In September I went on (nearly) every walk on the Still Walking programme. My interests at the moment are broadly split between photography, specifically what it means to take a photo as a creative act, and walking. Walking is, of course, a massively broad subject, ranging from the mundane to the herculean, but as with photography I think I’m interested in what you might call the “process” of walking - what happens when you decide to move through a particular place at a particular pace and experience it in a particular way. This is the foundation of my Photo Walks and it seemed it was one of the core themes of Ben Waddington’s commissioned walks for Still Walking. So I booked them all.
I don’t want to review each walk. While that might be interesting and worthwhile I don’t think it would serve my purpose. I took notes during the walks and will be using this blog post to try and pull out some connecting thoughts and ideas. We shall see where they lead.
Subjective vs Objective
All guided walks are subjective journeys through an objective reality. This tension is, I think, what makes them interesting. Laira Piccinato’s rainy walk around the Jewellery Quarter was about words that were written in the buildings themselves, not merely stuck on a signs. It was, in many ways, a classic guided tour, seeped in history and facts but with a very personal edge.
Whether deliberately or as a nervous twitch Laira often ended her statements with “which I think is interesting” which caught my attention. I say it often when leading a walk and it feels like a defensive get-out - “if you don’t agree then fine, it’s just my opinion” - but it’s probably the fundamental definition of a guided tour. I am showing you this thing because I find it interesting. There is no other reason needed.
But despite this it still feels weak to me, or at least dependent on the strength of the guide. Do we care if Laira finds these things interesting? What does her opinion matter? If she’s cited a respected historian as finding these things interesting, or a popular poll which had voted these things the most interesting, would this have raised or diminished her status as a guide?
“Interesting” is a very subjective state. If I say something is interesting, particularly something not generally considered to be of interest, you would expect me to justify this statement. If my only justification is “I feel it in my gut and believe it to be so” then the judgement falls onto my person. Who am I? Why should you believe me?
Well, I am the tour guide. We have a contract where for a period of time and suspend your own subjectivity to walk in my shoes, to see through my eyes. I am the leader, you will follow. Later you are free to disagree, to call me on my judgements, but for now we agree that I am right and will see where that leads.
These ideas about subjectivity didn’t really sink in until Iris Bertz’s walk on the Saturday “exploring the accidental, secret, hidden and imagined public art near the Ikon Gallery”. This was explicitly a personal journey, full of assumptions and wilful misinterpretations of evidence. Iris didn’t seem interested in what she was actually seeing. She didn’t want to know the truth behind how these things came to be. Her purpose was to make things up, to make up stories.
So we saw an unused cable looped and fixed to the wall in a way which displayed craft a care, human shapes emerging from a sandstone wall resembling Hiroshima shadows, Mondrian in the windows of the old TV centre, the shape of a crocodile in pealing plaster which had been chewed by the crocodile we met on a barge, and arrows to nowhere gaffer-taped onto doors.
“Art is things that don’t make sense” is in my notes, and I don’t know whether Iris said that or I inferred it. Does that mean Art denies inquiry? Is this the parable of the poet who says the scientist ruins the beauty of the flower by explaining it? Or is it an acceptance that we cannot know every story, every explanation, and it is sometimes good to just go with that and see what stories emerge from our imaginations?
I really enjoyed Iris’s walk, especially as I had lead a photo walk through that area and loved seeing it afresh through her eyes, but this statement troubled me. Can you not make Art from things that do make sense? I want to believe you can, but as I think about it, it would probably result in very dull Art. My rationalisation is that the practice of doing Art is exploring things that don’t make sense, and the purpose of Art is to make some sense of them. But if that Art is to have any value, to be of any worth, it cannot be pure fantasy. It need to be grounded in some way. Or maybe I am wrong here.
On Tom Jones’ Walk Look Talk Know, where walkers were invited to use sketching to develop an understanding of the place they were in (something I was very interested in as I try to use photography in a similar way) someone in the group said “It’s quite nice not knowing.” This ignorance-is-bliss approach to the world annoyed me for some reason. Of course it’s nice not knowing. If you don’t know then you can’t care and you’re free to just carry on with your life. To know something is to carry that knowledge as a burden, to use that information for a purpose. As Tom’s title suggested, the act of walking, looking and talking creates knowledge. Once you know something it’s hard to un-know it. It might make you uncomfortable or sad, or it might make your life easier and happy.
I have a philosophical approach to Art. For me it is a means to enquire of and understand the world through the making of things, be they sculptures, paintings, plays, comics, photographs or walks. The idea that an artistic pursuit might reinforce ignorance confuses me, and I’m sure it’s not anyone’s intent. (All three walks mentioned above were excellent, by the way.)
So this conflict between objective and subjective, between fact and fiction, remains.
And that’s not even going down the road of whether we can have an objective knowledge about a place and our definition of “place” to begin with. Sheesh.
Some of the walks were explicitly about using our senses in new, or more attuned, ways. SOUNDkitchen‘s SOUNDWalk was an obvious one where a stroll around Edgbaston Reservoir was augmented with listening exercises. By concentrating on how we listened, and by listening to things we couldn’t otherwise experience (though contact mics, hydrophones and ultrasonic microphones), we began to perceive the environment in new ways. This was probably the most useful walk for me as I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences between microphones and cameras for a while now (thanks to mainly to If Wet) and I hope to work with SOUNDkitchen in the future should our interests align.
An interesting concept I came away with was that of all the sounds creating a unified whole where everything that could be heard belonged there. We think often about noise “pollution” and people not shutting up, but the exercises on this walk reminded be a bit of John Cage listening to traffic. It’s all sound, it’s all music. By discarding associations with particular sounds and considering them as a unified whole I finally a useful meaning of the term “soundscape”. All the sounds you can hear, all at once.
One of the topics I teach in photography is being aware of the whole picture. As humans we filter most of the information our senses record in order that we can process what’s important and not go insane. So when we’re framing a photo of a person and waiting for them to smile we quite often filter out the background because it’s not important… until we come to review the photo itself. When rendered as a rectangle of coloured dots everything is visible to mind’s eye and it’s only composition that ranks the contents of the image. When we go to take a photo we have to switch off this subjective filtering of our vision and see everything that fits in the viewfinder. Only then can we predict how the photo might turn out.
(As an aside, it’s interesting how very different a flat photograph is to reality as we perceive it. A photography has no movement, no depth, no shimmering. It holds no memory of what came before or might come after. It has no smell, no sound, no touch. It is just dots on paper or a screen. And we are surprised when our photos fail to live up to awesomeness of the moment. The photos that do evoke those feelings tend to be quite abstract, using short focus or high contrast to give the viewer space to fill in the gaps. A “perfect” photo is very rarely an emotional one. But I digress.)
So this notion of hearing everything could be a very useful tool for getting a photographer to see everything, to be fully aware of their surroundings. One exercise we did was to listen through amplified stereo microphones suspended in the trees. Initially shocked by the loudness and then entranced by the sensitivity (it picked up my hand stroking the bark) I quickly noticed the subtleties that were revealed. This was the next stage of exploring the soundscape - below the obvious was a world of quiet sounds, or details and echoes. It was beautiful.
So what is place?
In the first ramble I ended with an off the cuff comment about not wanting to define “place”, but I think it might be useful to try. The term crops up a lot in Art-speak descriptions of work that talks about, well, places, and it seems pretty obvious at first. A place is a location in space bounded by geographical constraints, usually socially constructed ones. A city, a village, a street, a borough, a field - these are “places”.
Implicit in this is that a place is defined by the human activity that occurs in it. When we ask “what is Walsall” or “what is “Digbeth” the expected answer is not “an area of land containing a number of buildings, streets and rivers”. We’re asking for definitions that come from what people do there. Is there an active night life? Are there good shops? What are the churches like? Are the people friendly?
So a place is an area of land that is occupied, or at the very least informed, by people. It is distinct from a location as a home is from a house. A house is a collection of bricks, tiles and windows. A home is where people live, where social activities happen.
So to make enquiries as to a “place” is really to enquire as to the people of that location and the things they do there. But a place doesn’t only exist in space - it exists in time. When we talk about a place we visited last week, is it really the same as the place we might visit tomorrow?
This problem is best explained with restaurant reviews. A review of a meal in a restaurant is often taken to be a review of the whole restaurant at any given time, but it cannot be. A gifted reviewer might be able to generalise or increase their sample, but it is just a snapshot. If you go on a day when the meat is fresh, the chef in a good mood and the waiting staff welcoming then you will declare this restaurant to a good place to eat. But what if the meat delivery is delayed, the chef unwell and the waiter about to quit? The review won’t be as good. Which is right?
The solution is to take lots of reviews and eliminate the outliers to find the average opinion, and the likes of TripAdvisor enable us to do that. But you can see why back in the bad old days a bad Zagat review could mean an unfair death for an establishment.
One way to know a place is to spend time there. I know Digbeth pretty well because I’ve visited it, both to work and to play, a fair amount in the last decade. My opinion of it is informed by the range of experiences I’ve had around and while it is by no means complete it is fuller than someone who has just got off the coach and turned right instead of left.
My Digbeth is also informed by the conversations I’ve had with people with different experiences to mine. Indeed most of the stories I tell on a photo walk are stories I’ve been told which may or may not be true. (Sometimes I’m reluctant to find out the truth because the story is too good, so I’m just as guilty of the ignorance-is-bliss approach.) I’m painting a picture of a place, but I’m doing so in a selective painting-by-numbers way, revealing things to create a narrative, a specific idea.
In a way all descriptions of place are fictions, in that it’s impossible to compose an objective description. Even if you could gather all the facts about a place by the time you’d done so, let alone read them out, the place would have changed.
This has been sitting in a text file slowly growing for a few weeks now. I think it’s probably time to publish it.