1. Unfolding an Invisible Social Dimension
Jana: Dealing with this project the question we ask ourselves is: What is urban morphology? What are its various forms and how do we examine these instances? Does taking a route through the city help define the potential of what is meant by urban morphology? How can it reveal a city's cultural, social and spatial relation dynamics ? What can we understand from going through the city in one direction? What do we perceive when going back the same way?
Jon: Thinking about the intangible elements present in urban morphologies and how they manifest through the physical nature of bodies within the city, we look at the city of Vienna by examining the plasticity of the social environment around us and how our bodies conform or confront various boundaries present within the morphology of a city.
Jana: We look at public spaces as the arena for everyday routines, practices and unintended or intended encounters. It serves as the basis for the exploration of the sociality of urban societies. And therefore we try to unfold an invisible social dimension of urban morphology within them by looking at our own subjective experiences within these spaces as migrants in Vienna.
Jon: We asked ourselves, how can we as people imbrued with cultural, political, social, experiential and bodily subjectivities understand Vienna? The process involved a dialogue between embodied memories of what had been ingrained in us through our past experiences and our varied cultural backgrounds and then reflecting on the interactions as individuals and as a group.
V: Like anyone who goes through the process of migration and integration, we bring with us our own cultural and social subjectivities to new spaces with their own set of cultural and social norms. We experience multiple points of collision before we sensitise ourselves to the norms of a new territory. Sooner or later, we ask ourselves: What did we bring to the city? And contrastingly... What did we leave behind?
VIK: Through analyzing this experience from the city of Vienna we also sensitized ourselves towards our everyday life. As a result our perception of space also changed when we thoughtfully went out into public space. Coming from different cultural backgrounds how do we all take part in creating city’s life?
Jon: The city as we see it is essentially a conglomeration of overlapping, intertwining, simultaneity of routines. With each individual contributing to smaller collectives as well as larger wholes of the social morphological structure of a city. The city in some form retains an identity of what social behaviours are most prevalent and these surface as an acceptable social norm within which individuals function and therefore the redundancies of such a norm stand out by creating disruptions in its surroundings as well as in the individuals producing them. Therefore to test the nature of such norms we use an examination of our own routines as a point of departure.
V: By focussing on routines, we were able to pinpoint the flows we had in our actions that gave us comfort and a certain level of safety. As routines are always culturally conditioned customary practices, every migrant experiences a disruption of their routine when arriving in a new country. We began by collecting our own experiential routinised narratives as arrivals in Vienna. We wanted to use our narratives to better understand “what is a routine?” and “what is a disruption?” and how do our migration narratives have deeper political meanings in space? So we asked ourselves, how do we visualise migration by using our diverse culturally tempered routines in a seemingly “homogenised” city?
Jon: We therefore tried to identify different instances since our arrival in Vienna by reflecting on events that somehow surprised us either through certain conflicts, unusual reactions or simple observations.
V: For instance, I would always thank the bus driver whenever I got off the bus from the front. It was something that I would do without thinking. Especially as I would always get off at the front door since it took me a while to realize that the buttons in the buses were for opening the door rather than warning the bus driver to stop at the next stop.
Jana: For me it had to do a lot with walkability in the city. When you can comfortably walk the streets of a city, learn to navigate it, engage with it, and understand it on foot, you form a bond with it. This is not the case where I come from. Walkability infrastructure is not that good and many obstacles can be found on your way. But in Vienna, I definitely appreciate getting the chance to walk long distances comfortably. It even changed the way I navigate myself in my own city when I travel back home and I look at the city from another perspective, for example, I usually walk very fast in the city [back in my home country] because I want to avoid all kinds of inconveniences and disturbances.
V: When the routines that a migrant brings to a city clashes with the culturally conditioned routinised practices of the city, a point of collision occurs. This causes a disruption in the routines which in effect causes discomfort and the feeling of unsafety. Locals, who are accustomed to the routinised practices of the city may feel irritated by your cultural ignorance while you may only just be starting to sensitise yourself to the social norms of your new home. While we adapt to our social surroundings, we also let go a small part of our routines or identities that we brought with us when we arrived.
Vik: Since arriving in Vienna, I realized that I stopped drinking as much alcohol as I did back at home in Bulgaria. This was probably because I have a lack of self-confidence when I know that I can only trust myself in emergency situations. And in the city where I live alone, I feel some kind of responsibility towards myself. So if I sometimes drink a lot, it would always be outside of Vienna.
Jon: For myself I felt much more comfortable living in Vienna compared to Singapore where I had lived for the last four years. Public scrutiny is much more severe and had an influence on my daily routines when arriving in Vienna. Arriving from such a situation I found my mental state to be more cautious of making mistakes. Public transport was one of the first things I encountered where there was a stark difference, much of the usage is based on trust, where people are allowed to walk freely in and out without having to validate their ticket at the beginning of every use and was a little surprised by how little enforcement is implemented. Life on the metro is also very lively and active in Vienna with people eating drinking and at times even smoking at stations even though it is not allowed. Although at first I kept from doing these things I became more relaxed myself knowing that other people did it regularly and slowly became accustomed to consuming food or alcohol on the train.
VIK: So throughout our research process, we constantly discussed our reflections and shared our experiences of the city. I told you how I see people in Bulgaria and how they behave distinctly when something “exciting” happens on the streets or in public space. If people see that someone is acting inappropriately or if they notice something they would recognize as an immoral action, they would always start commenting and state their own opinions about it.
Jana: So when you shared this I also recall an event that I had seen concerning the public in Vienna reacting to an incident on the street which involved a police car suddenly arriving at a scene of commotion and people suddenly stopped moving. When the police car drove away, everything resumed again as if nothing had happened.
V: One of the actions we performed included sitting on Viennese bike racks. Each action generated different responses and sometimes they even conflicted with our experiences in our home countries. We tried to walk at the same speed as Jana did back in Palestine. Although Jana did it mostly to avoid disruptions like verbal harassment from men, in Vienna, we created more attention instead.
VIK: Thus we discovered how speed changes depending on your context and the social norms. While performing our home country routines, we were experiencing them variously in spaces loaded with different speeds of movement - the same way we were producing different interactions with other people when we changed our pace. People were also creating their own space when they were in a rush and engaged with their own routines. So in public spaces of transition, we noticed a certain avoidance as an attitude towards our actions.
VIK: What happened when we repeformed our routines? One of the things that we did was sit on the bike racks. We sat there for a while and some people also followed. Through our actions and bodily occupation in this space, we changed the space’s dynamics.
V: To act is to activate our political agency.
Jon: Our approach relies on a reflective process, as individuals as well as a research group to consciously examine our perspective on experiences within the city, where our past experiences become ballast for investigating a specific condition. A conscious injection of past routines also sensitized us to our surroundings by causing us to become more self-conscious by once again disrupting the routines which at first may have been disruptions in themselves.
Jana: To establish a material relational approach and a moment of enquiry with the space, and the dynamics of the city, we integrated a different rhythm of practice from our left behind routines into public space - We therefore decided to take a socio-cultural practice popular in the Levant region which is the smoking of the Shisha. The Shisha is a water pipe that is commonly smoked in public spaces to socialize and observe the public. We used the action of smoking the Shisha as an instrument to perform our urban action and to interact with the “spaces,” “inhabitants” and “users” and create a new layer of appropriation into the rhythms of practices in the spaces we were present in, not expecting or knowing what we would encounter. But this time our perception of the spatial dynamics would be shaped by the action we would perform and its outcomes.
Jana: Our journey of inquiry took place through the same route we had taken in the first visit as part of the urban morphology group walk. With a conscious decision to go back the same way, we wanted to experience urban morphology as a process and create spaces of interaction and unexpected encounters in the lived spaces of everyday life.
VIK: What observations did you make while doing your group action, how did you reflect on your surroundings?
Jana : We started of at Franz Josef Bahnhof, it was windy, so we chose our spot on the stairs overseeing the square carefully. Behind us was a man smoking a cigarette. In front of us a loud group. It seemed like they were drunk and the music they were playing was loud. We started setting up the Shisha. At first, I suspected that we would create tension with this group with the presence of the shisha, but a few minutes later it seemed like nothing was wrong. Each one of us was busy with his/her own activity until a group of six policemen showed up encircled the loud group in front of us and asked them to turn off the music and leave. The power dynamics in the space suddenly changed, thus tension was raised but we observed carefully and we continued our action and kept an eye on the policemen. However in my mind, the question was, are we going to be the next ones to be kicked away from that space?... although the police didn’t pay much attention to us.
VIK: In this case, were we as individuals subconsciously attracting people’s attention or was our action arousing the attention? What were our bodies communicating while reperforming the routines and were we trying to get more attention from the public than before?
V: By consciously reperforming our routines, we make the decision to activate our political agency. This time we do it purposefully and therefore we act out politically rather than through ignorance. In this case, what our bodies, language and attitude communicates asks for a particular kind of attention from the public - an attention that is politically, culturally and socially instilled.
Jon: Some of the other interesting locations that we experienced were in the Goldenes Quartier, which is an exclusive shopping area in the First District, and Stadt Park which is the city’s main park. These space were especially interesting due to the contrasting social perception of these spaces, where one is an exclusive space for the socially affluent while the other is an open space for the public. Therefore these spaces inherently contain connotations towards social etiquette and behaviour even though both are spaces open to the public.
VIK: How did it feel like for you Jonathan and Virginia to reperform Jana’s routine ? How do our cultural backgrounds influence our everyday routines in the city of Vienna and do we reflect distinctly on them?
V: For sure. I think there are certain social norms that we take with us from certain cultures and cities and sometimes people are able to identify particular routines with particular cultures. On top of this, we also add another layer of personal subjectivity to our routines that perhaps reveals our character and personality.
Jon: The act of reflection therefore allows us to consciously observe specific conditions as individuals and becomes a point of collision to understand varied perspectives among group members.
V: To us, smoking shisha is a social activity that brings people together. Although it was not in our cultural practice to smoke shisha and that we probably looked somewhat out of place with this object, being in a group and with someone who was experienced validated our action. Through our performance, we borrowed an existing cultural ritual and reinstated it by walking through the streets of Vienna, testing out different locations and observing others reactions towards us. To me, it was about visualising migration and cultural-practices, about temporary space ownership and bringing back something we had left behind as migrants.
Jon: As I recounted earlier, my experience in Singapore had conditioned me to somewhat stricter social scrutiny and therefore the act of smoking a Shisha seemed somewhat discomforting as I felt it was something socially disruptive. Yet as we were going through the process it became more natural as I realized that although it garnered attention from passers by, people were not disturbed by the act and seemed to be simply curious. Also knowing that the police did not intervene at the first location provided support that we were not doing anything that was unacceptable.
VIK : While using material artifacts we intensified our relation to a certain space and experienced how its political, social and cultural value also changed our interaction with people within this space.
Jana: The development of this material relational strategy using an unconventional object (the waterpipe -Shisha) and our bodies to approach public space, provided us with the opportunity to critically reflect on our roles as main actors in unfolding invisible social contingencies and dimensions and investigating space and spatial dynamics in the city of Vienna.
VIK: And then brought our own lived subjective experiences with urban morphology back to theory.
V: This image from Madonna's music video with a young man holding and smoking a shisha on the streets reflects the adoption of this cultural practice into pop culture. In Vienna, Jana reflects on the shisha being a symbol of social status and wealth as seen in the many fancy restaurants offering shisha for 50€ or more. This is not the first time we see cultural practices being engulfed by markets of neo liberal capitalism.
Jon: Cultural adoption in some ways does provide a point of entry for cultural acceptance or at least relatability. Our own experience with the Shisha showed that people were not alarmed by it as I assume that they understood that there are certain practices that have either migrated or appropriated in a manner that there is a potential for its integration into the present routines of the city.
Vik: We approached urban morphology through looking into our own subjectivities, bodily experiences and the accompanying artifacts we brought with us. In this, we developed a sensitivity towards ourselves, our past experiences and what is culturally and socially ingrained in us. How we understand relational space is something that is fluid and dependent on the many seemingly invisible social and material contingencies in space.
Virginia Lui, Jana Alaraj, Jonathan Spaldan Paljor, Viktoriya Tudzharova