When Darkness Calls: the City as the 'Urban Uncanny'

deTour curated by: Unimelb, 2015

Taking a rhizomatic structure to explore how urban spaces produce ambiguity and affect, this tour offers a reading of the city that resists the tropes of linearity and ocularcentrism. Staged during the liminal time between dusk and nightfall, the tour enters the world of opacity and shadows and provokes a subjective encounter with the ‘urban uncanny’.

Urban spaces are regularly practiced according to their authorized civic teleology. Through conventionalised and constant use, these spaces become not only familiar to their residents, they generate shared meanings around the idea of a ‘living’ or ‘lived in’ city. Certain spatial clusterings (gentrified precincts or ‘quarters’, parks, historical sites, transport networks) become expressive of a city’s ‘character’, ‘uniqueness’ or ‘authenticity’ and work together to script dominant narratives of ‘place’ as known, legible and familiar. Yet these spaces can be read against the grain through an encounter with the ambiguous, disavowed or liminal urban environment.

Urban spaces have a shadow-side or counter-force which unsettles their normative spatial meaning and reveals itself through what Anthony Vidler describes as the ‘urban uncanny’. The uncanny ‘others’ the familiar through appearing as its distorted double. At once recognisable yet bizarre and unfamiliar, Derrida notes that the ‘play of the double’ in the uncanny evokes an ‘endless exchange between the fantastic and the real’ (1994, 268). In ‘misrecognising’ spaces and making them strange, the urban uncanny situates itself in the lacuna between manifest and latent spatial meanings. In this context, the urban uncanny can be described as a performative space which produces corporeal affects at the level of uncertainty, fear, anticipation and intrigue. In suggesting that normative perceptions of urban spaces are contingent upon vision and familiarity, this tour scaffolds an alternative experience of the city by exploring the ‘sensations, affects, intensities’ (Grosz 2008, 3) foregrounded when the spaces we thought we knew become strange to us, and in turn estrange us.

Locations for deTour

The tour begins with the idea of ‘transition’ in the spatial form of a tunnel and the liminal time between dusk and nightfall. This starting point is designed to symbolically transition the participant from the habits of their daily routine into…

Recalling a similar gothic fascination around the ‘ruin’ in the 19th century German Romantic tradition, in the modern city the uncanny surfaces in the disquiet conjured by the ‘unreason’ of abandoned urban sites. There is an unknowable…

In the previous stop, the choice to transgress interior space centred around an expression of agency in the charged spatial relations of public/private sites, and social relations around legitimate/illegitimate use. Arguably there is a certain degree…

Urban geographer Edward Soja understands the experience of the modern city as an articulation of space, time and social being (1989, 13). The previous stops have imbricated the uncanny within being and space - a spatial ontology of sorts - but have…

This tour began with a transition into the uncharted territory of shadows, shifts and spectres. The tunnel is used once more to transition the participant out of the uncanny landscape, back into a known context of ordered, visible and transparent…

Barthes, R 1991, ‘Listening’, The Responsibility of Forms, University of California Press, Berkeley, pp. 245-260. Derrida, J 1994, Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, Psychology Press,…
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