Layers of meaning: presence, iconicity, power

De Certeau, Clarke and Schwarzer all talk about power. But so do their forerunners: for example, Clarke references Fleisch (1987), for whom “proximity represents power”. For Nietzsche “architecture is a sort of oratory of power by means of forms” (1889), and for Foucault “representation is power, a power well able to construct and manipulate perceptions of reality” (1977). It’s then inevitable that when the city (architecture) and cinematic images (representation) meet, we will see instances of power. Hence one of the major threads we have been looking at in our research is based on those ideas of power in urban environments, what constitutes them in the city that we experience day by day and how they are enforced and performed in film. We will be looking at this mostly in our second presentation, through a comparative approach of one fiction film, one newsreel and one reportage shot at the Havengebouw, a powerful building when one experiences its presence, but which has rarely been the object of the gaze – rather a place from where the gaze can be enacted (the panoramic view from the terrace etc.).


What sort of gaze is drawn in order to fulfill a certain type of power? What can the source/position/direction of the gaze tell us (obviously, in this context, through camera angles and movements)? What can the relation between a character and a site that he is inhabiting (building, monument, landmark, or, more generally, space) reveal about where he is placed, socially and politically? Does a representation of the empowered need to be counterparted by a representation of the overpowered? And the sites themselves can be understood through different meanings – which then reveal certain associations and motifs within the city: historical, iconic, mythical etc. – so when are these sites invested with power themselves?

This also brings us to another chapter in our research: the layers of meaning that interact in any given object which is to be found in a city go deeper than the “physical” versus “virtual” (mediated) layers of an “architecture” system. (A revealing note here on terminology: while initially describing only the processes of planning, designing and constructing physical structures, the term “architecture” has been adopted over time to describe other designed systems, particularly in information technology but also in natural systems, e.g. the architecture of the human brain etc.) We will address this through the several enactments and relocations of the Magere Brug, which we will be presenting on the first tour. We will see how representations of the bridge have contributed to its understanding as a symbol of the city and how subsequent representations are also influenced by past representations (which creates a self-sustainable way of building a symbolic/image capital). The iconicity of the bridge much overpowers its real meaning and presence, and turning back from this is unobtainable: now portraying it as a “lesser” object than it has been portrayed before would be just anachronistic. It will also be interesting to see how iconicity enhances appropriation and creates a sense of ownership, even in cases of dislocations, as Almere organized a party dedicated to the Magere Brug, screening images of the bridge continuously for one night: they are not there anymore, but the bridge is still theirs.


On a lighter ending note, check out this thorough rundown of all the locations used in Amsterdamned (1988), including a complete interactive map at the end of the article. It’s intriguing that the article calls the film an anti-touristic one, thus revealing numerous balances in the story: the genre perspective versus the nationality of the director and the main characters conveys a hybrid feeling, one of being “a tourist in your own town”. Director Dick Maas is also an ambivalent figure in the history of Dutch cinema – he uses Hollywood stereotypes and national values to precisely reveal their absurdity and to reconfigure them, and while doing this he is giving back to Hollywood what the various Nouvelles Vagues took away from it. The frights and the shock value of the film, and the canals and the bridges provide a good background for this. In this way, bridges become an inverted version of Walter Benjamin’s arcades (also an environment of the flâneur) in Paris – places full of life, yet whose underneaths remain mysterious and frightening.

– Dan A.


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