Night and the city

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McGill Reporter
March 22, 2001 - Volume 33 Number 13
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Night and the city

It was the last event of the four-day "Night and the City" conference: a Sunday night screening of Fritz Lang's 1931 dark film classic M, complete with live musical accompaniment. The evening drew a capacity crowd into the tiny room that is Casa de Popolo.

Photo PHOTO: Pil Joo

Faced with a malfunctioning VCR, Anthony Kinik raced out of the hipster haven in search of a replacement. It was night, and it was very much the city, but windsprinting through Mile End probably wasn't what Kinik had in mind when he signed on board as one of "Night and the City's" chief organizers. It was the beginning, he later recalled, of one of those nights that stretches into morning.

"Night and the City: An Interdisciplinary Conference on the Nocturnal Side of City Life" (March 15-18) was the brainchild of Kinik and Geoff Stahl, both PhD students in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies. A shared interest in the urban night sparked what was supposed to be "a fairly small project," explains Kinik, "but the interest was high enough that it grew rapidly.

"Once the idea had been proposed, we were both excited about it and we went to Will [communications professor Will Straw, their department's graduate program director]. A lot of his interests are both urban and nocturnal," he laughs, "so he was behind the project from the get-go.

"We started to bounce the idea off of people, and realized there might be a fairly wide interest. We liked the fact that there might be something that would attract non-academics as well as academics."

A preliminary call for papers was sent out last May, but what really fired up interest in the conference were strategic postings to academic listservs.

Kinik says the listservs drew almost immediate international response, reflected in the conference's final roster which included academics from the U.K., France and Finland (as well as a healthy showing from McGill and other Canadian schools).

Given that the conference's compelling theme "seemed to have an interdisciplinary component built into it," Kinik says he was expecting a wide array of papers but "was certainly surprised that the proposals were as wide afield as they were."

He cites one of the Saturday morning panels, "The 24 Hour City," as an example of the conference's diversity. Four papers were presented, showcasing four very different approaches to night and the city: An examination of how 24-hour online trading is redefining the 9-to-5 financial world's traditional ideas of "night" and "day" (Petra Mueller, Concordia University); "hyperkitsch" in Las Vegas (Clara Irazabal, University of California at Berkeley); the public battle over London's Soho district as a sleepless party zone (Chris Turner, University of Westminster); and how the 1999 bombings of Yugoslav cities dramatically changed people's attitudes toward the urban experience (Olivera Jokic, University of Texas at Arlington).

"That was maybe the most challenging panel in terms of the sheer range of topics covered," says Kinik, "but on some level, it worked. It was interesting to take those kinds of chances."

All told, over 50 papers were presented, making an exhaustive list of "Night and the City" highlights impossible. Instead, what follows is but a taste of the conference.

Appropriately for Montreal, several papers looked at various aspects of clubbing: the commodification and regulation of "post-rave" culture (Bill Blackstock, Jr., Concordia University), race politics in the U.K. club Mecca once lovingly nicknamed "Madchester" (Martina Boese, Manchester Metropolitan University), and the roots of techno and house musics as the soundtrack of inner-city urban decay (Enda Brophy, Carleton University).

Revitalization, a hot topic in many cities, was represented with looks at New York City's freshly scrubbed Times Square (Bart Eeckhout, Ghent University) and the changing face of what James Joyce's Ulysses immortalized as Dublin's "Nighttown" (Gary A. Boyd, University College Dublin).

Mareike Barmeyer (Manchester Metropolitan University/York University) reframed late-night phone-in radio programs not as the fringe realm of nutbars, but as acts of intimacy between alienated strangers. And of course, night time just wouldn't be complete without a blast of film noir; Zoë Druick (Trent University) put a quintessentially Canadian spin on the topic by unearthing File 1365, a 1947 National Film Board documentary infused with gritty noir sensationalism.

From a sheer "name-brand" perspective, the conference's highlight had to have been the keynote address by Mike Davis. Currently teaching at SUNY Stony Brook, Davis is the author of several books which draw both an academic and popular readership, including City of Quartz, his landmark 1990 treatise on Los Angeles.

Davis's "pop cred," as it were, is solid: William Gibson has called his writings "more cyberpunk than any work of fiction" and Gen-X guru Douglas Coupland cribbed heavily from City of Quartz in his non-fiction book Polaroids from the Dead.

Dressed in plaid workshirt and jeans, face framed by a seamless flow of grey brush cut and beard, Davis looked every bit the role of truckdriver turned urban theoretician when he took the podium in New Chancellor Day Hall's nearly packed Moot Court. His lecture, "Bad as the H-Bomb: Hot Rod Riots and the Origins of the New Left," delivered the same minutiae-woven, two-fisted prose his readers have come to expect.

Davis drew upon his own experiences as a teenage greaser as he led the audience through the hot-rod riots of the early '60s, an unsung period in which thousands of Southern California kids took to the streets to protest the prohibition of dragstrip racing.

Although at the time it was merely "the bitchinest thing that's ever happened," Davis argued that the kids' surfer-inspired yet largely inarticulate unrest was a key influence upon later upheavals (such as the Watts Riot) and the beginning of the quest for "an autonomous realm within the urban night" that he believes is so central to the urban makeup of Los Angeles.

"We were incredibly fortuitous," says Kinik of his and Stahl's experience putting together the conference. "There was a lot of chance that came together nicely for us." That said, something in his voice suggests that his next few nights in the city will be spent catching some serious sleep.

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