Mon 11 June 2012

City Tripping at a Mouse Click

© Kakha Kakhiani © David Bocking
© Kakha Kahkiani (Tbilisi), David Bocking (Sheffield)

Seen: citybooks photography exhibition by deBuren and De Markten, runs until 11th of July in De Markten (Oude Graanmarkt 5, Tuesday to Sunday (inc.), from 12:00 to 18:00, with an evening of readings on the 28th June with Arnon Grunberg). Read: stories at

“What do cities like Bucharest, Charleroi, Chartres, Graz, Lublin, Sheffield, Skopje, Tbilisi, Ostend and Utrecht have in common?” asked deBuren’s director Dorian van der Brempt at the preview of the citybooks exhibition at de Markten. “Nothing,” he filled in, almost immediately. Just that they’re places off the beaten track around which to build an art project. They may not have the allure of Paris or London, but, all the same, deBuren considered these ‘United Cities of Europe’ more than suitable locations for the multimedia programme citybooks.

For citybooks, an ever-expanding group of international artists make portraits of different cities in the form of poems, essays, photos, videos and short stories. For each edition, five writers and a photographer take on individual residencies in a particular city. Afterwards, the work they produce in reflection is published on the citybooks website, and made available entirely for free. There’s already a whole series of short stories at, and they’re available for reading and listening as e-books, web texts and audio books in Dutch, English, French and the host city’s local tongue. Thomas Gunzig, Anna Luyten, Stefan Hertmans, Pascal Verbeken, Caroline Lamarche, Saskia de Coster... all set off on their individual trips and returned with a vibrant, diverse collection of work. In a deeply sensory account of the Georgian Tbilisi, Hertmans searches in vain for an old, Abkhazian Knife-maker, Verbeken extracts stories from the washing machine drums of Charleroi’s Eurowash 2000 launderette, while Saskia de Coster deems Skopje a fitting place for a slice of exuberant crime fantasy.

© Lea Titz
© Lea Titz

The extents to which the stories really get to the hearts of the host cities vary. Some show the nervous effects of airport flightiness and hurried meetings, like Joost Zwagerman’s citybook about Sheffield. Sometimes weird and wonderful things happen too, as during the visit Davide Longo pays to Utrecht. His research on the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) was bizarrely illuminated by the recent death in the city of an Italian with almost exactly the same name as an Italian diplomat who, three centuries earlier, was involved in the city’s historic negotiations.

In each city, a professional photographer produces a collection of 24 photos. Of course, these aren’t just tourists’ snaps. Frosina Stojkovska’s work comes closest to an album of travel memories, though, mourning the loss of her beloved, old Skopje, fixing the little that hasn’t already made way for giant apartment and office blocks in deep pinks and oranges. Sheffield’s David Bocking also endeavours to present his city in its best light, leaving its post-industrial greys for another assignment. Elsewhere, the photographic realism is less rose-tinted. In the Polish city of Lublin, Maciej Rukasz’s photos show glimpses of empty benches, markets, stables and shopping trolleys through a thick blanket of mist. Filip Berte turns to the periphery of Tbilisi, capturing its tower blocks and the interiors of old Soviet hotels now occupied by refugees from Abkhazia and south Ossetia. And while Georgian native Kakha Kakhiani does photograph the city in colour, he too seeks out its shadows and transitional spaces. In Bucharest, colour comes courtesy of the omnipresent advertising billboards that Christian Binder encounters there. Sander Buyck’s Charleroi is significantly more cheerful, provided you can stomach his humour for social contrast: the stately Palais de Beaux-Arts, for example, depicted alongside the bawdy Palace Bar.

Some photographers take an entirely different approach. In Utrecht, Lisa Van Damme doesn’t so much present us the city as she does a part of her nervous system, by spending a fortnight trailing employees of the local public transport bus company. In this way, Van Damme’s work gains a special narrative quality. Lea Titz also goes the extra mile in her two series from Graz and Chartres. In her Austrian images, she shades in different sections to accentuate particular reliefs, buildings and perspectives. In Chartres, Titz plays a game with the omnipresent cathedral; rather than straining to avoid it, she makes it the subject of a series of picture puzzles. By the end, you can recognise its two towers even in a shabby silhouette spotted on a litterbin, its outline traced by the tacky residue of a half-removed sticker.


Brussels, Thursday 7th June 2012
Michaël Bellon © Brussel Deze Week


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