Performing place, recalling space: a site-specific installation/ constellation in London
Cultural geographer Doreen Massey (2005) and critical thinker Walter Benjamin (1940) both use the image of the constellation in their writings to describe place and history respectively. By drawing on their theories and bringing into play the concept of the constellation as a useful and multi-faceted metaphor, this paper will suggest one way of negotiating the politics of place to document a site’s history without fixing or limiting it. My discussion will culminate in the account of a single case-study, a site-specific installation that I created in April 2008 at the Camden People’s Theatre in London in collaboration with fine artist Elinor Brass.
In the following paper I will introduce a practice of making place-specific work that I have developed which involves engaging with a site’s history while trying not to restrict or reduce it. My methodology begins with, and takes seriously, the idea that ‘places remember events’ (words that James Joyce scribbled in the margin of his notes for Ulysses in 1919). I argue that to view a building as an entity that can remember, to approach site as embodied, can lead to creative and ethical forms of engagement and documentation. In my work, I thoroughly research particular buildings and their surrounding areas before using installed objects, sound and/or place-writing to reanimate the sites, or re-perform them, often in-situ if I can. It is a practice that has developed alongside investigations into the writings of cultural geographer Doreen Massey and critical thinker Walter Benjamin in particular, who both use the image of the constellation in their writings to describe and unfix the notions of place and history respectively. The paper will culminate, by way of illustration, in the account of an installation I created (Hampstead Road, 2008) where these ideas were clearly made manifest.
I will begin my discussion here, as I begin many of my projects, with the notion that places remember. This anthropomorphising of place is not a new idea. Ecologists, for example, often refer to the earth as a single living organism.1 Also, travel writers have been representing places as if they were people with their own distinctive characteristics for many years. (See, for example, sociologist John Eade’s 2001 Placing London: From Imperial Capital to Global City). While this approach is a compelling one, however, it is not without its risks. Likening a place to a human being can lead to the consolidation of essentialist and conservative views, transforming it into a self-contained, embodied entity that exists independently of the people that live and move through it (Eade, 2001: 5). There is a danger, in other words, when imagining that a place remembers, of forgetting that it is constructed through social, cultural, political and economic processes. I suggest, however, that there is nevertheless something to be gained from it, as a method of encounter, as long as it is carried out in a spirit of self-reflexive awareness.
In ‘Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landsape’ (1996), anthropologist Keith Basso describes what he calls a process of ‘interanimation’ that occurs between individuals and specific places. Once we begin to pay attention to a place, it comes to generate its own field of meaning ‘through a vigorous conflation of attentive subject and geographical object’ (1996: 56). This is how a place is brought to life, ‘animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them’ (56). But it is important to be aware that though they are animated in this way, they express only what their animators allow them to say. Basso writes of places that ‘their disembodied voices, immanent though inaudible, are merely those of people speaking silently to themselves.’(56) When I propose that a place remembers, therefore, I am suggesting that while it retains traces of its past in its makeup, these traces are animated by the individual people that inhabit them.
By going along with Joyce’s notion, by taking it seriously, I begin to engage with the places that I inhabit and encounter on a daily basis in valuable and creative ways. Literally, this way of thinking about place can inspire new work, like the installation I will discuss below, but also, in ethical terms, it prompts me to have a clearer understanding of myself as part of larger social and ecological processes. Basso asserts that we can engage with place by paying attention to the ‘sensing’ of it (1996). This includes listening to and tasting as well as seeing (see Feld, 1996: 91). He claims that relationships to places are ‘most richly lived and surely felt’ (Basso, 1996: 54) when people make them the object of awareness and reflection, ‘when individuals step back from the flow of everyday experience and attend self-consciously to places’ (54). He provides a study of the Western Apache in Arizona and describes how among them wisdom is seen as the outcome of deep reflection on the landscape. By observing different places, listening to stories about them and thinking about the ancestors who invented those stories, they gain knowledge about how to behave in the world. Indeed, the Apache landscape is viewed as a resource through which subjects can modify themselves or alter their thinking. In terms of my own practice, I find it useful to consider approaching place in a similar way. What if I were to view my own individual landscapes (whatever these may include) as similar resources?
While I encourage viewing place as a resource, however, I would like to argue that it is a resource that is open-ended and ever-changing. Massey’s writing on place becomes important at this juncture. In Space, Place and Gender (1994) she demonstrates that it is not a secure ontological notion rooted in ideas of the authentic but something ‘unfixed, contested and multiple’; it is ‘open and porous’ (1994: 5). She calls for a progressive sense of place, and insists that we cannot, or rather must not establish boundaries around or attempt to secure identities of place (or places).2 She shows how place has been conceptualised as singular and bounded, and that any search for place reveals a desire for fixity and security in a world of fast-paced living and change. While she recognises that a sense of place, of rooted-ness can provide stability, she also demonstrates that it can be problematic, and can encourage what she calls ‘reactionary nationalisms, competitive localisms and introverted obsessions with “heritage”’ (1994:151).
For Massey, to want to fix the identity of a place is an essentialist tendency that reinforces past traditions and staid ways of thinking. For her, to associate a ‘sense of place’ with stasis, memory and nostalgia is not productive. Claims to internal histories or to timeless identities of place are often romanticised, narrow-minded and reductive. Thus delving into the past for internalised origins of place is an isolating and confining practice. To want to establish boundaries around place is to be unwilling to change, to move on, to be open. Massey proposes:
Therefore, a history of a place (as a resource) is accumulated, made up of layers and layers of ‘different sets of linkages’ (1994: 156) to both the local and to the wider world. Place then, becomes a ‘constellation of processes’ (1994: 156, 2005: 141). Massey continues:
By emphasising that place is about the encounter with the here-and-now, about a coming-together of trajectories on all sorts of levels, Massey is also showing how time becomes a key factor in our relationships with place. Place is an event. The present, the now, becomes all important, as this is the only time that place exists as it is. Place is ‘irretrievably, here and now. It won’t be the same “here” when it is no longer “now”’ (Massey, 2005: 139). Tomorrow’s ‘now’ is not the same as yesterday’s, and this applies to ‘here’ too. Place is therefore relative and nowhere is stable. Massey, in For Space, uses a range of geological examples (such as the gradual shifting of mountains, tides and the poles) to illustrate this literally (2005: 138, 139). But these changing sets of linkages that make up place stretch backwards and forwards in time as well as geographically ‘outwards’. As Massey states above, the here-and-now itself draws ‘on a history and geography of then and theres’ (2005:140).
However, it is important to be aware that if we draw too much on the ‘then and there’, the here-and-now gets lost in the process. To remember a place is to think of it in the past, and this can alienate us from the present. To remember place therefore is to exist in two time-frames simultaneously. The theorist Linda Hutcheon, in a detailed and fascinating article on nostalgia (2000), writes that it ‘is not something you “perceive” in an object; it is what you “feel” when two different temporal moments, past and present, come together for you and, often, carry considerable emotional weight’(2000:196).We remember the past, often in an idealised light, making it feel coherent and stable. It is a refuge from the present. Nostalgia, in fact, may depend precisely on the irrecoverable nature of the past for its emotional impact and appeal. It is the very past-ness of the past, its inaccessibility that makes it so attractive.
Susan Stewart provides a provocative study on exactly this nature of nostalgia in her 1993 book, On Longing. In the opening pages she suggests that it is a ‘social disease’, and goes on to describe it as a destructive cultural tendency which involves idolising an inauthentic past. For Stewart, it is symptomatic of an ideological conservatism, a desire for comfort that blinds us to the urgency of the present. Many people argue that nostalgia has become an obsession of both mass culture and high art. French historian Pierre Nora, argues that ‘we are witnessing a world-wide upsurge in memory’ or rather ‘an almost fetishistic “memorialism”’ (2002:1). He identifies a growing global attachment to heritage, evidence of which can be seen in increasing criticism of official versions of history and attempts to recover areas of history that have been previously repressed, as well as in a growing interest in ‘roots’ and genealogical research, and the surge in commemorative events and new museums. In the same vein, many writers argue that white British culture and society are experiencing acute anxiety about ideas of ‘tradition’ and their relationship to it. Cultural geographer Kevin Robins suggests that the growing industry of heritage culture is due to a desire to construct a sense of security and stability, however fictitious, in this anxious climate (1991). However, the danger of certain heritage sites is that they try to conserve old and fixed traditions and identities without necessarily reinterpreting them in a constructive way.
Massey outlines discussions that revolve around heritage and nostalgia for place clearly in a chapter about Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 Turner Prize-winning House entitled ‘Space-time and the politics of location’(2000). She notes that the concept of nostalgia has been extensively theorised, and that it has been interpreted by many as a symptom and even defining element of the postmodern condition. There are those, (she cites geographer David Harvey (1989) as an example), who see nostalgia for a specific place and time as a defensive response to the new burst of the globalisation of capital, to the anxiety that Kevin Robins describes. In this case, it is reactionary and negative evasion of ‘real issues’. Although Massey does not mention her, art historian Miwon Kwon’s views run in a similar vein (2002). She suggests that nostalgia for a stable location is perhaps a means of survival in a world that is (thanks to a global market economy) rapidly changing. She implies, however, that this is an unhealthy backward-looking attitude.
This is not to say that all nostalgia is bad. Massey shows how theorists Angelika Bammer and Wendy Wheeler interpret it as a symptom emerging from deprivations of modernity (Massey, 2000: 51). It is a response to the too-long-maintained repression of affective desire by modernism in its various forms. Wheeler defines postmodern nostalgia as ‘the desire for communal identifications’. It ‘turns us towards the idea of the individual as non-alienated’ (1994:99), as part of a community. Bammer sees nostalgia as giving us ‘the power to create not only an identity for ourselves as members of a community…, but also the discursive right to a space (a country, a neighbourhood, a place to live) that is due us’ (1992:xi). It is ‘emotionally legitimate’ for us to feel nostalgia. Massey suggests that nostalgia is inevitable and for this reason must be accepted, although she acknowledges its problematic nature. On the one hand, memory and the desire for communal identifications can support reactionary claims for a return to an often fictional past. ‘They can erase other memories and other identifications. They can exclude some groups from membership in the commonality of the community’(Massey, 2000: 52). On the other hand, nostalgia can be ‘a basis for the mobilization of emancipatory political change’ (2000: 52).
Similarly, in her 2001 The Future of Nostalgia, a detailed examination of the concept of nostalgia, theorist Svetlana Boym argues that nostalgia can be ‘both a social disease and a creative emotion, a poison and a cure’(354). She continues: ‘The dreams of imagined homelands cannot and should not come to life. They can have a more important impact on improving social and political conditions in the present as ideals, not as fairy tales come true’(2001: 354) . Boym distinguishes between two kinds of nostalgia: a restorative and a reflective version. Restorative nostalgia seeks to ‘reconstruct the lost home’ whereas reflective nostalgia thrives more on the act of longing itself (2001: xviii). Restorative nostalgia does not see itself as nostalgia but as tradition and truth. It has the tendency to lead to dogmatic and conservative ways of thinking and according to Boym, is at the heart of recent national and religious revivals. Reflective nostalgia on the other hand, calls the absolute truth into doubt. It explores inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones. She writes: ‘At best, reflective nostalgia can present an ethical and creative challenge, not merely a pretext for midnight melancholias’ (2001: xviii). Thus it can be a positive force. So Boym does not condemn nostalgia outright, but asserts that it is important to acknowledge our collective nostalgias for what they are, and ‘let them be no more and no less than dreams, not guidelines for the future’ (2001:355). In other words, it can be productive to long and to dream, but we must be aware that we are doing it.
So it is important to be aware of the dangers of nostalgia and the process of selective remembering that it encourages. Not only can nostalgia for place, when made public, fix that place in an often idealised and fictional past, but it excludes other memories, suppresses other histories of that place. Marginalised voices are forgotten. The delicate connection between memory and place is complicated and inevitably political. It calls for a sense of responsibility that we cannot ignore. As cultural geographer Tim Creswell writes: ‘Places become sites of contestation over which memories to evoke’ (2004: 90).3 We should be clear, then, about the way in which we project our own memories (what we want to remember, what we want to be remembered) onto places. If place consists of a series of linkages, then its own remembering must be fluid, open and changeable. To project our own memories onto place is inevitable in many ways, but we must be aware that our memories, our histories, are only ours. They do not ‘belong’ to the place, just as the place does not belong to us. They are important here and now (and ‘draw on then and there’) but they are part of a network that is bigger, multiple and unfixed. No one history alone can give a complete picture.
So, places remember events, but they do so in an open-ended fluid way. The memories of a place are not bound to one particular social group or time. And there is a subtle but important distinction to be drawn here, between the active sensing of place that Basso and Feld encourage (1996), which is an individual, self-reflexive and pragmatic exercise, and the deliberate promotion (or even imposition) of a coherent and timeless ‘sense of place’, which Massey in particular cautions against. Indeed, she seems to echo Basso and Feld when she argues that the event of place involves a ‘throwntogetherness’ that demands negotiation in the present moment. In her words: ‘The elements of this “place” will be, at different times and speeds, again dispersed. (And yet, in its temporary constellation we (must) make something of it)’(2005:141). Her argument here also ties in closely with Walter Benjamin’s argument for viewing history as a series of constellations, which link past and present in a non-linear network. Where Massey suggests a way of viewing place as multiple and unfixed, Benjamin suggests a similar way of approaching history, where the past and present are not two separate entities but exist simultaneously. They, too, are multiple and unfixed.
Much of Benjamin’s work addresses how history is written and understood in the present. In his 1940 ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1992: 245-55) and his unfinished Arcades Project, he puts forward the notion that history should not be viewed as a never-ending continuum but that the past, present and future are a complex series of fragmented but interrelated networks. History, therefore, is not something that involves a linear progression. His concept of the dialectical image is key here, as it does not present an account of history that unfolds over time, but rather presents the viewer with a still image or object that emerges suddenly. This image or object captures a contradiction: representing two different times or desires in one instant, and in this way embodies a dialectic, without having to be explained. The dialectical image for Benjamin, therefore, is a fragment of cultural material, a construction ‘wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation’ (1999: 463). It allows the viewer to see the non-linear nature of history by producing a shock of recognition. (Benjamin, 1992: 254, 1999: 473; Buck-Morss, 1991: 219).
In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin puts forward the concept of the ‘jetztzeit’, or the ‘now-time’, where all history is held: ‘each “now” is the now of a particular recognizability. In it, truth is charged to the bursting point with time’ (1999:463). And as such, the ‘now-time’ offers revolutionary possibilities. It is in the present that time stands still, and it is only in the present that change can be brought about.(Benjamin, 1992:254; Buck-Morss, 1991: 242) This concept of the ‘jetztzeit’, the ‘now-of-recognition’ and the dialectical image, which all clearly overlap, are highly complex and have been discussed at length4 but what I would like to take from them here, in the context of my own practice, is the relationship that Benjamin proposes that we adopt with the present and the past, which coincides with Massey’s call to negotiate the ‘throwntogetherness’ of the event of place in the present. The dialectical image produces the shock of recognition that is so important to Benjamin, and makes the viewer aware of the present moment: the now and the here. It draws attention, not only to the now (or now-time) but also to the place in which we are now.
As I draw this section of my paper to a close, I will briefly summarise the argument I have set out here. Both Massey and Benjamin use the idea of the constellation to define place and history respectively. By drawing closely on their writings here, I propose a method of being in and responding to place which is about engaging with the here and the now(time). To encounter place this way (and both Massey and Benjamin might argue that this is the only way) is to negotiate its throwntogetherness in the present. But to engage with it in the here-and-now (or as Basso and Feld would put it: to actively sense it), inevitably means that we draw on other, multiple ‘theres’ and ‘thens’, and it is important to be conscious of these processes of association and remembering. This is where the problematic nature of nostalgia comes into play. I argue that as long as it is handled with self-reflexivity and responsibility then it can be used as a creative and un-fixing force, helping us to view and experience place in different time zones simultaneously, as an incoherent set of constellations.
Hampstead Road: a case-study
It was with these ideas in mind that fellow artist Elinor Brass and I approached the Camden People’s Theatre in London at the beginning of 2008 with the aim of making a place-specific piece of work. We began by spending hours at a time inside the empty, rather noisy, dirty interior of the black box studio theatre, making it the ‘object of our awareness and reflection’ (Basso, 1996), listening and then recording sounds, looking and then taking photos and making sketches. When we had spent two months doing this we turned to history books, old maps and the internet to unearth more ‘concrete’ facts. We found that, by comparing a series of maps (Bowles’ 1806 One-Street Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, and Greenwood’s 1827 Map of London, for example) and reading, in particular, the writings of 19th Century writer and researcher Edward Walford (1878: 301-309) and contemporary building historian Jean Manco (2004), that on the site of the theatre, there had been, for centuries, a reservoir surrounded by a grove of tall trees. In the 18th Century, people would travel there, out of London (because it was out of London then) to take the waters, and enjoy a stroll in the famous tea gardens, which belonged to a tavern called the Adam and Eve, situated roughly where the Sainsbury’s Local is now, just across the road. I will sketch a brief history of the site here that reflects our findings.
Hampstead Road 1 ©, 2008
The Adam and Eve stood upon ground once occupied by a medieval palace and then a large manor house. The tavern went through different phases of respectability. At one time it boasted a skittle alley and an organ, as well as a small menagerie of animals (long before the establishment of the Zoological Gardens), including a monkey, a heron, some parrots and other wild birds as well as a small pond for goldfish. (Manco, 2004) However, over time it seems to have become a haven for petty crime, where prostitutes, pickpockets and highwaymen would gather, and it was subsequently closed down in the early 19th Century. The artist and social critic William Hogarth represented the Adam and Eve in his satirical 1750 engraving ‘The March to Finchley’, which depicts British troops being marched out to Finchley in December 1745 to defend the city against the threat of a Jacobite invasion. On the signboard of one of the houses in the image is inscribed ‘Tottenham Court Nursery’, which alludes to Broughton’s Amphitheatre of Boxing which was also located there, the first bare-knuckle boxing school in the country.
In 1860, the reservoir was filled in and the site was developed to become Tolmers Square. Here, a congregational church, a gothic-style building with a tall spire, was founded in 1863. The same year, the first underground railway line in the world was opened in London and ran under this site. Above and below, the area surrounding the theatre, (and it only became a theatre in 1994, occupying the basement and ground floor of a building that was already there) became an increasingly busy and polluted thoroughfare. In 1924, the Tolmers Square church was converted into a cinema, which became rather run-down and seedy before it closed in 1972 (Wates, 1976). Today Tolmers Square has all but disappeared and the area around the theatre continues to be developed. The Sol’s Arms, for example, a chain-run pub that had been across the road, but which Dickens’ had referred to in his novel Bleak House (1852-53), was only demolished in 2006.
Hampstead Road 2 ©, 2008
In the light of Massey’s and Benjamin’s writings on place and time, we were conscious that we did not want our work to fix the history of the site of the Camden People’s Theatre but rather offer a constellation, a throwntogetherness of different times with links to different places. We wanted to offer the visitor a place in the present where she could experience a coming together of trajectories. We chose, therefore to try and create a literal constellation. We used five hundred found objects, suspended, whitened, and scattered across the space. Suspended, as if in water (to reference the old reservoir); and whitened, as if petrified over time, washed-out by age, by use, by neglect, by forgetting. We wanted to collect and display an array of colourless litter: discarded objects, archaeological remains, that would make up a constellation of accumulated but un-fixed history. The whiteness became important for us in order to emphasise the stillness inherent in Benjamin’s idea of the dialectical image. We felt that by reducing the walls, floors and objects to the same colour, the paradox of the fragmented but frozen thrown-togetherness would be highlighted. More than decoration, then, the colour became a construction material in its own right.
Hampstead Road 3 ©, 2008
We spent months gathering objects that we found in the vicinity of the site (in skips and dustbins, on pavements, and in charity shops). To these we added a selection of found objects that we felt related closely to the history of the site, such as a monkey skull (to reference the menagerie of animals that once existed at the Adam and Eve tavern), old beer tankards (a simple reference to the tavern itself) and a builder’s hardhat (to allude to the continuous destruction and development taking place in the area). We then whitened each of these objects by dipping them in a plaster solution. This had the added effect of making them look as if they had calcified, which also referred back to the fact that the theatre was standing on the site of a reservoir. We also wanted to reference this ‘wateriness’ in the soundscape, which we made in collaboration with artist Tim Dutton. He overlaid the sounds of water with the constant hum of traffic that passes outside two walls of the theatre at all hours, which he recorded. His quiet soundscape, which varied in volume so that at times it was barely audible, also naturally integrated with the real-time sounds of the traffic which continued to frame the installation, so that the water, recorded traffic sounds and real-time traffic sounds became hard to distinguish at times. In this way, the imagined sounds from centuries before were brought together with the present. The constellation was auditory as well as visual and sensory.
The visitor, I hope, was offered a momentary sense of the throwntogetherness of that place, at that time. And perhaps (just perhaps) for a moment she felt part of a network of trajectories in a way that made her conscious of her behaviour, not just in that place, but in all places. Massey writes: ‘The elements of this “place” will be, at different times and speeds, again dispersed. (And yet, in its temporary constellation we (must) make something of it)’(2005:141). The Hampstead Road installation was one embodied and in-situ response to this call, but I believe it also offers an open-ended model for the production of further place-specific work.
Dr Emily Orley
Emily Orley is a researcher-practitioner whose work reflects on and engages with place-writing, installation art, performance and scenography. She often begins projects with the idea that ‘places remember events’ (words that James Joyce scribbled in the margin notes for Ulysses) to investigate and document the history of specific sites. She is also a lecturer at Roehampton University in the Drama, Theatre and Performance Department where she has been teaching for six years. She has degrees from the Wimbledon School of Art and Cambridge and Roehampton Universities, and trained at the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris. For more information, please visit www.emilyorley.com.
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