Disrupting the Lexicon Location Myth
I recently received a rejection slip from a respected publisher that has resonated much more deeply than I had envisaged. The knockback didn’t bother me so much as the reasoning behind it. The body of work was a series of photographs then titled Recovered Landscapes: Reclamation of the South Yorkshire Coalfields. The publishers basically said that there is no or little commercial interest in these landscapes, that they are invalid, obsolete, without a criterion that fits the current publishing climate. Friends suggested that I drop the specific locational moniker and resubmit them as a more generalised way of treating landscape. But to do this would risk losing the essential value of what I was trying to achieve – namely, that something deep within the regional psyche was being lost through the treatment of post-industrial sites and the value system that surrounds them.
Having work rejected because the work isn’t of an industry standard is one thing, but the dissemination of its values through the market is another. Part of the problem is that of exoticism; of displacement chic. If you replace South Yorkshire with the Russian or South American coalfields, interest increases, and value increases. I think of John Clare, who suddenly and irrevocably became absent through his absolute insistence on describing what he knew and his fateful attachment to his own microclimate. I guess, in deep introspection, Clare wanted to preserve what he felt to be already over, though few wanted to hear it as it hardly fitted prevailing sensibilities. However, I think it goes much deeper than this and into our expectations of what cultural values are and what purpose they serve. I will return to this as the essay progresses.
Too often in today’s climate, cultural hegemony is cultivated through a seemingly ad hoc mixture of arts festivals, commercial galleries, managerial processes and academic interventions into spatial politics. What has become harder, and to some extent impossible, is to work outside of these frameworks. A priori positivist assumptions about ‘community’ often head up these processes and their adherents. Empirical knowledge of social or event planning bypasses more deep-seated resentments of and dissatisfaction with cultural ‘re-presentation’. Added to this is an accelerated reliance on digital topographies (through sat-nav, gaming terrains, Google earth, etc). The end effect is often a geopolitical dysmorphia, a fantasy world. The ordinary, caught as it is between the sublime and the banal, is often erased and replaced with heritage green space, business or retail parks, faux-archaeological aesthetics, or is simply fenced off and marked as an absence, reflecting the value of keeping sites empty as fiscal or cultural currencies. Rarely in the former coalfields has land been left to naturalise as a post-industrial site. The management of landscape through extraneous principles is nothing new; however, when photographing the region, my criteria have increasingly been informed by the questions ‘by whom’ and ‘for whom’. Photographing the former site of Denaby Main colliery, and its subsequent use, highlighted the failure of consultancy and multi-agency bodies to understand the deeper needs of the site. The deliberate depoliticisation of the region is also evident in its restructuring. For example, the site of Orgreave coking plant (scene of the worst mass brutality conducted during the bloody 1984-85 miners’ strike) has now been re-named as the softer-sounding and benign ‘Waverley’. To date, no official acknowledgment or representation of the conflict has been made on the site. What seems clear is that the region has a diverse set of meanings and histories and its future value must attempt to try to accommodate this range in a meaningful way.
Before continuing with a discussion of the points raised above, I want to describe what I mean by the ordinary. To create work en plein air in a contemporary setting is deeply unfashionable and is often seen as anachronistic. Counter to this are a plethora of site-specific works that seemingly reveal personal and geopolitical histories, or documentary works aiming to capture event-specific ‘decisive moments’. I have used ‘ordinary’ in this context to mean work that neither reveals a particular important event, nor uncovers a familial or archival particularity. Some of these sites might even be described as ‘non-sites’, places where nothing happens very slowly. Absence of meaning and the ordinary seem perfectly syntagmatic of a region that has had its major resources continually disputed and exploited until little remains but traces: scars and residues. It is the condition of these remains at this particular time that interests me. The future and the past are other photographs, other representations; any meaning here should be through what is visible as a surface.
It is important in this context to distinguish between the normal and the ordinary. Normative values have a systematic relationship to the production and dissemination of agreement criteria, of validating work through its ‘usefulness’. On the other hand, ‘ordinary‘, in best usage, might include the disregarding of official (and often arbitrary) boundaries, the use of land as playful, or as an absence of distinctions between urban and rural, ruin and foundation. Here the categorical dichotomy between the sublime and banal also begins to loosen. If sites are only validated through their context (crime scenes, accident sites, historical human activity etc) then the suggestion (and presupposition) is that all other criteria are supplementary. However, the ordinary falls short of these criteria; for example, in plein air photography, conditionality plays a major part in the methodology of production values. The weather or time of day isn’t secondary here, but essential. This ‘it was as it is’ attitude isn’t quite as benign as it first appears, though. I will go on to discuss how I completed the series of photographs, and what such close scrutiny of the value systems and dissemination of landscape might imply within a broader context.
On reflection, I think the series has a couple of things going against it in the prevailing climate. Firstly, as I have suggested, the series is primarily focused on absence. The human element in the photographs is secondary and often invoked as a negative principle. To create work that isn’t human-centric and doesn’t show the species as benevolent or flexible doesn’t fit with utopian or community values. Secondly, the medium itself becomes problematic inasmuch as the series aims to create its meaning, not through the singular ‘important’ definitive image but through a series of non-specific variants. The ordinariness of landscape not being shot at its most beautiful angle or at the poles of dawn or dusk aims to suggest a non-partitioned, plain version of the world and not a locus we head toward as a point of interest. When I discussed this series at a gallery opening, someone suggested to me that the reason that many of these sites are screened from the casual passer-by is because people don’t want to see them. This seems reason enough to show them.
As the series developed and extended, I began to focus less on the coalfield sites themselves and more on their peripheries. The idea of momentarily catching a landscape without any presupposition began to appeal to me deeply. As the focus shifted from the specific to the commonality of waste ground or scrub, I realised that although all landscape isn’t treated equally that doesn’t mean all landscape isn’t equal in and of itself. So eventually I dropped the original title and began to divest the images of any bias of particularity I could. By refusing meaning, landscape itself can be disruptive. Photography as a lacuna is doubly bound to re-present the point of interest as facile, as of no great significance: whether you choose to look or not, it’s there. The series attempts to put a strain on our presence as passive viewers of landscape by pushing its absence onto our own, refusing along the way such overworked terms as ‘banal’ or ‘sublime’. The non-identification with landscape as picturesque or sublime searches for its imagined communities elsewhere. The process of being in the landscape itself finds its exegesis in the limits of identification and not in co-opting its value as a regulatory system of materialism. It is this ‘tramping’, wandering quality that the series aims to acknowledge. How much ‘use’ this quality can be put to remains to be seen.
Karl Hurst’s photographs of the South Yorkshire coalfields will be exhibited as part of The Ted Hughes Poetry Festival 2016 (Mexborough, 24-26 June); click here for further details. Further images in this series can be viewed as part of Hurst’s Flickr photoset.
Three essays on photography (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’) appeared on the Longbarrow Blog in 2015; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here, and the third essay (‘Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. 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).
Photography used to be full of hiatuses, gaps, voids. No matter how much it tried to capture, more remained open. No matter how much it tried to represent, more remained elusive. I don’t mean the gaps in time, the gaps Eadweard Muybridge attempted to fill with his proto time-lapse photography, nor the necessary stasis of the still image. What I mean is that photography used to be seen simply as a representational tool. Photography only ever represented an object; the object remained outside of its presentation. However, the recent collapse of the object into its representational field has considerably breached the etiquette of aesthetic possibilities within the discipline. Whilst these images might carry negative implications, there’s little lost reality between them and the endless preening of the on-demand models and studios themselves; the loss of the real is much further back in the process. Doctored can no longer simply be taken as a pejorative, as it has to be seen within a larger context of a world constantly being re-touched at many levels and not just as an end process. The unobtainable is not even an aspirational mise-en-scene but one of the few realities we still have left. We understand that these views of the world are partial and suited to fit a certain limited framework. Rolling news and a burgeoning virtual cultural economy have seen a further collapse between the subject and its representation. The object has become more like its representation.
3D and 2D rendering of spatial realities are no longer separate ends of a visual logic but are closing in on each other with an increasing force, with QR codes for example. A quantitatively 2D experience of a still image folds out (or in) through the swipe of an app to reveal an inner, richer experience, like peering inside a 2D box, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe read as 1984, Winston standing in as a metaphor for the narcissism of any remaining separation. Somewhere between descriptive rendering and conjunctive object, QR (or Quick Response) codes no longer rely on solid Euclidean geometry but on a visual hiatus of solidity, mass and volume. The use of technology is already beyond its nominal application. 4G or 5G are here because they can render our last movement as both relative and predictive. In this climate the academic categorisations for the disciplines in the plastic arts have lost their broader purpose as a descriptive framework. The separation of sculpture, painting or photography have collapsed into a generalised plethora of ad hoc and temporary practices, often moving towards a re-imagining of the categories themselves. Art no longer represents, mirrors nor disparages mercantile and technological practices but is indistinguishable from them, because it can only ever attempt to catch them up. I want to discuss in further detail these shifts in the dimensional and materialistic properties of contemporary culture. In order to show this, I will discuss the changes in my own practices as a photographer in recent years alongside the broader practices of the arts in general.
In 2013 I began photographing a series of objects on a black background. My initial intention for the series was to ironize pop sensibility in general and that of Warhol and Koons in particular. I thought it might highlight the failure of the consumerist / aesthetic utopia through its own mechanisms. My working title for the series at the time was End User. I intended the series to show the failure of objects to satisfy their function, to defamiliarize the everyday pop aesthetic, to escape the banal by reconfiguring its use. The objects, I thought, might serve as totems not of desire or longing but of warning and disgust. I finished the series sometime late in 2013 & thought little more of it but as a reliquary languishing somewhere among all the other online space junk. I will return to my re-engagement with the series later. But now I want to discuss the shift in spatial rendering in greater detail.
The QR code integrates itself into the modern condition with ease. It gives us the illusion of a bespoke experience whilst delivering a flattened-out product. The hustle and bustle of the market is only experiential through personal time. Willow Farm and Oakland Grange aren’t real places, yet capital allows us to imagine them as a comfort, as a familiarity. Time and money, the old adage, exist at the expense of space, concomitant with the ‘real’. The way we choose has become as important as what we choose. We might consider this faddish form of cultural hegemony to have also affected our relationship to the arts, or vice-versa. Compare, for example, Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank with Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Mondrian’s piece exists in a strictly linear fashion. Albeit in an abstracted way, Boogie-Woogie represents the movement of mass through time and space. The blocks of colour are like crosstown traffic seen from above. It’s easy to imagine the car horns and bustle of New York as a kind of jazz rendered by Mondrian as an interlocking series of shapes and colours and sounds.
Koons, however, negates mass, volume and time in favour of a vacuum. The balls are neither rising nor descending, but untouchable and therefore desirous, idealized. Koons ironises the fetishistic quality of consumer goods by highlighting the void of displayed products. Capital, of course, hates a vacuum, cannot exist on stasis, needs trends and fluctuations to survive, needs equilibrium and so we buy into Koons’ version of the ’emperor’s new clothes’ as a critique of culture capital. Space has become distance; the distance between the wholesale consumption of culture and the loss of a sensual or textual experience through its treatment. The gallery experience further separates us from the object rather than bringing us closer to it. But we’ve nowhere left to go but the gallery to try to authenticate the loss. Willow Farm or Oakland Grange become the only real we have.
With Warhol, capital and art become synonymous, unashamedly so. To sell the dollar back to itself at a hyper-inflated rate says as much about the need for art as a product as it does about the desire for the product as art. Like an ultimate act of depreciation capital has to eat with wolves, has to exist in the void. Nothing but itself to desire, the narcissistic conditional flow is ever empty. You could get away with that stuff in the 60s. Even up to the 90s the petulance of appropriating the everyday world seemed a bit like an act of defiance and nobody seemed to draw a line in the sand between art and consumption. Warhol or Lichtenstein’s pop aesthetic are an ad-man’s dream, and so the endless re-appropriation between commerce and art is perpetuated. It’s a quick leap from dada to pop and easier still to relieve either of any radicalism. As for today, we’re either left staring back at the void of cultural capital or fizzing with the mock desire of the quick response of a personalized alternative. Culture is now a player of hyper-credit, rather than subsisting at the counter-cultural level of the semblance of an alternative. With Warhol each print has a further degradation of surface, the non-mechanical process of screen-printing renders the dollar bill increasingly useless except as an artifact (or artifice) of corruption and consumption: process as purpose. The reproduction of One Hundred Dollar Bills belies its status as an original and expensive screen print. Only a truly mechanized process might correct these flaws. Counter to this would be a rejection of the objectification of art practices. If we skip forward a couple of decades, terms like ‘handmade’, ‘craft’, ‘bespoke’ or ‘regional’ begin to gain currency again (within a framework of fear and boredom with a perceived mechanization of culture). Of course the relationship between the arts and a burgeoning mercantile class isn’t a new one, and small cottage industries whilst laudable in themselves become problematic at the distributive or critical level.
Photography today can potentially be endlessly reproduced without a loss of image quality. The impersonal resides in its end use, in the co-opting of the impersonal as folksy, retro or iconic. For me, there’s a status crisis when I look at an image by Richard Prince; each time I consider its worth the counter clicks and a dollar passes between its value and its meaning. A dollar between someone managing my click and the guy utilizing it. A dollar between the guy making an appropriation and the guy making an approximation. It’s no wonder that we feel so hemmed in. If I were to ‘follow’ a Richard Prince image on a social media feed, it might endlessly tell me what its status is, in real time, like a Tamagotchi version of cultural engagement, art as productive artifice. In today’s oversaturated climate, unfamiliarity is a luxury. Just as we can’t decommission our curiosity around consumption, artists also become caught up in the habit of supplying and refining these demands. Those unwilling or unable to do so are culturally ostracised as old-fashioned, or awkward, or, worst of all, are ignored. Those who are predisposed to engage are caught in a tidal wave of back-slapping, as in the re-affirmation of place as product.
With this background in mind, I began to re-engage with Modern Icons. I thought of the objects in the original series as finished or disposed of. That the photographs were catching their passing, that these images and our consumption of them had an end user status and that the objects would disappear from use without trace. Now, I realise that I misunderstood the nature of what recycling (or upcycling) is. Objects don’t just disappear and in fact often can’t be wholly dismantled or destroyed. This fragmentation and unresolved materiality began to bother me. Beginning the series again I saw these strange remnants and discarded objects as somehow exotic and rare. I didn’t know what the objects were any longer, or what use, if any, they ever had. They seemed to carry their strangeness with them as if they were archaeological finds. The elusive quality of not knowing a use for a thing gave them a status as beautiful like icons from an age where consumption and production raged unchecked. Not a world we are absent from, but one we have forgotten we are of and responsible for. Objects are here to stay; we cannot avoid them, though I’ve still not found a use for them. Perhaps I’ll keep the objects as grave goods, amulets to ward away evil, or perhaps we should send them into space as satellites of human desire and its implications. The series of photographs will eventually fade to pale outlines and go with their objects into the ever-increasing swell of the void.
New photography by Karl Hurst will feature as part of the forthcoming ‘Ruskin Re-Viewed’ exhibition at Millennium Gallery, Sheffield (31 October – 8 November 2015). Three recent essays on photography (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’) appeared on the Longbarrow Blog earlier this year; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here, and the third essay (‘Winter Hare at Alport: A Theory of Disappearance’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Modern Icons discussed in this piece. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. 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).
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
– Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (trans. Walter Lowrie)
Over the last year, I have spent most of my creative life walking in and photographing certain aspects of landscape. I have also begun to discuss how and why I came to certain decisions during and after the project. It is the opening out of these landscapes into the wider cultural field that I wish to discuss in further detail here. I approach this piece of writing very tentatively. It finds me writing further away from any hub or centre than I might ever have previously imagined or desired. It finds me feeling hemmed in, cornered, startled out of my solitary journeying by the surprise of others. It meets me discouraged by my own nervousness and precarious position. However, I want to share the emotional and critical range of my working practices or else the photographs will just be pictures without context and as such would remain an ostensibly private record.
The photographs in Booths are a document in themselves, and therefore need no further qualification. However, on returning and attempting to put them into a larger meaningful framework, many of the fissures and fault lines I began the series with have again come to dominate my thinking. It ought to have been obvious to me from the outset that many of those wishing to discuss or engage in ideas around spatiality would only do so within an ulterior framework. For example, the growing emphasis on ‘landscape’ or psychogeography as an academic module needs to fill certain criteria by its very nature. These images can’t fulfil those criteria. So they become easier to disparage or conveniently ignore or subtly mock as unsophisticated. It is only really dawning on me now, slowly but starkly, how out of step this way of thinking about space is with my own.
I have discussed elsewhere and at length the aim of Booths as a larger metaphor for the idea of temporary shelter and as a place of safety. The need to find home and its concomitant community, as I have argued previously, is hotwired into us even at the outer limits of an environment. However, I often found this was, in reality, at odds with my need to wander, my desire to disappear and my instinctual disposition for getting lost. Perhaps those who are ostracised, displaced or exiled might better understand a deep hurt transferred as need for silence and space.
The realisation that a landscape is only qualitatively ‘there’ through the projection of those wishing to impose meaning onto it has latterly informed much of my thinking around Booths. It is difficult to marry theorising about spatiality with the physicality of being somewhere for reasons other than those prescribed by an exterior framework. The nature of trespass becomes more than a physical act; it is seemingly also about accessing (or being denied) critical legitimacy. I felt a similar discomfort when I began photographing in areas that, whilst legally accessible, the casual walker was actively discouraged from seeking out. Ostracism or trespass is akin to being lost in the sense that all the reassurances and validity of community are destabilised. It is as if from that point on your insurance or warranty is no long valid; you are stripped of social ranking or status, like John Clare or Van Gogh. For academia, any status that necessitates being permanently lost, unknown or invalidated would be an impossible impasse. Without notebooks, sketches and poems, what can really be said about this ‘dead zone’ of seemingly aimless, untraceable wandering?
From the outset of Booths I always meant to try and undo some errors in previous steps, not to re-trace but to erase, setting out not find myself but to strip back any remaining attachment to the urbane and polite milieu I had spent several years jettisoning. Spending such an amount of time being isolated from human interaction makes it very difficult to be candid on returning. Explaining, justifying, extrapolating: all point away from the purpose of turning towards landscape as internal exile. It seems all the more important to jot down the particulars because this microclimate of thought and sensation is what would disappear.
One bone cold afternoon I sat behind a half wall sheltering as best as possible from a screaming wind. Suddenly, right next to me, a huge winter hare stood on its hind legs, startled by my presence. Usually hares dart away as soon as they sense anything close to human contact. But this one was different somehow. It went down onto all fours, like a cub, and sat by me, watching, unafraid, curious even, as if it could sense my benignity. It seemed somehow inappropriate to try to photograph the moment, so I tried to just stay as still as could, enthralled by its presence. Anyway it soon tired of me and went on its way with an inbuilt urgency that wasn’t fear. I too went on my way. Revived by this intimate encounter, the wind seemed to drop a little and visibility lifted just long enough for one or two more pictures. I’m thinking of this now as I remember how I have encountered the human sphere since. I am recounting it as it highlights how many conceptual frameworks can quickly become no more than a convenient attempt to unify disparate experiences or perspectives. Perhaps the hare’s behaviour on that afternoon was unique; simply a reaction to a set of circumstances bound toward each and so specific as to be both unrepeatable and unquantifiable. It might well fit into a larger paradigm of animal/human relationships, but without seeking to document it, the moment provides only a lost desire toward a descriptive absence. These coincidences, this fleetingness, are among the things from Booths that resonate the deepest with me.
The linear rendering of an idealised landscape shows a true lack of engagement. Similarly a faux memory of a family day out and an easy journey back to café or car, a prescriptive route followed as activity, leisure or sport. None of these touch on what the desire to disappear feels like. Cultural tourism is such a hugely prevalent force that it now informs critical thinking at many levels. The idea that you can travel freely with both the fiscal and moral right to do so, ought, at the very least, to start to raise serious questions about how this might not be either possible or desirable for everyone. In 2012 I stopped a certain aspect of photographing in the urban environment for similar reasons. The graffiti, torn posters and peeling paint that I had used as a larger metaphor for other things had just become the new ‘hotspot’ for those seeking a simplified safe lexicon for the urban ‘experience’. One afternoon I encountered a group of photographers on a creative tour of the places I’d been previously photographing without consent to access. I knew then it was time to move on. I don’t mean this as a form of inverted snobbery but rather as an innate fear of cultural redundancy, laziness or overfamiliarity. Hegemony doesn’t strengthen cultural ties but strangles them through excessive production, weakens them by gaining capital through their experiences.
On July 9th 1975 the Dutch conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader set out in a tiny craft to singlehandedly cross the Atlantic. He set a cine camera on a tripod on the beach to watch him disappear into the horizon line, the white triangle of the sail a vanishing perspective. On the night prior to the voyage he had a choir singing sea shanties on the coastline. He was never found or heard from again. He left no clues nor writing as to his intentions but critical momentum and speculation has gathered around the event ever since. I don’t want to expand on the ‘meaning’ of this act here, but have highlighted it as it exemplifies to an extreme degree a part of my thinking about spatiality. I did not seek to understand landscape but to immerse myself so deeply in it as to be absent from anything else but the landscape. To be absorbed, saturated, consumed by a force other than your own, to deplete self-interest to a point where your fear of mortality empties away. Its force is why I went as far into it as I did and choose the harshest of seasons. Now, months later, unlike Ader, I’m back on solid ground and yet the feeling of being lost remains more acute than ever. No critical framework can dispel it from me; no amount of walking can shake it off.
This is the third of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst (under the series title ‘On Liminal Spaces’); the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here, and the second essay (‘Meditation on Carl Wark’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all five photographs featured in this piece are drawn. Boxed editions of prints are available from his Etsy site. 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).
The date and purpose of the construction and ramparts at Carl Wark is uncertain, it has been described as being “unlike any other [structure] found in Northern England.” It is widely postulated to be of Iron Age origin, perhaps dating from the 8th to the 5th centuries BC. There is no evidence of settlement within the enclosure so it is unlikely that the site was used for a continuously occupied fort; it may have been used as a place of refuge for a population living in the surrounding area or it may have had some ceremonial purpose. (from the Wikipedia entry on Carl Wark).
The need to signpost and signal our movement in landscape is a basic impulse. Brought on through the fear of being lost, we look for easily discernible features that we can turn to as touchstones or way markers. When reaching a cairn or trig point, it is generally accompanied with a sense of relief or excitement; others have been here before us and, in marking the way, have left us a refuge point (similar to booths and bothies). Along with this antecedent fear is the need to create marks or markers ourselves, either as a method of demarcation for our stake in naming a place or as a way to gesture a route for others who follow. Before going into detail about signal and sign in landscape, I want to recount my first journey to Carl Wark, as it bears relevance to further discussion.
Many before me have attempted to project a meaning onto Carl Wark, but with little or no supporting evidence any theories of its origins and purpose remain highly speculative and subjective. My purpose and approach here is somewhat different to that of the archaeologist or historian. I do not wish to speculate on the purpose and place of monuments as sites of interest in themselves, but rather on the events of objects through time and space. I had seen Carl Wark on an OS map before I visited it, but had not seen any photographs, and knew very little of its background. Its name conjured a great longing for ancestors and the desire to instinctually feel my way toward it felt more compelling than to saturate myself with any preconceptions and expectations. Trusting to the idea that I would know it when I saw it, I set out with no more than a vague sense of where it lay relationally to other features in the landscape. This first tryst failed as I couldn’t spot it amongst all the other ridges and peaks. What I didn’t know was that my approach had been all wrong; I was destined not to spent time that day on Carl Wark. I still had a few photographs from the journey so it wasn’t a disaster. However, as I returned home my obsession with Carl Wark deepened. As I traced where I had been on the OS map against where I should have gone, the need for marking space became apparent. Loaded with new knowledge, I set out again from a different angle and this time hit it plumb on, as I was able to visually retrace my previous attempt across the horizon line. I had learnt that the sense of difficulty with non-relational, random travelling is that it is impossible to feel yourself in a landscape in anything other than a purely physical way.
Carl Wark has some very unique features. From all but a few angles it is innocuous, invisible. It lies lower on the horizon line than any of the surrounding ridges and tors, so it hardly dominates nor imposes itself. If you are looking for the monumental drama of Stonehenge you will not find it here. Yet if approached from the almost flat moorland below it is possible to sense its qualities as a construct. If it was ever used as a fort in anything other than name then it is strategically very ill-placed. If it is a subsidiary, a garrison for its larger neighbour Higger Tor, then no evidence has ever been found to support this either. It is also difficult, unlike stone circles or barrows, for example, to work out which of its features are natural and which constructed. It seems as though a natural remainder from past tectonic traumas has been adorned, added to, one might even say aestheticised. This desire to shift debris into meaningful shapes can be still witnessed today in the ever-evolving art of cairn building.
Cairns are worldwide trans-historic phenomena. Along with cuts and daubs in stone, cairns are part of the most ancient form of communication. In a sense, they sociologically pre-date the more organised, static ceremonial aspects of the henge or barrow. They are continually being added to or reduced, almost like the attempt through millennia to maintain an equilibrium between environment and usage. This can be seen today in both the peak and lake districts where rangers continually remove new-formed cairns as a way of landscape management. The cairn takes many shapes and forms and can be seen as an early type of land art. It is art that is anonymous, proletarian, shape-shifting, both practical and aesthetically timeless. Art as having a practical use, of being multi-functional, is something the gallery system has long since eradicated. Yet here functionality and sensibility are one and the same.
I would argue that it is possible to see Carl Wark in a similar way. I do not think that features in landscape necessarily serve a single function, but that they might change over time and from user to user. I realised this when discussing cairns with a fellow walker. He argued that they are an intrusion on the natural scene, whereas I suggested that I found them less intrusive than a modern day information point. Then we discussed at some length if we would add a stone to a cairn as reaffirmation or remove one as keepsake. We parted without agreement, happily sharing the difference. The balance is always a fine one, as can often be seen in cairns themselves where a huge stone sits on top of a much smaller one, or in a cairn that is so high and thin you wonder why the wind hasn’t simply pushed it over.
My feelings on Carl Wark are very similar to this. If it is possible to think of landscape as pertaining to civility (rather than to the more legislative ‘civic’) then the sense of belonging without evoking community or tribe becomes possible. This is not to suggest a desire to tame nor enclose wilderness but to navigate a relationship with it. To seek a wilderness and origin that is unimpeded by humankind is often a regressive and predominantly male pursuit. On Carl Wark it is possible to not yearn for some perceived loss of archaic communality but to place oneself directly in it, free both of denominational anxiety or the need for occupation. The simple pleasure of passing over important historical sites as part of a larger journey has become central to how I like to photograph an emotional response to landscape, rather than an objective one. When traversing one point to another each trajectory counts, each step is a fresh perspective and treating landscape simply as a series of stunning views or important archaeological sites seems to miss the point. Since failing to find Carl Wark that first time I have returned as often as possible to be with it, walk over it, around it. I have been on both its bright and shaded sides, sometimes I have admired it like a great sculpture, sometimes it seems as small and comforting as a terrace house. Yet still each time some new perspective emerges and its mystery again engulfs my meaning. It is this continual shifting that fuels my sense and desire to return over and again.
This is the second of three new essays on photography by Karl Hurst; the first essay (‘Reflections on Impracticality’) appears here. Karl Hurst’s Flickr photosets can be viewed here, including the series Booths from which all five 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).
– 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).
The banal might be described in two distinct ways. Firstly, as the ordinary magnified to an extreme degree, the ordinary as an extra-mundanity. Secondly, banality might be described as the ordinary without adornment, a sneak preview of the passivity all objects possess at their core. I want to describe and discuss how photography often battles between this contra weight of the banal and the impact this has had on my own practices as a photographer.
In 2011 I began photographing a series of walls. I conceived of these initially as places where history had happened, walls with divots from crisis, event walls, trauma walls. However, as I began to invest more deeply into the series, these first thoughts about the photographs I had taken and their meaning began to lose weight. Somehow I just couldn’t get the pictures to mean in a faithful way. The more the photographs sought the site of their historical trauma, the more unstable (or, rather, unconvincing) they became. Perhaps, I thought during those early trysts, a ‘blue plaque’ system might be needed for each site, an extra-descriptive system to baluster this representational lack. Eventually it dawned on me that in order to represent the emotive condition of things now, it would be necessary to go back to their original source, I mean back beyond the point of trauma. Of course, we can’t do that.
It was only some time later, having virtually abandoned the series, that the problem became more acute. There was nothing to see, history had either been cleared up or pushed away somewhere much more clinical, into the plethora of museums or classrooms. As I began to take theory and practice as a simultaneous and contradictory will to photograph, I returned again to the images of walls with a renewed sense of purpose. Foucault describes this shift in thinking a little more succinctly: “It would be false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice, you were applying your theories.” No, I didn’t follow history into the museum (a different kind of banality) nor take its practices back into the world, but remained to photograph its lack, the traces of its loss. I knew this would cause other, separate problems. Perhaps the viewer would have to work harder to find meaning, that perhaps without ‘siting’ or signposting an event the photographs might simply be dull or – worse – meaningless. Either way, it had become impossible for me to search for ‘content’ in the subject through a perceived academic methodology. I wanted to stay where I was and photograph what I knew.
The resulting set of twelve images, photographed over one weekend, seemed to move closer to this ‘lack’. If photography is supposed to ‘mean’ by capturing the decisive moment, then these photographs seemed to do the opposite. I attached a generic title to the images – ‘Up Against a Brick Wall’ – to describe both the literal and the terminal extent of this morass. After publishing the photographs in a public forum, the lack of interest seemed only to confirm what I had suspected. Where these remained in a cultural backwater, unloved, other photographs I was publishing simultaneously seemed to gather support. This only added to my feeling that there is a prejudice against photography as a fully functioning representational tool, that history is rarely recognised through banality.
If every photograph has to ‘mean’, if that is the very essence of the photograph, then are these ‘unsited’ walls simply an anomaly, an exception to the rule? Was the lack of interest because they hadn’t enough meaning attached to them or that their meaning had not been fully realised? As I began to think a little more deeply I realised no, these photographs weren’t simply an aberration, an exercise in futility. Rather that throughout the history of photography itself, the struggle against representation and the manifestation of its loss has been continuously fought over.
An early precursor of this struggle might be Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war. The cannonballs almost blend into the rock and boulder landscape. Not so much a witness to the world, but a struggle against its banality. Or, shifting to the contemporary canon, a recent example might be Paul Graham’s Ceasefire, a series of photographs based around the troubles in Northern Ireland. What we see at first is a cloudscape, then, as the eye adjusts to meaning, at the bottom left of the photograph appears a different kind of cloud. We’re left to surmise from there. The point being that both Fenton and Graham disrupt the coda of representation; landscapes become marred, but almost imperceptibly, too much meaning versus too little.
Perhaps another way to describe banality in relationship to photography would be to see it as exposing the artifice of the new. What I mean by this is that photography often ‘means’ more after it has been culturally processed as meaning. For example, in Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, the images are re-photographed, re-posited to the point where the cowboy myth becomes simultaneously banal and (in)credible again as myth. William Eggleston is a master of refocusing the viewer on the already banal. He puts his camera into a showroom-clean oven to show use as useless. The banal as sublime and its counter-weight, the sublime as banal, seem here to go hand in hand. The first is easier to imagine, showing something in a new light, exposing it beyond the advertisers’ remit. But to show the sublime as banal? A much harder trick to pull off.
Karl Hurst‘s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his blog in October 2012. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).
I don’t know what I mean, except that meaning is created through things. Even then, I’m not sure I prefer one thing over another. Perhaps it is unique to photography, the desire to single out things in this way, to make quick decisions based on simple criteria. Part of island thinking is to feel isolation at the very core of what you do, to know that each thing remains in a substratum of its own existence, that each thing commits to its own universe by design. The exotic is quickly absorbed into the main, if there is a main.
All a photographer can do is to present a version of these particularities. The opaque nature of the photograph hardly allows for any transparency other than this. One reality should never be dominant over the other. And yet, it often is; the desire to set down something other than the presented truth is insurmountable for the photographer, ever present. Whether it’s Don McCullin or Diane Arbus, the idea of the world being an unobtainable surprise is ever present. For an island thinker it isn’t about how many times you can photograph the disasters of war nor how many gratuities or deformities you can add to the oeuvre, but what the thing feels like when you’re inside the thing. What the sarcophagus feels like from the inside; what being buried alive feels like.
So my bit of the world is no better or worse than anyone else’s. I watched a band play, a child that people tried to raise money for, went to a sad birthday, caught a bush that had been dormant all year then suddenly erupted in a cerise that I barely understood, if such a thing can be understood. I turned my camera on to an isotope of gesture that revealed an open channel to somewhere or something I have no idea how to access but deeply felt and understood.
Today, the camera is everywhere, but for me, when I switch it on and the shutter makes to close its sound on a thing, I know that it is still a precious instrument, one that we as an island nation have not yet seen or taken to our hearts, that can record things that we do not yet understand. The camera itself is an island. I think of it in this way, just now, just for today, as earlier I was watching a thing about the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll. I wasn’t really that interested to be honest and then suddenly Jerry Lee bursts the keys of the piano like it had never deserved to be played before. Like the instrument itself was new born. Just an experiment in the colour and texture of where he’d dragged the instrument from. Whose barn? What barn? My barn. That’s what island thinking is like, not to be innovative or crass but to see the energy and fear in your neighbourhood eyes and then to harness that as if it would run the piano or the camera for a thousand years.
Karl Hurst‘s photoset My Island Home / Island Songs can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his Ipernity site; click here to view his other essays and photography. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here.