Imaginary Cities


I’m sure I’m like most of you when I say Saturday mornings as a child were made up of animated shorts of an imaginary futurescapes like the Jetsons. However Imaginary Cities need not simply exist in fiction or the mind. Each city dreamt up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics has a real-life equivalent.  Or as put by Francis Bacon- “They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea.” Image: Performance Artist Tom Estes, Honorary Mayor of DEN-City1.

Disney’s  release of the film Tomorrowland (2015), is an exciting look at the possibilities of the future and the necessity for determination, dedication and optimism to achieve it. The film stars Academy Award winner George Clooney as a disillusioned former boy-genius who tries to save humanity from itself- with the help of a teenage, NASA-nerd anarchist. Casey (Britt Robertson) is a dreamer with a capital D. While her teachers bemoan the cataclysmic shape of world events and instability, she doggedly raises her hand to ask, “Yeah, but what can we do to fix it?”With Athena the android replacing Clarence the angel, it’s an ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ for the 21st century. Tomorrowland boasts a wealth of sumptuous visuals: a shiny and vintage 1960s Disney World, and a bright and gleaming futuristic metropolis. But crafting movies around theme park rides is a rather risky creative proposition. For every Pirates of the Caribbean mega-franchise, there’s a Haunted Mansion. Theme park rides are more locations then they are stories, so it’s an adaptation where there’s nothing really to adapt except for a setting starting point.

An in-depth look at the metropolis of the imagination, as well as being a work of creative nonfiction is the book, Imaginary Cities. Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, it charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. The book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds. In doing so, Imaginary Cities seeks to move beyond the clichés of psychogeography and hauntology, to not simply revisit the urban past, or our relationship with it, but to invade and reinvent it. 

Following in the lineage of Borges, Calvino, Chris Marker and Kenneth White, the book examines the city from global macrocosm to the microcosm of its inhabitants’ perspectives. It proceeds through opium dreams, sea voyages, the hallucinations of prisoners, nocturnal decadence, impossible Soviet skyscrapers, marauding golems, subterranean civilisations, apocalyptic prophecies and the work of architectural visionaries such as Antonio Sant’Elia, Archigram and Buckminster Fuller. It rethinks the ideas of utopias and dystopias, urban exploration, alienation and resistance. It claims that the Situationists lacked ambition when they suggested, “Beneath the paving stones, the beach.” Instead, beneath the paving stones, we may just be able to discern the entire universe.


Artist Tom Estes, Honorary Mayor of DEN-City ( a imaginary Utopian artist city built from rubbish) cuts the ribbon an the opening ceremony.  The name ‘DEN-City’ is inspired by the overcrowded and precarious conditions many Londoners now live in and how space to be creative in has become increasingly scarce. With a nod to the wider role of Late Capitalism and Climate Change Denial, for his role as Honorary Mayor of DEN-City, artist Tom Estes takes on the role of Jor-EL from the 1978 film Superman. 

Recently it has become fashionable to talk about the “urban commons”, and it’s clear why. What we traditionally conceive of as “the public” is in retreat: public services are at the mercy of austerity policies, public housing is being sold off and public space is increasingly no such thing. In a relentlessly neoliberal climate, the commons seems to offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. The idea of land or services that are commonly owned and managed speaks to a 21st-century sensibility of, to use some jargon, participative citizenship and peer-to-peer production. In theory, at least, the commons is full of radical potential. Can commoning be scaled up to influence the workings of a metropolis – able to tackle questions of housing, energy use, food distribution and clean air? In other words, can the city be reimagined as commons, or is commoning the realm of tiny acts of autarchy and resistance?

The current popularity of the commons as an idea is partially driven by the internet and the fact that network tools make it so much more feasible for larger groups to self-organise. Open-source software, Wikipedia, the creative commons and social media make commoning possible while affirming the ethos of horizontal organisation. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities says:

“While it’s amazing to have information that far surpasses the Library of Alexandria online—a dream that’s haunted writers for centuries— in terms of interacting, there’s nothing online that wasn’t foreseen and described by Aristophanes or Plato thousands of years ago. You talk to people who restore your faith in humanity and then seconds later you talk to foul-tempered, frothing pedants who insist that a building you posted made entirely out of clouds couldn’t possibly be built and demand you defend imaginary buildings you haven’t designed. The mediums change but the humans remain, for better and worse.”

 In the the 1978 Superman film, scientist Jor-El  is unable to convince the ruling council of Krypton that their world will destroy itself soon,  and so takes drastic measures to preserve the Kryptonian race.

England has a particular history of commoning that is still written into the fabric of London. Wimbledon, Clapham, Ealing – they all have commons, where our forebears once had the right to graze their livestock. But the enclosures of the 18th century transferred the majority of common land into private hands, turning it into a marketable resource and creating a landless working class. And the problem of the commons today is that we still tend to think of it as a common resource, whether it be oceans and rivers or fish stocks.

DenCity1Imaginary Cities demonstrates that each city dreamt up by artists, writers, architects and lunatics has a real-life equivalent and that the great Marco Polo was no liar. Imaginary Cities need not simply exist in fiction or the mind. DEN-City1 was a temporary city opening at the end of june in London. Curator of DEN-City1 Rebecca Feiner says: “The name is inspired by the overcrowded and precarious conditions many Londoners now live in… how space to be creative in has become increasingly scarce. “It also reflects the nomadic existence forced on people in the rent sector… and in Hackney Wick’s case how artists are being driven out by the ferocious profit-driven appetite of developers.” She also sees a “contradiction and tension” when artists have been “making over” an area not previously seen as attractive, “bringing colour and creativity”, then being moved on.

However, if this all seems a bit too grim, gritty and earnest for you, Feiner invited international artist Tom Estes to act as Honorary Mayor of DEN-City1. Estes describes himself as a “Sci-fi inspired Carnival Sideshow Conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternally adolescent, DIY comic-prank approach”. For Estes “fantasy and illusion are not a contradiction of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives”. And fresh back from a Residency during the prestigious Venice Biennale,  he planned a Ferrero Roche inspired Ambassadors Reception for the opening nightof DEN-City1 .


DEN-City Honorary Mayor Tom Estes with Rubbish Bride. On from 26- 29 June 2015  DEN-City, part of the London Festival of Architecture, Supported by the Arts and Humaniteis Research Council (as part of their Connected Communites Festival) Middlesex University and the research project ‘Hydrocitizenship’

The question is whether the commons, with its potent political dimension, can transcend extreme need and symbolic resistance on the one hand and harmless local initiatives on the other. In fact, it is often in moments of crisis that the idea of commons asserts itself. The protest movements that took over Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul and Zuccotti Park in New York transformed public space – state-owned, with the exception of Zuccotti – into a temporary commons through mass self-organisation. Similarly, the economic crisis in Greece has led to a resurgence of commoning in Athens, where parks neglected by the municipality started to be maintained by resident groups. And one could cite numerous examples of commoning in the favelas of Brazil, where many communities take pride in co-creating and self-managing their environment.

And there are other encouraging examples. One commons project that is beginning to achieve an ambitious scale and complexity is in Colombes, in the suburbs of Paris. Since 2012, the Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée has been developing what its co-director, Doina Petrescou, calls “a bottom-up strategy of resilient regeneration” – and it goes beyond your average urban agriculture initiative. It’s true that there is a micro-farm for collective use but that is only one of three hubs, the others being a mini recycling plant and cooperative eco-housing.

The project now has 400 citizens co-managing 5000 square metres of land, producing food, energy and housing, while actively reducing waste and water usage. Already, by European standards, it is a fairly large-scale experiment in alternative urban living. But the aim is to add five more hubs over the next five years and to grow into a commons-based civic movement.


DEN-City1 was a temporary utopian city of installations, dens and assemblages. Colourfully, repurposing, and recycling on the theme ‘Work in Progress’ DEN- City1 mushroomed on a prime piece of land by the London Olympic site in response to the London Festival of Architecture.

DEN-city featured talks, workshops, graffiti artoff, stand up comedy to poetry, performance special opening night and many other surprises…
Friday June 26,- 6-9pm/ Saturday June 27, 2-9pm/ Sunday June 29, 1-4pm

Darran Anderson is a writer from Derry. He is former contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and Dogmatika. He has written the 33 1/3 study of Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson(Bloomsbury, 2013) as well as the forthcoming Jack Kerouac – Critical Lives (Reaktion Books, 2014) and A Hubristic Flea (3:AM Press, 2014). He has also written several collections of poetry including Tesla’s Ghost (Blackheath Books, 2009). He regularly writes on art, literature and music for the likes of Studio International, 3:AM and The Quietus.

Image credits- The Jetsons and Space Ghost’s “Battle of the Planets” Ride by Bruce Bushman for a Hanna-Barbera Land . His notes indicate a level of interactivity with “simulated ray gun hits” and “individual climb and dive controls”. These design concepts were never built.

Images 1-3 of Mayor Tom Estes by MIA CULPA

About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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