Looking for dragons in the streets of Berlin, Paris and New York City (I)

At least three times per week I like to play a game that I call killing dragons. The game is based on the famous cartographic sentence Hic sunt dracones, (here be dragons) that was used into some medieval maps to make a reference to unexplored territories. The activity consists in looking at the Berlin Transportation System map and picking up a random station, then going there, and during more than three hours exploring the neighborhood around. 

Berlin has a particular mix of architectural styles as the result of its convulsed history. So, a walk through the district of Friedrichshain, or around the borough of Mitte, is an interesting exercise for appreciating the different visions of conceiving the processes of urbanization after World War II; the few still erected buildings constructed before the War, as well as the different stages of revitalization and rearrangement, mostly on the Eastern Side, after the reunification of the city. 

But not only the architecture is blended there. A spring Wednesday morning, playing “killing dragons,” I took a walk around Müllerstraße, a street located between the subway stations Afrikaniasche Straße and Wedding. This street is neither a fancy one, nor so famous as many others in the city, but it is the most commercial and transited road of its neighborhood, and also of its whole district, Weeding, named as well as the station, but of course many years before.

For more than two hours I walked the three kilometers this street has taking pictures, observing the different dynamics around and collecting everything that was happening in front of my eyes. So, during the whole time, I used to hold my phone on. It was always ready for making photographs, but also for taking notes, for being used as a map and as an unlimited source of information: the history of a specific place, the nearest subway connection, and the online suggestions for having lunch or taking a drink.

Müllerstraße was a collection of things in front of my eyes, an assemblage composed by other sets, happening at the same time, in a shared space. But also this street was a piece of history, a narration on Wikipedia about the development of this area of Berlin; a page, and a hashtag on Facebook, as well as many pictures and recommendations on Google. A digital geometric representation of the whole street was in my hand. I was able to move Müllerstraße around the screen using just a finger, but I also had the possibility of “moving me around,” making a virtual tour into a kind of virtual diorama.

Comparing the structure of the notes I took with the tremendous complexity resulted from exploring this place, makes my work look pretty simple and rudimentary. My method consisted on writing some few words for compiling those things happening outside, that I was able to perceive. Those things, as I call those kinds of innovations, could be for real any single thing: an action, an actor, a group of actors… My intention with Hic sunt dracones is just describing, arranging and mapping that reality that is in front of me. Each one of those moments, of those things, can act both as a universe itself, but also as a starting point for carrying out a more systematic analysis of a particular space:

  • A young couple walking with a dog.
  • A smoker mother riding a bike with her baby at the back seat.
  • An ambulance stoping the traffic.
  • Two men installing an advertisement signal for a new business.
  • Some workers repairing a sidewalk.
  • A pizza grill döner restaurant 
  • A father recording his daughter who’s eating a banana.
  • A group of people waiting for a traffic light getting green.
  • Three birds at the sidewalk looking for food.
  • A lot of anthills going out from the ground.
  • The ambulance helping to a drunk homeless who looks like he’s hurt.
  • A Turkish market.
  • Three boys sharing an electronic cigarette.
  • An Asian market.
  • A Muslim old woman carrying on her goods.

Those situations were occurring together, at the same time and at the same space. One can find public health, economy, urban planning, politics, gastronomy, architecture, and technology, deployed in a simultaneous way, walking on the streets. Each one of these things was happening as an independent situation, but also those were connected to the others in the same space, getting mixed, infecting and being infected by the environment. The metaphor of hypermedia was not just a metaphor anymore it was life happening in front of me.

As a result of playing this game, one of the reflexions I’ve got is that the streets are, indeed, complex and simple places where simultaneity is perhaps one of their main features. Everything is being unfolded there at the same level but shaped of a kind of rhizome. In this way, a particular space is a collection of stories and movements, a continuous palimpsest that every time is being renewed and recomposed, and it does not matter how dense or deep our descriptions are, space will never be possible to grasp in its whole.

Talking about the streets in this post is understanding them as a kind of delimited space —a territory—, a still unassembled ecosystem that is composed by an n number of elements, into uncertain context potentialities and possibilities. There are no rules either for delimitating or for shaping those unmounted spaces per se, neither for classifying the kind of components that are in the streets. In this way, streets are those “things” that are outside, happening in a synchronous way, making associations in/with, affecting and being affected by other elements, space included.

(1)How can we face a scenario that is multiple, simultaneous and that is constantly being renewed? (2)What kind of strategies and tools do we have to develop for first, capturing and second, for visualizing that complexity? (3)Is that something possible to get? (4)What are the limits for doing it? Well, during this series of posts across Berlin, Paris, and New York we will find that.

My intention with this work is discussing about how to grasp the collective, multiple and simultaneous life happening outside. In order to carry out this main objective, I will present some descriptions developed in three streets, among 2017 and 2018: (1) Müllerstraße, Berlin; (2) Boulevard de la Chapelle, Paris; (3) Broadway between W. 45th Street and W. 47th Street, New York City.