Idea #6: Secular Sunday Services

IBR-2346845 - © - Günter Lenz/imagebrok

I spent the first quarter of 2006 living in Galway City, a small, nearly perfect town in western Ireland. Here’s one thing I learned while there.

In the early 1960s, on the site of what was once a jail, Galway chose to erect something rather surprising: a great stone cathedral, in the tradition of similarly grand religious buildings scattered all across Europe. It’s sorta’ brilliant. Situated on the banks of the river Corrib, it’s a relatively new building that feels old. Entering it is almost akin to experiencing what a medieval cathedral must have felt like shortly after it was built. Sitting inside it was as calming as it was awe-inspiring.

Sometimes on Sundays, I and Roxanne, the charming lady with whom I lived at the time, would saunter over to the Cathedral to partake in the Sunday service. Though I’m far from ‘a believer’, the lingering antagonism I had toward theism simply gave way in the face of the peace and ritual of a Sunday morning spent with others, heads bowed.

What struck me most, however, was the idea of taking time each week to reflect upon one’s life and its relation to one’s principles. The priest’s sermons, though obviously underpinned by the Catholic faith, nonetheless had a way of speaking to me. It wasn’t so much about the assertion of a particular set of principles that drew me in, though. Rather, what appealed was the opportunity to ask myself whether I was living by mine. What I heard was something like “Are you, good Christian soldier, spending your time chasing one definition of success and abandoning what’s really important?” But put Art, Pleasure or Family in the place of God and the question once again becomes relevant to those who don’t believe.

Instead of simply fostering an ethos of ‘self-help’, however, I also liked the anti-modern feel of the whole thing. I can’t find it now, but scholar Alan Jacobs once tweeted something like “modern Christianity is transgressive because, in its refusal of selfishness, it resists the tenor of the age.” I may have that wrong, but that’s the idea which stuck with me. Regardless of what you think of that, there’s something very interesting about a ritual and community space explicitly  not meant to fit within economic structures of consumption and the attendant focus upon self-concern. In our imaginary secular meeting space, there is no equipment to buy, no smartphone through which to access something, no purchase or insider knowledge to conspicuously perform. There is only a desire to put yourself somewhere and pause in order to think about whether there is a disparity between the kind of person you are, and the kind you wish to be.

So. Idea #6 is the secular Sunday service: a weekly gathering, led by a rotating set of speakers who, in relating a tale or a series of thoughts, beckons you to always be on two seemingly contradictory paths that are in fact one and the same: of ever being on the verge of becoming a radically different person; and being just about to truly become yourself.

Oh: a really really nice building also helps.

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Idea #5: Coke Studio as Exemplar of Atemporality

The most interesting thing about atemporality – the term we’ve given to the collapse of multiple historical, hermeneutic contexts into the same experiential frame – is that it is not ahistorical. Rather, atemporality is a function of materially-rooted phenomena of media.

Think of your average Tumblr, with its pastiche stream of images from the 50s and an hour ago. Both the glut and pace of nostalgic novelty fosters a collapse of interpretive frameworks, effacing the political, material, and historical context of those images, rendering their relations somehow invisible.

Atemporality is thus an evil, yes?

What I’d suggest is this: first, pause for a moment, and listen to “Chori Chori” (above) as sung by Meesha Shafi during the third season of Coke Studio Pakistan.

Okay, are you back? Good. Now, return to Massive Attack’s Blue Lines or Mezzanine. In fact, do it all. Listen to “Kamlee” by Hadiqa Kiani and then return to Tricky. Take “Mori Bangri” by Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad and then go back to Portishead.

The thing to ask is this: how might one draw a historical line connecting each? Which would come first? Are Shafi or Kiani’s haunting, lilting vocals part of a historico-cultural trajectory, appropriated by the British, that ‘led to’ triphop? Or is it Shafi who has listened to Massive Attack in an apartment in Lahore,  and then ‘taken’ their sound? Is the rhythm behind Ayaz and Muhammad’s modern qawaals simply a function of westernization? Or is there a pre-existing overlap already there?

Or perhaps, is it that drawing out a clear, singular line of influence becomes impossible? That what you would instead have is a mess of lines, overlapped and criss-crossed, scrawled in wax so that, once melted in the heat of analysis, they must be redrawn again, and then again?

The point is not to say that atemporality is disconnected from history, or that it necessarily foregrounds apolitical presentation. Instead, it is the overlapped flows of capital and culture that manifest in the impossibility of a linear chain of origin, one in which there is a clear starting point leading up to the singular cultural referent we designate as “the aesthetic object”, closed and whole.

The atemporal nature of “Chori Chori” is about a kind of inextricability or indivisibility – a rhizomatic, multiple, non-linear chain of influence.

It is not so much that “hybridity is virtual”, though  – that the aesthetic object as site of mixture hovers in an impossible third space waiting to recuperated by the magical invested listener. Rather, the hybridity of something like “Chori Chori” is an effacement of a hierarchy of origins as in that very effacement it also roots itself in global historico-material processes, refuting a linear chain of aesthetics as it grounds those very aesthetics in the conditions of their production.

Fusion can thus be a form of atemporal aesthetics, which in turn are a refusal of teleology, of the originary, and of ends. It is their backward-forwardness, their refusal of the tree in favour of the rhizome, that renders them atemporal–and their atemporality that renders them ideal politicized art.

Idea #4: Parisian Arcades in Toronto

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In the winter, there are two parallel dichotomies of interior and exterior: firstly, the warm glow of inside and the harsh air of the outdoors; and secondly, the mental contrast of the two, the outside becoming a looming presence, impinging upon the interiority of consciousness, like the constant, low hum of an unknown threat.

Put another way: it’s hard to get out in winter.

An idea, then: invert the dichotomy. Take the outside and put it in inside. It shouldn’t be too hard. After all, the French have already done it.

It would be easy to wax rhapsodic about not only the Parisian Arcades themselves, but also Benjamin’s canonisation of them. Here in North America, and Toronto especially, they and similarly ‘exotic’ notions of alternate urban arrangements haunt our collective desires for a ‘something else’ in a horizon dotted with new buildings, but little in the way of radically novel ideas.

But in a city in which the outside is uninviting for nearly half the year, we need to approach the issue proactively rather than merely begrudgingly. In the spring, one of the most remarkable changes is the extent to which, after months of scurrying past people in the street, the outside is suddenly a place to linger, to people-watch, to simply be around others.

So, the Arcade.

The point is not “shopping”. It is not to simply replicate the high street inside. And it isn’t quite “to take Toronto’s patio culture and give it a place in the colder months”. You cannot replicate street life indoors; it must be its own thing.

Instead, the aim is to produce a non-uniform interior area for socializing that takes the best of the outdoors – the serendipity, the overlapped, multipurpose social space, the demographic mixture – and make it inviting in the bitter temperatures of January.

Think of St. Lawrence Market: one moves through the bustling space as if one were walking a tightly packed open air bazaar. It is a series of provisional, dynamic spaces under a broader literal and figurative roof.

Some rules, then, for the Toronto Arcades:

  1. It cannot, like a casino or a stadium, obliterate the street around it. Look at the covered walkway in this picture of Paris. The life of the Toronto Arcade must bleed from the inside outward into the street. Think windows through which to buy coffee, or an idea less offensively bad.
  2. Natural light seems key to this idea; glass roofs or nothing. The last thing one would want is a space practically or aesthetically sealed off. There must be a tangible, practical interplay between the inner and outer.
  3. Public space needs public space. That means small indoor squares where loitering is encouraged, not security guards from Holt Renfrew chasing off teens.
  4. A mixture of the cheap and high-end is essential. More playgrounds for the rich are the last thing this city needs.
  5. Speaking of which: more playgrounds for the rich and white are actually the last thing this city needs. Less Grand Electric, more Drupati’s please. If the people I grew up with in central Etobicoke wouldn’t want to come, it will be an abject social failure. That means that, yes, chain stores and restaurants would be a necessity, too.
  6. “Indoor cafe culture”. Tables and chairs should line the walkways of the Arcade. Bars, too. Designate certain areas/Arcades as places open ’til 2AM.
  7. But also: for lack of a better term, “real multicultural” space. Cafe culture is not universal. Hybrids might work, though. The only real way to do this — and I’m serious here — would be to have an RFP process for “diverse social spaces”, judged by committee. The solution is to get ideas from the various communities and entrepreneurs as sort of a halfway point between ‘the market’ and activist-rooted approaches to diversity.
  8. Have it be located at the fringes of the city centre so that it is literally and figuratively a halfway point between urban and suburban.

Naturally, I’m sure this idea isn’t pragmatic at all. Whether some obscure zoning requirement or a simple, obvious fact – like “Nav, this is a mall. You’re talking about a mall.” – means that this, more than anything else, is another thought experiment.

Still. This city feels like two radically different places in winter and summer. It’s not that I would want to erase that difference; it’s that I think the city is far too focused on making itself great during the summer months, as if there are no reasons or means to approach the city with the same eagerness in the winter.

What feels different about an Arcade – particularly if it adequately captures the mixture of Toronto – is that it is a midpoint between things. Picture one along Dupont in the west end, at the meeting of the core and the inner ‘burbs. It could be both a community hub of activity and commerce, but also a destination, a place in which locals, downtowners and suburbanites congregate. And unlike the strange flurry of activity from May to September we have now, it could instead be something that occurred year-round.

But ultimately, the point would be to build a city meant not only for all its inhabitants, but all of them all of the time. It’s that which some cities are so successful at, and where Toronto lags. I for one am tired of such a divided, stratified city, a phenomenon multiplied when the dichotomies of urban and suburban, rich and poor, white and not, get magnified by that ever-present contrast between warm and cold. And perhaps one day, a great many more of us might intermingle, becoming flaneurs as we wander through a microcosmic metoynm of the city – no matter how cold it is outside.

Idea #3: A Day Spent Indoors

Now in my memory, the day opens with a slow moving shot from above. There are things laid out on your kitchen table in an almost too-obvious fashion – a passport, your keys, a phone blinking red as the battery slowly dies. The tabletop is wooden and worn, warm from the pale winter sun, in a house in which the floorboards creak, the cracked, damp window frames leak cold, and everything else gleams new.

You leave tomorrow.

What strikes me is your right thigh laid across mine, the image framed by the touch of black fabric at your hip and the rumpled white duvet at our feet.

Absence is its own form of death; this is an indulgent, funereal revel. It is as it should be, an abandonment of two kinds: of you eventually leaving the warmth of this bed as the brisk January air and the airport loom outside; and the decision to spend the day like this in a dreamy, defiant joy.

Later, you stand half naked fiddling with a phone, carefully choosing what music to play. We make coffee, chilled and shivering in the kitchen, then return to bed mugs in hand, knees pulled up, covers drawn around us. Bits of movies and TV shows loop in our minds as we each voice our thoughts about whether we are playing at something or have simply decided to fall in love for just the day. Neither of us believes such a thing is possible or that what we are doing is false.

In the pale grey light of the next morning, an eternity spent in bed has made the cold outside somehow more bitter when we stand in it. A taxi pulls up. I open my mouth – no doubt to say something ill-advised about staying in touch – but relent. We are both struck by the sharp breeze upon our cheeks, a trace of moisture sitting just beneath our eyes. The next moment is hazy; I am unsure if you kissed my cheek for a moment too long, or if I simply imagined it. What is left is the sputtering exhaust of the car that takes you away as, almost immediately, the sensations that seemed so present evaporate like steam into the otherwise silent, still winter air.

Idea #2: Save Urbanism with Soundproofing

“New urbanism” as it’s called has as one of its central premises the idea of “density”. It is density that allows for areas to become bustling hives of activity full of coffee shops, neighbours who know each others’ names and a mixture of all kinds of people. But it is density that also brings all the downsides of urban living: the crowding, the lack of space – and perhaps most of all (at least symbolically), the noise of others’ lives creeping into your own.

To some, the idea of hermetically sealing oneself off from the grit, sounds and smells of urban living is anathema to the very idea of cities; it is a rejection of the authentic and the true, a retreat into the very sterility, emptiness and postmodern malaise of the suburbs one is meant to escape.

What such a view mistakes is an overabundance of what is defined as the inauthentic. It posits as the ground a surfeit of artifice and a lack of the true. This perspective is nonsense, in no small part because of the incredibly narrow view it uses to define “the authentic”. It is the abundance of others’ presences impinging upon one’s own life that defines modernity – it is that incessant pressure that has rendered the suburban home as reprieve and castle. The suburbs were a mistake; that does not make those who now flee there mistaken.

What urbanism needs is not some version of the post-authentic city. It is a way to say to the people whom urbanism has thus far excluded “here, we understand.” We know what your 90 minute transit commute past three high schools is like. We know what the years of being stuck in traffic has done to your patience and energy to explore the world when you get home. We know about the car stereos that shake your windows, the roar of lawnmowers when you just want to sleep and parking lots in the summer, acres upon acres of black asphalt, gleaming cars, and four tiny trees, the shade of which is like a pen drawn across a canvas as it runs out of ink.

What one must say to these people – or rather, what you must say to us – is not at all “embrace the authenticity of our life”. It is simply this: we understand. We understand with enough empathy that building codes have been changed. We have made it so that condo boards have arcane new rules about renovations and subfloor insulation. We care enough that we can tell you why this tiny detail – that building inspectors now carry sound meters – means so much for how you and I shall live side-by-side.