On Liminal Spaces: 1. Reflections on Impracticality | Karl HurstPosted: February 1, 2015
– though sometimes I think I’m just another little bit
of river Avon driftwood well who isn’t?
‘Stacking’, John James
Seeking not to possess, tame or sentimentalise space has increasingly become a part of my practice as a photographer. Among other things, a loss of belief in a priori knowledge and a distrust of the civic as epistemological discourse has spurred me on to seek alternative relationships to the aesthetics of space. I wish to highlight space here rather than place, as my initial impulse on undertaking this series of photographs was not founded on the specifics of any particular locale. This seemingly goes against the current climate, where the social or local as personal is often feted as holding the key to any discursive practice involving spatiality. Consider here, for example, the recent resurgence of regionalised craft practices. Seemingly forgotten skills transposed into the larger digital field, registered as authentic, have become for the most part a cultural norm. I don’t mean by this to disparage inclusiveness or site-specific works, but rather to question the often faux-authentic or commercial aspects of politicising both space and object. I have chosen, wherever possible, not to name the places in these photographs as this often evokes preconceptions of local, regional or even nationalistic identity that I have sought to avoid, or even escape from.
During the early autumn of 2014, I decided to take a walk outside of the city boundaries. I’d been photographing cities since 2010 and felt that I needed a little less predictive atmosphere to perform under. After the first journey (undertaken as leisure), having walked for some 10 hour stretch, I returned home slightly dislocated from the resulting photographs. They didn’t seem to yield either any particular geological, aesthetic or subjective insights into what might constitute ‘landscape’. At first I took this lack to be a flaw on my part, a lack of inspiration, or modal adjustment or, on the part of nature itself, poor quality of lighting or perhaps not the favoured location. The city seemed much easier to photograph because its objects were more clearly defined, I knew what I was looking for and knew what I was looking at. However, undeterred, a few weeks later I undertook almost the identical journey except for one small yet vital change. This time I veered off the official track, not by far, but by enough to be almost undone by it. I had stepped, inadvertently, straight into the middle of a peat bog; also I had slipped a few gradients down simultaneously. The rest of the afternoon was a painful lesson in how to pull yourself up out of the mire. This time when I returned home I felt both grateful as well as exhilarated. A few prints turned out to be halfway decent but that wasn’t really what interested me.
It was after that journey that my relationship to my physical environment began to radically alter. It was a shock, at first, to realise that the conditions of an environment dictate any possible relationship with it and not the other way around. I say ‘shock’ because I undertook several more journeys in the ensuing weeks until I realised I was seriously under-equipped to deal with the challenges of being there. For example, what I had always assumed to be an innate directional instinct was proving to be a fallacy. Leaving without map, compass or provisions proved time and again to be foolhardy. Then, slowly but surely, I began to adopt a more adaptive, respectful approach to photographing in a very difficult environment. I had begun with a narrative of ease of access which held up on the more well-frequented trails but, veering away from these, the idea of having ‘the right to roam’ just seemed like an abstract idea, the remains of some romantic conquest narrative. Yet always my eye line was fixed onto the necessity of reaching the next safe goal, the next foothold. I guess a wet foot appreciates a dry haven. It was on these first encounters that I began to consider the idea of the title of the series, Booths.
Booths (a derivative from the Scots Bothy) are temporary shelters dotted across various outlying Northern landscapes. They are free access, generally stone dwellings and are often sited in the most inhospitable places. They usually have little or no facilities other than respite from the elements. Equivalents can be found in Wales and Ireland, though few are to be found in Southern England. They are generally not well marked on OS maps except as historical features, ruins, lodges, cabins or huts. Similar structures can also be found in many other cultures. It began to register that these booths, those safe havens between the unpredictability of the elements, were a metaphor for something much larger. It was then that I began in earnest to photograph the transitory nature of space and saw in certain formations the temporal solidity that I consider similar to outlying shelters, the skull and flesh and bones a simulacrum.
I like to think of landscape as a series of adverbs. Adverbs are like ghost objects, their double take, a way of fixing ideas onto an exterior framework. For example, light, season or the relationship between one object and the next are all perpetually modifying their constituent parts. Describing this continual shift through photography, the a priori codification of landscape quickly becomes problematic, erroneous. To describe water simply as soft or rock as hard ignores their adverbial, alluvial qualities. So rock might be hard here or rock might be hard now but the description is only ever contextual and interdependent. Often this flux appeared to me as a kind of reverie that more fixed or objective notions of landscape find difficult to take account of. As the photographs progressed, the protean aspects of spatiality gained greater prominence. I less and less looked towards the larger, coalesced views generally favoured by (often male) landscape photographers and more at its constituent parts or its breaches, butts and cloughs. With this in mind, the idea of ‘Booths’ became a central aspect of being able to access this categorical fluidity. I became interested in little islands of meaning. At the foot of a spectacular waterfall, I first noticed these swirling pools of effluence, sandstone, leaf debris and chemical residue forming and diluting as it moved downstream. A fellow photographer looked on in disbelief that I would choose not to photograph the more ‘beautiful’ part of the scene. But to me this drift then stasis, this attachment then disconnection mirrored my own relationships in attempting to negotiate space. The booths came to signify a place of rest, a temporary home between eddy and calm. Each step is a testing of new ground, of the unfamiliar; perhaps the ground you are on or over or between or under is all unstable or radically destabilised. But then all these phases themselves lose ground, need qualification, as if all of us were also adverbial. This became my walking measure.
Attempting to traverse a notion of ‘home’, of its suggested solidity, just reminds us of the precarious categorical imperative that staying still renders invalid. Here, in free access, those categories become redundant. We are able to crawl or become dissolute or bathe or get lost but it’s only ever at the behest of another element we didn’t take account of. In moments of clarity this lack becomes its presence; it is in those moments that we are most privileged, because we again begin to ascribe a very early logic onto an object we can never have enough description for. Home is a series of shelters, a restorative temporality, all the space between an impracticality, like trying to traverse mainland to island with nothing but a vague intuitive notion of swimming between.
This is the first of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst; essays two and three will be posted on this site over the next few months. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all four photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Two previous essays for the Longbarrow Blog, My Island Home and Out on the End of an Event, reflect on other aspects of his photographic practice. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (writing as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed poetry anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).