Orsolya Kaincz & Martin Netočný: What Was Wor(l)d Must Be Blurred
The essay written by Martin Netočný delves into the intricate fabric of urban spaces, intertwining the historical development of two metropolises with a personal connection to a non-native tree species. Within its narrative, the essay critically assesses the imposition of Western urban paradigms on Eastern European cities.
The essay was transposed to the auditive space with the voice of Tara Khozein, which serves as the creative genesis for an experimental musical composition by Orsolya Kaincz. The essay's words find a new dimension within field recordings and electronic soundscape, offering a contemplative listening experience that echoes the themes of urban complexity and personal attachment.
What Was Wor(l)d Must Be Blurred
What does today's public space look like? What vocabulary do we use to describe it? And to what extent do linguistic, material, or geopolitical structures determine how we experience our own everydayness? This text is a collage of reconstructed sensory perceptions, observations on the historical development of two metropolises, and a description of a subjective attachment to a non-native tree species. Its underlying motif is a sort of quick test of conceptual essentialism in the urban environment. The motivation for writing it was the suspicion that the seemingly all-encompassing form of the urban landscape, however determinative it may appear, is still only a form whose state, or even the mode of interpretation, is defined by the actions of other actors.
The main boulevard was supposed to be precisely as long as the Champs-Élysées, but they did not finish it. The layout of the surrounding streets opens up as a hand fan to a monument made of reinforced concrete and Carpathian marble. Already for a long time, a similar scale has not been beyond our imagination. We have become accustomed to it thanks to globalisation, which offers it to us in the form of logistics halls scattered around the peripheries of cities around the world. But this is a real house, not corrugated iron. A house, or a palace, that they did not complete, just like the fake Champs-Élysées. I call it a palace because I have read it on a map, heard the word from the mouth of a tourist guide, or from the stories of friends. I am not sure about the designation. It is a materialization of a solid power structure embedded in the regular grid of the Romanian capital, and it continues even where I cannot see, in the underground.
The palace stands in an area where palaces have never been built. It was not until Carol I of Romania that it started. A monarch who, although he ruled a south-eastern country, always looked rather in the west direction. In the 19th century, he rebuilt the city exactly as he needed. More precisely, he built what he considered a city to replace what he considered a large village. And because the elements of his favourite urbanism did not consist only of palaces, he began to build boulevards, passageways, and also parks. I stood in one of them in the February winter and watched the construction that the dictator Ceaușescu built for himself and the party a hundred years later.
The collapse of the geopolitical centredness of the Eastern Bloc, which due to its duration had kept him in power for many years, made it impossible for him to complete the project. Romanians were left with an unfinished boulevard, a monumental palace and a national deficit. And the Washington Consensus was added to this. An agreement made by someone else in another, more western part of the world. The ten economic rules of neoliberalism, which were supposed to change the situation in countries like Romania so that no one would ever doubt which part of the world they belonged to. The unfinished urban structure, built according to the model of the adopted urbanism, was thus to connect once and for all with the economic structure that created a similar way of structuring cities and the lives of their inhabitants in the West.
At the time when Carol I ascended the throne in Romania, the process of industrialisation in Europe was at its peak. In it, the figure of man determines new forms of matter at will, fills the surrounding world with them and defines the world through them. The logic of things transforms material into things of logics that lend history an apparent meaningfulness. In this self-movement, the newly created forms converge with the forms collectively imagined, so that they eventually coincide. Whether the process results in a generally emancipated society or a market system that emancipates every member of society is irrelevant in today's prism. Recent decades suggest that neither of the seemingly contradictory types of modern state was final. Common aspects, already noted in the 1970s by representatives of the New Left in the West and by dissidents in the former Eastern Bloc, are crystallizing ever more clearly before us. Regardless of the differences in social parameters in both camps, it is about a certain way of identifying the modern vocabulary with the phenomena it denotes.
In the spirit of expanding material transformation, objects and subjects are understood primarily as means to achieve programmatic goals. This meaning-making monopoly is held by the elites behind the production process, regardless of whether their economic context is determined by competition or the state framework. The landscape behind the city is transformed into a resource that provides for the daily life of its streets. The addictive and unbalanced relationship between what English defines by the phrase nature-nurture was, until the late 1980s, identical for both antagonistic camps. And because the neoliberal principle enshrined in the Washington Consensus has shaped its relationship to the material in harmony with the modernity of the last two centuries, it can be understood as one of the fundamental features of contemporary European mentality. The basic existential advantage that this epistemological transparency implies for people living in Paris or Bucharest is the constant and after the end of the 1980s outsourced industrialization, coupled with the growth of their standard of living and the global expansion of their spatiotemporal frame.
The subject of this text is not a comparison of different paths of political development nor tools of urban transformation. Therefore, I will not discuss here the mutually inspiring relationship of the redevelopment carried out at the impulse of Carol I of Romania or his counterpart Napoleon III. I will also leave aside the more detailed parameters of the Cold War conflict. What is essential for me is the description of the contemporary features of the urban landscape, their shared perception and the relationship that the cosmopolitan stratum acquires to it.
I cannot, by definition, use an analytical approach to think about this issue because it is directly related to the nature of social and urban planning. Instead, I will attempt to reconstruct the situated perspective of an observer born in one of the former Soviet satellites in the midst of an era influenced by the Washington Consensus. Based on a few collage-like observations, I will draft my own movement across urban parks between the East and West of the continent. As part of my trajectory, I will describe several situations that link these seemingly autonomous places through a shared and industrially monopolized epistemology. Subsequently, I will attempt to analyse to what extent what can be termed coincident at first glance is truly identical. Thus, I investigate whether there is room for self-determining movement and meanings between forms of public space and their positions in language that might escape their own definitions.
I do not focus on urban parks in this regard by accident. I see them as exemplary landscape models influenced by aesthetic and design principles from the early modern era. What is wild to the citizen is tamed on their territory and settled into a framework that is visually pleasing because it is generally understandable. Landscape architecture seems to dominate all the events that are set in it and to foreshadow their further development. In the neatly arranged agricultural fields behind the town, this is not in principle anything new. But how to deal with this notion when considering the inhabitants' industrially emancipated space-time of contemporary metropolises? Does the leisure time spent, for example, in the park have its precise frames? If so, how can we be free within them?
The cold forces me to move again. Rubber soles squeak on the icy tartan of the playground. Some windows of the palace of reinforced concrete and marble are lit, most are dark. The spot on which I stand was originally intended to remain empty, serving to emphasize the exclusivity of the building. Today it is planted to its edges with regular rows of green ash trees also called Pennsylvania ash trees, about ten years old. The spacing, designed by someone in the department of the chief architect, the city's urban greenery department, or some other institution responsible for this section of the public space, is, along with the glowing windows of the government building, the central pattern of my memory.
Even if I remain standing among the stainless-steel constructions of the children's climbing frames and do not embark on another walk through space, involving an inevitable interaction with its material forms, I will be influenced until my death by the image stuck in the neural network of my brain. When I think of the cold Bucharest wind as the main sensory element of that moment, I bring it to life based on a stored experience. If I think of the cold it brought with it, I must naturally also think of what stood in its way. And since at that moment I was not on the gallery of the marble balcony of the palace, but standing on the frozen tartan, the wind means to me above all the regular avenue of green ash trees that at least partially prevented it from coming at me at full speed.
I suspect the wind was fast because there was almost nothing to slow it down on its journey. The farmland beyond the city is flat and wide. I can also imagine how vigorously it leaned into the flag of red, yellow and blue stripes on the roof of a nearby monumental building. I remember quite well what crashes of the iron carabiner against the rusty flagpole sounded like. I remember, but I cannot be sure. Just as I feel the problematic nature of the phrase Pennsylvania ash, I also feel a problem with the described, albeit empirically absorbed facts. Memory takes the form of rhythmically arranged trees, palace mouldings, or stainless-steel rivets in a kid's slide, which together determine its structure. The process of remembering itself, however, does not adhere to the pattern thus formed without reservation. On the contrary, all materialised phenomena can only be determined in dialogue with another, more ephemeral element of the composition, in this case the wind.
The labile mental activity, which must be considered as a movement rather than a given substance, is bound by the particular spaces of the city in the southeastern part of the continent. Since the neurons first processed the sensory perceptions of the palace, the trees, or the playground, they must deal during each subsequent reminiscence with their physical substance. The rhythm of the city and things infected future thinking. Therefore, in order to speak of an imprint of the matrix in the sense of epistemological determination, something essential is missing here. The wind and the nervous excitations of the brain are simply variables that never respond identically.
The green ash is an invasive species from North America. European parks are full of it. It grows quickly, is undemanding of soil moisture and its root system is not shallow. It is therefore in no danger of being uprooted in hurricanes and windstorms. In the second half of the 20th century, it was widely used by national landscape architecture schools across the continent. One could say that its geographical dissemination had nothing to do with bipolar conflict. As was the case with other crop species, but also with livestock breeds.
For the first time, I noticed the green ash in the gardens of the Louvre. I remember that it was more of a fleeting pause, not a moment of aesthetic contemplation or a more thorough appreciation. What surprised me above all was the appearance of a taxonomically identical characteristic to one I had encountered since childhood in a woodland park near the housing estate where we lived. I had not paid much attention to the tree with the distinctive compound leaves until then, and despite the fact that I have somehow automatically focused on it in all parks since the encounter described above, I do not think it is in any way striking compared to other tree species. Maybe that is why it was only in France that I discovered a forgotten fragment of the woodland park of my childhood. Reminiscence of the past has created an instruction for the perception of the future.
Because of this, I have a kind of a characteristic connection with the green ash that I did not deserve. The moment I try to classify its ontological nature with botanical nomenclature, I feel that I am concealing something essential. My green ash will never again be identical to the green ash on the pages of encyclopaedias where one can read details about the structure of its root system, or where is it distributed. While most other trees remain during my walks through the parks unrecognized, or, on the contrary, directly identified with the relevant scientific nomenclature, the green ash occupies an exclusive place and thus influences the perception of all urban biotopes I enter.
The green ash has become my primary clue through which I seem to colonize the territory of an unfamiliar urban landscape in my mind. The shape of the epistemological vector is greatly complicated by this fact. Suddenly, it is not only my relationship to a specific but also somewhat mundane tree species. Our stories had been intertwined even before I was born, or even before every seedling of the tree was born in Europe. When I think of the green ash, I cannot simply point to it and label it. Even though I fear failure in advance, something compels me to think of it as an autonomous being. Certainly, the very phrase green ash is an aggregation of generalizing scientific discourse. But its uncontrolled distribution across the landscape beyond urban parks must be taken just as seriously. The tree that came into my life through colonization is colonizing new territories. But I also use it with the same intention when I with the help of its occurrence mentally parcel out new terrains.
What I want to illustrate by analysing this anecdotal incident, and indeed by describing the situation in front of Bucharest's largest palace, is the unpredictability with which my consciousness reacts to the nature of the surrounding environment. In the spirit of the last centuries of the industrial transformation of matter, it would seem the surrounding world takes on the forms that social intention and its vocabulary determine for it. The catch, however, is that such a conception of reality does not explain the randomness of the sensory or mental processes I have described here. Our consciousnesses, in short, are not perfect parks, and parks themselves are not unquestioningly controlled materializations of ideas about aesthetic virtues. The encounter with the green ash happened somehow by accident, despite the fact that it had formed an integral part of my adolescence up until that point. The tree, which was as if animated by modernity and its aesthetic ideas, now animates my brain activity. It does not move it autonomously; meanings are created in interaction.
The discursive pattern is present and its role in the overall interweaving of meanings cannot be questioned. However, the share through which it enters into it has an ambivalent value. The modern matrix from which the epistemology of the green ash or the elements of Bucharest urbanism should be printed is the beginning, not the end, of the dialogue. Also, my recollection, animating some images of urban parks, is not a process of exact modelling of reality, but an unintended creative interpretation of it. The years of my childhood in the forest park take their shape in relation to the phenomena and beings I encountered in my life many years later. Paradoxically, all of this happens in the precisely structured positions of the language I use to reflect on them.
Some phenomenologists divide the idea of the future into the analytic project, i.e. the concept of a future structure, and the soiled pre-present. Despite its forward vector, the latter is grounded in the present moment. Similarly, something like a pre-presence oriented towards the past can also be identified. A space-time actualizing a seemingly settled mental model of the lived from the position of the unpredictable present. In it, the essence of memory is dialogical and describable by the changing relationship between the February wind and the geometry of the artificially planted green ash trees in the centre of the Romanian capital.
It is the same with modernity and the paradigms of Enlightenment science. Their hegemonic principles are unquestioningly present in the world we live in every day and in the ways we think about it. But that does not mean that we are definitively trapped in them. When an analytical project of the future is realized, the sub-steps that constitute it are always rather pre-present. Pre-presence also includes the current position we take in relation to models of the untouchable past, or of a dreamed future. The formerly closed structure of concepts by which we relate to them becomes again a process, it transforms. This means that the meanings it contains take on new content in dialogue with what we experience now.
The plans of Carol I of Romania and Ceaușescu were projects of the future. Bucharest's urbanism was to be reshaped by the modern matrix and given a new look. In both cases, Paris, the centre of modern aesthetic taste, was chosen as the model. Also, the Washington Consensus was to adjust the Romanian budget to bring about a consolidated order after the collapse of the latter idea. The first half of the 1990s was marked by the conviction that the freedom of the individual comes hand in hand with the freedom of the market. Changing public finances was supposed to change society in the same way that the king and the dictator tried to change the shape of the citizens by intervening in urban planning.
It was a plan for the last and final valid deposit of Western hegemony in the environment of Eastern and Southern European states. However, instead of realizing the project, the pre-present began to take place again. Romanian liberal democracy today resembles a local attempt of Champs-Élysées, while the form of the Western states certainly does not represent the model in which they wanted to preserve themselves after the end of the bipolar conflict. We do not have a valid name that would anchor the ongoing social processes in language and thus place them in the political science categories in use. We suspect, however, that it is a dialogue in which the formed rebels against the forming, making an tangled up knot out of the vector of power coming from the West.
It is similar to when the memory of February Bucharest comes into a meaning-making confrontation with the situation that created it, or when the forest park of my childhood is transformed by an experience from a later stage of my life. The green ash can indeed be described through its scientific representation, but this says nothing about the randomness with which it spreads from the controlled urban areas to the surrounding environment. This same randomness brought this non-native species into my life and forced me to develop a relationship to its colonized and colonizing narratives. Together, we then connected the capitals of Romania and France with hundreds of other parks. It was never my intention, but if I want to define myself, the green ash, along with the meanings it aggregates, will forever be part of my personal ontological framework.
There will be something from Bucharest in Paris and a piece of Napoleon III in Ceaușescu. Totalitarianism will permeate the liberal Washington Consensus and a common epistemological framework will link the two sides of the bipolar conflict. This is not a dangerous relativism, but a call for a more abstract naming of public space that activates our imagination and loosens the unbearably tense bond between the signifier and the one which does not accept being signified. For I have never seen a being that accepts its new name without reservation. The park is not a model, memory is not a construct. Everything is a dialogue, even though the green ash, for example, does not conduct it using any of the human languages.