Cranes punctuate the horizon of an innavigable field of chaffed grass. A nearby heap of plastic bottles resembles a defiant ziggurat. Overhead, constellations of targeted advertisements cling to the bellies of passing clouds.
While walking through the Place de la Bourse, a cordon of blue-and-yellow striped fences have become difficult to ignore. By revitalizing the city centre, municipal leaders boast an expansion of green spaces equipped with graffiti-resistant seating and intelligent trash cans. These are the glossy byproducts of a dramatic police campaign to purge the area of the homeless and other “illegal occupiers of public space.” Online, the artfully named Project. Pedestrian Zone aims “to decorate the city through the redevelopment of public space by rebuilding real squares, by renovating the facades of remarkable buildings and harmonizing the various shop fronts.” Architectural renderings of this proposal show blurred and semi-opaque people enthralled in their newer, smarter, city centre. From the southern edge of a beautified Place de la Bourse, a rendering of The Dome — a reimagined version of the very building in which we currently stand — is perhaps the most noteworthy of these images.
Steeped in cloudy Belgian twilight, and accentuated below by a group of fire-breathing street performers, The Dome is the only building illuminated in the image. The wide central avenue adjacent to The Dome recalls the architectural style of Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Only the corner windows on the fifth floor remain vacant. From this lookout, four windows frame the oozing splendour of the Bourse’s neoclassical facade adorned by the bas-reliefs of Auguste Rodin. One hundred and fifty years earlier, a sanitation program devised by Mayor Jules Anspach laid the boulevard below and erected the Bourse atop land expropriated from the city’s poorest residents. Had it not been for this hamfisted redevelopment, the city centre of Brussels would probably still be host to “the most nauseous little river in the world…”
The fickle line which separates preservation from transformation is dizzying. In state-sanctioned photographic surveys, for example, photographers are employed to classify, protect and restore architectural heritage. When performing this role photography postures itself as an instrument for preservation. Even in these instances, however, some photographers understand how to manipulate the ‘window-like’ quality of photographs. On national assignment to document the Medieval passageways of Paris, Charles Marville used his camera to legitimize the drastic urban renewal planned by Haussmann and Napoleon III. Marville infamously sprayed the streets of his subjects with water to make them appear as inundated sewers or infested alleyways. After publication, these images solidified the narrative of a city centre ridden with disease, crime and overcrowding. Today, however, such crude manipulations have been replaced by the unfettered imagination of renderers and the sly embellishments of retouchers.
Four kilometres from Project. Pedestrian Zone, in the basement of a community centre, spilled chemistry leaves behind umber stains and a sour stench; on fingertips the scent travels home with me. In the next room, I project two stitched-together negatives taken from the fifth floor window onto a piece of sensitized paper. While latent, I peel the paper from the wall and onto the floor where objects are laid atop its gelatinous surface and traced with a keychain flashlight. After being processed, fixed and bathed in cobalt and iron, burnt-in shadows appear to obstruct the illusion of the city’s infinite, unifying, sprawl. Sometimes these shadows frame rather than interrupt the minute, often fragmented, events in the scene below. And sometimes they coalesce with buildings and boulevards into bizarre mutations which reroute the paths of pedestrians on their way through the city centre.
This work is listed for sale online at: www.levelfivebxl.org/salon-sale
100% of proceeds will be donated to Infirmiers de Rue (Street Nurses):
An organisation of social and medical service providers for the homeless in Brussels “…whose work is based on prevention and health education. Playing the role of intermediaries between people in very precarious situations and health and social assistance professionals.”