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Welcome to Hong Kong: Study on Verticality


Here is a series of three artistic videos about the theme of verticality. I made them while I was in Hong Kong in May 2010 to complement the Welcome to My Place video collection. Hong Kong is a particularly striking vertical experience, because of its density and uncompromising modernization.

“Concentration” (soundscape by hanstimm), see description here.

I was inspired to work on the subject of verticality while reading the book ‘La poétique de l’Espace’ (The poetics of Space) by Gaston Bachelard. Houses and their phenomenology have been studied for a long time. Tall buildings are more recent. They still have this image of being the second option, not the ‘real’ home. Reality is different tough, more and more people live in vertical buildings, and it would be unfair to simply say that these are not homes. What is the imaginary of verticality?

My intuition was to start with the elevator – a key component that differentiates vertical buildings from horizontal ones. The small room mediates verticality for its guests. I could also have chosen the escalator, another important mediator of skyscrapers in Hong Kong – but its affiliation with stairs makes it somehow a less original feature. The elevator has no precedent and reigns in vertical spaces.

The elevator is typically a small room in which guests cannot do anything other than pressing on numbered buttons. It never has any seats and is thus not a place to stay, though relaxing background music is sometimes played. The elevator might celebrate its own movement – and by extension the verticality of its building – by having large windows giving to the outside. But it most often denies its own mobility and does not feature any windows. The elevator feels both like a private place, having mirrors that guests can use to check their appearance, and a public place, with surveillance cameras and the knowledge that everyone outside can check the elevator’s movement. This ambiguity leads to well-known sexual fantasies, also breaking the predictive and functional role of the room.

Through the evolution of technology, the elevator has greatly reduced the freedom of its passengers. They need to accept its rules if they do not want to use the stairs. The elevator decides who is next, when to open and close the doors, and whether to go up or down. This generates a lot of frustration and contempt, along with angry insults when the elevator is slow to act on passengers’ requests. However, people generally accept the rules because they believe that the elevator has been programmed for the best of their interests, even if they might sometimes doubt that it is intelligent enough to achieve the task.

Elevators and vertical buildings can be perceived in three different ways.

Elevator as a teletransporter – verticality is a multi-dimensional space

In this representation, the elevator is a teletransporter. It connects a particular location on the ground to a space where people live in the same flat at the same time without noticing the existence of one another (parallel universes). This is what I tried to convey in the following video which was made in an apartment building in Mong Kok (the area with the highest population density on Earth).

“Antechamber” (soundscape by Geography)

This view can only persist if the inhabitants of the building have no significant contact between one another. If they did, vertical distances between the floors would break the multidimensional representation of space. They are living in the building because they greatly value the location of its entrance, not their neighbours.

Another interesting aspect of this subjective representation is the emphasis on the ground location rather than the verticality of the building. What is most fascinating in a skyscraper? Is it its height? Or is it the importance given to its location? Why do thousands of people want to be teleported every day to the front door of a single building, while there are so many other geographical coordinates to choose from on Earth? The massive appearance of a skyscraper is the materialization of the importance of its location. The “Concentration” video suggests that such a disproportionate interest in specific locations is due to a phenomenon of concentration: a door becomes highly desirable because of the importance given to the doors next door. This remains true even when the first building becomes anecdotal, and when concentration in itself becomes the significance. The Hong Kong harbour has brought in workers, financial institutions, and then consumer-facing companies, the whole being sustained only because of concentration.

Elevator as a carriage – verticality works just like horizontality

The elevator is represented here as a vertical carriage that goes from one door to another in a long vertical corridor. It does not differ substantially from a horizontal corridor. The vertical building is one that has been turned 90 degrees. A sense of proximity with neighbours is possible in this configuration, and being located in one single corridor provides a feeling of equality. But vertically may not be the best configuration then – the elevator becomes an inconvenient means of transport compared to simply walking to see a neighbour. Other considerations are at play: the ones explained in the previous and next category, and maybe additional benefits that verticality can bring to the community, such as a wider park area (see the Unité d’habitation from Le Corbusier in Marseilles, a ‘vertical village’).

Escalators offer a compromise in a vertical place that does not want to be vertical. Take the huge Langham Place vertical shopping mall   – its extensive use of escalators, some of the longest in the world, smooths out the visit that does not need to be interrupted by elevators. The escalators make the place feel more like a horizontal one, more adapted to wandering and temptations.

Elevator as a cable car – power and verticality

The elevator is, in this final representation, a cable car that makes it easy to climb hills. We are probably genetically programmed to look for high viewpoints from where we we can an overview of a territory and take its control. The higher you can see the more power you can exercise on the territory and its people.

Unlike the size of a hill that has been set once and for all by nature, there are no limits for skyscrapers. You might think you are at the top, but you soon realise that it was only temporary. Higher standards for wealth and social status are being set, which paradoxically do not increase the number of people who can see the uninterrupted horizon. In a interesting argumentative twist, horizontality becomes more valuable than verticality: the uninterrupted horizon is all that matters.

I had the idea of the next video after reading Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark, and more specifically this quotation:

“A higher level is essentially more than a lower level. And so there’s nowhere to go but to more, and more, until there is no more, and the gamer, like the character, is left with nothing.”

it also strangely reminds me of the 80s animated series Cocoshaker by Jean-Charles Meunier, except that the next coconut palm is always higher.



June 2013, screening of the “Welcome to Hong Kong” videos at the 3rd edition of Under the Subway Videoart Night (New York, USA).
June 2011, screening of the “Welcome to Hong Kong – Elevation” video at the 11th edition of the Images Contre Nature festival (Marseilles, France).
September 2010, “Study on Verticality” presented at the European Conference on Complex Systems (Lisbon, Portugal).
September 2010, two videos were screened one day each on the subway station screens of Toronto (1.3 million daily commuters), as part of ‘The medium is the Message’ and the ‘Urban Ideas and Politics’ sections of the Toronto Urban Film Festival.

July 2010, screening of the “Study on Verticality” and ‘A week off – the ordeal of scentless’ videos followed by a talk at the Temporary Arts Project space, curated by Michaela Freeman (Southend-on-Sea, UK).


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2 Responses to “Welcome to Hong Kong: Study on Verticality”

  1. [...] videos that I made to illustrate my Study on Verticality were displayed few weeks ago on the screens of the Toronto subway, thanks to the Toronto Urban Film [...]

  2. Claire says:

    I just read today your little note on the blog.
    I watch your video: very interesting (+beautiful). I like more particularly the Antechamber.
    Thanks to make me discover your videos. it is always nice to share work.
    Best, Claire from wandering-in-space