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Spectral Cities - Western Humanities Alliance Conference

Date & Time:
November 2, 2018 - November 3, 2018
Calgary Central Library and Studio Bell, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

The CIH will host the annual meeting and conference of the Western Humanities Alliance, a consortium of humanities institutes in the Western U.S. and Canada. 

Freud compared the unconscious to the city of Rome, a place haunted by older versions of itself. What are the cities that haunt our cities and our imaginations: lost cities, forgotten cities, ideal cities, imaginary cities? How have fictional or filmic versions of the cities shaped the perception of real ones? How do these spectral cities interact with the everyday ones? What different versions of the city appear when we look at the everyday one from a different angle or in a different light: cities of animals, cities of transience, cities of opposition?

These spectral cities can include utopian urban programs, forgotten city planning exercises, past versions of the city captured in media, film, or literature, as well as other kinds of city ghosts and ghost towns. Proposals are invited on the representation of cities in art and literature, the role of ideal and imaginary cities, utopias and dystopias, alternative histories, alternative atlases and psychogeographies; undergrounds and underground cities; the city as assemblage, the city as system, the city as biosphere.

The conference will draw together a variety of scholars and artists to explore how the experience of the city is shaped or directed by more than just its physical make-up. The proceedings of the conference will be published in a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal, Western Humanities Review. Further, the conference will offer the opportunity to bring to the University of Calgary key voices in humanities’ approaches to cities and to facilitate the formation of larger research networks.

Register for this free conference or any of the keynote lectures here:

Venues and Hotel

We are privileged to host our lectures and panels in Calgary’s newest architectural landmarks: Spectral Cities will be the first public event following the Grand Opening of the new Calgary Central Library (designed by Snøhetta and named in Architectural Digest as one of The 12 Most Anticipated Buildings of 2018). Our keynote lecture by Alberto Manguel will be held in Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (lead architect Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works Architecture have won multiple international design awards for this visionary design).

The Hilton Garden Inn Calgary Downtown, located a block away from the venues, is providing an exceptional conference rate for our guests. Please use this link to book your hotel room:

Featured Guest Speakers

Alberto Manguel

The City as Dream OR The Poet as City Planner
No journey permits explorers to return to their exact point of departure. No sooner have they weighed anchor than the port changes behind them: new buildings spring up on re-drawn streets and new people come to live in them. Even in their memory nostalgia reconfigures the world that was left behind. The explorers are doomed to remember a city that no longer exists. This imaginary geography is infinitely vaster than that of the material world. The observation, however trite, allows us to sense the immense generosity implied in this vital human function: that of bringing to life that which cannot claim a presence in the world of volume and weight. The imaginary places of our mind need no materiality to exist in our consciousness. The cities of Utopia and Macondo, Oz and Eldorado are always present, though no official atlas will show their true location. "It is not down in any map. True places never are," wrote Herman Melville after seeing so much of the world we call real. This paper will attempt to explore some of those truly real cities.

Internationally acclaimed as an anthologist, translator, essayist, novelist, and editor, Alberto Manguel is currently the director of the National Library in Argentina. He is the author of numerous non-fiction books, including A History of Reading, an international bestseller chosen as Best Book of the Year by The Times Literary Supplement, and winner of France’s Prix Medici. His book Reading Pictures was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. He is also co-author of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a comprehensive and celebratory catalogue of fantasy settings from world literature.

Ato Quayson

Space and Interdisciplinarity: From Oxford Street to Postcolonial Literature and Somewhere In-Between
This talk will be an attempt to draw on insights from my book Oxford Street, Accra to set out some thoughts on the concepts of space and spatiality and their relationships to debates on cities in the Global South. I shall also discuss the differences between instrumental and synoptic accounts of interdisciplinarity drawing implications for thinking about the palimpsestic character of cities and how we might research this through an amalgam of methods from different disciplines.

Ato Quayson is Professor of English and inaugural Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, In his recent book, Oxford Street, Accra, he analyzes the dynamics of Ghana’s capital city through a focus on the city’s most vibrant and globalized commercial district. With an intense commercialism overlying, or coexisting with, stark economic inequalities, Oxford Street is a microcosm of historical and urban processes that have made Accra the variegated and contradictory metropolis that it is today.

Larissa Fassler

Walking in Place
For more than 10 years I have been developing an artistic practice that explores the public spaces of cities and examines their impact on inhabitants. I am drawn to sites emblematic of countries more generally and am particularly interested in the disconnect between a nation's ideals or image of itself and the reality on the ground. I make large map-drawing hybrids as well as objects that exist somewhere between models and sculptures. I employ my own subjective systems to survey public spaces by walking their edges, counting my steps, recording my corporeal experience and spending hundreds of hours collecting detailed observations. I feel that there is knowledge that comes from 'deep' looking, where assumptions and preconceptions about a place and its inhabitants can be corrected by accurate, often minute, individual and personal observations. Observing, describing, and naming are for me strategies to make different realities visible.

Larissa Fassler’s artistic practice reflects her interest in the architecture of cities and the way in which places affect people, psychologically and physically. She has recently focused on historically complex and politically contested areas, paying particular attention to the chasms between the idealized expectations for a space and the reality of the experiences that it creates. Her work has been exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Esker Foundation, Calgary; The Hessen State Museum Darmstadt, Germany, Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris and at SEPTEMBER, Berlin.

Abraham Akkerman

The Ideal City and the Authentic Street: Between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in City-Form
The notions of an ideal city, and with it, ideal society, possibly originate in Plato's mythical Atlantis and Magnesia. Solemnity of Plato's ideal city of Atlantis could be said to have seeped into later ideal urban notions: Platonopolis of Plotinus, The City of God of St. Augustine, Utopia of St. Thomas More, or Garden City of Ebenezer Howard. But, writing in Politics a generation after Plato, Aristotle presented an urbanist outlook based not only on an ideal city-form, but one celebrating haphazard and twisting streetscapes resulting from deliberate scheme "to arrange the houses irregularly as husbandmen plant their vines." Aristotle's call to adopt "both plans" as an urbanist principle, strongly resonates today when automation and uniformity seem to be the dominant propensity in city-form. The challenge to urban planning and design of our own times is to allow for the Dionysian to play its rightful role against the Apollonian in contemporary city-form.

Formerly a Principal Planner at the City of Edmonton, Abraham Akkerman is Professor of Geography and Planning at the University of Saskatchewan and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His work brings together the fields of philosophy, urbanism, geography, history, and architecture. He studies the psychological impacts of urban spaces and challenges the myth of the Rational City, arguing that the urban void—the unplanned space—is often the authentic space that provides relief for the individual. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Kafka, to name a few, found walking through the streets, squares and other urban voids an informal remedy to mood disorder.


Please let us know if you’ll be attending. Email confirmation to We hope you’ll join us in November for an exciting series of conversations.

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