The Visible City: Experiencing the urbanscape as Visual Culture

“You walk for days among trees and among stones. Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only when it has recognised that
thing as the sign of another thing: a print in the sand indicates the tiger’s passage; a marsh announces a vein of water; the hibiscus flower,
the end of winter. All the rest is silent and interchangeable.”

– Italo Calvino, ‘Invisible Cities’

The streets that we walk on, the bridges that we cross, the buildings that we occupy are all visual texts which are meant to be read.
We usually take for granted things that surround us. 
However, if we begin exploring through a Visual Culture lens, the mundane elements
of everyday city life can be far more revealing.

Everything that is seen, that is produced to be seen, and the way in which it is seen and understood defines Visual Culture. Comprising that part of culture which communicates through visual means, this multi-disciplinary field does not refer only to Visual Arts or Art as commonly thought of, but it encompasses films, advertising, posters, prints, DIY phenomena like graffiti, fashion, scientific and medical imaging, video games, and our own photographs posted on social media platform such as Flicker or Facebook.

Having its origin in Art History, Visual Culture represents a paradigm shift from high art to popular culture through the objects and images of everyday life. It embraces both a 19th century oil painting in an Art gallery, and the graffiti and advertising posters plastering the walls of bus stations.

The world is a product of our thoughts, like the city is the result of its planning. It both shapes us and is shaped by us, and the existing reciprocal relationship between people, and their interaction with the built environment are what constitute the Visual Culture of the cityscape. The list of material culture of a city is an extensive one. It ranges from architecture, singular, prestigious and representative buildings, social spaces such as museums and galleries, public and private environments to monuments, street names, billboards, shop windows and signage amongst others.

Our cities are thus cultural landscape – for they convey meanings about ways of being in the world. Everyday life in the city can be experienced by simply observing the way people interact with buildings and appropriate themselves of public spaces.

Transcending materiality, Visual culture articulates the individual and the social. The phenomenology of place beautifully explains a human being’s capacity to experience the city in a physical, mental and emotional way. The sight of the Mahebourg Railway Station remnants may arouse nostalgia, the sound of a hovering airplane reminds us that the Plaisance airport terminal is not far, or the enticing smell of fried gato pima just as we pass near the bus station in Quatre-Bornes makes us feel hungry. The overwhelming feeling one has when contemplating the beauty, grandeur and sacredness of a St Therese Cathedral in Curepipe translates our ability to capture, in a self-conscious way, the Power of Place. These interactions and involvement generate meanings which are essential in understanding the character of a place and its cultural significance.

The visual components of a city often unravel its multi-layered history and memory. The past leaves its traces in diverse material culture such as historical buildings, cobblestone pavements and stone walls. The juxtaposition of modern high-rise buildings and basalt stone historical vestiges along the streets of Port Louis shows glimpses of the colonial backdrop of Mauritius prior to its independence.

Like language, the city is a set of symbols and structures expressing endless meanings. Modern life and capitalism are reflected through the proliferation of shopping malls in urban centres. In parallel, the presence of churches, mosques, pagodas and temples in the neighbourhood shows multiculturalism and the diversity of the Mauritian population.

Conquest of space and power dynamics are cleverly translated through elements of a city’s visual culture. Monuments and memorials in municipal parks, whose purpose is to impress on the visual, are testimony to the close connection between state power and urbanisation. Casting in stone its achievements has always been common practice for the ruling party to manifest power and to perpetuate the memory through commemoration.

Walking the city as a flâneur is far from being an ordinary act when we start seeing through the visual spectacle. Beyond its contemplative and aesthetic purpose, the urban visual landscape is a significant field where intricate meanings about the social, cultural and political fabric are carefully woven.

Next time you pass through Place d’Armes in Port Louis admiring the Government House as the terminal vista, you will probably think VISUAL CULTURE!

*  Published in print edition on 12 June 2015

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