Saturday, May 1, 2010

Between Gent and Dampoort with Rain, May Day Part #2

See May Day Part #1 for the first part of this entry:

I spent the rest of May Day wandering around the outskirts of the city exploring the line between the old part of Gent and an area known as Dampoort. One has to cross two bridges to get to this neighborhood and it immediately feels like you are entering a different city. A very mild version of the adage “the other side of the tracks.” In between the two there is a strip of overgrown green space full of trash and brambles. Today there were scattered rainstorms that kept many people in doors and those that came out were downtown celebrating May Day. As a result my no-mans-land between Gent and Dampoort was practically deserted. The solitude felt strange because open spaces in Gent are very out of the ordinary. It turns out that Belgium is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. This density is not the same as what I imagine Tokyo or Mexico City to be, but nevertheless it produces a pervasive sensation that feels quite different than the spaciousness that I am used to in California. It is subtle but one gets the feeling that you are surrounded by lots of people. It is difficult to find truly private moments when in the city. This creates an interesting effect on the people of Gent. I am reluctant to write about this phenomenon because I think it is naive when a traveler goes someplace and starts “pointing” at what is unfamiliar. However what I experiencing is directly related to my current research and art projects so it seems relevant (go here to read details about current research: So the following writing is not meant to be a judgment. My intention is to simply process and share what I have been observing and experiencing.

Each day as I walk around the city I am almost completely ignored. Say, for example, I am walking down a quiet street and someone is walking towards me. As this man or women passes by I look at them and say “hello.” and the person walks by as if I am not there. At first I thought I was imagining things, because I am a sensitive little guy, but it kept happening. I really had to make a strong attempt for anyone to even look at me when outside in public and if I did receive notice I was looked at as if I was crazy. After about a week of this, I asked two of the people who work at Vooruit if I was imagining things. To my relief they said no. I asked if this is a thing specific to Gent and they both told me that it was a Belgium thing. I asked them why but they couldn’t tell me but they were both quite friendly and open to discussion. So as I have been walking around the city feeling hedged in by all the invisible people it occurred that perhaps this cold, public, aloofness manifests as a result of density of the country. In a crowded place people crave public privacy and since it is difficult to physically find in Gent the citizen’s retreat to a mental public privacy by ignoring the people around them. The citizens of Gent seem to be experts at creating very subtle public privacy. Who knows...I am probably just projecting myself on to what I am observing, because isolation seems to be a recurring theme in my work (go here to learn more about this isolation:

Nevertheless, over the past two days this public isolation from the people of Gent and the foreboding, subtle discomfort that I was experiencing from being in a densely populated place had me searching for places in the city were one could be alone. Often I would find small sitting areas in the middle of the city that were disserted, but yet I still felt coldly, crowded. As I kept looking I started following the paths of the rivers and canals that cut through the city. Periodically there will be staircases that lead down from the street to docks and walkways that straddle the river. Sometimes an alley from a major street will end in a small staircase that leads directly into the water. And, in these walkways and redundant staircases I finally found that quiet spaces. I felt immediately at ease and no longer coldly, hedged in. Often the walkways are dirty and unkept, drastically contrasting the clean and tidy feeling of the rest of the city. Boats are tied to the sides of the cannel in a haphazard fashion and look as if they have not been moved in 20 years. As I walked, climbed and straddled my way along edges of the cannel I found other people finding relief from the throngs of tourists and students in the river’s secret walkways. A young boy sneaking a cigarette on tiny staircase nestled between two ancient buildings at the waters edge. Three teenage boys sitting on a dirty walkway looking awkwardly high and paranoid as I walked by. An old man watching the trash float by. When I would climb back up to the street level the sense of dense, invisibility would always return. In a word: “weird.”

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