Trace, absence and the concrete – reading non-places as event-spaces
May 26, 2012 6 Comments
In this blog-essay I think about the aesthetic ways in which mundane, non-places are valorised. I attempt this by looking back at some of the papers I listened to at the Affective Landscapes conference. I don’t cover all the sessions that I attended; instead I focus on the points raised by certain speakers, who I’ve now found myself trying to link together.
The above image is from the 1970s sequence, Middle England by John Myers. In her presentation Eugenie Shrinkle (University of Westminster), surveyed trends in landscape photography and the turn in the mid 1970s away from a picturesque focus (an aesthetic driven by the depiction of ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’ – invoking Appleton’s (1990) The Symbolism of Habitat) towards the depiction of unsettling – either banal or human-damaged environments. ‘Hazard’ in Appleton’s taxonomy. Merele Toennies (University of Paderbon, Germany) then underpinned this with her focus upon the ‘subversive use of the landscape in 1980s British colour photography’, highlighting the work of Martin Parr and Tom Wood in this tradition. By such artists the banal of everyday spaces was presented back as aestheticised: ‘art as social critique’.
Kylie Crane (University of Mainz, Germany) then showed the hyperaesthetic dimension of certain aspects of contemporary urban exploration photography, considering the ways in which that exploration can (sometimes) present as an art-driven (and specifically late-Romantic) practice.
I’m used to examining urbex photographs presented in online forums as natural (unmanipulated) ‘survey’ records of sites and visits. Kylie showed an alternative facet to that heterogeneous practice – markedly manipulated (enhanced) images, and their creators directly acknowledging the aesthetic intentions of their projects.
All of these speakers, helpfully reminded me of the link to ‘high-art’ and its genres. Such approaches present mundane places as art-object through the interpretative endeavour of the artist. But what other practical or esoteric aesthetics also enable ‘dull’ spaces to spring to life?
It was the speakers who engaged with such places as being at the human/building interface that got me thinking the most. Here the connecting point was a question of how a place might be ‘read’ in order to elicit the fleeting uses of such spaces – the lives passing through. The first paper to spark this line of thought was Justin Ascott’s (Norwich University College of the Arts). A link to Justin’s short film Passageway is presented here. It is well worth a watch. It is a study of the ‘life’ of a mundane passageway within a town centre. It is a study of both the ‘bricks and mortar’ and of the ‘lives passing through’. A fleeting glance of a full urban ecology.
The next speaker, New Zealand artist Lisa Chandler showed how her artworks seek to map the fleeting passage of multiple lives through airport terminals and other crowded public non-places. Her art works to partially erase each figure, to leave overlapping traces. Joanna Geldard (University of Derby), then presented a call for investigation of the gaps between the temporal and spatial moments and places of use. The emptiness between each fleeting inhabitation of the passageway, concourse or other linear environment, we glimpse these spaces and moments of non-use in both Ascott’s film and Chandler’s paintings (and in Myers photo above).
Lisa Chandler – Negotiating the non-place, 2011
But to return to the traces (the human bits between the emptiness of non-use) it was a passing comment in Bran Nichol’s (University of Portsmouth) surveying of the approach of Film Noir to the depiction of place that got me thinking about other aesthetics by which these places become ‘known’ (over and above the purely pragmatic knowledge of purposeful navigation: in order to get somewhere else). This examination of the gaze of the Private Investigator (PI), and its framing of typically bland or margin places as crime scenes in Film Noir, prompted me to recall an article recently in the Guardian in which John Cockram, a ‘Crime Scene Manager’ outlined his forensic aesthetics:
“When I arrive at the scene, it’s my thinking time…What am I seeing? What am I hearing? …Which lights are on? Which are off? Has the toilet been flushed? Is the seat up or down? You may not know the relevance, but take in the details – a ring of dust, an open drawer…maybe 70% of what you retrieve is not relevant. That doesn’t stop you from finishing with a fingertip search, looking for that last piece of detail. You retrieve and work out the relevance later.” (Guardian Weekend 28 April 2012: 25-26)
Cockram’s testimony reminds us that a crime scene is ‘read’. Suddenly, a mundane place becomes rich with potential meaning – those cigarette butts glimpsed fleetingly in Ascott’s film, and other other detritus on that floor would be scoured over, inch by inch in the aftermath of a crime. Collected, collated, photographed. As Cockram states, most of this ‘dirt’ will be irrelevant – testimony of thousands of other people and their journeys through this space. But in the forensic gaze these items, in and as part of this temporarily spotlighted place, will be regarded as rich with potential meaning.
In his presentation Nicol pointed to role of the PI in Film Noir – here the investigator is fallible, sites do not deliver up their stories quickly (or at all). The PI does not have the mastery of a Sherlock Holmes (a consummate semiotician). Instead, the PI must scour these places, stumble upon clues. To underpin his point Nicol presented a clip from the film The Lady in the Lake (1947). This film attempted a first person : ‘point of view’ (POV) portrayal of the PI’s world. The camera roams as the eyes of the PI. The audience must thus follow the search for clues – the search to find elements that – when connected – will deliver up a meaning to the place and its grizzly events. Here is a clip from that film:
The forensic is not the only aesthetic that we can add alongside the high-art valorisation of non-places. From my perspective as an environmental lawyer the passageway is a matrix of overlapping legal narratives – ownership, safety, drainage, laid down over the years, much of this law lying dormant unless and until something happens to bring the existence of that layer of meaning ‘to the surface’. In similar terms a city planner, engineer and archaeologist will all have their own ways of reading this place as and when the need arises.
Indeed, as a presentation by Rosemary Shirley (Manchester Metropolitan University) reminded me, passageways of travel – in her case motorways speeding through the countryside – are themselves the physical product of design processes and technocratic aesthetics, processes that strive to limit the visual stimulation of those places (e.g. not too much to ‘distract’ the driver), but which never fully achieve that goal given the propensity of the wandering eye and the ‘wandering semantic’ (as de Certeau so aptly styled the viewer’s desire to render everything is his or her gaze meaningful).
Non-places are only ever non-places during those brief gaps between active interpretation.