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City Full of Dreams: Freewalking Baltimore’s Phantasmagoria

by Samuel Gerald Collins

Surrealism and anthropology have crossed paths several times, but the best-known intersections are in the ethnographic objects that inspired artists through processes of defamiliarization and estrangement—African sculpture, Oceanic masks, rituals, alterity. And, indeed, montage and juxtaposition can be found at the very beginnings of anthropology in the assemblages of artifacts at the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Here, the exotic other served to critique Western thought and to undermine the homophily at the core of both Western epistemologies and social life.


  1. Tythacott, Louise (2003). Surrealism and the Exotic. NY: Routledge Press. p.2

  2. Tythacott, Louise (2003). Surrealism and the Exotic. NY: Routledge Press. p.32

  3. Gilloch, Graeme (1996). Myth & Metropolis. NY: Polity Press. p.109

  4. Gilloch, Graeme (1996). Myth & Metropolis. NY: Polity Press. p.104

  5. Bloomfield, Jude (2006). “Researching the Urban Imaginary.” In Weiss-Sussex, G. and F. Bianchini, eds. Urban Mindscapes of Europe. NY: Rodopi.

  6. Farman, Jason (2014). “Site-Specificity, Pervasive Computing, and the Reading Interface.” In The Mobile Story, ed. by Jason Farman, pp. 3-17. NY: Routledge.p.5

  7. Collins, Samuel Gerald and Matthew Slover Durington (2014). Networked Anthropology. NY: Routledge

  8. Gilloch, Graeme (1996). Myth & Metropolis. NY: Polity Press.p.111

  9. Gilloch, Graeme (1996). Myth & Metropolis. NY: Polity Press.p.110

  10. Buck-Morss, Susan (1989). The Dialectics of Seeing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.p.241

“Non-European objects were appropriated specifically to challenge aesthetic categories: in their expeditions, Duchamp’s ‘ready-made’ bottle-racks were juxtaposed with Oceanic sculptures to question traditional conceptions of art. The Surrealists used other cultures as a means of transgressing, reshuffling and subverting the orders of Western classificatory systems.” 1

The problem, though, lies in the appropriation of the object. Just because Man Ray juxtaposes a mask to a model doesn’t make it a challenge to Western colonialism. And what’s non-Western today can just as easily become a fashion accessory tomorrow. What is “defamiliarized” can just as easily become “familiarized”—appropriated into an expansive capitalist machine as another commodity image. Capitalism renders difference into sameness, and commodities connect to other commodities in a closed network.

But there were other possibilities, possibilities not premised on dubious appropriations of cultural alterity. Among them, the revelation of the magic of the city itself. Tythacott continues:

“In the Paris of the 1920s, Surrealists devoted themselves to the identification and mapping of sacred sites and magic space in the cityscape around them. In their novels and writing of the period, the streets of the metropolis are locales for encountering the marvelous and the inconnu.” 2

The search for the “magic” of the modern city was, in itself, not novel: magic is yoked to the development of the modern city from the outset, from the apotropaic, urban witchcraft, growth of urban spiritualism in the 19th century to the fascination with the “magic of the other” in the renaissance of magical practice in the 20thcentury. At the core of the modern, woven into infrastructure and institutions, in habitus and daily rounds, is a magical practice of associations and encounters with difference.

During the 1920s and 1930s, anthropology and surrealism momentarily coalesced in rendering these subterranean connections visible, e.g., in Aragon’s and Breton’s wandering across Paris. Stopping at markets to inspect objets trouves, lampooning public sculptures, and mining the streetscape for eclectic architectural detail, surrealism took inspiration from quotidian and exotic urban life, and their journals included random quotations from all of these sources, jumbled together in montage or juxtaposed to a variety of occasionally contretemps text.

The goal was to represent the uncanny and to transform the city into a shocking dream-space of conflicting realities that discomfited received categories: the magic of Paris. Of course, there was also a politics here, one premised on unleashing the disruptive forces that lie just behind the smooth facades of the modern city, a politics that, in some ways, the Situationists built upon in their resistance against urban modernism.

It was this disruptive potential that attracted Benjamin to urban confabulations of the surrealists, and the “revelation of the metropolis as a dreamscape” 3 was the foundation for Benjamin’s dialectical critique of the modern. As Gilloch writes, “Just as the desires and wishes of the individual are frustrated and repressed in waking life only to reappear in disguised form during sleep, so the cityscape and the artefacts found therein are dream-like creations of dormant collectivity” 4 .

Smartphone Dreams

In many ways, smartphones are the apotheosis of Benjamin’s dialectic. They are the very definition of phantasmagoria, and yet also disclose collective desires for connection and for the rapprochement of urban alienation. A propos of Ernst Bloch, they are the instrument of spectacle, but also betray utopian desires to surmount their own phantasmagoria and return people to authentic social relationships.

There have been many analyses of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as “disruptive,” no more so than the smartphone in the city. With the haptic technology, urban dwellers are able to connect to each other, to activist causes, and to places in more intimate ways that are simultaneously untethered from the limitations of place and embodiment. Here, smartphones are productive of new “urban imaginaries”5

In this way, narrative storytelling through smartphones echoes earlier critical defamiliarization in surrealism and situationist critique. Fittingly, “Derive,” “situationist” and other smartphone apps stimulate chance encounter and unexpected meanings, and the profusion of augmented reality interfaces means that ordinary scenes can take on new contexts.

These can have a critical function. As Farman 6 points out, “augmented reality” narratives on smartphones can have a “defamiliarizing” impact on users, one where urban storytelling can question some of the hide-bound assumptions we hold about the places we inhabit by introducing alternative stories of place and, in the process, gesturing to other possibilities.

For some time, we (my co-author, Matthew Durington and our anthropology students) have been interested in harnessing these critical powers for ethnographic work in Baltimore, conceived not just as the explication of culture and social life, but as a collaborative exercise in critique and the evocation of alternatives. With the rapid growth in smartphone ownership in United States across different economic strata, a smartphone-based practice can be a catalyst for community collaboration, democratizing the tools of anthropology and, in the process, connecting our work to new publics through widely available social media.7

While we’ve used several social media applications over the last 15 years, we’re currently exploring the potentials of a tour app platform – izi.TRAVEL – that was originally developed for museum tours but has since been adapted to tours in cities. With my colleague, Matthew Durington, we were early adopters of this platform when it expanded to support urban storytelling in Baltimore under the auspices of MuseWeb Foundation (https://www.museweb.us/be-here-baltimore/). As part of the MuseWeb push (together with the interest the project generated among other groups in Baltimore), the number of app tours for the city has multiplied, many of them with contributions from our students and their own ethnographic perambulations around the city.

We began utilizing the app platform to showcase multimedia/ multimodal collaborative anthropology we’d done in South Baltimore, and then as classroom exercises in participatory anthropology involving students and members of community groups.

Our first tour, “Sharp Leadenhall Walking Tour,” was a typical walking tour featuring historic sites and challenges to an African American neighborhood in south Baltimore. We worked with community groups to both select and to produce media for the tour; accordingly, the app tour introduces some of the complex histories and developments that continue to shape Sharp Leadenhall. The app allowed us to share the results of this ethnographic research with our students, and they followed our tour as part of our introductory classes. From their feedback, we could appreciate their growing understanding of Baltimore neighborhoods as both historic and contemporary sites of struggle against racial injustice.

But I wondered how much this tour differed from other, more commercial efforts to “augment” the city. Wasn’t this a more critical instance of a tour of restaurants? A guide to shopping? In any case, I began to question whether or not this was another version of Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” the rendering of urban life into disconnected media fragments that take the place of social relations. I imagined my students bent over their phones in South Baltimore, the same bodily hexis the they’ve cultivated to watch Netflix, to scroll through Instagram. Did thus represent a wholesale appropriation of our collaborative fieldwork with their media ecologies?

Moreover, tour apps seem like another way of rendering homophily in the city. By parsing urban heterogeneity into a thematically linked series of sites—however critical, reflexive and collaborative—we were still imprinting a homogeneous narrative on a city fractured by contradiction and discontinuity. Baltimore may be the sum of its stories, but these stories are interrupted and broken where racism and class inequality have erupted through the arc of their narratives.

In 2016, izi.Travel introduced a “free walking mode” that allows users to access any site whose geolocated radius they wander into. In other words, as you walk, you encounter sites from multiple tours—sites even layered upon each other. These have added another dimension to our urban practice; as the number of tours on izi.Travel in Baltimore has multiplied, so have the opportunities for chance encounters.

In summer of 2017, I began making regular transect walks through Baltimore, areas at the conjunction of history, urban development, and economics inequality in the deeply divided city. As I walk the city, I mark the tour sites and take notes. I am interested in the interstices of city and representation, and I’m particularly aware of when these conflict. Ultimately, my experience becomes one of chance encounters, but not meaningless chance. Instead, connections build and undermine each other and render a more critical vision of this city.

For example: in early August of 2017, I park in front of a boarded-up store-front at the corner of Park Avenue and West Saratoga in downtown Baltimore. I walk down West Saratoga.

There are just a few people on the street. It’s 10 am, and restaurants are just starting to gear up for the lunch crowd. People are already at work. There are some elderly people on Saratoga, and some have difficulty getting around the street. But the weather’s beautiful, 70s—a late-summer morning and not too humid.

West Saratoga hosts numerous beauty shops, and a couple of candle shops that are part of African American occult history in Baltimore

After a few meters, the first, geolocated site is triggered :

A woman’s voice: “Do you like rainy days?” And then another, answering: “Oh, no. They’re so dreary.”

The second woman continues: “At one point in my life, I didn’t feel good about myself.”

A life story of one of the salon owners on the street, the interview touches on abuse, recovery and independence. The best thing about owning her store here on Saratoga Street: “Knowing that I don’t have to answer to nobody.”

I continue down Saratoga, make a left on Howard Street and start walking South. But the next site that goes off is behind me—Planned Parenthood. It’s one from one of my students chronicling structural violence and the resources that might mitigate it.

Howard Street is a little busier. The light rail train runs down the middle of the road here, and some of the stores are open for business—while others are boarded up.

On the right is the Hutzler Brothers Department Store – the now-shuddered jewel of West Baltimore. When I’m across from the building, the audio part of the tour begins in media res with a discussion:

“That’s this point about holding whole municipalities accountable. Like, we have to be really clear. One, people do pay taxes, but 2, part of the reason why parts of the city looks like war zones is because they were strategically disinvested in by people in government.”

What parts of the city get priority in Baltimore? West Baltimore (a predominantly African American area)? Or areas that have been gentrified and/or developed for tourism? Looking at Hutzler, and the line of boarded up buildings on this side of Howard, is testament to funding priorities for the City and to a pattern of urban disinvestment that continues into Baltimore’s present.

But the next stop, firing off just 2 steps after my Huztler stop, tells a different story.

Here, the Hutzler Building and the Hochschild-Kohn building are the subject of fond reminiscences from a journalist in the 1930s who sold books during the holidays, cultivating not only a love for books, but for Baltimore’s literati. This bookstore story is warm and nostalgic, but it is also a story from a time when West Baltimore was white: a time before Morgan State University students would stage a sit-in to de-segregate Read’s Drugstore just down the street.

From there, I turn right on West Baltimore Street and am immediately confronted by a tour stop for Lexington Market, (still 2 blocks away), a site exploring the history and precarious future of the historic, 18th century market as it awaits its next renovation.

When I turn left on South Paca, I see a big difference in street traffic: now it is professionals associated with the University of Maryland Medical complex, and, perhaps, patients. Many people are waiting outside of clinics on benches.

But the next site I encounter is the University Farmers Market, including people from the community, medical students and vendors. As luck would have it, the market is just beginning, and people set up their tables next to flowers and shrubs in the park. The site is part of a food deserts/ healthy food alternatives tour from one of our students.

Back on the street, I cross to the other side of South Paca, and an audio tour begins before I’ve even reached the opposite curb.

“Ghetto Artsy Kid on the Rise”: a series on Baltimore artists, featuring a video about gentrification and race in the arts. This clip critiques Baltimore’s efforts to brand the Bromo-Selzter tower area as an arts district. “I don’t know about the diversity in Bromo – I feel like it’s mostly white people. Honestly. And it’s funny, because I feel like Bromo is in hood.”

The Bromo-Seltzer Tower is three blocks away, but the issues range beyond this to city-designated arts districts that exist in neighborhoods of Baltimore that have been African American communities. Now they are under pressure from gentrification.

As I wind my way back up through Baltimore streets, restaurants are readying for the lunch hour, and there are more people walking and talking on the sidewalks. I pass through 3 or 4 more clusters of sites created by different groups in Baltimore—more from Morgan State and Towson University, but also from the Jewish Museum of Maryland. My walk ends with a final site for a bookstore on Park—long since closed—that used to sell Marxist pamphlets.

So, what’s different about this free-walking tour and the many smart-phone led tours one might take of Baltimore and other cities?

As Gilloch notes 8, the way out of the dream-state precipitated by our submersion in the phantasmagoria of the modern lies in the revolutionary possibility of the ‘demise’ of the object. “The outmoded object defetishizes and demythified the commodity and the processes of its production, exchange and consumption in the city” .9 Indeed, doing a tour with one’s smartphone brings one up against spaces analogous to Benjamin’s arcade—the superannuated shopping districts and undercapitalized streets of African American Baltimore.

But it also brings one up against the limits of the smartphone itself. My smartphone’s geolocation is not always accurate—I walked through multiple sites without triggering any of them, and ones that did go off were not necessarily spatially contiguous to my own path, testament both to the eccentric radii of the geolocated sites and to the exigencies of my phone. But more than this, my walk takes me through the gaps of human-computer design and interaction. People set the geolocation; they upload cryptically edited audio. They mess up-placing sites and audio clips in aberrant orders. In the process, space and time are rendered malleable here. Pushed into multiple tours and multiples sites (I counted 6 different tours in my freewalk through West Baltimore), the urban wanderer is unable to exclude other spaces and times. In a city that changes from block to block, being reminded of economic inequality a few blocks away prevents you from siloing yourself in a gentrified block to the exclusion of the city beyond. That is, the hall of mirrors that makes up capitalist homophily is shattered over and over again through the shock of difference. Ultimately, free-walking brings one up against the failure of sameness.

This is the magic city-the urban fabric with its stochastic connections between times and spaces and people. It brings me up against multiple temporalities and spatialities in ways that gesture beyond the linearity of the tour. Freewalking traces the space of the collective. It opens the wanderer up to insistent voices that refuse to be confined to segregated spaces and carefully excised times. Through historical narrative erupt critiques of political economy, voices of people who have lived through violence and tragedy, persistent, structural racism that proliferates around the edges of historic preservation.

Buck-Morss 10 describes Benjamin’s method as “constructing ‘historical objects’ in a politically explosive ‘constellation of past and present,’ as a ‘lightning flash’ of truth.” Could these sudden, cacophonies of perspectives be that flash? By confronting us with both the failures of the city to address the racism at the core of advanced capitalism, as well as the tensions between the spacetime of the city and the smartphone, can we begin to grasp a future where everyone speaks and everyone listens?

Samuel Gerald Collins is a cultural anthropologist interested in information society and globalization, primarily in the United States and Korea. His M.A. and Ph.D. are from American University in Washington, D.C. Before he became a professor at Towson University, he taught at Dongseo University in Pusan, South Korea. During 2006-2007, he spent a Fulbright year at Kookmin University in Seoul.