On the 6th of February, scholars from historically connected port cities in Europe – Rotterdam, Hamburg, Barcelona, and Gothenburg – and beyond, convened at Erasmus University for a full day of developing research discussions and presentations. Together, they continue their ongoing and transnational conversations about ‘pleasurescapes’, a gesture which echoes the phenomenon of integration and encounters to be found in these spaces.

Professor Montse Paraje, our professor of Creative Cities at the University of Barcelona, opened the event with a reflection connecting globalism, port cities, and creative urbanity. She set the tone of the full day of fascinating and diverse case studies of pleasurescapes to follow, including (but not limited to) the 20th century casino industry in Monte Carlo (Paul Franke, Centre Marc Bloch), Hamburg St. Pauli’s entertainment district under the Nazis (Julia Sneeringer, City University of New York, and Tilburg’s Sports Facilities in the 1920s (Thijs Kemmeren, Tillburg University and Ghent University).

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Liverpool’s Sunlight Soap provides the backdrop to the classic Dutch children’s character, Piertje Bell, a working-class kid whose great sense of social justice, combined with his independent spirit, means he has little respect for authority. Exploring the connection between class and cleanliness, Photo: Dyana Wing So

Pleasurescapes, according to the HERA-funded research collaboration of the same name, are “public spaces of entertainment in European port cities which…mirror traits of European urbanization in an extraordinary way”. In a pleasurescape, one can find a microcosm of European transnationalism, where conformity and rebellion coexist. In these public venues by the sea, where old ports have become revisited spaces by their cities for a myriad of attractions and experiments (like a floating farm producing cow’s milk in Rotterdam), one will also encounter a melting pot of different classes, cultures, and religions. Ironically, as Rotterdam born and raised artist, Gyz La Rivière explores in his latest solo art exhibition, New Neapolis, it is this very fact of differences and mixtures that bring all these port cities closer to one another, rather than their own national counterparts. So, as La Rivière proclaims, let Marseilles, Rotterdam, Liverpool, and Napoli band together as the ‘New Neapolis’ – a gang of brothers, connected by ancient trade routes and modern-day urbanism. Our own gang of pleasurescape researchers concluded the formal evening with a visit to TENT to experience La Rivière’s work. From three walls covered with soap bars, to an original video essay, the exhibition is built upon a celebration of the cities’ working-class, industrial and, occasionally, criminal heritage; a homage to non-conformity and the marginalised voices which give these cities their distinctive character.

Sitting in the small, makeshift theatre of La Rivière’s video construction of New Neapolis beyond mere concept, I am reminded of the final assignment our cohort submitted after Professor Paul van de Laar’s lectures on Port Cities and pleasurescapes at the University of Barcelona, when he was a visiting professor from Erasmus University. Professor van de Laar’s week of lectures was in-between Professor Marten van Dijk’s lecture on early modern port cities, and Professor Kleiman’s concluding lectures on the impact of globalization on port development, particularly of the Rhine River basin.

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Photos: Dyana Wing So

Professor van de Laar’s lectures encouraged to revisit the waterfront as more than a sailor’s town. Drawing wide-ranging inspiration from philosophers like Walter Benjamin reflecting on Marseilles, and economists Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s work on shared values in a sustainable society, van de Laar challenged us to consider these diverse perspectives in assessing what port cities redevelopment, especially within creative cites, really mean. In true van de Laar fashion – “I’m flexible, you’re creative!” as he’d always say – the final assignment for his course could either be a paper or something experimental. Notwithstanding the fact that we’ve written countless essays up that point of our GLOCAL experience, of course I wanted to experiment and get creative.

At the time of taking van de Laar’s class, I was more than a month into a part-time job at a start-up located near Port Vell. On a frequent basis, I’d bike out to one of the most touristic spots of Barcelona’s seaside. With van de Laar’s class as a week-long backdrop, I could not help but engage with the very transformations this contact zone had undergone, especially when one realises its sheer contrast from the days of sailors, ships, and sex-workers.

I channelled these thoughts and research into an original script and essay film entitled, “A la vora de negre i blau” (English translation of the Catalan: “In the Edge of Black and Blue”. Intentionally, it’s in and not on, because much of what I wanted to explore was what happened within, and not simply on the surface.  

Author: Dyana Wing So