"We are walking talking minerals"
- De Landa quoted by Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter.
(Leaving this quote here as the title in hopes it guides the direction of our next writing swap. I don’t think Georgina will need much convincing to talk about Jane Bennett…)
11:00 am 12/12/21
Hopefully you can hear any of this through the wind, guess we’ll have to find out!
So, I’m at Crosby beach. I cycled here today from my home in Liverpool. It’s a sunny December morning, but oh god it’s windy! Freezing gusts of wind are competing for the attention of my phone’s microphone as I’m trying to record my voice. This is a recording to capture some thoughts that will later (many months later actually!...) become the writing you are now reading for the GAP Writing Swap.
I’ve always struggled with translating my thoughts into writing. Last Spring, I started recording my voice while walking. It became a helpful process to verbalize my ideas, like a preparatory step before shaping them into written words. I realized that both speaking and walking feel like more natural places for words to germinate, so I incorporated them into my studio practice when I was working in Morecambe. Basically, this means I would go for walks along the beach in front of my studio while speaking to my phone, using the rhythm of my steps to chew over the ideas I was working on and allowing for unplanned trains of thought to take over. Then, I would return to the studio with the thoughts I found outside. I would sit down, muddy boots still on, and listen back to the recording to get it down into writing. Tiny sand mountains started growing under my desk as it became a daily habit.
This is what this is: a written stream of ideas built on a skeleton of unplanned spoken words I recorded during a walk. I almost want to say, “walked words”. (Well, at least the words I can hear, most of the time the wind speaks louder than me). I also have to mention my phone is GPS tracking this walk, a tool I keep coming back to in my work to investigate how bodies and places speak to each other. My intention is to write while holding on to these two sources of data, movement data and audio data, to stay anchored to the specific time and place of this walked event.
What stuck with me the most about Georgina’s writing was her strong belief in the influence of place: how we are deeply shaped by our environment, understanding one’s own body as an array of open sensory channels always in intimate conversation with its surroundings. It was wonderful reading about the summer shores of the Iles of Scilly, oh how I would love to go there! Georgina’s words describe a peaceful refuge, a place where the eye has unconstrained access to the ocean’s encircling horizon, where there are no sunsets to be missed. A striking contrast to the suffocating city streets Georgina encountered upon her return to London. She uses her bodily and emotional response to the change from Scilly to London as a striking example to show us what’s at the heart of her artwork: our sensibility to place. It’s here where my art practice overlaps with Gerogina’s. We have a shared intention to make art grounded in a sense of time and place, celebrating the experiential specificity of an event.
This is why it’s important to be here today. I came to this beach to write a reply through place, an attempt to use the process of writing as a message that completes the finished text. In a way, as proof of this sensibility Georgina is talking about. I want to speculate how there is a constant participation of place affecting the direction of our thoughts and actions, present in the steps I walk and in the words I speak. Hopefully, this walking-talking-writing experiment works as a passage to allow the influence of place to access this text.
Let me tell you a bit more about where I am. I’m standing on the tidal mudflats of the estuary of the river Mersey. If I look right, I can see the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean curving towards Ireland and, on my right, there is Liverpool’s industrial port covering the silhouettes of distant mountains (I wonder if that’s Wales? No idea to be honest). It’s 11 am on the 12 of December 2021, at which point, the part of the planet I’m in crosses with the gravitational pull of the Moon. She is tugging on the waters that covered the sands I am standing on, offering me a six-hour window to walk through them before this side of the Earth spins away from her grasp, releasing the water back into the evening. In other words, it’s low tide.
There are many things about this place that speak to Georgina’s writing. But what has brought me back here today is an outdoor sculptural artwork located across 2 miles along the tidal coast. It’s a series of metal sculptures of life-sized nude male human bodies standing on the sands with their gaze pointed towards the horizon. Each statue is identical, and they are all buried in the sand at different depths; the ones closest to the water stand on their naked feet, the ones behind them are sinked to the knees, followed by the last row only visible from the waist up. They are evenly scattered across the landscape, about a 2-minute walk away from each other.
You might have already figured out that I’m talking about “Another Place” by Antony Gormley, a well-known landmark in the area but, as a Liverpool newcomer, I stumbled upon it with no idea of what I was looking at. As I speak, I’m walking from sculpture to sculpture. Right now, I’m standing in front of number “97”, labeled with a metal tag tied around its right wrist. Each identical naked men gets its own personalized bracelet (kind of funny if you ask me). 97 is amongst the closer ones to the water, standing fully above ground. His body is an uneven surface of shiny seaweed, clusters of barnacles and other tiny living worlds that have grown on its metal skin. With every shifting tide, water and wind take turns on touching it and more-than-human hands shape the sculpture by eroding it, filling it with life, rusting the metal, painting new colors on its surface… These interventions are a glimpse into the slow process of matter being dissolved into the landscape, a process of making and un-making and, perhaps, a process where place becomes the co-creator of the artwork?
In a way, it literally embodies the transformative power of place, which is what I came here to think about (and ramble to my phone about…). As I walk away from sculpture 97, I’ll tell you why the mudflats are important to me. It has to do with a project I put together last spring when I was working from my studio in Morecambe. I was a commission from Lancaster University to investigate the landscape of Morecambe Bay through the idea of data. I focused on the non-human inhabitants of the intertidal mudflats through a practice of walking that reimagined scientific data collection methods. Sorry, this doesn’t make much sense! I’ll try stay away from terribly vague territory of conceptual art descriptions. Right, here is what I did: I walked on Morecambe Bay’s mudflats. A lot. Every day for 2 months. I picked a section of the coast a few steps away from my art studio and repeatedly went out there with a pair of muddy hiking boots. As I walked, I was collecting data in different ways, a combination of GPS tracking, video, writing, drawing and sand sample collection. This left me with a body of information that represented each walk. Using that material, I built an installation playing around with video projections, sound, and sculpture.
Walking on the mudflats right now is a sort of reunion with my past self. In a way, I’m mirroring Georgina’s comparison of her Scilly self and her London self; a conversation between two identities in time shaped by different places. I was curious to see what thoughts from my Morecambe self would be reawakened by coming here, and how those ideas would be read by my current speaking self, and later on, by my typing self.
I just reached another sculpture, number 92. This one is full of beautiful patterns, irregular patches of bright greens, oranges, and purples. I remember Georgina’s words about London’s buildings. Here is the bit that comes to mind:
These large city objects; the skyscrapers, tunnels and river banks, are bigger than me, they will outlive me, and were created from collective activity. So shouldn’t they also provoke a feeling of awe that matches the experience of say a big sky or open sea? Except there is one big distinction; the large city objects champion immovability, they are fixed, static and totally human. Exactly the opposite of what the Scilly Isles celebrates: constant change, destruction and renewal, made up an ‘assemblage’ of the more-than-human
I wonder if these sculptures might point towards an answer to this dissonance between human-made objects and the landscape. The colossal objects Georgina is describing are trying to exist outside of non-human forces, frozen in time, blind to the currents of change that surround them. For Georgina, this disconnection is an obstacle to reach the feeling of awe her art practice seeks in the landscape. I look at the metal man in front of me. Yes, these are human made objects, but what’s different here is that the artist has let go of the control of making them remain exclusively human. Or maybe he has failed to, maybe it’s more of an accident. Either way, it feels like the artwork invites the forces of the landscape to be in conversation with it, without trying to escape its inevitable unmaking, but welcoming it. There’s something about this openness to the process of erosion, of metal melting into air, water and sand. Something to think with, maybe, something to help dissolve myths and stories we tell ourselves, dangerous tales of human civilization’s permanence.
You could say that even London’s skyscrapers will surrender to nature at some point, but I really hate that wording. I want to avoid talking about “Nature” as something separate from us, a perfect faraway realm, a sort of sacred place untouched by our dirty human world. Nature is a word that carries dangerous assumptions, some even say we need to get rid of it. Timothy Morton urges us to throw Nature out of our vocabulary to practice what he calls “Ecology without Nature”, where the complexities of bodies, places and events are understood beyond a world split between the “natural” and “the not natural”.
Thinking this human-nature binary in the ecological crisis is tempting. It offers a clean and comforting separation between what’s been lost and what’s there to be lost, what’s there to mourn and where we should place our hope. This awakens our care. Knowing that there is something to be saved, something not yet damaged by the human, activates our instinct to protect it. So much ecological action is driven by this simple story, where there’s a clear treasure to love and save and a clear villain to hate and defy. But it seems to me that everything is more muddled, entangled, strange, not quite human, and not quite natural. Everything is harder to love than Nature.
My feet continue to step on the wet mud. I notice something unfamiliar about these mudflats: there is a thin dark brown layer covering them. The weight of my body disrupts this layer revealing the real color of the sands in the shape of my footprints. It looks sticky. I can only guess it’s a layer of tar, or some sort of industrial waste coming from the factories and shipyards crowding the estuary of the Mersey. I remember cycling through what felt like cities of shipping containers to get here this morning. You could say I’m standing on the Anthropocene, this strange mixture of industrial chemicals, sea water, river water, sand, microorganisms mingled with microplastics… a picture of the inseparability between the humans and non-humans, between bodies and places. It’s sticky, weird, and all over my shoes. It’s not easy to love. Not the kind of love that would make me kneel down and start cleaning each grain of sand…saving each one of them! Human and non-human worlds have bled into each other, muddled into entanglements where nothing is really itself, and we need to learn to love them in a world where separating them is no longer possible. I think art can show us the way to awaken these new practices of care, it can help us tell new stories to love damaged bodies, ruinated landscapes, confusing muddles, and familiar strangers.
Behind me made, I’m leaving marks of light-colored steps on the dark sands; a trail of footprints that curves into nonsense shapes refusing to choose a direction. This is what I love about walking in the mudflats: there are no rules. This is rare. It’s hardly impossible to find a place where walking practices aren’t governed by a narrow set of rules. There is no better example than London, and Georgina’s writing clearly captures this feeling of controlled movement:
“There is also a huge sense of being propelled along a pre-determined route in London. Travelling in the underground, confined to a metal tube within a concrete tunnel, there is only one direction to go. I feel my head mirrors this tunnel vision. My day becomes about getting to a destination along a predetermined schedule. The idea of meandering, towards unknown ideas, destinations, conversations, seems absurd.”
Why can’t we move without a destination? This reminds me of De Certeau…
(woah, sorry, I need to stop talking for a second. The wind is lifting a layer of sand and is moving around me like some sort of a river of air and sand. Hold on, I’ll just get a quick video of it!)
Sorry, back to De Certau. Georgina’s words remind me of De Certau’s idea that “to walk is to lack a place” making the City an “immense social experience of lacking a place”. There’s a fear to be place-less, to move without the protection of this “pre-determined” route that Georgina mentions, to walk outside of the path without the certainty of reaching a destination in the shortest possible moving interval. It’s as if moving doesn’t count as part of our lifetime, our “lived time”, making the experience of movement into one of our greatest fears: wasting time. I love the mudflats because they are an escape from this fear-based behavior, a place that welcomes the absurdity of walking without a path to follow, without a destination to reach. In the mudflats, it’s all path, it’s all destination and at the same time, nothing is.
It feels like a conversation. There is an oral quality to walking in the mudflats. You negotiate the direction of your steps with the landscape, just like you negotiate topics of conversation with an interlocutor. It’s something about the uncertainty of where you’ll end up, where you’ll go through to get there, that relates these experiences. This is what this writing experiment is trying to tap into; a messy attempt to bring to the space of writing the oral qualities of wandering with words and footsteps.
But why? Why go through this time-consuming audio recording, GPS tracking and transcribing filter instead of directly typing down my thoughts? At the end of the day I’m still writing, so what’s the point? I’m realizing the answer might be in Georgina’s description of the London tube: writing is at higher risk of following a “predetermined route”. It moves with its destination already in the mind of the first sentence, like a tube carriage with its destination labeled on its metal face. This planned journey feels detached from a concrete place; time and space are not active participants in the delivery of the message. Writing doesn’t ask for their help. It could be anywhere, anytime. It doesn’t matter.
What would it mean to let place write with us? I’m intrigued by this idea. It reminds me of a quote from the Dark Mountain Manifesto: “We write with dirt under our fingernails.” I’m not talking about literal grains of soil jumping on my keyboard as “place writing”, but rather, understanding place as something that responds to us. When we touch it, it touches us back. Traces of this exchange end up on our hands and, perhaps, in the words we type with them.
Information circulates from place to body. This is not news at all, it’s a truth best known by indigenous cultures whose oral stories are not only rooted their landscapes, but inseparable from them. I think of David Abram’s reference to the Pintupi aboriginal group, whose ancient stories can only be told within the rhythm of foot travel in the Australian landscape. Place is an indispensable ingredient in their knowledge practices. It’s this kind of attentiveness, this understanding of place as a contributor, a participant, or in Latour’s words an “actant”, that I want to cultivate by bringing movement and oral practices to writing. A walked conversation between my body and a small patch of tidal beach; this is my way of inviting place into my written words, making it an indispensable collaborator. I need its help because place matters, because our heads are not disconnected from our bodies and the when and where are always at play. It matters where thoughts are thought (playing around with Donna Haraway’s wording here…).
GPS seemed like most obvious way to visualize where thoughts are thought. As I walk, my phone’s GPS app is translating my movements into an odd wiggly shape. It’s an unplanned route drawn by unconscious decisions that emerged from the encounter between the weight of my body and the density of the mud, the gusts of wind and the direction of my steps, and the sight of Andy Gormley’s sculptures that call for my attention as my eyes travel through the landscape. The GPS tracker situates my spoken thoughts on this line. Time and place become a set of coordinates that can locate each word I’m speaking on a map. The visual language of GPS gives access to this conversation between body and landscape, a digital line that reconnects the action of walking, speaking, and writing. I imagine this GPS data as a collaborator of its own, an essential mediator that keep the event of the walk tied to this text.
(Actually, the choice of GPS as a medium to understand place is quite funny to think about. I mean, GPS data is literally a series of abstract numbers received from satellites. Is there anything more removed from place than a metal structure floating outside of the Earth’s atmosphere? I kind of love the borderline absurdity of it…)
(a few WIND SCREAMS breaking my train of thought)
I have been talking for 30 minutes now. There is probably enough here to write something back to Georgina. And hopefully I can shape these thoughts into writing, mixing it with what my typing self thinks…
(Wow the sands are doing that thing with the wind again, so I’ll stop recording because this is too fun to not film again. Ok bye.)