If Streets Are Sentences
In one of my favorite stories by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Man of the Crowd,” the narrator impulsively singles out an elderly gentleman and determines to follow him wherever he goes (sounds like the premise for an art piece by Sophie Calle, doesn’t it?). For most of the next two days and two nights, the old man leads the narrator on an erratic, exhausting excursion through the city of London, taking a meandering path through the high and low neighborhoods of London with no apparent pattern or goal. The way in which Poe’s narrator allows an arbitrary character to determine his path through the city can probably be seen as a precursor of the Situationists and their determination to impose similarly arbitrary ways of negotiating urban spaces in what has come to be called psychogeography. For me, Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital: A Walk Around the M25 (2004) is something I think of as a classic in this genre. Sinclair follows the highway that encircles London regardless of where it takes him, creating a travelogue of forgotten urban corners and what Rem Koolhaas calls “junkspace.”
I’ve just finished two brief, quirky books that take this tradition into slightly new directions. Both of these books parse modern urban spaces through elliptical narratives that are an unlikely combination of keen observation, untethered imagination, insider’s knowledge, esoteric erudition, and photographs.
Jack Robinson’s Days and Nights in W12 (London: CB Editions, 2011) employs an encyclopedia of micro-entries to convey the range of urban life found in the W12 postal code, an arbitrary zone laid over an historic area of London that includes Shepherd’s Bush and Wormwood Scrubs. Using a comical system of alphabetically-ordered hyper-brief entries beginning with “ABC,” “A&E,” “Allotment” and ending with “Yawn,” “Yoga Advertisement,” and “Z,” Robinson gives an insider’a view of his neighborhood. Each entry is accompanied by a tiny, well-composed photograph, reinforcing a kind of modesty on the whole project. In both the texts and the dead-pan images (presumably by the author) Robinson remains a calm and bemused observer, unruffled by the urban dilemmas that plague him and his neighbors, casting a forgiving eye on all the flaws and shortcomings of his neighborhood and his fellow residents. He’s also prone to dropping references to literary figures like Coleridge, Dickens, Dinesen, Durrell, Eliot, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others (check out the handy index to see all of the heady “topics” addressed in Days and Nights in W12). But lest we take all of this too seriously, Robinson warns us at the outset that he can’t vouch for all the tales that that are included. “Do you need evidence before you decide” what to believe or not believe, he asks? One day, when the taxi in which he is riding blows a tire on the way to Heathrow airport, he and his Somali driver “sit for a while in silence, smoking [while] gazelle and hartebeest come down the road the water to drink.”
It’s an open secret in Great Britain that Jack Robinson is a pseudonym for Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions. Days and Nights in W12 is an expanded version of an earlier 2009 book by “Robinson” called Recessional, part of which may be seen here. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a copy of the earlier title for sale anywhere on this planet.
Erik Anderson takes a different approach to the urban environment by literally inscribing letters on the map of Denver as he takes eight carefully orchestrated walks that spell out the letters P A S T O R A L in his recent book The Poetics of Trespass (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2010). As Anderson moves methodically through Denver, following paths that will trace the shape of each letter on the streets and open spaces of the city, the temporal part of the walk is dedicated to meditating, questioning, and stirring together dissimilar disciplines – like poetics and urban planning – in a kind of mental trespass. “The city, like the poem, consists of a tension: how we move in it and how it moves in us.” Anderson is interested in the problem of words and the interplay between words and sound and meaning.
I carved a large “P” into a medium-sized American city today. It was an attempt to inscribe language into a non-linguistic space, one in which, due to the billboards, liquor stores, gas stations and theater, temples, churches and restaurants, strip clubs, bus stops, and the Planned Parenthood office, any possibility of tracing a curve with one’s steps has been rigorous and systematically thwarted.
Like Robinson, Anderson also places small, self-made photographs throughout his text. His images feel less like documents than questions. The most interesting ones deal with the spatial puzzlement that arises in unplanned urban spaces and the odd juxtaposition of urban architectures. I’m not doing Anderson’s richly allusive and elusive book justice with this brief post, but there is an excerpt online, which includes several of the photographs (although the photographs in the book are reproduced in black-and-white). Tacked on after the end of the essay “The Poetics of Trespass” is another shorter essay called “The Neighbor,” on Wong Kar-Wai’s visually stunning film In the Mood for Love (2001). Here, Anderson plays with themes such as displacement, loss, and the nature of film.
‘the premise for an art piece?’ In one of Sophie Calle’s artworks (documented with text and photographs), she follows a man around Venice. (In another she reverses this, having herself followed by a private detective.)
Recessional, by the way, was a separate thing, a short and angry commentary (again, text and photographs) on the early months (around 2008) of recession. It won’t reprint, but I may put the whole pdf on the CB editions website.
Charles, Thanks! I drew a complete blank trying to remember Sophie Calle’s name for some reason. (Age, probably.)