Annie Gerin

Distance Made Good: Flowlines

This word comes from Old English wealcan, to roll;
whence we get wealcare, a fuller of cloth, and thus
the surname Walker has the same origin as Fuller.

She curst the weaver and the walker
The clothe that they had wrought.
Percy: Reliques (The Boy and the Mantle).

And to walk, indeed, is to roll along the landscape. And as the machine fulling cloth, on their daily wanderings people weave and felt their identities, memories and most routine practices into the fabric of a place.

We might ask geographers, architects, bus drivers and sanitation officers what constitutes a city. From each we would gather distinct answers: developed land, housing amalgamation, infrastructure network, and management of resources and excess. For myself, I share Roland Barthes' bias. Like him, "I can't get myself interested in the beauty of a place if there are no people in it." By the same token, it is owing to communities that I discover the charm and individuality that constitutes a city. It is by following walkers on their preferred paths that I gain appreciation for a place. This is also the course by which I become aware of how richly unique urban cultures can be, and how the texture of locales contributes to our daily experience.
What does it mean, then, to be taken for a walk? This question is at the core of the aesthetic and theoretical research Jen Hamilton and Jen Southern conducted in Morecambe and Lancaster, North West England. In the early nineteenth century, Morecambe was just a small fishing village set on the coast of the Irish Sea. As the fishing and tourism industries developed, the city stretched laterally along the seafront, across the bay from the Lake District. The neighbouring Lancaster is much older. Bisected by the river Lune, its narrow Georgian streets are organised in winding patterns around and up to the perched medieval Lancaster Castle built in the thirteenth century. While the characteristic topography of each city organises potential mobility, what mostly sets these places apart is how their populations claim their streets and public spaces. They do this, in part, by walking, an embodied interaction between people and place that has been a key theme in the artistic practices of Hamilton and Southern.

For two weeks in the early fall autumn? of 2004 the artists walked thirty-four routes, guided by local walkers who had woven habitual paths to accommodate their daily activities. Documenting these multiple wanderings by means of GPS technology, Hamilton and Southern amassed a mesh of GPS-generated abstract line-drawings, which they reproduced in the gallery with a series of locational pegs and fibre webs. Michel de Certeau has meticulously described the difference between the abstraction that the city becomes when seen from the vantage point of a bird or a GPS satellite (voyeurism, or the pleasure of seeing whole), as opposed to the total sensory experience of rolling down a street. From above, the city appears as an irregular pattern that can be mapped and rationally embraced. From below, the movement of bodies, the competing sounds of street life and the contest of intermingling smells define any given encounter with a place in such chaotic ways that it becomes impossible to replicate one’s brush with the city. At this human level of activity and vision, mobility is blind to the general organisation of a place.

This is, undoubtedly, a challenge for any potential representation of walking in the city. Indeed, when the artists – to their own surprise – were taken twice on the same itinerary by distinct walkers, they discovered that GPS abstraction tends to strip the humanity from geography. That is to say that, in the succession of locations identified by the satellites and re-transmitted to the electronic device snugly held in the hand of a walker, something inevitably disappears. In the wanderings mapped in the spirit of psychogeography, directionality, loitering, skipping, looking, talking, laughing, sharing and touching all faded away. They all transmuted and ossified into aesthetic configurations composed of static broken lines... into a too literal sense of place.

Yet these walks in Morecambe and Lancaster were by no means walks for walks' sake. They represent people's habits. They mark the routes workers use on their daily travels to and fro the factory. They correspond to the pleasant and necessary walkies taken with beloved pets. They trace a woman’s meditative course involving favourite places collected over forty years of living in the same locale. These routes constitute threads that sustain the cultural fabric of these two cities, places being woven and felt while simultaneously fraying at the edges. Having said this, the problem that still arises is how to represent these dynamic encounters with people and with cities within the confines of four white gallery walls.

Points on a map are not meaningful until they are put in relation one with the next. In the gallery, the artists translated locational coordinates as pegs pricked constellation-like into the blue surfaces of large wooden screens. On the reverse surfaces left rough and unpainted, strings were stretched between the pegs, and markings were made as mnemonic devices to recall the identity of walkers and the time they shared with the artists. The strings do not invoke a simple symbolic recreation of the walks, but a mise-en-séquence; one needs to order space to make sense of it. It is indeed the interpretation of sites by means of words, architecture or images that articulates a relationship to place – as imperfect as this representation might be. Paradoxically, the tangly, messy mesh of fibre produced by Hamilton and Southern creates this order.

In the gallery display, the cities have vanished, leaving only vestiges of the encounters the artists had with the peripatetic participants of the art experiment. But while the architecture and the streets of Morecambe and Lancaster disappeared, the spatial practices of the walkers materialized in unruly strands. Referring back to Michel de Certeau, these traces can only be seen as schematic alternates (or perhaps complements) to the experience of space one accesses through rolling along the streets of the city. This is because the pegs and twine will never tell us how someone is situated in a location or moving along a path.

The strings nevertheless remain as evocative metaphors for each walking venture. The intertwining of fibres held steadily by friction and tension, yet ever ready to fray, articulates potentialities into distinct paths, paths developed by each individual walker. But if walking can be traced by twine and pegs, these only refer to past wanderings, to the now-consumed experience of place. This conundrum that appears as the weaving of absence reminds me of a beautiful description of an imaginary city by Italo Calvino:

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain a city's life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.

The rolled and fraying nature of the medium the artists chose to represent their roving process allows for imaginative indeterminacy. It presents a lyrical approximation of the pedestrian movement and sensory experience that unravels in the gallery for the benefit of the viewer. It suggests that the routes taken everyday by discrete walkers is a fine point of departure for a discussion about the texture of place. It also invites the visitor of the exhibition to work and see beyond the image; because daily use of space is embodied as well as imaginary. Walkers and their witnesses weave and felt their identities, memories and most routine practices into the landscapes they choose to roll along.


Beside Ourselves, Sometimes by Kris Cohen

Walk by Annie Gerin

Satellites by Derek Hales

Distance Made Good by Annabel Longbourne

Memory Maps by Emma Posey

Distance Made Good: Installations using GPS to chart local topographies by Hamilton & Southern

Unfeasible Symmetry by Hamilton & Southern

Copyright Hamilton, Southern & St Amand 2008.
All rights reserved.

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