On Liminal Spaces: 1. Reflections on Impracticality | Karl Hurst

– though sometimes I think I’m just another little bit
of river Avon driftwood well who isn’t?

‘Stacking’, John James

437

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.

404It 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.

927I 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.

491Attempting 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).

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15 Comments on “On Liminal Spaces: 1. Reflections on Impracticality | Karl Hurst”

  1. mark goodwin . gone ground says:

    Ah, Karl, that space you found yourselves in has a reputation for losing people.
    Them there groughs are dark n deep!

    “I like to think of landscape as a series of adverbs.” – brilliant!

    • karrl hurst says:

      hey Mark…. I took ‘steps’ along with me on my last journey … I loved being on the bus & other ‘districtions’ whilst reading…..that quality of being so deeply engaged so you might just miss the next foothold….ohhh I think you know it very well!

      • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

        Very very pleased to hear your took along ‘Steps’ as companion! 🙂

        Did you get any dark stains
        of peat on its clean cover … ?

      • karrl hurst says:

        sssshhhhh! don’t tell Brian, I touched it with dirty fingers! OMG!

  2. Andy, it’s fascinating to read the narrative about your two autumn journeys into the city. I can really get a grasp of this. I’m not sure I follow ‘landscape as a series of adverbs’, though. Isn’t an adverb a word that changes the meaning of a verb or adjective? How did the horse move? Slowly. Are you simply saying our perception of landscapes changes with the light, with the seasons, with changing perspective? Is it then the light, the season, and the perspective that operates like an adverb? It’s striking that you’ve chosen to compare your experience of landscape with grammar, but I’m a little mystified by the logic. Perhaps I’m not thinking about it enough, or maybe I’m thinking about it too much. Also, what is an ‘a priori codification of landscape’? Does that imply a concept of it that does not allow for the light, the season, the perspective? Could you offer me a practical example?

    • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

      Ay up, Matt!

      I’m not sure I follow ‘landscape as a series of adverbs’ either … which is one of the reasons I like it so much! 😉 I’m only certain I can’t take it as ‘simply saying’ . As for grammar: Landscape is a grammar, a construct. A doomed traveller will read a map and observe a landscape as THE rules of grammar to fix (solidify or freeze) a construct. Whilst on an other foot: a survivor feels their ways through landscapes knowing their grammars do not regulate, but rather describe expressions of momentary contexts … ground, solid or otherwise, being known as grammatically fluid … and steps taken (or given), though rhythmically placed, only count on un even ground

  3. Mark,

    I’m not sure I follow you either, which might please you too…

    Are you saying you prefer phrase construction and vocabulary that is harder to follow? I’m sure this can’t always be the case: simplicity of expression can be a virtue too, and not necessarily a simplification, as some of your best poems demonstrate so movingly.

    Or this is what I glean from the Taoists.

    I wasn’t seeking to reduce Andy’s thought, merely trying to get a grasp on it. I feel uprooted by abstract language, although, when reading, I’m as capable of projecting my own agendas onto it as anyone…

    When you say ‘landscape is a grammar’, do you mean that as a metaphor, expressing how you feel and think about it. When I look at it, I don’t see grammar, I see something physical, but what I see does change.

    I have probably not read enough theory to know what I SHOULD be seeing and thinking…

    Some of the vocabulary adopted by you and Andy here is rather opaque to me. The wonderful photos speak a ‘language’ I think I understand, or at least appreciate.

    With respect, and also apologies for the sarcasm…

    M

    • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

      Hlo Matt!

      Old saying: ‘Do not walk by my side, for the path is too narrow. Do not lead the way for I am not a follower. Do not follow me for I am not a leader. In fact why don’t you just get lost!’ 🙂 A joke of course! But getting lost, especially as far as Brian Lewis is concerned, is a good thing! I myself though, do actually prefer to have a map and compass to hand, at least in inhospitable environments …

      I like phrase construction that is hard to follow as much as I like phrase construction that is direct. Simple phrasing is probably best, especially when it has the kind of simplicity of a smooth pebble, that is the result of processes far too complex to fully know.

      I too feel uprooted by the abstract, and indeed by the unknown, and especially the un-knowable … but I’m fairly comfortable with that, I certainly feel more discomfort being trapped by having my feet stuck in the ground (as Andy/Karl found out in the boggy grough). Not to suggest that I feel ‘rooted’ is stuck. But being ‘stuck’, being too still, or having stillness imposed on me really frightens me. In a harsh environment you have to keep moving to get back home, or at least to shelter. I suppose I feel more at ease with things not fixed, things staying only in process, like the traveller moving.

      Going back to phrasing: simple phrasing can actually be more mysterious than the more opaque ways of playing with mapping through words … and so, because I feel more comfortable with mystery than claiming certainty, I think in the end I’d go with Vasco Popa’s ways of saying … those simple exhilarating phrases that astound us out of the fixed world …

      … but I do like to play with opaque & obscurely intricate materials … and I’m probably at fault for always resisting the referential statementy qualities of prose by playing around too much … any intention to mean is superseded by my playing, and my wish to give readers material for a map they have to make themselves, if they wish to play too … but yes, this is not for everyone … and is possibly a fault, sometimes, especially if what is written appears to be attempting reliable mapping.

      As for landscape as a grammar. No, I don’t see this as a metaphor.

      ‘The branch of language study or linguistics which deals with the means of showing the relationship between words in use […]’. – Oxford Shorter Dictionary.

      For me it is about doing: about ‘words in use’, and their ‘relationship’ to doing. So being in a landscape is not so much about ‘seeing’ it, but more about doing to be in it. Reading (or seeing) a map is more about making the map in the moment (but being very careful with that, so as not to fool one’s self). Like maps, the organisation of dancing is a grammar, as is the sequence of subtle or obvious moves a climber makes over rock, or the steps taken on a path or rough ground as demanded by the ground … by what one has to step on or over. And I feel that ‘words’, and making something with ‘words’ is as much active ‘doing’ as actually physically moving through a landscape. Walking (or climbing) is a grammar we have to describe, and that we ‘do’ as we follow the demands of the ground. Perhaps ‘grammar’ as verb. Speaking is my walking measure …

      … but rather than ‘measure’ being to do with ‘spatial magnitude or quantity’ [SOED], it is more to do with spatial quality … a mile on tarmac is not like a kilometre and half through snow overlying bogland …

      Heading off in a different direction. Regarding the ground’s demand, its making us move in certain ways. Karl/Andy said:

      ‘It was a shock, at first, to realise that the conditions of an environment dictates 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.’

      It shocks me how many people have disconnected from the demands of rugged ground and weather exposure away from the paved ground of our cities … very sadly, more and more people now end up in grave danger for making the reversal in their minds, that Andy found out about …

      Regarding the photos: I agree, those photos make us speak a ‘language’ we think we understand, there is a doubt about how exactly we understand, cuz language always fails when it comes to certainty, but there is certainty about our appreciating a language in process … about our being involved with it …

      … and they really are astounding photos …

      No need to apologise for the sarcasm.

      Also with much respect 🙂

      m

  4. Mark,

    Interesting. The artist’s statement as opaque and obscure play. Not so much ‘A Field Guide for Getting Lost’, as a guide that loses you whilst professing to show you a way.

    Do you know that cartoon response to Barthe’s The ‘Death of the Author’? It’s a picture of an open book with the words ‘It’s not about you…’ written across the pages.

    Ok, that’s my joking over.

    I can grasp how making something with words is a form of active doing, and how constructing a sentence is like moving through a landscape. I might even agree, although I’ve never injured myself crafting a phrase, or risked hypothermia.

    I’ve enjoyed reading John Clare’s thoughts on how field enclosure was analogous to standard grammar: that is something imposed upon a once open ground. I’m plucking this from memory, so apologies if I’ve got it askew.

    I’ve also enjoyed Walcott’s metaphors of city blocks as paragraphs and rising gulls as asterisks. There’s a mimetic element (illusion?) to this. It’s got one foot in the concrete to my mind. Perhaps it will just take one extra step from space into ‘spaciality’ before I can re-codify landscape as adverb, or conceive it as adverbial.

    At the moment I can see the monk walking on air, but not the construct beneath his feet. I thought it might appear if I flung some soil at it. Maybe it has, but I just can’t see it for all the grit in my eyes!

    Matt-of-Clay Clegg

    • karrl hurst says:

      hey Matt & Mark

      many thanks for taking time to pull out some strands of what I was trying to get at….Your both much more lucid and cogent than me on landscape being a language so I’ll not attempt to elaborate here. I nearly included some of John Clare’s ideas around enclousure in the blog….as this fits in exactly with what I mean by an ‘a priori codification of landscape’….in other words a landscape that has preconcieved limited expections imposed on it. An example of this might be how a tourist might EXPECT to view the lake district through Wordsworth….(the teatowel version of the lakes with all its beauty spots printed on it)….. I mean I see it so often on the peaks ….at certain spots there’s a near garantee you’ll find an intrepid photographer with a tripod always static and poised, metering the light, making goodness know what minor adjustments…..the point I was making is that by thinking in landscape with a much more fluid sensibility yields very different results…..

      the main thrust i was trying to get at by saying ‘ I like to think of landscape as adverbial’ was two handed. The first hint I suppose is in ‘like’, I mean I guess terms like ‘rugged’ or ‘powerful’ just don’t describe my experience (again these terms are a priori concepts) so I like to think of landscape as more proactive than this…..I wanted the photographs to have a ‘say what you see quality’ about them but then realising that each step brings with it a unique configuration of elements I often wasn’t quite sure just what landscape consists of……so I found that thinking of heather for example as a potential element to photograph only led to me asking how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and to what extent? (i.e questioning a things adverbial qualities)…..then I realised that everything has a continual flux and interdependance and is the way it is because it is involved in the how?, in what way?, when?, where?, and to what extent?……It’s that simple really…..I suppose some other photographers take a much more solidified view of landscape…..this is such a place (insert place name here) here is a waterfall (insert feature here) here is its state (insert season, sunset etc here)….but with me I want to get in amongst the process of it being there much more and not just take it for granted……say if i go up mam tor …..i don’t take the pathed area up to it because I know more or less what to expect….but if I attempt to crawl up one of its difficult sides all that knowledge becomes irrelevant. Also I’m more intimate with it that way….I’m not trying to advocate getting lost but what having a safe footing might feel like….hope this clarifies things a little?

      • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

        Hlo Andy!

        ‘but if I attempt to crawl up one of its difficult sides all that knowledge becomes irrelevant’

        Do you fancy a go at gritstone climbing at some point?

        Funny thing is, rock climbs or routes as they are called, are closely described in the guidebooks, and given names … there are climbers who throw the book away, or at least for one day’s climbing, and have a go with no prior knowledge … there has been much discussion over the years in the climbing worlds/arenas about what adventure really means, and about route description and route grades, and purity of climbing style.

        Your ‘attempt to crawl’ expression reveals an urge for true adventure …

        Here http://www.outdoorsmagic.com/scrambling/scramble-route—ill-crag-and-broad-stand/3515.html you can find a description of a very famous scramble/climb in The Lake District, and if you scroll down you will find:

        “This is where it all started in 1802 when Samuel Taylor Coleridge recorded the first scramble, having descended broad Stand from Scafell in an opium-induced haze.”

        ‘It all started’ is I think a reference to the beginning of mountaineering, or at least one of its beginnings. I admire Coleridge so very much, his astounding physicality, his agility and nerve with no equipment (other than opium!) … and I do enjoy how rock climbs and mountain routes are drenched in historical resonance, they are indeed cultural constructs … I relish that … but there is a down side to this kind of fore knowledge … nothing matches the intensity of ground that feels as if only animals and aeons of weather have ever passed over it …

      • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

        Here is a bit of description and naming, just so you know what to expect, should you wish to follow in Coleridge’s footsteps (well, in reverse, cuz old Kubla’s Alter descended Broad Stand!)

        “Start about 70ft down the Eskdale side of Mickledore, the dip between Scafell and Scafell Pike, at Fat Man’s Agony, where a narrow fissure on the right leads through the cliff to a corner. Climb the corner to a larger outward sloping ledge and a small but steep wall, the crux.” This again is from here: http://www.outdoorsmagic.com/scrambling/scramble-route—ill-crag-and-broad-stand/3515.html

        Apparently this has a ‘Gibber Factor’ of five out of three, represented by three skull & cross bones icons – I’m sure ol’ ST would’ve found that rockin’!

        This ‘gibber factor’ is not common in the climbing world, it has been invented (or found) by the blogger. But it is just one version of the way in which climbers prepare, the way they attempt to reduce their fear through labelling and grading … I’m not knocking this … it does help … but it also has the danger of reducing the experience (constricting it into some kind of Ad Man’s Agony) … in the very ways you express in your blog and comments …

        Happy Un-advertised Adventures!

    • karrl hurst says:

      I got to thinking about this tonight & your last phrases here are very astute….’a monk walking on air’….. you made me remember some of the first impulses I had… best described in some sketch for a poem I attempted at the time:

      It’s so breathy this far up, like those Chinese scholar painters exiled to the void sought so long to describe, all breath. But not ethereal nor washy, more like when a wave or hum recedes or advances in occurrence with nature.

      Losing oneself is nothing to fear. The wind remembers your skin.
      The centre of you dissolving outside in, ’til no known face appears at the pool’s rim, just a thousand fragments flaking free from you or anyone else who could be you.

      ….in other words the thin balance between the concrete and abstract is something ‘booths’ continually plays with. I hate it when anyone comments on these photos as ‘abstracts’ ’cause I don’t think they are. Writing the blog piece was like trying to re-imagine, no, re-assemble what were quintessentially moments of fusion, when I felt at home with what I was amongst….I felt a part of them and away from the vanity of the intellect, so to verbalise the experience isn’t something I would say is a best fit really but an attempt at a second-hand experience….Like a warning sign of what not to do when you find yourself knee-deep in it!….

      I wanted to use a whole lexicon of very human impulses to describe the ‘natural’ in the blog piece…..’codification’ ‘adverberial’ et al are indications of the difference between description and action because often what gets lost in a finished piece is the physical effort…..(no different in poems or photography)…..but certainly some of this is lost through critical work, I mean for me these photographs have a restorative element I didn’t feel the need to explain them except when they needed to find ‘value’, to be explained, I’m certainly not going to try and justify any movement I might make toward an often static cultural consumer, because the whole question of what anyone likes or dislike is too far off.

      I suppose what I mean is I dropped out of pretty everything to attempt to engage meaningfully with the only stuff I’d got left. I mean the basic stuff, rock, water, sky & bringing those impulses back in a langauge that has a common, communal framework is never easy.
      I always had the communal in mind, for the recpient of ‘booths’ to say ‘ahhh that’s what that looks like, that’s how those things are together’ rather than ‘this is awe inspiring’. I don’t know Matt maybe I’ll write a piece called ‘what we carry with us’ just to allow my cheese sandwich a lexicon all of its own!

    • mark goodwin . gone ground says:

      Hlo Matt!

      “At the moment I can see the monk walking on air, but not the construct beneath his feet. I thought it might appear if I flung some soil at it.”

      Yes,yes … just so … very beautifully put! … it’s about active words like ‘fling’, and actions like ‘fling’, and so much to do with stuff, with soil …

      I’m hoping you will grow a poem out of the soil of the lines quoted above. I’d really like to meet the monk again … especially once the monk is spattered … from the ricochet of you flingings …

  5. Andy,

    Thanks for taking the time to expand on some of these ideas. There’s plenty more to think about here. Of course, you shouldn’t feel obliged to justify yourself – and yes, language is never easy. You are certainly flattering me when you say I am more lucid on landscape being a language – but that’s certainly one of Mark’s fields of expertise… Anyway, I’ve enjoyed this excursion – it’s made me think about some things I’d been taking for granted. Maybe there will be some more thoughts soon. Thanks for the post, and thanks, Mark, for the prods in your comments.

    M


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