Tag Archives: meaning

manifesto one: unfinished from the vaults

 

I’m getting nostalgic and graduating soon, beginning to transfer emails and the like, and I discovered this in my Drafts box of my Zimbra account.  I vaguely recall having written it in Microsoft Word, but then sending it (as yet unfinished) to myself so it would be accessible on my Dad’s iPad.  It was, I think, for the purposes of referencing it in my impassioned justification to my parents, in a small cafe in SoHo, of my intentions to become a professional psychogeographer.

Re-reading it, I’m reminded of how quickly I fall in love.  And that it really is fun to get lost and wander on occasion — or perhaps that this is what makes life worth living.

—– Original Message —–
From: “Anna Swanson” <swansona@carleton.edu>
To: “Anna Swanson” <swansona@carleton.edu>
Sent: Thursday, 23 June, 2011 11:08:26 AM
Subject: psychogeo rant

INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS

I am undeniably enthralled by the world of potential that is this ‘psychogeography’ – a slippery term, at once very specific in its historical implications, yet expansive as we apply it in a backwards glance to all manner of artists, drug addicts, authors, wanderers, theorists – many (the vast majority) of them male.  But while it is a historical practice, it is exploding as I write, largely because, it seems to me, post-modern theory and art is obsessed with place and space and the dichotomy and interplay of those concepts, obsessed, to an extent with ourselves, and the data we generate, seeking theory and art in daily practice, the epitome of which could be said to be walking.  On one level, this is incredibly silly, to say that simply taking a walk is suddenly critical or artistic, but it speaks to the smashing of this boundary between low and high culture – the introduction of the idea that perhaps everyone, even without knowing it, can be an artist and a theorist without even realizing it, simply by carrying out their daily lives.  Perhaps, proof that life and art are no longer separate, or never were, and have finally been seen as the simultaneous processes that they are.  For me, life and art feel like the same stretch of sidewalk; it is simply a matter, I think, of changing one’s shoes and, yes, going for a walk.

But here is the thing: psychogeography is not simply walking.  Yes, walking is a big deal, historically, but when we look back at this so-called original definition of the concept, the words of Guy DeBord in 1955, we simply encounter it as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”  Not, of course, that this is the be-all and the end-all of the field – quite the contrary as we observe its rapid proliferation and thrilling transformation into all sorts of crazy and critical manifestations.  But psych geography is just that – our emotion and behavior in dialogue with our environment.

I think that on an entirely personal level, this is fundamental to my own interest in psychogeography.  It appears as a coping mechanism for my mental processes, a means of combating inertia, because it insists on movement, to some extent.  Even when it is concerned largely with mapping or physically stationary labor of interpretation, the mind is on a journey that is noble but not inert, following paths that in themselves are the creation of meaning.

But I began this meditation with the intention of clarifying, somewhat, the (vaguely) exact nature of psychogeography in this very moment and the approach that I might prepare to take to it, as an artist, explorer, theorist, and lost little kid.  In many ways, psychogeography speaks to the college student on the cusp of adulthood, to the Peter Pan in all of us, because it makes okay our natural tendencies towards uncertainty about the future and our sense that anything can happen; it takes the fear we have of this looming ‘REAL WORLD’ and gives it credence as art and theory.  It makes noble our existential angst.  Uncertainty about the future is by this estimation the norm, and is therefore, most certainly, quite certain in our lives.  It is a beautiful and natural thing, like sex and war and photography and dance.

Phil Smith has been drawing a distinction between ‘psychogeography’ and ‘mythogeography’ – which, for his purposes, is probably a good thing to do, and is an important step in outlining the psychogeographic vocabulary that I believe needs to be laid out, to a certain extent.  This is one of the many aspects of psychogeography that I see as something worth sinking my teeth into, as it were – things that need doing, for my own personal understanding, and perhaps for the coincidental benefit of a few other individuals.  Who knows?

By my reckoning, psychogeography (and art, and theory, and perhaps all things) should be grounded (or sky-ed) in intellectual and/or visceral notions, but should never forget LIVED EXPERIENCE – which should prove impossible if psychogeography is practiced in a ‘proper’ manner (although I am also of the opinion that, as psychogeography is at heart the practice of taking an interest in the self and the world, it is near impossible to do so improperly, except perhaps by being non-existent aka dead, in which case the point of practicing anything is likely moot).

[Just as a side note of interest, in the first draft of this manifesto, the length of this document after typing the word ‘moot’ was exactly the length in word count of the year AD of the Battle of Hastings.  I find this intriguing, although not necessarily ontologically meaningful.  Simply of note.]

CONTINUUMS

Psychogeography is taking all sorts of forms in this modern moment.  Some undeniable trends are the integration of new technology into the understanding of our (particularly urban) environments, such as GPS, Foursquare, Smartphones, Google Maps, and a host of other technological (almost all internet-based applications).  But this, for me, begs the question: what about those of us without Smartphones?  Is it really the case that we can’t engage with our environment without the aid of such constant technology, such constant integration with the virtual?  There seems to be either a deep and unsettling irony to the necessity of using virtuality to explore our relationship with place and space and movement, things that are arguably very much grounded in the ‘real’, or else a need to accept that this is simply another facet of the modern urban landscape.  The latter seems to be the easier option, as rejecting technology, luddite-like, is not surprisingly a significant challenge in this day and age, and it seems to be what we are doing as a broad psychogeographic community.

Still, to explore this need for technology through the means of psychogeography itself would be a very interesting piece, although one with an expiration date, because soon I myself may have a smartphone, and as the ubiquity of such technology exponentiates, the applicability of a critique may become less and less.  Who knows.

But, in true consideration, virtual life/technology/internet is itself becoming so much a part of both our psyche and our landscape (even the physical landscape – just step into Times Square and you have all the proof you need) that integrating new technologies into our exploration of how our psyches interact with those landscapes makes complete sense, and perhaps to the point that failing to integrate such technologies is a sort of blindness in itself.  Who knows.

But , to return to the thought that was intended to begin this section, psychogeography is almost anything right now.  This is both daunting and thrilling.

To drift, something has to be at stake – status, certainty, identity, sleep.
In a drift, self must be in some kind of jeopardy.

“the streets are full of lost and lonely texts”
Assemble a street poem.  Chalk it on a wall.  Curate your graffiti for ten years.  Photograph it regularly.

Say a mantra or read a poem, every time it ends turn left/right, take a picture
Find all of the words of a poem in order in the city, photograph them
Draw with chalk
Stalk someone
A street poem of chalk

Whenever I see someone taking a picture, ask them to take a picture of me, and take a picture of them (or take a picture together)

THEMES // METHODS

 

the authenticity of theatre

I just had the privilege of seeing The More Loving One at the New York International Fringe Festival, a new comedy-drama about two couples in their twenties facing moments of decision, points of minor (and some more major) crisis.  It was moving, hilarious, and a tribute to what blackbox theatre can be.

But more rewarding still was the discussion with my father that followed — his question when he walked out was whether the play, or theatre in general, is “authentic”, by which he basically meant whether it is relevant to lived experience.  We ended up having a rather heated discussion, (probably) mostly because I am an amateur philosopher and devotee of semantic game-playing and feel strangely fulfilled (?) by delving as deeply as possible into the very questionable, nearly erasable nature of Truth and Meaning, usually to the point of Nihilism, at which juncture one can have the catharsis of re-emerging into the real world.

Is theatre relevant to the real world?  If life is art, or even something sort of close to it, then of course the lived experience of attending the play, or acting in it, is of course “authentic”.  Are the situations in a play “truth”?  No, not on a philosophy-of-language-truth-evaluable-statements level, not really, and no, not on a this-is-totally-real-time-and-the-events-of-this-play-are transpiring-in-the-quote-unquote-real-world, not really.  But I think that the emotions, the humanist elements of any dramatic interaction, are entirely “authentic”.  Not everyone will relate to them in the same way — for example, the struggles of the characters in their mid-twenties in The More Loving One might not speak as directly to my father as they do to me, newly 21 and thinking constantly about what it means to be an artist and a woman and a one half of a relationship.

But this quote from Preston Martin, one of the four actors in the play, in response to the question “Why theatre?” speaks exactly to what I think is the crux of theatre’s authenticity for the human experience:

“Vulnerability. Human vulnerability is a gift that we constantly try to hide, and the theater is the place we go to watch that vulnerability unveil itself. Theater teaches us through reflection that emotion, both positive and negative, is what makes day to day life mean more than waking up, having a day, and going back to sleep. I love being on both sides of it, audience and artist.”

I can’t speak for the whole of humanity, but I can speak for myself and people I think I know well, like my father — and vulnerability is universal, at least to my universe.  When a piece of theatre and a cast of actors such as those in the show we saw tonight can tap into this, authenticity is virtually guaranteed.

So if you’re in New York right now, do your self a favor and get tickets for this show before the last three performances are over.  Be vulnerable.  And then grab your favorite parents and have a rousing discussion about truth and meaning.

art and meaning

My friend Gabe recently asked me: “When did art become important to you?”

It’s a question I’ve never been asked — it made me pause and consider something that I haven’t ever really given my specific attention to before.  It’s clear that art is important to me, as one can tell from the alleged thematic devotion of this blog and, if you know me, the concerns about my future as “an artist” (whatever that is…) that keep me awake late at night and drive me to wander the streets in a sort of divine despair.  But I guess I’ve tended to treat the importance of ‘art’ as sort of a posteriori knowable, when in fact it is, from most perspectives, a construction of vast cultural construction.  This is not to say that what we call art is itself culturally constructed — there are works that are intrinsically whatever they happen to be, perhaps even pre-culturally, so the application of the label, ‘art’, is independent of the thing in itself.  But does it change the thing, in itself?  It changes, at least, our perception of it, since culture is fairly inescapable, and depending on whether you believe in phenomenology, maybe this changes the thing itself simply by changing how we create, psychologically, the thing itself.  Hmmm.

All that aside, my response in the moment was to tell a particular anecdote about a time that I had stood for nigh on an hour, transfixed, before a certain Mark Rothko painting that hangs in the MoMA.  I mythologize this moment for myself as some rite of passage, a recognition of my true Self and an utter giving up of that Self to a work of ‘art’, to the power of vision and the patience to be — the patience to be moved.  I find I tell this story often, actually, and now I question the sincerity of my intention in telling it.  Maybe, at age 15, I did stand there and know the importance of art, but now the more I tell it, the more it seems like a prop in my artistic, hipster-clad, surface-oriented, post-modern presentation of self, a tale of appropriate name-dropping and passion, rather full of sound and fury…but signifying something.

Photographs hardly do him justice.

Perhaps I was so moved because I had recently seen a documentary on Rothko, or because I was at the appropriately self-constructing and angsty age at which I happened to be, or because it was a very hot day and my subconscious mind knew that my body did not want to leave the air-conditioned space of the exhibition hall or even to move a few inches…who knows.  Context, and knowledge, and everything that is decidedly not pre-cultural, could very well have come to bear on this.

I can think of any number of other instances in which art has, I suppose, ‘moved’ me, and these all seem to rally as proof of its importance, if for no better reason than that I am selfish for emotional and sensual experience, that it is good to be moved.

But Gabe’s question: when?

Have I always valued art?  I know I haven’t always liked the same art throughout my lifetime, but what of my evaluation of art as whole, as a thing distinct from other things, as something that we seem to elevate as a culture?  I don’t remember suddenly beginning to find it important, some precise transition from a dis- to acknowledgement…such a transition would require a negative value judgment to begin with, an awareness that could be switched, like poles, into the positive.

But art is never not a part of life; I go back and forth about whether art is life and life is art.  So when did I know that life was important?  Perhaps in my first brushes with death.  Perhaps, too, such brushes with the potential for eternity and for nothingness are what awaken me to the power of art.  Perhaps this is why, in spite of my misgivings about my most hispterish intentions in its telling, I keep coming back to the story of the art of Mark Rothko, who himself made the decision to plunge into eternity.

Now, to answer Gabe’s question: if only to remember the moment I knew that I would not live forever.

this time, it’s personal

One of our major projects in Barcelona was an exploration of rephotography (you can read my brilliant blog post about our first session if you like), but the focus in our work with Arqueologia del Punt de Vista was largely on the historicity and ideas of collective memory and consciousness, as well as the self-reflexivity, of the concept and practice (I’m serious about the self-reflexive stuff — Natasha and Ricard went crazy over pictures of pictures that include the photographer themselves).  So most of our work took the form of rephotographing historical (early 20th century) shots of Placa Catalunya, Parc de la Ciutadella, Hospital de Santa Creu, and so forth.  While this was interesting, from a theoretical perspective, and from a technical perspective, it was good practice with Photoshop and establishing of vantage points, I felt I was left with a question: what about meaning?  I think in its most potent forms, rephotography is an act, a performative process that is as much itself the artwork as is the finished photograph (or, most likely, photo-composite).  And the meaning of this repetitive act, in many cases, and certainly in the workshop we just concluded, is tied to place.

“Place” — a pregnant term, the title of a book (by Tim Cresswell) that I have recently finished as part of the reading for my study abroad program, an idea that has a sense and is, according to most (modern) theorists, differentiated from “space”.  Place has a subjective meaning, place can be personal, place can be non-, place can be imaginary, place can be virtual.  The problem with rephotographing these spaces, I will call them, in Barcelona, is that their historicity is almost completely divorced from our sense of them as places — as transient international students inhabiting the city itself for only a scant month, our sense of place that gives meaning to Placa Catalunya is very much a nowness, of pigeons and Spanish children and the personal ballets we enact through it on our way from school at IES to the La Rambla Carrefore where we could buy a liter of shockingly decent boxed wine for only 55 eurocents.

My first attempt at rephotography ala Photoshop.

Maybe the very act (which I have declared as so very important) of rephotographing these historical vantage points on places we have visited in the present is a creation of a more historically-connected sense of place.  But to be honest, I know nothing about the author of the image I rephotographed for my personal project, only that it where it was taken and roughly what time of day, from the angle of the light and the projection of the shadows.  The only historical connection that the photograph creates for me is a sense of aesthetic or architectural alteration.  Admittedly, I could perhaps have sought out more information about the photograph’s production myself, but part of my point is that while it was interesting, it lacks much matter for me in this particular case of being put into practice.

So, when we approach rephotography as an act, it begs personal meaning for the performer — whether that meaning is in the intended production of art or affect on others, or resides firmly in the psychology of the performer-artist.  Often, deeply personal acts, when made public (through exhibition, through published accounts, through the perennial ‘based-on-a-true-story’…) can themselves be powerful art pieces (case-in-point: the photography of Nan Goldin).  But like photography, rephotography need not always be gratuitously artistic — photography and rephotography can encompass similarly multiplicities of uses and therefore meanings.

Rephotography, says Natasha Christia, is a “returning to the scene of the crime”.  So, knowing that I would soon be bidding farewell to Barcelona, I found myself compelled to do exactly this — to engage in personal rephotography.  There are two scenes, and two crimes, that I needed to revisit, to deal with photographically, and somehow I felt that I could not leave the city without retracing these steps.  One was a space of vicitmization, the other of perpetration.  Spaces that were converted into places through occurrences and the memories that I now carry with me, spaces made personal, spaces appropriated now, digitally and visually and indelibly, through the act of taking a photograph.  While I did not engage in rephotography in its strictest sense of taking a specific photograph that has already been taken, the theoretical sense was the same, in that I was using photography to recreate perspective, placing myself in exact locations I had been in with the exact vantage points, and re-enacting my own (recently) historical experience of seeing.

The park where I was targeted, 4 weeks later.

The first place I rephotographed was an area of the Gothic Quarter where I had settled on the Sunday before school officially began, in order to read a book on mapping.  To make a long story short, I was robbed, and chased the thief through alleyways and cobbled sidestreets until I finally shamed him into returning my entire backpack in front of a square-full of lunching Barcelonans.  I was wary of this whole area of the city for several weeks to follow, the memory of my pounding heart and footsteps filling my mind and creating almost single-handedly my ‘sense of place’.

Another view of the park.

So I returned, four weeks later – I sat in the same spot on the bench where I had been conned into looking away from my bag for two seconds too long, and rephotographed the view of the park that I been before me that afternoon.  I walked the streets through which I had dashed in pursuit of my pickpocket, taking a photograph every few feet, recreating my own perspective.  I also took some pictures of vantage points I had never had that day, but which were rephotographic in their intent of reinterpreting that place, and how it had changed in meaning, for me — it was strangely cathartic, but I still felt a lingering unease as I walked through that brightly lit park, past ping-pong players and children set in motion on swing sets.

Presumably, the vantage point of my attempted pickpockets.

My vantage point prior to the robbery, rephotographed.

The square where I had finally received my bag was strangely empty.  What is interesting about the rephotographs I produced is that the ‘originals’ are in my own mind, and they do not reveal a change so much as the act of returning, the act of pressing the button to release the shutter, reveals the change – in me, in my conception of place, in my conception of my own experience, in my relationship with the city of Barcelona as a greater incarnation of place that inherently includes this tighter-cropped circle of experience.

A photographic walk through the beginning of my pursuit of the pickpocket and my pack:

Returning to the scene of the crime can be dangerous, but I also felt compelled to bring my camera back to the site of my own mild misdemeanor.  Barcelona is known for its graffiti (a culture intimately connected with its status as the skateboarding capitol of Europe and the brightness of its modernist architecture and art nouveau designs).  Now, thanks to a few friends (who shall of course remain nameless) and I, that body of work of street art is a little richer.  We headed out from our residence at 1 am dressed in hoodies and dark jeans and armed with two cans of spray paint, with the intention of ‘making spaces into places’ by quite literally inscribing our mark on them.  Ironically, given that we are here as digital photography students, not a single one of us was carrying any device with which to digitally record our exploits.

So I went back with my DSLR, the next afternoon, in order to save my own handiwork for posterity, or something like it.  Perhaps as proof that we had done what we had – a sort of preservation for bragging rights.  Inherent in all rephotography is a temporal shift — broadly defined, this can be anywhere from a few seconds to centuries.  The interesting thing about this case of ‘rephotography’ was the shift in time of day — seeing our graffiti in the light of 16:00 is altogether different from seeing it at the witching hour, freshly painted.  Further, despite the passage of less than 24 hours between its execution and my rephotographic pilgrimage, one section of it had already been painted over!  I rephotographed this as well, as a testament to its short-lived nature, a reflection on the surprisingly strict sanctions that the Barcelona municipality has established with regard to street art.  This sort of conspicuous, or meaningful, absence is itself an entire subcategory of rephotography.

One of my tags.

I didn’t take these pictures with an end goal of art (although I always strive for some sort of aesthetic whenever I release the shutter) — perhaps they are art because they have a sort of process-based meaning that has resulted in some sort of aesthetic.  I don’t have any intention of exhibiting them, except in order to illustrate this discourse on photographic practice.  But even if this is only the loosest form of rephotography, it is a prime example of how meaningful the photographic act can be as just that — an action that carries meaning through its being carried out.