Saturday, 27 February 2010

Mind meanders

Some more notes on meandering in the footnotes of the mind.....

Photographer/illustrator Peter Blegvad used to run a column in the Independent, called The Pedestrian (link on the right) illustrating a series of oblique and incongruous connections between found imagery.  Subtitled 'Encounters in the course of an expediton on foot', his photographs of banal objects and discarded items often illustrate the link between what is observed and what is imagined.  He has described the streets as a 'vast wunderkammer of changing exhibits' and cites as one of his influences the German writer Robert Walser who celebrated a pedestrian's pleasures in his short story The Walk.  Walser wrote "With the utmost love and attention the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly....a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a poor discarded scrap of paper on which perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters."

Here are a couple of examples that caught my eye the other week.....

observed in Lewisham

.....imagined by a graffiti artist across town in the City

Walking down an Islington street the other day, my eye was drawn to this exquisitely composed still life in shades of black, white and red.....


Moments later I chanced upon the red Christmas tree air freshener and crucifix through a car window.....


When I got home, I remembered an earlier photograph from a previous visit of a discarded Christmas tree on a London street......


....who says there is no underlying pattern to the universe?

Post Script
Driving into my local town yesterday, my thoughts as usual going off on various tangents, I noticed that the car in front of me sported an identical red Christmas Tree air freshener.  I wondered idly what perfume it was and as we stopped at the traffic lights, I craned my neck to get a closer look.  Was it Wild Cherry, like the one in the picture above, or some other perfume - maybe Vanilla, Pine or Apple?  Dangling next to it was, not a crucifix, but a miniature trainer - perhaps the smell of the one was to cancel out that of the other!  Try as I might, I couldn't make out the words.  The woman driver adjusted her hair in the rear-view mirror and caught sight of me looking - how to explain it away if challenged?  She indicated right to go into a car park and I was seized with a sudden urge to follow her and find out the answer to my query.  But I had to be somewhere, so the moment passed and now I will never know.....  Life is full of unanswered questions.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Window on the world

The mode of transport we use shapes our view of the world.  As pedestrians, we have a direct, unmediated encounter with the world.  Our thoughts and impressions are immediate and constantly changing as we negotiate the streets.  When we travel by car, bus or train we perceive the world differently - the view through the window is constantly moving, allowing us to disengage our thoughts from the here and now and enter the private worlds of our heads.  The rectangular shape of the windscreen or window resembles a television or cinema screen and the action flickers across it just as it does when watching a film.

In the car, the world stretches out in front of us, our eyes perpetually on the horizon. The miles roll by, the road disappears under the wheels, the car eats up the distance.  There is an urgency to car travel - we continually have a goal in mind, to get wherever it is as fast as possible.  The car is an extension of the body - when I am in my car, I feel the most cut off from the world.  I am in my little bubble, nobody can hear me or touch me, I see the other drivers but I am not curious about them.  They are going their way, I am going mine.  I am completely alone with my thoughts, and it is strange that the mode of travel that requires the most conscious attention, also allows the thoughts the most rein.  Often we arrive at our destinations without having any memory of the actual journey, so wrapped up in our train of thought are we.

On the train, fields, houses and stations rush past. We might catch sight of a fragment of someone's life as they stand and wait for a train at a passing station, stop their car at a traffic light, cross a bridge. And then, the moment is gone. We sit and gaze out of the window at one remove as life unfolds without our participation. It is as though our life is on hold - we cannot get off until the train stops. Time stands still - our immediate surroundings inside the train remain constant - only the view through the window is in perpetual motion like a never-ending reel of film.


Travelling by bus invokes different thoughts.  We are still separated from the rest of humanity by a pane of glass, but the pace of travel is much more stately, stopping and starting according to traffic flow and bus stops.  The top deck of the bus affords us a more intimate view into people's lives - we can stare without being noticed.  Little details sail slowly by - a woman struggles with a bright pink umbrella, a girl in a white knitted hat walks by as a lock of dark hair blows across her face, children dart about in a school playground, a dressmaker's mannequin stands sentinel in a top floor factory window - the moment passes, photographs that never were. Like Virginia Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, who "sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, felt  herself that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.  Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter, even trees, or barns", I too can convince myself that "that unseen part of us might survive attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death". 

As a pedestrian, we rarely look up, our eyes usually firmly directed at ground level. On the bus, the world takes on a different appearance as shop signs and advertisements glide past at eye level.  Being on the top deck of the bus is like being cocooned in a separate world.  As the bus crawls along, thoughts meander here and there, more transitory and less substantial than the sustained thinking on a train journey, where the unfolding view is like a background to the brain's activity, our reverie a private, inaudible soundtrack to our own personal movie.  There is something passive, almost leisurely, about bus travel - once settled aboard, I can surrender my will and allow myself to be transported through space and time, with nothing better to do than stare out of the window, while someone else negotiates the traffic.  I am lulled into an almost soporific state of idle wonder - where is the man sitting in front of me going, what is that woman thinking of, what do the people sitting behind me having a conversation look like?  Who left the handprint on the glass?


Next time you travel, put away your book, mobile or iPod, look out of the window and indulge your mind - let it roam free. You never know, you might actually enjoy your journey!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Footloose in the Footnotes

If the city can be considered as a text to be read, just think how far off the beaten track the footnotes to that text may lead us.  In her blog writer Emma Cocker compares the footnotes to our wandering footsteps which bear witness to a series of chance encounters and unexpected discoveries.

"Pay attention to the footnotes - those inconspicuous markers that linger at the edges of the text and in the crevices between words - for they are the unstoppable protagonists of meandering digression and of drifting thought...Footnotes signal dead-ends and dark alleys in a text's construction; the well-trodden districts and more marginal paths..." 

Another analogy might be to compare footnotes to the network of hyperlinks on the world wide web, taking us further and further away from our starting point, offering tantalising digressions and deviations on the way, and then sometimes leading us back to our original position.  When surfing the net, we use an associative rather than a linear kind of thinking which leads us to make connections between seemingly random elements.

In a similar way, my aim has been to make a series of associations between the various images produced on my journeys.  By taking it a step further, these connections can lead to links with other photographs, both my own and other people's, potential narratives or just musings on the vagaries and fluctuations that life throws at us.

Brick Art

The above two photographs, taken on the same day but in different parts of London on my last journey, have obvious connections - the mystery of the letterbox and the glaring insertion of the pristine new brick both break the symmetry of the facade. The jagged crack in the example below has a similar effect - this one taken over a year ago in another, distant part of London.


Below is another example of brick art, this time in a gallery situation - Carl Andre's much misunderstood 'pile of bricks', known as Equivalent VIII.  This work which exists in a number of different variations, is always composed of an arrangement of 120 bricks.   Although the shape of each arrangement is different, they all have the same height, mass and volume, and are therefore 'equivalent' to each other.  The bricks became a subject of national discussion in 1976 following an article in The Sunday Times 'The Tate drops a costly Brick'.  And yes, there are 120 bricks (or portions thereof) in my two examples directly above!

Here is a Lego version.....

And finally, another Lego masterpiece, by Italian Marco Pece, of an Old Master work of art, Leonardo's Last Supper....

Oh dear, we seem to have come back to religion again - there's absolutely no getting away from it !

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On the buses

For the first time in many years, I spent most of yesterday on a bus, or to be precise, several buses.  My second trip to London turned out to be under the rules of a deck of playing cards, to be spent travelling the city's bus network (although the dice was unwilling to secede its role as I threw 3 threes in a row which was last week's choice, before eventually throwing a five, which denoted the cards!)  The following rules applied:

- Use the cards to ascertain which direction to take - red card for E or W, black card for N or S
- Get on the first bus that comes along
- Select a card from the pack
- Disembark after the number of stops indicated by the card
- Walk about for a minimum of 30 minutes or until I find another bus
- Repeat the process - if a red card is selected, continue in the same direction, if a black card is selected cross the road and travel in the opposite direction
- If a joker is selected, travel to the end of the route

The cards selected to go east along Marylebone Road, and I eventually got out on Pentonville Road and wandered into Islington.  Chance tactics work in strange ways - with the whole city of London to explore, chance was determined to send me to places I was familiar with - this seemed to be the pattern for the whole day.  I decided to refrain from consulting my A-Z to give myself more of a chance to wander into unfamilar territory.  Further buses took me back into the city to Finsbury Square, and then back out again into the farther reaches of Hackney. 

I hadn't been on a London bus for quite some time and was surprised to see that each stop is now announced by an illuminated board accompanied by the refined tones of a female announcer....just as well, as the view out of the window was obscured for the most part by a film of condensation and raindrops, creating that special atmosphere of sheltered intimacy that you only get on the top deck of a bus but preventing you from seeing where you actually are. There is something very egalitarian about bus travel - once on board all passengers are part of a band of travelling humanity which has equal rights - no first class carriages or VIP lounges here, though those that choose the top deck as I always do, are members of that club that shares an elevated view of the world!

Throughout the day my view of London seems to have been filtered by a succession of windows or screens of one sort or another.....



God was obviously not prepared to take a back seat this time either.  Everywhere I went, I found images relating to his importance in people's lives, probably not surprising considering the poverty and disadvantage endemic in most of the areas I visited.  I wonder if his presence would be quite so visible in the more affluent suburbs? 

Monday, 15 February 2010

Reading the city

When thinking of a book to suggest the notion of the city, many people might propose the A-Z street map.  Open it at the relevant page and it will show you where you are and which direction to take, what notable sights are worth seeing and the means to plan your route.  What it will not show you are all the many details which may lie in wait for you, the observations you will make, the personal narrative which you, and you alone, will assign to the inert lines of the map, thus bringing it alive.  Each person's map is unique.

Author Peter Ackroyd describes the city as a work of art in his introduction to the book Faux Amis, a comparison of the photographic work of Eugene Atget and Richard Wentworth:

"The city itself can also then be viewed as a work of art, of which the inhabitants are the unwitting or unwilling constituents.  It is a form of theatre in which the citizens are all players blessed with perpetual audience.  It is a form of cinema marked by continual mobility and change.  It is a form of literature in which the streets are the lines of a book which can never be completed."

The idea of the city as a book is one that is closely associated with the concept of flânerie, that combination of idle strolling and observation.  According to Michael Opitz, in Reading and Flânerie

"The flâneur reads the city.  In so doing, he is guided by the streets and buildings just as is the reader of the text by the script... That which is written is like a city to which the words are a thousand gateways" 

The streets and buildings are merely a guide and the flâneur is like a detective, searching for clues in the details and traces to be found en route.  In his essay The Flâneur in Social Theory, David Frisby alludes to Walter Benjamin's famous unfinished collection of writings on city life in Paris - The Arcades Project - as a work of excavation, mining the city streets for details as one would scour a text for meaning.

"Benjamin excavates Paris, capital of the nineteenth century, as a text, just as the Berlin of his childhood is a text.  He does so not merely through texts on the city, but also through recognizing the text as a city."

Franz Hessel, a contemporary of Benjamin, uses the same analogy of the city as a book, in his essay Spazieren in Berlin: 

"Flânerie is a kind of reading of the street, in which faces, shop fronts, shop windows, café terraces, street cars, automobiles and trees become a wealth of equally valid letters of the alphabet that together result in words, sentences and pages of an ever-new book."

Philosopher and social historian Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, likens the act of walking in the urban environment to the speech act - the pedestrian 'appropriates the topographical system' in the same way as the speaker uses language and as such challenges the authority of the map, making it come alive as he walks.  As well as acting as a text to be read or spoken, the city can also be considered as a tabula rasa on which the walker can write his own narrative.  In the novel City of Glass, part of The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, the protagonist Quinn, a writer of detective novels, is given the task in real life of following a suspect day after day through the streets of New York.  At first the man's wanderings seem to be totally random, he can make no sense of them.  Quinn eventually realises that with each day's walk, his quarry is in fact tracing out the letters of a message onto the map of the city.

"...for Stillman had not left his message anywhere.  True, he had created the letters by the movement of his steps, but they had not been written down.  It was like drawing a picture in the air with your finger.  The image vanishes as you are making it.  There is no result, no trace to mark what you have done"

Surely this is how most of us move through the city, taking note of what we see, but leaving no trace behind, unless it is the fugitive trace of our passage through the streets captured on the CCTV cameras.


Peter Ackroyd's weighty tome London The Biography is lying on my shelf unread - I prefer to wait until I have completed this project before I start it, fearing it may influence my reading of the city.  I am inclined for the moment to look upon the city as a set of blank pages waiting for me to write on it.  Where will tomorrow's journey of discovery lead me? 

Thursday, 11 February 2010

All in the game

What is the role of play in art?  Why have I chosen to turn my desire for exploration and getting lost in the city into a sort of game?  Why not just choose a location and head off, camera in hand, till I have taken the photographs I wanted or until I have had enough?  I have been asking myself these questions and wondering perhaps if it is just that I have never grown up? Or is there a child in all of us, one who still likes to play games, to be bound by the rules, and yet to have that uncertainty that playing a game involves?

In the book Man, Play and Games sociologist Roger Caillois claims that play can be recognised by a number of defining characteristics:

1.  Free - it is a voluntary activity
2.  Separate - it is isolated from everyday life, usually engaged in according to precise boundaries of time and place
3.  Uncertain - its course and result cannot be determined in advance
4.  Unproductive - property or money may be exchanged or won, but no goods are produced.
5.  Governed by rules - which suspend ordinary laws, establishing new ones which are the only ones that count whilst the game is in play
6.  Make-believe - accompanied by a special awareness of a second or free reality  as opposed to real life

He further divides games into four different classifications:
Agôn - competetive, where equality of chances is artificially created and where each player desires to have his superiority recognised.  It implies discipline, training and a desire to win.
Alea - chance, from the Latin for game of dice, denoting games based on a decision independent of the player, where the player has no control over the outcome i.e. games of chance
Mimicry - simulation, where the player takes on the character of someone other than himself, thus temporarily shedding, disguising or escaping his personality
Ilinx - based on the pursuit of vertigo, in an attempt to destroy the stability of perception of the rational mind.  Characterised by extreme physical activity such as spinning around, whirling, loss of balance, giddiness, funfair rides etc.

Games can be a combination of several of these characteristics, but agôn and alea, although implying opposites, are governed by the same laws - the creation of pure equality not available in real life.  Both merit and chance are an attempt to substitute perfect conditions for the normal confusion of everyday life, a way of escaping the real world and creating another.

Many contemporary artists use play as the basis for their work and I shall be looking at some examples in future posts.  The Surrealists used play as a pursuit  undertaken for its own sake, a prime example being the technique of errance, a form of aimless wandering, the precursor of the dérive, where through a disengagement of the will and the use of chance strategies they attempted to stimulate the production of unconscious imagery.

Games mean many different things to different people.  In my case, they signify the misery of enforced games on the school playing field or the unmitigated tedium of board games such as Monopoly or Risk (though I was always partial to card games from a very early age and would happily spend hours engrossed in Patience).  In trying to untangle the motives which underlie my own chosen strategy, what appeals to me is the uncertainty of the outcome, the idea of a suspension of the norms of everyday life but probably most of all the notion that I am making up my own rules with no-one telling me what to do. I wonder what a psychologist would make of that!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Making sense of the accidental

Taking the photographs is only the first part of the project's task - the editing process which follows is equally important. A day's shooting may generate upwards of 300 images. A quick glance through will suffice to realise that the majority will not make the grade for whatever reason - too mundane, out of focus, not pertinent. This is not an unusual state of affairs - in the past, most photographers would have been happy to print just a handful of images from one roll of film.

Looking through the results of my first day's shooting, I search for images which have some connection - whether in form, colour, subject matter or just something intangible which speaks to me. The aim is to put together a sequence in photo-book form, to make a coherent statement out of the haphazard and random but this is very much a subjective concern. Whilst taking the photographs, I do not have anything particular in mind, I do not deliberately take one photograph thinking it will 'go' with another. I just photograph what draws my attention for whatever reason at the time. It is only afterwards, when looking through them, that I am able to make these links. Some may be linked by subject matter, like this pair of chair fragments....

At other times, a narrative seems to link disparate images....

The aim of sequencing is to establish a rhythm, making the juxtapositions neither too obvious or too obscure, though a little ambiguity does not go amiss - not a good idea to spoon-feed the viewer! The editing process is one of the most fascinating aspects of photography. There is something very satisfying about trawling through the day's haul of photographs to discover that chance has been up to its old tricks again - it makes me impatient to see what my next trip will have in store for me...

Friday, 5 February 2010

"Dice Rules" - first journey

To London on Tuesday for the first of my chance dictated journeys. The day did not start well, with heavy rain forecast for London and a particularly nasty new set of roadworks just outside my local station, which meant I missed my intended train. This however, was a blessing in disguise as the train I caught was virtually empty, allowing me to consult my dice in peace!

The Rules of the Game

- Assign a task for each number of the dice
- Follow the instructions for the particular task without any intervention of will
- Decisions about directions to take eg. left or right, to be decided by the dice

My choice of chance as the framework for my journeys was vindicated when the dice chose itself as the method of the day - no. 3. Allow the dice to dictate your day, each number having been assigned a different task. A second roll of the dice came up with task no. 2 Travel to the ends of a randomly chosen tube line, which turned out to be the DLR or Docklands Light Railway, a line I was not familiar with. Although I had half hoped that it would choose no. 4 Get Lost, after my research into that topic for my last post, I stuck to the option I was dealt, despite being sorely tempted to cheat! A moment's anxiety made me wonder if the DLR is really a tube line, but I decided that as it was on the tube map, it must be counted as one. Second moment of contention - it is a line with 4 separate branches - which one to choose? Chance was determined to shove me in at the deep end! I decided to give chance its head, and made for the nearest end station, Bank, trudging the city streets for a damp half hour in search of inspiration. I remember reading somewhere that the Square Mile has the highest proportion of security cameras in the whole of London and I imagine that, camera in hand, I will have shown up on many of them!

From Bank, I boarded the first train to arrive at the platform and ended up in Lewisham, SE London, only about a mile from where I used to live many years ago. A rather dispiriting and aimless wander followed - though definitely not in the spirit of the flâneur, the intermittent rain putting paid to any idle sauntering - but I did manage to stumble upon some interesting photographic opportunities. At one point I wondered if God was trying to send me a message - for the second time in a few months, I was approached by a pair of Mormons and thereafter kept coming across messages of a religious nature. Strange encounters for one so irreligious!

From Lewisham to another end of one of the branch lines - Stratford in East London - the location of the new Olympic Games site. An unsettling combination of a run-down, poor neighbourhood cheek-by-jowl with all the signs of up-and-coming affluence - advertising billboards proclaiming the imminent arrival of improved retail facilities, exhorting us to shop and join in with the Olympic spirit and promising a new and exciting lifestyle for all. I couldn't help but be struck by the slightly sinister atmosphere - huge white hoardings blocking out the view of the site, security cameras and staff everywhere. But just round the corner, another world - a community which seemed to be rich in interesting and useful local shops and businesses, barbers and nail bars, churches and pubs.

At the end of this first foray into the random and unknown I was left feeling slightly ambivalent. The day had been rather cheerless and gloomy in many respects - but I told myself that bad weather is all part of the chance process and you have to make the most of what comes your way. And then the sun came out briefly and lit up this little slip of pink paper floating in a puddle, for all the world like a miniature origami yacht. On closer inspection I realised that it was part of a torn up betting slip with the odds scrawled on it - chance works in mysterious ways!

Monday, 1 February 2010

The art of getting lost

There is something very seductive about the idea of getting lost in the city. In this world of satellite navigation systems, personal GPS tracking devices, not to mention ubiquitous CCTV systems, it would seem that the very idea would be impossible. Not only do we feel the need to know where we are at every moment of the day, we are conditioned against the aimless wander of the flâneur or the undirected drifting of the dérive. We are positively encouraged to follow the signs, heed the warnings and avoid any ambiguous or potentially unsafe detours through the city, keeping to the straight and narrow way, hurrying along, pausing for the most part to linger only in officially designated leisure spaces.

Literature and film are full of tales of people who have strayed from the path and ended up lost in the wilds, at the mercy of the elements or worse. But take a wrong turn in the city and all you have to do is stop the nearest passer-by and ask for directions (assuming you can find anyone willing to stop and talk). Getting truly lost in the city surely takes more effort and may assume a metaphorical meaning. Philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin wrote:

"Not to find one's way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance - nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city - as one loses oneself in a forest - that calls for quite a different schooling."

In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, author Rebecca Solnit discusses these very questions. According to Solnit, the word lost is replete with different meanings and connotations, and it is important to differentiate between losing something, which encompasses the lack of the familiar, and getting lost, which revolves around the idea of the unfamiliar. Losing something, whether it is a person or an item means that an element is missing, but you still know where you are. Getting lost on the other hand, means a trip into unfamiliar territory, where the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Both losing and getting lost involve a loss of control, which is at odds with the prevailing ethos of modern life.

Referring to Benjamin's words, she argues that "to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery." Benjamin's choice of words to lose oneself implies a conscious choice, a kind of surrender, or what Solnit terms a psychic state achievable through geography - or psychogeography. I view this idea with a certain amount of ambivalence. On the one hand I, like most people, tend to err on the side of caution, naturally seeking out the comforts of familiarity; on the other hand, deviation from the known path into unfamiliar places and situations, an abandoning of will and allowing yourself to be at the mercy of chance occurrences, have certain attractions as well as hazards. As Solnit maintains Never to get lost is not to live....

There are of course, many other definitions of losing and being lost, including loss of your past self. Solnit views this as a kind of transformation by loss:

"Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were... Without noticing it, you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange, at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment."

In one of those bizarre instances of synchronicity, shortly after reading these words, quite by chance I came across an old photograph of a more carefree and innocent self, unaware of what future lay ahead of me. As I looked at it, I wondered whether my need to trudge the city streets, photographing as I go, my desire to get lost amongst the crowd, stems from the loss of this old self? Is it because, as I do so, I am shedding my past identity as a snake sheds its skin, freeing myself up to make new memories as I go?