Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre

Presentation screengrab

I’m in the process of putting together a research presentation for January. It’s something all first year PhD students in sociology at the University of Warwick have to do, and it’s a nice way to introduce your thesis to the other students, as well as helping formulate your own plans. I’ve started to put the bulk of it into MS PowerPoint but decided I’d have a little play about with Prezi, which is great for adding a few neat visual touches and is far more flexible than PowerPoint.

After trying a couple of their pre-formatted designs I decided I’d search for a suitable background image. I first typed in something general like ‘digital maps’ and ‘map game boards’ because I wanted to re-create the sequential format Prezi seems to like, with arrows and frames and also play on the urban exploration side of mapping. Then I had a bit of a brainwave and searched for some Situationist artworks/maps; the perfect combination of maps, play and ‘flow’. The classic image of the cut-out map segments with red arrows darting from section to section seemed perfect (see a selection here). Alas, I couldn’t find an image with a good enough resolution for the levels of zooming Prezi requires so I had to ditch them.

Then I came across a post on the [polis] blog on the Moscow Occupy movement. Their main picture was an image by Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys (1920 – 2005). Taken from his New Babylon project, the image was part of a selection of “models, sketches, etchings, lithographs, collages, architectural drawings, and photocollages, as well as …manifestos, essays, lectures, and films” (Wigley 1998; text available here) that together formed a utopian vision of an anti-capitalist city. His work was strongly interconnected with the Situationists of the 1950s/60s.

In two, perhaps not so, coincidental moves I found a translation of an interview with Henri Lefebvre on Nieuwenhuys, Guy Debord and the Situationists, and also a reference to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga and his homo ludens concept. Nieuwenhuys wanted his utopian city to be populated with the ‘playing man’ (homo ludens) in opposition to the ‘bourgeois shackles’ (Goldhagen 2006; direct link) the working man had to contend with in the modern city.

A subsequent image I found from Nieuwenhuys’ same New Babylon project was perfect for the background to my presentation. Good quality and a perfect colour scheme (here). Close up I think it looks like either a microscopic image of a biological cell or a computer circuit board. It also gives me an opportunity to pick out individual elements in the collage (as I think it originally was) and link them into the different sections in the presentation.

If you want to know a little bit more about Constant himself there’s an interview by Linda Boersma at the art magazine BOMB here from 2005. I’d like to think my attempts to introduce the digital map (and mobile device) as a ‘new terrain’ for situationist-style explorations draws on some of themes Constant envisaged in New Babylon.