Thinking back on the first impressions of The Republic, the latest film from David Hartt, it’s no coincidence that one is reminded of ideas such as heterogeneity, irritation, or confusion. And why shouldn’t one, since Hartt’s work synthesizes aspects as diverse as filmed city impressions and digital visualizations of the city à la Google Maps, punctuated by a recurring scene wherein a group of men turn a wrecked car on its side, then on its head, spin it around, and then erect it once again. It is because of these widely disparate elements that The Republic leaves us with such deep irritation.
Give the film a little time and these varied impressions begin to have an effect, or even when watching it a second time, aspects begin to surface that resist a certain immediacy. We slowly recognize two cities, Athens and Detroit, that have been interwoven by Hartt’s montage. Together with the electronic soundtrack of Sam Prekop, a remarkable amalgam comes into existence in which the interests of the artist, indeed, the common thread throughout all of his works, are made apparent: the relationship between built structures and philosophical ideals.
Similar to his series “Stray Light” (2011) and its focus on the headquarters of Ebony and Jet magazines, in his precisely balanced images Hartt addresses modernist design and architecture and of the early 1970s and its corresponding philosophical ideals. In its subtle interaction between photography and film, a condition is created that meanders between a floating yet probing visual exploration. In doing so, Hartt sets into perspective a further development of a historic discourse on form and philosophical ideas that are ignited by questions of African-American taste and the vision attendant to African-American owned enterprises.
The same concerns begin to shape Hartt’s most recent work as well, taking its starting point in the visionary concepts of the second half of the 20th century and from there into a play of form, ideas, and ideological questions. This time, his interests crossover with those of the urban planner Constantinos Doxiadis for Athens and Detroit. In the 1960s Doxiadis had developed a concept for Athens under which the chaos of uncontrolled growth after the Second World War would be tamed by a city master plan. And it was only a few years later that he would be commissioned by the Detroit Edison Company to head up the so-called “Developing Urban Detroit Area Research Project” which would engage in a comparably profound research on the city’s possibilities. Here as well a complex master plan came into existence. Nevertheless, both of Doxiadis’s plans were thrown out despite their visionary approach to the economic, social, cultural, and architectural problems of the city – in Athens due to the fall of the Junta in 1974 and in Detroit as a result of the riots in 1967.
Taking off from these historic events, The Republic creates an environment in which both cities begin to visually melt into one another. Interestingly, in this way, a third space comes into existence: on the one hand, it is a space for questions and the discourse of today’s urbanism; on the other hand, it can be traced back to the historic concepts and questions of Doxiadis. In both ways, the foremost question is how to deal with city problems in relation to its potentials.
But here is where Hartt’s work brings us yet another step further: in the intermingling of both dynamics (today vs. the concepts of the 1960s and 70s) one recognizes the profound discussion on how we want to live in the city reaches further than the concepts that triggered Hartt’s original thoughts. In fact, it stretches back to the antique world represented in the film by the Acropolis. Symbolically, the discourse has turned to stone and it is therein that one begins to recognize the once contentious issues that are now largely ignored: an urban discourse in which the tectonic of architecture finds fertile meeting ground with tectonics of philosophy.
What crystallizes for the observer of Hartt’s film is that the city is not only a manifestation of built objects but also of its philosophical building blocks or something that nears the concept of res publica: the commonwealth or the common good. If we understand that city history and its corresponding philosophical history are intertwined with one another, then we also must recognize that the condition of our ‘common good’ is not in its best shape. And it is here that we are reminded of the images of the group of men trying to flip the car. Without a doubt, a Sisyphean task. But at the same time, the scene contains an essential moment: the task of the collective that is required to make a change in the status quo. And we remember once again, that to live in a republic means being given the task of continuously questioning, shaping, and changing. David Hartt fulfils this task by producing The Republic.
Translation by April Lamm