I am moving

Looking for more about me, Rohan Quinby? Or maybe you want to find out about my new book, Time and the Suburbs, published this Autumn with Arbeiter Ring Press. You can do both at my new website: www.rohanquinby.com which will also feature galleries of my most recent photography!

Unbuilding: an exhibit of photography

What is unbuilding?

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I use the term to describe the way contemporary suburban and exurban built environments succumb to processes of decay. Instead of seeing such decay as external or entropic, I believe the way we construct our new “urbanisms” determines the manner in which they unbuild themselves. It is important to see that our urban spaces do not simply degrade naturally; instead, they decay in particular ways, in response to the social and cultural environments in which they are situated. What we do determines how our cities, and the things within them, come apart.

Unlike more traditional urban spaces, contemporary urbanism in America strives to build a complete social and material environment ready-made. These spaces are a universal environment of space and time, completely dedicated to ideas of fear and security, as well as to consumption and the automobile. Such environments prove to be relatively brittle and do not adapt well to new uses or cultural practices. As a result, particular patterns of decay and neglect set in, defining the look and feel of the contemporary United States.

My photographs are therefore an exploration of the ways in which our built environments “unbuild” themselves. In my work I try to answer the question of how a place like Nashville unbuilds itself in response to high rates of poverty, violence, and an overwhelming dependence on the car. When we walk through our built environment, we begin to see – and feel – how much degradation and waste there is in this terrain we call home. What is invisible from the car becomes palpable on foot. These spaces – and this decay – can only exist because of the way we live.


Picturing the disassembly of our built environment:
An exhibition of photography by Rohan Quinby
January 4 – 31 @ Sip Café
1402 McGavock Pike Nashville, TN 37216

Music, Violence, and Nashville, Tennessee

(Note: this is a modified version of an article that appeared in the 2008 edition of the Canadian magazine ArtsNet)

Poor Ellen Smith how was she found
Shot through the heart lying cold on the ground
Her clothes were all scattered and thrown on the ground
The blood marks the spot where poor Ellen was found

Stanley Brothers: “Poor Ellen Smith”

Gallatin Pike Road runs from just outside downtown Nashville out through Madison, Wilson and Sumner Counties in Middle Tennessee. Closer into town, it’s a wide treeless street edged by shabby low-slung buildings set back from the road to allow for easy parking. Adult video stores, discount liquor outlets and gas stations struggle for business alongside auto repair shops and plain-looking churches. Here and there, blank big box storefronts – some open and some closed – float on seas of empty asphalt. Like many other streets running through Nashville’s poorer neighbourhoods, Gallatin Road can be dangerous.

On the night of October 8, 2007, 14 year-old Rodzell Mason entered a small grocery just off Gallatin and asked 70 year-old Classie Wilson, the store’s owner, to sell him some cigarettes. When she refused, the boy left the store, returning a short time later with a gun he had found at home. Mason and Wilson exchanged shots and within moments, Classie Wilson was dead. The tragic murder received much attention, revealing in a brief moment of media scrutiny Nashville’s high rate of violent crime and its distinction of being one of the more dangerous places to live in the U.S. for a city its size.

But Gallatin Road is pretty far from the suburban-like setting of Nashville’s Music Row. Here, close by the leafy campuses of this city’s private universities, the business of music takes place. The studios, publishing houses and management agencies on Music Row trade on Nashville’s iconic status as Music City, the place where legends of American country music built careers by taking a rural white musical idiom from the backwoods of the South and turning it into one of the defining cultural expressions of the United States. This mythical city attracts worldwide attention as a recording industry centre. If you are serious about a career as a musician or a songwriter, whether your style encompasses bluegrass, country, Americana or roots, you have probably thought about coming to Nashville to get noticed or simply to imbibe this city’s heritage of music.

On the interstates and highways that slice through the city’s neighbourhoods, it’s an easy drive to the venues that everyone in the business has heard about: The Bluebird Café, safely hidden in a suburban strip-mall, or the Grand Ole Opry, part of a shopping-mall theme park on the other side of town. Up on the interstates, however, it’s less easy to recognize any connection between the music that makes this city famous and the extreme violence saturating this part of the world. Now that I live in Nashville, I’ve begun to feel it is worth thinking through what it means to emulate the musical myths and legends that inhabit the city. After having been beaten and robbed myself, I have begun to wonder what it is we are doing when we take up a musical tradition so deeply infused with violence.

Sensing the link between violence, music and this part of the South shouldn’t be difficult. After all, tales of revenge and murder comprise the mythic core of old-time, bluegrass and much country music, part of a tradition stretching back to the music’s anglo-irish roots. But if we think only of the music’s past, we may miss the way it functions in the present. We may fail to understand why it is this music continues to circulate around tropes of honour, the killing of women, vengeance and murder. Perhaps it is here that myth and legend stand in our way, directing our attention to the past, rather than letting us see the way the music is a part of the present. Myth and legend aren’t simply untruths. Instead, I think they are stories that try to make sense of things that are true, in this case, exclusion, murder, injustice and fear.

What you need to know is that violence here is palpable. It hangs in the air like the humid mist that gathers over the suburban streets in the evening. It is a force capable of shaping buildings, roads and public life. It is something so powerful it can tear apart lives and communities. Violence in my neighbourhood is a fuel, a motive force for fear and a terrible separation of human beings from one another. It is a heritage stretching back to the murder and expropriation of this region’s indigenous peoples to the imposition of slavery and the bloody mayhem of the Civil War. Violence has its roots in Jim Crow laws and the official segregation of whites and blacks that is a living memory for millions of people today. Violence persists in the poverty, ill-health and lack of opportunity that still afflicts African-Americans living in the South. None of this is a myth. Not on Gallatin Road.

When I first arrived in Nashville I’d sit on my porch with a guitar and play music from the area: tunes from Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, and others. I was excited to live on the same streets where many of these musicians lived and played. But more and more, I am uncomfortable with what the music represents. This feeling of discomfort is not simply about the history of a genre; instead, it is a response to the way that American stories about mythical violence function in the present. There is nothing mythical about the American tendency to choose violence and murder as a way of life. This violence has a history, and it is sustained on a daily basis to the detriment of millions of vulnerable people. There’s nothing about this I want to celebrate in the music I play.

When he comes

All evening, rockets have shot into the sky, exploding above the old city with crackling bangs. Sometimes they are far enough away that grey blooms of smoke appear in the air before the report smashes over the hills. Other times, they are shot from close by, so that you feel the whine terminate with an explosion that rattles glass. Whether the rockets have to do with the elections taking place in the next few days, or if they are part of some festival, we are not certain. Around us, patios and rooftops are strewn with gardens and laundry; below these, leafy courtyards and porticos are filled with more laundry and gloom. Aside from the rockets and the disturbed barking of dogs, everything is mostly quiet. In the night, the bright colours of the houses have faded, and the mountains surrounding Oaxaca have diminished into smudges of impossible darkness. After spending most of the evening under a large portico crammed with bougainvillea, cactus and other, more unknowable plants, we have decided to go to bed. Somewhere, despite the late hour, we can hear band music start up nearby.

“They’re coming down the street!” whispers Lisa, and quickly we are out of bed, moving to the portico again. As soon as the doors open shrill trumpets crash in from the narrow street below, along with wailing clarinets and the smash of cymbals and drums. Lisa runs out from under the portico onto the terrace to look down at the source of the noise, but I cannot, because alas, I am wearing only underwear. Over the edge of the terrace, a white light grows in strength and pushes out the dark; in its centre a man appears with a black beard, dressed in long white robes. He stands before a white satin banner with words we cannot read.

Without expression, the ghostly Jesus passes by, sometimes staggering as his float moves over irregular stony pavements. Around him are the faces of his celestial band, thronged together with their trumpets and clarinets flashing and disappearing in the electric light. Following behind Jesus come two enormous illuminated effigies, their heads bobbing as if in slow motion. One wears a top hat, and his giant bright head nods approvingly as his partner, in a brilliant white dress and yellow hair, moves beside him. Behind the effigies is a small line of cars and trucks filled with more people, moving slowly now as Jesus encounters some difficulty with a sharp turn just ahead.

Within minutes, the procession has passed around the curve and disappeared. The music continues, then fades, and here and there a rocket crashes into the sky. All I want to do is follow Jesus as he makes his way through the streets of this ancient city, to listen to the music of his band, and to walk with him past barking dogs and glad families standing in dark courtyards. But I cannot. When Jesus comes, make sure you have your pants on, because otherwise, you’ll miss out on everything.

Christmas and the Inner State

I am thinking there was a time when the hills around Nashville were indistinct enough. The problem is that you can drive in any direction out of town not knowing if you are on the right interstate or expressway. Searching the geography on either side of the massive roadways does not help, because the low serrations of wooded hills and valleys of one part of this city’s Metro area are indistinguishable from those of any other. Nashville’s concentric suburban sprawl offers little in the way of landmarks; massive prefabricated malls and warehouses look the same on the I-65, the Four-forty or the Twenty-four. A suburb of vinyl houses on the way to Murfreesburo looks pretty much the same as anything in the direction of Ashland City or Springfield. No matter which direction you travel, there is nothing singular or unique in the landscape to help tell where you are.

But as formless as Nashville’s landscape might have appeared to me before, it is not as featureless as what we see now. Lisa is in the passenger seat and I am driving, pushing our dirty white Toyota through the indistinct real estate of northern Georgia. With each mile, it becomes more apparent that whatever might have characterised these hills at one time was obliterated long ago. The land is vast and empty, save for occasional clots of uniform, prefabricated hotels and fast food chains that choke the exits to the interstate. We are on our way to Florida, where Lisa’s parents are spending Christmas in a gated community in Fort Myers, the current foreclosure capital of the U.S. This is not the Christmas either of us had wished for, but we tell ourselves that at least we will be in sunny Florida, and there is the added attraction of abandoned bank buildings, empty strip malls and vacant condominiums. Despite the recession, the asphalt is strung for miles with others leaving the cold Midwest for the Holidays.

Without intended irony, Americans drop the first “t” when they say the word “interstate”, thus situating this network of Eisenhower-era highways at the centre of the country’s psychic structure. As a key to interpreting the United States, the image works; most obviously, there is the empty formlessness of movement and consumption that has always fascinated people in America. The significance of the interstates also resonates in the present, a time when the routes are dominated by long chains of semi-trailers taking plastic goods from China, circulating them to the thousands of outsized big-box stores that surround towns and cities. The roads are a moving index of this trade, with names like Walmart, Lowes, Big Lots and others, painted in huge letters on the sides of the many shipping containers. There is also the transport of food, and here the graphics on the trucks are snappier. Often these trailers are decorated with enormous depictions of ground beef or other cuts of raw meats, attractively arranged. Sometimes a picture of a gargantuan table of cheddar or mozzarella or some other mass dairy food product rattles by at eighty or ninety miles an hour, followed by a rendering of a selection of uniformly soft and crustless breads. Last of all, a truck filled with soft drinks speeds on, and the moveable illustration of the American diet is complete.

As important as the transport of these goods might be to the country’s life, driving the interstates at the end of this century’s first decade reveals the central position of war in American consciousness. From time to time it is possible to glimpse an occasional town spread out along the highway, and sometimes, in a square or park, city fathers have erected some relic of a forgotten war.  In this town, there is a rusting nuclear missile; in another, a tank or jet fighter. On the roads themselves, an overwhelming number of the many hundreds of SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans that pass us bear bumper stickers declaring how much this country’s history of militarism has impacted the lives of so many people. Veterans of different wars display certain coloured ribbons; disabled and wounded veterans also have their own colours to choose from. Families with relatives serving overseas have theirs. I do not know for certain if there is a ribbon for those who have lost someone; I have not seen one yet. Perhaps here, at the moment of the most singular and irredeemable loss, the crass commingling of grief and display of support for foreign intervention ends. I would like to think so, but I have been surprised before at how publicly, and how inextricably, Americans live their emotional and military lives.

Around us, evening is falling. The sky is boiling with bright pinks, corals and fuscia. Here too, somewhere north of Tifton, Georgia, a large proportion of the billions of dollars in stimulus money is being spent. As the light fades, we find ourselves squeezed between concrete barriers and different road construction signs and equipment. At this hour, the fatigue of the many drivers begins to show; ahead of us, a semi careens wildly, narrowly avoiding collision with other trucks. Beside us, a trailer drags a chain along the road that sends sparks flying into the air. As the conditions get worse, we switch off the talk radio we’ve been listening to for the last several hours. It is entertaining enough to listen to Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter when the roads are clear, but as the stakes get higher, these voices become unbearable. Above us, the sky on either side of the interstate is blocked by an unending succession of massive illuminated billboards, all dozens of metres in the air and each the size of the largest shipping container you could possibly imagine. There are advertisements for restaurants and shops that are literally hundreds of miles away; there are ads for gun shops, massage parlours and churches next to signs with biblical passages or billboards that rail against abortion. Alongside them all, the night is overcome by hundreds of blank, illuminated signs advertising nothing but advertising space.

The next evening we arrive in Fort Myers, pulling off the interstate into that city’s unending swamp of speculation and suburban sprawl. The busless roads are choked with Christmas shopping traffic, and it takes a good deal of time to get past the hundreds of prefab stores and malls to Cinnamon Cove, the gated community where Lisa’s parents are staying for the winter. It is exactly as you might expect, and I will not spend any time describing this featureless place for you. We are exhausted, and after a few drinks Lisa and I fall asleep to the frogless and cricketless silence. Sometime in the middle of the night we are awakened by a terrible stench of sewage so powerful that we can hardly breathe. Lisa tries to shut the window but the smell is everywhere, maybe all over Cinnamon Cove and beyond. Laughing, I ask Lisa not to shut the window, because it is too perfect. Here, just before Christmas, the shit is general throughout America.

Time and the City: Exhibit @ Cafe Le Zigoto

Photographs by Rohan Quinby

Le Zigoto Café
5731 ave. du Parc
Montreal, Quebec
10 July – 30 August


new york: spectre

What is the relationship of cities to time? How do cities contain time? How do they express temporality? These are some of the questions I have tried to address in this series of photographs, taken in New York, Dublin, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Vancouver and Montreal. My understanding of urban temporality comes in part from my reading of the great urban theorist Lewis Mumford. Mumford viewed the city as both a material and immaterial container; as such, cities possess the capacity to contain different experiences of temporality. Beyond Mumford’s vision of a simple co-presence of different times, his conception of urban space opens the possibility of times other than the dead, repetitive time of contemporary capitalism. It is an analysis suggesting the development of multiple times within the urban container, times exceeding contemporary capitalism’s apparatuses of capture.

Prints may be purchased for $100.00 cdn each on photographic paper, $175 on canvas.

Email me for more information.

new york: organic time

new york: organic time


barcelona: house of spirits

barcelona: house of spirits


jacques cartier

montreal: jacques cartier


chicago: stratigraphy

chicago: stratigraphy


barcelona: veiled

barcelona: veiled


hong kong: presenting chungking

hong kong: presenting chungking


dublin: remembrance

dublin: remembrance


montreal: summer

montreal: summer


barcelona: shroud

barcelona: shroud

Time against Space

When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle. But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught. (Debord, Thesis 9)

Henri Lefebvre broke new ground in urban theory by giving an analytical priority to the consideration of space. Reacting against the overwhelming emphasis on time and history prevalent in critical philosophy at the time, Lefebvre’s work appeared to indicate that capitalist appropriation of space was a key source of alienation in contemporary life. Although he had been Lefebvre’s pupil and was his friend, Debord differed with Lefebvre on the significance of time within the urban order, arguing that despite the importance of space, the principle source of capitalist domination lay in “the spectacle’s seizure and denigration of history and memory”. For Debord, the abstraction of space was a moment of a much larger process; that of capital’s establishment of a universal and equivalent time of the commodity. Demonstrating both the proximity and divergences between Lefebvre and Debord, Merrifield writes that “Lefebvre had brought the commodity form to bear on everyday life, and extended abstract time (value) to incorporate abstract space; now, suggested Debord, everyday abstract space was but one aspect of the spectacle itself”.

The difference between the two writers turns upon Debord’s critique of production as it appears within class society. While Lefebvre produces a sophisticated analysis of the production of space, Debord shows that the production of time is an intrinsic aspect of capital itself. Beginning with the temporal experience of pre-capitalist societies, Debord sees the social appropriation of time as fundamental to domination. As he writes: “the class which organizes the social labor and appropriates the limited surplus value, simultaneously appropriates the temporal surplus value of its organization of social time: it possesses for itself alone the irreversible time of the living” (Thesis 128). Whereas pre-capitalist society expropriated the time of living labour openly, either through coercion of force or tradition, the great achievement of capitalism is that it manages to build the appropriation of time into the process of production itself, albeit invisibly. As David Harvey writes, time “is a vital magnitude under capitalism because social labor time is the measure of value and surplus social labor time lies at the origin of profit” (1989 p 425). Thus hidden within the cloak of production, the advantage to capital is that it accumulates surplus labour-time voluntarily, without recourse to constant coercion. To manage this, however, capital must organise all time so that it reflects the logic of equivalence that is the very secret of commodity production. Debord writes that:

The time of production, commodity-time, is an infinite accumulation of equivalent intervals. It is the abstraction of irreversible time, all of whose segments must prove on the chronometer their merely quantitative equality. This time is in reality exactly what it is in its exchangeable character. In this social domination by commodity-time, “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (Poverty of Philosophy). This is time devalued, the complete inversion of time as “the field of human development.” (Thesis 147)

Capitalism thus replaces cyclical times of traditional societies with its own ordering of time, one characterised by the positing of an homogenous temporal “direction” or linearity to the flow of time itself. By irreversibility, Debord means to indicate that capital struggles to impose a unified time over the entire field of social subjectivity, thus annihilating any other temporal order that might threaten the domination of capital. The accumulation of abstract, empty and exchangeable time becomes the teleology of capitalist progress, and history becomes capitalist history: all other conceptions of time are swept before the onset of capitalist commodity production.

With the development of capitalism, irreversible time is unified on a world scale. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is gathered under the development of this time. But this history, which is everywhere simultaneously the same, is still only the refusal within history of history itself. What appears the world over as the same day is the time of economic production cut up into equal abstract fragments. (Thesis 145)

Despite the unprecedented force and clarity of his thesis, it could be argued that there is little at this point to distinguish Debord’s analysis of temporality from the writing of Lefebvre or even, should one look carefully enough, from that of Marx himself in the Grundrisse. But it is exactly here that Debord strikes out in an entirely new direction, one that will have significance for our understanding of the relation between capitalism, temporality and the city. As we saw above, one of Debord’s great insights is to recognise that the nature of the capitalist order has changed fundamentally from what it was in Marx’s day. Now, Henri Lefebvre was also attentive to the transformation of capitalism in the late 20th century, but situated this transformation in the emergence of an urban order. Debord, on the other hand, argues that it is the appearance of the spectacle that defines contemporary capitalism. While this distinction might appear simple, in reality it is more complicated than it seems. The Society of the Spectacle links the advent of the spectacular order to the development of the modern capitalist city, and as a result, it might appear as though Debord and Lefebvre have simply arrived at different ways of expressing the same thing. However, the consequence of Debord’s position is that he sees the urban as a spatialisation of the spectacular order, so much so that it is the spectacle’s logic and temporal structure that determines urban reality in late capitalism.

What is most innovative about Debord’s approach is that he is not simply arguing that it is the temporal logic of the classic commodity that determines the physical landscape of the urban. Were this the case, we would need only understand the temporality of classical commodity production in order to grasp the way in which urban space conforms to, and reproduces, the domination of capital. Such an approach fits within the scope of much traditional marxist political economy, concerned as it is with the analysis of the temporal rhythms of capital. It might even be argued that much of David Harvey’s urban geography proceeds in this direction; that is, despite his careful understanding of both space and time, in essence his work imports temporality through the deployment of classical marxist political economy. In his 1973 Social Justice and the City as well as in his 1985 Consciousness and Urban Experience, Harvey exhaustively analyses the relational character of time and space as it relates to urban geography through a deft grasp of marxist economics. While I am certainly not arguing against this method of approach, I am saying that we need to be careful that our understanding of political economy keeps pace with transformations of late capitalism. The strength of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle is that it develops our understanding of marxist political economy and the temporality of capitalism by positing the spectacle as a new form of the commodity, one that modifies the conditions of capitalist production and temporality.

As an illustration of the specificity of this spectacular time, let us turn now to a final aspect of Debord’s work, one having to do with his account of how capital struggles to impose its temporality upon all of social life. For Debord, the imposition of capitalist time is akin to a form of “primitive accumulation” or expropriation. However, once capital asserts its social and temporal dominance, it begins the work of returning carefully delimited temporality to the producers in a manner that is more complex than the simple imposition of abstract and homogenous time discussed above. How does it work? Debord understands that this gift of time is not given freely by capital. Rather, as capitalism passes beyond the era of basic industrial manufacture, producers must be gradually converted into consumers. Debord writes that,

The preliminary condition required for propelling workers to the status of “free” producers and consumers of commodity time” was the violent expropriation of their own time. The spectacular return of time became possible only after this first dispossession of the producer. (Thesis 159)

In the section titled “Spectacular Time,” Debord notes that, with the full development of the spectacular society, a particular form of cyclical time is re-introduced into the temporal experience of capitalism. According to Conrad Russell, “in the ‘spectacle’, linear ‘commodity time’ acquires a cyclical double. The surviving rhythms of everyday life do not ‘hang in tatters’ – they are reconstructed as commodified products. As abstract and homogeneous as commodity time itself, they constitute its ‘consumable disguise’” (Russell 2002, p 198). Thus, in addition to abstract and homogenous commodity time, the spectacular order imposes what Debord calls “pseudo-cyclical” time, a time that corresponds to the temporality of the spectacle and one that therefore helps define urban terrain. Reading Debord, it is not difficult to see how the temporal order of spectacular time maps out onto our contemporary urban areas:

Consumable pseudo-cyclical time is spectacular time, both as the time of consumption of images in the narrow sense, and as the image of consumption of time in the broad sense. The time of image-consumption, the medium of all commodities, is inseparably the field where the instruments of the spectacle exert themselves fully, and also their goal, the location and main form of all specific consumption… The social image of the consumption of time, in turn, is exclusively dominated by moments of leisure and vacation, moments presented at a distance and desirable by definition, like every spectacular commodity. Here this commodity is explicitly presented as the moment of real life, and the point is to wait for its cyclical return. What was represented as genuine life reveals itself simply as more genuinely spectacular life. (Debord, Thesis 153)