Thursday, 15 November 2007

manchester the spectacularised city

manchester has always been a situationist city…

my young bluestocking friends eulogy to tony wilson and her recalling of the factory years prior to the hacienda which famously ‘had to be built’ led me to chew over the impact of the debordian tactics and ideas as interpreted by Wilson and those anglo-situationists on the subsequent development of the city and a whole generation. all roads in manchester seem to lead to Debord, whose insights have influenced aspects of counterculture and the liberal left, as well as the rise of punk, anarchism and the ‘adbuster’ generation.

reading his society of the spectacle is still for many a road to damascus revelation, its style visionary, even biblical, and for me his manifesto created a totally different interpetation for both pre and post bomb manchester.

i recognize that the city, any city, in both symbolic and geographical terms, is always becoming. it is a long, continuous process, overlapping and interwoven, a veritable palimpsest with many stories to tell. it is never a finished product, it is always transitional, never whole. i understand that the desire to protect certain nostalgic or historically specific parts of a city can be sentimental and contradict the inherent nature and progress of the city, creating a mausoleum, a museum of a city, stifling the possibility of its becoming anything else: its future.

all things must pass and the cities i most love are themselves often the product of previous ruthless and controversial planning or demolition. every city inevitably renews and invents itself for its own age, but some wisely or accidentally can abandon its former skins to their ‘old town’; a forgotten, neglected corner or other. this is how the pelt of the palimpsest is constantly scratched out, amended or obscured, a new hybrid form created out of the sum of all its parts – a frankenstein city perhaps, a little gnarly but sentient and dynamic nevertheless.

my worry for manchester and other british cities is that in their desire to create their city of ‘now’ they are forgetting the thing they most accuse backward glancing heritage advocates of - that the city is always becoming, it is never resolved. manchester seems to have embarked on an unstoppable mission to create a total city, from scratch. this is as flawed as attempting to safeguard its past forever in a sugary chocolate box package, a folly of ‘painting the forth bridge’ proportions….

manchester the commodified city...

debord articulated his attacks on the spectacle in terms of the damage being inflicted on cities and city life, a common cry in post war paris, as the wholesale reconstruction of areas like les halles, movement of people and eradication of old districts took their toll on the old city landscape. the parallels to the rapid redevelopment of british cities and manchester in particular couldn’t be clearer.

since the 1950’s the story of the british city has been one of dereliction and deterioration, losing its manufacturing bases, its traditional industries, and the wholesale displacement of people from the inner cities, and a consequent crisis of identity. it has been a long slow death for some, and those which have recovered have had to readjust to new global industries and economic conditions, grabbing a stake in the emerging new leisure and service industries, often the only real opportunity for creating new employment and attracting vital investment to rebuild and restructure the decaying fabric of the city itself.

the story of manchester can be seen as part of that trend, readjusting to a long period of decay and neglect with an upturn kick-started ironically by the bomb blast of 1996, which blew a hole in the centre of the city, but provided the opportunity and investments needed to completely restructure the landscape and public spaces into a series of distinct marketable quarters or villages, effectively commercialising all aspects of the ‘city experience’. this is part of a wider trend globally to repackage our cities and debord would argue, our lives into commodified packages for consumption rather than living in any real sense.

the Society of the Spectacle is acknowledged particularly amongst social and cultural geographers such as michael dear for outlining a number of themes which are helpful to an understanding of the modern city, such as the spectacularisation of the contemporary city; the expansion of capital into realms of leisure and everyday life; and the opening up of urban spaces for visual consumption and display.

debord was particularly vocal about the changes that had been wrought on paris and the displacements of people and places brought about by its post war reconstruction, feeling that paris, the paris of his youth, of the old neighbourhoods and ways of life, no longer existed. there are parallels here with manchester’s ‘post-bomb’ reconstruction and what its effects are on the citizens who live in this new type of urban space – he saw the destruction of the cities and urban life as being part of the wider transformations of capitalism and state bureaucracies that he associated with the ‘society of the spectacle’ where all of human life is subordinated to the demands of perpetual economic growth.

these changes are by no means unique to manchester.

in his book the post-modern urban condition michael dear argues that the global political economy has brought about enormous restructuring and instability in the old order, and a shift towards new spaces, associated with de-industrialisation, as well a move away from government / state investment in the public built environment towards public - private partnerships, brought about by lack of state financial resources.

his description of los angeles ‘a collection of theme parks where privatised, partitioned spaces exist for all tastes - communities of industry, leisure, sexual preference and so on’, could just as easily describe manchester, at least as its branders would have investors, tourists and residents believe.

these "packaged dreamscapes" can be seen in the trend towards the "quartering" of manchester - the gay village, the curry mile, the northern quarter, the millennium quarter, the green quarter, the oxford rd corridor: the result of a new type of ordering or mapping of the city, not in an overall structured whole, but as a series of experiences, for shopping, for living, for leisure. debord would see this trend as part of the spectacle’s knack of selling us our lives back as commodities, and represents the spectacle fully realised in a way debord envisioned but hoped could be challenged and destabilised in the acts of resistance possible through identifying and championing so–called ‘counter-sites’: non-spectacularised, marginal places, which resist and contest gentrification.

when viewed within this reading, manchester can now be seen as more a brand than a place, with its own agency ‘marketing manchester’ dedicated to marketing the city as an investment opportunity for developers and global corporations, highlighting all the consumables of the city. it has a year round, calendar strategy, arranging conferences, festivals, street markets, sporting activities, bidding for various circuses like the commonwealth games, generally ensuring that the whole city and its businesses is marketed and profitable all year. this is manchester’s new business – providing never-ending leisure and service industries, entertainments and consumerism. like its most famous football team, manchester is a global enterprise and brand, self serving and all consuming.

to facilitate this we are witnessing an era of almost unprecedented change, the much parodied ‘craney city’, undergoing rapid and massive redevelopment all over the city centre and increasingly on the outskirts as well, with the invention of so-called ‘villages’ and ‘quarters’, providing the obligatory luxury loft apartments, alongside a proliferation of bars, nightclubs and restaurants, a huge array of cinemas, casinos, and ‘retail experiences’. after a decade of this there is little evidence of a slowing down, of an end to this phenomenon - this policy is no flash in the pan, as the recent unveiling of the euphemistically named ‘left bank’ or ‘spinningfields - the new business quarter’ illustrates.

entertainment complexes such as the printworks boasts a multiplex cinema, a luxury gymnasium, several bars, nightclubs and half a dozen restaurant chains, as well as retails outlets. none are local or independent in any sense, none fostering any home-grown entrepreneurism, any intrinsic mancunian character to the area. it lies on the outer edge of the new millennium quarter, the manifestation of the new post-bomb brand, the new spectacular vision and future of manchester as a tourist attraction, complete with the MEN eye, our very own mock ‘london eye’, provincial branches of london department stores harvey nichols and selfridges, a flagship marks & spencers, and apparently and inexplicably, the biggest next in the world! all this and a revamped arndale centre ensures the entrapment of visitors from all over the region for shopping and entertainment, which in turn attracts capital investment and more global brands to base themselves in the city, as well as repackaging the city as a night time economy too, a 24 licensed party, a las vegas for the uk. the recent and unexpected failure to secure the first super-casino around the edges of the commonwealth games site, must be something of a sock in the jaw, crucial as it is to the continuing marriage of private globalised investment with urban regeneration and tourism.

reading marketing manchester’s ‘where to stay guide’ reveals the extent of the spectacularisation of the city at all levels;
"shopping isn’t the arduous task it once was. shopping is the new leisure activity and wherever you choose to go, look out for events, celebrations and festivals with live music, street entertainment",
to debord leisure is merely a delusion, coercing us to play our role in the consumerist system, buying our leisure through these various activities, hotels, bars, clubs, cinemas, shopping arcades and stores like the triangle and the printworks, not to mention cathedral walks, a whole street which as reconstructed after the bomb, is no longer a street but an outside mall, pedestrianised, lined with aspirational stores, and filled most weekends with market stalls, festivals, seasonal packaged activities, moving us cleverly from one shopping zone to another.

‘on this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has.’

debord said this in reference to paris’s planned new towns of the post war reconstruction, but this motto could easily be transplanted on to Millennium Square, a place seemingly packed with people and things to do, but I would contend, that as a packaged, spectacularised space, nothing actually ever happens here apart from our passive absorption and essential alienation.

‘Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ perfectly sums up the square and especially the Big Screen, where we passively watch television in the open air, rather than engage socially with each other.

pre-bomb, the old corn exchange was a bizarre ramshackle place, a hub for hobbyists, geeks, mystics and undesirables, as well as housing a plethora of creatives, publishers, designers and tiny local businesses – the ‘souk’ of manchester, not branded or marketable in any corporate sense. even when first reopened as ‘the triangle’, it began to be colonised by sub-cultures galore; goths, emos and skate boarders, idling, lolling or wheeling and speeding about. before long the space had been broken up with the insertion of bollards and shiny metal ‘handles / obstacles’ presumably to prevent any unruly skate boarding or lolling, and thereby any actual use of space by people for their own unsanctioned entertainment. soon after, the ‘big screen’ was put up, a veritable facilitator of debord’s lonely crowds:

"from the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of ‘lonely crowds’

it has been much noted that capitalist production has shrunk the globe, unifying but homogenising it so that all places are the same, drained of their distinctiveness and reproducing new forms of separation, ‘the spectacle is the technical realisation of the exile of human powers into a beyond; it is separation perfected within human beings’, crucial to any understanding and resisting of millennium square, the symbol of spectacularised, commodified manchester…

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