? “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.” – Patrick Geddes
The Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) recently unveiled their latest installation, Urban Nature, a “walk-through film” that invites the public to become performers in a make-believe cityscape. We recruited actress Andrea Tivadar to put it to the test.
Cities are peculiar places. With every pavement under observation, every daily routine rigorously rehearsed, life in these gigantic spaces can often feel like a performance. “A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time,” as Scottish sociologist Patrick Geddes put it. A new exhibition-slash-film at Barcelona’s CCCB – Urban Nature – wants to embrace the theatricality of city life, inviting us to dive into our role as actors in the urban landscape.
Curated by German avant-garde theatre company Rimini Protokoll, the installation offers a window into the true stories of various Barcelona-based city dwellers, including a prison guard, a weed farmer, and a young homeless woman. Walking in their shoes across artificial city scenes, you’ll move through this exhibition as if through a film set. You’ll perform the roles of its protagonists, live out their stories, and see with your own eyes the diversity of human experiences that coexist in urban spaces. And though it isn’t uncommon to feel isolated in this labyrinth of inner-city life, you’ll see how each of our stories, while often unrelated on the surface, are essentially interconnected.
“Cities are a melting pot of varying realities that offer the potential for unexpected interactions, a place where identities are modulated and redrawn when seen through different eyes and from different perspectives,” explain the project’s directors (Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi, and Daniel Wetzel). “Instead of telling the stories of these real characters in a strictly documentary style, we’ve used scenography and technology to allow the audience to step into these contrasting ways of city life, as if walking through a film in which we can all see ourselves reflected.”
I had the pleasure of attending this bizarre theatrical experiment with Andrea Tivadar – someone who knows a thing or two about pretending to be other people. The British-Romanian actress, known for her roles in BBC spy drama Killing Eve and 2019 thriller Safe Inside, is no stranger to the immersive power of performance.
“I think the main goal of any performance is immersion and to empathise with others. Whether you’re the actor or the audience, this is what you want to achieve. As an actor, in order for my character to exist I need to be able to stop judging them and empathise with them – even if they’re the antagonist. That’s why performance is so powerful. It breaks down the walls within you, walls created by our education, by our families, by society itself. As people we crave that. We crave breaking down boundaries between ourselves and others. And sometimes the only way to do that is to put yourself in their shoes and live their stories.”
Cue the Urban Nature experience. We begin by entering an incredibly lifelike Barcelona plaça and diving into the role of Enric, a local history professor. While guiding us around the square, inviting us to mimic his daily routines, Enric explains through our headphones his view of the city, and how his life here has changed as the spaces around him have modernised. Focussing on a fountain in the middle of the square, he points out that historically, monuments like these have always reflected the diversity of inner-city experiences – originally built by aristocrats as a symbol of ceremony and status, later used by the lower classes as an indispensable source of water, and in modern times by tourists as a prime backdrop for TikTok content.
“If you think about it, it kind of set the tone for the entire experience. It showed how historically fountains acted as a sort of bridge between different sections of society. I even remember as a kid in Romania, they were like a meeting point for family, friends, and all kinds of people. And so it was interesting to start off with this, a symbol that somehow reflects all the different cities that exist within one city,” Andrea says.
As we move along through a variety of urban scenes designed by sceneographer Dominic Huber, our perspective shifts between alternate characters. In one moment we’re an entrepreneur giving a talk in a bougie, dimly-lit bar about how “Big Data” is going to change the face of the city as we know it. In the next we’re a homeless young woman, torn between sleeping in a menacing homeless shelter and a bus station. The juxtaposition is stark, and shows how even these seemingly disparate worlds are, in the context of the city, simply two sides of the same coin.
According to the project’s directors, this image of a striking contrast was the starting block for this project, moved as they were by the “disconcerting proximity between the splendour of the beaches of Copacabana and one of Rio de Janeiro’s most sprawling favela neighbourhoods.” A juxtaposition of opposites which, as they explain, can be found in any city.
“And this is what theatre is about, right?” Andrea says. “When we go to the theatre, we want to see all perspectives rather than just the most relatable ones. We want to experience multiple stories from multiple perspectives, and then learn from their contradictions. Because in the end this contrast makes us ask more questions. Like why do I find that character intriguing? Or why did that character make me angry? You judge them to begin with, and then you ask yourself why you’re judging them in the first place. So while you’re trying to understand these other people, you’re also learning about yourself.”
At the heart of the performance is an emphasis on urban improvement. Despite its abstract, theatrical intentions, we are invited to contemplate concrete realities. From the perspective of each character we face distinct issues, whether they be social, economic or political, and consider how we might go about solving them. In doing so, we explore how cities could provide us with a better way of living and a brighter future. “Urban Nature reopens the debate on the management of natural resources such as water, the right to decent housing, the expansion of new economies and work models, the inequalities between residents and the perspective of the youngest generations on the future of cities,” the directors explain.
But for all their complexities and contradictions, all their faults and potential futures, in the end there will always be one constant in city life: interaction. As Urban Nature shows, no action occurs in isolation in the urban environment. With our every move observed and interpreted, we are never truly alone. Everything we do and experience is connected to others. It is this complex network of interaction that defines the nature of cities, and in turn, makes them natural. “Where does nature exist in cities?” the directors ask. “In our complex relationships, our curious interactions, our interconnected communities. Here we find something unique to city life. Something much more fluid than we find in the countryside. Something natural that is always growing, continually evolving, as we move into the future.”
It’s an idea we might be resistant to at first, but which makes more sense after experiencing this walk-through film. We’re used to hearing cities described as artificial, man-made constructions which stand in opposition to the natural world. But really the characters, communities and connections within them create a natural rhythm of their own. After leaving this experience, it’s hard not to reimagine the city around us in this context, and appreciate it all the more.
“I walked out thinking: I want to observe more. I want to listen more. I want to learn more about the people around me. But also, I want to celebrate the city,” Andrea says. “After the pandemic, it seems like so many people are leaving cities for the countryside. But what about the bricks, the cement, the graffiti, the noise, and all these people walking around with incredible stories? What about that nature – the urban nature? You’d surely miss it if you left.”