Mis-guiding the City Walker

Full Company

Cities for People: The Fifth International Conference on Walking in the 21st Century, Copenhagen (2004)

 

1. The Specific: An Exeter Mis-Guide (Simon Persighetti)

Wrights & Sites is a group of four performance makers, committed to producing experimental, site-specific work. An artist-led alliance based in Exeter (England), we have a wide range of experience, working in diverse contexts: theatres; galleries; community and educational arenas; urban sites and landscapes. Formalised in 1997, the four core members (Stephen Hodge, Simon Persighetti, Phil Smith & Cathy Turner) have been working together, in various permutations. Collectively, we are sympathetic to Mike Pearson's and Cliff McLucas' ideas, when they write that:

Site specific performances are conceived for, and conditioned by, the particulars of found spaces, (former) sites of work, play and worship. They make manifest, celebrate, confound or criticise location, history, function, architecture, micro-climate... They are an interpenetration of the found and the fabricated. They are inseparable from their sites, the only context within which they are 'readable'.
(McLucas and Pearson 1996:211)

We have been exploring the potential of an approach to place through the lens of mytho-geography that places the fictional, fanciful, mistaken and personal on equal terms with factual, municipal history. It suggests performance through the participation of active spectators as researchers of the city, allowing authors and walkers to become equal partners in ascribing significance to place. At its simplest we are interested in finding ways of experiencing the built environment of the city in a creative or more specifically, a re-creative manner. In his essay, Creative Writers and Daydreaming, Freud discusses the relationship between play and writing:

Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather re-arranges the things of this world in a new way which pleases him?…The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real. In spite of all the emotion with which he cathects his world of play, the child distinguishes it quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and the visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child's 'play' from his 'phantasysing'.
(Freud 1959:84-5)

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 (Phil Smith)

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 of walking.

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 walkings.

 

3. Looking Forwards: Cities for People (Cathy Turner)

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 'community architecture').

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 practice.

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 Hodge)

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 to write?

A 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 Islands.

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).

A 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.

 

Bibliography

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 [1969]) 'Tilted Arc Destroyed' in Richard Serra Writings Interviews, Chicago: Chicago University Press, (193-214).

 

© Wrights & Sites, 2008