On the Remarkability of Arcades

By Hiroki Ogasawara | Journal: Essay | published on 5 July, 2012

The Arcades series started as part of John L Tran’s 2006 PhD research into nostalgia in Japanese landscape imagery. It is now being expanded to cover sites in Europe and the United States.

‘The city writes its own script. Things are always much stranger than they seem’, wrote the London stroller and novelist Iain Sinclair (The Guardian, 14 July 2005). The written script, however, can be vocalized too as another distinctive novelist of the city John McGregor writes, ‘the city, it sings, so listen, there is more to hear’ (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Bloomsbury, 2002, pp. 1-2). The human faculties of sensing sight and sound can manage to capture not only what is going on inside the arcade but also something coming from the outer environment. On the one hand, the boundary is drawn by an explicitly physical separation and space is demarcated, separated from outside. However, the other case of the distinction between inside and outside, a more metaphorical one, matters here; that is, remembrance and oblivion, both in visual as well as sonic terms. Let us think about it for a while.

If Walter Benjamin was right in citing from Illustrated Guide to Paris in his unfinished Arcade Project (Passagenwerk), saying that ‘the arcade is a city, a world in miniature’, how does the arcade find itself writing its own script? What kind of script is it? And how can that script be discovered? The arcade as a city looks asleep when shops are closed and no one seems to be bothered to walk around. While there is nothing remarkable in those apparently sleepy corridors, the very familiarity of arcades generates something unfamiliar, a banal but hidden characteristic of the arcade as the place where a living act of remembrance and forgetting takes place. When shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants, bars, izakaya1 and karaoke boxes are all closed and shuttered, we know that we are actually escorted by what we have seen, or what we think we have known and memorised beforehand as they are. We need to mobilise the memory of them, as if the elegance of shops, the allure and diversity of a copious range of commodities are displayed along the passage way. We know that in daytime there are ‘exhibitions’ in which a variety of things, regardless of their value, form and style, are displayed to us all at once. A world is duplicated as miniature in an arcade, however, when the liveliness and glamour of the arcade are taken over by stillness, that transformation in turn illuminates what is otherwise unnoticeable; that is, the arcade itself as a distinctive space.

This profane illumination is to cast a light onto the spatial aspect, the exteriority of arcades that consists of their social function as a commercial device. A vibrant buzz, however artificial it may be, is conceived as a memory or a certain narrative that makes us remember what we think arcades are like. Thus we reside inside the dominant narrative of the arcade. On the other hand, at night, or after closing time, the arcade that is not always memorised as such, will emerge outside of our conventional memory of what we think arcades are like. This is profane illumination that seeks for the outside story but also carries with it the inside story.

Oscillating between the inside of our conventional thinking of arcades and its outside, between memory and oblivion in other words, those arcades can perhaps be read as a projection of a kind of melancholia. The arcades in Tran’s photo typology are mutually differentiated according to their respective contexts and locations where the shot was taken. However, they all have something in common; they give rise to the thought of what may/might have been these spaces, however temporarily and geographically distant. What may have been there, for instance, is a flow of customers and commuters. What might have been there, for another example, is a nostalgic Shōwa2 human-scape or a luxurious hyper-westernised shopping mall; a much longed-for symbol of modernity ... It is melancholic because, although nobody can be sure if memories are of actual events, the long-lost past is thought to exist. For some, it may be thought that the past is reincarnated in the arcade, while for others the never-accomplished process of westernisation is realised within the arcade. Desire, expectation or even misunderstanding is projected onto the contemporary appearance of arcades. Let us call this act of projection ‘urban melancholia’. To fill the gap between ever changing reality and melancholic desire, these arcades vary in their appearance from, for example, the periodical exhibition of late 19th century ruffian samurai to merely a route through which commuters pass, from a place that invokes a customers’ wonder to an apparently disused ghost-town like ruin. In any case one thing for sure is that a certain human-scape is imagined even if no human beings appear in these images. We turn to Benjamin once again;

“… only he who walks on the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and how, from  the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.”

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, Verso, 1979, p.50

Then, let us be a stroller and experience the commanding power that prevails in the city, from arcade to arcade, where the stroller, the flâneur, becomes a part of the very landscape where he walks, rather than being exterior to it. We pause to be individuals, being conceived within those corridors while reading out the hidden language inscribed on shuttered shops, pavements, decorations, or shop and commodity signs. We should pause to be individuals because we don’t merely create, by ourselves, the arcades. They are two-way streets, metaphorically, where the stroller creates and at the same time, is invited, either forcefully or gently, to stroll around by the environment. This is what I mean by pausing to be an individual. We can no longer be a solitary autonomous entity, masters of our own direction, once having found ourselves quietly surrounded by metal surfaces, marble pavements and glass roofs. We as strollers are in its ‘inside’. Arcades memorise, we don’t. That memory, however, is not merely a reflection of what was once experienced. Let us repeat that memory is not a mere re-production of the past. It is the re-incarnation of something that has been desired and wanted for some, or undesired and unwanted for others.

What Benjamin meant by ‘the power it commands’ came into existence in a totally different time-space environment from the arcades Benjamin wrote of in Passagenwerk. When a bomb exploded inside the number 30 bus at Tavistock Square on July 7th 2005, the driver, according to Iain Sinclair, ‘walked for seven miles, through the hallucination of London, deaf to the sound of the city, until he found himself in Acton. Geography was confused. His bus shouldn't have been in Tavistock Square. It had been diverted. Only walking, entering the dream, could repair the hurt’ (The Guardian, 14 July 2005). Here Sinclair doesn’t merely talk about physical pain, but the pain of remembrance as well. Pain does not disappear but could just only be frozen, be provisionally forgotten, for a certain length of time.

There is something parallel here with strolling through the arcades. Without bombs, without bloodshed, or without suicide attacks, walking through arcades thaws out once frozen memories. Arcades are a place where the negotiation between memory and forgetting occurs. Tran’s work provides us a chance to see this negotiation happening in spaces otherwise passed by as mere shopping malls.

  • 1. An izakaya is something between a bar and a restaurant where drinking and eating are of equal precedent.
  • 2. The Japanese historical period 1926 -1989; the duration of Emperor Hirohito’s reign.