UCL Urban Laboratory


Cities After Hours: the shift from the diurnal to the nocturnal city

5 June 2015

Sam Nightingale 'The Remains'

Written by David Anderson, MPhil/PhD student, UCL English

Cities After Hours began with a panel split between art made about the city and art made on the surfaces of the city itself. In fact, this distinction was soon demolished by Rafael Schacter, whose case against the term 'street art' drew on the fact that 'there are as many street arts as their are street artists'. Nevertheless, his reappraisal of 'independent public art' figured the nocturnal city as a space for transgressive sign-writing, a practice with a well-established international tradition. Meanwhile, Sabina Andron's paper diarised the life of graffiti in London, looking at the burgeoning phenomenon of 'street art tourism' and the ways in which a shift to daylight painting - at least for better-known artists - has led to a novel illumination of the form's processes, as well as its end-products. Her paper situated this growth in tolerance and appreciation of graffiti writing within the wider urban sign system, noting that the appropriation of street art techniques within advertising has contributed to a pronounced blurring of the geosemiotic field.

Max Colson's work as an artist-in-residence at the Urban Lab took another approach to the complex of urban imagery, exploring the aesthetics of privatised public spaces and the system known under the unwieldy acronym 'CPTED' (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design). The work of his paranoiac alter-ego Adam Walker-Smith offered an acerbic take on this trammelling of the urban realm, while the project entitled 'Hide and Seek: The Dubious Nature of Plant Life in High Security Spaces', drew on a heritage of British surrealist photography. 

Margarita Saad, an artist embedded within the French department, took an entirely different tack. Employing the 'Oulipian' techniques of the French 'Workshop for Potential Literature', she restructured Paul Verlaine's poem 'Chanson d'Automne' as a looming cluster of skyscraper maquettes, transforming one saturnine rendition of the night-time city into another.

Mara Arts, of the Centre for Multidisciplinary and Intercultural Inquiry, opened the second panel with her paper on representations of nightlife in early London cinema. Mara showed how the twin themes of pleasure-seeking and criminality found common ground in the nocturnal spaces of early twentieth-century London. Her emphasis on the importance of space, and the West End as a terrain of various forms of transgression, fed neatly into Chris O'Rourke's discussion of early cinema-goers themselves. Chris's research showed that cinema-going was as much about the consumption of space as of film. He emphasised how the purchase of a cinema ticket was not simply about seeing a particular film, but also - and often overwhelmingly - about the acquisition of 'time in the cinema' in a more abstract sense, too.

If these papers inclined towards a clear distinction between the nocturnal and diurnal city, James Kneale's intricate study of Victorian licencing hours showed that the supposed division between sober working days and boozy nights out may well be a misleading simplification. Even if, as James claimed, 'drink was as much a part of the city after hours as gaslight was', the actual irregularities of its consumption illuminate the patchiness of day-time/night-time partitions.

Huda Tayob's investigation of Cape Town's 'Little Mogadishu' - a centre for the South-African Somali community - perpetuated this theme of muddying clear categorisations of space and time. Huda's paper disclosed the fascinatingly opaque world of unofficial 'Somali Malls', housed within disused office blocks and other large buildings in the Bellville district of Cape Town. These 'subaltern public spaces' proved to be difficult to catch on film, owing both to cultural embargoes of photography and to their inhabitants' frequently dubious legal status. Not only did this mean that Huda's intervention was illustrated with wonderfully vivid sketches of the environments she'd studied; it also precipitated a lively discussion on the ethical dilemmas of photographing or documenting unofficially occupied spaces.

The day's third panel was balanced between Paris, Los Angeles and London. Matthew Beaumont's paper on Ray Bradbury's 1953 short story 'The Pedestrian' offered a futuristic, Americana-inflected taster of where his work on London nightwalkers might stray. Beginning with the NYPD's infamous 'We Own The Night' slogan, Matthew framed 'The Pedestrian' as a 'dystopian science fiction fable'; a vision of ecological apocalypse in a line with Mary Shelley's The Last Man and Richard Jefferies's After London. The paper took these themes as a cue to recalibrate Bradbury's celebrated novel Fahrenheit 451 around the figure of the transgressive walker, imagining François Truffaut's garish film adaptation reworked as a nocturnal neo-noir.

Taking up the theme of illicit locomotion, Ruth Austin's dissection of Jean Cocteau's poem 'Léone' foregrounded Cocteau's fantasy-vision of free movement through Paris during the Nazi occupation in 1942-4. Her discussion of the idea of 'curfew' (itself from the French 'cuevre-feu') as a highly relative phenomenon was precipitated by the fact of Cocteau's own exemption from the night-time ban that hampered his fellow Parisians. These thoughts led to a discussion of the extent to which this relativity obtained as a historical feature of curfews in general.

After the blacked-out streets of occupied Paris, Roland François Lack's tour through the night-time landscape of pre-New Wave French cinema reconstructed the dizzy thrill of newly lit streets in the 1950s. His analysis tracked the constellations of neon nightclub signs around Pigalle, Montparnasse and the Champs-Élysées, turning noble gases into the waypoints of new nocturnal geographies. Back in early-modern London, Emma Whipday's paper on Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice explored the 'obsessive association of thievery and darkness on the Elizabethan stage', investigating the interrelation of domesticity and femininity in Shakespeare's city (through the cipher of Venice). Drawing on the plays' presentation of the house as a source of both anxiety and fantasies of security, Emma argued that Shakespeare's nocturnal city has been under-represented as 'a space of illicit female autonomy'.

The colloquium closed with a sandwich of short films, centred on William Raban's The Houseless Shadow. This languid cinematic rendering of Charles Dickens's extraordinary essay 'Night Walks' was made in 2011 under commission from the Museum of London, as part of Dickens's bicentenary celebrations. Using the text as a map, Raban plotted a path around after-hours London, shooting over the course of fifty nights. The film discovered unexpected continuities between contemporary London and that which Dickens represented in his essay, which closes on an encounter with a ragged waif near the church of St Martin's-in-the-Fields, precisely where many of the West End's homeless huddle around a soup kitchen today. Raban's film was bookended by Ralph Keene's 1958 Under Night Streets, a sprightly documentary about maintenance on the Tube network, and Nice Time, an experimental documentary from 1957 set around the magnetic nocturnal pull of Piccadilly Circus. Funded by the BFI's long dead 'Experimental Film Fund', Nice Time left a zest of the subversive creativity often stimulated by the sun's decline, both for the film-makers themselves and the immaculately turned-out revellers they depicted.

David Anderson is an MPhil/PhD student researching ideas of aesthetic reclamation in the urban and exurban environment, with particular focus on the cinematic and critical works of Patrick Keiller. This extends into the conflicted relations of destruction, dilapidation and renewal, as well as the role of the image in the urban sign-system, looking in particular at how contemporary works engage with the heritages of Surrealism and Situationism. He has a strong parallel interest in the overlapping histories of real and imagined spaces in fictional works. David is a contributing editor at the online journal Review 31, and works as a freelance writer on literature and art.

Image: 'The Remains' exhibit at Cities After Hours by Sam Nightingale