[urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University

The Magic City: [urban interfaces] graduate seminar 2021-2022

[urban interfaces] seminar 2021-2022: “The Magic City”

THE MAGIC CITY: Of technorationality and spiritual futures – [urban interfaces] Graduate seminar 2021-2022

Dates: 5 April (15:00 – 17:00), 26 April (15:00 – 17:00) and 10 May (14:00 – 17:00 with drinks)
Venue: MCW Lab, Kromme Nieuwegracht 20 (theater space downstairs), Utrecht.
Credits: 3 ECTS (for RMa Students and PhD Candidates only, MA students are welcome to participate, but are not eligible for credits). The seminar series is open to (R)Ma students and PhD candidates
Organized by: https://urbaninterfaces.sites.uu.nl.
More information: urbaninterfaces@uu.nl
Registration >> (open from February 21, 2022 onwards)

Modern and technical solutions to complex social problems have long configured urban imaginaries. Planners, designers, and policymakers have embraced the notion of the “smart city” to reshape urban life into a gentrified wonderland for the rich. More often than not, supposedly ‘smart’ technologies are presented as simple solutions to wicked problems, making them disappear as if by magic. But as smart cities developed, a growing number of theorists, activists, and curators have embraced more speculative and imaginative notions of magic, in order to open up a deliberately unreal what-if space for collective fantasizing about urban futures. Magical thinking in this sense, then, can provide a healthy antidote to Modernist hopes and projections of being able to govern cities by means of (quantified) rational managerialism.

This seminar brings together scholars, artists, and designers who have productively explored these “magical” modes of thinking in their work. In embracing the dreamlike, the mystical, and the irrational as central concepts, the Magic City seminar series inspires us to think about urban life and culture along trajectories that move away from – or reimagine – quantifiable and commodified technological solutions. Practices of healing and cosmic consciousness are rather approached as alternative ways of knowing that could offer new ways of relating to the planet in distress, and of strengthening urban life as an inclusive, diverse, and imaginative community.

The seminar is organized by the [urban interfaces] research group at Utrecht University.
Seminar website: https://urbaninterfaces.sites.uu.nl/seminars/the-magic-city-urban-interfaces-graduate-seminar-2021-2022/.
On this website we will post the updated program and seminar syllabus.

1) 5 april 2022 15:00 – 17:00
2) 26 april 2022 15:00 – 17:00
3) 10 mei 2022 14:00 – 17:00 + drinks

Venue: MCW Lab, Kromme Nieuwegracht 20 (theater space downstairs), Utrecht.

Research Master students can acquire 3 ECTS for the seminar, if they write an illustrated blogpost of about 1000 words for each seminar session (3 in total). The best blogposts are selected for publication on the [urban interfaces] website urbaninterfaces.net.

Click here to read the contributed blogposts written by seminar participants >>

Session #1 From Technics to Magic – Tuesday 5 April 2022 15:00 – 17:00

How do we imagine and shape sustainable urban futures? Or as the 2021 Venice Architecture Biennale humbly asked: “How can we live together?”. Oftentimes, new ‘smart’ technologies for cities are forwarded as the apex of our enlightened rational approaches to any societal challenge. But could it be that we need to change our attitude towards our living environments, each other, and other creatures at large, instead of applying ever-more technological band-aids onto a system that seems broken beyond repair? Perhaps what is needed is not less but more magic. Not the type of ‘magical thinking’ that claims to solve complex societal issues with a single tech-fix devised by Brilliant Visionaries. But the kind of magic that ascribes our living environments with agency and moral value, and that helps to instil a sense of veneration, reenchantment, care and respect for all that envelopes us, and that we may never fully understand or control. In this first session the 2022 [urban interfaces] seminar series, we ask the question how in this day and age we can take magic seriously in the face of great urban challenges?


Preparation To get the discussion going and collect input for brainstorm exercises, students are asked to send in advance one image of an urban artwork or situated performance, an everyday experience or encounter, etc. that represents “the magic city”, plus a very short statement. This will play a role in our discussion, so please send in no later than April 1 12:00 (noon) to urbaninterfaces@uu.nl.

Readings We will read sections of these two books:

  • Federico Campagna. 2018. Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (Introduction pp.1-11 & Ch. 3 “Magic’s cosmogony” pp.113-187 ; and quickly skim through Ch. 2 “Technic’s cosmogony”)
  • Karl Bell, ed. 2019. Supernatural Cities: Enchantment, Anxiety and Spectrality. (Introductory chapter “Mapping the Urban Mindscape: The City and the Supernatural” pp.1-21)

Slides from session #1 (pdf 2,8 MB) >> 

Session #2 Beyond the binary of technology and magic – Tuesday 26 April 2022 15:00 – 17:00

At first glance, magic and technology may come across as incompatible concepts. The latter is often perceived as rational, objective, mathematical, innovative, and progressive, while the former seems subjective, misleading, ancient, and unverifiable. In this session, we will investigate how these two concepts can come together in constructive ways, but also how there might be (unintended) non-constructive consequences of such fusions. What forms of magical knowledge have been forgotten in the expansion of capitalist technology, and which ones should we reconsider? With these examinations we will try to further recent scholarly and artistic debates that consider the boundaries between magic and technology as permeable. For example, in Mamelles Ancestrales, Tabita Rezaire challenges her audience to engage with oral histories about astrological significance at the same level as archeological findings situated in Western knowledge systems, and Julia Watson in her work proposes to look to indigenous wisdom for design strategies for dealing with climate change. At the same time, Stef Aupers shows how conspiracy theories thrive on the blurring of what is magical and what is not. So, when does magic allow for a “reconstruction of reality” out of the firm grip of technic, as Federico Campagna proposed in the previous session, and when is magic a tool for a new sort of confinement?

Preparation Before the session, please explore the digital exhibition Weird Gnosis at https://weirdgnosis.impakt.nl/. One of the curators of the exhibition will be present during this seminar, and we ask you to each bring one comment of question for him.

Readings and viewing

With special guests:

Session #3 Magical urban realities – Tuesday 10 May 2022 14:00 – 17:00 (NOTE: we’re starting 1 hour earlier, and ending with drinks!]

In this third and last session of the seminar we will explore the notion of ‘hauntology’ as theorized by sociologist Avery Gordon. Hauntology engages with “that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time”.  It is closely connected to the figure of the ‘ghost’. Ghosts, according to Gordon, are forms by which something lost, or barely visible or seemingly not there, makes itself known or apparent to us. Our interest for this session is as much in ghosts that haunt our social life and cities as in art and artists haunting these ghosts. We will take a closer look at the work of artistic researcher Paula Albuquerque who investigates ‘ghosts’ in  CCTV footage and drones. For Albuquerque, observing, assembling, and transforming the images of captured ghosts constitute a strategy for opening up the black box of surveillance, where processes of image-making paired with hidden power-determining agendas are at play. Next to discussing Albuquerque’s artistic practice, we ask you to bring your own example of on art works or art project that you consider to be an instance of ‘urban haunting’. 


Bring an artwork/art project/artistic practice in an urban context that engages with ‘ghosts’ or you consider as an example of ‘haunting’ as described by Gordon. 

Reading (please read in suggested order)

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson. (2018). “The problem of enchantment.” In Religious Compass 12:9, https://compass-onlinelibrary-wiley-com.proxy.library.uu.nl/doi/10.1111/rec3.12285

Avery Gordon. (1999). Chapter 1 in Ghostly Matters. Haunting  and the Sociological Imagination. This text is available as E-book and can be accessed via WorldCat (UU). If you can’t access the text, please send an email to Rosa Wevers (r.l.l.wevers@uu.nl)

Paula Albuquerque. (2019). “Haunting surveillance: Foregrounding the spectre of the medium in CCTV and military drones.” in NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies 8:1, 31-50.https://mediarep.org/bitstream/handle/doc/4951/NECSUS_2019_8_1_31-50_Albuquerque_Haunting_surveillance_.pdf?sequence=6