Bybilleder: writers and artists on Copenhagen

Update: I’ve now also had a look at another new find, Her er DK (2017) – see the foot of the post for details

Place writing in the British mould is thin on the ground in Denmark so I have to take what I can get.

Bybilleder: kunstnernes og forfatternes København (2016) consists of 75 snippets from Danish literature over the past 250 years set against 75 paintings, selected and presented by art historian Bente Scavenius and literary critic Bo Tao Michaëlis; 360 pages for DK 399. Reviews: Kopenhagen Magasin, Litteratursiden, Love Copenhagen.

Another of those too-big-to-handle offerings from Strandberg, this one had generøse bidrag from a total of nine fonde, but still could hardly be considered an impulse buy. Borrowed from the library on a 14 day loan, so an academic style read will have to suffice. And I’m not likely to buy it as a trophy to sit on a shelf.

In the authors’ respective forewords there’s lots of the usual glowing prose which sucks the life out of me: for BSc it’s a hyldest to Copenhagen, an oplevelse, noget til inspiration for hjerte og hjerne…then we’re heads down into the paintings and the extracts, some on different coloured paper, mainly poetry, often so short as to feel pointless (probably the shortest contribution is eight lines Uden titel (1969) from Inger Christensen), and in largish print, introduced at considerably more length by our two authors, with brief biographical notes pointing to the subject’s main works.

We are taken chronologically through the great and the good, uncritically and seemingly unselectively. It’s an encyclopedia, a reference book – a text book, even – in presentation and style. What aids are there? Zilch – just an a-z list of authors and source without page numbers, nothing for the paintings. I’d quite like to know there are two pieces from HuskMitNavn, feks, and an index by place and a timeline wouldn’t go amiss either. There are some nice pieces, but it doesn’t come together as a whole, lacking comparisons between the genres and any form of analysis. And psychogeography it ain’t – the excerpts may mention a place, but it’s rare they are _of_ a place. Which tends to be the problem, as identified already.

The usual place related suspects (from Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Anderson to Amalie Laulund Trudsø via Hermann Bang and Tom Kristensen) are represented in the 75 strong selection, of which I have probably heard of around two thirds of the writers and a third of the artists. Sadly, there is no space for Asger Jorn’s Fin de Copenhague – he is instead represented by Døddrukne danskere (1960) –  but there is room for a poem apiece from half-Danish film actor Viggo Mortensen and a certain Prins Henri (husband of the queen), which I originally thought was a performance art style joke. It passes without comment from BTM.

A quartet of artworks which caught the eye:

  • Allan Otte’s Nørrebro udtræk (2014) – a 10m x 1ocm frieze of Nørrebrogade, with places moved around to fit and no people (which is his thing); commissioned by Nørrebro Teater
  • Niels Strøbek’s Gårdparti i seks dele (1970) – representation of a typical apartment building in the brokvartere
  • Peter Land’s Copenhagen 11. December 1999, Hurricane II (2000) – portraying Copenhagen’s great storm, when everything was up in the air
  • Jesper Christiansen’s Ved et torv om morgenen (2013) – Gammeltorv, one of a series of paintings produced for Københavns Byret; Kierkegaard lived nearby, taking his daily menneskebad down Routen, as Strøget was called at the time

This last is complemented by Morten Søndergaard’s M for Marmor (2011), taken from Bakkehusalfabet (in lib) which he wrote while in residence at Bakkehuset, and more than short enough to reproduce here:

M for Marmor

Carrara-marmor med indskrift

Husene taler med deres mærkelige marmorpladstemmer: “Her skrev Grundtvig”, “her boede Søren Kierkegaard”, “her blev Hans Christian Andersen født”. Men hvem er det, der taler? Det er, som om husene er udstyret med stenstemmer, so hakkes ud på gavle og facader. Hvem siger noget? Er det tiden selv? Her! Der! Den! Dengang! Vi går forbi og tænker hvert sit. Aha, det var altså mindeværdigt, aha, den person var altså værdig til marmorens evighed. Stenord og stensætninger finder plads i arkitekturen, det bløde kød skal mindes i hård sten. Men hvem er det, som siger noget med husets mund?

Søndergaard is musing on the voices behind the marble plaques found in Copenhagen, emanating from houses and cut out of facades. Who is speaking – is it time itself? Is one person more worthy of an eternal memory in marble than others? Flesh memorialised in stone…who is speaking through the mouth of the house?

BTM sees the setting of plaques on buildings as the Protestant equivalent of the pilgrimage to relics and shrines. Dating from the 19th century, when public interest in the lives of artists exploded and the enlightened bourgeoisie began to make pilgrimages to cultural places, today it is a form of tourism, encouraged by turistbranchen.

This tickled me, not least because there are so few plaques in Copenhagen, and those there are, are so understated as to be practically invisible. Signage is also limited. Evidence of history is hard to find on the streets.

To finish…the more Danish books I look at the more I wonder at the differences between the UK and Danish markets, a reflection perhaps of general cultural differences. For many Danes the UK is bad taste corner, while Brits gape at Danish lampshades. Style, design, call what you will, is downplayed in the UK in favour of verbal dexterity and understatement. While in Denmark another new place-based title, Her er DK, is hailed for its lovely design.

And Strandberg do lovely things, if shading into something to look at rather than to read. For the record, here’s a pick of their other publications from urbanist corner:


Her er DK (2017; FB): “en bog om ukendte steder og oversete seværdigheder”; 217 writers contribute overlooked places throughout Denmark; examples include Cykelslangen (hardly overset, Martin Zerlang!); for the record, it’s DK 349 for 270 pages, some weird sub-A4 size; reviews: Jyllands Posten (paywall), Søren Ryge in Politiken (seemingly not asked); all very lovely and unlikely to scare the horses.

Purloined from the library, I note that the book is described as “et geografisk opslagsværk”, ie it’s not intended to be read from cover to cover; and it certainly feels like something to leaf through rather than read, although that may be because it’s brand new and from the library. It’s so pristine you feel like you should be wearing white gloves to handle it.

A Peter Plys (aka Winnie the Pooh) epithet at the start sets the tone: “Hvad slags historie holder han mest af? Han vil helst høre en historie om sig selv.”

There’s a geographical arrangement, starting with Nordvest, by coordinates rather than region, now that’s novel. The contributor is noted with initials not by name at the end of each piece. The contributions are often v short, too short to make much of a lasting impression. We have registre by place and name, which cross-refer to page number rather than place, that’s just annoying; I couldn’t be bothered to juggle the book to refer back to some, and I have a hunch that the list is on the website anyway (yes! See Hvem og hvor). As ever, I’m left wondering who the target market is (and how much quasi-public support it got) – for me, disappointing, although alternative forms of presentation might have helped.

While the choice of place tends mainly to the lovely, Vestegnen has three entries:

  • Rødovre: Damhustorvet, or “porten til Vestegnen”, by MSQ (Maria Skov Quistgaard, journalist, Information)
  • Albertslund: photo of Bytorvet, by VCB (Vesle Cosman Brøndum, kunstner)
  • Hvidovre: Friheden by NEO (Najat El Ouargui, strategisk analytiker ved Rigspolitiet)

More tangible things

Week 2 of  Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook) considers the value of stopping to look at things around you, specifically A toga in the archive, exploring clothing and contemporary political, economic and social phenomena, and John Harvard’s toe:

Just looking is never enough. Question what you see.  Questions about John Harvard’s statue take us many directions—to art, to early American history, and to the Houghton Library. The John Harvard statue also invites us to look at how the meaning of a person or an event changes over time. His memorial was created nearly 250 years after his death, raising the question of what aspects of his life were being remembered and what was being forgotten.

John Harvard’s statue helps us to consider the difference between history and what scholars call “memory,” or the ways in which people memorialize the past.  Memorials acquire new meanings from the ways history is remembered, imagined, or forgotten over time.

Find a memorial, monument or statue in your own area. Consider when it was made, what it commemorates, and how it has changed over time. In what ways is its history like and unlike that of the John Harvard statue? If you can, include an image.

Here’s my post and draft on memorials.

Week 3! Looks at some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce and define culture.

Given up on the social side – feels anonymous and impersonal. Needs curating.

First, a look at collections organised around a specific person or a place (see also Placing the author). Such things may seem personal and local, but can also lead to broader themes. Points from the vid:

  • room interpreted (sic) as a bedroom although it was a dairy
  • layering of different histories – what’s left out?

Memory making:

That’s what a good memory maker does. You don’t see the labor that goes into creating it. And it’s pieces of the past, fragments of the past, bits of oral tradition, artifacts, documents that they pieced together so patiently. And by looking closely, we can trace some of those fissures and cracks, and we can begin to understand that history in a much deeper way beyond just the memory.

Exercises:

  • describe an object; what aspects of family history may have been forgotten?
  • often the achievements of male inhabitants are highlighted rather than that of the women who preserved the house or persons of color who labored there or contributed to the family’s possessions – select a museum or historical site in your own area and consider whether it too might contain evidence ‘hidden in plain sight’

Next up, the museum in a box, used in American schools in the 19th century to teach children about “useful things”:

It appears systematic, but on close examination we discover the impossibility of confining any group of objects to just one story, to just one category.

Which appears to be the message of the MOOC so far. The discussion question: Choose a museum that you have visited. What were its objectives? How do those goals influence the organization and display of objects?

The museum in a box is related to world fairs and the categorisation of knowledge. Hence the exercise is to create a modern day drawer for the box, on Pinterest or Dropbox.

Week 4 considers methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking. This  sounds interesting and has big crossovers with librarianship, however I’m off on holiday so will need to run through the last two weeks double quick on return.

First up, how anthropology museums have confronted the ways their own collections reflect the conquest of native peoples, then a look at how natural history collections are conventionally organised around material attributes. The team has been involved in connecting objects to things from other kinds of collections in order to situate them in human history, and in adding ‘guest objects’ to three popular galleries.

  • If you had the opportunity to add a ‘guest object” to each of the three galleries that we examined, what would you choose? If possible select things with which you have direct experience and explain how they might alter, enlarge, or disrupt the meaning of the current exhibits.
  • If you were to create a museum, what would it be about and how would you organize it?

Week 5 looks at organising collections by broad theme rather than through traditional taxonomic categories, allowing us to see new meanings and new connections. The Time and Time Again exhibit moved beyond conventional museum boundaries to bring a variety of objects together around a single theme, showing the complexity of something as fundamental to human experience as time:

  • Find and list at least three time-keeping strategies or devices in your own environment that are not included in the Time and Time Again catalog
  • Consider the different ways you experience time. Which are more culturally influenced and which are more biologically rooted?

An early 2oth century sewing machine showed the impossibility of containing the meaning of a single object in just one collection – almost any object can connect aspects of the past that often seem unconnected, and even an ‘ordinary’ object can open up multiple ways of understanding the world and the people in it. There’s an awful lot of stuff on sewing machines, where I was looking for some sort of conclusion. The content was fine, but it didn’t really go anywhere and there was little theoretical background. Plus it was really really American. Maybe the team were present in the discussions, but the absence of any form of weekly wrap-up or any email contact meant the whole thing feel very anonymous.

Object-based learning (case studies | research) is, of course, a thing.

Taking this forward by a review of the museums just visited in Poland in the light of my museum MOOC experiences.

Tangible Things: exploring history through objects

My first edX, or rather HarvardX, MOOC is on Tangible Things (@tangiblethings | Facebook), running from 5 August for five weeks:

Gain an understanding of history, museum studies, and curation by looking at, organizing, and interpreting art, artifacts, scientific curiosities, and the stuff of everyday life.

Have you ever wondered about how museum, library, and other kinds of historical or scientific collections all come together? Or how and why curators, historians, archivists, and preservationists do what they do? In Tangible Things, you will discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines and reinforced or challenged boundaries between people…

In the first section of the course, we will consider how a statue, a fish, and a gingham gown have contributed to Harvard’s history, and you will learn the value of stopping to look at the things around you. In the next section, we will explore some of the ways people have brought things together into purposeful collections to preserve memory, promote commerce, and define culture. Finally, we will consider methods of rearranging objects to create new ways of thinking about nature, time, and ordinary work.

Recommended by someone on #flmuseums, we’ll see how this goes – it looks very American, and that’s not just the Caps Up and added commas.

According to Kathryn Hughes, objects and things have become the dominant way of understanding and interpreting the past, with A history of the world in 100 objects given as an example – objects make better stories than timelines. See its sister programme from last year, Germany: memories of a nation, which certainly worked for me.

Week 1: introductions and Look at the Fish 

After a welcome from the tutors there’s a fun video on how to look at a chair, showed how focusing on different aspects of an object (from the perspectives of environmental science, economics, art, anthropology, history, history of medicine) can open up new ways of thinking about its broader historical or cultural significance:

This is not a chair. Well, it’s not only a chair. As you can see, it can be a tree, a symbol of power, a commodity, a document, a treatment, a sculpture, and much, much more.

List at least five different ways you might redefine a common object in your own house. Explain your choices, using the template: “This is not a _________; it is a __________.” Include a photo if possible.

Another exercise asks when you last visited a museum. What kind of museum was it? Did you learn any history? What was it?

The edX platform is fine, looks more up to date than Coursera and more grown up than FutureLearn, as does the whole thing. To get over the gadzillion responses issue the class is divided into four, three by surname and one for museum professionals, but it’s got cluttered very quickly and isn’t easy to navigate – searching may have to be the way. Self assessment (based on an honour code) in order to get a certificate is on offer, via check boxes for whether you watched the vids, did the exercises or joined the discussion. Neat.

Weird pre-course survey question: What is the highest level of education that your mother and father completed?

OK, let’s look at the fish.

In this unit we explore how investigation begins with close looking. Close looking was the foundation of scientific exploration in the nineteenth century. It is still important today. To begin to understand something, start by simply looking at it. Then, look again.

This is a story about science. But it’s also a story about close looking. It’s a story about the 19th century obsession with material things. In the 19th century, it wasn’t just scientists who looked closely to find information. Poets, politicians, teachers, lawyers, doctors, everyday people collected things as a way to understand the world around them.

There was a belief that you could learn a great deal about looking closely at things, arranging those objects, sorting those things, and in many ways, tracing the shape of nature through your observation of those things.

Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws. Go back and look at the fish.

And after eight months, Samuel Scudder not only felt that he knew something about fish, he felt that he had learned something about the methods of natural science.

Scudder didn’t begin with a textbook. Scudder began with a fish. And through close-looking, he was able to learn what he needed to understand about this object and its place in a larger system.

…just looking isn’t enough. Observations should prompt questions, connections from other contexts and further research, not start with close preconceived notions setting out to prove a theory.

From the readings: looking closely can improve writing. See also the case study method developed by Harvard Business School.

Choose an object close at hand for this exercise. Choose something tangible and accessible, a physical object you can put on a table in front of you and touch, see, smell—and perhaps even taste. Choose something common but with enough complexity to engage your interest. If you are lucky you could pick something from your garden. Or find an interesting rock, shell, or other thing that piques your interest.

List ten specific observations. Then list ten more.

A pencil is a great eye.” That is, attempt to describe it without words. Photograph it a dozen times, each time from a different angle or focusing on a different detail.

“Facts are stupid things unless brought into connection with general laws”

  • Make a list of questions suggested by your examination.
  • Begin an Internet search for answers to your questions.
  • Search for photographs, art works, or artifacts related to your object.
  • Search for proverbs, poems, or quotations related to your object.

Write a brief paragraph summarizing the most surprising or enlightening thing you discovered. How did your understanding of this object change as you engaged with it? What didn’t you learn through close looking? What are the limits of Louis Agassiz‘s method? What questions emerged from the close looking? What is the difference between physically looking at an object and simply perceiving it on screen?

This approach was outlined in #flmuseums’ final week, and is similar to my idea of curated reading (and writing).

Pretty impressed so far – like #mapmooc, it’s the best of America! I tend to find storytelling a bit tedious, but if it’s well done it does work – I found myself pretty gripped by the fish. From Let’s take another look (in the recommend reading): “I realized I was a presenter of facts, wondering why the students never seemed to understand the concepts…I had been a presenter of learning when I needed to be a facilitator of learning”.

It’s notable that the course doesn’t seem to have any multiple choice quizzes, which I tend to get through via a ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ approach. To move into long term memory a lesson needs to be associated with what a student already knows (curational), or get them emotionally involved (storytelling).

The team are also behind the Tangible things book and website, while a post from the Chipstone Foundation hints at how the approach is relevant to #flmuseum’s activist museum, without ramming one message down your throat:

Any material thing is best understood from multiple perspectives, using the tools of diverse disciplines and lessons learned in many different kinds of museums. For now, our challenge is to help our visitors find a way to open these drawers to investigate the contents of these glass vials, to transport them to a lost world far more complex than any one museum can adequately capture.

The rest of the course is released in two units per week, which may result in some dipping in and out. Hopefully we’ll hear from the team more directly in due course – neither #some account has posted since last year’s outing.

Objects linkage: The Brontë cabinet: three lives in nine objects | People’s History Museum’s Object of the Month | The Museum of Imaginative Knowledge

The art of exploring: flâneurie in an age of mass tourism

Copious notes from Outbounding’s week long discussion (@outbounding) in May – mainly for distant reading, although qus 8 (identity) and 9 (exploration) are worth a closer revisit.

Particpants: Tina Richardson (@concretepost), John Rogers (@fugueur), Eddie Procter (@landscapism) and Bobby Seal (@bobbyseal1), facilitated by Amy Gigi Alexander (@amyggalexander), plus Linda Lappin (@LindaLappin1) and Sartre + Sartre (@SartreAndSartre).

Q1: what is psychogeography (plundered)

Tina: On a fundamental level we are all psychogeographers, whether we realise it or not, as we all respond, in an aesthetic and psychological way, to urban space – even if we do not consciously acknowledge or recognise that. However, in practical terms a psychogeographical walk would have to have some qualities that are beyond a ‘Sunday stroll’ or a walk ‘down the High Street’ to be called ‘psychogeography’.

  • psychogeographical practice inhabits the territory of metaphysical exploration of the intersection between place, human activity (historical and modern), psychological reaction and the natural world; more specifically liminal spaces, often in an urban or edgeland context away from the familiar and the well-trodden; practitioners root out the places that are overlooked, neglected or invisible to the casual eye
  • psychogeography has generally been seen as urban in focus; in some ways almost anti-rural, certainly uninterested in the conventionally sublime or aesthetically pleasing aspects of the countryside
  • such an approach can be prey to easy caricature as the haunt of earnest devotees seeking out and eulogising the most desolate and God-forsaken urban spaces, however it provides a fresh way to read and interpret geographical space and bring together normally disparate subject matter
  • any spatial entity is equally ripe for psychogeographical enquiry – you can get lost or absorbed in a place or landscape anywhere, seemingly everyday places and spaces almost always have intriguing layers and depth to them, whether urban or rural
  • these place-connections can help us find the wonder in our own surroundings – whether historical, political, ecological or something more spiritual or spectral
  • a human response to the places we encounter, often with a lot of personal disclosure (also seen in ‘new nature writing’); it could be argued that this element has become somewhat over-egged…
  • Debord noted the term had a ‘pleasing vagueness’, relating well to how a walk or derive can open up, a sense of looseness and following of unexpected turnings, rather than progressing along a planned route, following signs and the like, with a pleasing tension between a natural urge to know where you are, where you are going – to follow the map – and losing yourself in exploring the moment; a sense of wonder, engaging with the unexplained when least expected
  • writers let a place imprint itself on them rather than the other way around; certain elements can resurface in the mind after you have left a place; by not trying too hard you sometimes discover more, it is a different way of looking at a place; almost actively passive

Greil Marcus: To encounter the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom, and innocence in the face of experience.

what is psychogeography?

the short version, via the LRM

Q2: the art/practice of noticing

  • how is ‘noticing’ different from seeing? what are the skills one uses to notice? are there special terms or language used for this kind of experience?
  • looking and looking again – a process of walking through the street which you might know well but using the active process of noticing; transcending the everyday walk into something with an active structure, a deliberate exploration of the space and how it affects the creative mind; the key is adding a structure, so not just looking but looking at the process of how you look
  • various levels of ‘noticing’ – zooming in…on a detail others would drift by, zooming out…a sense of a bird’s eye view looking down on the space (your own internal GPS) to locate yourself in the larger view; then later at home you might realise or discover something else about the space – that is three levels of noticing to start with
  • the repeated journey – how the person connects with the place through which they are moving which brings ’emotional content’, sense data causing mini explosions on our inner map; walking meditation

I strongly dislike it when I have my compass withdrawn by being in a new place and do not having an immediate mapping inside. I am much happier when I know which way is ‘up’. Generally, orientation, for me, starts with an overlay of compass points, and then I need water and or hills and or stations and or monuments (tall buildings, trees, distinct geographical markers, which might be something I, personally, find salient, or might be a wider thing. Usually both, but I have no problem remembering, for example, when in Munich, I am near Max Weber Platz because I think it is AMAZING that an underground station should be named after a sociologist.

  • certain names give you an impression of a walk, for example when places are named after writers; estates and shops designed by the post-war modernists often had sculptures, giving access to art to those who might never visit a gallery, or buildings which could be viewed as sculptural shapes, looking at the everyday in a sculptural way
  • walks which follow the same route during different seasons of the year; collect artifacts and record impressions; the key is to ‘notice’ using numerous senses; the visual stimulants in a given season may not be as pronounced as smells or sounds, or weather
  • looking with a photographer’s eye (artist’s eye, the mindful eye), seeing things in a different light, at different times, means that the relationship with the space evolves,
  • noticing as multi-sense oriented, eg smell walks
  • we don’t just see the things we’ve been conditioned to see, but make the effort to look and notice for ourselves in a creative way; to experience the city, to construct our own mental map of it, we have to walk its streets looking and exploring; wandering at random, letting the city impress itself upon you – it’s a two way street (pardon the pun) actively practising ‘noticing’ whilst being open to ‘letting’ the fresh imprint land on the mind to shape the mental map
  • the act of noticing is absent in most experiences of place as one is always trying ‘to get somewhere’ and so one’s mind is busy, eg ” I had driven by it every day, and never ‘seen’ it.” Later you mind find out more about what you have seen (the layers again – curation?)
  • but there’s a danger of consciously going out to ‘notice’ stuff rather than submit to the experience and find whatever passes over you – sometimes you might not realise what that experience has been till much later
  • a way to take the pressure off is to take photos and just snap away at anything that catches your eye – trying to make it as spontaneous as possible
  • if you are looking to ‘notice’ something specific for research then that is a different thing – more of a survey, eliminating the random and searching for a trace of a something in particular; targeted looking/noticing

The beauty of a practice that is basically walking and looking and using your imagination is that you can bring whatever it is that you *do* know about to it, and then when talking about it you use your terms of reference, and then in the conversation whoever you are talking to uses theirs, and in that way the conversation is a journey of its own, creating, perhaps, a new glossary as it goes along.

Q3: the flâneur (plundered)

John Rogers:  I think the flaneur is a bit of a detour. I see them as modernist poets flouncing around in the countryside slurping down absinthe. Aimless drifters. Whereas the Situationists were revolutionaries – there was nothing aimless in their drifts – they wanted to transform everyday life (so they said anyway). However having a wander around in the city gazing at the rooftops is a lovely pursuit in its own right.

Q4: recording psychogeographic journeys – travel writing and more

  • travel writing and psychogeography are not clearly delineated fields, although individuals tend to prefer one term over another; works can be filed in various places in bookshops; sort-of-travel books are usually shelved with actual travel books
  • the methods of recording walks are as broad as the term psychogeography; with social networking and blogging a whole new raft of psychogeographers have been brought to the fore who did not have a voice before; open source software and GIS have enabled creative walkers to trace their walks and present them in new and exciting cartographic ways
  • is there really a need for a different class of writing? although the idea of a psychogeographic version of a Fodor’s guide is an intriguing one
  • there are certain principles in psychogeography which are absent in traditional travel writing narratives, which often have the goal of going from point a to b with planning and intention; the point here is to offer tools which deepen the travel writing narrative or allow it to come into fruition in new ways
  • a lot of travel writing does involve going from point a to b with planning and intention, but there is a lot of fine travel writing / writing about places which mainly has to do with ‘going with the flow’ or ‘hanging out’ in an interesting place
  • explorations, after all, are housed in our bodies and work their way out from our inhabited spaces before we ever set foot on a pavement

The best writers seem to be able to both allow themselves to experience a space with fresh eyes whilst also having a process where they can approach a place with a frame of mind which might enable them to capture something different, something others may not have picked up, almost like they are feeling the different layers of time in a place, some parts of which might only reveal themselves much later when writing about it.

  • Lawrence Durrell practised the art of ‘silent identification’ while sitting with his eyes closed and his senses open in the ruins of Delphi (described in his essay The spirit of place)
  • when we sit down to write about a place, or about anything, we are often surprised to discover how much we do remember, how much we did pick up, and how many sensations and impressions of the atmosphere we have retained without our conscious knowledge; Italo Calvino’s unconscious and remembrance of place

In most modern psychogeographic writing two key features differ quite dramatically from the work produced by the average travel writer; a strong contrarian streak, an attitude that draws writers to ignore the obvious places that people write about and focus instead on the parts of our cities and other landscapes that are unloved and ignored, the margins, very often the places they walk to from their own front door; it’s as if they’re trying to find the extraordinary in the ordinary; the second is a mixing of forms, a blurring of boundaries, merging autobiography, topography, history, myth, fiction, natural history and travelogue.

  • travel writing has many forms, too, but since it is attached to consumption and commercial narratives and other such things, it (can) lack these qualities; the best so-called travel writing has also always adopted this polymath appproach, for instance the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin
  • the political angle underpinning writing and practice that might fall under the psychogeographical umbrella, eg issues of land ownership, the tensions between public and private space, trespass, gentrification, displacement of local populations and amenities by corporate or statist development, the list goes on…at a time when walking in certain places and photographing certain buildings can get one into trouble with the authorities, people who like to wander often get an up-close insight into state and corporate power
  • walking in Africa you switch gears and must think like an animal, be attuned to wildlife behavior; in very tangible ways you must resort to a primitive self, and you relate to this landscape as the place where humans began to walk upright
  • walking in Italy or New York I ponder the pentimento effect; this street was something else (a canal) hundreds of years ago, or the lawn was a pasture for sheep; in NYC I walk along streets where I used to live or dine and remember the shops or restaurants long gone, stroll around Grand Central and celebrate that it is no longer filthy; I also explored New York from the waterfront, sailing up and down the Hudson, cruising around Manhattan; it’s like flying; you get a completely different perspective
  • psychogeography as the study of the many layered connections between  our environment and our psyche, as the deep inner maps we make of the places where we live and transit, in which real experiences mingle with ones imagined, desired, or dreamed
  • do we sometimes connect to a space in a different way once we know the reasoning behind a design? the initial pleasure Walter Benjamin experienced on wandering down a Paris boulevard took on a different perspective once he discovered that Baron Haussmann had designed them with the purpose of moving troops at speed and making it harder for dissenting residents to raise barricades; maybe that it why it is sometimes good to explore a place once without knowing the thinking behind the design and then revisit it with that in mind (layers; the issue with guided walks)
  • generally we inhabit our space without noticing its multiple effects on us; part of the pleasure of exploring places is bound up in learning to see, sense, and read them from many different perspectives

Q5: mapping

  • maps drawn by hand after or during a walk can yield interesting results, particularly when annotated: what did they smell, feel, hear? people drawing maps can be further enriched by reflecting on their experience
  • Christian Nold’s bio mapping and emotional cartography are also interesting: what is your body saying during your experience? senses are key, see Wendy MacNaughton’s map of Dolores Park and video on drawing on psychogeography
  • maps represent ownership and power: those who control the maps we use exercise a great deal of power over the way we see the world; when we create our own maps we take back some of that power, important at a time when so much of our urban public space is being privatised
  • practical utility in an emotional map, eg for property sales, walkability, sense of a place etc
  • a visual picture of a journey can have more weight than just opening a commercial map or guidebook, see eg Katie Kowalski’s World mapped as pop art and Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will
  • combine approaches into a multi-layer map so you could see the cityscape, the bio readings, and the personal annotations, a different form of writing that slices through the various levels of experience in an accessible way
  • maps are the artifacts of a psychogeographic exploration as much as a guidebook for travel, a form of curation (ha!)

The Yerba Buena map – by using an old 1847 map and annotations, I can stand by the Transamerica Pyramid and realize that waves from the bay would be lapping at my feet, that there are only a dozen or so buildings on the hillside behind me. Then realize that within 7 years, the shoreline would have moved much closer to what it is today. Now I have a new perception of that place. I can never see it the same way again. That’s what mapping and other reporting can do, invite others to re-envision a place.

  • can the maps created by the Situationists as a consequence of doing dérives be used by a third party to trace the original experience? most are more of a philosophical statement than a means to relive their experience; a number of more recent efforts attempt it, and Rebecca Solnit’s INFINITE CITY falls somewhere in the middle
  • Tina: I would use the umbrella term ‘vernacular maps’ for the maps produced by psychogeographers, although the form they take is multiple; they can be emotional maps (Christian Nold), based on a Situationist model (cut-outs) or highly stylised and made in Photoshop; with the use of new technologies they can also involve GIS
  • does psychogeography apply to non-urban landscapes? the focus seems almost exclusively to be on cities, towns and other human developed spaces (ie nature writing not psychogeog); be guided purely by your senses and your internal GPS/emotions – there are ways to begin a psychogeographic journey which would apply to anywhere; there are plenty of opportunities to wander, as Robert MacFarlane does for example, across the countryside
  • Wikipedia: Psychogeography is an approach to geography that emphasizes playfulness and “drifting” around urban environments. This makes sense, as the Situationist movement is very much anti-consumerist, which is not very relevant outside of an urban landscape.
  • in terms of the flaneur being drawn in a direction or directed by the senses, that’s certainly possible anywhere, however it should be a concentrated effort of rediscovery, which also is possible in more remote places but more necessary and profound in a dense urban area
  • that said, we should always try to discover the new in the familiar, whether it’s a city street, a river valley, or a friend; many photographers photograph an area repeatedly, from a slightly different angle, different lighting, etc – finding the thing(s) hidden in plain sight is the payoff

Wild places are political, radical and storied, urban neighbourhoods drip with rich ecosystems, flora and fauna; we really need to get over any outdated binary divide between urban and rural; drift and get lost wherever your feet take you.

Q6: tools and apps:

  • if psychogeography is wandering, why would an app be useful? is wandering directed, if not, can it be both?
  • a false dichotomy – cf using a map of one city to navigate another city – that map is a tool. An app is a tool. Because of using a tool, it’s possible to meander with even less of a preconceived, or unknowingly hidden, agenda. Think of a metronome. A metronome is a tool for musicians to keep the rhythm. Now consider a metronome that purposely and continuously is out of step. Now consider a mobile app that does exactly that in relation to exploring an urban environment.
  • an app or a map is a way to keep time, keep track, or somehow set out a pattern; do apps give a way to plot points or craft a grid of some kind?
  • typically, m/apps streamline; Google Maps easily tells you the easiest route from A to B, but what if an app obstructs taking the obvious route and has you discover your surroundings as a consequence?
  • it’s not about the tool/app, it’s about how you use it – you could use an app/map to keep track of the routes you’ve already traveled and make sure you’re going somewhere new every time
  • what if, instead of the most direct route from A to B, you want to go the most fragrant route? or the quietest? alternate ways to navigate and experience a place, a navigational guide tailored to a variety of needs, desires, etc
  • a number of apps have popped up over the past few years that provide contextual information for given places as you walk, pulling you into certain areas because you’ve been alerted that there’s info about a particular spot; the danger is that you become so focused on the spots that you miss everything else
  • geocaching apps and challenges – having a guiding tool and a purpose doesn’t hurt the experience one bit, since they are still getting lost on directions that come from someone else; it’s a bit like the suggestion above of using the map of a different city, you’re allowing yourself to see the route through another’s eyes
  • techniques such as walking x blocks before turning then walking another x blocks, alternating when I turn left or right, starting on a street starting with “A” and going in alphabetical order as much as possible, using a bingo style card of things you need to spot: something yellow, a sculpture, a brick house, etc. then letting that guide when and where you vary the route (fortunately I seem to have an uncanny ability to get lost without any help)

Q7: photography and video

  • photography – the use of reflections, giving the viewer a conflated view of two or more places and altering the perspective, forcing the viewer to look at a given place in new ways
  • explore a place with all your senses and place no expectations on it – just let the place be without insisting that it deliver any certain type of experience – that’s when the place reveals its nuances and you can capture its essence in a way that a commercial effort usually can’t

Honor your desire to wander. The level of focus and appreciation you develop while genuinely exploring benefits the people in your life – you become more interested and maybe even a little bit more interesting. That level of focus also contributes to improving the quality of the work you do whatever your profession might be.  A flaneur may sometimes appear to be “wasting time” but in fact important inner work is taking place – savoring life.

  • Tina used a Microsfoft sensecam and a Lomography camera on a collaborative project on the British seaside, Reading the Arcades/Reading the Promenades, eg on a  cheeky little psychogeographic walk down the High Street of the coastal town of Hunstanton: Hello! From Hunstanton
  • psychogeography suggests the ‘found object’ of art making – I used to post a lot of pictures of stuff on the ground, or things that seemed to me to make a gallery of the street, whether intentional or ideally unintentional; see mixed in with documentations of actual street art my ‘finds’: citynoise.org/author/elaine

Q8: psychogeography and identity

  • psychogeography as an expression of identity – attached to political ideas; social or anti-social; identifying with certain movements such as feminism, expressing some kind of personal quest or liberation
  • did the practice change or expand the way you see yourself, or the way you relate to a group or idea; how did these connections come into being?
  • Debord saw psychogeography as an anti-consumerist movement – see The Society of the Spectacle
  • by avoiding the beaten path, you’re putting your focus not on the obvious subjects around you, such as typically consumerist symbols (big billboards, store fronts, etc; Danish things…); by doing a dérive you are anti-consumerist by design
  • Debord suggested that, through the derive and other practices, we can develop a way of experiencing the city that is not defined by consumerism or the commodification of our relationships, taking us to the point he called detournment, the turning round of our consciousness
  • writing the body person – I have become chronically ill and can’t ignore it; I’ve been blogging and taking photos in the city since I got ill, it made sense since I’ve always written diaries, and walked; see The Pleasure Bath

Q9: psychogeography and exploration

  • are psychogeographers acting as an explorer in some way? are the environments you find truly the last undiscovered territories? could psychogeography change the genre of travel writing by changing the object of exploration?
  • I am using the word “explorer” for lack of a better word, but it could also be “adventurer” although this doesn’t necessarily have the same connotations of “discovery”. I note “explorer” can be an antiquated term,  attached to certain misconceptions, but for others, it is positive term. 
  • Will Self called psychogeography “the great means we have to actually explore“; anyone could go to a remote indigenous community, but few people can really see the mouth of the Thames river
  • the idea that the world has been seen, discovered, explored almost to the maximum is particularly poignant to the travel writer, who is actively searching for that ‘exploration’ experience, as well as ways to stretch the limits of the genre
  • Tina: I have a slight problem with the term ‘explorer’ due to its colonial connotations – the same goes for some of UrbExing, a lot of which could be described as the domination of space ‘via the phallus’; aside from that, Sinclair talks about this idea of discovery in an article he wrote in the Guardian called ‘Secret Britain’: “These sites, come upon by accident, prick our imagination, provoke reverie” (2009)
  • remember ‘urban orienteering’? implies mapping but doesn’t have an imperialist slant
  • Gertrude Stein wrote after revisiting Oakland and discovering her childhood home was gone: “I find no there there in my hometown; there is no school, no grocery store, no gas station, main street is a ghost town, but for my memoirs I hope to reconstruct it. Researching the landscape has been a wonderful meander into features I did not appreciate when I was young.”
  • Debord’s famous Class War Games
  • geocaching can lead into the experiences to which psychogeography aspires; also Phil Cousineau’s approach of a pilgrimage to drive exploration or experience – you start out looking for one thing and find something else entirely; a true denouement

Finally…

I believe at its heart psychogeography (however you define it) is about
O sharing the hidden stories of our streets and the people who have lived and struggled here
O understanding the hidden power struggles that shape our lives
thinking about who controls space, who uses it and who doesn’t and why
O (re)mapping and (re)imaging where we wander
O respecting the many diverse communities who make our homes what they are
O starting conversations, having a good time and reclaiming the streets for more than shopping

#flmuseums 6: museums and me

The final week explored “the museum’s two biggest assets: objects and people”. Some useful stuff on the former, not a lot on the latter.

Objects can evoke memory, particularly when our senses are involved. What can they mean when we encounter them in a museum, or in everyday life? We might start to think about museums as having a biography: a life story.

Things to think about when considering an object:

  • intention and context of the maker(s) of the object
  • processes by which the object was made
  • ways in which the object is seen by different subjects
  • processes of distributing the object
  • ways in which the object is consumed
  • ways in which the object is used
  • whether or not – and how – the object is kept
  • ways in which the object is discarded/recycled

If we can find out enough information about an object, we can piece together a biography for it. The meanings and values ascribed to an object tend to change as its contexts change, resulting in a rich, multi-layered set of complementary and conflicting meanings. It can also tell us much that goes beyond the object, as well as being about and illustrative of the object itself.

Objects form a link to past events, people and ideas. We live by and through objects. We use them to shape our social lives, our characters and and our identities. Consider the clothes you are wearing…Our relationship with objects is, in part, socially and historically determined. Consider a basic chair…

You knew it was coming:

Pick an object that you think says something about you. It could be anything – an item of clothing, something from about the house or garden, a treasured souvenir, something that reminds you of a person or a place or a special time, perhaps.

Take some time to look at the object. Hold it, feel it, smell it, you might even be able to taste it or listen to it. Think about what that objects says about you. How does it fit into your life? How did you acquire it? What experiences have you shared with that object? Why is it important to you?

Would it be easy for someone else to work out how that object represents you? Would it be easier for someone to tell something about you if you selected a group of objects?

A nice exercise, but maybe in need of interpretation for others’ contributions to be of interest.

Spend some time exploring the collections of National Museums Liverpool online. Look at a few objects in more detail and consider the following questions:

  • How are they interpreted?
  • To what extent do the object’s biographies come to the fore?
  • Whose meanings are being represented here? Whose are absent?
  • What meanings do they have for you personally?
  • How do you respond emotionally to some of the objects you see?
  • How might you experience these objects differently if you were to encounter them in real life, rather than digitally?
  • What is lost/gained through the digitisation of these objects and collections?
  • Might technology continue to change the possibilities for exploring and interpreting museum objects and collections in radical ways?

Musuems and digital:

  • mid 1960s: computers first came to the museum
  • 1970s:computers used for automation of manual record systems
  • 1980s: computerisation of collections and of images
  • 1990s: big web revolution
  • 2000s:  mobile and social media revolutions
  • 2010s: postdigital? embedded, an innate function of the museum

Think critically as you visit museums:

Visit a few museums – perhaps museums of different sizes and types – and look at them through fresh eyes. You might like to think about the work the museum is doing – can you see any evidence that they are engaging with social justice and human rights, or health and wellbeing, for example? Are they trying to be dispassionate, or actively seeking emotional responses? How diverse are their visitors and how inclusive are their displays?

And that was it…

Told to be inclusive, not elitist, in order to justify their funding, modern museums have sometimes swung too far the other way…A successful museum isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about sharing expertise.

Quotes above from What are modern museums really for? in The Spectator, oh dear…The MOOC offered an insight into some strands of current thinking, as reflected in the three questions above, but not over-useful for my context. In the comments someone came up with Tangible Things, an edX course in August, which looks worth a whirl. See also Mysteries of the mind, tracking the development of an exhibition by students on the MA in Museum Studies at UCL.

As so often, the instructors were largely absent from the discussions.

In the Danish context, Nordea Fonden has come up with DK 20 million for a consortium of 13 museums and five universities to undertake a project exploring user involvement. Starts May 2016 and runs for four and a half years.

My interest is in taking ‘curation’ further, towards interpretation/formidling (cf public engagement) IRL. @LeicsMusStud offers an MA in heritage and interpretation – the course brochure is worth a look. UHI in Perth offers an MSc in Interpretation, and there are similar courses på dansk, not least RUC’s Turistføreruddannelse. There’s natur- og kulturformidling at Metropol and at UCN i Hjørring, and both KU’s Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab and Det Informationsvidenskabelige Akademi offer kulturformidling, which in the case of the latter brings us back to the curation angle.

For what this is about in practice see the Libro small business chat with Katherine Findlay, who did the Leics course and now helps “organisations to connect with their visitors through stories”. More: the Association for Heritage Interpretation | Interpret Europe and InHeritTellTale, and Scottish Natural Heritage on interpretation. Yikes!

Update: from Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!: “Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind…Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making…This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.” Hear hear!

#curationism: how curating took over the art world and everything else

My proposed curation of #curationism was making its own point, with much of the Twitter action curated only into Trash as the epitome of performing value. So straight to the serious stuff.

Curationism, by Canadian art critic David Balzer (@davidkbalzer), came out in Canada in September 2014 (review), hitting the streets in the UK on 20 April with David on tour. Suspect some of the people who buy the book will be disappointed – it’s an academic monograph dressed up as popular non-fiction, albeit without footnotes.

The book (Pluto | Amazon) comes in at a slight 144 pages. David seeks to explore the crossover between art curators, particularly in their celebrity guise as seen from the late 1990s, and popular (over)usage of the term, which has led to the “curational impulse” becoming a dominant way of thinking and being, an “expression-cum-assurance of value and an attempt to make affiiliations with, and to court, various audiences and consumers”.

The book takes for granted that readers have a grasp of the conventional definition of curation as “an act of selecting, organizing and presenting items in the vein of an arbiter-editor”, although the first part, ‘Value’, presents a curator’s chronology, from the Roman pro/curator (in charge of public works, often an honorific position) and the curate cum parish functionary (and his egg), and onwards. These usages involve caring for something as well as taking an interest in it, they “suggest dependence and responsiveness rather than direct action and agency”, as does the curator within the context of a museum or collection, where it is the objects which are the focus. The curator retains a “twist of autonomy through the vital concept of connisseurship: a display of taste or expertise that lends stylized independence to the act of caring for and assembling”.

The second part of the book, ‘Work’, addresses the ‘hyper-professionalization’ of the art world as well as popular expressions of labour, exploring curation’s close alliance with capitalism and its cultures. The phenomenon of the autonomous curator emerged in the 1960s in tandem with the conceptual art movement. The idea of art became more important than actual object, and hence curators were needed to advocate the work – seen in connection with land art, installations and performance art, all of which are hard to exhibit in a ‘normal’ way. The curator makes it real, performing its value; not celebrating, but rather selling a product, part of the capitalist system in art world. This role was absorbed by institutions in the 1990s, leading to a style of curation which is “more fleeting, and even paradoxical”, the curator as auteur and cultural go-between, hyper conscious of what s/he is doing. The pop cultural curator is similarly obsessed with authorship and hyper-aware of audience, most concerned with expressing status and position in a world where real objects eg books are falling by the wayside and we are unsure of how to make value in our lives and are hence very conscious of our choices.

A further issue explored is that of the avant garde, in which “‘new’ and ‘original’ are paramount and successive, like a string of dictators, each making their elders obsolete and re-arranging their country”.

For excerpts see Amazon, the Globe and Mail (plus review) and the sample (on Issuu, grr) from Pluto’s fansite. Bookomi’s 3 things that define a curator (and The Daily Mash) is ideal for those with limited attention spans. Interviews aplenty: Vancouver’s Sad Mag & Contemporary Art Gallery | Monocle’s Arts Review & Culture | R4’s Today prog (at 2:51:55) | BBC News with @WillGompertzBBC | ABC Radio’s Books and Arts.

The Spectator had a deeply serious review, with Jonathan Meades weighing in with:

Curators have moved from the passive to the active. From being receptive to what is actually made to being controlling. From accepting random expressions of individual creativity that belong to no ‘school’ to proposing taxonomies and ordering up ‘site-specific’ works: where creation ends and curation begins is moot…That taste is of course avant garde — the thoroughly conventionalised, institutionalised art of the establishment.

Have we reached peak curator? Usage is now over-ripe and pumped up, and the notion is beginnning to exhaust itself, spawning subspecies such as cultural producers, experience designers, storytellers…perhaps vacating the space for the return of our conventional curator as cultural distiller or gatekeeper in a world of overload – which is where I came in, back in 2011.

Finally, some tweets from David’s London tour:

Creative and literary non-fiction

Updated Feb 2017.

I’m drawn to reading (and writing, translating, curating…) creative and literary non-fiction. Here’s some linkage.

Subgenres include place writing (in Denmark; sub-subgenre: nature writing), life writing, memoir, biofictionbibliomemoirs (JCO; the Gdn’s Top 10 books about reading also identifies the sub-subgenre of metabooks, or how books became).

Others are sui generis, such as Philippe Sands’ (@philippesands; Gdn) series of linked projects he calls the Lemberg Quartet: A song of good and evil ( ‘musical lecture’, 2014), My Nazi legacy (film, 2015) and East west street (book, 2016).

Some bibliomemoirs and related:

I’ve a fair few Russian literary biogs in this category, for example Janet Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov.

We also have writing about the characters in (or simply recreating/imagining) classic novels. Often peripheral characters are given a voice, eg Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda, The Mersault investigation (ie “The Arab” in L’Étranger), the real Lara in Dr Zhivago.

Biofiction can be tricky (Katy Derbyshire: “using real-life characters in fiction can feel disrespectful when a writer assumes too much about what’s going on inside their heads”). As well as lots of Tolstoy, recent examples include Miss Emily (Emily Dickinson and a maid), Julian Barnes on Shostakovich (again; although JB maintains “biographical novels are kind of cheesy”), The late Walter Benjamin, notable for being set on a council estate near Watford, Polly Clark’s Larchfield (WH Auden in Helensburgh), Mikhail and Margarita, which is so obvious it’s amazing it’s taken this long to appear (here’s another one: Agatha Christie’s disappearance), and An overcoat (Stendhal).

Here we find a subgenre of graphic novels cum biographies: