There is no road, the road is made by walking

No hay camino, say hace camino el andar

(There is no road, the road is made by walking)

Antonio Machado from “Proverbios y cantares” in Campos de Castilla. 1912

My current investigations are taking me on foot through the centre of the city, something I used to do extensively years back and which, I now realise, I have done less and less as I have got older. As I head into the city I am being confronted by the inaccessibility of some seemingly public urban areas.

While it seems as if traversing the city as a pedestrian should be the easiest and most extensive of modes of transport, our city planning has methodically been removing access for walkers to many areas over the years simply by building roads with no pavements, and fencing off any scrub or wasteland areas. Added to this is the insalubrious nature of some of these areas, leaving a solitary female feeling a little vulnerable at times. These barriers to access heighten awareness of potential political and ecological aspects to civic planning: This planning, overtly or not, emphasises the use of the car and creates an inexorable impetus to move people on and through. A desire to linger, to wander and to walk in these places thus is imbued with a sense of transgression and of resistance, somehow pushing the urban walker to the margins.

Alongside this renewing of my acquaintance with my local neighbourhood I have been extending my reading into the many connections between walking and art, walking and resistance, walking and thinking. Beyond the idea of the derive, so beloved of the Situationists, there is a wealth of writers, poets, painters and lens-based artists for whom walking has been the method and the meditation on which they have based their practise.

W.G Sebald, in his Rings of Saturn, wrote a seminal and circular novel, describing at it’s centre the minutiae of a journey by foot through Suffolk, while at the periphery, and always tangentially, writing really about the horrors of the second WW and the holocaust.

(Sebald, W.G. (1998). The Rings of Saturn. London: New Directions Books. ISBN 978-0-8112-1378-3.)

Robert McFarlane writes in poetic prose of his encounters with the remaining wild places and fringe-dwelling people that he has encountered on foot. In The Old Ways McFarlane charts his encounters with shamen, artists, activists and sailors along the old roads and waterways of England, Scotland and abroad. Simultaneously he pulls together strands of literature from other writers and other times, making explicit a rich seam of connections from pre-history to the present, all acknowledging the centrality of walking the land to human experience.

(McFarlane, R. (2012)The old ways, a journey on foot Penguin Group)

Richard Mabey, 8 years after I was born, published The Unofficial Countryside.

Written over four seasons he charts the myriad ways that flora and fauna adapt and survive in the modified, polluted environment of greater London. He writes endearingly of the problems, both physical and emotional, of walking through inner city streets wearing binoculars, or chasing pigeons so that they would drop their food scraps for inspection, and I have a strong sense of how odd he must have appeared to many; I have felt a similar sensation many times when setting up a camera in the direction of a subject eminently unworthy or bemusing to the general passer-by. His ability to remain non-judgemental and undespairing when confronted by examples on a massive scale of the ecological havoc we were already wreaking on our environment is inspiring. Nothing is black and white when closely examined; gravel-pits and industrial waste-land are colonised by sand martins and grebes, the strafed patches of London post-World War II turn out to be the ideal breeding ground for the previously rare rosebay willowherb.

(Mabey, R (1973) The Unofficial Countryside. Little Toller Books)

Rebecca Solnit has written extensively on walking, and its engagement with politics, gender, art and history. I have recently begun to read Wanderlust-a history of walking. In this book Solnit flags the myriad threats and barriers to walking in 21st century life, counting the architectures of fear and commerce and the dictatorship of the automobile as among the worst.

Her thoughts underline and reinforce my own half-articulated feelings when walking the Auckland city streets recently.

When writing of these problems she states that “in some places it is no longer possible to be out in public, a crisis both for the private epiphanies of the solitary stroller and for public spaces democratic functions”

(Solnit, R. (2001)Wanderlust-a history of walking. Verso)

At times it seems like a strange kind of self-inflicted torture, reading books about walking when in fact I can only really get out and address my work in this way one day a week; a pilgrimage of any distance is a pipe-dream at present. Finding my material closer at hand is thus a part of the criteria for this work, necessitated by the realities of my life at present.

In strange ways however this circumscription puts me directly in contact with some of the themes I am coming to understand as important in the work.

Dealing with the local is becoming key, and so are questions of access and its attendant issues as well as a more careful and layered sense of “seeing”.

The derive, the pilgrimage, the meditative “mind at three miles an hour” (Solnit, R as above) All are aspects of pre-production and process, and are also bound up in the outcomes.

“I do the art only for myself.”…

“..I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.”

Roger Ballen, talking to Jonathan Blaustein, March 2013 on his A Photo Editor blog. It’s a great interview; to read it all, go here.

Rethinking the landscape in critical terms.

The New Zealand landscape offers blessings and curses in almost equal measure to those who wish to draw upon it for their work.

In particular for a photographer this land sets many challenges: The relentless glaring light, all highlight or all shadow, never both at once. The boundless vistas, constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, Green Party billboards and beer ads. The seeming perfection of its untouched wilderness and the apparent lack of a human history visible upon it. The sheer number of possible visual clichés available.

In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps) a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; beautiful responses to the impulse to record this landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, that perfect cloud.

The shine’s gone off it though, for me anyway. I still find walking the land in Aotearoa spell-binding, and making images in response to that feeling for editorial stories or for my journal is engaging, rewarding and fun. But it’s not delivering the goods for this project, although the ideas I am working with do inextricably bind me to place and thus necessitate a tussle with these issues.

As a timely signpost to a possible new direction then I have recently been gripped by Emily Apter’s essay titled “The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats”

(October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd and MIT, herewith referred to as E.A)

It seems to me that in the same way that P.M Lee calls upon artists and art practices to analyse the conveyancing and commodification of art, (P.M Lee, Forgetting the Art World MIT Press 2012) Apter identifies and upholds the “radical pastoral” (John Kinsella, quoted in E.A p22) as a kind of geopoetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” (E.A p22) that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs” (E.A pp23)

Apter defines this critical habitat as “a concept that explores the links between territorial habitat and intellectual habitus; between physical place and ideological force field, between economy and ecology.” (E.A pp23)

I find this proposal hugely powerful and resonant within my own practice; it opens my eyes to the possibility of making work that contains, exploits and critiques the problematic aspects inherent in its own form and content.

Apter goes on to reference William Kentridge, John Kinsella, Andreas Gursky and John Klima in relation to her proposition. Of the four, in relation to this embedding of political critique into the geopoetic, I am most engaged by Kentridge and Gursky.

Kentridge’s works seem to contain the most explicit motifs of political resistance, highlighting as they do the relationship between labour and capital, and pointing out, in his words “the inherent connections between ecology and civil rights” (William Kentridge in William Kentridge London Phaidon Press Ltd 1999 p.108, and extracted from E.A p21) Gursky’s motives seem more opaque; the artist taking a more ambiguous and less overtly critical position in his role as commodity-creator. Gursky’s almost-seamless digital manipulations, Apter suggests, “all serve to intensify the image of nature, and this extreme technological intensification gives nature back an image of itself as visual ideology” (E.A p39)

There are aspects of both positions that I find compelling. While I do not aspire to creating the deadpan poker-face of a Gursky work, I can strongly connect with the way he uses the digital building blocks of the images themselves to subtly subvert their origins, as well as to subvert and mislead the responses of the viewer.

The raw passion and energy in Kentridge’s films are extremely powerful. I enjoy their macabre aspects, the noir palette, the audio and the low-fi aspects of his use of technology. I also relate to the more open and authentic expression of a political position that I think I can access in his works.

I have begun to experiment with some of these ideas and methodologies in my new work. I am already reacting against the more low-fi processes (my slick commercial kneejerk response to anything unresolved getting in the way here) whilst in the other direction I don’t want to disappear into a microcosm of pixel manipulation either. I have a sense that the most useful results will come when I have pushed too far in both directions.

On pilgrimages, road-trips and the states in-between. Or, how a photographer may find the world.

There are many possible pitfalls in undertaking work that pivots on ideas of covenants, faith, visions, and miracles.

Not the least of these is the strong possibility that the work will veer off-course in one direction, and onto the sharp rocks of parody, or another and into the over-soft swampland of piousness. Even writing about these potential disasters can bring about an appalling urge to metaphor.

Gentle satire may in fact be the desired intention for the work, such as is the bass note in Swandown. (Fly Film/Channel 4 2012) In this film, made by Andrew Kotting and Ian Sinclair, a mock-Homerian voyage is undertaken from Hastings to London in a swan-shaped pedalo. Although there are undoubtedly elements of real difficulty to overcome in the journey, one reoccurring impression is of a self-conscious mockery; both of the “epic’ voyage undertaken, and of the 2012 Olympic hubris happening in London and the U.K at the time. In addition to these political elements there are quiet revelations of the landscape and poetic juxtapositions played out via the cinematography and the chance encounters along the way. The film balances any propensity to pompous political critique or overly sentimental odes to the English landscape by using the visual elements of surreal silliness in a beautifully poised way.

Without this level of self-awareness at play, there is a real risk that a project can sink beneath a weight of condescension, self-righteousness or didactic irrelevance. These are risks faced by photographers working in a post-documentary world. How can stories be told that are engaging, empathetic and complex, without reverting to the conventional triangulated relationship of artist-subject-viewer and the inferred and problematic hierarchies contained within those positions?

Photographers who go out into the world to find and tell these stories are increasingly looking at ways to combine still images, text and moving image. These combinations can more accurately mirror the complexities of our relationship to the material, and offer multiple levels of representation.

An example of the utilisation of some of these combinations can be found in Alec Soth’s recent work, made in North Dakota at the height of the current oil boom, and commissioned by the NY Times. file://localhost/(http/::www.nytimes.com:interactive:2013:02:03:magazine:north-dakota-photos-audio.html)

Soth’s set of stark and rich B&W images are presented with detailed captions and quotes from the subjects, and they were made in tandem with a short video, produced by Soth but shot and directed by Isaac Gale. (http://vimeo.com/59220781)

In reading the credits it becomes clear that there was a deep level of collaboration between the two artists, as Soth is also the interviewer for the video work. Indeed the two bodies of work combine to create a more extended work once both have been viewed. Soth’s stills are amplified and given a cinematic richness of backstory once the video has been viewed. This does not impoverish the experience of viewing the still images; they stand alone as crisply rendered photographic moments, containing an unflinching level of detail and depth-of-field that delivers a textural subtext of its own around the black oil, the white snow and all the tones in-between.

Making work that incorporates elements of a search or the visual tracking of a series of clues in the landscape within its process also runs the risk of devolving into something more opportunistic and potentially shallow, lazy or exploitative; the road-trip-with-camera formula.

This methodology is occasioned in part by a rich tradition in photography from its earliest days. Since Ansel Adams packed a darkroom onto the back of a mule and headed into Yosemite, the urge to head into the wilderness with a camera and record the wonders of the world is one that many photographers have succumbed to. This is not to deny that such urges have resulted in brilliant and breathtaking bodies of work. The trajectory of contemporary photography has been propelled along lines traversed by Eggleston, Friedlander, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams and many more. Each of these photographers have combined in varying degrees a need to tell a human story with the desire to find it in a world beyond their own. In the current world of the contemporary Stephen Gill inserts the ephemera of his travels into his cameras and images, staining and burying the prints in the land he photographs. Ryan McGinley seamlessly slides between the worlds of fashion, commerce and art with his staged and semi-staged large-scale photographs of an idealised American youth in the landscape.  Christian Patterson plays the role of detective, following in the footsteps of a notorious couple of murderers in the American mid-west, finding and photographing clues along the way. All these practitioners have a strong and clearly articulated intention for the work, and if only one thing exists before the journey begins it is this.

To guard against the potential problems for my project outlined above then, it seems then that the notions of intention & self-awareness become central tenets of the process, and can perhaps be best described collectively as the integrity of the work.

It seems useful therefore to begin making a list of ingredients that might go to make up this elusive integrity.

Ideas around globalisation, the contemporary and the ways in which an artist can hope to be disruptive, brought to the fore in the January seminar, are a good place to start when thinking about intentionality.

Self-awareness is a more slippery proposition. The position of the self as author of the work informs every process and decision, albeit often in only partially articulated ways. This position is a complex one; social and humanist ideals sit uneasily alongside the history of representation in documentary practice, and rub shoulders awkwardly with ambition and academic achievement.

At best perhaps these two themes can be further developed and investigated, offering themselves as a compass along the way to measure how far off course my process is taking me.

5a.m, December 28 2012

5a.m, December 28 2012

Thoughts on pilgrimage lifted with gratitude from Robert McFarlane in his feature in the Guardian, The Road More Travelled, June 16th 2012,

 

“Place works on the pilgrim, that is what pilgrimage is for.”

Rowan Williams, Anglican bishop and Archbishop of Canterbury until Dec 2012. Cited in R. Mcfarlane, The Road More Travelled The Guardian, 16.06.12

 

 

“Pilgrim rules:

The Rule of Resonance: a smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a place of great pilgrimage.

 

The Rule of Correspondence: a place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.

….”

 

“The number of quiet pilgrims is rising. Places are starting to move. On stones and in forests one comes across small offerings-a posy made from wheat, a feather in a bunch of heather, a circle from snail shells.”

 

Vaclav Cilek, from “Bees of the Invisible” Artesian journal, cited in R. Mcfarlane, The Road More Travelled The Guardian, 16.06.12

 

Highbrow or lowlife; the society of the spectacle in the age of The Contemporary.

In her talk at the January MFA seminar 2013 at Whitecliffe College Judy Millar used as the central provocation a debate held between Gilles Lipovetsky, and Mario Vargas Llosa.This debate was held at the Cervantes Institute, Madrid, on 24 April 2012.

The main thrust of the debate centres around a single point of contention: culture as reflective of the ultimate dissolution of a decadent society or its best means of salvation?

In defending the current trajectory of spectacle in society, Lipovetsky identifies individual desire and change for its own sake as the two key denominators of modern life.

These agents are the drivers at the forefront of humanity’s ability to stay one step ahead of pedagogy and tyranny he argues.

Mario Vargas Llosa maintains however that the role of defender of freedoms is that of High Culture. He claims that high culture has always been a place of non-conformity and that the humanism inherent in it’s forms of expression is a “main source for progress and freedom”

Lipovetsky argues that revolution is no longer needed, and that instead the driving forces of self and consumerism will of themselves stay one step ahead of convention and ideology. This seems to ignore the real evidence that human nature has a propensity to hedonism and survivalism. Neither of these traits are conducive to community-building or a less ego-driven approach to the business of existence. Lipovetsky also argues that consumption of spectacle-culture is not passive, as multiple choices require a continuous active navigation of options. It does seem likely however that a majority of Western consumers would opt for familiar experiences and allow themselves only exposure to thinking that mirrors their own rather than choosing to encounter new, difficult and challenging ideas, some of which could broker real social change.

Some support for Lipovetsky’s positivity toward the effects of entertainment comes from a hero photographer of mine, Alec Soth, in his blog post titled should artists be entertainers? (Posted in Flotsam by LBM on Nov 7 2011. http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/2011/11/). Soth suggests that art works on three levels; that entertainment is the hook to draw the viewer into something more educational and perhaps even transformative. In support of this he refers to the novelist Michael Chabon, who in his essay the Pleasure Principal says the following:

“Yet entertainment-as I define it, pleasure and all- remains the only sure way we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection.”

(Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/27/books/bk-chabon27)

Vargos Llosa however posits that in the age of The Contemporary “everything can be art, and nothing is”. Inside the safe enclosure of the museum or gallery a viewer can expect to see anything, no matter how visceral or disturbing, and detach from the experience via the endorsement of the institution; after all it’s just art. Thus the art market, and the hegemony that it supports, negate the disruptive possibilities for radical change occurring as the result of viewing an artwork. Expanding on this opinion Millar cites the recent exhibition by Cyprien Gaillard at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, April 2011, the recovery of discovery. In this show a giant geometric pyramid of beer boxes is gradually dismantled and consumed over a period of months, leaving a stinking mess of broken glass and detritus. Millar asks is this rebellion or decadence? The impact of either seems dulled by the implicit endorsement of the event by the institution; inside a safe curated space, anything goes.

Millar goes on to further discuss the role of art institutions in the society of the spectacle. In the example she gives, despite the protestations of the curator that art is not the art market, Klaus Biesenbach promotes the artist is present (Marina Abromavich) via an HBO film, in a way that sets up the artist as auteur and star, with added drama added by way of score and editing. The drama of the promotion is not borne out by the experience of being in the building itself while the show is happening, says Millar, and somehow packages what could be an intense and personal encounter into something played out for the big screen.

Wether society is rotting from the inside out by way of its decadent obsession with consumer culture, or rather that its citizenship are instead charting their own individual courses to salvation via the Arts or Shopping Channels, it seems that art institutions have become a much diluted force for change.

This sense that institutional art has become completely commoditised and thus stripped of any real agency for subversion does open up some new possibilities, and these are in part linked to technology. Millar referred to the promulgation of political revolutionary thought during the Arab Spring and to the activities of Anonymous as examples of internet-based cultural disturbances outside the control of the hegemony. Vargos Llosas maintains that technology breeds encapsulated skill-sets owned by specialists working in isolation, and says that only culture can create a community of interests. This may be so, however technology does offer vehicles for the creation, sharing and distribution of these interests.

In closing Millar poses a particularly relevant question for a group of tentative new artists; in this arena how do you disrupt? How do you challenge or subvert? Or are you content simply to add your output to the weight of existing art-commodity?

Marxists knew that owning the means of distribution was key to revolutionary success. The internet facilitates this means of distribution; a global arena for creativity, thought and citizen-to-citizen exchange as well as for commerce. As art institutions become increasingly reliant on revenue from the paying public, and thus tailor their offerings accordingly, technology continually creates new cracks away from the centre, new ways to enable disruptive and challenging projects on the fringes. This re-marginalisation of non-conformist thinking may well be the key to its survival. Grass-roots activist organisations can exist and interact via the internet, and a resurgence in local community based projects and interventions now exists as a global reality. Artists and writers can design and print their own books, and sell them directly to their audience without the need for major publishing houses to endorse their product. Crowdsourcing can fund-raise for a project, avoiding the circle-jerk of government “creative” funding rounds.

The brief romance that radical art has had with the mainstream, and all the attendant wealth and adulation that the relationship has engendered, may well be over. It may be time once again to make art that earns less and means more.

 

 

“Proust is important for everyone”

Original in Spanish ,Translation by Paul Hammond

First published in Letras Libres 7/2012 (Spanish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Letras Libres

© Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa / Letras Libres

© Eurozine

 

The Pleasure Principal excerpted from “Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands”

by Michael Chabon (McSweeney’s: 222 pp., $24). Copyright 2008 by Michael Chabon. Published by arrangement with McSweeney’s Books.

The fear of naming things.

Naming things has always brought with it a level of anxiety. When something is named, it exists. It becomes more concrete, more present, inhabits it’s own reality to a certain degree and takes on a life of its own. This knowledge brings with it a responsibility to get the name right. A thing mis-named will forever be somewhat misbegotten.

Thus the naming of this blog brought with it some of the doubts and uncertainties that lie at the heart of the projected work I am about to undertake.

Surely a mis-step here would somehow curse the project? Send me off on a false start from which things simply continue to unravel?

This unease is amplified by the resonances of the name itself, once chosen. Pilgrims Progress; surely this name will simply bring religious fanatics to my door and raise the pious spectre of the New Testament to hover uncomfortably over the entire proceeding?

Mikala Dwyer, in her generous and hypnotic artist talk yesterday, allayed many of these fears. She talked about how her work and how its’ possible readings can veer uncomfortably toward the New Age, with all the connotations of flaky lifestyle solutions and Californian hippies that entails. She makes the work and talks about it in terms of it’s mysticism and her fascination with the occult and paranormal nonetheless.

So, a pilgrim’s progress.  A hikoi, a road trip, a “journey” to quote a much-scorned term frequently heard in art critiques. A departure from the usual route. The road less travelled. A portal. An escape. An adventure. A possible redemption.