23 Nov 2007
By Katie Hepworth
| The aim of all descriptions of cities is to know how to live, to see what is coming and accept it and become part of it or, better, see what could make life better and make those things endure. Imagining cities lets you search for the perfection that would produce happiness, and that is a major goal of the work.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
We travel the world in search of guidebook images, disappointed when we canít find the places that weíve constructed from stories and pictures. The most recent work by Lucy Harrison is situated in this space between the imagined city and the city of lived experience, the places of everyday, situated encounters. The following conversation and has been taken from a series of emails that were exchanged with Lucy Harrison in Sep / Oct 2007, and deals with 4 of these later works: Fantastic Cities, Guided Tour Riga and the Canvey Guides.
For a long time one of my favourite books has been Calvino's Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes places he had (possibly never) been to, and in doing so elaborating on the different and magical facets of a single city, VeniceÖWhat appealed to me about Fantastic Cities was that, unlike many of the recent mapping projects that aim to uncover the secrets of a place through personal wandering and touring, your works highlight the subjectivity of all guides.
A number of your earlier works, such as Art School Marginalia, seem to be focused on rearranging and re-contextualisation of existing text. Did you approach the two stories for Fantastic Cities in a similar way, by taking existing stories of conflict, or was the book a trigger to uncover other untold stories of the cities?
I asked the artists for Fantastic Cities to write about a city they had never visited. I envisaged this being in the vein of a travel guide to an existing city, but only using information gleaned from films, fiction and anecdotes. However some people gave me stories, or writing about imaginary places, so there is a mixture in the book.
I have 2 pieces in the book, one on Sarajevo and one on Baghdad, as these were two places that I only knew through news reports about the conflicts there. Other people's ones included Springfield from the Simpsons (Jessica Voorsanger), Chernobyl by the Estonian artist Marko Mšetamm, Bobstown by Bob Matthews, and Sealand (which is actually an oil refinery platform off the English coast) by Alun Rowlands.
My two pieces Ė and the book itself, really- were inspired by ĎThe Question of Brunoí by Alexander Hemon, in which the main character, who is from Sarajevo like the author, is in New York watching the war in his home town on television. He had left before it had started, and so this huge change had occurred while he was away and yet he only ever saw it mediated through CNN. I had a friend from Sarajevo too, who told me about her family who were returning there, and so that became part of it as well. Iíve always been aware of places that Iíve never been to- Los Angeles for example- but which I almost know the geography of through stories, films etc. I also read a report from the UK Home office which stated that migrants who choose to come to the UK often have unreliable versions of the country in their imaginations, especially those from countries which were former colonies. My pieces in Fantastic Cities were in a way the only versions of those places that I had, as they included as much as I knew, and that is only as reliable as anyone elseís descriptions.
Yes, youíve hit the nail on the head with thinking about subjective guides, and the text being about the author too. I think that most of my work can be said to be re-arranging existing texts, I find that much more interesting than anything I have written myself!
We've already spoken briefly about ĎTouring Rigaí as being an extension of your earlier work with text and representation, but Iím interested to know how you would place your work in regards to the history of walking as an artistic practice?
You mention in your interview for the 13th Tallinn Print Triennial, 2004 that navigating the city using outdated guidebooks could be compared to the Situationists technique of orienting themselves in one city using the maps of another, and yet I think your Tallinn + Riga works are quite different, in that they also play with how images of cities are created and propagated.
Itís difficult for me to say where I would place my work although Iíve always had an interest in how complicated cities are, how many different versions of them there are in peopleís minds, (see Fantastic Cities) and a lot of the projects Iíve done are about uncovering some of the forgotten ones - often forgotten intentionally for political reasons. My main interest at the moment is related to Henri Lefebvre and his ideas of Ďlived experienceí that he talks about in The Production of Space. Iím interested in how we imagine that places have some kind of sense of community or memory and how fragile this can really be. In Benjaminís Arcades Project there are quotes related to a harsh criticism of Haussmanís redevelopment of Paris and how it was destroying all the mini-cities, the different cultures and communities and replacing them with non-descript boulevards - and yet now the touristís idea of Paris is of a beautiful romantic city. Is there any way in which the previous places were preserved? Iím just about to start a project which is related to the Olympic redevelopment in East London and the changes that will take place there. In that sense I think that although my work may sometimes seem gentle or poetic perhaps, I hope that there is a critical edge which has a relationship to the way the Situationists re-imagined Paris in particular. I think that I choose to give prominence to what may have otherwise been in the background in order to question what is the generally accepted idea of a place.
The Canvey Islands project seems like the greatest departure from your earlier, more text based work. How did this project develop? Were you approached by the local community / Art U Need with a project, or was it proposed by them? What were the reactions of the community to the project? It seems like the walks have continued independently even now that Art U Need has finished - is this the case?
This project was originally advertised as a public art commission managed by Commissions East, centred around Canvey Heights country park. It was a series of 5 commissions in Essex. The lead artist was Bob & Roberta Smith and he encouraged us to develop projects which engaged local people in a more meaningful way, so what could have been a more object-based commission instead became something more participatory. It was a huge departure, partly because I wasnít used to working alongside so many other people, having to set deadlines or having local press coverage.
I had a steering group of local people and quickly made contact with lots of other local people, and approached it as a research project - I didnít have many fixed ideas when I started but I explored the place as much as I could and used this as a process of discovery. Canvey has already changed a great deal over the past few decades, and now it is part of the Thames Gateway so it will in the future have a lot more people moving there. On the one hand I could understand that people were upset that the place had changed so much from how they remembered it as children, on the other hand this seemed to create a distance between them and the newcomers. There was a sense that there were parallel dangers of history being forgotten, but also of nostalgia becoming a negative force. So although walking had been a way of experiencing a place in other projects, here it became a way of getting people together and getting them talking to each other more. The themes each month were a way of trying to get them to question their attitudes to the place.
The community were incredibly positive - I now have a surprising collection of friends down there! My worry has been that they see it as a Ďhistoryí project, that they only see it as preserving their memories, rather than as an alternative way of speaking about a place, but I think that these kinds of things are unavoidable in this kind of project, and the way I engaged them was by taking an interest in anecdotes they had about things that had happened to them. Some of them donít quite understand how the project was Ďartí but thatís just because theyíve had no experience of any other contemporary art. Yes the walking club has continued so far, the project officially finished in March and itís still going on, although they havenít become co-operative enough yet, they still need an appointed leader each time, so I have still done some co-ordination of that.
How do you see the audio guides working now?
The most interesting part of the original tours, organised by theme, was the way in which they could become points of conversation between the local residents. That the work itself was about creating community, both in the moment of the tour, and extending on throughout, by identifying common and private places of interest and memory. In comparison, the downloadable audio guides seem to be more of a traditional audio tour, albeit with personal stories interwoven with the history of the place.
I wanted the audio guides to enable people to experience the project independently and to allow an aspect of the project that wasnít all about groups of people, and so that however much the walking club changed that there would be certain more concrete aspects such as the book and the audio guide. I liked the idea that one of the remnants of the project would be that people would be wandering around with headphones, rather than something more tangible and permanent. I wanted it to sound like a traditional audio guide because some of the information was so incongruous, so that you would be surprised by things like Ďthe place where some children found a dead dogí! However the thing that I had to bear in mind was that if people with no knowledge of art were going to actually use it in a practical sense, it had to be usable too. The actor has recorded audio guides for places like Hever Castle in Sussex, so I wanted this odd combination of a very professional voice pointing out these odd, pretty crap points of interest- which had been provided by people who were involved with the project, so in a sense it was still created by them.
Re the guidebook that you produced from this process - how much is borrowed from the original guidebook that the project was based on? Is this how it begins to tie into your earlier projects?
The cover is the main aspect which is borrowed- I re-designed the original replacing the girl on a beach with a woman with binoculars. The original was beautifully- if not entirely professionally!- designed, and was an odd mixture of business advertising and useful contacts, and made Canvey sound like a wonderful seaside destination- itís difficult to tell how true this was! Yes I suppose that does tie it in more - my book is pretty useless unless you are particularly interested in finding out where particular people remember very particular things, and so itís an antidote to the kind of false claims that you see in local council publications about places.
Katie Hepworth is an architect, artist and curator. With the aim of exposing the latent conditions in the urban environment, her work consists of subtle interventions that disrupt everyday behaviours. She is currently completing her Masters in International Studies at UTS, looking at how citizenship and belonging affect access and exclusion from urban space.