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The City as a Work of Art: Thinking through Geographies of Public Space and Places of Memory

Authors: Joshua Hagen*, Northern State University
Topics: Historical Geography, Cultural Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: iconography, identity, memory, monuments, urban space
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In The City as a Work of Art, historian Donald Olsen posited “that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century.” Olsen focused on the bourgeois urbanism of fin de siècle Europe, but this presentation tackles his observation as a starting point for thinking through the spate of recent displacements and replacements of public monuments, statuary, place names, and other markers of identity, memory, and belonging. Building on Olsen’s analogy of the city as a work of art, we can further conceptualize the city as a type of composition. The idea of “the city as composition” weaves together fundamental concerns across the arts, literature, and geography, including attention to location, form, proximity, flow, and diffusion. The city as composition also frames public spaces as palimpsests and pentimenti; objects subject to continual revision, reorganization, and reinterpretation. Monuments, memorials, and place names are among the most prominent commemorative markers scattered across the urban landscape, but on a more banal level, architecture and urban design also texture the spatiality of identity, memory, and belonging. Cumulatively, these places of memory and memories of places condition public discourses and counterdiscourses and in the process contour geographies of inclusion and exclusion. This presentation sketches out a conceptual framework for thinking through contemporary agitation regarding the (re)composition of public space and iconography.

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