Reading on the bus

non-places book cover

I recently finished reading “non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity” by Marc Augé. The book, recommended to me by Peter Lunenfeld, positions itself within anthropological thought and then uses that position to look at how we encounter, interpret, and analyze space.

My experience of the book was fragmentary; I read sections as I rode the bus, occasionally being forced to stop mid-sentence when I reached the last stop. This seemed like an appropriate way to encounter the material. As I passed through places marked only by signs, I was reading about their demarcation, the way they function as non-relational space. Unfortunately, it prevented me from effectively noting sections of the book; any attempt at writing was thwarted by the irregular vibrations of the bus. I’ll try to piece together some of the elements that interested me while I read, centered around the production of meaning for researchers and individuals.

The early portion of the book is dedicated to how anthropologists define the group which they are studying. Somehow, a relation between all group members must be found through discrete samples. This is no simple task, and takes consideration of the representativeness of sources and their reliability. Augé describes this world-building elegantly:

The field ethnologist’s activity throughout is the activity of a social surveyor, a manipulator of scales … [s]he cobbles together a significant universe by exploring intermediate universes at need. (Augé, 13)

All experience is fragmentary, and all places unfinished. Augé discusses this as a challenge when considering anthropological subjects, for cultures “never constitute finished totalities” and individuals “are never quite simple enough to become detached from the order that assigns them a position: they express its totality only from a certain angle.” (Augé, 22) We encounter the world as individuals, and we can present it to others only from our individual perspective. This presentation is one of the possible roles for an artist or maker. To establish a way for others to see the world from a new perspective, although they will not move entirely outside themselves.

A method for artists to present their world is suggested in the methods ethnologists use to discover worlds around them: the creation of intermediate universes, each of which clarifies some portion of the whole. This creation of universes can be used as a strategy for individual works, or thought of as a way of looking at an established artist’s ouvre. As a strategy for making work, I think it may be useful to consider the exhibition as a “significant universe” and the piece in it as intermediate ones. While the pieces all corroborate some whole, the gaps between them must be inferred by the audience. Viewers essentially study this universe and construct their own vision of what binds it together. I would also like to explore the possibility of creating a series of islands that inform each other, worlds in miniature, that constitute a single piece.

There are obviously many other facets of this short collection of essays. Eventually, I might like to take on the necessity of individual production of meaning as a reaction to the instability of collective reference points. Also, the notion of online locations as anthropological places, and how they exist as dynamic spaces theoretically without spatial borders, is worth addressing. Regarding online places, why is it that social networking sites don’t feel like they have a history when we return to them?

I am left with many questions right now, so I’ll include a few of them here: How do we create meaning for ourselves? How can we create spaces for the production of meaning? Places that are ready to be seeded with memories and relations.

Constructing personal spaces

Creating Spaces

When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. (Solnit, 13)

My current work is a continuous attempt at representing the world as I remember and imagine it to be. It is about the places I have been and the places I wish to inhabit, with plenty of diversions along the way. There is the hope that the experience of the work translates into a similar or new personal meaning for people who engage with it.

To that end, I am interested in creating new personal spaces in our world. Spaces where people can explore. Spaces where people can meditate. Spaces where people can play. Spaces to feel safe in. To bring the mountain vista to the gallery space, the forest trail to the sidewalk, and in so doing create a new kind of interconnected space. I see my work simultaneously running counter to and parallel to Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics. In opposition, I am often using representational elements from my experience; In parallel, I create concrete conditions of possible ways of being. My central concern is not representation, but creation of worlds or, more accurately, their fragments. In order to explore ways of making meaning, I will look at artists creating dream spaces in sculpture, digital media, and hybrid forms.

This idea of making concrete interventions is central to Bourriaud’s argument in support of relational aesthetics. The primary concern of the work “is not a matter of representing angelic worlds, but of producing the conditions thereof.” (Bourriaud, 83) So, rather than giving someone an image of this or another world, we are attempting to create that world in our present space. This creation may be small or temporary, but its existence as a real way of being is nevertheless significant.

What, then, are these angelic worlds?

The angelic worlds that Bourriaud relates are not necessarily the ones I am interested in (or ones I would consider angelic). Perhaps it is better to consider them as alternative worlds, or dream worlds. They are places “where reality and dream form a whole.” (Bachelard, 23) I want the interstitial elements that I create to allow people “to recapture the naïve wonder we used to feel when we found a nest,” to become comfortable dreaming in their daily lives (Bachelard, 93). Different manifestations of these dream-worlds include the man-machine hybrid, technologically-mediated nature, and my interest,

The spaces for reflection and discovery I aim to create are modeled around the spaces where I reflect on and discover the world. They are landscapes and cities of my imagination. They are pieces of music that play over and over in my head, and the places where I learned them.

These, for me, are dreams of interconnectedness and liminal spaces. Dreams of being simultaneously apart from and in touch with the world. I want to create scenarios where we can see the other world and reach out to touch it, experiencing the journey without going far.

I walk often, as it is how I generally form the strongest association with a place. It is not merely that I am walking, or the place that I am in, but the engagement of all senses with that place. The physical exertion needed to climb a mountain bolsters the view in validating its summit. Wandering and discovery are important themes in my work, even as the landscapes themselves are transposed/mediated, made into objects and made portable.

As I wander, I sometimes dream of occupying Bachelard’s image of rootedness and interconnectedness, “the undergrounds of legendary fortified castles, where mysterious passages that run under the enclosing walls, the ramparts and the moat put the heart of the castle into communication with the distant forest” (Bachelard, 20). Not of leaving the world behind, but being in a vast interconnected state. Of being at home, and simultaneously everywhere.

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