The week before last, I attended the Royal Geographical Society annual international conference, “The Geographical Imagination” which encompassed geographies of the archive, death, emotion, suburbia, invisibility and futurity, to name but a few.
The first session I attended, “Me Myself and the Archive”, explored the relationship between archive and user, with Christine Bichsel discussing Derrida’s idea of the archive as a desire to reach out for things in the past, for a sense of origin. She argued that if we see the archive as a metaphor for memory, we will undergo a transformation by engaging with it, developing narratives of use. Anne Marie Kramer also presented the idea of the archive as a space for dreams and revelations, where the past can be made personally meaningful. Adeola Enigboken’s interesting presentation explored the archive of (digital) data that exists ‘out there’ -and how its changing our notions of searching, using and analysing information.
In “Necrophenomena – political geographies of death”, Lakbar Jasal explored the contested nature of burial sites of migrants in England, while James Thurgill discussed processes of enchantment, describing his research with ghost-hunters (with a degree of healthy scepticism). Further into the spectral, and Jun-Huu Lin explained how office workers in new buildings were using the idea of ‘ghost’ to explain spatial conditions which were uncanny and abnormal to them. The spatiality of the spectral seemed to loom large, with ‘ghosts’ used as social sphere to construct pasts/transmit local knowledge, and as an indication of human/environmental relationships. Similarly, Avrill Maddrell’s work on the geographies of bereavement found a strong sense of the spatial in public representations of mourning, and in the informalisation of memorialisation.
“Art, Science and Geographical Imaginaries” included some bizarre and wonderful new technologies including a biodata system which enables you to measure your emotional state as you move around; and a GPS/poetry/music project which mapped non-linear elements of sounds into spaces so you could roam and collect them. Someone aptly quoted Jonathon Raban: “the city has a language that speaks to you” (Soft City, 1974). Questions arose around intention, purpose, use and usefulness, the different approaches of artists and scientists, research-based versus process-based work. Artist Nick Edwards talked about how several trips to Cape Farewell had lead him to adopt a Perec-style approach, using an ethnography of proximity, doing some “internal travel-writing” and exploring the very local instead of the very distant. Marcus Vergette’s bells were a beautiful metaphorical approach to memory and landscape, whilst also containing complex science within their form. They sit at the edge of the sea, and as the tide rises and falls notes are played within the bell. And Sara Bowler’s Field Station project in the Happidrome, Cornwall, asked how bodies of knowledge around particular places are collected and kept, in the context of artists working with scientists and other ‘experts’.
The “Sacred Journeys” session had a wide range of interpretations of both the sacred and journeys. Rob Irving’s research on crop circle makers explored our need for the sacred and to make this visible, or “ostention” of this (from ostendum, latin for “to show”). Alan Terry spoke about how Pilgrimage in 20th century can be redefined as any journey redolent with meaning, an individual search for meaning and identity, for example motorbike enthusiasts attending the TT races on the Isle of Man. Suka Shakkour’s work on the return of exiled Palestinians in search for their homes described the language of ‘site sacralisation’ in defining and making markers of the sacred, away from the actual site; where a key becomes revered, even enshrined, and reproduced, and a story of home gets told and retold until it becomes myth. After I presented my paper, Hugh Prince, a geographer from UCL said it reminded him of the Canterbury Tales, and I thought again of Calvino and crossed destinies; that it is the telling and sharing of the journey that sacralises it.
The final session I attended, “Art, Politics and Space”, saw presentations by artist duo Kennard/Phillips, Artscatalyst, and TJ Demos. Demos questioned how to address geographies of invisibility, and proposed that perhaps its not possible through straight documentary, which for me illustrated the importance of artist’s roles in the research process. Artists imaginaries combine with geographers to create new ways of thinking, and to challenge existing political structures with “dreams of the future from the past*”.
*a reference to the work of the Otolith Group.