Cities in the City – walking in the urban uncanny. A project by Alan Dunning | GERRY KISIL & ALAN DUNNING


The City and the City, is a novel by China Mieville (2010) about overlapping worlds. The book is an account of two different cities occupying the very same physical space with two sets of completely different inhabitants. What separates these populations is not a conventional border or fencing but the barriers set up by language, laws, and customs.The inhabitants have learnt the art of “unseeing,” allowing them to completely ignore things that don’t directly affect them, and of never quite being conscious of the other. It’s a book about neighbours that will never meet, talk or even glance at one another; never bump into each other on the street, and each seeing a completely different set of landmarks, passers-by and shops. What Miéville calls “unseeing” comprises the full range of unsensing: unseeing, unsmelling, unhearing, untasting, and untouching. 


The ambulatory artworkCities in the City,by Alan Dunning, uses various computational stratagems in concert with tactical walking to explore the psycho-acoustics of the natural and artificial systems that contain and define the modern city.  In doing so, it seeks to reveal a new mnemonic city - memories and events embedded in material structures that reveal hidden cities. It does this by deploying pattern recognition software to analyze the bio-electrical output of a moving body, and to look, and listen, filtering collected data through the lens of false positives generated by the electronic equipment. Mistakes that suggest the existence of unexpectedalternative realities, the other dimensions predicted by theoretical physicists -- phantoms within and between sounds, spaces and memories.


The pieces are structured as rambling, aimless walks, during which observations, records and data are gathered by endoscopes –tiny, illuminated cameras, normally used to look deep into the body, digital cameras, mics, and journals. Small cracks, unseen or inaccessible spaces, and undistinguished ambient and unheard acoustic spaces, are probed, digitally analyzed for pattern and form, and documented, as moments and events along an exploratory trail. At times the walks are imagined as explorations as the participants make their way through a foreign terrain looking for a new world and are simply struck by one or another promising aspect. Other times they are planned by chance -- the throwing of dice, an arbitrarily chosen first word on a random page in a book, a first colour seen and pursued, a line scribbled, or liquid spilt across a map -- to decide a route, only to be abandoned by some later arbitrary decision. In all cases they echo the irrational drifting strategies developed by the Situationist projects, constantly resituating the participant within a city as it changes moment to moment by how it is felt and seen. (Wollen, 1989)


Such walking becomes not only the means to explore a city, but also ensures the fluid nature of the work, as the very act of mapping and observation instantaneously redefines what Adèle Cassigneul calls “…the interface of a concrete topography and an individual cartography.” (2017, p. 2)


Cities in the Cityis part of a larger project examining the digital uncanny, and it is the continuation of many of the themes of the artist’s earlier collaborations with the late Paul Woodrow in the Einstein’s Brain Project (EBP). Sigmund Freud’s (2003) original description of the uncanny was the feeling of something appearing to have a bizarre basis beyond the ordinary or normal, it is something that is uncomfortably strange, the experience of unfamiliarity. This experience of strangeness includes those physical spaces that have been transformed through historically significance events that produced unsettling emotional and psychological states of anxiety, trepidation and psychosomatic trauma. 


By analyzing ambient audio environments, unheard voices and sounds are revealed which disturb our sense of our surroundings. It associates the uncanny with the mirage of contemporary urban life, looking for the presence of an unsettling unknown. The work takes as its starting point ideas about the illusory nature of reality, through an exploration of the unseen and unheard, and the uncanny, as it conflates public and private imagination. It uses the disorientation experienced when something hidden is revealed to draw attention to ever present disturbances in the relationship between self and surroundings.


There is a public image of any city which is the overlap of many individual experiences. Cities in the Cityexplores the idea of a number of psychological dimensions occupying the same physical space. The work builds on the legacies of Walter Benjamin’s (1978) expression of profane illumination, Anthony Vidler’s (1994) architectural uncanny, and the Surrealist and Situationist (Cohen, 1993) projects that open the city to change through disorientation and drift by recasting the most ordinary objects as poetically exciting and even supernatural, to unlock a whole new sense of the dimensions of the city.


As Cities in the Citysets out to reconfigure the city into psychological and psycho-geographic zones, it recalls what Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer explains as the schizophonic nature of discovered sounds, texts, and data. That is, dislocated from their original sources, sounds, text and data, generate new contexts for the environment that produces them. Like Plato’s, Realm of Becoming, the polis is in a constant state of becoming something else in a series of moments of pivotal, and lived experiences, and of active spatio-temporal events that suggests both time and space are fluid. 


The city amplifies the clatter of the street to the point where as John Cage (1939) argued, the streets themselves are an acoustic medium -- a cacophony of bouncing and reflecting sounds that inform modern urban life and produce the frenetic soundscapes of sensorial confusion that early modernism promised to manage. Public sounds have always created a sense of community whether in church, the market or on the street. The artist’s intention here is to discover the acoustic consciousness of the city contained within the concrete and asphalt patterns of the metropolis by using speech and pattern recognition software.


Citiesmonitors ambient and environmental audio by using microphones placed in specific locationsor worn by participants in the artwork, and bespoke speech recognition software to tease out, isolate and generate words, phrases and sounds from the noisy environment.


As participants travel the tentacles of the city, biometrics and texts and sounds recorded and analyzed by the recognition software produces strings of words that distort and change the perception of the terrain. 

and hard to find, inkjet print of audio analysis, 2015


and rainstorm, inkjet print of audio analysis, 2015


As the paths of the participants overlay and intersect, the layering process produces more and more complicated features: hotspots, and areas of dense or sparse word clusters that can be translated into topography, as peaks, valleys, and plains. In re-characterizing the city this way, the project produces emotional maps of more or less psychologically charged zones, capable of generating elevation, topographical and psycho-barometric diagrams as features within the city. Instead of colonizing space as maps have done in the past, the work augments reality by introducing layers of stratification; enhancing the outside world with additional layers of digital information. 

psychotopograph 18.1, table mounted 3D print of galvanic skin response, 2017


Cities in the Citystudies the idea of multiple cities occupying the same physical space but consisting of assorted psychological dimensions conjured up through various emotional valences- the intrinsic attractiveness or averseness of a place, event, object, or situation. It focuses on the discovery of meaning in chaotic and random flows, where there is usually an expectation of none. The idea is to look at how we might perceive space differently, how we might “unsee,” through the lenses of the misheard, the half-heard and the imagined to perceive alternative realities. This digitally produced material is used to create new landmarks, street names, maps, and other visual and audio ephemera that can be used to re-characterize the urban setting through the evocation of emotional responses. 


city of tears, transparency, 2016


city of tears, transparency, 2016


In this instance the application of new media technologies provides the opportunity to expand on traditional urban environments with unique information and communication spatial experiences. The convergence of telecommunication networks, geographical positioning systems and interactive graphic interfaces introduces novel contexts and forms of interactive creative practices. 


Citiesis one of several projects that looks at plotting virtual space onto the physical spaces of the concrete environments inhabited by material bodies. This mixing of realities might mean that the virtual and physical are simply layered or intersecting, however, the work suggests that something else is being produced in the folds or creases between the virtual and physical, between data space and geographical space. Sometimes these folds don’t just mix realities, but they produce their own reality. They can in this sense produce other spaces - like Michel Foucault's heterotopias - spaces that have more layers of meaning or relationships to other places than immediately meets the eye. (Miller, 2015) These other places place all other sites into question, metaphorically as much as literally. The resulting hybrid spatial context becomes the arena for a distinctive electronically generated aesthetic. 


The objective is to deliberately exploit the random occurrence of false positives in the collection of data to create new meaning(s) in the urban landscape, developing new algorithms to permit sounds other than speech to be recognized as words. The aim is to build psychologically based topographic and mental maps from psycho-geographical space (Debord, 1955), to form the basis for a new understanding of the urban as a continual accretion of spatio-temporal zones. 

the_15th_October_20154, analysis of borescope AV, documentary print, 2014


The work aligns itself with important moments in the history of 20th century Western philosophy and art where artists turned walking into a critical and creative gesture, taking to the streets, looking for other ways to see and be seen, other ways to be. In a lineage that stretches back to wandering nomads and spiritual pilgrimages, to writers and philosophers, the walking body turns into a means of both creating and resisting meaning: resisting prescribed itineraries, thwarting predictable outcomes, opening up fresh points of engagement and discovering surprising vistas. (Gros, 2014) Still others  such as Run Dem Crew,  a community of runners founded by poet Charlie Dark, or  Peter Costello’s urban explorations provide both inspiration and context


What emerges from these bipedal exercises, author Francesco Careri (2017) explains, are a range of alternative ways of evoking and inhabiting space, giving the experience of place a phantasmagoric character; where the global and local, the familiar and the strange, the real and the virtual become intertwined. By deploying the digital recording technologies, the work explores inaccessible or unimagined physical and virtual urban space. Technologically mediated public space in this instance, proposes a different dimension to the city, and it encourages additional modes of social interaction.  


As the creative application of communication technologies becomes more and more integrated into our everyday activities, they help us to reshape, and redefine meaningful human interaction.  This process of cybernetic deployment produces a system of practices through which artistic artifacts acquire new symbolic, individual, and emotional value. At the same time this work highlights the antinomy between established social art practices and the growing influence of post-internet art production - one of many paradoxes in an increasingly fragmented field where established humanist approaches are contrasted with technologies’ post-human visions. 


Drawing on earlier bio-electrical work, Cities in the Citysets out to map urban spaces in terms of psychologically charged sites, showing degrees of emotional responsiveness as salient features and landmarks within the city. These responses are revealed by biological sensors and used to build a psychologically based topography of the landscape. producing maps that show where states of high arousal and activity occurred. This information is coupled with data from monitoring the position, direction and speed of a body’s passage through the city; elevation contours and areas of density and openness emerge and are rendered as topographical maps. 

valence, 3d print, 2017


The work does not set out to map patterns to specific emotions. The intention is only to distinguish areas in terms of instances and intensities of primary arousal. Over time the accumulation and sedimentation of these electrical indices crisscrossing and overlaying the city created a topology with areas of high and low activity that establish a different urban geography. In remapping the city this way, the project opened additional articulations of the dimensions of the city by acknowledging its immaterial, psychic and spiritual shape. 


valence-map, interactive digital model, 2017


The way we engage with technologies involves not only material, but also psychological dimensions. They are a link between our existence in the world and our search for meaning and purpose in our lives. The myths that are produced do not speak to us in factual terms, but, rather, in a Jungian, archetypal, metaphorical language.  


In the book, Invisible Cities, author Italo Calvino (1974) describes the index ridden city this way:


The city… does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.  (p. 11)


Physical structures are historical records that contain the accretion of social sediment. Stains, marks on stone, polished edges, worn stairs, discoloured surfaces all index the passage of bodies in time, that lead to the reconstruction of space beyond its immediate architectural limits. These places contain cultural memories, retain a sense of time or place, a sense of the stories and events that were once told or took place there, and are now embedded into their walls. The senses provide an interesting entry point into these memories, a site for recovering forgotten or erased experiences that reintegrate the sensorial with the material, countering the notion of fragmentation proposed by modernity. Imagine if we could resurrect these memories, the lost narratives, the stories and sounds that once echoed around or in a particular space.


Cities in the Cityis interested in mapping these phenomena precisely because they reshape familiar local spaces by changing the psychological view of the space. These spaces suddenly become disorienting and unsettling, unknown or unknowable, and surround us with an anxiety of uncertainty. In the most extreme responses to the recordings and data they become evidence of conspiracy, indications of alien activity, or even hauntings. 


In 1972, BBC television broadcasted a Nigel Kneale play called, The Stone Tape. In it a team of scientists examine a ghostly event in an old building. They discover the possibility of the building’s stones being a kind of recording medium for images and events that can be played back if given a powerful enough stimulus. This imaginary plot heralds a coming reality according to futurologist Ray Kurzweil (2005) who in his book, The Singularity Is Near, predicts that through nanotechnology the molecules of stone can be restructured into “computronium” (a programmable matter), and stones can then be turned into recording devices.


Citiesreferences The Stone Tapeas a fictional device to engage with theory about the materiality of the city and its capacity to store evidence of past lives and events. While The Stone Tapetheory has been adopted by paranormal investigators to explore hauntings and other phenomena, these artworks use it as a purely fictive, but perhaps persuasive, device to engage with the idea that space is marked, indexical, and deictic. 

montparnasse, Caption: screenshot, real time audio analysis, 2016


The visualization and sonification of speech elements in noise, sets out to develop works that suggest different ways to experience the world. That is, by analysing our environments to reveal concealed, hidden, or unbidden information, that disturbs our given or received sense of ourselves and our surroundings, the work is interested in exploring the visible world to reveal the invisible forces that influence the lives of the living. Using the praxis of walking invisibility has become a theory of sight, with many invisibilities at play: artistic, social, technological, and political. 


Capturing these moments, Cities in the Cityconstructs an archaeology of loss, pathos and missed connections, assembling a forgotten past in our digital present.  It investigates the hidden resonances and meanings within the subtle traces that people and their actions leave behind –- walking through a continuously remade city guided by the remnants of past lives and their ever-present ghosts.




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About the artists/writers

Alan Dunning is a new media and installation artist. His current work explores issues of the uncanny in electronic media spaces. He is an adjunct professor in Art at the University of Calgary, and lives and works in Victoria, British Columbia.

Gerry Kisil is an artist and media arts scholar, his creative practice and scholarly interests explore issues around the role of media in the construction of environments and identity. He is an instructor at the Alberta College of Art and Design, in Calgary, Alberta.