Monday, September 8, 2008

Street Haunting

image from 'urban tapestries' - a research project by Proboscis

I turn from the Alps now to the old town of Edinburgh. I have wondered if being the daughter of a great Victorian alpinist helped make Virginia Woolf a writer. Presumably walking was part of family life, and might have got her observing, speculating at the people and places she saw, thus allowing her imagination to roam beyond her feet. In her 1927 essay Street Haunting: A London Adventure, it is clear that her aimless walks in the urban environment, the anonymity of walking amongst strangers, was her great adventure. ‘How could I think mountains and climbing romantic?’ she once said. ‘Wasn’t I brought up with alpenstocks in my nursery, and a raised map of the Alps showing every peak my father had climbed? Of course London and the marshes are the places I like best.’

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff is another ‘street-haunter’ and her audio walks are eerie evocations based on observations in real places laced with teasing fragments of narrative and memory. Cardiff uses binaural recording techniques that envelop you in sound - a sudden whisper in your ear, or the distant sound of feet running ahead. Her beguiling voice leads you – intimate and authoritative - and has you collaborating, as you walk, in reconstructing the ‘story’. Her installations with George Bures Miller, exhibiting at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the end of September use sound and narrative in a similar way, but it is the walks that myself and sound artist Jules Rawlinson will focus on as starting point for the workshop we’re leading for the next two Saturdays.

One of our principal resources for the workshop is the immediate area of the old town around the Fruitmarket (and of course the legs of our participants to move them around it with sound recorders). Three levels nest one above the other over the same coordinate – North Bridge, Market Street, and the esplanade of Waverley Station. Dark and shade. Underland and overland. Parallel worlds associated to different journey-purposes. The odd geography is linked by dark passages and stairways, rich in suggestion, and in sound. They are liminal places where you might pass from one imagined state to another.

In Woolf’s essay she sees streams of walking commuters as if they’re wrapped in some narcotic dream, imagining themselves to be great cricketers or famous actresses before the enchantment is broken by being ‘slung in long rattling trains’ and embraced once again in the conforming influence of their homes. I commuted for five years between Stirling and Edinburgh, walking from Waverley station for five minutes to an old town office, losing the hooted train announcements for the sound of tyres on cobbles, and the echo of a dark passage before the clang of the bell on the office door as I opened it, arriving into my non-dream, office self.

The possibilities for my own work in this environment are exciting, having spent so much time walking the rural. The anonymity of walking amongst strangers and finding mystery in every face has long fuelled my short fiction writing. But I’m also curious about the forms in which we leave marks and traces as we move in criss-cross pathways about a city, in an environment of stone and tarmac which refuses to take impressions. There are many avenues. The real and the imagined; the line of a walk coupled to a non-linear story; or as Rebecca Solnit puts it, 'the magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany'.

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