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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, September 10, 2004
    Watching the city watching you

    They let you make your own id cards at Urbis; keep one, stick one on the wall there with all the others for all to see. This is the one I created there today.

    I liked Urbis, Manchester's centre for urban exploration. Fine-looking building in the city's Cathedral quarter. Glamourous cable-car ride to the top on entry, then work your way down the four floors via many interactive displays looking at different aspects of city life. Often specifically Manchester city life, which is as it should be; the specific and the local readily inform the global. Other cities feature too, especially in a box playing quick-cut shots of urban fast-lanes from all continents. The effect of the whole experience - as no doubt intended - is to inform understanding about any and all cities - and especially, your own.

    Some simple ideas, like the id card, in an exhibition on surveillance and public order, and like screens where Mancunians talk about their city experiences under different headings - arrival: impressions of a new city, change: how the city is evolving, order: the challenges of city life, and exploring: imagining how the city might be.

    One of the simplest displays had me lingering for a long time, until I was convinced I'd seen all it had to offer. A set of audio-visual tables onto which were projected various images, book covers, film stills, artworks, portraits of composers and musicians all relating in some way to creative urban exploration. If you want a closer look at one of these you touch the table, the laser technology does the rest for you, playing music where relevant, detailing the item you've selected. Basically, it's a resource, er, source, for anyone wanting to look again at the city through the lens of popular - and sometimes peripheral - culture.

    So I was glad to see Iain Sinclair, J.G. Ballard and Patrick Keiller represented there; I came away with a list of others to check out, scribbled on the back of my Urbis ticket. The quite well-stocked shop, however, didn't have too many of these, which was perhaps a blessing for my bank balance. My Wish List will be taking a battering tonight as a consequence.