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Futureland and the Global Urban Blur: Theorizing the work of Nuno Cera

Matias Echanove & Rahul Srivastava

No matter how much we hear and read about them, we still can’t fully grasp what ‘megacities’ are. The towering skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong or the birds-eye sprawls of Cairo, Mumbai and Los Angeles are what often come to mind. But what does a megacity look like from the street level? How does it look from down below and at the edges? Is it still “mega”? And what about the “city” itself - when exactly does it dissolve into its neighbourhoods or connect to the movements of its people?

The ‘megacity’ is a strange animal. Outsized and unruly, it seems to escape all definition and defy any representation. Maybe the megacity is just a myth. A pure product of the imagination. A chimerical creature that only appears when we invoke it through an elaborate ritual that involves flying around the world and calling its name in as many languages and from as many sites and angles as possible. In, out, up, down, over and under.

This is pretty much what Nuno Cera did. He flew over Mexico City, dived deep into Shanghai, got lost in Dubai, searched for the edges of Jakarta, followed fictional paths driving through Los Angeles and walking through Istanbul, looked up at Hong Kong from the streets, jumped out of random train stations in Mumbai, and visited the roof tops of Cairo. Travelling through these multiple yet interconnected realities, he also reappropriated each of these cities as fictional constructs.

Such fictional moves consist primarily of evacuating the cities of their teeming humanity. Like a poet who pares down sentences so that the barest of fragments provide a powerful resonance of the whole, the fictionalized accounts of these mega – cities basically imagining them through their emptiness -, is another way to convey their immensity. They are mediated by images you have seen in cinema, they remind you of a walk in your own neighbourhood and they speak to you through their emptiness.

He not only went to various cities but also explored them in diverse ways, making the whole journey thoroughly disorienting. His zooming in and out of each city gives us vertigo. It is like looking through a lens that cannot quite capture its object and keeps on trying, going micro, macro, then moving on to the next indefinable object and starting all over again. One can wonder whether it is the photographer or his object, the ‘megacity’, that has gone mad?

Time and space expands and contracts in the world of high speed, information-inflected global travel. In this roller-coaster ride of fragments and wholes, tiny pieces and the larger picture all seem to have the same proportion. They become slivers of uneven but manageable experiences giving us the superficial sense of having taken it all. They consolidate themselves at airports, when each place condenses itself neatly into the destination and arrival labels on flashing electronic boards, giving us a sense of departure and arrival with temporary definiteness.

When we land and take in the new landscape shooting up towards us through the aeroplane window, a new opening emerges and we feel we have walked into another whole city. In fact, we may only be moving into yet another frame of the same movie. What the photos show is not a variation of the same creature in different parts of the world, nor is it nine distinct megacities. But rather one contiguous experience. The megacity appears when we see all the images collated together, in a continuous stream.

None of Nuno’s images actually shows their object – the sharply defined megacity itself. It is to be found only in the quick blur occurring when we switch our attention from one image to the other. As if made from the gutter-space between each frame of a graphic novel. The megacity is nothing but a blur. A blur that swallows towns, villages and neighbourhoods. A global megacities blur. A giga globurban spread that fuses everything together, even cities as distant and distinct as Los Angeles and Cairo. The globurban spread is the new Babylon. Welcome to Futureland: A greyish continuum stretching around the world like a gigantic cloud unifying all humans in a shared sense of utter confusion.

The nine cities Nuno explores in his work were surely selected for what they share as much as what sets them apart. All of them are experiencing rapid urban growth. They have expanded tremendously, both horizontally and vertically over the past decades. They are all acting as regional hubs and global nodes. Their power often exceeds that of their own nation states, yet they are themselves victimized by capricious economic forces that they have no control over.

The skyscraper, the suburban housing block and speedways are the architectural symbols of the global status of the megacity. These artefacts are rising defiantly, ever greater and more numerous. Nuno’s photos show them as quasi-totemic entities, as if they were impersonations of an obscure and all-pervasive power. From one city to the next we see the same markers: the glittering rise of Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the suburban sprawl of LA and Istanbul, the endless urban maze of Cairo and Mexico City, the alternatively crumbling and shining structures of Mumbai and Jakarta.

These cities are all restructuring in response to the same global impulses and imaginaries. They are connected through road, sea, airways, information networks and consumption patterns. However integrated this overarching system may be, it is also deeply fragmented at all levels. It suffices to get off a car in LA and start walking the streets to realize how local and disconnected most places really are. People don’t actually inhabit a network or a symbol. They live along roads and inside buildings which, whether we want it or not, belong to the immediate context at least as much as the global one. At the end of the day, the final frontiers of lived urban experience are the concrete moments of occupying space and time. Where the historical and cultural trajectories shaping particular urban experiences become visible.

The smells of Mumbai’s urban masala, the electric heat of the million feet going up and down Istanbul’s alley ways, the cries of retailers in Cairo, the contained temperate climate in desert-defying Dubai, the bubbly pop/sub-cultural landscapes of LA, the exhilarating architectural ambitions of Shanghai, the unruly markets of Mexico City, the audacious streets of Jakarta are as distinct as the worlds they have emerged from.

As soon as we get local and start feeling the social and cultural fabric of a place, we are out of megacity bandwagon and the “global”, “mega”, “city” categories seem meaningless. The only things left are here and now, what’s near and immediate. Yet, we also know that this local reality is not only made of buildings and roadways. There are multitudinous presences everywhere. Millions of bodies congregating in streets and markets, busily coming and going, operating in enmeshed worlds of local and global boundaries, often unconscious of where one begins and the other ends. Entering Nuno’s juxtaposed images, we immediately see through the impersonality of the mega structures and touch the teeming humanity they encase.

A growing number of cities, particularly in Asia but also in Latin America and Africa seem to have found a reason in their own gigantism. Almost as if there was a critical quantity of people beyond which a city would automatically acquire a certain mega quality. In nations and continents full of people, where reproduction of the human presence is itself a mode of generating wealth, of ensuring social security, the cities that emerge are big on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. They effortlessly reach that critical mega mass. The big city emerges as casually as yet another act of conception. Where millions gravitate towards the myth of a big city and transform it into reality with their bodies and their needs. This is their real home. It always was, even when it only beckoned from a distance, ordered them about and took away their produce. Now everyone has come home to roost and to make it swell beyond belief. Make it spread backward into the hinterland and all around in great swathes of humanity.

What kind of urban quality emerges out of quantity is not all that clear. What’s certain however is that the notion of “bigness” has become quite popular lately. Some of these cities seem to have been lying out of the global map altogether waiting to be discovered. They are markets to conquer for businessmen and new El Dorados for architects and developers. This is how Rem Koolhaas “discovered” Lagos, the biggest city in Africa. He admits his audacity in theorizing about the city after just a weeklong visit; most of it spent gazing at it from a helicopter. The shock of its size, the power of its expanse, its gigantism contributes to the magnificence of the “discovery”. Like many explorers who make the grandeur of the place they discover part of their own glory, urban theorists too love to draw on the surprise a city throws up through its mere existence, only to transform it into the concepts and categories that make sense to them. And in which the city can then recognize itself.

This may seem a little superficial, but maybe there is something to be said for fast theorizing in cities that are anyway too big to be seen and comprehended. As the saying goes, stay one week in Cairo and write a book, stay one month and write an essay, stay one year and don’t write anything at all. The city has become too complex to be theorized or represented in any way other than through intuitive expression.

Not even the oldest and most intimate denizen of a city can claim to know all of its complexity. In fact the knowledge that his city changes everyday, expands and reinvents itself by the moment may make him wilfully ignorant so that he can remain connected to memories that make up his sense of belonging. The bigger the city the hazier its edges for everyone – the visiting scholar or photographer as well as the much lived in inhabitant. Eventually it becomes a blur for all.

We could say that the only way to objectify it is when the city is a blur, when our con-fusion does just that, fusing everything together. The blur makes more sense than the focused image, which necessarily brings the mind to detailed specificities, taking it away from the big picture. Maybe that in our busy lives we need fast-food-for-thought, specially when it is tasty, fresh from the street and cooked by a good chef. What if this was the only way we could start saying anything significant about something so complex?

In Mumbai for instance, the consumption of street food is almost part of the process of making it. It is done in the same hasty way. Mumbaikars know that street joints often offer the best food because you can see it being prepared and it goes straight into your mouth. The making of it is its own advertising campaign: the spicy smell, the frying sound, the colourful sauces, the skills of the chef, the hungry eyes of other people around waiting to be served. And the backdrop is one of people running up and down the street, honking taxis and shouting street vendors. Only the drama of this object of desire being produced before your eyes by the chef can return one’s attention from the biggest theatre of the street all around. For the eater it is a completely sensory experience. It is all about indulging the mouth, fast consumption and mindlessness. The experience of the stomach comes about an hour later, and it is never as gratifying and sometime even pretty demeaning.

It is the difference between celebrating the aesthetic of Nuno Cera’s photos as we see all of them together in a continuous stream, and really thinking about what they say about the world we live in, with its lot of speculative development displacing people, substandard mass housing, blatant disrespect for the environment and so on. As the cities grow into towering concrete, or spread into the horizon, they become fresh statements about political and economic choices. They are epic stories involving millions of people accused of encroaching valuable public space, and of cities themselves encroaching agrarian hinterlands. Of new modes of governing urban subjects, by auditing and measuring and calculating bodies against densities and volumes of land, air and water. Of taking these audited statements and making them into lucrative assets in the guise of mass housing schemes and resettlement programmes.

Ultimately the drama behind each of these deceptively serene images is vivid and active. It involves detonating arguments over basic resources that are widespread in most parts of the world. They may not always erupt into violence, but can erode from within. Entire cities can be eaten by economic depression to become hollow termite-ridden shells. Glorious glistening towers cannot detract from the massive financial steroids injected into their infrastructure. Encapsulating these wholesome truths through photographic representations of fleeting moments, partial connections, slivers and fragments, and making them the basis of the inter-connected global urban story, is a powerful tool of communication indeed.

These photos themselves could not have been taken in a non-celebratory way. They represent an impulsive and passionate engagement with the world and with each of these cities, and with the freedom of hopping from one to the other and getting lost in new depths of urbanity each time. We can well imagine that this came at a cost for the artist himself: loneliness, disorientation, sleeplessness, stress, doubt, sorrow, and even anger maybe. There is a genuine difficulty in taking on the challenge of such a large canvas. One that is not a blank tabula rasa but looks back at the artist defiantly, even as it changes and shifts contours all the time. It involves expansion and contraction of time and space on an unprecedented scale and is designed to frustrate and exhaust. To produce the blur of the mega city through the grand voyage made through navigating specific urban worlds all around the globe could not have been easy. Each image shows you a grounded gaze. Each gaze reveals awareness that the grand narrative of the mega city depends on that constant and painful negotiation of every fragment that makes it up. A fragment that itself is a microcosm of the whole city – packed with atomic urban intensity and difficult to grasp, except through breezy stopovers and fleeting moments of identification. And then its time to fly off.