The City Speaks Exhibition will be opening in cities across Europe in 2012 and 2013.

Tell us about your experience of the city and share your ideas for how you would make your city better.
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Next stop for The City Speaks, with British Council Germany. More information at:

Hope to see you there! 

The world speaks… from London, during the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in October 2013. 

The exhibition was displayed as part of the MOCAfest arts festival throughout the three days of WIEF. Maslaha’s Raheel Mohammed also spoke on a panel regarding the importance of creating knowledge-based economies. For more information, click here

The City Speaks was recently exhibited at TEDxBerlin ‘City 2.0’.

As of 2008, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, that figure is projected to climb to 70 percent. The world’s urban centers are faced with a global challenge, but the necessary solutions will start on a local level.

TEDxBerlin “City 2.0” is a response to that challenge. How will our living conditions change as urban populations swell? What about health care, energy, and transport? And what qualities must the City 2.0 have in order to be a livable place?

TEDxBerlin assembled more than 20 visionaries dedicated to answering such questions. From the practical to the fantastical, from groundbreaking projects that are already underway to utopian dreams—the perspectives explored on September 6-7 shed light on what’s in store for our cities, and how we urban citizens can become part of the discussion.

FIND OUT MORE HEREYou can also find about 2012 TED Prize winner ‘The City 2.0’ here.

Meanwhile the next stop for ‘The City Speaks’ in Germany will be at a university in Potsdam/Berlin in October. 

The eminent French writer Émile Zola said that the purpose of the writer is to live out loud. He lived by this principle, a belief that the voices of all communities have a right to be heard.

In December 1894, a Jewish officer in the French Army named Alfred Dreyfuss was found guilty of spying for Germany and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony on Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana. The debate around the trial raged through the official institutions of Paris and spread across France, dividing the country. Zola played a crucial part in a campaign to prove that Dreyfuss was innocent. 

Zola’s open letter J’Accuse…!, which supported the Jewish officer and attacked the army and the establishment for covering up the truth, was published on 13 January 1898 in the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore. It proved a turning point for the case and divided French society between those who were anti-Dreyfuss and pro-Dreyfuss. The price that Zola paid was to be tried for libel and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 francs. While waiting for a retrial he left for London where he lived in exile for a year. Dreyfuss was later pardoned and released.



Émile Zola, ‘J’Accuse…!’, 1898: Front page of the newspaper L’Aurore of Thursday 13 January 1898, with the letter J’Accuse…! written by Émile Zola about the Dreyfuss affair. The headline reads ‘I accuse…! Letter to the President of the Republic’.
Creative Commons license

Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century Emperor Justinian’s imperial church, was transformed into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed in 1453 after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans. It is reported that when the Sultan first entered the church he was in awe of the interior design. According to the 19th-century chronicler Ahmed Lutfi Efendi, although some Christian monuments were removed, the Sultan ordered the preservation of the angel’s faces, some of which can still be seen today. Renamed Aya Sofia by the Ottomans, this religious building is a unique record of the evolving relationship between two major religions and empires.

The Spitalfields area of East London has witnessed and provided sanctuary to those fleeing persecution and those looking to trade such as the French Protestants. In 1743 a building on Fournier Street was erected as a Huguenot temple. It was later converted into a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist Church, the Spitalfields Great Synagogue and, in the 1970s, a mosque. An original sundial with the Latin motto ‘umbra summus’ [we are shadows] remains.

The idea for building the Sagrada Familia belonged to Josep Maria Bocabella, a Barcelona bookseller. The architect Antoni Gaudi oversaw the construction of the iconic church in Barcelona, built ‘for the people by the people’, its first stone laid down in 1882. Made possible by the donations of worshippers, the church continues to be built in the public gaze as generations of visitors continue to become part of the Sagrada Familia story.


Hagia Sophia/Aya Sofia, Istanbul c1865 – c1895: A late 19th-century photograph of the interior of Hagia Sophia. 
AD White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library, accession number 15/5/3090.00051, Creative Commons license

Spitalfields Great Synagogue on Fournier Street, London 1951: This building in Fournier Street has been a Huguenot temple, a Wesleyan chapel, a Methodist Church, Spitalfied’s Great Synagogue and, since the 1970s, a mosque. 
© Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona 1882 – ?: Munksynz, Sagrada Familia, 13 January 2007, flickr, Creative Commons license

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona 1882 – ?: Since its first stone was laid down in 1882, the Sagrada Familia continues to be built in the public gaze.
Łukasz Dzierżanowski, Sagrada Familia, 
20 August 2011, flickr, Creative Commons license

The city comes alive with the faces of the people who live in them. French artist JR has taken this literally, pasting photographs of faces on the rooftops and street walls, on bridges and buildings, and on the physical barriers that divide communities.

JR’s projects are truly international and diverse. In Brazil you look at the favela from a distance and all you can see are its inhabitants looking back at you from the hillside. JR has taken images of the youth of the French banlieues [suburbs] pulling comically scary faces and pasted their photographs in the bourgeois neighbourhoods of Paris in response to the fear and demonisation of these young people. He has also pasted the faces of Israelis and Palestinians side by side on the barrier that separates them. In Women are Heroes, JR turns his focus to women who are victims of conflict, war, violence and oppression.

With these giant images, the community reclaims the streets for a pasted moment, the faces of the unheard voices conquer the walls and thus their stories begin to be told. In order to hear these stories, JR engages closely with each community, gaining their confidence enough to capture their faces on camera, full of expression.

In 2011 JR was awarded the annual TED [Technology, Entertainment, Design] prize and was granted ‘One Wish to Change the World’. The result is the Inside Out project in which JR asks people to spread the spirit of his work by capturing and sharing their images in the same way he does – turning the world Inside Out.

JR goes on to say: ‘In some ways, art can change the world. Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy. Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussions, and then enables you to change the world. What we see changes who we are. When we act together, the whole thing is much more than the sum of the parts. So I hope that, together, we’ll create something that the world will remember. And this starts right now and depends on you.’ [2011]



[All images Copyright JR.]

'Inside Out', New York City, USA (2011) - Inside Out is only one of JR’s projects that have sought to challenge preconceived notions and give the unheard a voice. In 2006 through Portrait of a Generation he made huge portraits of suburban ‘thugs’ from Paris’s notorious banlieues and posted them on the walls of the bourgeois districts of Paris. These images challenge the demonisation of these young men as their comical and mischievous faces loom over streets where they might often be viewed with suspicion.


'Inside Out', Karachi, Pakistan (2011) - JR’s Inside Out project has spread around the globe, allowing communities to bring their neighbourhoods to life by pasting their faces on the walls, reclaiming the streets as their own.


'Inside Out', Chiang Mai, Thailand (2011) - For the monk novices [samanens] it was a revolutionary and controversial move for them to paste their portraits on the wall of Ratchadamnoen Road, Chiang Mai. Permission was obtained from the Highest Monk of Chiang Mai, Pratepkonson, by Aline Deschamps, the instigator for this action, and she was able to convince the abbots of the temples of how Inside Out linked to Buddhist values by increasing tolerance through understanding of others. Though the posters only remained up for three hours before they were ripped down, they were symbolic in representing the young generation of monks.


'Women are Heroes in the Favela “Morro da Providência, Rio de Janiero (2008) - Women are Heroes focuses on women in conflict areas – as survivors, as targets, and as peace-builders – and pays tribute to their power and strength. Their hopeful and fearless portraits are blown up to a gigantic scale and displayed on public structures throughout the world – from Brazil to Kenya to Cambodia to India.

In 2008 riots broke out in Favela da Providência [known by many as the most dangerous favela] after three men from the community were brutally murdered, and corrupt army officials and the mafia were implicated. After hearing of these events on the news, JR flew to Rio de Janiero and began taking photos of the women from the favela, including those related to the men who had been killed. Their faces began to appear on the hillside, pasted on the sides of the buildings so that so that if you looked at the hill from a distance, all you could see were the faces of the women staring proudly back at you.

This project has also been turned into a film, which was released in 2011.


Inside Out, Israel (2011) - For ‘Time is Now, Yalla!’, JR and his team set up giant photobooths [in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jaffe, Ramallah, Bethlehem and other cities] which captured about 1,000 photos a day for Inside Out. This visit took place four years after JR visited the Middle East with his Face 2 Face project, which aimed to contribute to a better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. Face 2 Face was the largest illegal photography exhibition ever, where portraits of Israelis and Palestinians doing the same job were pasted face to face, on both sides of the wall and in several cities.

Bertolt Brecht was creating theatre during a revolutionary period in Berlin, at the time of the Weimar Republic. It was a period of great change politically and socially, when the city was the cultural centre of Europe and where everything was permitted. Brecht’s ‘epic’ theatre made great claims that it could change human nature and help to reorganise the way people lived their lives. He believed that actors should study ‘the theatre which is played on the street’. Brecht was acutely aware of the harshness and loneliness that city life could bring. Of the city, he wrote:

‘Beneath them are sewers, within them there is nothing, and above them there is smoke. We were within them. We found nothing to enjoy. We vanished quickly. And slowly they vanish too.’

Brecht was also aware of the power that art had to change the urban experience. The film Kuhle Wampe, for which he wrote the script in 1931, ends with the question: ‘Who is going to change the world?’ It is answered with the words: ‘Those who don’t like the way it is.’



George Grosz’s caricatural drawings of Berlin life in the 1920s captured the spirit of the Weimar Republic during a time of great political and social change.

George Grosz [1893–1959] 'Friedrichstrasse' (1918)
Lithograph on wove paper 492 x 665 mm
© 2011, Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Inv.: AM 397-1975, Photo Scala, Florence/ BPK, Bildagentur fuer Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin

Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis, made in 1926 and set in the year 2000, tells the story of the clash between workers and an authoritarian industrialist in a giant, fantastical city. Lang created a new way of looking at the city in a film that is today described as science fiction, and a predecessor to films such as Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. Metropolis depicts unrest and conflict in the city while still trying to show the city as a place of paradise. Although the film contains dark overtones of city life it ultimately ends on an optimistic note.



UFA/Paramount Pictures: US release poster for Metropolis 1927
14 x 36 inches
The film Metropolis is a science fiction made in 1926 that depicts a futuristic urban dystopia set in the year 2000.
© BFI Poster from 1927, 35mm transparency

The early 20th-century Futurist movement celebrated urban life and the new technology that it ushered in. The founding manifesto of Italian Futurism was published on 20 February 1909 on the front page of French newspaper Le Figaro. Emilio Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, its author, wrote:

‘We will sing of the multi-coloured polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals… of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons, greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents’.

Exhilarated by the speed and energy of the city, Marinetti wanted to obliterate the past and destroy Italy’s galleries and museums. This violent aspect of Futurism acted as a catalyst for some of its members to subsequently ally themselves with Fascism.


Umberto Boccioni, ‘The City Rises’ (1910) - With the advent of X-ray, artists such as Boccioni experimented with overlaying repeated images of moving figures.

Oil on canvas: 78½ x 118½ inches; 199.3 x 301 cms

New York, Museum of Modern Art [MoMA], Mrs Simon Guggenheim Fund © 2011, Acc.: 507.1951. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Digital media and the Internet have completely changed city life, and continue to shape urban spaces in ever changing ways. Each city has its own civic website – everything is mapped in an urban database which provides information for both residents and tourists. Digital media such as mobile phones, locative media and GPS have enhanced our physical experience of the city, bending space and time.

But perhaps more significant is the creation of a new realm of space. This digital space is not singular and separate, but multi-layered and intertwined with the physical: social media runs alongside our everyday lives, apps and interfaces add a new hidden layer accessible through barcodes on the walls, leading us to new experiences of our cities.

Some have said that whilst physical public space has become increasingly privatised, the Internet offers an opportunity for a new public space, revitalising a sense of democracy, ownership and freedom. American historian Theodore Roszak argues that ‘the coffee houses of 18th-century London, the cafes of 19th-century Paris were rather like this: a gathering place for every taste and topic’.

Can technology help overcome problems of communication and fragmentation that affect contemporary cities, bringing a renewed sense of community as we rediscover our neighbourhoods online? Or is this virtual existence a poor substitute for the physical experience? Will it mean we become more isolated from each other, leading to increasing divisions between technological haves and have-nots? Will the loss of context and local meaning lead to a loss of character and a sense of disorientation?

This digital space provides a new conduit for action and citizen participation. From websites that report roads in need of repair to twitter hash tags for community news and the growth of global movements, the Internet provides a space for new ways of thinking about our cities, a new outlet for creativity.

Mapping the Republic of Letters: This visualisation shows the ‘early social network’ of scholars that encompassed all of Europe, and reached beyond to Russia, Asia, Africa and the Americas from 1500–1800. More than 55,000 letters and documents were exchanged between 6,400 people.

Internet map of City to City Connections (2011): The structure of the Internet has been mapped from data sets, displaying how cities across Europe are interconnected.

Internet Map: City-to-City Connections 2011. Copyright Chris Harrison.
Mapping the Republic of Letters Project Visualisation 2009. Image reproduced with permission from the Mapping the Republic of Letters Project at Stanford University, USA.