Anxious Places

By Caterina Albano

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud observes that ‘fear represents a certain kind of inner state amounting to expectation of, and preparation for, danger of some kind, even though the nature of the danger may well be unknown’.[1] This unspecific kind of fear that has no object is analogous to a modern notion of anxiety. It is bound to an undermined and possibly unknown danger, which tears the subject between the latent uncertainty of the future and painful repetition of the past.

Place is a site of modern anxiety. The late nineteenth-century pathologization of space phobias (agoraphobia and claustrophobia) is deeply entwined with the hectic expansiveness of modern metropolises and the unnerving oppressiveness of enclosed environments. If the city has historically been the epicenter of the modern contestation of place, the use of gas-weapons, air bombing and the later threats of chemical and nuclear contamination have further heightened the twentieth-century apprehension of space, exposing such environments as increasingly alienating and indistinctly toxic.

Capsular architecture and security technologies intensify the pervasiveness of anxiety as it is felt (or believed to be felt) towards social and public places, as well as the policies of surveillance and control that govern them. A century after its original definition, anxiety is regarded as impinging on every aspect of our lives and our interaction with people and places. Today, anxiety can hardly be thought of as merely a psychological category, since its ideological and media appropriation presents us with an affect that invests cultural, social, and political spheres as well as the private realm.

In conceiving the symposium, Anxious Places: Angst, Environments and Affective Contamination (Central Saint Martins, 26th June 2014) – part of the University of the Arts collaboration with the London Arts Anxiety Festival – I wanted to examine the ways in which anxiety contaminates urban, social and natural environments, and consider the delineation of historical trajectories as anxiety sediments across time and place and issues of agency as anxiety affectively redefines the mapping of places. The symposium engaged with trauma and latency and the criticality of the arts in questioning the contemporary ethics of anxiety.

Jacques Rancière reminds us that, etymologically, ethics derives from the Ancient Greek ethos that means ‘dwelling’: ethics ‘is a kind of thinking in which an identity is established between an environment, a way of being and a principle of action’.[2] Hence, any reflection on anxiety and place contends with the presentation of fear in public discourses and the cultural meanings that are ascribed to it. At the same time, the contingency of place and the pain of anxiety encourage ‘a way of being’, embodied and felt. Dwelling and affect return the cultural category of anxiety to the body, its sensations and responses, and to the conscious and subliminal structures of feelings that denotes the experience of place.

Contributors to Anxious Places addressed these issues from a range of disciplines, perspectives and artistic mediums. Sociologist Frank Furedi examined the history of apprehension toward moral contamination and further linked it to today’s media appropriation of language that fires anxiety and insecurity. Art historian Jill Bennett addressed the tension between world as place and the global connectivity that characterizes contemporary virtual environments and networks. The ecologies of inhabiting and the ethics that affect these spaces have moved beyond the confines of the local, to a global scale presenting the individual with a crisis of agency which, according to Bennett, posits trauma as a moral wound as well as a psychological and cultural one. Emerging from this crisis are unsettling visual and fictional narratives as well as forms of artistic engagement which afford the contingency of the local on the global.

While the two keynote speakers discussed the ethical dimension of anxiety in physical and medialized spaces, the three speaker panels considered embodied experiences of anxiety and how the spatial and temporal intersect in traumatic histories producing new latency.


Shona Illingworth, 216 Westbound, working Image, 2013 © Illingworth

216 Westbound (in progress) is an art project by filmmaker and sound artist Shona Illingworth, developed in collaboration with media and risk experts John Tulloch and Andrew Hoskins, based on Tulloch’s personal experience of the 7/7 bombing in the London Underground. The panel continued conversations about the embodied and spatial experience of the attack, the relation between the event underground and the delay in the emergence of visual images, as well as the ways in which anxiety was exploited in the media and the inquest that followed. Tulloch’s poignant recollection of the events attested to the physical and psychological intensity of anxiety.

Untitled 1

Uriel Orlow, Unmade Film: The Staging, 2011-12, with Frances Rifkin

Unmade Film (2013) by artist Uriel Orlow is a collection of audio-visual works, including video, drawings, photography, sound and music, alluding to the components of a film which is never fully achieved. The artwork focuses on the mental hospital Kfar Sha’ul in Jerusalem that was established in 1951 for the treatment of Holocaust survivors. It was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassim which had been depopulated in a massacre carried out by Zionist paramilitaries in 1948. In dialogue with sociologist Avery Gordon and using extracts from the artwork, Orlow and Gordon explored the historical overlaying and intersection of traumatic histories, the narratives of spaces of obliteration and silence, and the new meanings which emerge from questioning these spaces.

Composer David Toop, author of Sinister Resonance (2010) in conversation with architect Jeremy Till, considered sound and its inherent relation to space. Toop discussed the eerie and ghostly qualities of sound, and drew attention to its insinuating presence in painting and literature. Transient and unstable, the world of sound (and its absence) epitomizes the non-specific threat which has haunted places since the stirrings of modernity, and the feelings of anxiety that contemporaneity does not seem able to dissipate.

Caterina Albano is a Reader in Visual Culture and Science at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. Albano curates, lectures and publishes in the fields of art, cultural history and cultural theory, in particular emotion and affect, memory and consciousness; and on the theory of curating. She is the author of Fear and Art in the Contemporary World (Reaktion Books, 2012) and is currently working on a project on affect, memory and art (Palgrave MacMillan). Her curatorial work includes the exhibitions Crossing Over: Art, Science and Biotechnologies (The Royal Institution of Great Britain, London) and Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious in Everyday Life (Science Museum, London).


[1] Sigmund Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ [1920] in The Standard Edition of The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1995), 12-13

[2] Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans. by Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press), 310

One comment

  1. David Harley

    Should we not distinguish between the kinds of unsettling anxiety or unnerving angst that are fostered by our society and the condition of clinical anxiety syndrome? There is always a danger of pathologizing uncomfortable but normal enough reactions to modern circumstances and media fearmongering, but there is a concomitant danger of trivializing serious psychophysical distress.

    We see the same problem in all the Internet memes about how depression is just a social phenomenon, needing little more than support from friends.


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