Imagining the city- First Essay

The quote from de Certeau’s “walking I the city” explores the notions, representations and experiences one may have in the city. Similarly through the comparison of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and the exhibition “Reckonings 2001” it becomes evident that these experiences and representations of urban life can be very different from one another. Although all of their experiences may seem to be so different at a first glance, when one takes a deeper look and “reads between the lines” one may conclude that all the experiences that occur to the Redfern community, Charlie Chaplin and de Certeau are actually quite similar.

The City can be referred to as “one face with many masks”. Alienation, change, crowds and security all act as masks, which help to shape this special place, which gives us a sense of belonging and yet challenges us to withhold our own identities.

Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ can be associated with the quote from de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the city”. They both depict the city as a ‘thick’ urban rush where the crowd seeks to swallow the individual.

However, From studding both “walking ion the city and “modern times” one can see after several studies on them, that this is not the entire picture. A sense of identity can be obtainable. This is represented by Charlie Chaplin.

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‘Modern times’ illustrates to its audience how the city becomes a symbol of modernity- “a place of alienated subjects”. It similarly, depicts the city as a machine with the introduction of factories and industries dehumanizing the workers and additionally portrays the individual being subjugated by the large crowds.

However the picture painted above of an unreal, dehumanized urban center is not the entire picture. Charlie Chaplin is the individual who is produced by the mass and thought this individuality by never ‘quite fitting in’; he emphasizes the ‘resistance’ to various social forces around him.

We are first introduced to Charlie Chaplin while he is working in a factory in the city. It is evident from the opening scenes that factories and machines were fairly new and was gradually taking over. This can be represented by Charlie and his fellow workmate simply watching over the machines while they were doing all the work. The workers merely operate the machines and therefore already experience dehumanization. De Certeau reveals that ” the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness” which correlates with the picture of workers in a busy factory ‘thinking’ their job is of great importance but blinded by the fact that they have been alienated and the machines are doing all the work.

Similarly, Simmel explains that the city is a machine and humans are a small part of the dehumanizing system. This too can be seen through the ‘feeding machine’. Charlie Chaplin was included in an experimental running of a food machine. This suggests two things. One being that all the workers have been dehumanized to such an extent they shouldn’t have time off for lunch and therefore should be fed by the feeding machine and two, turns eating into another process to make work more efficient hence benefiting the city itself and alienating the people who make up the city.

The two examples of the workers in the factory and the feeding machine both suggest that modernity dehumanizes the individuals and attempts to collapse dominating humans over machines.

Charlie similarly, while working in the factory attempts to do “machine volt acts”. These acts portray the dehumanization of the workers in the factory and create a resemblance between the workers and machines. One could propose from these symbolic acts that the workers adopting machine like characteristics represent a vast urban system sucking in the workers and throwing them out again when they are not needed anymore.

Although ‘modern times’ has so far represented a pessimistic, disapproving picture of the city, it more importantly, stresses the importance of individualism and the idea of the crowd being a ‘safe haven’ for its people.

The scene depicting a ‘flock of sheep’ has two very important connotations and suggest many conflicting ideas about the city. One idea identifies the flock of sheep as a crowd comfortable with its environment. This emphasizes that being in a crowd provides a sense of belonging and comfort to individuals. This comfortable surroundings is easy to be part off and can henceforth create feelings of togetherness and security. De Certeau describes the masses as “walkers- wandersmaenner whose bodes follow the thicks and thins of urban text they write without being able to read it.” The picture portrayed of the masses by De Certeau suggests the same idea presented in ‘modern times’ by the flock of sheep.

However, It is important to note that, individuals are the products of the city and the masses. This can be exemplified by the individual (one black sheep) in and amongst the crowd (all the white sheep). This brings a completely new meaning to the picture. The black sheep stands out from the flock. It cannot integrate entirely because it is different in colour to the rest of the sheep. This indicates that there is some difference in the crowd. Charlie Chaplin is that black sheep in ‘Modern times’. He is the individual in the masses.

Charlie Chaplin never really fits in. Charlie’s walk is described as a pedestrian speech act. From the very beginning of the film, Charlie’s peculiar walk is seen as different and confirmative. The way Charlie occupies the space of the city represents individuality trying to find his own voice.

Similarly, Charlie Chaplin becomes the leader of the communist rally. This was by accident and he was never really part of the crowded rally from the beginning. This scene also emphasizes that the masses produced this one individual (Chaplin) who was regarded as a communist leader and as a result of being part of an individualistic group protesting against communism, Charlie was put into jail.

Charlie occupies many different identities in ‘modern times’ and it is the city, which changes his identities. He is regarded as an outsider inside the city.

‘Modern times’ paints two very different pictures of the city. One pictures illustrates machinery dehumanizing its workers while the other picture illustrates the comfort of the masses and the individuals, which shine among them.

However, looking at the whole picture, one can see that we can share the same space in the city without becoming our neighbours- we all have individualism

The exhibition ‘Reckonings 2001’ also explores modernity and urban life in the Redfern community. The ideas portrayed in the exhibition are fairly negative as a result of the poor attempts at reconciliation that have occurred over the past fifty years. “Words don’t work for us anymore because we have had to continually fight to survive the tyranny that has come with so many ‘action’ words”. This quote was stated by Rea who was one of the collaborators of the exhibition. She strongly portrays through her various arts works how cruel the city can be if you are considered an outsider- they don’t quite fit in.

Reconciliation is another issue that is powerfully illustrated throughout the exhibition. Rea interprets reconciliation to be a “big long line of white words that have caused all indigenous Australians to live each day, since invasion with indescribable amounts of pain and grief and loss”.

The children of Redfern community did live in grief. They remained in their own community and could only find a small amount of comfort in the small school that they attended and in the little Lebanese shop down the road. This was the only suburb where she wasn’t called an abo’.

‘Reckonings’ reflects on memories such as Rea’s and emphasis that her community was never accepted into the ‘crowd’ because of the people living there- Aborigines, Lebanese and Greeks.

Similarly, ‘Reckonings’ re-images the place that was once known an “abo’s ville” and attempts to answer questions such as “why is Redfern such as dangerous area?”

One of the exhibits in “Reckonings” consists of a six brightly coloured measuring sticks.

These measuring sticks represent different cultures and maximize one’s communicative abilities. The measuring sticks can be seen as a warning tool for the disinterested and the indifferent in society, to reflect, to stop and think and to go back and forward. By this, it should be understood that the unknown must be addressed, and more importantly, for reconciliation to occur and the Redfern/city area to be once again seen as a more positive and inviting place we must address the hidden past of betrayal and adversity.

Similarly, Saad, Lewis and Jones’, Oyster exhibit that consists of piles of oysters and bricks, question the very foundations of this city and more importantly of this nation. “For thousands of years the “Eora Gadigal” people used oysters as a sustainable exchange between nature and culture”. In the process of building the colonial city of Sydney, Oyster shells were fired up and turned into lime powder to cement the cities foundations. As a result, a new form of occupation was inscribed over the landscape, which exploited and destroyed the land and its native peoples. This is a collective reflection and recognition of the history of Sydney, which reminds us that any claim of rights and ownership can have no legitimacy without the acknowledgment of the original owners of the land and their sufferings.

The ‘Reckonings’ exhibition captures the past memories of a futile, gray scale Redfern, where “reconciliation was just a dream and hatred towards the unfamiliar was reality” and in turn, redefines this area and community with colour, light, evocative images, and a lush landscape to bring reckonings of past and present to the ‘masses’ (the rest of Sydney).

At a first momentary look, both the quote from “walking in the city” and “Modern times” perceives the city to be a happy place for the crowds. It emphasizes the busy rush in the urban world and most importantly, the creation of the individual and the consequences that occur when you are that person who doesn’t quite fit in.

Similarly, “Reckonings” perceives the city to be a negative place where outsiders cannot fit in and dreams of freedom are merely distant visions.

When it comes to study both these texts together, they seem so different, however they are not. They both represent the same picture- that being, a picture of a big city with a crowd which, on one hand creates the individual but on the other, attempts to swallow them up into the masses.

Similarly, all three texts communicate and suggest to the reader that it is hard the remain an individual in the city but if one is- and does not quite fit into the big urban mass then the individual may experience the gray, negative side to the city

In conclusion, by comparing “walking in the city”, “Modern Times” and “Reckonings”, they all suggest to the reader that without the busy, buzzing city life, one would only see the world in black and white. But wouldn’t life be dull without colour.