. But where this happened and how this happened is a mystery to me. For all I know, my belongings could have appeared from thin air. This realisation makes me feel a bit detached from my personal property. I feel that my belongings do not reflect who I am as an individual. They are produced by strangers. I also feel that they do not form a natural surrounding – an environment I intuitively understand. Could it be that the more we are able to control and manipulate our surroundings, the more we feel detached from them?
In 1978 Rem Koolhaas wrote in Delirious New York: “Manhattanism, whose program – to exist in a world totally fabricated by man, i.e., to live inside fantasy – was so ambitious that to be realized, it could never be openly stated.”4 I sense his observation is not only true for Manhattanism but for the Modern Project as a whole. Manhattan is just one of the pinnacles of the modern world which seems to underlie an ambition to replace nature with culture – to replace our natural environment with an artificial, controlled environment. Modern people increasingly immerse themselves in things that emerge from their imagination. And this is not a theoretical understanding.
Since 2008, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in villages, and in 2011 the seven billionth person was born. Today, two thirds of global economic production happens in six-hundred largest cities of the world. Some scenarios suggest that in 2050 six-and-a-half billion people will live in the city, up from one billion in 19505. This means that other people, and the stuff we collectively produce, will keep increasingly surrounding us. Cities are, after all, and quite literally, products of our imagination. Everything in the city is produced, allocated, and claimed by someone, somewhere – everything is artificial. And we are also increasingly submerged in the virtual world, a complete artificial place, where our physical presence is of no consequence, and is often forgotten. Mankind seems to be slowly retreating inside its own materialised mind, in a collective dream cast in stone, glass, and plastics.
Cities are not only monuments of human imagination, of our ingenuity and passions, they also, again quite literally, obscure our awareness of the natural world. The modern metropolis slowly evolves into something that resembles an interior. Heat domes created by big urban cores deflect the wind and generate windless islands of still air. The light that emanates from our skyscrapers, our cars, our homes and our industries blocks the light from the stars. This is why I had to travel to a faraway desert to see the Milky Way for the first time.
Stars may be gone, but we have other ways to find our way home – artificial stars, namely, GPS satellites. In 2014, four-and-a-half billion people were electronically connected to each other via mobile phones, of which one in five is a smartphone with GPS6. We are able to navigate both our social and our physical surroundings through a very precise electronic prism. Finding your way home in a mapped environment should be increasingly easier.
The opposite, however, seems to be the case. The more we control our surroundings, the more we seem to feel lost. Modernisation and urbanisation have uprooted traditional structures, where one used to experience connectedness and communality in small-scale social structures. The importance of families, religious communities, and localities has diminished. The atomisation and individualisation of modern societies, with its emphasis on self-realisation and self-reliance, have left many people feel isolated and unconnected. The increase in loneliness goes hand in hand with the increase in urbanisation as well as social and geographical mobility. People are left to their own devices to create and maintain a social life. For their part, connecting to like-minded people, and maintaining true friendships and love relationships in the ever-changing circumstances of the modern metropolis are increasingly more difficult7.
Finding your way home is thus more than finding a location on an electronic map. Home is more than a house, more than a shelter – a place of refuge. Home is a place where one feels at home. Where one is relatively free from social restrains and where one feels ownership, freedom, and empowerment – where one can be oneself.
So, how can one make oneself at home?
Cities are more and more difficult to understand. Perhaps this is because city dwellers navigate an environment that is full of social purpose (in the sense that a bridge has purpose while a mountain does not; the mountain is just there, nobody places the mountain there for a reason). This sense of social purpose is as multi-layered as our cultural realm is deep. It consists of countless claims of numerous stakeholders. Everything in a city – from street curbs, through zoning laws, to a stray bicycle – is emotionally, scientifically, creatively, politically, economically, judicially and technologically, and socially claimed by many different people. There are people who invented it, people who produced it, people who use it, people who installed it, people who own it, people who find it aesthetically pleasing (or not), people who feel obstructed by it, people who govern it, and people who want to have it. Some of these people you like, admire, or want to be associated with, and some you want to avoid or discredit. Cities have often highly complex physical dimensions. But it is the hypersocial environment that proves most difficult for most.
In a city, nothing is without social meaning, every object, every concept, and every action is a signifier for something. This complex layer cake of meaning and purpose is not only present in our physical surroundings, but it also affects our collective and personal ambitions as well as memories. Who, in these days of purpose, wants to wander aimlessly through life?
Wandering through a city can feel like wandering in a mind that is not your own. Having experiences that appear to be not your own experiences, but those of someone else. The mental barrier between the collective consciousness and your own, seem to be very porous. Cities have a rather delusional quality to them.
So, again, how can one make oneself at home in the modern metropolis? That is one of the big challenges that the twenty-first-century urbanite faces. Much has been written about the alienation of the modern individual, but few writers dared to give answers, or provide an antidote for feelings of confusion and loneliness. This is, obviously, understandable. Who dares to take such a responsibility?
One of the few who did dare were those involved in the Situationist International, especially the philosopher Guy Debord. According to Debord, we were embedded in a commercial spectacle that deprived us of our senses and blocked authentic individual experiences. Inspired by Marxist thought, he interpreted the rise of the consumer economy and its accompanying mass media and marketing bonanza as the rise of a predictable and monotonous society, a mediated world in which people were alienated from unique human experiences and direct interaction8. Amongst other techniques, his solution was derive, the drift. Going on a derive was to surrender oneself to a spontaneous chain of events, a tour, which were inspired by the feelings evoked in the individual by their urban surroundings9. The idea was that, in doing so, the true subjective self would emerge: to find oneself by getting lost.
The Situationist International was a great artistic, philosophical movement, but, in a way, they only offered an escapist strategy. They exchanged the commercial spectacle for an emotional spectacle. They basically tried to bypass the world. It is not surprising that most of their urban drifts narrowed themselves down to drug- and alcohol-infused adventures. Nothing wrong with that, obviously, but it hardly answers the question of how to make oneself at home in the urban world. Finding oneself is one step – and I agree that the situationist strategy of spontaneous action is a good one in this respect – but the next step would then be projecting who you are in the world around you – because this is what homemaking is all about: wrapping a small part of the world around oneself so that it fits like a glove.
And then we arrive at the central paradox of homemaking: we feel at home by projecting ourselves on our environment, but if all of us do exactly that in the same place, we feel lost. The lampposts that block out the stars have been put there to make us feel safe, and at home. But the thing that made us feel unsafe is not the darkness of nature but the fear of ourselves, the darkness in ourselves. We put them there to scare off the villains and to prevent us for stumbling over the street curb.
Perhaps a solution lies in the realisation of the original problem; the fact that we start to live more and more in our own collective imagination. We live in, with, and between the products of our dreams. So if we dreamed our way into this situation, we can probably dream our way out of it. Perhaps, if we accept that urban life is living in a fantasy, our fantasies might come to pass. My fantasy is to live in a metropolis that is dark at night. A place that I call my own and where, on a clear and moonless summer night, I can sit on my balcony and read a subjective city guide by starlight.
I think, one day, this will come to pass. Why? Because I dream about it, and because I put my dream on paper.
It is all in the mind. (Or not – and then I can always decide to move to the desert.)
2 Paul Bogard, The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013.
3 John E. Bortle, The Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, 2001.
4 Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan, 1978.
5 Ivo Daalder, “A new global order of cities”, Financial Times, May 26 2015.
6 Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2014–2019, February 3, 2015.
7 Olds, J., and Schwartz, R. S., The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, 2009.
8 Guy Debord, La société du spectacle, 1967
9 Guy Debord, ‘Definitions’, Internationale Situationniste #1 (1958).