The suburb issue of Failed States includes an original fiction by Wayne Koestenbaum; special projects on the Charles Atlas film Staten Island Sex Cult and the late South African photographer Thabiso Sekgala; a portfolio of posters for queer skate collective Unity selected by Ian Giles; and contributions from writers, artists, photographers and educators from Iceland, North America, Pakistan, South Africa, and the UK, in which…
Ayesha Malik documents an American suburb in Saudi Arabia
Baneen Mirza walks the Lahore sprawl
Brian W. Ferry locates the suburban in Brooklyn
Bryony Quinn researches a divisive wall in Oxfordshire
Colter Jacobsen doesn’t remember
Daniel P Callanan explores wild places in south-east London
Donal Mosher recalls the dogwood trees of North Carolina
Jack Self goes back to the beginning
Jacques Bellavance photographs Europe-inspired developments around Shanghai
Jenny Lin spends an evening in those same Shanghainese suburbs
Jeremy Atherton Lin follows the searchlights of the Silicon Valley
Josh Cheon digs up his teenage mixtapes
Justinien Tribillon undertakes an etymological adventure
Karen Tongson soundtracks her youth in the Inland Empire
KT Browne finds herself in a remote Icelandic town
Matt Wolf hangs out in Boca Raton’s retirement communities
Nina Power contemplates the supra-rural
Olivia Laing has a phenomenological moment
Peter Nencini makes public art in Croydon
Sabelo Mlangeni ventures into a wealthy Johannesburg suburb
Tara Sinn moves to a cul-de-sac
Publisher & Editor: Jamie Atherton
Associate Editor: Jeremy Atherton Lin
Art direction: Sandy McInnes
The second issue is larger in format (150 x 220 mm), with longer texts, special projects and a greater focus on photographic essays. Order a copy here.
“In my youth the suburbs were rather looked down on — I never quite knew why,” wrote the essayist Max Beerbohm in 1914. It’s a sentiment that endured the century — remarkably, perhaps, considering it describes the most relative of topographies. In many respects the suburban is defined by what it is not: to be not of the city, but equally not of the country. Indeed, as Nina Power suggests in this issue, this in-between place might alternatively be characterised the supra-rural.
It is often the American suburban imaginary that dominates our preconceptions. As someone whose formative years in rural England provided little by way of entertainment but a VCR, it remains — despite my subsequent years in California — those images of the chaste pastel homogeneity into which Edward Scissorhands stumbles, or a lawn so trim the Heathers can play croquet on it, that persist. A handful of Christian Slater films taught me that despite the boredom (or maybe because of it), the suburbs are where tensions and anxieties bubble away in pine-paneled basements, ultimately erupting in violence, rebellion, catharsis. For those who grew up there, the left-behind cul-de-sacs, culverts, cinemas and malls continue to resonate. The deeply personal accounts in these pages are charged with a certain queerness, steering the recollections clear of the pitfalls of nostalgia, instead confronting states of profound dissatisfaction, alienation and hope — and finding they remain relevant. These memory-scape suburbs are not merely the preserve of a cinematic past.
But the American version is by no means definitive; as I hope will become evident to the reader, to be sub to the urb can mean many things. The lifestyle and vernacular of the American suburb is readily transposed — as witnessed in photographs of a gated community built for expat ARAMCO employees in Saudi Arabia. In other cases, an urban influence (albeit a disneyfied one) on new suburban developments has yielded spectacles such as European-style towns around Shanghai and, on the outskirts of Lahore, sphinxes and an Eiffel Tower emerging from the dust.
Perhaps a suburb should not simply be defined by its proximity to the metropolis. In apartheid-era South Africa, Bantustans supplied cities with a workforce, bussed in daily across planned yet impractical distances: a geography born of the regime’s ferocious segregationism. And in Iceland, with a population of little over 300,000, could it be that all communities become suburbs of the capital, no matter how far flung?
The suburban might also be posited as a quality: something crepuscular, between sunlight and night, melancholic yet optimistic. It’s a quality one could apply to skateboarding — with its associations of driveways, skateparks and empty swimming pools — even when reinvented as a radical movement of queer empowerment, intervening in towns and cities globally. A more sinister undercurrent to this twilight casts a chilling pall over Wayne Koestenbaum’s (also very funny) fable of “internecine terror.”
“Many people like suburbia,” declared Denise Scott Brown and co. in Learning From Las Vegas (1972), writing in the wake of “white flight” as urban centres became synonymous with violence and decay. Today, many cities in the world’s more economically developed countries face a quite different threat — that of relentless and shortsighted redevelopment for profit. As living costs continue to climb, might we see a new generation of erstwhile committed city-dwellers take flight, finding their own reasons to like these enigmatic edgelands? (And then how, as Jack Self considers, can a suburban populace ‘undo’ the foreclosed nature of its planned environment?) For the priced-out and done-in, for those with the imagination to look beyond stigma and stereotype, who have the opportunity and tenacity to break from the increasingly prescribed lifestyles of the urbane and refuse the all-consuming rat race, the future may yet prove a suburban one.
— Jamie Atherton, London, May 2018
Published May 2018 in London