I started my MA in 2017, and a big part of the interview to get on the course centred around my desire to bring my practice back into the physical realm. I had graduated from my BA in 2012 on the same day that my first child was born, and chose to concentrate on writing, rather than making. A few years in the intellectual and creative wilderness followed, before the ideas started to come back to me. On the rare occasion that I had an idea that felt worthy of exploration, I quickly figured out a way of putting it out as text-based work, showing almost exclusively in online exhibitions in places like Tumblr or the websites of galleries that were showing physical and digital exhibitions concurrently.
I’m a year into my MA now, and I still haven’t made anything physical. Perhaps I never will, but I’d like to at least try. I understand that some artists contain within them the capacity to just get on with it and try something new, but suspect that a great deal more of us are nervous to take steps in untried areas. Indeed, since embarking upon my MA I have retreated further into the immaterial world, producing more spoken word than anything else, prompting cries of ‘poet!’ and ‘writer!’ from my contemporaries. Both fine by me, of course. I make what I make, be that spoken, written, or physical, it’s just that the physical intimidates me a bit, so is taking some coaxing out.
It was for that reason that I declared myself the Unsolicited Artist in Residence while on the Pennine Way. Aside from walking, I would spend the seventeen day trip writing, photographing, and recording my thoughts in preparation for making new work on my return.
Since then I’m into double figures with new ideas, about which I shall write in this very blogspace, between walks.
I was thinking a lot about maps, and how they form our primary experience of the landscape. Long before I set foot on the Pennine Way – and all previous and subsequent walks – I familiarised myself with the topography of the route. This enables me to predict boundary walls, slight changes in elevation, and where to take a higher route in order to avoid potential quag.
The map not only precedes the territory, it also succeeds it – I am using digital PDF Ordnance Survey maps to recall my journey as I write about it, and it is as if I am re-walking every step, so vivid are the memories that the maps evoke. Only for a short while are actually in the landscape to which the map alludes.
The map enhances the landscape, telling me what features lie ahead of me – how many fields I must cross before reaching a road, when to expect a change of direction; that sort of thing – whilst I am in it.
I am bastardising Baudrillard, of course, for his map that preceded the territory was a metaphor, via which he described our traversal through the world of signs that we inhabit, rather than a physical map of a landscape through which I travelled. Still, it’s 2019, and if I want to use Baudrillard to talk make a point about literal maps then use him I shall.
One of the unavoidable features of an Ordnance Survey map is its physical presence – the sheer size of the thing when unfolded is enough to strain the triceps of the person wrestling with it. This is an object that is transformed from a neat little (not that little, bigger than a novella, for example) folded package that slots into one’s rucksack or pops easily inside the fleece jacket (not easily, in fact quite uncomfortably, truth be told, but who wants to be the guy with the map hanging round their neck? Okay, I was also that guy, but you get my point), into a manifold landscape, sprawled out across a picnic bench, living room floor, or inside of a tent, where it then spends the entire time you are looking at it trying to return to its folded form. I want to say to it, ‘Don’t be fooled into thinking the folded you is the right way to be – this is the real you, flat, laid across the land, covering the very territory which you chart’ (I’m bastardising Borges now, and his metaphorical map which the emperor had made on a 1:1 scale, so that it covered the entire landscape, causing it to decay and crumble beneath the artifice of his most detailed map ever created, ‘but if I want to…’ etc.). Eventually, of course, when one has exhausted the map’s usefulness (for now, only ever for now) and it is time to fold it away, the map becomes resistant, offering to bend and fold in infinite ways, none of which align with its original creases. Bloody maps.
I had found ‘physicality’ a dirty word at university – so dry and staid. So, well, boring. If my primary concern as an artist is the physical nature of a material, then for whom does this work exist? It’s all a bit navel-gazey, isn’t it? In spite of my former feelings (totally unjustified, but I’m owning them), I started to fold paper in the style of an OS map.
The images have uploaded sideways here, and no matter what I do I cannot convince them to sit the right way up, please turn off the screen rotation on your device, and rotate the device itself 90 degrees to the right. Or tilt your head left, whichever’s easiest. I say that, it might just be my browser.