[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

[urban interfaces] Blogs

Guest blogpost: Joosje Holstein – Gazing Through Layers, Shamefully

For our [urban interfaces] seminar series on the theme Creative Urban Methods (year 2022-2023), we invited participants to write blogposts. The best and most interesting ones we publish on our website.

Below is the blogpost for seminar session #2, written by Joosje Holstein:

My name is Joosje Holstein, I study Comparative Literary Studies, and I am fascinated by the idea of ‘reading the city’, in the broadest sense. What stories do the trees tell us, isolated green beings in between concrete and brick? How can we academically interpret urban spatial experience? What is the effect of mapping out visually the urban spaces inside a book? How can we intervene creatively in the city and why would we? The city is like a red thread through my academic path up until now: the first course I ever took was called “Cities and Cultures”, and in the meantime I have written about e.g. urban soundscapes and the mnemonic layers of cities. For my final RMA thesis I am planning to write about the city of Rome, and show by using actor-network-theory how some novels resonate with each other in the way they represent certain (postcolonial, posthuman) urban elements in order to deconstruct the myth of Rome as the Eternal City.

Gazing Through Layers, Shamefully

by Joosje Holstein

It is early spring when I wander through Bologna’s streets, navigating in between its layers, trying to capture them. If you ask me, Italian cities are some of the most visibly palimpsestic cities of Europe. I think this is partly because there is a failure to come to a consensus about collective cultural memory. As a result, opposing layers coexist within the same space. There is a whole academic discourse about this, surrounding the term memoria divisa (divided memory), which I have written about in the past, but will not tire you with right now. Now, I’d rather talk about walking through layered Bologna with my camera, an object I try to hide because like every tourist I am disgusted by the image of myself as a tourist. Who likes to admit that they’re not only an outsider, but moreover a privileged one? My sense of shame, however, is more complex than just that of a tourist, although it is entangled with it. I do not only hide my camera just because it proves that I am a tourist. It also proves that I am a voyeur. This blogpost will try to investigate the shameful gaze of an outsider photographer. It is a layered blogpost, it will take the concept of the palimpsest as a starting point and then dig deeper. It will take one of my Bolognese photographs as its catalyst:



We could say this photograph primarily directs our gaze, digging through its layers, towards the wall at the opposite side of the street. And there is a lot to say already about it; just like this photo is a palimpsest, the wall itself is one as well. In the narrow sense, a palimpsest is a multi-inscribed document from antiquity, which Gérard Genette defined as follows: “on the same parchment, one text can become superimposed upon another, which it does not quite conceal but allows to show through” (398-399). As a structuralist literary theorist, Genette was concerned with the way in which a text produces meaning in conversation with other texts, always stretching beyond the edges of its page. He used the term ‘palimpsest’ metaphorically, to talk about how literature consists of layers, and that those layers interact with one another and simultaneously constitute meaning. The same holds for walls, or “surfacescapes”, as Sabina Andron calls them (86). Andron has developed a methodology to interpret them, which she calls ‘interviewing walls’. By paying careful attention to urban surfaces inscribed with signs that are part of a “multimodal discourse” (75) and are involved in continuous “battles for visibility” (86), we can understand better “how cities are perceived, regulated and navigated” (86). Signs not only reflect this, but also contribute to the production of urban culture, according to Andron. Important to note is that once put on a public wall, signs are “no longer under the control of their originators”, and “subject to close, literal and socially unstable reading” (Henkin qtd. in Andron 78), continuously fluctuating in matter and meaning according to the everchanging city. Thus, palimpsestic walls have no single author, but they do reflect ongoing urban power dynamics.

We can see this happen on the wall of the photo above. It is a blind, old wall (probably medieval according to my Italian archeologist friend) with holes and stains, that isn’t maintained too well. Still, when we start interviewing from background towards foreground, we see how the effort has been done to remove graffiti letters, although their traces are still visible on the upper side of the wall, where they haven’t been overwritten. We see a D, an N, but we cannot distinguish what words they formed, as leaking water from the rooftop seems to have effaced the rest. Closer to the ground, there where the human hand and eye reaches most easily, new blue, then red, then black and white letters have been graffitied, the latter – the last layer – either in an alphabet I do not read or perhaps they are not letters at all. In any case, their artistic form or the very act of graffitiing appears to be more important than any possible communicative function. And then, even on top of these letters, the ‘navel’ of this photograph (Bal): a black and white poster with a woman on it. Upon first glance, I thought this was a poster of a woman with a hijab. But during the seminar, someone in my small group pointed out that unlike with a hijab the tissue is tied tightly around the woman’s face, and that her facial structures are vaguely visible underneath it. This raises questions about not only the woman on the poster, but also: who has hung it there, and what is its purpose? The answers remain ambiguous to me: is this a poster that promotes diversity, is it critical of Islam, or something entirely different? In any case, what is striking, is the angry movement with which somebody has torn a strip from the poster, almost where the eyes of the woman are. The result is violent, but because of the aforementioned ambiguity it is difficult to decide for the viewer, whether we agree with this violence.


It is impossible to do a meaningful analysis of a wall without taking into account its surroundings, in other words, to look beyond it. Andron argues that “[h]ybrid inscriptions are a sum of their media, message, linguistic and visual codes, as well as of the territories they belong to and the visual context that surrounds them” (Andron 81). She brings in the theories of “geosemiotics” and “semiotic landscape” (82). The former puts an emphasis on the importance of the location of signs, and the latter includes all urban signs in its method, tangible inscribed ones, and more volatile ones. Taking into consideration where this photo was taken, might change our perception of it. This wall is at the busy street Via Irnerio, close to Bologna Centrale. It is one of the only walls of this street where there are no arches above the pavement – and, in fact, I have taken the photograph from underneath those arches at the opposite side of the street. It is a very multi-cultural neighborhood: under the arches we find plenty of Moroccan fruit and vegetable shops, Indian little restaurants, and in the Parco della Montagnola one block left to this wall there is a community of Afro-Italian adolescents often listening to music and skateboarding. The women we see on the photo probably just came back from doing groceries at the market at Piazza dell’Otto Agosto and are waiting for their bus. Does this shed a different light on the wall?



If anything, it rather sheds light on my outsider’s perspective. I do not know this neighborhood inside out. Maybe I see the shops, restaurants and skaters, but I do not know what is really going on. I cannot read the letters on the wall, and I am also clearly not the audience for the poster on the wall, nor for its violent intervention, as I struggle to interpret it. The people who live here might know better, but I am too scared to ask. I rather move to that safe little corner called academia to understand. Positionality is an aspect of wall-interviewing that Andron fails to address extensively, so I open up the chapter “Spectatorship, Power & Knowledge” of Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, where they discuss the “complex practices of looking and being looked at”, and they argue that “[i]mages (…) provide a complex field in which power relations are exercised and looks exchanged” (106). This is, thus, traveling beyond the wall in a whole other way; it is not (only) about including the urban signs surrounding it, but it is about including who is looking at it, that is, me. Sturken and Cartwright describe the common discourse within cultural analysis that tends to believe images shape an “ideal subject position” (73): who is the constructed viewer; who is the subject imagined to be gazing at the object on the image? Indeed, this ideal subject position instigates a ‘gaze’: “the viewing relationship characteristic of a particular set of social circumstances” (76). The gaze is about who is looking, who is being looked at, and how are they socially conditioned and constructed.

When I came back home from Bologna, I developed my photos and showed many proudly to others. Except this one. And I want to come to terms with why this is: I am ashamed. I remember feeling shame already when I was shooting it. I wanted to take it because I loved the pictorial rhyme of the poster in the background with the women with hijab in the foreground. But I did not want them to know they were in my photo, and waited for a moment until they were not looking. So actually, I was gazing at them and they were the object of my image, but at the same time I didn’t want them to know it. I think I didn’t want them, these Black women who are part of a marginalized group of society that is already so often gazed at, to feel uneasy. But at the same time I was reproducing this gazing mechanism. It felt ethically unjust, but the image was tempting me, and I went along and shot it anyway. Why did I do this?

And maybe there is even more to this, more than the slightly unethical voyeuristic act of taking a photo of people who do not know it. I have been wondering what kind of subject position I am creating with this photograph, and I think the shameful voyeuristic subject position is already inherently shaped by it, even for those not knowing its context I have been describing. Take, for example, the pillar at the left of the photograph. It creates a sense of peeking, just like there are often trees in the foreground of colonial paintings. And then there are the eyes, gazing back at me. Somebody has tried to rip them off, but failed. Was it me?


Andron, Sabina. “Interviewing walls: Towards a method of reading hybrid surface inscriptions.” Graffiti and Street Art, edited by Konstantinos Avramidis and Myrto Tsilimpounidi, Routledge, 2016, pp. 71-88.

Bal, Mieke. “Dis-semination: ‘Rembrandt’ and the navel of the text.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 2, 30 Jun 2008, pp. 145-166.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. 1982. Translated by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky, University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. “Spectatorship, Power & Knowledge.” Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 72-108.