The girl was wearing short shorts, which many of the Xiamen Vacations younger Western travellers in China seem to wear, not realising how this offends the local people’s Xiamen Vacations customs. What kind of Chinese woman would walk with bare thighs in public? I didn’t want to share Dali with these people, and since I felt exhausted and irritable (I had developed a cough which grew worse and it kept me awake at nights) I decided to rest for two days in bed. The hotel in Dali had rats and its facilities were almost non-existent, but it was friendly and in the street behind it was the public bathhouse, which has marble baths. In the little I saw of Dali when I ventured out for a bath or a hot meal, much of the town seemed to be made of marble. Even some sidewalks and bridges are made of it. My sickness got worse; my bones ached and I felt hot with fever.
The Role of the Micro Intervention
Not everything has to be on a grand urban scale to improve a city. Every scale matters for the city experience. Cities are collections of neighbourhoods in which street, park or building scales preoccupy the inhabitants. Hence, small scale creative interventions in the existing fabric of a city can have a significant positive impact on urban spaces at a neighbourhood level. The ugly flyover, the freeway, the derelict warehouse, the grimy housing estate; all of these and many more have been brought spontaneously to life in many cities with art forms ranging from graffiti and murals, to performance and digital projection. Figures 6 and 7 show two examples of temporary interventions in the laneways of Sydney. These were created by the author, working with his UrbanAid group at the University of Technology Sydney in 2009 and 2010. Narrow laneways made these two projects possible, along with a festival and a launch party. The laneways were narrow for all sorts of reasons but the nature of the urban fabric is critical to the success of an intervention and can be planned for. Once again, even at this scale the urban task is in designing the conditions to allow creativity to happen.
Figure 6: The Janus installation project in a laneway in the Rocks, Sydney, 2009. A six-metre-tall face made of solar-powered LED lights was suspended from a gantry and the expression of the face was based on selfphotographs of passersby using emotion recognition software. Part of the Sydney Vivid/Smartlight festival. Image: Tom Barker.
Figure 7: Rare window installation project in Temperance Lane, Sydney, 2010. A replica wall of a house with a window was constructed above a laneway. Video projection showed a couple acting out a range of domestic situations through the window. Part of the Grasshopper Bar launch. Image: Tom Barker.
Political will is usually necessary to support micro-interventions and to help overcome red tape and excessive health and safety zeal. A key challenge is how to avoid a culture of pop-up’ spaces which can carry a similar burden of design, planning and execution as a permanent intervention. Permanence fosters a culture of contagious space activation which can be seen even with basic graffiti in cities, even if it is not always welcome. Digital technologies have great promise at this scale as prices fall and audiences become increasingly familiar with interactivity. A micro-urban renaissance in new media art could be one consequence.