City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 20 July 2020

Olelakan Jeyifous and Simon Stålenhag offer competing visions for Slowdown mood-worlds.

Ben Highmore’s evocative phase “mood-world” provides a way in to describing these aesthetics, patterns, infrastructures and scenarios as they are forming, given the word-pair’s usefully open sense of pliability, contingency, and movement.

Interestingly, bearing in mind Van Eyck’s playgrounds, Highmore used the phrase when theorising the cultural importance of waste-grounds and bomb sites in post-WWII Britain, often adopted as scrappy, improvised and somewhat dangerous playgrounds. The waste-ground constitutes an “affective landscape that played host to a mood-world that was sometimes morose or despondent, sometimes indifferent or disdainful or preoccupied, sometimes resilient or defiant, sometimes joyful and exuberant, and sometimes resigned. Often the figuring of waste-ground offered an assemblage of mixed moods.”

The mise-en-scéne for the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden springs to mind, but primarily the post-wartime ‘Ealing comedies’ like Hue and Cry (1947), Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951.)

With a backdrop of biodiversity, a similar sensibility might be perceived in the the 2017 film Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin by Matthew Gandy, which tells the post-war history of Berlin through its plants, and particularly those that emerge in its fallow weed-scapes, often bomb-sites too. The word brache, of the title, has an agricultural meaning in German, referring to untilled soil, a field that is left fallow. Such loose, open spaces are fundamental to the development of the city, offering a fertile incompletenessan incomplete city—as well to growing vegetation, as with the similarly fallow infield I’ll discuss later.

“As the film’s blurb describes, the changing vegetation of Berlin serves as a parallel history to war-time destruction, geo-political division, and the newest phase of urban transformation. The brachen of the title loosely translates into English as ‘wastelands’, but here they are seen as “accidental gardens” that formed in the city’s leftover, fallow space.”

Some key 1960s and 1970s urbanism texts, such as Colin Ward’s The Child in The City (1978), are clearly situated in and around this mood-world. The kind of images found in Ward are entirely redolent of those that Highmore uses to augment his paper. The somewhat anarchistic Child in the City occupies this mood-world, as does the open, ‘theory of loose parts’, Danish ‘junk playgrounds’, and, after the publication of Majory Allen’s article ‘Why Not Use Our Bomb Sites Like This?’ in Picture Post in 1946, a slew of adventure playgrounds across the UK (including, ultimately, the well-publicised The Land in North Wales.)

(L) photo by Sheelah Latham, (R) photo by Ron Chapman; both from ‘Look at Kids’ by Leila Berg (1972), reproduced in Ben Highmore’s paper ‘Playgrounds and Bombsites: Postwar Britain’s Ruined Landscapes’, Cultural Politics, Volume 9, Issue 3, (2013)

It’s hard to believe there’s a British child of my generation (I was born in 1970) who did not play in or near such a waste-ground as a kid, but I imagine that’s consistent across much of Europe — certainly Amsterdam (from which Van Eyck’s playgrounds spring up like flowers) and Berlin, where the bombs’ scars are still just about visible as toothy gaps, but now usually populated by beautiful, convivial gardens and playgrounds (described here).

So the mood-world of the bombed-out playground is clearly tangible and immediately recognisable, but the way that images are provoked is also slippery and complex enough to offer this “assemblage of mixed moods.” This makes the concept of mood-world itself as interesting as the particular instance of the waste-ground or bombsite.

‘Mood-worlds’ may be valuable addition to our toolkit, as something other than mere drawings, plans or reported populated with tables and graph—as more open, evocative, generative, diverse, immersive and almost ambient sensibilities. They could work alongside other forms of input, providing a far richer set of ingredients for brewing new thoughts about cities and places.

Highmore, as a cultural theorist, explores these mood-worlds through narrative forms such as novels and films. Assessing different forms of representation may open up new vistas onto the landscapes in question here.

But waste-grounds and bombsites are the opposite of what a slowdown landscape mood-world might be. They provide useful prompts, through their indeterminacy, openness, blankness, scrappy at-hand adaptability, fallow condition, and not least the resilience and diversity of their intransigent flora. Yet a slowdown landscape could be rather more joyous, vibrant, alive, and sometimes impeccably designed. The typical Post-war Bombsite Mood-World was often a key backdrop to the Acceleration-era narrative—a space not left purposefully incomplete or fallow, but merely carelessly left behind in pursuit of narrow economic agendas.

Stålenhag’s slowdown landscapes

Perhaps the Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag captures this maudlin mood-world redolent of the end of the Great Acceleration, endless soft-blue chilly landscapes punctuated by the headlamps of 1980s Volvos glowing in the gloom, or ramshackle ICA supermarkets slowly tumbling into the snow. Only a fully Nordic writer like Karl Ove Knausgård could capture the stubborn melancholy of these scenes. I recall his description of flying into Oslo and looking down at the pin-pricks of orange car headlamps amdist the cloaking snow and indigo: “like little ponds of heat … filled with a particular contrarian dignity, for the space in which they occur is not only black and freezing cold and endless, it is also expanding.”

Stålenhag’s exurban environments are video game widescreen, hovering indeterminately in the similar landscapes of the USA’s Mid-West and Sweden’s midriff, bleakly beautiful, largely depopulated, redolent of entropy, with vanishing points that most thoroughly vanish, lost in the mist.

Images by Simon Stålenhag

I’m writing this section at least, on a train heading to Umeå in July. We’re high up in the north of Sweden, almost in the Arctic Circle, and the human-end of the landscape is scrappy: partly the brutish infrastructure of large-scale resource extraction (forestry, mining, agriculture) counterpointed by the fragile, patchy tangles of waste that go along with rural and semi-rural habitation, the loose detritus of farming scattered across fields and trails.

Outside Sandviken, we glide past piles of timber so huge that the tree trunks look like matchsticks. All these little vignettes are lost in the endless and vast forests, lakes, and coastline that the train moves through, the repetitive scenery still beautiful in the warmly soggy sky and low mist of the summer months up here. The qualities of the perfunctory buildings, roads, and factories feel almost inversely proportional to those of the quietly magnificent water, trees and rocks. It’s fully Stålenhag, a slow landscape littered with the trappings of the Acceleration.

Images by Simon Stålenhag

Save the odd spire of some Sunday architecture, the buildings are almost all low and basic, as if all the world’s a shed. Rusty skeletons of cars and trucks are dotted around, tucked out of sight of the largely well-kept housing. Where the cars in Stålenhag’s digital paintings are clearly anachronistic boxy VW Golfs, discarded Volvos and dilapidated Saabs, Matthew Rosier’s ‘End of the Car’ drawings are of the redundant everyday infrastructures of car-dependency, conveying the same sense of this dying kick through drooping traffic lights and crumbling parking spots.

‘End of the Car’, Matthew Rosier (2018–)

Genuine video game landscapes, such as those found in Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, can have a similar disposition:

Old vehicles and machinery abandoned to the elements quickly deteriorate, and even in-use cars fall apart faster than anywhere on the mainland, as they’re continually beaten by storms and pelted with salty droplets whipped in from the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Death Stranding’ occasionally presents a similar vision — cars poking out from beneath mounds of moss, sunken junkyards interrupting the wilderness. In the background stand exposed high-rises, their concrete foundations as bare as the surrounding hills. Both structures moulded by time and rain.” (From ‘Ancient Futures’ by Ewan Wilson on Death Stranding, in the excellent Heterotopias 7.)

Images of landscapes accompanying the article ‘Ancient Futures’ by Ewan Wilson on Death Stranding, in the excellent Heterotopias 7

All these evocations of ‘places’ may be unconscious dreams of slowdown landscapes where we have not taken care to consciously adapt, but simply waited it out. We may vicariously enjoy them now, as minor key mood-worlds, but we do not want to live in them.

Jeyifous’s slowdown landscapes

In contrast, the architect and visual artist Olalekan Jeyifous projects an alternate future mood-world, a Slowdown vision bursting with possibility. Despite both Jeyifous and Stålenhag tending to draw rich more-than-human biodiversity (albeit of very different species and intensities) and populate these dreamscapes with large infrastructural robots, the vividly, intensely diverse and dense close-cropped Brooklyn of Jeyifous is diametrically opposed to Stålenhag’s peri-urban netherworlds. Yet we can read Jeyifous’s Afrofuturist, eco-futurist drawings such as ‘Bodega Ecohaven’ as slowdown landscapes, rather than more Stålenhag’s.

“It’s lush and Edenic, filled with technologies like rainwater harvesting, biofuels, aeroponics, aquaponics, cooperative farms. In Jeyifous’s Crown Heights, Franklin Avenue is a permaculture corridor, public transit gets you where you need to go (and fast), and rooftops have freshwater marshes.” — Diana Buds, Curbed

Bodega Ecohaven, Olalekan Jeyifous. Described in ‘Olalekan Jeyifous Is Imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn’, Curbed, 1 July 2020

These neighbourhoods are about repairs and reparations, they are biodiverse and diverse, eliding Afrofutures with agrofutures, slow growth gardens entangled with social infrastructure, hi-tech and Lo-TEK. Jeyifous’s vivid drawings depict complex, variegated stepped structures, akin to the neighbourhood-scale works of Kazunari Sakamoto or Sou Fujimoto, yet here utterly submerged under permaculture-based regenerative urban agriculture, layers of stacked and patched-up MTA subway lines, aeroponics and aquaponics, rainwater harvesting and robots.

‘Rooftop Rainwater Harvest’ and ‘Aeroponic Roof Garden’, by Olalekan Jeyifous

In terms of New York futures, the sensibility is Crown Heights Co-Op, and diametrically opposed to the Hudson Yards Heist. It’s reminiscent of Allison Arieff’s framing of Birnin Zana, the fictional city at the heart of the Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’, rendered in by the film’s production designer Hannah Beachler. The resemblence is not simply in its clear Afrofuturist roots, but more precisely in its artful assemblage of nature-based technologies, hyperloops, wooden skyscrapers, and equitable development. (Described further in Paper 11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism.)

Jeyifous remix of his rooftop, from his Insta

How much richer is Jeyifous’s resilient nature-based-tech vision for a new New York than that served up recently by Hudson Yards? Despite Jeyifous’s work clearly being speculative, it somehow feels more authentic and plausible than the actual physical and digital fabric built out at Hudson Yards.

Partly this is due to his sensibility for everyday infrastructure as culture, perhaps drawing from Lo-TEK theory. Yet Jeyifous’s work suggests that these nature-based technologies could co-habit with an adept and judicious deployment of contemporary tech, as the concept is traditionally understood (East Kolkata Wetlands x IoT, Artek x Lo-TEK, solar cells and windcatchers, and so on). The collision of ideas you see in a Jeyifous drawing reveals a deeper facility with tech, as a material, than seen in almost any smart building or smart city vision. His drawings perfectly convey Richard Sennett’s view of urban technology, that it “must be part of the process of giving the city that informal energy.”

For instance, despite their proclamations to the contrary, the people behind Hudson Yards would appear to have only the faintest understanding of what tech, of what its promise and pitfalls can be. One only has to listen to them.

In an interview in 2019, Jay Cross, President of Related Hudson Yards, the primary property developer for the project, remarked of the voice-activated on-street kiosks they were planning:

“Eventually you’ll be able to talk to this. It’ll be like HAL 2001.”

Clearly, Jay Cross has never watched 2001.

Jeyifous’s Brooklyn, albeit highly speculative and drawn from Octavia Butler as much as community co-ops, could stand as an articulation of a slowdown landscape. It is clearly predicated on these ideas of retrofitting and repairing in place, these distributed polka dot patterns of super-local loops, and care-ful infrastructures of everyday life that are social, soft, relational. People are present, and engaged, and the landscape is highly manufactured — or perhaps grown — yet the overall design sensibility is clearly ‘more-than-human’.

BedStuy Urban Bubble_Farm, Olalekan Jeyifous

Reflecting on the virus, Jeyifous notes how the lockdown has changed his perception of what New York is, or can be:

“Lately, we’ve become a kind of weird midsize European city in a way, but not intentionally. It’s like we’ve been forced into picnicking and sitting in the park and riding bikes … To a certain extent, quarantine created a collapse of infrastructure — or just made us realize we were already in one and used to it. It was a perfect segue into looking at community practices and sustainable practices, like growing your own food or creating these farming communities based on aquaponics or vertical farms.”—Olalekan Jeyifous

But Jeyifous’s work is also interesting as his Brooklyn is not actually a midsize European city (not even a “weird” one.) It offers a more diverse palette that could one could convincingly paint Los Angeles or Lagos or Laos or Kuala Lumpur with, alongside other forms of future cities. Elements of it can be translated to European cities, just as elements are drawn from them, as Jeyifous’s comment reveals. Yet these images are far from the typically safe visions of contemporary mittel-Europa cities, and all the better for that.

There‘s are other rich seams of Afrofuturist work at Olelakan Jeyifous’s site. This is his collaboration with Wale Oyejide, called Africa 2081 A.D., comprising a set of illustrated scenes to promote the Ikire Jones Menswear line.

The Slowdown, as Dorling makes clear, could be perceived as a little dull. He makes the case for this, as a steady-state of slow growth, as a positive condition. (Indeed, a little dullness right now would be rather appealing, not that Dorling could have guessed what would follow the release of his book.) The Slowdown, as sensed in the more optimistic points of Dorling’s book, feels like a reflective, wise, and engaged form of active old age, perhaps:

“Slowdown is not an end of history or the coming of salvation. We are not heading toward a utopia, although life for most people may be less precarious, with better housing, education, and less onerous work than in the recent past. We are heading for stability. Stability may be a little boring, like Pittsburgh, Stockholm, Kyoto, Helsinki, Ottawa, or Oslo, especially if you are hankering after excitement and bright lights.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown

Yet the mood-world conjured by Jeyifous does not feel boring at all. It is utterly vibrant, like a garden bursting with life. It is left to Stålenhag to expertly depict the bleak, numbing, denuded, and austere, the way that senses slowly fall away at the end of life. Stålenhag’s work captures a Slowdown we might unthinkingly drift into, sleepwalking in the gloaming by persisting with yesterday’s trajectories. Jeyifous’s images convey a joyous, diverse, and enriching mood-world we might actively build into existence. Which one do we want?

Next: 34. Intermediate technologies and everyday infrastructure
Previous: 32. The inspired inefficiency of technology done properly
Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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