3 min read

Layers of unseeing

On the many layers a city contains.

I can’t see the statue in the little park I pass every day on my way to work, because it’s not there anymore. It was removed more than a year ago after what seemed like a decade of public bickering. “Genius writer, a classic!” “Soviet collaborator!” “Invaluable heritage!” “Eyesore!” The bickering didn’t stop even on the day the statue was removed, and you can probably still hear echoes in the dim-lit corridors of public institutions. This is not a metaphor for anything, public institutions are cutting down on electricity consumption. The war is just two borders away.

But I also can’t see that the statue is not there. If I were to stare at the empty pedestal for long enough, I’d probably attest to its absence. But as the park is usually in my peripheral field of vision, I’m not aware that the statue is not physically present at the very spot where all the footpaths converge. The statue is still in the corner of my eye, in a layer of the city that is visible to those who lived here long enough. It might not have signified anything to them (it took me a while to learn who the guy was), but it was there, like a pin on the map. As teenagers, they would drink beers, wait for their dates, or read a book "by the statue". The statue had no significance or purpose other than just being there.

There are more places like this. The modern art museum, with its cute gift shop and formidable cafeteria, occupies the same space where for decades the legendary “Lietuva” cinema stood. For most of my youth, the cinema was already abandoned, adorned at first by posters calling for its preservation, and then by a huge mural – a tame form of street art, testifying to the fact that the fight was lost. I liked to use the space in front of the old building as a meeting point. Easily recognisable, in walking distance from my old stomping grounds, and by a strategically placed bus stop, it suited that purpose perfectly. The building itself was purposeless, serving as a mere backdrop, a reference point. There was no utility to it, neither was to the statue, but on my psychogeographic map, both played a role in tying the fabric of the city together.

Guillaume Speurt - https://www.flickr.com/photos/guillaumespeurt/29568589283/in/album-72157653206983355/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When I walk the city or plot my route in my mind, the old layers are still as prominent, or even more prominent, as the new ones. They’re full of already demolished or repurposed buildings, painted-over graffiti (“They were ugly creeps, but we still put out” one of them said), old bus stop names (these are prone to change more than street names – there’s a Unicorns bus stop that was once named after a socks factory), and other relics of the past. There’s neither nostalgia nor longing there, just the occasional sense of confusion when mid-thought or mid-conversation I’m stuck between the city that was and the city that is.

To ground myself in the here and now I have to try hard to unsee layers of my memories, push them back, fade them into the background. This effort reminds me of what people living in Besźel and Ul Qoma, the fictional cities in China Mieville’s The City & the City, are taught to do from early childhood. In the novel, there’s no clear separation between the two cities, as they occupy more or less the same space, and while there might be a crowd of people from the other city on the other side of the street, you wouldn’t see them. Even at a street crossing, you’d consciously erase the cars and pedestrians belonging to the other city, while still managing to yield when needed.

In the book, if you failed to unsee the other city or – Heaven forbid – crossed to an area that’s not yours, you violated one of the cornerstone principles of Besźel and Ul Qoma. You breached, and you’d be taken care of, never to be seen again. In our reality, failing to unsee something that is not there physically has no repercussions. You might get weird looks from people who weren’t exposed to past layers, but a reference to a place that can no longer be seen in plain sight keeps the collective memory of the city alive. Even if sometimes, for practical reasons, you have to unsee the past to make sense of the new layer that will inevitably become the old layer one day.