Road Works

Catalogue essay by Sally O’Reilly for Psychtopography at Artsway, Hampshire, UK, 2002


Imagine a map that was continually updated to reflect the activity of the area that it represented. Incrementation of time between updates would have to be infinitesimally small, like the real experience of passing time, for the map to become an organic creature that was constantly evolving. The relay of data would be instant, and the torrent of information would be more than anyone could possible cope with, let alone require of a place. We are not naturally kitted out with all-pervasive surveillance equipment, but instead build fractured, prismatic images and memories that fit together to make sense of the world. References to personal experiences, both immediate and displaced in time or space, radiate from the memory of a street, town or country. The writer Douglas Hofstadter calls these ripples of association ‘implicaspheres’ rings of mental connection that occupy a critical radius: to close together and you are in danger of being dull, too far apart and you defy comprehension. The structure of the internet, with its hyperlinks and bookmarks, can make connections in this way, but with the conventional use of digital space as one mainly of static storage, can we really relate to it as an analogue creature?

Psychoptopography[1], the mapping of memory, is a fictive account of an event or place, smoothed into a narrative by the inability of the human brain to record digitally. Our thoughts occupy an analogue space that is sparking with metaphors and archytypes, brewing a fog over empirical fact. Drawing on a Palm Pilot is like inserting a Babel fish into the ear of the computer, it is one very direct way of translating human touch into 72 dpi. Using this imaging prosthesis, Simon Faithfull has managed to translate his River Lea expedition into a fair representation of his own particular reality during one particular week. Following the river, from mouth to source, a continuous line drawn on the Palm Pilot from left to right documents his process of looking and filtering out landmarks of interest. At intervals a cluster of pylons, a block of flats or a dental surgery sign interrupt the flat line, like the act of resuscitation on an oscilloscope. This has a direct bearing on Psychotopography as, although the drawing is mimetic rather than a graphic lexicon, it charts choice, personal relevance and interaction with a landscape. The quality of the line, shaky due to the unassailable screen between human and machine, imbues the image with a decrepit air. The memory is breaking up, as though pixilated through the smog of time.

Faithfull’s Orbital no.1, on the other hand, gives us a densely knitted, and absolute digital capture of well-known London routes: the Circle line, the North and South Circulars and the M25. If the video camera were simply to gulp down and regurgitate the factual event of driving round these roads, it would certainly reflect upon the tedium of routine commuting. But by being spliced together, with the non-events wrapped around each other, the journeys take on mythical allusions. From Dantes images of hell to Benzenes epiphanic dream of a serpent biting its own tail, the circle represents the mystical eternities of the unworldly and the idealism of the secular. The circular routes of London have a utopian intent to unite al parts of a functioning city yet their reality falls short. The rain, the build up of stationary traffic and the inherent frustration makes these roads as fallible as the conduits of thought, poised to falter at any sizeable blockade or divert into innumerable alternative routes.

Literature has often striven for as realistic portrayal of human thought and experience as possible. But even James Joyce’s radical anti-novel devices – stream of consciousness and pschobabbling linguistic juggling can never quite replicate our mental tics, repetitive loops of obsession and cross-sensory allusions. It is physically impossible for someone to describe in writing every sensory, intellectual, psychological amd associational thought as it occurs to them. This is what makes every man a proverbial island, we have no way of thoroughly mapping out internal terrain. So perhaps the gaps, the facts we leave out, are just as illuminating. The moments we forget are as enlightening as those we remember, and an uneventful episode is often as poignant as its antithesis. But is there any such thing as a road movie? Can a film really have no narrative, no intention and no denouement? Orbital no.1 is crammed with hidden indcidents, as every passing car driver must have a quest of sorts. Even formally we project narrative, anthropomorphising the apertures into a pupil and iris so that we are behind the retina looking out. Yet, although we know that the city is full of stories being played out, we are tempted to reduce the passing traffic to the flow of mythical time: an all time and no time, an archetypal when in an archetypal where.

As truth and history are considered subjective in a pluralist word, so should the politics of space. Territory must be fluid to avoid ossifying into hegemonic, digital irrefutability. Traces of those that have travelled through it should not be dismantled. This is not misty eyed regret for past cultures or liberal tolerance of marginal ones, but a pragmatic approach to getting the most from a place. You have to consider whether traffic creates the route or vice versa, or both. The character of a place is fashioned by its geography as strongly as the geography is influenced by the myriad of characters associated with it. As a result there is a permanent turbulence in the world, as ‘sense’ slides into ‘nonsense’ and back, on a continuous see-saw of personal rationales. We have to be prepared to make up ‘newsense’ to bridge these antagonisms, to be amphibious and evolve. It is a savvy manoeuvre of the artist to create a cosmos in which personal laws apply, superstition becomes rational and ‘newsense’ leads us to new vistas where we can make new maps. But these must not be impenetrable, the concentric circles of association can roll and roll, but remain elastic.

1. from The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey