On Existentialism


If one can drag oneself away from the Shakespearean dramas currently being enacted in real life (I am writing this in London), it is useful to remember that there are tools for textual analysis out there to help us make sense of things. Browsing Polity’s recent media, communication and cultural studies catalogue was balm, an antidote and a light at the end of a tunnel which seems to get smaller by the day.

Culture can be understood as a system of shared texts and practices used by people to make sense of the world, asserts Rein Raud in Culture in Action, and the media offers infinite possibilities for distraction which demands and absorbs all our attention. A new kind of selfhood is being synchronized, argues Dominic Pettman in Infinite Distraction – our experience of the world is increasingly mediated making us interchangeable with one another and dividing us into small groups that never meet or interact. In The Mediated Construction of Reality, Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp investigate the processes through which the everyday world is constructed and reconstructed through media and ask if the resulting social world created is perceived as stable and livable or unstable and unlivable.

Natalie Fenton (in Digital, Political, Radical) probes the social role of the media and its implications for progressive possibilities and asks what are the conditions to live together well? Through a range of examples of protest and political movements, she proposes relationships between the media and opportunities for counter-politics.

Inspired by Heidegger’s philosophy of being and time, in Television and the Meaning of Live, media scholar Paddy Scannell investigates the category of the ‘live’ and asserts that the meaning of ‘live’ has much to tell us about the meaning of life and the question of existence.

In Geert Lovink’s critique of social media, Networks without a Cause he challenges the nature of mediated networks and proposes the increasingly appropriate concepts of ‘deep presents’ and ‘near-miss’ futures. In The Closing of the Net, Monica Horten asks how political decisions influence the direction of internet communication, where powerful corporations have become more embedded whilst seeking exemption from liability. These same organisations manipulate policy, filter content and store personal data and the notion of a democratic internet is being eclipsed by a heavily monitored, market-led ecosystem.

Lest we forget that our world view is influenced by journalism and its role in determining which topics are at the centre of public attention, Adrienne Russell’s book Journalism and Activism reports on the realities of media power. Meaning in everyday life, she argues, is tied to the communication tools and platforms that we have access to, the architecture of digital space that we navigate and our ability to control our media environments. Similarly, Barbie Zelizer (What Journalism Could Be) highlights journalism’s intersection with culture, politics, emotion, collective memory and visuality whilst being deeply embedded in social, economic and political institutions and structures. She demonstrates the central role that journalism plays in shaping consciousness and asks readers to re-imagine the news by embracing alternative conceptual prisms.

Other eerily apposite titles ring out such as Networks of Outrage and Hope; States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century; What Is to Be Done? and Symbolic Misery: The Catastrophe of the Sensible. Others focus on issues which have been glaringly brought to light by recent events such as the nature of democracy and personal agency; the rise of conservatism, selfishness, domination and inequality; data surveillance; civic rights; participatory culture; the realities of migration, mobility and citizenship and their relationship to mediated environments.

Whilst we are distracted by the maneuverings of a few, these titles are a timely reminder of a critical context through which to navigate an unprecedented and disturbing set of events.





Simultaneous Landscapes

In Space, Place and Gender (Polity Press, 1994) the geographer Doreen Massey reflects on her observations as an adolescent, when from the top deck of a bus she noted the ‘acres of the Manchester flood plain which had been entirely given over to boys’ in the form of dozens of football and rugby pitches.  Relationships between gender, landscape and power permeate through differently cultural means.


American director Courtney Hunt’s film, Frozen River tells the story of its two (female) protagonists – one living in a broken-down trailer whose gambler husband has left, and the other a Cherokee living on the nearby reservation whose mother-in-law has stolen her child  –  resorting to people-smuggling as a result of their financial dire straits. The film’s prevailing image is the winter landscape of the North American Canadian border and the frozen river which links it, across which these two must drive to smuggle their cargo hidden in the boot of their car. Black trees, frozen ground, grey slush-covered roads all convey bitter cold, hardship, desperation, decrepitude and lack of hope.cloud4

The real subject of the film however is borders, not just the geographic border but the economic and political borderline condition of the characters. The two main characters, marginalized through their economic situation and also by their gender, resort to desperate measures in order to live. According to Hunt, people living on reservation lands constitute a forgotten people ‘living so marginally that they make other marginal people in the US pale by comparison’. The word ‘reservation’ in itself suggests something provisional and temporary that can be taken away or is dependent on something else.


Representations of US white poverty as well as that of Native Americans are almost non-existent in mainstream cinema. Deemed unworthy for Hollywood endorsement because of its representation of a ‘small ethnic group’, Frozen River was later categorized as ‘off-Hollywood’ suggesting in itself a marginalized category. Its funding was precarious – there was only one take per scene according to the director and conditions for filming inside the trailer (whose real occupant had moved out during the making of the film – shockingly someone actually did live there) were reportedly worse than those  filming in the freezing temperatures of the outside scenes.

If Hollywood cinema of the 1950s and 60s was about the frontier both as framing and narrative (and ideological) device, then cinema about migration ironically concerns the lack of it. The landscape against which these narratives are played out, in many films, is undetermined. Increasingly, a placelessness prevails which reflects back on the narrative, almost mirroring that which is really being played out – the universal human condition of trauma and enduring terms of power. The characters may be moving, but the landscape they cross appears static.cloud6

In Ghosts (2006) about the Chinese migrant workers drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004, the indeterminacy of sky and sea reflects back on the hopelessness of the characters’ predicament, trapped in limbo as illegal and dependent on others. In Dirty Pretty Things (2003) about migrants without papers existing in London and living in fear of immigration raids and deportation, we see the characters only at night, invisible to others and exploited in service jobs. In The Good Lie (2014) about the lives of four characters offered asylum in the US as part of a policy to refugees in Sudan escaping civil war (but quickly withdrawn by the Bush administration after 9/11), the characters cross deserts indistinguishable from each other from Sudan to Ethiopia, walking thousands of kilometers in the hope of finding a place free of conflict. The clipped plots of American suburbs are set against the open African savannah  reflecting the theme of ignorance and diversity of values and sheer otherness of both sides (wars happen, if at all, only on TV ). In The Story of the Weeping Camel (2004), a documentary set in the Gobi Desert about the lives of a nomadic tribe threatened by urbanization, the landscape of the Steppes is an unchanging horizontal line between sand and sky and broken only by the temporary huts and camel herds.


The director of Frozen River states in an interview that the original idea for the film came from an idea for a poem and culturally and historically, there is a link between film, poetry and trauma. Simon Armitage’s films in verse incorporate trauma and are concerned, he says, with the missing voice. Pornography: The Musical is a docu-drama about women in the pornography industry; Songbirds is a documentary set in a womens’ prison; Out of the Blue is a film-poem to commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11; and The Not-Dead is a TV film about the war that veterans from a range of conflicts fight when they return home in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Armitage composed poems derived from veterans’ testimonies which they then read out as voice-overs. He has talked about the relationship between the film image and the heard word and the wavelengths created between image and poetry when they pull apart, come together and intersect: describing it as a stretching or frisson between the two when in tandem or misalignment.


This poetic sense could be applied to the cultural disjuncture of the recent exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy in London which could become be a critique of its own subject merely by a change of title. The inclusion of only one female painter, Berthe Morisot (and arguably not of a garden scene) amongst the over one hundred and twenty works on show is almost unbelievable curatorally. In addition, in the penultimate room, enormous photographs of a selection of the (male) artists posing with brush or spade amongst their estates says it all: nineteenth-century gender, privilege and power prevail and will endure.



City Nocturnes

street8The Nigerian writer and photographer Teju Cole’s novel Open City (2012) is a flowing palimpsest of connections between history and culture, past and present which pass through the protagonist’s mind as he walks across Lower Manhattan. Set in New York, but could equally be applied to any city, the book is a juxtaposition of urban and personal experience which leave their marks through observation and quiet reflection. It documents the encounters of a cameraless photographer, passing others  playing out their pain in acutely observed  scenes which flare briefly, dissolve and are then lost through a process of disclosure and erasure.


In Cole’s novel, the potential for trauma, loss, marginalization, conflict and suffering are as boundless as the city in which these experiences take place against a backdrop of subjectivity and identity. The unraveling scenes which pass through the writer’s mind constitute a narrative stream of events – the world as seen by the narrator and made sense of by a web of cultural connections spanning place, music, history and his personal past as migrant and immigrant. The novel evokes the struggle to come to terms with the city – the macrocosmic urban through microcosmic singular experience: not the universal from the particular as such but as an accumulation of texts.

chairThe painter Christopher Wool’s series of night photographs East Broadway Breakdown 1994-2002 ‘reveal’ the inner-city edge lands within – those intermittent spaces that one’s path has to cross, where the unruly have taken over and the civilized long fled.  A hundred and sixty images were selected from the thousands of black and white photographs that Wool took in New York City between East Village and China Town, processed cheaply, photocopied, printed and assembled into bookworks. The photographs reveal the proximity of the dispossessed and the barely repressed whose presence is palpable in the stained pavements and the overloaded bins, in the boarded- up, the blocked-up, the pasted-over and the redundant. The pavement spillages and seepages, unnoticed during the day and made radiant at night, hold a menacing suspended violence. In those images, the underside  –  the underclass of the imagination where the wild is, for now, suppressed but imminently possible and possibly close by and where  the camera’s flashlight reveals the unnoticed and the ugly: what we don’t know and what we don’t want to know, and now that we know, what can we do? Reparation is futile in the unrelenting desolation showing now in the missing letters of store-fronts, chained dogs, chain-link fences, padlocked shops and stained metal grills.rubbish1

The slashed seats of the dumped, broken furniture,  the barred windows, the overflowing rubbish bags, the dirty snow, the plastic bags caught in leafless trees, paint-smeared skips, graffitied metal shutters, car wrecks, strip-lit concrete corridors, the bright dirt smeared walls and scratched windows describe a limitless urban world with its multiple words for grime. Wool’s photographs are an articulation of the emphatic interpellation of the dispossessed, continually cancelling itself out.cat

Wool’s photographs act on the paradox of the night, itself covering, but also revealing and in doing so, unnerving. The night becomes the void  –  that which is essential in the designation of reality which Roland Barthes collapsed with the concept of ‘tathata’ – the gesture of encounter. That! There it is! wholly contingent upon that ‘weightless transparent envelop’ of Look!  Good and evil, desire and its object constitute, according to some, the photograph’s two leaves which cannot be separated without destroying them both.

In others, cats wander amongst broken glass, rubbish accumulates against the graffiti. In a series of formal juxtapositions, white paint is spilt against a grey ground; white rubbish bags glow in the dark against the hard edges of a white car. A dark liquid stain is juxtaposed with the blur of the white lines of a bus station in a luminous glare of lights; an upended three-legged desk on a street corner with grey and black drips and splodges on wall and pavement; ‘NYC POLICE’ in eroded letters on an apparently ransacked car with boot open.

str11Looking at Wool’s photographs  for any length of time drags you under, despair seeps in – this is what it’s like and what it will always be like, no matter what – visceral and ever-present and continually renewed: the disarray, defacement and disruption.  The underside is played out in the theatre of urban surface where a prosaic relentlessness hammers home the dissolution, desolation and desperation of the banal. Wool’s photographs evoke the place where night and the city culturally converge in the safely cinematic which conjure the lines: ‘to when we opened cold, on a starlit gutter, running gold, with the neon of the drugstore sign, and I’ll read into its blazing line: forget the ink, the milk, the blood – all was washed clean with the flood, we rose up from the falling waters, the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters…’ (Don Paterson).

All images in all posts copyright Judith Rugg



Feminist Avant-Garde

‘They changed your way of thinking.’

The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s was the title of an exhibition held in the Kunsthalle, Hamburg in March 2015: a timely show of significant works made in the 1970s by a range of feminist artists. Timely because, increasingly these artists are being recognised in contemporary exhibitions and collections of twentieth-century art and therefore constitute an important historical context but also because more of these artists are dying.

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

Chantal Ackerman. Source unknown

The death of the experimental filmmaker Chantal Ackerman in October 2015, is the most recent of artists of this generation who have left an important legacy of innovative work which question issues of representation and gender through generating new forms of formal and material inquiry. Described in one obituary as an ‘extraordinary artist of the everyday’, Ackerman’s work included fiction, documentary and essay films. Contesting and investigating ideas such as relationships between duration and narrative, she is recognized as a ‘cinematic radical’: her 1975 work, Jeanne Dielman used a combination of real time, fixed cameras and shock and is featured in Sight and Sounds’ poll of one of the greatest films of all time. Hotel Monterey (1972) was a 65 minute ride in a lift and in News From Home (1977) images of the New York subway and streets were shot against the soundtrack of Ackerman’s readings from her mother’s letters. A retrospective of her work was held at the ICA in 2014 and an exhibition of her video installation work is due to be held at the University of Westminster this month.

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thompson

Alexis Hunter. With kind permission Charles Thomson

Alexis Hunter who died from motor neuron disease in February 2014, was an important artist whose work contested the power relations of patriarchy. Her ongoing series of photographic works, Approach to Fear and Sexual Warfare constituted immaculately bejeweled nail-polished hands holding burning high-heeled shoes, tinkering with car engines, grasping revolvers or wielding axes and were shown at the Hayward Annual of 1978. The Marxist Housewife (Still Does the Housework) (1978) depicts a woman’s hand dusting a framed photograph of Karl Marx where it is unclear if the image is being cleaned or erased. Her works drew on advertising, documentary form and film storyboards, and many were sequenced in mock storylines or explored alternative forms such as slide presentations, colour Xerox, silver bromide printing, hand-coloured photocopy, double exposures, laser copy on archival paper, the use of hand-written text and ‘retro-collage’. A retrospective of her work, Alexis Hunter: Radical Feminism in the 1970s was held at East Gallery, Norwich in 2005.

The feminist art historian Rozsika Parker who died in November 2010, was described in her obituary by Ruthie Petrie as focused on women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment. In 1973 with Griselda Pollock she formed the feminist art history collective and their books, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981) and Framing Feminism: Art and the Womens’ Movement 1970-1985 (1987) continue to be key texts in art history and the political contexts of images. Old Mistresses was a re-reading of the historical significance of women artists and their containment by focusing on art history’s values, categories and the nature of its discourses. These books mapped new frameworks for art through demonstrating different approaches to historical processes. The Subversive Stitch (1983), a radical history of embroidery was republished in 2010 and is a unique text in the understanding of relationships between gender and power through the history of material culture.

Rose Finn-Kelcey who died in February 2014, worked in photography, installation, performance and video, experimenting with formal concerns and conceptual approaches. She claimed that continual re-invention is crucial to art which could be made from anything. Her work is impregnated with her  humour: Here is  Gale Warning (1970) was a flag of black bunting and silver tissue text installed in the grounds of Alexandra Palace, London with its ‘message’ visible only when a fierce wind blew; Power for the People (1972) consisted of flags installed on the outside of Battersea Power Station until Chelsea residents opposite complained and had them removed; Divided Self (1974), was a photograph of Finn-Kelcey having a conversation with herself at Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park. The significance of her performance work has been recently discussed by Eleanor Roberts in ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’ in Oxford Art Journal.

FAVThe Hamburg exhibition included work by some well-known artists such as Lynda Baylis, Valie Export, Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, Cindy Sherman and Carolee Schneemann as well as Alexis Hunter. Featuring over 30 international artists and over 150 works drawn from the Sammlung Verbund collection in Vienna, which focuses on international art from 1970 to the present with a unique emphasis on the feminist avant-garde, it was a valuable living document of a period of art history. The challenge of social norms, contestations of ‘traditional’ images and female sexuality, concepts of identity and violence against women were key issues of the exhibition. Martha Rosler’s Kitchen Diaries is well known, but the exhibition drew attention to other works such as Birgit Jurgenssen’s Hausfrauen-Kuchenschurze in which the artist tied a cooker around her neck like an apron, and the work of Rita Myers and Ewa Partum which addressed culturally constructed ideas on perfection and beauty.

If indeed there is such a thing as post-feminism perhaps it is in the self-assurance of works of artists like Joana Vasconcelos whose martial arts practice informs her approach to her work and who once ran a squad of female karate-trained bouncers at a Lisbon nightclub. Monumental, yet has been described as ‘homespun pop’, her work has drawn on the Valkyrie, the mythical warrior goddesses who give life. Her vast installation at the Palace of Versailles in 2012 was however, censored by the curator when she was refused permission to install her ‘tampon work’, The Bride in the bedroom of Marie Antoinette.

Or Kubra Khademi who in March 2015 gave a ten minute street performance in Kabul, where women are expected to cover every part of their bodies, wearing specially made steel armour which emphasized her breasts and torso. The performance, which consisted of a walk along the main road in her neighbourhood, was ‘aimed at the people who were harassing women every day’ and was a dangerous enterprise. The audience, mainly men, throw stones and insults. At the end of the performance, after jumping into a friend’s waiting car, it was immediately attacked and within minutes, Khademi received online death threats.

Or Durban-based performance artist, Tracey Rose whose work confronts political and social taboos. Drawing on Edelson’s 1972 photo-collage Some Living American Women Artists, her video Ciao Bella was a feminist parody on Da Vinci’s Last Supper in which she plays 12 female apostles including Lolita, Josephine Baker and the water-spirit Mami Wata and shown at the Venice Biennale in 2001. Describing herself as a militant artist she aims to leave a legacy: her art, she says is for the future.

Further reading:  WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (MIT Press, 2007); Chantal Ackerman Obituary; The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain, 1966-1976 (Camerawork Gallery, 1997); Eleanor Roberts, ‘Restless Images: The Feminist Performances of Rose Finn-Kelcey’, Oxford Art Journal (October 2015: available online), Rose Finn-Kelcey (Ridinghouse, 2012)

The Studio

The subject of the studio seems to have generated a lot of attention recently. Even the mildly informed has garnered that one of Bridget Riley’s studios is in her house whose interior is painted entirely white to enable her to assess colour more accurately; that Rose Wylie’s is a room in her cottage in Kent where huge canvases are piled up without supports to save space or that Tracy Emin’s occupies over 4 floors in an East London industrial building. If all of this information entered the public domain over the last 12 months, it was part of a wider fascination with the artist’s studio which was manifested in different forms and from different perspectives. In November, Barry McGlashan’s exhibition The Burning Heart and Other Artists’ Studios at the John Martin Gallery consisted of paintings of 25 (re)imagined artists’ studios including those of Monet, Hieronymus Bosch, Georgia O’Keefe and Cezanne painstakingly rendered and including recreations of artworks leaning against the walls, or of the artist themselves at work.


In June last year German photographer, Matthias Schaller held a photographic exhibition of over 70 artists’ palettes at the monastery of San Giorgio in Venice. Each image was 2 metres high to emphasise a relationship between the palette and the artist’s paintings which Schaller proposes echoes that between the conscious and the unconscious – the frantic scrabblings behind the pristine, finished works. Cy Twombly’s consisted of scratch marks where he had applied paint with his fingers; Miro’s of separate blobs of red, yellow and black circles; Kandinsky’s of overlapping harmonies of blues, oranges and whites; Yves Klein’s of shades of ultramarine on a broken white plate. They suggested an evolution from that well used trope of the studio – the floor – the mess left behind which inadvertently becomes a work in itself, a mirror image of that which ultimately is seen outside but in controlled conditions. What has become an accepted norm of the image of ‘the studio’ emanates an internal frenzy through the spattered paint, filthy rags, newspapers and piled up shelves. In fact a need for order reigns over (and rein in) frustration, anxiety, disappointment, fear, anticipation, desire and ambition.Blogpic2

Atelier by Gautier Deblonde is a book of panoramic photographs of 60 artists’ studios published by SteidlDangin in 2014. These images, it is claimed are ‘portraits’ of space without people. They have no captions and the reader is forced to guess which studio is that of Gerhard Richter, Callum Innes or Pina Bausch, etc. by visual clues which inevitably become props, including the marks on the walls, items on the shelves, the type of furniture or, in the case of Zang Dali, the stuffed animals.

Blogpic3Lucien Freud’s former assistant, David Dawson made detailed descriptions (and photographs) of his studio in A Painter’s Progress published in 2014, a place where Dawson felt he ‘could (metaphysically)find everything’ and no longer had any need to go anywhere else. One photograph depicts a corner of the room with Freud’s unlaced boots, bare floor and paint clotted walls. There is an attempt to re-create the space through the book even though Freud’s studio itself has not moved or been moved, but has, according to Dawson, been sealed up in its location at the top of his house. Behind the words and images there is an underlying recognition and poignancy that the studio no longer exists.

In July, Barbara Dawson, the director of the Hugh Lane Gallery gave a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery in London about moving Francis Bacon’s studio from London to Dublin, a process which took place over three years between 1998 and 2001. Involving archaeologists, conservators and curators this transpired to be a forensic exercise and the removal of the original walls, doors, floor and ceiling, tagging dust and cataloguing over 7,000 items. A digital database including 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 2,000 materials and 1,300 pages torn from books as well as letters, newspapers and vinyl records has been created and made available as an archive. The relocation it is claimed, has changed the focus of exhibitions of Bacon’s work ever since: presumably, now that we can see what lay behind the work, it can inform how we see the work itself?Blogpic4

In December 2014 Walead Beshty’s exhibition at the Barbican, A Partial Dissembling… consisted of 12,000 photogram cyanotypes made over a year from items lying around in his studio. Tools, objects, bottles, wire, boxes, tapes appeared as silhouettes, absences or inverted shadows in the painterly washed-out surfaces of bits of cardboard, newspapers or rolls of paper. The emphasis was on the discarded, the leavings or what normally would be used for making or supporting something else and exhibited en mass in close proximity reminiscent of a nineteenth-century Royal Academy salon.

If these examples represent a widespread fascination with working methods, the detritus and evidence of the creative process and of the tortured process of making, the black and white photograph of Frank Auerbach in his studio by Jorge Lewinski taken in 1963 must be one of the few images which comes close to successfully communicating something in this vein. Sitting on a stool in the cramped space and striking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker, with his back to a paint-encrusted canvas indistinguishable from its spattered surroundings including Auerbach’s overalls, the only untouched, pristine surfaces are the skin on his face and arms. Tightly cropped and posed, the image has a claustrophobic intensity which emphasises the human, rational figure set against the chaos: separate from it yet bound up within it.Blogpic5

‘Writers’ Rooms’ was a series in The Guardian newspaper published intermittently from 2006 whose unstated aim was to enlighten on the relationships between space and creative thought. Photographs by Eamonn McCabe of the writer’s workspace (normally a desk and chair in a room) were accompanied by a short text by the writer describing in about 300 words an aspect of the space or the significance of the objects. Some described the necessary attributes needed in order to write – stacks of notebooks (Clive James), a view of the garden (AS Byatt), just getting hold of the right kind of chair or inspirational object (Wendy Cope), or the need to have separate offices (Justin Cartwright). The images themselves were a kind of mise-en-scene where props – books, objects, chair, desk, window, bookshelves all came together or signaled something just out of frame, to indicate a kind of ironic theatre of thinking. Will Self describes ‘the council block through the greasy windowpane, the map stapled to the blind.’ JG Ballard talks about the copy of a painting The Violation by Surrealist Paul Delvaux which dominates the room he has written in for 47 years and ‘the Paolozzi screenprint which acts as a cat barrier…They come into the room and churn up my papers and are my fiercest critics’. Martin Amis mentions the clock on his desk in his study at the end of a concrete garden that he is afraid of breaking, belonging to his father and left unwound; and Frances Spalding reflects on her bench, previously owned by the artist Elisabeth Vellacott and once ‘thick with oil paint and the grime of charcoal.’


One could argue that the idea of The Studio represents a form of supplement – where creativity and its understanding represents both excess and lack. The thing these examples have in common is that although fascinating they rarely offer any insights whatsoever into the working process or of the works themselves. There has recently been proposed a history of The Office in four objects, perhaps there should be one for the studio?

Mapping the Terrain

Photo0440 Ways of mapping seem to have become a potent area of consideration recently. Ever-changing urban environments and technologies that facilitate new ways of comprehending them perhaps constitute the background to a range of recent projects that probe the ‘lost dimension’ of space and our place in it. According to some, the ordering principles of maps offer a possible antidote to the trauma of displacement.  Forms of mapping create potential ‘trajectories of becomings’ where certain ‘modes of knowing’ enforce a boundedness in a world of potential boundlessness. Cone One the one hand maps generate new perspectives on the known, on the other they allow a voyeuristic take on the unknown. Everest base camp, Angor Wat and the Great Barrier Reef have all become recent ‘internet tourist destinations’ on Google Street View where ironically mapping has become interchangeable with walking. Morphed from Google Maps which in its turn has expanded to treks to remote sites (indeed the 15 cameras necessary to create the panorama of images to simulate a virtual site is known as the Trekker), the viewer clicks through a series of images and virtually ‘walks’ through the Grand Canyon, Disney World or Red Square from their living room.047

Walking according to others, though is synonymous to a form of belonging to place and space.  Artist Emma Smith, founder of The School for Tourists is concerned about relationships between walking and the experience of place. She sees walking as an act of agency. In an age of alienation, a range of strategies to establish ‘realms of coherence’ in relation to ‘mapping the self’ have evolved through walking. American writer Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: a journey from lost to found (2012) documents her struggle for self-respect after suffering ongoing bereavement, divorce and childhood abuse. Walking the Pacific Crest Trail on the west coast of the United States alone, over the crests of 9 mountain ranges, with little previous experience of the demands of long distance walking, she overcomes fear, isolation, pain and countless setbacks over many months until she completes the journey of over 2,000 miles from California to Oregon. The film version of the book is one of several recent biographies of endurance where extreme walking maps an odyssey of lost (and found) identity.

049Mapping is bound up with experience and there is an interchangability between maps and journeys – literal or metaphorical. Photographer Annie Leibovitz’s recent project Pilgrimage was a form of mapping. Photographs of still lives and interiors and the material traces of her subjects – letters, clothes, pressed flowers, beds  – belonging  to, amongst others,  Emily Dickinson, Georgia O’Keefe, Eleanor Roosevelt and Virginia Woolf were photographed in natural light which gives the images an eerie presence. Began, she admitted ‘as a way to save my soul’ following the trauma of the death of her partner Susan Sontag and her parents soon afterwards, she embarked on a trail which followed a series of connections between one subject and another and which subsequently revealed other networks. We are reminded that Julia Margaret Cameron was Virginia Woolf’s great aunt; that she lived next door to Tennyson; that Martha Graham choreographed a dance about Emily Dickinson; that Barbara Morgan’s photographs of Graham represent a turning point in the representation of dance. In the book, an image of Annie Oakley’s Native American blankets are seen adjacent to an account of Leibovitz’s journey to O’Keefe’s studio in New Mexico; and Darwin’s garden in Kent follows on from an image of the interior of Freud’s study in London.Busstop

Revealing the hidden is arguably part of the task of the map-maker. Other forms of connections are formed between Leibovitz’s subjects in her photographs of their objects not normally on view: Emily Dickinson’s dress is kept away from her house in a museum; Elvis Presley’s TV set and record player are in the storeroom of Graceland; Martha Graham’s props are packed in boxes in a cramped New York warehouse.

Part of the process of map-making is piecing together fragments which then become part of a comprehensive whole. Travelbydrone harvests material made by amateur drone pilots and its thousands of edited videos cover areas from Nova Scotia to Namibia to the Arctic Ocean. The potential for tourism is obvious, but the technology could genuinely change the way in which we see and comprehend the world through a series of aerial moving images. In digital artists Aaron Koblin and Ben Tricklebank’s forthcoming installation, Light Echoes to be held in the Curve, Barbican, visitors will enter a dark environment where the tracks of the disused Eagle Mountain Railroad in the Mojave Desert, filmed by a drone, will be ‘mapped’ onto the gallery floor frame by frame. 028 Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino creates intricate map-like photocollages of London, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, Delhi and Berlin and many other cities by collaging together thousands of detailed images from various perspectives that he made by walking through the cities’ streets and re-photographing the result. These thousands of fragments come together to form panoramas which evoke the naïve flat perspective of medieval maps or cubism whilst constituting the extraordinary detail of 21st century cities. The minimalist glass towers of Canada House, Canary Warf and the City soar above the melee in London whilst patches of sky recorded over time appear in painterly palettes of greys.031

George Georgiou’s photographic series Last Stop can be seen as a visual map of London made by images taken from windows of double-decker buses. He called it a way of knowing the city after  his 10 years absence, where he felt disorientated by so much urban change. Random events are held together through the predictable nature of bus routes which coalesce the fleeting and the intensities of human interactions. 022

The continuous redevelopment of urban space on a global scale has created an immersive emphatic, authoritative environment.  The city is an ever- expanding interpellation – a regulated space of authority and privilege, where, subject to long-term infrastructure projects or large-scale building developments, pedestrians are continually re-directed and re-routed through space that is privately policed, picking their way through corridors of billboards between prohibited areas, edging through dangerous conduits of the new.026

The simulated leafy ivy-clad hoardings of Crossrail beyond which thousands of tons of earth are being removed to be replaced by poured concrete, create a simulacrum of space where truth and fiction merge. Projected streets are populated by avatars in space smoothed out from the chaos of long-term transport construction in the heart of the city. There’s no time to become familiar in such provisional spaces where builders’ boardwalks and temporary billboards proclaim access to new iconic squares and architectural privilege. Where it doesn’t join up, the awkward spaces that remain are filled with leisure sculpture. New forms of orientation will be required to negotiate between the blandly universal and the nostalgia of the known (and lost). The map has become an archive. An A-Z of London published before 2012 will not include the Emirates-funded cablecar, King’s Cross will be obsolete, streets around Crossrail  hubs will have disappeared, be re-drawn or re-named and the Elephant and Castle (in central southeast London) will be missing landmark postwar buildings and historic spaces of human interaction. These pre-modern A-Zs will become historical documents or collectors’ items.

034 Perhaps new approaches to mapping are called for in such changing times. In 2013, The Folkestone Centipede Project was a site-specific artwork funded by the European Regional Development Fund and developed by staff and students of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury. Apparently the installation, in an abandoned shipping container, was a reconstruction of a 1970’s research project which developed a ‘Nonlinear Para-Spectrometry detector’ to find unknown archaeological sites, and which claimed to have identified an ‘area of magnetic dissonance’ in Folkestone Harbour, South East England. Various instruments had mapped a ‘transitory structure’ resembling a massive spoked disc ‘levitating’ over the Folkestone ferry terminal which was observable for 4 minutes a day. Researchers at the time, according to the catalogue of the work, had proposed that this and similar objects were remnants of a technology lost ‘during the last interglacial period’, whilst others were somewhat skeptical of the basis and findings of the ‘research’.


It has been noted that mapping gained whole new sets of perspectives and possibilities when poststructuralism came along. As Marcus Doel proposes via Dr Seuss, ‘like a gust of fresh air, the Cat in the Hat’s antics sweep through the sedentary…With a wave of his paws everything that appeared to be settled and fixed into places become once again mobile elements in a delirious movement of immanent and expressive creation…’ (M. Crang, N. Thrift eds. 2007). So many critical topologies / multiple diversities / trajectories of becomings / productive entanglements / heterogenic spaces /spaces of experience / constellations of affects / performative knowledges / modes of knowing – all generating ever-new perspectives. 051 Further Links: travelbydrone.com, The School for Tourists, Light Echoes, George GeorgiouCats, Glunks

Drawing on Landscape: 2

In the film Reaching for the Moon, the poet Elizabeth Bishop is on the deck of a ship travelling from New York to Brazil, anticipating the bell which sounds to mark the crossing of the Equator.  Afterwards, late-coming passengers join her at the rail and ask her how it felt and she replies, ‘it was nothing really, only a slight bump’. 854 The relationship between the body and space or of landscape being melded with bodily and subjective experience, and the two as interchangeable has been variously addressed in culture.   There is a correspondence between belief and connectivity in the chaos and changing states of elemental space that can be felt as well as perceived.  The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd compares the heightened awareness of landscape to the experience of art: ‘pure and terrible … a newness that cannot be carried away in the mind’. In her writing there is reciprocity between the body and landscape where the body’s immersion in light, mist and dark expresses an immanence and unity – a sense of ‘life beyond the self’.814 In The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s and published thirty years later, Shepherd ‘writes landscape’ honed from many years of walking in the Cairngorms in Scotland. Landscape was for her, ‘matter impregnated with mind’, a place without destination and the need to look with love and with ‘humble privilege’ at the natural world.  In a series of intensely observed scenes, experience and writing coalesce as she describes a floating moon over snow, its green light shimmering against violet, rose and mauve; the opalescent blue of the hills above purple gullies; the sullen blackness of rain; the red, pink and grey of granite gashed with fragments of red; snowfields that burn indigo and blue; white wings over grey stones; an ashen and yellow sky. The words read like a painter’s diary or sketchbook – patterns of white on the edge of a plateau, iridescent drifts of veils of mist, the ‘astonishing’ transparency of water, streaks of ice ‘tearing the soil’, the vivid brilliance of the sky shadowed by rock. 827 Shepherd collapses and inverts perspectives through a series of visual of encounters: a tree hung with light underwater; a loch suspended high on a mountainside; falls of water into still pools; hanging summits of snow; fissures like ‘surface eddies’ in a distant plateau. Formal conflations shift emphasis of space with interplays of movement: blood /rock; falling /draining; glowing / fading; freezing / running. Verbal alliterations – scarfed, savaged, scooped, shattered, split – could be transposed and considered as methods or acts of painting or sculpture.  Shepherd’s writing permeates the remote immensity of the landscape with a deep humanity: dirty snow ‘tattered like a worn dress’, the ‘chill of sodden places’ and the sense of ‘long blue distances’ are living encounters with moments in time and space. Shepherd’s writing evokes landscape in the act of becoming through a process of returning again and again: experience observed over time. Films of light, broken plateau, bristling landscapes, gaunt, grim – her terms – imply continual change and movement. Behind the form of prose-poetry lies the rigour of thought, of ‘not getting lost’ that is purely ‘a matter of mind.’819 The concept of ‘writing landscape’, applied by George Bernard Shaw to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson in  the late nineteenth century has evolved into the contemporary genre of modern landscape literature of which Shepherd’s writing  is now considered a part. She emphasized the importance of quiescence, to know small places over time (a group of trees, a field edge, a view of moorland), returning again and again to reflect on their subtle changes – positions of the sun, light against frost, the interplay of water, the substance of moonlight – and the integration of the body, experience and the nature of writing. 836 The idea of uncontested ‘landscape’ though, is a subject seemingly close to heart of the British national character, especially the British landscape. Its place in national identity is apparently so treasured that it is emphasised in the new British passport.  Embedded within the pages reserved for visas and entry and exit stamps to and from other countries are images of pastoral idylls of the British countryside. ‘VILLAGE GREEN’, ‘BEACH’, ‘FISHING VILLAGE’, ‘WOODLAND’, ‘MOORLAND’ and ‘LAKE’ complete with local pub, beach huts, sundial and wooden bench are impregnated as if messages ingrained deep within the British unconscious. In an age of celebrity landscapes involving pilgrimage to places made holy by popular culture – Air New Zealand has scenes from the film version of Lord of the Rings as the livery on its aircraft (‘The Land of Middle Earth’) – these British passport images seem disingenuous.  These efforts to appropriate ‘landscape’ seem in denial of how it can easily tip into evoking feelings of despair, despondency and desperation.853 An ‘assemblage of moments’ is what a recent graduate of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury described her video-film work, shown at the Turner Contemporary and in the Whitstable Biennale in 2014. Inspired by Margate’s derelict Dreamland site and its archival footage made in the 1960s, it also drew on Edgar Allan Poe’s (1808-1949) poem of the same title where ‘By the lakes that thus outspread Their lone waters, lone and dead…, By the dismal tarns and pools…By each spot the most unholy – In each nook most melancholy…’ where the traveler ‘meets aghast, sheeted memories of the past’.  Helen Poulteney’s film was a powerful evocation of desolation, the nature of time, the fragility of place and the innocence of experience.

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox’ found in manuscript form and published after her death draws pleasure and loss with words, where ‘in the block of honkey-tonks, cavities in our waning moon….drinks like lonely water-falls, in night descend the separate throats’(Chatto & Windus, 2011). Hers is the imagery of a human landscape collapsed with hope and observed through a reduced poetic language.


How the infinity of space and its potential chaos can be invoked through a coalescence of restraint and reduction is explored in artist Vija Celmins’ work. Her works with charcoal, pencil and paper drawn from photographs of deserts, oceans, pebbles and galaxies investigate the nature of surface and time. She describes how light, the graphite of pencil and the paper surface ‘unfold together’ in subtle differences of perspective and pictorial space. Almost imperceptible shifts in emphasis between the image and how it was made hold a kind of tension and intensity (some took a year to complete). These works of the night sky, webs and the surface of the sea hold a kind of melancholy in their loss of boundaries.  Celmins spent a lot of time in the desert, where ‘you need to spend time to see things’, absorbing its light, and its simultaneously flat and illusionary surface. Conversely, Anya Gallaccio’s 2014 work, ‘Untitled Landscapes’ sited in the coastal nature reserve of Orford Ness facing the North Sea in Suffolk was based on magnified photographs of pebbles found there. Large billboards of intricately patterned and detailed images made from pebble fragments evoked a sense of turmoil and disorder, and had an eerie correspondence with the history of the site as a centre, in the 1920s, for  the development of aerial photography, radar and ballistics research.

Meanwhile, in Britain’s green and pleasant land, 450,000km of ancient hedgerows are threatened by the expansion of large-scale farming controlled by satellite. From the use of TNT in the 1950s to blow up trees and hedges to the removal of lone oaks that spoil the view from some bed and breakfast establishment, the historical fabric of the UK countryside is diminishing. Significant areas can now only been seen as ghosts – as bumps or ridges in the land, or as subtle differences in colour, visible (ironically) only from above. 1017 Further references and links: Elizabeth Bishop, Nan Shepherd, MA Fine Art Canterbury, Vija Celmins, Anya Gallaccio, Whitstable Biennale