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Urban Cowboy

An urban cowboy is seemingly a paradoxical figure, but not necessarily so. A cowboy is like grass growing between the tiles. Although the space in a square system is tight, no matter how small, it allows uncontrolled growth. Cowboys seldom meet. If they meet, it is short and to the point. It is lonesome, but never alone. I went looking for them in my town.

by Bert van der Zee

If the city differs from the Wild West, then it is because of the gigantic density of people. More tiles, more overgrowth, more cowboys. And no matter how much cowboys differ from each other in appearance, and in their comings and goings, they are cut from the same cloth, and you can smell it. It takes courage to display your authenticity, but for an urban cowboy it is an effortless activity. The city has different laws, other needs, other opportunities, but the dialogue the cowboy has with all this is unchanged. Again and again that question: “What will I do with my freedom today?” In my circle of friends I found some cowboys. I asked them about their cowboy life, and what makes them a cowboy. And no matter how typically they fit the profile, while talking with me, they trample on the framework of what a cowboy is. Therefore, according to themselves, they never really fit the cowboy profile- the one that does not exist anyway. This exactly befits a cowboy. At least for some of them.

This year, Casper has officially been my friend. He is an urban cowboy, I think. Is it his style of clothing? His tightly shaved beard line? Is it because he greets women on the street that he has never met before and sometimes serves them breakfast the next morning? No, it’s his Honda motorcycle. Or maybe it is simply because making an appointment with him via the telephone doesn’t work, and I constantly run into him when we have forgotten about each other. “An urban cowboy knows the laws of the jungle and the laws of the city”, he says, “ he knows how to play, to get what he wants. How to deal with a woman. How to get a well-paid job. What are the “must-goes.”

According to Casper, a yup might be an urban cowboy and also vice versa. However according to him there is an essential difference. “Self-enrichment isn’t a priority”, he explains. “A free spirit takes what he needs. He does not work for the system, but lets the system work itself”.

When I spoke with Casper I couldn’t get out of my head something I once read: “If you want to kill the king, you must become his best friend”. An urban cowboy doesn’t rebel. He knows the legal loopholes and slips through them with style. “ In that sense, I don’t think I am an urban cowboy”, Casper tells me, “because financially I don’t have that independence yet”. With funky merchandise an urban cowboy earns his money, on which they live well, without holding out their hands. Yet at the same time they don’t depend on their own success. Losing freedom, is not the issue.  Buying a house? It’s possible. As long as it gives freedom instead of taking it away.” While Casper tells me this, he shakes sand out of his ears, from Black Rock Desert, where he met, Burning Man, at the festival. Real cowboys.

What brings me and my other friend Jasper together, is that we meet each other everywhere and nowhere. Jasper is a vagabond, a ‘stroller number one’. In his own words, a cowboy without a hat. Is this perhaps because the urban landscape offers enough shadow? On his feet, even more so than by bike, he strolls around city. He is always accompanied by everybody. “Strolling is the best there is”, he says, “For adventure you don’t have to travel far. Everything is around you”. His eyes aren’t always focused on the horizon. He thinks an urban cowboy is easily recognisable. “They smoke. That’s a must. And they have masculine qualities. They don’t own a horse but a bike or a Vespa. At the same time they can’t be categorised based on style of clothing”, according to Jasper.

He thinks it is  more a certain agility that makes an urban man, a cowboy. The modern form of throwing a lasso is skateboarding, walking a tightrope, or throwing garbage bags. It will always remain a mystery, but it’s true. “An urban cowboy is popular with women. He doesn’t hesitate to sleep with a lot of women. But at the same time he is a loner. He doesn’t have a lot of friends, but he is actually also never alone. Except in his wilfulness”, Jasper explains. “And obviously, an urban cowboy is into music”, he added. Jasper doesn’t throw lassos, but vinyl.  He plays records, samples them and transforms them into complete new hip-hop beats, which he performs live, in bars, living rooms and street tunnels.

The third cowboy in my circle of friends is Joshua. I haven’t seen him for years. And still: if I have to drive someone in and out the cowboy category, it is Joshua. He simply has the looks. It is inspiring, how someone so good looking, shows sheer sympathy. His smile displays a low dentist invoice. Arrogance is unknown to him. You might come across Joshua anywhere on this planet. I would say during all four seasons. In summer he builds and dismantles gigantic staging and installations at festivals. Thick skin on hands and soul. He knows the paradox of independence in being together. He once said: ”The only thing I need while travelling is a bottle of water, the rest will come.”

I contacted him via facebook, because he was in Tokyo. The cowboy label he dismissed immediately. “I think it has a negative ring, cowboy. Someone who doesn’t care about anybody and complies distinctly to his self-created rules and therefore upsets others. Not that I am pro shackles of convention”, he added. “I’d rather see myself as an Urban Ninja. Someone who in ignorance makes things happen, and goes for the big picture, without anyone really noticing. Sometimes clockwise, sometimes not. Urban cowboy sounds to me a bit silly and rebellious. Loud but without substantial actions that inspire or are effective. Anyway, what’s in a word? All interpretations of something that is empty in reality.”

I can’t wait until I forget about Joshua and run into him somewhere, escaping the same safety-net;  an endless variation on that theme of free movement. If words are a lasso then sometimes you catch and sometimes you miss. Finally, here is my version of a typical urban cowboy. Auto-biographical? Perhaps, except for the moments when I miss. It still is colouring outside the lines.

Urban Cowboy?

Someone who is well dressed but who isn’t afraid to become dirty. Prepared for everything he wants to experience. Not only does he always have his phone charger with him, but also a powerbank, condoms, lighter, pen, pocketknife, deo, passport, ear plugs, toothpicks, chewing gum, a little bottle of water, cash and atm pass. He owns compact but robust transportation: a bike, skateboard, a moped. He doesn’t own a car or a motorcycle because that could limit him.
He distinguishes style from imitation, but isn’t afraid to dissolve into the crowd. He doesn’t display his taste but he casually gives it away as a result of immediate need.
He is a person who is just as happy with a bag of chips, as with a four-course meal in a five star restaurant.
His cultural background is negligible but not lost. On the contrary, he honours his roots but washed away the traces and blends easily into any other culture.
He is a person who doesn’t derive his strength from systematic training but from the need for movement.
He dances, he is invisible. If you see him, you will recognise him immediately; you want something from him that he will never give and yet he is generous and shares that what is needed. Someone who, in a group, is camouflaged but in front of an audience bursting with confidence.
There is no woman in who he finds something he didn’t receive from his mother.
He wouldn’t hurt a fly, but if blood must be spilled, there will be blood.
He gets a smooth shave without an appointment.
And above all, he carries a handkerchief with him because you never know when you will get your hands dirty.

Photo: Jasmijn Schrofer

Soulful or not?

We live in a world in which we blend in more and more with the objects around us. Therefore, the need for methods to determine the soul of objects is growing. Why? Perhaps to guard our independence as human beings. Or perhaps to show empathy for the objects we design, produce or use. In her book, “Beseelte Dinge-Design aus Perspektive der Animismus”, the German designer and research scientist, Judith Dörrenbächer, explores methods to define the soul of objects. This is to recognise the blurring of boundaries between man and objects. Bert van der Zee talked with Judith Dörrenbächer about the role designers play, when it comes to border control.

by Bert van der Zee

Why are you so interested in techno-animism?
Today objects make many decisions for us. They are linked to other objects, they learn, they feel. They have abilities that previously only human beings had. On the other hand, objects are losing resistance because tangible boundaries are simply disappearing. It is not as obvious anymore where an object starts and our barrier ends, or vice versa. Objects adapt to our behaviour, they learn to meet our needs or the needs of companies. They also influence our behaviour without us noticing. Furthermore, these objects are interconnected. They are part of something bigger, a sort of ‘internet of things’. In a way, they form a new ecosystem.

What does animism have to do with this?
In this technological trend, we see characteristics of modern people enjoying communication with objects. Previously it was always thought that only indigenous peoples, enjoyed doing so. But today everybody talks to objects, and everybody waves at objects to interact with them. Modern people once distanced themselves from this behaviour by saying: “we are rational, we are adults, we don’t believe that objects have a soul.” On the one hand we think of ourselves as very modern, living in a high-tech society. On the other hand we behave pre-modern. That fascinates me. The future and the past merge. At the same time I realise that it is not easy for people to develop a sense of self, because the line between humans and technology, blurs. What was once a tangible counterpart, is now an intangible object. This phenomenon reminds me of something called “magical thinking” in animism theories. In Animism, magic and enchantment are intertwined.

Can you give an example of magical thinking?
I would like to refer to Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist. He describes the early development of children in which he states that young children are not able to make a distinction between themselves and the outside world. When children close their eyes they think the world disappears. Or they think the moon follows them as they walk around. Young children think that their thought and behaviour influences the outside world. They are aware to a limited extend of the dividing line between themselves and the world around them. Jean Piaget called this ‘magical thinking’. Today’s technology confirms this phenomenon in a new way. In the future we will be able to control the outside world with smart contact lenses by blinking a few times with your eyes. And when this type of brain-computer interaction become more commonplace, your groceries will be delivered, only by thinking about it. This kind of technology encourages magical thinking. But how can we monitor our sense of self in an environment in which technology adjusts easily to our needs? Perhaps we need a new form of resistance. We need to think about ways in which we can monitor the boundaries between ourselves and the outside world, between ourselves and the technology that surrounds us.

Border control by using resistance?
Yes, resistance is created for example in a system that is designed with errors on purpose. When common processes are disturbed, an object will react more as an opponent. The same applies to a more transparent system that shows what actually happens between the user and the system. Transparency shows that the interaction isn’t magic. Intentional mistakes and transparency form the resistance that creates distance between user and technology. This distance is clearly required to remain critical and self-conscious.

So resistance can be included in the design of a product?
You can experience resistance in experiments with physical interaction between man and object. This type of experiment focusses on imitating an object in order to consciously feel empathy for it. You will identify an object as something that is separate from yourself, because you can only feel empathy for something that is not yourself. It would be wonderful to redirect these findings to the world of technology. Perhaps it will help us to feel more empathy for the technology around us, and at the same time help us to keep our distance.

How do you see this in practice?
Well, there are two technological perspectives: the optimistic and the pessimistic. The pessimistic perspective says: ‘we lose our control because objects gain power over us. We are no longer subjects, but objects become subjects, help! The world turns upside down, and we become passive objects!’
The optimistic perspective assumes that technology helps us to become better persons, because we add something to ourselves. I am not interested in either one of the perspectives. I think we need borders between people and technology to maintain self-awareness. But instead of holding on to the old distinction between autonomous subject and passive object, I think we need to negotiate these boundaries to create new borderlines. I am very interested in experimental and artistic methods that will help negotiate yourself with the other thing. This keeps you aware of yourself and your ego.

Why is it important that people define themselves in relation to objects?
It is important to remain autonomous in our thought and withdraw from our surroundings. You can only feel responsibility if you feel who you are and feel that you have the ability to influence objects. That separates us from technology. We make ethical decision, not our smartphones. I find it interesting to see how we keep our sense of self and our human consciousness while everything around us seems so quasi-human. How will we monitor our boundaries? How will we design new boundaries? We have to move to a new concept of being human and to a new concept of an object, because both are changing.

Photo: Maxi Uellendahl

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