Geographical Imaginaries

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.

 

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Salty City

This summer, I visited Venice. As we rode the boat from the station around to the Lido, I passed the Magazzini del Sale, now an exhibition venue, currently showing ‘Salt of the Earth’ by Anselm Keifer. The economy of Venice was built on the salt trade, and as the historian S. A. Adshead has written, “for the Venetians, salt was not a commodity among commodities… it greased the wheels of all the working parts and fuelled its motor”. Salt was “il vero fondamento del nostro stato.”

As early as the year 528 A.D. the secretary to the Ostrogothic king of Italy wrote of Venice, “There lie your houses like seabirds’ nests, half on sea and half on land…Your inhabitants have fish in abundance: the same food for all, the houses alike; and so envy, that vice which rules the world, is absent there. All your activity is devoted to the salt works, whence comes your wealth. Upon your industry all other productions depends; for there maybe those who seek not gold, yet there never lived a man who desires not salt. For your gains you repair your boats, which like horses you keep tied at your doors. Fishing is the means of livelihood, salt the industry, democratic equality the social note.”

Today the dominant industry is of course tourism, and during the summer months, Biennale-goers compete with the souvenir shoppers and snap-happy tourists thronging to St Marks Square. However, visiting the Giardini, I found traces of the old salt trade in artworks in several pavilions. In the Israeli pavilion, artist Sigalit Landau’s installation One Man’s Floor Is Another Man’s Feelings includes a proposal for a ‘salt bridge’ connecting the Israeli and Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, and an installation of a empty boardroom, the scene of an apparent debate on the proposal. Landau is fascinated by the Dead Sea and “on what it represents for humanity…what it suggests about human life and the perils facing it on both the personal and communal levels.”

In another work, a pair of boots covered in salt crystals from the Dead Sea are placed on a frozen lake in Gdansk. The boots slowly melt the ice, sinking down as the sun sets. I am reminded of the corrosive power of salt, of its ability to make things vanish uncontrollably. The lake becomes quicksand, unstable ground, like our attempts to remember.

 

In the Brazilian pavilion, Artur Barrio’s installation Registros + (Ex) Tensões y Pontos includes crates of salt with fishes heads poking out, images of the sea and scribbles on the wall and floor, an umbrella standing at a jaunty angle and an abandoned bed surrounded by rubbish and empty bottles.

This is a constructed situation, but it accidentally replicates a real place out on Venice Lido, at Malamocco, where we swam and walked. In this strange edgeland, far from the masses, constructions have appeared at the waters edge. Perhaps Barrio has captured and preserved this lost spirit of Venice – the simple use of the natural environment and materials at hand to construct a heterotopia, a space of difference, where another world might be possible.

     

References:

http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~gel115/salt.html

http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/venice.htm

http://www.labiennale.org/en/Home.html

Building a Different World: An Aesthetics of Fluidity” by Chantal Pontbriand; in http://www.kamelmennour.com/media/exhibition/s3/id251/presskitslandau.pdf

Foucault – Of Other Spaces (downloaded from http://tadubois.com/Volumetwohomepage/Foucault.pdf)


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Crossed Destinies

Inspired by Calvino’s fictions based on Tarot cards, (see right) I wondered if I could create an approach to narrating place based on shuffling the 54 ‘stories’ collected in the marketplace. I have made a still from the photographed object which relates to each story and created a set of cards from these.

I then placed the cards into rows and columns by associating the images, to create a series of new ‘stories’ from the different objects and images. I’ve made a short animation of this process: http://www.vimeo.com/27366963

We also used the set of cards as part of the Dinner Party Performance last weekend at Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. Dinner guests were asked to select a card at random which related to the climate of each ‘course’, and read the selected quotation.  It was interesting to see the random conjunction of reader and story, strangers taking on the voices and destinies of others.

I met architectural historian Yat Ming Loo last week and we discussed how writing can be a form of architecture, re-shaping the identities of places. I want to try using the cards as a way of exploring and narrating place/making a collective biography. I am reading Locus Solus, by Raymond Roussel, which he wrote using a strategy of formal constraints: “I chose two similar words. For example billiards and pilliards (looter). Then I added to it words similar but taken in two different directions, and I obtained two almost identical sentences thus. The two sentences found, it was a question of writing a tale which can start with the first and finish by the second…”

Interestingly, Carlo Scarpa, in his design of the Brion Cemetery at San Vito d’Altivole makes reference to Locus Solus. I am wondering how the creation of a set of ‘rules’ for making writing or narratives about place could influence the creation of a set of rules for design, and vice versa.

Whilst investigating the Calvino book I also came across some information on Pataphysics:  “Pataphysics means “beyond metaphysics”; It is the science of imaginary solutions that studies the exceptions rather than laws and aspires to provide imaginary solutions to practical problems.” Perhaps in the act of fictionalising place, solutions for practical problems could be found.

 

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Miracle Trees and Myths

I’ve just got back from Nottingham, where I met artist John Newling for a conversation about my PhD work.

The conversation with John was richly full of diversions around the theme of salted earth. We discussed his early salt works, and his interest in salt as both a preserver and polluter of life. We talked of migration being initiated by the salting of land, as land becomes desert and soil becomes unproductive, people must move. Also of scientific salt experiments – Dr Alan Gadian is currently experimenting with harvesting salt from seawater and sending it up into the clouds, in an attempt to decrease global warming (the project is actually called ‘Silver Lining’) We wondered whether art can have the potential to reinvent polluted spaces, whether literally or metaphorically?

John’s current work is very much focused around soil and plants, for example in his project about Miracle Trees. He showed me the Miracle Trees he is cultivating. These wonder plants have all sorts of real curative properties as well as metaphorically being miraculous.

We discussed the genealogy and migrations of plants – he told me of a plant in the deserts of the Southern USA which apparently pulls up its own roots when it can no longer find water, and then migrates on the wind in search of better climes. He told me also that we are now in the anthropocene age, that geologists are acknowledging the effects of human industry (and architecture) on the soil. I thought of how soil contains architectural ghosts, and this reminded me of Victor Buchli’s discussion of an  archeology of the present which can be used to study the ‘active role of material culture in the study of social relations’. Buchli suggests that this process can become’ a profound therapeutic act’. 

We also talked about causalities, structural anthropology, and how to select and distill texts for a PhD. He mentioned this quotation from Levi-Strauss:  “Myth is the gap between the object and the expression of it.” He thinks this is a good working definition for art. I think it might be a useful distillation of what it is I am trying to find out, too.

http://www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/art/john-newling

Victor Buchli and Gavin Evans (ed.s) (2001) Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, Routledge

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Reliquaries and relics

Yesterday I went to the British Museum to see “Treasures from Heaven”, an exhibition of medieval relics and reliquaries. I sketched the ‘Icon of the Man of Sorrows’, an incredible portable reliquary with an intricate mosaic of Jesus surrounded by 200 bundles of relics in tiny alcoves.

The finely crafted ancient objects brought to mind many references, including Memory Theatres, the Wunderkammer and the medieval and renaissance trend for elaborate containers for salt (see left), which represented the value of salt as a commodity, and its ability to preserve.

In Kevin Hetherington’s article on ‘Praesentia’1, he defines a relic as a ‘fragment made extraordinary by association’, and uses this to explore the idea of praesentia as a spatial or haptic experience of the relic – “an encounter with the presence of an absence that is Other to direct and previously known representations.” (Josipovici, 1996)

John Newling suggests that places are transformed by what we bring to them; in other words, by the act of pilgrimage. In our work, the salt pan becomes a site of pilgrimage. The Salt acts as a relic – it contains the substance of the place. But it also has the power to both preserve and corrode memory.

In the exhibition, a ‘speaking reliquary’ was explained as one in which the form of the reliquary is defined by the shape of the relic. I think about how relics of place could start to define the spatial form of a reliquary, or a series of reliquaries, which could act as memorials to vanished histories.

1Hetherington, K (2003), Spatial Textures: place, touch and praesentia. In Environemtn and Planning vol 35 

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Mythogeographies

I have been thinking about systems, and ways of processing information about place; how to weave together the collected narratives, images, films and other data, some of which document the vanished, the mysterious, and the occult. Maybe I watch too many crime dramas, but I thought it would be useful to create a kind of site plan/pinboard/mapping of the project, which can include both the present, traces of the past, the fictional and the real. I have started drawing the site on my studio wall and adding stills from the films and other images I’ve collected.

I found that Origination had been listed on a website called Mythogeography.com (http://www.mythogeography.com/2009/11/blog-

post_3492.html).

The definition of Mythogeography is explained thus:

Mythogeography describes a way of thinking about and visiting places where multiple meanings have been squeezed into a single and restricted meaning (for example, heritage, tourist or leisure sites tend to be presented as just that, when they may also have been homes, jam factories, battlegrounds, lovers’ lanes, farms, 

cemeteries and madhouses). Mythogeography emphasises the multiple nature of places and suggests  multiple ways of celebrating, expressing and weaving those places and their multiple meanings.

Mythogeography also draws upon what Charles Fort* might have described as ‘the procession of damned data’. So, occulted and anomalous narratives are among those available to 

mythogeography, not as ends in themselves, but as means and metaphors to explain, engage and disrupt.”

This seems to be a good definition of my field of enquiry, and it’s an interesting and suggestive approach to try and unfurl the multiple meanings of place, and think about what kind of design/intervention this could generate.

* Charles Fort was an American researcher and writer on ‘Anomalous Phenomena’, hence Fortean Times etc. etc. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort)

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Super 8 Site Survey

I have uploaded the film I made on Super 8 earlier this year to Vimeo..

 

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Sound and Vision

I went to see “Gone with the Wind” at Raven Row gallery, (http://www.ravenrow.org/current/) works by Max Eastley, Takehisa Kosugi, Walter Marchetti and Resonance104.4fm. (see images on left)

Max Eastley’s early works included a piece called Airophone, strangely enough. I really enjoyed  his drawings and those of Walter Marchetti and Takehisa Kosugi, which played with the idea of the musical score,

duration and linearity.

They reminded me a lot of architectural drawings such as those by Daniel Libeskind and Iannis Xenakis. I want to investigate this connection between the space of sound and the sound of

space further.

I also found out about Sound-on-film,  processes where the sound accompanying the picture is physically recorded onto photographic film, usually, but not always, the same strip of film carrying the picture.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound-on-film

This is curiously similar to the unintended results of the Aurophone machine, where the sound and image are combined onto the same frame, as a visual reading.

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Salt Routes

Whilst exploring the internet I came across this book:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Salt-Routes-Old-Photographs/dp/1848684762

and reading the authors blog, I discovered that salt routes were some of the earliest roads criss-crossing the UK, as salt was traded between towns.

From wikipedia: A salt road (also known as a salt route, salt way, saltway, or salt trading route) French: Route du Sel) is any of the prehistoric and historical trade routes by which essential salt has been transported to regions that lacked it (see History of salt).From the Bronze Age (in the 2nd millennium BC) fixed transhumance routes appeared, like the Ligurian drailles that linked the maritime Liguria with the alpages, long before any purposely-constructed roadways formed the overland routes by which salt-rich provinces supplied salt-starved ones.

This makes a clear connection between salt and migration, as salt was the intial reason for the laying down of many routes of trade and therefore of migration. I have ordered the book and am excited to find out where the routes went..

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Confabulation: video upload

I have uploaded the film of ‘Confabulation’ onto Vimeo. See this link:

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