On the ferry to Fogo Island, itself an island off Newfoundland, what I had expected was quite different to the scene unfolding in front of me. There were lots of islands, mostly heavily wooded, and I had no idea which one was Fogo Island, nor even the length of the ferry ride itself.
I was headed there in August 2016 to spend some time at the Museum of the Flat Earth, an institution dedicated to the exploration of unconventional thinking (here’s a local report about it). The Museum is itself an artwork, an elaborate appropriation of esoteric thinking all created by Kay Burns, who also plays the role of curator Dr Iris Taylor.
It reminds visitors of the importance of questioning the information which we encounter on a daily basis as authoritative knowledge, with its displays focused around the history of flat earth thinking, key figures in the movement and local archaeological excavations.
Since then I have provided a voiceover for a video documenting Kay’s experiment to measure the Earth’s flatness on a frozen lake in Labrador (which I hope to show in London in the spring). I have also begun investigating the life and disappearance of Bartholomew Seeker (who was a key figure in the Canadian Flat Earth Society) through time spent in Ireland in 2017.
The culmination of this so far is yet another piece of island-based research, Navigating the Edge, (published by my own Imaginative Press) which begins with the sighting of an island floating above the clouds…
Museums are the past, they are permanent, they are formal, they intrigue and bore in equal measure. I have been using the museum as a fictional device for some time, through the creation of my own Museum of Imaginative Knowledge, and want to reflect on some of the qualities of museums which attract artists.
Museums are sites of pilgrimage, know for their ‘treasures’ and ‘wonders’ which in London and other major cities attract millions of visitors. Art museums (although the label is used less often in the UK) such as the National Gallery provide both a visual repository of the history of Western Art and allow for its interpretation and continuing influence.
I am perhaps most interested in the interaction between the environment of the museum and the objects and displays which it contains. For the National Gallery, this is its position on Trafalgar Square, and its interiors, such as richly-coloured wallpapers and marble skirting boards. The paintings are usually contained within golden carved frames, all creating an atmosphere of both refinement and elitism. We, the visitor, are not at home here.
The contrast to this is Tate Modern, or any other contemporary gallery which seeks to elevate the independence of the artwork by the use of white walls. The idea that the viewer must not be distracted by the gaudy interiors of older galleries produces a space which is both minimal yet also repressive in its clinical whiteness. We, the visitor, are equally not at home here.
It was at Tate Modern in 2011 where I first developed such concerns, at a Joan Miro exhibition. I became disenchanted in a large white room, itself full of large minimal paintings, and found a loose screw on the floor, which for me was of more interest than the artworks being so earnestly presented. This habit then led me in 2013 to the discovery of the Tate Toblerone, a discarded chocolate wrapper close to a Francis Bacon painting.
Such detritus may be acceptable within the rectangle of a Kurt Schwitters artwork, yet to display the Tate Toblerone within a glass case would be to destroy its authenticity as a piece of litter and to enshrine it as a work of art.
Despite having lived near the Hackney Road (a mile-long stretch from Shoreditch to Bethnal Green in East London) for many years, it was only when I moved away did I have the idea of running guided tours of it. I did this a number of times between 2014 and 2017, with the highlight perhaps being the tour of June 2016 which was conducted jointly with Dr Iris Taylor of the Museum of the Flat Earth.
On a recent visit to the area, I was therefore saddened to see that several points from the beginning of the tour (more formally known as The Secret History of the Hackney Road) were no longer there, largely due to the demolition of the large building on Cremer Street that had housed artists’ studios for some time. The missing sites included the Place du Chats (pictured above), a slice of wasteland home to a colony of cats and a variety of urban detritus. The only chimney on the Hackney Road has also vanished.
The tour itself was positioned as a version of local history, advertised as revealing new elements to this particular area, yet it was largely fictional, with invented characters such as Dr Simpson (a infamous Victorian surgeon), musings on queueing (outside the local Royal Mail sorting office) and anything else that popped into my head. It was in many ways a celebration of the everyday, and the idea that anything can be of interest, if communicated imaginatively.
I wonder therefore about the future of the tour, which in any case often veered off the Hackney Road itself. It might be appropriate to enshrine its memories within a publication, thus adding to the official literature of the area, or perhaps to find a new area in which to invent further urban folklore.