The study of a city as studio: Berlin: Three month feild work: 2008

mover city series

A three month investigation
City as Studio
By Beatrice Jarvis
September to December 2008
In collaboration with Hochschule fűr Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch”
With special thanks to Dana Macpherson, Cadesh Jilkern, Felipe Gustav

Where does choreography end and life begin. There is an invisible flexible line which seems to form itself, with no definition, no end and no beginning.

I am currently developing a model based on concepts of the impact of the urban environment on creativity, activity and interaction in urban space, and contextualising this within the wider fields of town planning, social, political and historical theory.

This research began at Hochschule fűr Schauspielkunst “Ernst Busch” Berlin. I began to wander with an ‘aimless gaze’ writing and recording images of the world I saw, with the notion ‘the real city stroller is like a reader who reads a book simply to pass time and for pleasure’ . I relate my practice to that of a flaneur that ‘walks to uncover traces of the past and to read these reflections as symptomatic of their respective time.’ Flaneurie is my stimulus, taking small incidents from daily life and weaving them into my professional arts practice.

street open

On the one hand I am constructing many different interventions in the city, intuitively using it as my studio, on the other I am creating a naturalistic choreography where performers do not know they are performing and perhaps I am the only member of the audience. I am keen to bring audience participation and interaction into all areas of my work.

a day trip

In a world where the population is multiplying by the second, we surround ourselves with ever higher buildings and faster cars which allow us to have less and less contact with the ground and more importantly with each other. It is easy to exist with very little human contact, the internet has enabled virtual extension of the physical public domain, connected the private sphere to all aspects of the outside world. Personal stereos ensure if desired we have no need to even listen to the land scapes we wander through. The ‘glofication’ of the shopping mall has allowed the real city to be side lined, hence urban spaces are losing their significance in the community and the notion of community has expanded to the point that it has been lost. These isolated islands which now can be named ‘Mega Cities’ can encourage isolation, segregation and loss of historical and cultural identity.

mass heaves

I am fascinated as to the side effects of this gradual change to the definition of a city and the spaces these developments leave behind, the forgotten undeveloped parts which are hidden or ignored in the shadow of hyper urbanity.

our mess

I chose to go to Berlin to enquire as to the spaces that are left as the ‘underside of the metropolis’ (Mangler 04). The gritty spaces which are left out of the guide books and citizens hurry past, where weeds are let to rule and cracks in the pavement are not glossed over.

Berlin due to its turbulent history, is a city which is both blessed and cursed with intensive modern development in segregated areas, many areas left untouched close by to expensive new architectural excess. The importance and consequence of this progress means the spaces outside these buildings are a hot bed for a wider form of social engagement. I intend to initially explore the city for two weeks on foot with a camera and capture the essence of the space around such modern spaceships, such as parks, public foundations, benches, plazas, open office squares and street vendors. I will monitor factors such as foot fall, usage and how the space usage fluctuates at particular times. The intention of this contextual enquiry is to develop a fashion in which to observe, manipulate, develop and extend daily activity in the forgotten spaces of Berlin to generate material as a foundation for visual choreographic form.

After this period of exploration I began a series of choreographic and photographic studies in my chosen spaces. A key outcome to my research into public space and urban design considerations has been what Whyte describes in; ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ as ‘Triangultion,’ this is the element in a public open space that brings extra stimulus to the environment, be it a physical object or a performance. my rationale was to create a naturalistic choreography where performers do not know they are performing and perhaps I am the only member of the audience. It is the power of language and suggestion that allows me to perceive this as choreographic form. I relied on photography to allow these encounters to be collated and stored as opposed to a lost moment. As Diane Arbus said of photographs: ‘They are proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And a stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be looking at you… over a catastrophe that has already happened.’ I intended to capture moments of choreographic interest to make a series of still choreographies.

My role in this project was simply be an observer, an external manipulator of public flow and an outside eye to daily routine. I speak only a little German which gave me the advantage of viewing situations simply from the point of view of movement as I will have less ability to communicate and understand through verbal means. My research as to the movement of daily life has encouraged me to the mindset that one has the ability to transcend the mundanities of daily encounters by labelling them ‘art’ or ‘choreographic form’. By adapting my own personal definitions I had the ability to find the dullest of situations interesting, my intention with this was to then to find a way that I can then communicate this knowledge to others outside of a typical arts setting.

he waits

I approached this by exhibiting visual choreographic scenes in public spaces such a public toilets and perhaps even in the ‘dead spaces’ themselves. The performance related outcome was a series of moveable large-scale photographic works of these ‘everyday choreographic forms’ which I have now taken to take to various locations and have also further developed a series of site performances which the public had full access to, to the extent their presence shall form a main part of the choreographic work.


Secondary to this I carried a large format camera on a daily basis for my travels throughout the city to document details of the city’s public art, street art, graffiti and vandalism which I shall collate into a version of a ‘guide book’ as a mapping system of forgotten galleries of the public arena. I took the idea of choreographing to a level outside of all typical performance spaces and with the idea that you arrive in a street, remain still and rooted to a position for an amount of time and the action that occurs around you is the choreography. This naturalistic approach is to encourage a heightened engagement with the flow of human form, suggesting that you don’t need to be in an art gallery or performance space to ‘see things.’ In formalising this rather basic statement of observation into a formal book I hope that it shall become more second nature to individuals. Throughout my work at Dartington I have been keen to remain with the idea of ‘open your eyes,’ the sense that so much action already exists, it is simply a case of subtly highlighting this potential to the passive eye. I have used hundreds of meters of red cloth in previous projects, both in Dartington Gardens and Start Point Light House, and feel that I wish to use more subtle methods to see whether the same audience engagement can occur with less intrusion to the natural scenery yet without losing the poignancy of such an overstated effect.

During my time in Berlin I shall Be I undertook an exchange with Ernst Busch where I meet fellow students to collaborate with as these projects, although perfectly manageable with a single body, would be perhaps more effective with many. I engaged with a multitude of fashions on which the human body can move in order to add these to the body of moveable works I plan to create. This exchange helped me financially although I had collected together suitable funds through selling photographic work.

Berlin was like my lighthouse in a stormy sea. A beacon that shines with bright hope and promise. With a set project and set time frame I sail towards a new harbour.

irish retreat

Young and restless in a city that never sleeps I danced, photographed, observed, choreographed, watched, ran, cycled and pigeon-stepped my way to an understanding of both the city and myself. Parallel to this exploration was a rigorous physical training of ballet, contemporary dance and yoga in a prestigious institution: a time of conflict and often contradiction, this furthered my critical framework. To realise these ideas and share these months I have produced work in the form of exhibitions and performances.

exhibition view

This very special opportunity of three months has allowed me to develop my ideas and form a framework for my studies at Dartington College of Arts.

I moved alone to live in a small flat in Kreuzberg, Berlin, and whilst attending Ernst Busch School of Choreography I hurled myself into a rigorous self-disciplined routine to further my education, subsequently laying the foundations for my own practice. The work that emerged from these months is shaped in many different media; these were movement and dance, choreography, writing, film and photography, both as a creative medium and as documentary record.

In Berlin I begun to wander the streets behind all the tourist sites and spots so far out of the city in places so dark, so alone, that I began to be afraid. I felt I was slowly unearthing the ‘underside of the metropolis’ .I sought the gritty spaces which are left out of the guide books and that citizens hurry past, where weeds are left to rule and cracks in the pavement are not glossed over.

I soon realised that these areas were my focus as I was attracted aesthetically and imaginatively to these wastelands that contained a real essence of history; ‘ the city seems to be struck with an apparent insecurity that produces the desire to constantly rewrite its history. Continuously reflecting on their historical background, Germans do not dream of a different future but of a different past.” I wanted to work in areas that were not on the over-beaten regenerated track, I wanted to find the parts riddled with a troubled past where trace and memory have not been erased. This idea has fascinated me after my explorations of art as a means to ‘develop and extend daily activity in the forgotten spaces’ through choreography which could then be translated into the medium of photography.

The parts of Berlin that I saw through my eyes and my camera lens both scared me and excited me to continue and highlight such crevasses as to allow others to explore such unmarked territory. My original ideas of monitoring foot fall, types of space usage and it fluctuates at particular times seemed suddenly unrelated to my desired choreographic intention and it seemed at once essential to record these unreconstructed areas through my camera and respond to them through the movement of my own body, making a more personal and artistic response to the spaces. I began a series of improvisations in desolate and barely used areas, parts of the city that redevelopment has left out, drawing on both the dance vocabulary that I have learnt and an innate feeling that I had never realised before which now became second nature in such unholy haunts. The unreconstructed holes that lie empty and yearning for use in the central part of the city now became my studio.

Documentary of dance interventions. still from film.

From here on I decided that the focus for my enquiry was now to be urban decay and elements of the forgotten and untrodden in the city. This seemed to be a much more aesthetically interesting starting point and one that would prove more stimulating as inspiration for choreographic form. A project in my second year at Dartington had led me to some deserted warehouses in Staverton, with the intention of highlighting the desolate as an element of aesthetic beauty as opposed to an eyesore. I quickly drew broad comparisons to this work in Berlin, with its desolate wastelands and forgotten playgrounds.

My photographic exploration of such sites taught me quickly about the nature of the city, and its urban cultures of graffiti, gangs, dress code, unspoken rules. I developed a personal conduct in such places that would keep me from danger. I quickly learned that these places were dangerous; it was unsuitable to travel alone through such dens, where no conversation and no explanation of intention in these places would matter. These were ships for the city’s pirates, on which I was not welcome or acknowledged. In such places initially one can only see dirt, ruin and decay, the common land for city rats. What drew me to these places is a disregard for being guided and led. I quickly formed a dislike of the tourism industry that flooded the popular landmarks of Berlin’s streets, engulfing un-expecting travellers in a whirl of coloured images and bright music. I found myself shrinking back into haunts where the city really lay and the people of the city often avoid.


This process of discovering the undercurrent of the city occupied me for my first two weeks, allowing me to form a basic understanding of the geography of the city. I realised that my three months would not suffice for anything more than a small grasp of understanding of the totality of the city. My aim of walking the streets day after day was to form a personal system of visual mapping of the city’s parts which I would later return to use as sets for site specific choreography. I took rolls and rolls of film to learn the city through images, spending nights in an old German darkroom developing only the negatives and contact sheets.

Parallel to collecting images I set about writing a prose diary to reflect on and record my feelings and memories. This was sent on a weekly basis to a collection of people in England, France and Spain. I saw this as a means of collating my experiences in an objective fashion for a recording of my exploits. After a few weeks I set up an exchange network which proved an invaluable source of ideas and advice.

After my period of temporary adjustment and exploration of the city I quickly felt at home and made acquaintances, who I now look on as essential contacts in Berlin. Moving country has the obvious challenges of learning the language and finding a niche into which one can position oneself in order to make the most of the experience. I was pleased to learn that in reality there are networks around the world of creative people that if one finds them is like a magic cloak enabling us all to grow. I had developed a series of sites in the city that I wished to explore further in order to fulfil my second photographic theme of mapping for set design or space for choreographic activity.

self mover

I had three media which I used to convey my intentions; these are photography, simple choreographic form and writing.

I began to seek out a series of sites in the city where I could make more outlandish works in the later parts of my stay. In a long series of site visits aided by locals and friends I unearthed the most disused and abandoned parts of the city.
I had a large amount of negatives that I could now refer back to from areas all over the city, gradually I sifted through these to edit the ones that would be most effective using the concept ; ‘Photography is a system of visual editing.
I found I could quickly collate a series of sites that I would later use as sets. The photographs from the early stages of this mini project still prove interesting visual stimuli and a useful aspect of documentation.

My focus at this point was how to further such site explorations through developing a way in which to animate such scrap heaps of hidden beauty. Inspired by the project; ‘Urban Pioneers’ based in Berlin, I investigated previous means in which sites had been regenerated in the city, creating places for the community and hubs for creativity in the wastelands which had been overlooked by large commercial developers; ‘Berlin is a laboratory for the business of temporary use. Berlin has space. Numerous disused, unbuilt and unplanned spaces, some of them very large, are a reflection of the city’s history and structural upheaval.’

I am keen to show my work now in places which are directly related to the essence of my enquiry into the wastelands, preferring to show work in largely unpopulated places. However I found that I have to have a more practical approach to showing work, exhibiting work where I can gradually build a reputation. Although my definite preference remains to show work in ‘temporary urban spaces’ I am aware that to receive enough exposure of my practice I have to show my work in popular venues.

a studio diary; dartington; 08

Early in October my enrolment at Ernst Busch School to study Choreography created a strong critical framework in contrast to my city explorations. A serious undertaking with strong discipline and a nine-to-six timetable on most days gave less time for my own explorations initially. The school have morning classes in classical ballet, yoga and contemporary dance, with an array of talented teachers. This highly practical academic framework in which I situated myself contrasted with my personal practice in the city, creating an odd contradiction in my living habits. I found the school was very useful in stimulating new thinking methods for the structure of the new work I wished to create.
The key advantage I gained from attending the Ernst Busch School was building the foundation of my own logical system in which to answer my choreographic questions.

My observing and recording the theatre of the everyday was a personal scheme to develop interest in everyday life; it is not ‘work’ as such, more a method for generating work using results as stimulus. The records I maintained of everyday action were not intended as original and innovative contributions to the arts, but more a foundation for the making of my own statements. Filming of the everyday and photographing the everyday was not enough to spark the imagination of an individual unfamiliar with the landscapes. I needed to have a personal interaction with the situation in order to make it extraordinary to another who may not have the same perspective as me. For example, a photograph of a wall does nothing other than present that wall. A wall with a woman in a white skirt draws more attention to that wall where, in a city filled with situations, arts, images and millions of people circulating all the time, it is essential that anything you wish to be noticed is presented in a very clear way.

Films made in kebab shops, watching everyday life outside the Reichstag were a personal file of records which I can now use as starting points. It is what I now do with these observations that will develop them to become an artistic personal statement. I was able to highlight Berlin’ s wastelands through the use of carefully choreographed movement, enlivening the sites into creative spaces in which people then paused in to observe the newly created intervention.

Similar to my project in Dartington Gardens in my first year of study, with metres of red cloth I want my work to highlight the landscape through the medium of choreographed scenes, directly relaying these through photography. My work with Dartington Graduate Alejandra Johnson at Start Point Lighthouse, (Devon) in my second year of study formed my preparatory work and exploration as to how to relate to an audience in remote or inhospitable places

from sketch book, intervention in landscape

I have made a separate studio work inspired and directly recreating my experiences in Berlin’s wastelands. This creates different categories of viewer for my work, making the work more wide reaching: the passers by who glimpse the work through unexpectant eyes directly in the site, the people who see the film, the people observing the photographs in various locations in the UK and in Berlin, the people who attend the subsequent performances about the explorations, and the people who read the texts generated in the sites. This hence raises the ability of the work to be known in both the arts scene and in daily life.

I am keen not to attach specific meaning to my work, simply choreographing and photographing my scenes and allowing the viewer to create their own imaginative path through the work. However I do not wish to disassociate myself with the meanings that passers by and audience attribute to my work. With innumerable comments on the beauty of the scene I created, I researched this more fully in Berlin.

Crucial to my work was the sentiment that I was reacting to the capitalist touristy elements of the city developing what Peterson describes as; ‘revolutionary urban praxis’ I was expressing my reaction and my ideas freely in the city through movement. As Peterson also points; ‘We are all architects of sorts. We individually and collectively make the city through our daily actions and our political, intellectual, and economic engagements. But in turn the city makes us. People must acknowledge their dialectical relationship with urbanity. What sort of city do I want to shape me?’ I began through this research trail to comprehend the wider significance of my practice within the city. Peterson suggests that we can reconstruct the social interaction network of the city through the use of bicycles; it is my stand point that I can generate interaction in the city through the use of dance.

I was keen to not attach a meaning to the choreographies in the sites to passers-by who questioned me, inviting them to tell me their own response to what they saw. This approach was informed by my research into ‘accidental beauty’ leading me to believe ‘sometimes the city is beautiful because we cannot understand it, its construction, its destruction, its silence, simplicity or appearance.’ With such insight I had the ability to comprehend the significance of the scenes I was creating within the context of the city. I now hold a greater degree of understanding as to the effects of my practice in the city allowing beauty to be interpreted ‘in accidental gaps that oneiric austerity of planning leaves behind’ .

Whilst living in Berlin I was very aware as to the change in my personal vision. In such a vast and densely populated city I was aware that individuals became more anonymous and with such anonymity comes greater freedom due to the lack of connection with their surroundings; ‘it is a paradox of urbanism that the more inhabitants a city counts, the less contact between these inhabitants.’ This allows the individual to be more receptive to their surroundings hence more alert to the possibility of beauty; I judge this to be the reason why my practice worked so effectively in Berlin as people were open to such events. Similar work changes meaning when placed in the countryside as the landscape and inhabitants’ relation to that landscape is so different, with much closer social structures and without the sense of urban anonymity

This project resulted in a vast archive of images, over 3000 which are now filed safely. I am keen to explore the effects that such an intensive urban study has had on my practice, developing ideas as to how to approach a city, the attitude on arrival becoming crucial to all understanding of existence.

There can be no conclusion drawn from these three months; only another point of departure.


One Response to “The study of a city as studio: Berlin: Three month feild work: 2008”

  1. thank you for this thought provoking work. I like your approach in combining your practice and theory and allowing your work to live in its own space, apart form academic dissection. I am at the beginning of a practice-led pdh research and often feel the pressure to ‘explain’ my work. I am a video artist and am interested in the private and public lives of female performance artists, that cross-over of living and creating that you describe very well. please get in touch if you’re interested in continuing a dialogue on this.
    With best wishes,

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