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«Emily Orley    Abstract Cultural geographer Doreen Massey (2005) and critical thinker Walter Benjamin (1940) both use the image of the ...»

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Performing place, recalling space: a site-specific installation/

constellation in London

Emily Orley 



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 multifaceted 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.i 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).ii 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:

Instead then, of thinking of places as areas with boundaries around, they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself. (1994: 154) 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:

What is special about place is not some romance of a pre-given collective identity or the eternity of the hills. Rather, what is special about place is precisely that throwntogetherness, the unavoidable challenge of negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and geography of then and theres); and a negotiation which must take place within and between both human and nonhuman. (2005: 140) 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 Prizewinning 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 toolong-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:

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