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Between the Word and the Design
by Francois Lachance

"In us all it still lives-the dark corners, the secret alleys, shuttered windows, squalid courtyards, rowdy pubs, and sinister inns. We walk through the broad streets of the newly built town. But our steps and our glances are uncertain. Inside we tremble just as before in the ancient streets of our misery. Our heart knows nothing of the slum clearance which has been achieved. The unhealthy old Jewish town within us is far more real than the new hygienic town around us."

(Gustav Janouch's Conversations With Kafka, cited in Jacques Derrida's "Generations of a City: memory, prophecy, responsibilities")

There's a whiff of the heady as one picks up this hefty volume. And turning the pages, one is struck by the congruence of the space of the gallery and the book. But we're well beyond even the museum and the library here. For there's a hint of theatre as we enter a performative space from which a call issues to what-is-yet-to-become: not a summons from the pulpit, the lectern or the podium, but a kitchen table interview meant to be overheard and mimicked.

It's a call to practice. It's an invitation to construction, in both its de- and re- modes. It's an appeal for the intellectual, for the cultural consumer, for the political animal, to shape books, to transcode scripts, and to morph images. Through design and as a matter of content, Alphabet City espouses the hybrid.

Between the espousing and the excelling lies the experience of five previous issues and two years in the making for the current annual. It's an experience in organizing volunteer labour. Alphabet City is run as a not-for-profit, hence its phoenix nature. That Alphabet City Six has been a long time in coming speaks to the precariousness of publishing resources in Canada. The hiatus also speaks to a global situation: the migratory nature of talent in the late twentieth century. The reappearance of Alphabet City, moreover, is a testimony to perennial editorial determination. One hopes that John Knechtel and the editorial board can continue to find funds and resources, not just in the interstices of universities and arts agencies, but also from a renewed subscription base (but alas there is no information in volume six on either obtaining back issues or subscribing to the future ones, despite the call for contributions for 1999 and 2000, the themes of these volumes being "Social Insecurity" and "Lost in the Archives", respectively).

Marketing headaches aside, success does turn on good design. When reading pictures and viewing words become commensurate experiences, there is good design, a holding in tension of the presentation and the presented. At one fragile moment, the competition between content and design becomes cooperation. That's what the producers of Alphabet City's sixth thematic annual, entitled "Open City", achieve. They create a place, a special place.

What is the nature of this place? For some, it is a place of truce. For others, it is a map room for plotting renewed engagements. For the folks at Alphabet City, it is a place to mix, by and for design, culture, theory, and politics. The order of the motto describes an implicit hierarchy, or rather, an implicit itinerary: from culture through theory to politics. So Alphabet City creates a meeting place and a transfer point. Have ticket. Will travel.

"Open City" takes its reader through a variety of urban territories: an interview with the mayor of Naples; a panorama of Berlin photographed by Heather Cameron and articulated as "the problem of division" and "an indivisible problem" by Maurice Blanchot; cities in war zones via Richard Sanger's play, "Not Spain" (nominated, incidentally, for the 1998 Governor General's Award for Drama); the "liminal border region" of Prague via Derrida on Kafka; Toronto in poetry and pictures by Lynn Crosbie and Rita Leistner, respectively. Barcelona. Beirut. Lisbon. Rotterdam.

There are more conceptual spaces as well, for Alphabet City maps Roland Brenner's "Endsville", "a miniature city constructed of brown cardboard, a transitory material most often used for packing and shipping containers. It is an expendable, banal city-a place made to be moved." "Endsville" is terrifically captured in Cornelius Heesters' photography and commentary with a wonderful, minimalist layout. (Heesters also contributes many an excellently-phrased introduction to the other visual pieces of the volume.)

Another such space is Forced Entertainment & Hugo Glendinning's "Ground Plans for Paradise"-a remarkable twelve-page adaptation in book form of a conceptual collaboration/installation project that uses model building, street indexes, photography, and occasionally performance to construct "an abandoned metropolis which viewers are asked to fill; imagining the lives, people, and stories that might belong there." It's a fine adaptation, well placed in the centre gathering of "Open City".

Comparative commentary is a talent widely shared at Alphabet City. For example, Detlef Mertins provides an equally informative and elegant introduction to a Rotterdam project. On two pages, commentary, photograph, and drawings work together to generate a singular perspective of an emerging "new `gothic' city".

The pages devoted to Lisbon, Beirut, and Barcelona present a fascinating mixture of idioms, actions, memories. Stan Allen, architect and teacher, creates with his assistants "Barcelona ZAL: Performance Notations"-one of the richest and most engaging pieces of the volume, in which architecture is re-conceived functionally and performatively as a "scaffold for events, rather than as the event itself".

Rodolphe el-Khoury's meditation, "Beirut/Tokyo", is haunting in its ability to scale emotions of loss from vacant lot to a whole downtown core. Lisbon lives in its modernist poets and the translators of these poets. Like a fair number of translated pieces in "Open City", these are dual language presentations. And they are a marvel in layout skill.

The same applies to Lynn Crosbie's poetic sequence/tour of Toronto where page numbers give way to the letters of the alphabet, from A(llan Gardens) to Z(oo). The local overdetermination of detail in the penultimate poem, "Y/yz" (Toronto's airport designation and moniker of a Toronto artist-run gallery space), is superb and matched by the truly fetching detail of Rita Leistner's cover photo (a view from the back seat of an airport limo) reproduced on this page as a corner thumbnail-with oddly greater perspective.

There is here, from spine to credit page, a celebration of design. I could continue to heap praise on the beauty of word, image, and assembly. However, it would be with a degree of unease because the politics of distribution mean there is still a struggle ahead to place such cultural work in the hands of more people and to allow such theoretical discussions to flow from the mouths of even more. 

Francois Lachance is a scholar-at-large who teases the mind & provokes the body politically.


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