Urban Jungle: Online magazine metroblossom explores the intersection of nature and the city

photo by David Schalliol

photo by David Schalliol

“What we do not see is as important, if not more important, than what we do see,” states David Schalliol on the opening page of his collaborative website, Metroblossom.com. The online space uses photography, painting, and text to take a closer look at aspects of urban life, which, although usually ignored or unseen, play a huge role in a changing environment. Flowers emerging from cracked pavement or moss slowly creeping over an abandoned building are not just unremarkable images blending into a broader impression of decay or disrepair–they are living reminders that the highly formalized urban environment we live in sits atop a natural world that proceeds with its own active processes.

Schalliol, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Chicago, describes metroblossom as something seeking to examine “the relationship that humans have with the non-human world and formal world.” His interest in this phenomenon began in high school when he lived in a suburb of Indianapolis that, like many, was experiencing the trend of new planned communities coming in and buying out land that was previously used for things like farming. In the midst of this process, Schalliol was visually struck by scenes of abandoned farmhouses sitting in fallow fields, manifestations of the transition from old to new communities.

He began taking pictures of these spaces because they were aesthetically appealing, but also because they were interesting conceptually. He describes thinking about how “there were these human-built structures that were slowly decaying, and in their stead was rising plant life, or animals who would make homes in them.” The way he would ultimately come to think about these spaces, though, changed as he began to think about the photographs he was producing. He recalls how “it was through that work that I began to see the transition from the entropy aspect of it to the growth aspect of it.”

Instead of focusing on the decay of human-oriented structures, he began to think more about how the intrusion of the natural world signifies a forward process of change, whether a return to a more natural state or a transition to another form of the human world. When he found himself in Columbus, Ohio, after college, this interest born in the context of his hometown was revived, this time in terms of a more urban environment where human-oriented structures seem to confine the non-human world to an even greater extent, obliterating it in favor of apartment complexes and skyscrapers or harnessing it into public gardens and parks geared to please the community.

This evolving personal interest eventually materialized into a website in 2000, where Schalliol posted some of his photographs and began playing with the concepts he had grown interested in. He describes how the website’s name, metroblossom, came about in college when he and his friends, when thinking about social problems or issues, would “create words that seemed to fill a kind of niche that we wanted to see filled.” Thus “metroblossom” was a linguistic way of compounding the idea of the urban and the natural as mutually involved concepts.

As Schalliol’s personal website devoted to this idea evolved, so did the breadth of work and conceptual ground covered. Funding from the University of Chicago Arts Planning Council and the Class of 2001 Gift’s Student Fine Arts Fund allowed him to expand the website, accepting submissions in multiple forms and from people all over the world. Having put out two full issues to date, one in 2004 and one in 2007, the website features the work of photographers, painters, poets, and even sociologists. Schalliol also has plans for an upcoming issue, for which he is currently accepting submissions.

David Schalliol; photo courtesy of the artist

David Schalliol; photo courtesy of the artist

While some of the featured works deal more explicitly with the idea of a clash between the human and non-human world, showing scenes of natural intrusions in urban environments, others are more subtle. Jennifer Hattam, a recent contributor, captures how humans impose the aesthetics of nature onto highly structured environments through photographs of things like trees harnessed in place on a downtown sidewalk or a sculpture mimicking the natural movement of water. Anjuli Waybright, another recent contributor, begins her entry with a strikingly colorful photo of cows in the midst of a simultaneously lush and exotic but partly destroyed grove, leaving the manner of the interaction between the human and non-human world slightly unclear.

These kinds of blurred lines are exactly what Schalliol hopes to draw attention to through metroblossom. Because the human relationship with the natural world is so often unclear, especially in the context of an urban environment, Schalliol sees his project as “paying attention to that material in a way that we typically don’t because we are so obsessed with…the way that our lives touch down in the world rather than the way that others do.” Making reference to Hyde Park’s Promontory Point Park, for example, he notes how we can simultaneously think about the decaying foundational integrity of the man-made structure, but also experience it as a natural environment, without fully mentally bridging the relationship between the two.

In using metroblossom as a space to start to think about tensions like these, Schalliol also addresses one of his more general concerns of “being aware of the living history of a place.” As someone who works in urban sociology–and also the managing editor of Gaper’s Block, an online website dedicated to things happening around Chicago–attention to the history and transitions of a certain place proves to be a theme of many of his interests. While not a native to Chicago, he has developed a deep appreciation of the city since moving here to do his doctoral work. Focusing on issues of inequality and social transition in the context of the city through his academic work, he has also actively taken part in the city that he studies through his various involvements.

His sociological work can be linked to his more artistic and conceptual interests involved in Metroblossom; he has become interested and active in exploring the field of visual sociology. A relatively new field, visual sociology entails a methodological approach of using visual material to study social phenomena, and furthermore, as Schalliol describes, looking at “how is it that using visual methodology changes things. Do we think differently about the world as a result of the way we perceive the world visually? Of course we do.” Taken in this context, then, Metroblossom can also be seen as a way of presenting phenomenological issues in visual ways that allow readers to think about such issues differently than they might if they just glanced at such scenes in the course of their daily lives.

What started as a minor interest in the liminal spaces in his hometown has come to develop alongside Schalliol’s broader artistic and sociological interests into a collaborative web space that continues to push ideas about environments and how they change, which is never just socially or just naturally. Schalliol suggests that by noticing and reflecting upon the transitional spaces that surround us, we can “see the constitution of new communities as we see the dissipation of old communities,” human and non-human. And this framework allows for a bit brighter, or at least less static, view of the often initially unappealing urban spaces we encounter every day.

For more information, visit metroblossom.com