Cities, Like Dreams

Hamzah Al Asadulloh

Picture this: it’s the weekend, you and your family have planned a nice weekend getaway but you’re stuck in traffic for hours--and everybody else seems to be going the same way as you. As you finally reach the toll gate and pay, the traffic only gets worse. You’ve spent too much time in the car, the kids are getting cranky, and your spouse starts to lose patience. Why does it take so much effort to have a good time? You remember visiting the city in your childhood, the cold climate instantly memorable. You don’t remember it being this crowded.

You have arrived in Bandung, Indonesia’s third most populous city, a favorite destination for Jakarta tourists. Built by Dutch colonizers for the affluent European population at the time, it has been dubbed the Paris of Java for its cooler mountain climate and trendy boutiques and restaurants. The reputation persevered through the decades thanks to huge pushes by the local government to bring in tourism, and later translating to a point of pride for Bandungites. The City of Flowers, as it is known, is quickly losing its small town charm, and it has Instagram to thank.

What is a city anyway? According to renowned urbanist Richard Sennett, it is “a human settlement in which strangers are likely to meet.” What better place than the third most populous city in the fourth most populous country in the world? With a metro population of 8 million, strangers are bound to meet all the time. And yet, experiencing a city like Bandung has evolved dramatically in recent years with the advent of social media, most notably Instagram: the city is experienced through the screen. This is especially true for weekend tourists who consume distorted images of the city via ‘influencers’. So widespread is this new mode of consumption, and so nefarious, it has altered the way people experience the city--making it more dispersed and tangled, mixing the virtual with the real. The name of the game is selfie tourism.

Scattered throughout the city (really, the entire country), establishments big and small scramble to find the most effective ways to appeal to these new masses, hungry for a background to pose in front of, or a spread of food to photograph and post, or a cafe to candidly look pensive in. This is selfie tourism. An industry so pernicious with alarming social, political, and ecological implications that no corner of the city is safe from being turned into a glorified selfie background. Image has become reality.

Bandung is part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network owing to its enormous creative industry and student city status. The romanticization of the city as a city of ideas, culture, and pretty things is regurgitated many times by local figures from celebrities to politicians--and Instagram only served to heighten this phenomenon. Real world consequences followed. In 2018, a then up and coming selfie theme park (in the spirit of Color Factory, Museum of Ice Cream et al) called Rabbit Town was caught in a storm of controversy as word of plagiarism started circulating on social media. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), a huge chunk of their exhibits were direct rip-offs from famous artworks ranging from Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Room to Chris Burden’s Urban Light.

The case of Rabbit Town is one of many examples in Indonesia where tourism hangs on its instagrammability--a term used widely here. The most astounding part is how much of it actually works. The hold that Instagram and its local influencers have on trends and consumption in Bandung is a testament to how incredibly easy it is to create new ‘experiences’ via warped images on Instagram. Instagram can be an incredibly powerful tool in deciding the future of a city like Bandung. Popular mayor-turned-governor and local starchitect Ridwan Kamil has utilized his online presence, including Instagram, to boost his image and shine a positive light on all his mayoral programs, despite repeated criticism from experts and concerned citizens. His impact on the city’s physical infrastructure during his 5-year tenure has been the most memorable: overhauling riversides, building skywalks, revamping huge areas of the city--all in a bid to increase tourism via instagrammability.

Other social media platforms contribute to this form of algorithmic urbanism. Countless twitter threads have been created, liked, retweeted, and shared by thousands of users all on the topic of instagrammable spaces in Bandung. TikTok is a hotbed for fun new experiences everyone should try. From cafes to hotels, theme parks to nature reserves, social media plays a huge role in disseminating the sheer amount of consumable spaces Bandung can offer, and continue to offer. Thanks to this ouroboros of supply and demand, the city is freefalling into a crisis: those who come to Bandung to pose in front of a heart-shaped frame are not the ones experiencing the brunt of overpopulation and rising living costs. Jakarta’s status as capital city and the country’s economic center allows for higher standards of living, while Bandung falls behind, making it cheap to spend money for Jakarta tourists. The city then becomes limited to 4 images per tweet, all glitzy airBnBs and colorful backdrops.

Then there’s Gojek, Indonesia’s poster Decacorn startup. A ride-hailing app very much like Uber but on motorcycles, its nationwide reach and near-legendary status in contemporary Indonesian society has made algorithmic urbanism all the more dominant. From allowing ease of travel from one point to another to food delivery, it has essentially become a database for consumable goods. Gojek has turned cities across the country into data points ready for consumption. Long gone is the visual representation of the city, this new medium compresses entire atlasses into one app.

What, then, is the city? An age-old question, perennially unanswerable--but what is the city if not multiplicities of human experiences and interactions? Indeed, a very diplomatic answer. However it ignores the complexities of nuances of social and political realities in a global south city such as Bandung. Class disparity is still a major problem in Indonesia; with only a few steps away from full-on casteism, the status quo demands the working class be servers for middle class life-enjoyers, the same ones who come to Bandung to take pretty pictures and eat at pretty restaurants and stay at pretty hotels. The ones providing those services however stay backstage. So who, then, gets to experience the city? While this line of thinking can get dangerously reductionist, it is an important question that anybody working with the built environment should consider. 

Coming back to Richard Sennett, he understands the public sphere’s traditional manifestation of the physical place as being challenged, alluding to Jurgen Habermas’ conception of the public sphere as one that facilitates the free flow of information between strangers. All this is materializing in and around cities like Bandung, where its online images are slowly replacing its physical reality in the nation’s collective psyche via the internet, a shared cyberspace defying space and time. Interdisciplinary and multimedia conceptions of the city are therefore becoming more urgent if we are to properly understand the city in the information age. Several practices on media and the built environment have been conducted with fascinating outcomes.

Multidisciplinary design studio Space Popular’s exhibition at the RIBA titled Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media has started to look at mass media’s massive impact on architectural styles in the west. Drawing from over 500 years’ worth of archival material, the exhibition presents the studio’s findings in an exciting virtual reality space where viewers are invited to consider the role technology plays in contemporary buildings--and by extension, cities.

In a similar vein, research group Forensic Architecture uses multimedia sources from camera footage to sound to reconstruct instances of state and political violence. Through their investigations they have managed to advocate for real human rights violations cases in countries such as Palestine and Lebanon by providing a compendium of media-rich reconstructions of specific events.

Shifting to other sensorial media practices, a research group from the School of Architecture, Planning, and Policy Development at Institut Teknologi Bandung conducted a study to investigate the role of sounds in urban experiences and memory in Jakarta’s historic Old City, relating it to the field of historic preservation. They found that a thorough conception of multisensory stimuli can “increase a holistic understanding of historic places.” Sonic information then becomes a vital resource for reinterpreting space.

At the Royal College of Art, Media Studies is one of the core modules in the School of Architecture. With complex briefs and a multitude of layered media from digital to the real to soundscapes, students have explored critical material issues related to spaces on a global scale. From the personal to the monumental, the Media Studies module is an example of necessary multimedia insights in architecture and spatial studies.

While these examples are not limited to images as media, they provide strong openings to conceive the city and its inhabitants on multiple media levels. In a city as fast-growing as Bandung, it is imperative that practitioners in spatial studies examine the intricate relationship between media and the built environment and the very real consequences images can enact on these issues. There is no telling the extent of damage images can have on our cities, but there is no better time to start asking.

As traffic simmers down and you finally free your car from the jam-packed roads, you realize how the city is a far cry from your childhood memories, much less the pictures you saw on Instagram recently. It’s gotten so much hotter too. Perhaps it’s the cars? You notice all the new buildings. You have lunch at a restaurant you saw on a twitter thread. Afterwards, as you carry your bags up to the hotel room recommended to you on Instagram, you make a mental note to stay home next weekend.

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved

© 2021 Hamzah Al Asadulloh All Rights Reserved