This linking of the tangible and the imagined
may be key to the practice of devising site-specific performance
in that it plays between the forensic evidence of site and
associative elements. Such dynamics are intrinsic to cognitive
mapping, memory maps and the 'development of image geography,
which would include ambience, meaning and the likes and dislikes
of people living in a place' (Lippard 1997:82).
The serious play of the artist might become one
of guide or mis-guide through real time and space rather than
as narrator or interpreter of place. The performer would perhaps
become a signpost re-framing the geography of the city in rejection
of the closure of historic interpretation. As such, the terms
'wrighting', 'performing', 'mis-guide' and 'mytho-geography'
remain as active propositions to be applied to an on-going
exploration of the city. It is with caution that we employ
the term 'mytho-geography', a working title (modus operandi)
coined by Phil Smith, a core member of the company. The meeting
of myth and geography is applied to the city where we live
and work, not as a definition of practice but as a lever to
unbalance the municipal interpretations of the city. Such interpretations
are very much the currency of the burgeoning Heritage Industry
that, on the one hand is often dutifully concerned with historical
accuracy and authentic reconstruction but equally employs the
disingenuous and romantic sloganeering of the travel agent.
The Wrights & Sites remove from spectacle
and performance came through the adoption of the 'drift' as
a means of discovering fresh approaches to observation and
interaction with the city of our work, rest and play. Rather
than inviting audiences to a specific site to see performances,
we were now inviting people to investigate with us by walking
with us, finding places along the way, jumping fences and making
cuts down alleyways. The whole city became an animated art
gallery and adventure playground inscribed with monuments,
footprints, havens and danger zones. This led to us, as authors
or performers, handing over the journeys and the directions
to anyone who wishes to participate in their own explorations.
This research project has led to the production
of a publication, An
Exeter Mis-Guide, conflating theoretical propositions with
physical journeys and actions. The experience of mytho-geography
as a mode of perceiving and of wrighting may turn the walker/spectator
into the animator, puppeteer, archaeologist, muse and loiterer
around hitherto unrecognised aspects of the city.
The pocketsize book An
Exeter Mis-Guide designed by our collaborator, the visual
artist, Tony Weaver, is a disruption of city tour guides
and a disruption of tourism. It offers a model or set of
invitations by which residents explore the urban space, choose
their role and take the opportunity to 'drift'. Rather than
directing anyone where to go and what to see, the Mis-Guide
explores ways of seeking cities within cities; a forged passport
to an 'other' city and a hyper-sensitised way of travelling
the familiar one.
Why mis-guide? Because we see the present flanked
by memory and imagination, historical and geographical accuracy
is subject to debate. An overlay of maps seems to challenge
our notions of time and space in a landscape or cityscape of
sky, water and earth, merging contours, fluctuating and colliding
in the flow or contra-flow of daily life. Hence, An
Exeter Mis-Guide. Hence, the strange journeys we make,
walking in a place we think we know but allowing in a sense
of don't know. So that we may see the windows of the houses
like sky, the cracks in the pavement like rivers, the Earth
in the eyes of the passers by.
2. Looking Back: Precedents and Influences
When formed in 1997, Wrights & Sites' first
project involved the creation of site-specific theatre performances
around Exeter's Quay. While making those performances we found
we were enjoying the sites as much as the theatre - we began
to explore places. We began to walk. For the last four years
walking, exploring and leading mis-guided tours have been the
most important part of our work.
We have been inspired by and in some cases reacted
against a series of different, sometimes conflicting traditions
Because we have neither a leader nor an agreed
manifesto these traditions exist in flux about each other in
our work and each of us would probably describe a different
ancestry for our practice.
The most obvious of our adopted ancestors are
the Situationists. We all use their idea of the 'drift' or
'dérive' - a disruption of the habitual ways of walking
the city. The 'drift' rejects the normal constraints on walking
- a destination, a route, a commercial, consumer, devotional
or leisure purpose. Instead the 'dérive' is a usually
day long exploration of the city as if it were alien, unfamiliar,
a-functional, a museum, a playground. Dérivistes seek
the atmospheres of familiar and unfamiliar places, searching
for those spaces within the city most resistant to (or removed
from) their functions.
To get to what Situationists would call the psychogeography
of the city - the city's atmospheres imperceptible to the habitualised
walker - we sometimes use 'catapults' - for example, taking
arbitrary bus rides or blindfolding ourselves in a taxi and
asking the driver to choose a destination.
On finding atmospheric or ambient places we may
follow the walking artist Hamish Fulton by taking only photographs
and leaving only footprints, but sometimes we might create
a 'situation' there - for example, in a council workyard we
might reposition discarded road signs, in an urban edgeland
we might remake the parts of a burnt house into a ceremonial
doorway. This is close to the Situationist anti-aesthetic of
détournement - the adaptation of dead art into disrupted
forms. We all to some extent adapt areas and objects of the
alienated and commodified city in order to provoke its re-experiencing:
suggesting people walk in high heeled open-toed 'fuck me' shoes
until they fall apart or poetically re-using the digital advertising
displays on the city's buses to present found roadside texts.
We differ from the Situationists' idea of unitary
urbanism - the countering of the fragmentation of the city
by a single, Situationist architecture turning life into one
continual drift. Each of us may embrace the idea of our walking
as a means for change and resistance, but we are probably all
suspicious of utopian planning and centralist means.
Against the Situationists' unitary urban utopia
we have mytho-geography: a geography of the city that values
equally its legends, its official, municipal and tourist histories,
its distortions by commerce, mistakes about it, lies and rumours
about it, its dark tales of conspiracy, its physics, its uses
in fiction. Rather than seeking to collapse these into a finally
resolved unitary 'truth' about the city we have delayed or
deferred this synthesis, keeping the different elements in
motion about each other - this is the creation of a playground
for change, what the critic Homi Bhabha calls the 'Third Space'.
We probably define ourselves in opposition to
the internalised dreaminess of the nineteenth century flâneur,
wandering disconnected and gathering, but are more in tune
with a neo-romantic like Arthur Machen who found wormholes
in London suburbs to an unnerving countryside alive with dread
possibilities. Or with an early C20th tramper like Stephen
Campbell who went on zig-zag walks: taking a left, then a right,
then a left, then a right, or drew straight line routes, and
had to negotiate the consequences.
We have also taken serial structures, the dematerialisation
of performance, the use of CDs, and an obsessive connecting
of the city's esoteric details from writers and conceptual,
land and live artists like the Fluxus Group, Janet Cardiff,
Iain Sinclair and Robert Smithson. With the Rome-based walking
group Stalker we seem to share a mix of modernism with a playful,
even pagan, archaism - after all, walking is an anachronistic
resistance to the dominant form of urban travel. Like them
we set the nomadic against the settled.
Finally, I'd like to add to our traditions the
work of James J. Gibson - a scientist of the senses of perception
who brought to the study of consciousness, in the 1950s and
1960s, the demand that the body's senses be understood in motion.
He described the ambient optic array that stretches our view
of the world around our head as we move through it. He described
the brain's reactions to the world it walks through in terms
not of contemplation of detail but of a negotiation of the
functions of key parts of the landscape. I'd like to propose
him as part of a tradition of walking that is neither a means
to a simple contemplation of the city, nor a research instrument
for progressive reforms - but one that is a process for the
disruption of walkers themselves as well as their habitual
3. Looking Forwards: Cities for People (Cathy
The Situationist drifter disrupts the map. For
de Certeau, the practice of walking the city is an alternative
to the aerial view of the city planner. For Lefebvre, the planner's
'conceptual space' is challenged not only through the empirical
patterns and measurements of spatial practice, but by the complexities
of 'lived space', both imaginative and material.
We re-make the city by using it in new ways.
In so doing, we inevitably re-make ourselves and allow the
city to re-make us. It's a mutual process.
We are aware that these perspectives have had
their impact on architecture and urban planning. Architects
from Constant Nieuwenhuys and his uneasily utopian 'New Bablylon'
to Bernard Tschumi and his 'folies' at the Parc de la Villette
have stressed that there is no architecture without 'event',
proposing spaces that dislocate the more repressive architectural
conventions through which events are regulated, creating strategic
designs that aim to open up the possible combinations of events
and spaces. These architectures aim to provoke constant redefinition
through multiple use. Whether or not such a project seems realisable,
these architects seek to create conditions within which a new,
less hierarchical society can emerge, rather than attempting
to define and create that society through a formal plan. In
a related move, many planners propose an increased attention
to the 'architectural everyday', the use of space by dwellers,
including their contribution, both implicit and explicit, to
its re-development (though without the assumption of unity,
fixity and utopianism implicit in some previous attempts at
These developments can be seen in stark contrast
to the occasions on which Wrights & Sites have fallen foul
of town planners when attempting to stage performances in unoccupied
or occupied spaces; when inviting chalk 'graffiti' in a shopping
precinct; when drawing attention to a statue that is due for
re-siting. Part of the problem seems to be that we are perceived
as provoking interest and comment regarding sites for which
plans have already been made. While more progressive planners
and architects aim to open up possibilities, here it is the
very proliferation of possibility that is feared and circumscribed.
It is true that we do encourage a critical perspective
on the city and its development. A couple of 'walks' in An
Exeter Mis-Guide specifically invite an individual perspective
on town planning. 'Look for ruins on which the future can be
built', reads one. Two others suggest making one's own plans,
perhaps sending these to the City Council.
Following the Situationists, many of our walks
propose an attention to unmapped boundaries and unwritten restrictions.
The walker might be asked to look at the spaces between things
- who is the space for? The city is seen from new perspectives,
deliberately sought. Arguably more carefully targeted than
the Situationist dérives, several of the walks direct
attention to particular areas of concern. We invite the walker
to become an amateur human geographer, looking not only for
official strategies and systems, but also and crucially, for
the architectural everyday, the use of space by its inhabitants.
But in other ways, too, a Mis-Guide invites the
walker to constantly re-think the city.
Firstly, we do not see the dérive as a
self-contained movement through space, even when undertaken
by a group. There is always the possibility of interaction
with the material elements around us and with the other inhabitants
of the city. We are not detached observers but participants.
This means that our walks encourage new exchanges and meeting
points, as well as new perspectives.
Secondly, our work is playful and concerns the
landscapes of memory, desire and possibility, as much as empirical
observation. Psychogeography, mythogeography and spatial metaphor
are part of the exploration. Thus the walker's own 'everyday',
their own socio-political 'positioning' and their own spatial
imagination are brought into the re-visioning of place. This
is an engagement with what Lefebvre terms 'lived space' or
what Soja prefers to term 'Thirdspace' (not unrelated to Babha's
use of the term 'Third Space') - both real and imaginary, metaphorical
and material. Through these walks, the walker explores the
interlocking identities of self, civil society and city, exploring
their own relationship to place, finding the spaces where there
is congruence or perhaps contradiction between these identities.
Re-inventing them. Dreaming the city while exploring it.
This creative exchange might give rise to new
ideas about what the city could be, what it is, how its lived
experience might be given expression. Several of our walks
have creative outcomes - an A-Z of photographs; postings on
the LED signs on buses; commemorative acts; the creation of
new designs; the imaginative e-mailing of places to other places;
the enfolding of polaroids of the country in the heart of the
city. Yet we also see the walk itself as a creative outcome,
a performance of place that reinvents place, self and spatial
There is scope for work with the displaced and
the disaffected in finding or dreaming a space through such
exploration. I'm interested in a number of allotment projects
that invite people from immigrant communities to manage a piece
of land, celebrating the choices and relationships and metaphors
that arise from this process. The allotment, a portioning off
of space, is no more and no less than a playground within which
self and place can be co-creative. Though with less absolute
freedom, the city can also be included within a space of play,
framed by the walk which suggests the boundaries and perspectives
of the game. By involving people in this space, by appealing
to what Soja calls the 'critical spatial imagination', people
might become more deeply involved with the city, opening up
the potential for constructive input into both its development
and its expressive possibilities.
4. The Generic: A Mis-Guide to Anywhere (Stephen
It's partly a matter of scale.
We've had this idea for a while now, even before
the publication of An
Exeter Mis-Guide, to produce a generic version. Something
we've recently started referring to as A
Mis-Guide to Anywhere.
But there are a lot of issues here.
All of the company's work to date has been consciously
site-specific, and at times we've been quite hard-line in defence
of the specific over the general, sympathising with Richard
Serra's well-quoted statement: 'To move the work is to destroy
the work' (Serra 1994:194).
We will probably generate more Mis-Guides for
specific places, such as the one that we made for the Courtauld
Institute in London last November, but we will never be able
to match the investment in place of An
Exeter Mis-Guide (three years in the making, and with the
five of us having a combined total of over 70 years of living
in the city).
Something that really took us by surprise was
the wide range of interest in An
Exeter Mis-Guide. In addition to feature articles in local
magazines, reviews have appeared in a national newspaper and
journals for writers, the homeless and ramblers, as well as
on-line on the BBC's website, a performance art magazine and
a leisure and tourism site. The book has picked up buyers from
very diverse places, including a historian from Cultural Tourism
DC in Washington and a geographer from the University of Technology
in Sydney. Somehow a lot of people are managing to be interested
in a book about a city that they will probably never even visit:
they seem to be finding ways of transferring the specific to
the general, or at least to another specific context.
But is a generic Mis-Guide actually possible
Mis-Guide To Anywhere will consciously play with its
title. Three or four of the more playful activities that
I am planning to explore will really push the word 'Anywhere'
in terms of space and scale: a space walk (outer space),
activities for somnambulists (unconscious, dream space),
new tactics for Sim-City (virtual space), and perhaps a Mis-Guide
to one's own DNA (personal, micro-space).
More generally, we are aware of the limits of
our own western-European centricity. And we have decided that
the book will largely focus on the urban experience. But it
is our intention to interrogate and trespass beyond these borders.
We accept mobility. And we accept the need for people to locate
themselves. We accept the many narratives of place. We are
interested in the dynamic between the specific and the general,
in connections and differences, in scale.
On the top of my desk, three zeros (three nothings)
separate the 1:50 plan of my house and the 1:50000 map of Exeter.
Three more zeros take me to the 1:50000000 map of the world.
Scale played an important part in one of the
project's recent research and development trips, a simultaneous
drift by the four core members of Wrights & Sites in four
European locations: Paris, Bilbao, Manchester and the Channel
Walter Benjamin, in The Arcades Project, quotes
a guidebook to Paris of the time: 'the passage is a city, a
world in miniature' (Benjamin 2003:15).
In addition to the world within each individual
Paris passage, it became clear to me as I walked northwards,
exploring the passages along the length of the Rue Saint Denis,
that I was also making a journey eastwards around the world
(from the Paris artists of the Passage du Grand Cerf, to the
Middle Eastern shops of the Passage du Prado, to the Indian
and Pakistani restaurants of the Passage du Brady). The world
in one street.
Whilst, at the same time, instead of drifting
the whole city, Simon walked the same micro-area of Manchester,
again and again.
And in Bilbao, Cathy explored static drifting.
And on the island of Herm, Phil traced the structural
pattern from a leaf he found that morning onto a map of the
island, and then attempted to walk it.
These activities also make us think about interpenetration.
To quote Benjamin: 'We know that, in the course of flânerie,
far-off times and places interpenetrate the landscape and the
present moment' (Benjamin 2003:419). And McLucas and Pearson,
quoted earlier, when they write that site-based work is 'an
interpenetration of the found and the fabricated' (McLucas
and Pearson 1996:211).
Mis-Guide to Anywhere will take these ideas on board.
It will also facilitate an interpenetration of the experiences
of the walker-writer and the walker-reader, who will become
partners in ascribing significance to place. Not an instruction
manual, but rather a set of provocations and perspectives,
with space for the user to fill in her own specifics, make
her own connections and decide her own scale.
Benjamin, Walter (2003 [1927-39]), trans. Howard
Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, The Arcades Project,
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Freud, Sigmund (1959), trans. and ed. James Strachey, The
Standard Edition of the Complete Psychoanalytical Works of
Sigmund Freud, Vol. ix, London, The Hogarth Press.
Lippard, Lucy, R. (1997), The Lure of
the Local: Out of Place, New York, The New Press.
McLucas, Cliff and Pearson, Mike (1996) 'Cliff
McLucas and Mike Pearson (Brith Gof)' in Nick Kaye Art
Into Theatre: Performance Interviews and Documents,
Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, (209- 234).
Serra, Richard (1994 ) 'Tilted Arc Destroyed'
in Richard Serra Writings Interviews, Chicago:
Chicago University Press, (193-214).