Categories
the journey

Walkshop 8: City Center

Intro

Once again, dear adventurers, my adventuring is on hold for the time being. As I am still not so peachy, and the walkshop this week would have been another urban affair, I have been given an alternate assignment. For this assignment, I am to choose a random city (one I’ve never been to), and drop a pin in its center on google maps. I have chosen San Diego, California for this assignment. From there I will switch to google street view and “walk” away from that point using navigable routes, taking stock of directional signs that guide me “out of the city”, and taking screenshots of them. I will answer some questions and write about my experience as well. When I am finished, I will zoom out and drop a pin on where I’ve “wandered” to, then go back in and try to head back to my starting point without retracing my steps. This sounds like a very fun experiment, I used to love using google street view when I was bored in class after finishing computer work. I liked to try and find interesting things to screenshot, especially pretty plants or interesting buildings. I intend to do the same here.

The walk
This map simply shows all the places I pinned…

I decided the best way to approach this was to use the screen record function to capture my journey from and back to the city center. While I did this, I put on some music by my favorite artist, Rachel Rose Mitchell, from her double album Light Shows and Shadow Puppets. Mitchell’s songs often reference fantasy, and her favorite fantasy to reference is Tolkien, who writes about a journey deep into lands unknown to the protagonist. I listen to her on car trips, and figured the vibes were the right sort for this urban exploration- so I ended up placing her music directly in the video. I also made sure to keep track of the pins in certain areas of the route, so I could later create a rough “route” using google maps.

here is the route, and estimated walking time, mapped out.

I have created two videos actually- one is simply the hour long adventure as I get lost in the streets of San Diego, and the other is a short digital photo album of all the screenshots I took, along with captions either expressing my delight or getting a little into commentary. It is a mixture of people, plants, pretty buildings, and street signs of course. I will post my little album first, and the hour long video of my experience underneath the questions.

What is there less or more of along your route?

San Diego, it seems, has been decorated with much more beautiful and diverse flora along its roads than I am used to seeing. I was struck several times over how similar California can appear to Florida, especially in regards to certain architecture, which I would hazard a guess at some measure of Spanish influence. Both of these aspects were more heavily present in the area around my start point, not so much closer to the highway

What has dropped away or become more apparent?

As I traveled away from the area I landed in, the contrast between the occasional tall building and the mostly one-story shops and homes became more apparent, as the taller architecture dropped away. It was particularly striking when a full fledged home with a beautiful lawn occupied the same street as what seemed to be a hotel or office building.

What has changed?

I am unsure if I can pinpoint the exact change. It definitely began to feel more open in the area surrounding my start point, with only the palm trees extending towards the sky filling the upper portion of my “vision”. I admit I got lost, got turned around, and definitely spent time on the same spot more than once. Near the highway, things began to feel more sparse, a certain amount of emptiness was involved. The buildings near the highway itself lacked life and spirit, being boringly modern and economical in design, with none of the eccentric shapes or colors I found brought life to the neighborhoods and streets surrounding my start point.

Categories
the journal

Reflection 5: Anti Walk

Intro

The reading for today takes us back to Francesco Careri’s Walkscapes, this time from his “Anti Walk” chapter. He goes into detail here about the shift of thought from Dada to the Surrealist to the Situationist throughout the 1900s in Paris.

ANTI WALK

Careri begins by explaining the beginning of Dada, how on April 14 1921 in Paris, the group made its first urban excursion to the banal places. This “Dada urban readymade” is the transition from representing motion in traditional art to practicing the action of movement in a real space. Dada was moving away from the Futurists, they whose city of the future was in constant motion but  removed themselves from it, taking no action within it. For the Dadaist, visiting the banal would allow them to merge art and life. While the flâneur already existed, Dada raised it up, creating an aesthetic operation. Paris was the perfect place to do this, to create art inscribed directly in real space, and to go beyond art entirely (page 67-74). This is an interesting idea, this merging of art and life. I am not quite sure one needs to roam the city in order to achieve this merging, as I feel art is intrinsically tied up in life already, but transitioning from transcribing movement to performing it seems to make sense. Perhaps it is more about merging the artist with life, making them actively take part in the movement of the city rather than lurk on the outskirts to record it. After all, the Dada movement is distinctly anti-Futurist, and the Futurists wouldn’t take that action of joining the city, staying confined in what sounds like an elitist club.

This event of urban readymade on that day in 1921 was, as Careri asserts, “the first symbolic operation that attributes aesthetic value to a space”. Dada was changing, not simply introducing the banal object into the art space, but introducing the art object as the artist into the banal space. This was a change from artists acting in public space only through art installations. With Dada, the artist was brought to the space, and the only “material operation” was whatever documentation the artist created. In Dada, it was not necessary that the action be performed, being simply necessary that the Dadaist thought about performing the action. In this movement, the spaces chosen were considered useless, not really having a reason to exist, a place you might pass by but never really look at, utterly banal (page 74-75).  I suppose I was on the right track there, that the art being introduced is the artist itself. It’s a little peculiar, the idea of a movement where thinking about the action is all it takes to “complete” it. Is it simply the knowledge that the Dadaist showed up at the location, stood in the place that others don’t spare a thought for, and ponder an action while inhabiting the space?

Careri flashes us forward to May of 1924 next. The Paris Dada group has decided to organize an erratic journey not to the city, but to the natural space instead. This is the crossing over point from Dadaism to Surrealism, as the greats of Dada organized a deambulation, choosing the small town Blois randomly. They traveled there by train, then set out on foot to Romorantin, some 40 kilometers away. The idea was an “exploration between waking life and dream life”, according to organizer André Breton. After the trip concluded, Breton defined Surrealism as “pure psychic automatism with which one aims at expressing, whether verbally or in writing, or in any other way, the real functioning of thought”. The trip has become a way to write in real time upon the space they walked through. There was an urge in these Surrealists to return to the country, to the wide open and uninhabited, to be reminded of the primitive. Space became an active subject that the Surrealist could create a relationship of mutual exchange with. The territory could conjure a world where reality and nightmare work in tandem, as deambulation allowed the Surrealist to be under hypnosis while walking, losing control to contact the unconscious (page 78-79). There’s certainly something eerie about this, the idea of drifting into some sort of hallucinatory state and melding the imagination into reality. It makes a certain sort of sense, that going into the great unknown, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern city, would allow the artist an easier time of imagining something new, of projecting the things they hope for, or dread, onto the space around them.

The next part of the chapter, Careri dives into that theory of the city as amniotic fluid. He explains that Louis Aragon, another organizer from the Blois event, published The Peasant of Paris in 1924. The publication was a sort of anti-tourism guide, describing the “unknown places and fragments of life” that could only be found in the heart of the native city. The publication compares the city to the primordial sea or the amniotic fluid of the womb. It was a space of growth and transformation, where endless walks and unexpected events could occur. This later led to the idea of making maps based on the feelings of the maker when walking through the city. The map would be shaded with the places the artist enjoyed in white, the places they avoided in black, and the ambiguous ones in grey (page 79-80). We’ve heard this comparison before, tying the city to growth and transformation. I’m a fan of the notion, the idea that all these people living their lives are secretly contributing to an endless metamorphosis. Creativity is the soul of mankind, I firmly believe, and it is so natural to our being that it makes sense that we do so in every moment of our lives, and that we unconsciously change our environment as we do so. That’s also why I find a map based on feelings to be an exhilarating idea. One of our earlier readings said that a city is made of its past, of the memories we associate with a place and the people that used to inhabit it. It only makes sense that as a person lives in a city, they would grow to have associations with what they consider to be significant places, and that varying emotions would accompany those associations.

Careri goes into further detail about the shift in identifying the city from it as the Dadaist banal to the Surrealist unconscious. Dada had assigned the city the role of a setting for discovering the banal and the absurd, and a way to reveal the deceit of the materialistic middle class culture. Surrealists rejected Dada’s nihilism in favor of something more positive, propelled by the belief that they could go beyond the banal and delve into a new world hidden in the unconscious. To the Surrealists, this practice was akin to searching their own mind and discovering the bond each person had with the city by walking it. This city was alive, creating a sensation of everyday wonder (page 80-81). I tend to agree with the Surrealists here, that getting too wrapped up in a “stick it to the man” attitude when viewing the city deprives it of what makes it special. I recently read an essay called “Unhomely Places” by Kate Milford. It’s from a collection of essays called Shadowhunters and Downworlders, edited by Cassandra Clare. The essays are all in the context of Clare’s book series The Mortal Instruments, which takes place mostly in New York City. Milford’s essay speaks directly about the setting of this series, which seamlessly blends myth and the modern. It’s a sort of love letter to how NYC is the perfect place for a secret community of magic to blend in with the “real world”, that there is a certain sense of the uncanny, a sense of hidden treasures if one only knows enough to look. I imagine the Paris of the 1920’s must have been similar to the NYC of the 2010’s, a place full of delightful weirdness and familiar strangers. By wandering through the city and really taking the time to see it, one could find a hidden meaning that speaks to them.

Careri flashes forward now to the 1950s, to a group known as the Lettrist International. The Lettrists, later known as Situationists, believed being lost in the city was a physical way to express the anti-art, and they took this “getting lost” as a way to undermine the postwar capitalist system, making the action both aesthetic and political.  From there, the dérive was born, a playful group act of drifting that used psychogeography to seek out the mental effects of the city on an individual. The Lettrists denounced the Surrealists for not taking deambulation to its full potential, of not using it in a group setting to cancel out the individual parts of the artwork. Further, the Lettrists believed deambulation was served best in the real city, not in that of the unconscious. Thus, the dérive, where exploring the urban space revealed it as an objective passional terrain. The dérive is based on physical control of the types of behavior that can be really experienced in the city. There was no separation between a boring real life and an incredible imaginary one, reality itself was incredible. No longer dreaming, the Lettrists wished to act, to experiment with better ways of living via manufactured situations. So the Lettrists took to the streets, bar hopping together to chat about a revolution and feel they were rejecting the system. The action itself was ephemeral, meant to be experienced immediately then disappear. They began to think about a new way of life guided by passion and adventure (page 86-87). I see this shift in thought as a pleasant one, this idea that dreaming wasn’t necessary to find the incredible parts of the city. The idea of a life based on passion seems overly hopeful, a little bit of saucy hedonism being paraded as rejecting the rigidity of social norms, but I don’t begrudge them for it. The small region of what is considered respectable hasn’t gotten much better even now, and the idea of releasing one’s inhibitions to live life the way one wants doesn’t sound too bad.

Careri delves deeper into the dérive next, singling out Ivan Chtcheglov first. Chtcheglov describes a city constantly mutated by citizens who act through “CONTINUOUS DRIFTING”. By wandering through an ever-changing landscape, the individual would become extremely disoriented. Guy Debord continued with this theory, explaining the dérive as something not beholden to chance, allowing it when occurs, but still keeping to certain rules, which were as follows. The location was to be decided beforehand, based on psychogeographic maps. The size of the location was as small or as large as the city allowed. Small groups were permitted, as long as the members were on the same level of awareness and could average each other out to find an objective conclusion. While the event usually lasted a day, they could last weeks or months in order to let outside change influence the proceedings (page 92-93). Chtcheglov’s idea of permanent disorientation doesn’t feel as delightful as the earlier descriptions of the dérive, as disorientation would remove my control of the situation. While I know that is entirely the point, I am very much a fan of being the one in charge, the one who directs my own movements. It sounds utterly alienating to have a constantly shifting surrounding, to have no real sense of direction. But it also sounds at odds with  Debord’s dérive, which is explicitly not forced to obey chance. The idea of planning based on psychogeography makes little sense if the citizens are constantly morphing the space, and therefore its mental associations.

Careri continues to track the Lettrist movement, (the Situationists), through the 50s. The psychogeographic maps these Situationists created destroyed Paris’s unity in favor of fragments floating in empty space. Arrows on the maps connected homogeneous environmental units based on the subjective experience of the Situationist community. These disorientated areas of the city drifted, pulling towards or pushing away from each other as the disorientation changed. While there are no routes on the maps, the arrows are shards of potential dérive trajectories. These broken pieces of the city could only be reunited by connecting these fragments of memory. The city is a mental landscape with whole sections removed in order to create an endless potential of cities within the void. The archipelago of city islands is enveloped in empty waters carved with the tracks of wanders. By roaming, the group hoped to find a “conscious, collective construction of a new civilization” (page 93-97). This sounds rather whimsical, this repeating idea of memory and imagination and the power to change the meaning of the city with our minds. The city is a place of endless potential as I understand it, and these psychogeographic maps sought to show others the special form the city took for the person who made them. I’ve never thought of cartography as an art before. Though maps are important and interesting, they’ve always felt like visual representations of empirical data, like graphs and charts. To read about maps based entirely around the subjective experience is a nice step towards celebrating the cartographer, if in an albeit peculiar way.

Careri now clarifies the change from the unconscious dream city of Surrealists to the playful spontaneous city of Situationists. They could no longer randomly wander, choosing instead to gamify the experience. To play meant intentionally disregarding the rules and inventing new ones, to break free of the cultural restrictions and creation actions that are both aesthetic and revolutionary. Automaton promised a reduction of work time and a boom of free time instead, which must be protected from the authority. This made it urgent for the Situationists to create a desire-based revolution, to awaken the hidden desires in people and overthrow the ones forced upon them by the oppressive culture. They hoped to create new spaces of liberty, to make true their slogan that “living is being at home wherever you go”. They wanted to redefine the city as a toy where one could waste useful time and turn it into playful-constructive time instead. By fighting back against the “affluence-peddled-as-happiness” of the mainstream, the Situationists could transform circulation into a method of pleasure and adventure, driving men towards an authentic life (page 97-100). I find this way of thinking very much in demand today. I see my peers constantly being pressured into montazing their hobbies, see parades of wealth and the allure of the newest gadgets being trumpeted as the key to experiencing joy. We are presented with certain things it is okay to obsess over, the “culturally-aproved desires” of sports, celebrities, and caffeine-addiction. People find it difficult to experience joy outside the mainstream, and even communities like Tumblr, a supposed haven for the quirky and peculiar, engage in a harmful practice known as “cringe culture”, relentlessly mocking those who they feel differ too far from the norm. It makes me wish the Situationists had access to the web, that their movement to reclaim our own personal joy (and damn the rest!) had gone viral.

The final segment of the chapter is Careri’s explanation of New Babylon, the creation of Constant Nieuwenhuys. New Babylon was a city designed for a new nomadic society on a planetary scale, which Nieuwenhuys represented in a series of models from the 50s to 70s. The artist imagined a post-revolution world made of “descendents of Abel”, freed of labor slavery, able to explore and transform their landscape. New Babylon would be the work of the collective, all its members continuously rebuilding a “labyrinth in a new artificial landscape”. This was created with unitary urbanism in mind: transforming the city in a way that goes beyond architecture rather than art. Nieuwenhuys believed that within us hides a primordial aptitude  for creating our own home and life, and his city would tap into this. The architect, instead of constructing individual creations, would form complete environments made from waking dream. This would allow the birth of a nomadic city, contradiction brought to life. The déreive, local areas, and empty spaces would merge into one being. The city is a single space for perpetual drifting, and the city would span the entire world (page 100-102). There is something delightfully apocalyptic about New Babylon, making me imagine a giant hive-like structure connecting every habitable zone in the world. A favored comic of mine, the nearly 10,000 page sci-fi epic Homestuck, by Andrew Hussie, has some similar themes actually. In the story, an alien species known as trolls is given the task of designing their own home when they are very young, and the videogame that the universe depends on demands the characters, both troll and human, to take over and redesign their homes to suit new needs. There’s something to that I think- the whole comic is about growing up, about discovering who you really are and who you want to become. Part of growing up is breaking free from what your guardians and other influences expected of you in favor of creating your own destiny. One of the ways teens do this is by redesigning their bedrooms, cultivating their own private environment with posters, photographs, decorations, and whatever else helps them express their own individuality. Homestuck, by emphasizing the redesigning of characters childhood homes, is taking this coming-of-age ritual to its next logical extreme, turning them from artists to architects. It makes me think about the symbolism of architecture, how after a great calamity people often say “we will rebuild”, signifying survival over strife and disaster. What I mean to say is, New Babylon rings true for me, as a concept where each individual is allowed to make their mark, to help reshape their shared world into a new image.

Categories
the journey

Walkshop 7: Play Anywhere Now or Never

Intro

The walkshop this week is a bit different. While my classmates were given a prompt involving a busy public area, I am busy quarenteening with the virus, so was given an alternate assignment that could be completed in the home. The walkshop is called Play Anywhere Now or Never, and is made by Idit Nathan and Helen Stratford. There is no podcast for this assignment, simply a link to the project’s website, and an article written on it by Jes Fernie. There is an app, apparently, but it is not available for US users, so I will be using the dice available on the page to “guide” me. First I will write about the Fernie’s article for a little bit of context, then I will create a video of myself attempting to play the prompts. It’s gonna be a bit low energy I think, as I’m supposed to be resting.

“Cut Your Nose Like Your Hair” by Jes Fernie

The text opens with Fernie discussing the alienation caused by capitalism, how automated machines replace human exchange or how “public streets” are being sold to private companies that police the “image” of the people interacting with it. Fernie mentions hostile architecture, the spikes and other design elements meant to prevent the homeless from using public space. All of this, Fernie says, is a “removal of a sense of physical and mental freedom”, forcing people to be constrained by the expectations of society. Fernie goes on to compare this “change in ownership of the public realm” to the Enclosures Acts in Britain, which limited the way free land could be used by commoners. Today’s situation, they say, is more subtle than those Acts, leaving many oblivious to the “low-level controlling hum” (Fernie).

I feel this lack of freedom acutely, and understand why it is so important to talk about. I think “progress” sometimes forgets that we are, in our heart of hearts, still animals. We need a variety of social interaction, and some people only receive it from the person behind the counter. Sure, machines make things fast, they can streamline a process, but they take away that moment where you look into a stranger’s eyes and remember you are not alone in this world. I’ve never been on a street like Fernie describes, one that is monitored to ensure it displays the proper “look”, but I’ve lived in neighborhoods that have a similar purpose. We’ve lived in suburbs for most of my life, and where there are suburbs, there tends to be Home Owners Associations, at least around here. HOAs are a combination of neighborhood maintenance and aesthetic/morality enforcers. I can remember my middleschool friend Rob, who lived in one of the bigger neighborhoods, telling me about his HOA neighbor calling the cops on a “suspicious character” roaming the neighborhood. That individual was a black teenager, maybe 14 or 15, biking to meet Rob’s older sister for a homework assignment. My current neighborhood HOA, while less extreme, harassed my brother for keeping his car, damaged from a wreck, too close to the street where neighbors could see it. This same group prevented our house from being built unless the garage was not facing the street, forcing us to put it at a diagonal angle. When I was younger, I thought it was weird and silly, but now I see the underlying sinister aspect, the harmful way the people in charge try to cultivate a (racist and classist) image and punish those who deviate from it. These groups also forget we are animals, beings who enjoy freedom and play and creativity and who only suffer under constraints. Preventing us from doing things that are not harmful to others does nothing for us, simply allowing us to be harmed, to be mistreated for existing or how we interact with our environment.

The article continues, with Fernie delving into Stratford and Nathan’s project, how their awareness of the low-level hum and their research on the subject spawned the game “Play the City Now or Never”. It is an app-based game that players use to “reclaim the public realm” of Peterborough or Southend. The GPS in the app provides players with prompts when they reach specific sites. The prompts, Fernie says, are absurdist, meant to show players just how constricted society’s rules of acceptability are while in a public space. Some of the prompts reference stories about the location provided by locals, and others are more pointed jabs at privatisation, such as “SKIP TO AVOID THE SECURITY STAFF IF YOU DARE”, on one of those streets Fernie mentioned. Play is the tool of these walkshops, and players are being asked to reexamine the spaces they inhabit and interact with them in a new way,  prompting the observing public/authorities/private companies into reacting. Stratford and Nathan made a film to document this act of play, and emphasized women, the elderly, the disabled, and the young, groups who are disregarded in mainstream politics and public life, but rely more on safety nets like Welfare, being in higher danger from privatization and commercialization (Fernie).

This app sounds really interesting, and makes me wish I lived near one of those cities so I could give it a go. I love how the whole premise is essentially an act of rebellion against the constraints of society. When I wrote about Francesco Careri’s “Anti Walk” chapter, I discovered the Situationists/Lettrists expressed a similar sort of rebellion against “proper society”, and makes me wonder if this movement inspired Stratford and Nathan at all. I know the movement is from the 50s, but the problems of the last century haven’t gone away. Every year, corporate lobbyists fight to destroy National Parks, historical locations, and Native American land in order to commercialize every inch of our nation. I am not against social media, but I had hoped it would bring people together, allow people to discover that their quirks and peculiarities doesn’t mean they are alone. While it has done that, social media is also used to uphold these oppressive constraints, to secretly share footage of people existing in a way that isn’t mainstream- cosplayers, the disabled, overweight people, queer individuals, LARPers- all for the purpose of mocking them, of shaming them for the misbehavior of individuality. A project that encourages people to play, to engage the environment guided by childhood wonder, is an exhilarating rebuttal to those who feel such activities are incorrect for the participant and harmful to free space. I will return to my point that we are still animals for a moment, to recall this fact. Animals of all ages, in zoos, aquariums, rehabilitation facilities, homes, and farms, are happier and healthier when given sources of enrichment. According to wildwelfare.org, environmental enrichment, “regular provision of dynamic environments, cognitive challenges and social opportunities” are critical for animal welfare. Separating ourselves from the animal kingdom, trying to fit us in a narrow box of society-approved, productive members of the capitalist machine, starves us of enrichment. We need these public spaces, need the freedom to engage in play without being treated as a nuisance or childlike. Play is not just for children, it is a critical way to enrich our lives and have joyful experiences. Our society is getting closer and closer to a Plutocracy, to being ruled by wealth, and that, plus our current era of late-stage capitalism defined by the growing gap between the rich and poor, the battle between productive “work time” and play has become more fraught. The demographics highlighted by Stratford and Nathan are all considered “less productive” members of society by our ruling class, which consists of able-bodied, at *least* middle aged, men. These demographics, needing Welfare for one reason or another, are considered drains on society by those in charge of shaping it. Bringing these demographics to the forefront of this play empowers their voices.

In this next part of the article, Fernie directly references the same status-quo disrupting movements that Careri spoke about, Dada (1910s-20s), Surrealists (1920s-30s), and Situationists (1950s-60s). Fernie also mentions performance art (1960s-70s), and explains that the four movements had the dual purpose of making participants become active agents, and attempting to inspire a social / political change. Fernie describes the famous April 2921 Dada excursions to places that shouldn’t exist, how promotional fliers included strange demands like “YOU SHOULD CUT YOUR NOSE LIKE YOUR HAIR”, and how the rain made the gathering small and killed future visits. Fernie then mentions the Situationists, who believed that they could repair the social bond by creating an “interface with reality through the art of interaction”, using participation to rehumanize society. Fernie goes into a little depth about Mierle Laderman Ukeles, whose performance art was an attack on entrenched value systems, and a call to action to change the norms of society. Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art was a series of performances she created to display the essential role of cleaning and maintenance work, aka woman’s work, and encourage placing value in it rather than ignoring it (Fernie).

I’ve talked about most of this before, but the performance art is interesting to me. It feels like the movements are straying pretty far from what many people define as “art” at this point, getting deeper and deeper into the political side of things. Of course, a big part of all these movements is redefining our perception of art entirely. Art is about drawing the viewer’s attention to something important, to emphasizing its value by creating something around it. There is a lot of power in art, in how artists use their imagination and skill to create new meanings. For a long time, art has valued one way of being, has emphasized the things society deemed important. The idea of a performance artist shining a light on things that haven’t been given the same value makes me hope that Ukeles idea of changing the norms entirely is possible. Art changes people, and people can change society if the movement is strong enough.

The final section of this text starts with Fernie describing Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that allows people to find and catch Pokémon in a sort of virtual geocaching, the game using your GPS coordinates and camera to show you, and others in your area, real locations the players can find their digital quarry. In summer 2016, it became a cultural phenomenon, and thousands began exploring in the name of catching them all. Fernie says there is a surface comparison between Pokémon Go and PCNN, which both feature discovery and social play. But Pokémon Go has a secret surveillance aspect: it hoards its player’s metadata, then sells it to third parties to use for building comprehensive profiles and crafting targeted advertisements. It appropriates player’s privacy. The other issue, she says, is that the game lacks real creativity, as the players follow certain restraints in order to play. With PCNN, there is no signing over your metadata, and the “rules” are simply prompts, allowing individuals to create their own experience without feeling commoditized (Fernie).

I think there’s something to be said about Pokémon Go selling metadata, how the corporate takeover of our lives began the moment we allowed our devices to lurk, monitoring our every move. But I don’t think critiquing it for lacking real freedom for its players is a valid argument. Pokemon Go is based off a handheld game that functioned with the same rules, being mainly a battle and collecting game. Putting it in the “real world” doesn’t mean it will magically become more engaging on the player’s end- but I would argue it does do so, simply by making historical landmarks, natural sites, and cultural centers places to visit and explore in the name of the game. Even a surface interest in a location allows people the change to interact with a space they haven’t before, and may open the door for them to treat that space differently in the future. If one expects an abundance of lateral thought in an augmented game, one must base that augmented game off a sandbox one- such as Minecraft, which is famous for the individual’s ability to create stunning works of digital architecture within its servers. Of course, neither are really comparable to PCNN, which is closer to a real life choose-your-own-adventure novel, giving the player all the agency they want, allowing them to interpret or disregard the prompts as they wish. That’s what makes this game so special, as it tries to help players free themselves of society’s yoke, and encourages them to take radical acts in the name of the world they want to experience, a world that values play.

Video

For this project, I rolled a die with different prompts on it, then tried to complete the prompts in whatever way I saw fit. It is short and low energy, because I am not back to health yet.

  1. Balance on something or someone: for this prompt, I spent a few minutes pondering what could count for balancing. Balance has a few variations in meaning, but one is remaining in a steady position without falling. So I went to climb around on my roof a little bit! When I moved to this house in June 2016, I was engaging in long skype calls with a group of friends across the states (and Puerto Rico). We didn’t set up our wifi yet, and the coast has notoriously spotty signal, so my phone had no service in my bedroom… But somehow there was plenty on the roof! It was hot and buggy and super duper muggy, but I used to sit out here to talk to my friends for hours. It was a balancing act, but not physically- my parents didn’t think highly of my “internet friends”, despite them being in a nice middle/highschool age range, so it was an act of rebellion to be talking to them. Not to mention the balancing act of being out there when I couldn’t get caught, as my parents didn’t exactly enjoy the “risky behavior” of sitting on the roof.
  2. find a line to follow and go on an indoor walk: I decided to follow the seam between two rows of floorboards are far as I could uninterrupted, which took me from the garage, past my office, the bathroom, the laundry room, through the pantry, down to the kitchen. this line is a line that sound travels through pretty extensively, as i am often sitting at my desk and find myself accidently eavesdropping on a conversation or listening to the dialogue of a tv show all the way in the kitchen!
  3. look down and glide like a bird: i made a semi-successful attempt to slide down the hallway in my fuzzy socks, and crashed into a split a few times. this is a fun and silly play activity I remember my brother getting in trouble for as a kid, which is sort of the point of these exercises, to push the boundaries of acceptability in the name of play.
  4. stare out of a window: if you stare out the windows of my house long enough, Comet will run up to the window and start barking at a perceived threat. But if you stare at him THROUGH a window, he will begin to rev his voice for a mighty howl. it requires patience on your part and impatience on his, which Comet has in abundance. My house has a lot of windows on the first floor, as mom designed it to maximise natural light and offer a view of our yard, with its various plants in the ground and in pots. The downside to this is the huge windows have no blinds, and when I am home alone, I wonder who could stare though the windows, and how much a person could see.
  5. find something old caress the past: since I am home alone right now in a house we built 5 years ago, many parts of the house are rather new. But without tracking down one of mom’s heirlooms or staring at old photographs, the easiest way to find “something old” is to go to Comet Cupid himself. He is pushing 15, and has been part of my life for most of my living memory. plus, he loves pats and scritches. I know he is not part of my past yet, because he is still with me, but I also know his life expectancy is 15 to 18, so he is in his golden years now. With a toe already lost to cancer, growths on his skin, and a canine nasal mite infection that has been plaguing him since I first heard of covid, it makes me cherish the time I have with him.
  6. touch with care: I mean, how could I not take the opportunity to pet my lovely dog? besides, he touches me with care too, licking my palm and nosing at me gently. Comet has always been the kind of dog that acts more cat-like, allowing petting for a few seconds before deciding he’s had enough and scampering off. But he’s also always had a soft spot for me, and I am the only one he doesn’t go crazy on when I pick him up. I’m also the only one he will come back for / allow more petting after getting bored of it. During this time, my only contact with friends and extended family has been online. I’ve barely been able to see my boyfriend, since he lives in Raleigh. I take great comfort in having Comet here, in being able to touch him with care, in knowing he loves me and appreciates my presence.
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the journal

Reflection 4: Live Creatures & Walking In The City

INTRO

For today’s readings we are going to look at two articles: “The Live Creature”, a chapter from John Dewey‘s book Art as Experience, and “Walking in the City”, a chapter from Michel de Certeau‘s book The Practice of Everyday LifeThey both speak of the importance of the human element, the everyday rhythms of life. I will admit off the bat that Dewey’s writing was more coherent to me than Certeau’s, but I will do my best to address them both equally. At this time, my mom has the virus, and though I am not as sick as her, I definitely do not feel healthy. As such, this post will only be introspective about the writing that I truly understand.

LIVE CREATURES

The problem with our understanding of art, says John Dewey, is our tendency to to separate the existence of the work itself from the human experience, when in reality, the work is what it does with/in experience. Further, designating a work of art as “classic” tends to isolate it from the human conditions that brought it into being and the human consequences it creates in life. These classics, which are deemed as perfection, creates parameters that hinder the expansion of art in new directions. This in turn hinders esthetic theory, which requires access to the general significance of the artistic object. The primary task of a fine art philosopher, therefore, would be to restore the bond between the everyday experience of events, doings, and sufferings, and the refined and intensified forms of experience known as works of art. To understand the meaning of an artistic product like the Parthenon, we must first understand the conditions of experience of the Athenian citizens who built the temple as a civic commemoration and expression of their civic religion. In other words, we must begin in the raw (Dewey, page 3-4). I think this is a very important and often overlooked part of studying the past, this fact that nothing occurs in a vacuum. One cannot consider any act of creation by removing it from context- for example, precious details are lost when critically discussing the writings of both J. R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, if one omits the fact that both served in the British Expeditionary Force during WWI in frontline trench warfare. Neither wrote memoirs, but both used these writings to cope with the bloodshed of their youth, and to “recover the concept of heroism in an age of moral cynicism”, according to Joseph Loconte, an author who wrote extensively on the subject. Another example of art and context is Vincent van Gogh. Many anti-medication individuals have claimed that if van Gogh had been treated for his mental illness, we would not have received his great works. Little do they know that The Starry Night was painted while van Gogh was a self-admitted patient at the mental health facility known as Saint-Paul asylum. This lack of context leads to the dangerous romanticization of the “tortured artist”, whose untreated “demons” are the source of all creativity.

Dewey continues, explaining that placing art on a remote pedestal in this way, limiting it to the museum and gallery, makes it hard for the average person to consider their daily enjoyments as art in the same way. This removal of fine art from the scope of common life relegates the common to a lesser status. In the past, these items we honor were simply part of the common life. Drama, music, painting, architecture… “they were part of the significant life of the organized community”. Painting and sculpture were created for a social purpose and incorporated into buildings, music completed the rituals that expressed group meaning, and drama reenacted  legendary history. To the Athenians, art was an act of reproduction of emotions and ideas related to the institutions of social life, and (according to Plato) changes in art would change those institutions (page 5-8). This specific concept of Plato’s, that art could change the culture, is another important reason why art cannot exist in a void. One doesn’t have to look very far to see this- I immediately think of the cultural impact of Hunger Games, and the subsequent waves of young adult dystopian fiction. Two of the most intensely revered movie monsters- Frankenstein and The Vampyre, both stem from a ghost writing contest between Lord Byron and his friends in the middle of a summer storm. There’s even a phenomena known as The Jaws Effect, which describes a worldwide shift in perception and legislation pertaining to sharks after the fictional murderous shark gored the silver screen.

When discussing European museums, Dewey calls them “memorials of the rise of nationalism and imperialism”. He describes their dual purpose of uplifting the artists of their glorious past, and parading the stolen creations of subjugated nations. He then goes on to describe capitalism’s role in separating art from common life and designating the museum as its proper place. A collector’s artwork is to evidence of his place in high society, as a capitalist’s investment portfolio is to evidence of his place in high wealth. Community investment in the arts is the same way, a method of establishing proof of cultural superiority. Further, the economic system of a mobile population continues to sever ties between art and its homeland. Artists, attempting to fight the economic tide, turn their creations into “self-expression”, distorting the distance between their self and all else, widening a gap between producer and consumer, between esthetic and ordinary (page 8-10). This is a tragedy to me, this idea of art as something only appreciated for the symbolic status it represents. I see this sort of thinking everywhere in my fellow creators, a horrifying symptom of late stage capitalism that demands monetization of all hobbies, that claims creation for its own sake is not a worthy task. Dewey’s other point about museums holding other culture’s creations hostage is a huge issue. Oppressed peoples are demanding colonizers return their stolen heritage, while the curators or trustees spin falsehoods about the legitimacy of their “ownership”. It makes me wonder what it would take for these so-called civilized nations to comprehend the barbaric acts they’ve committed by stealing these precious trophies, many of which hold deep historical or spiritual value for their true owners.

There are many theories of the esthetic, but according to Dewey, all carry a flawed conception of art that “spiritualizes” it away from concrete experience. A new esthetic theory must contain the knowledge that artistic works idealize qualities found in the concrete. After all, theory is about discovering the nature of the production of art and its enjoyment in perception. Dewey goes on to define the normal experience as the essential conditions of life that man shares with animal ancestors. Life occurs in and because of its environment, thorough interacting with it. The environment is both the source of danger and the only place that satisfies our needs. Needs indicate a temporary absence of something, and it is the environment that is demanded to satisfy these needs, to return us to temporary equilibrium. Life occurs in phases denoted by falling out of equilibrium and recovering it- recovery enriched by passing through resistance, and falling too far to recover causing death. Form rises from this equilibrium, and order is created from relations of harmonious interactions, these relations being essential to living (page 11- 14). I honestly don’t have much to add on to this, no profound insight to discuss. This simply makes sense, that there is no life without environment, that our survival depends on continuation of a “homeostasis”, that the struggle and the setback matter just as much as those perfect days without strife.

In Dewey’s eyes, emotion is a conscious sign of actual or impending loss of this equilibrium, and desiring to restore it converts emotion into interest in objects for their use in restoration. The artist deeply cares about the phase of experience when equilibrium is achieved, so he cultivates moments of tension because of their potential. Artists think in the medium they work in, and the terms lie so close to the creation that they merge with it. Direct experience comes from the interactions of man and nature, the want and fulfillment, the doing and being prevented from doing. Breaking the bounds of ordered change leads to destruction and death, but new rhythms spring from it regardless. Esthetic experience needs the order and chaos both, and in a world of constant change or never change it would not exist. Our world depends on movement and culmination to create a living creature’s experience capable of esthetic quality (page 15-17). I understand what he means, and think this idea comes up a lot in literature concerning religion. In Good Omens, which concerns the impending war of heaven and hell, of order and chaos, it is the unique human capacity to contain both forces that makes the young child-antichrist “win” the war in the name of humanity. We are “special” in the sense that we have free will and mortality, a capacity for good and evil, an understanding of creation and destruction.

Dewey next speaks of inner harmony, which only occurs when “terms” are made with the environment, and if these terms are non-objective, it is merely an illusion. These terms are made by selective interest, with pleasures coming through chance contact and stimulation, and happiness through fulfillment that reaches to the depths of our being and adjusts it with the conditions of existence. There is a split in our minds between the present and our past/future. Our past is a burden and regret, but can be used to warn and inform the present. Our future brings apprehensions of what could happen, but can also be seen as a promise. In order to become fully alive, we must make that shift, ending the past as a trouble and the future as a fear. Art, of course, celebrates these moments. “Experience in the degree in which it is experience is heightened vitality”, signifying active and alert commerce with the world, and complete interpretation of self and the world (page 17-19). I like this idea of inner harmony, of using the past in as a tool instead of a reason to doubt, of being able to look forward to the future as something hopeful. I find myself having trouble with the latter more than the former, getting anxious about the possible outcome of decisions but being completely at ease one the decision has been made. It’s a symptom of my ADHD, called executive dysfunction– essentially, I have trouble starting tasks. I get gripped by this feeling that’s almost paralyzing, making it hard to convince myself that I am able to begin. I know I can do it, the past confirms it, but the simple act of beginning is the worst part. What I can’t agree with is the assertion that a person isn’t truly alive if the past or future weighs too heavily on them. That throws a pointed jab towards many neurodivergent people, not just ADHD but folks with OCD, anxiety, or depression. Stuff like that can be managed and treated, but never really “goes away”. It’s important to remember the people who are unable to shake off these worries can still experience life and create art- they just don’t do so in the neurotypical fashion.

WALKING IN THE CITY

Have you ever read something, nodding as you do, taking diligent notes all the while, then upon finishing, look up from the page and utter “completely and utterly incomprehensible”? That was (a small exaggeration of) how my reading of Michel de Certeau’s work went. I will do my dutiful best to sum it up, but I can’t pretend to have discourse with something I don’t really understand. To make it a little easier to follow, I will break it up by the titles and subsections Certeau uses in the chapter.

Voyeurs or walkers

Certeau had opened by discussing looking down upon the city from the summit of the world trade center. He asserts that the elevation lifts a person from a city’s grasp, putting him at enough distance to become a voyeur and transforming the world below into a text that he, like a god, can read. He further posits that the summit, at 1370 feet, is a “prow”, constructing the fiction that creates readers and making the complex city readable. Down below, the walkers exist, ordinary practitioners of the city writing the urban text but unable to read it. There is an obscuring, mobile element characteristic of a bustling city, migrating among the planned city (Certeau, page 92-93).

1. from the concept of the city to urban practices

The “atopia-utopia of optical knowledge” has always sought a way to overcome and explain the contradictions of population growth in the city. The city is twofold, both opaque past and uncertain future, and to plan it requires thinking about both elements and making that way of thinking effective (page 93-94).

an operational concept?

The city is defined by the possibility of: the production of space where the rational represses pollutions, replacing the “tactics” of the common man with the “strategies” of the city’s creator, and turn the city into a subject able to take credit for the functions of the groups and people inside it. The city becomes organized in a way where anything that doesn’t fit inside its parameters is rejected, and the elevation of time marching progress forward diminishes the importance of the space itself, making it into a “concept-city” (page 94-95).

the return of practices

The concept city’s founders and founding rationality are decaying, but the urban population is not. “Ministers of knowledge” like to assume threats to their beliefs and position threaten the rest of us too, and create “theories of misfortune”. The common citizen ignores this and proliferates their own activities, concealed by the death throes of observational organization. Spatial practices secretly structure the determining conditions of social life” (page 95-96).

2. the chorus of idle footsteps

Pedestrian movements are one of the real systems who build the city’s existence. Their footsteps weave places together, they spatialize. While operations of walking can be traced to transcribe paths as populated or desolate, and the direction of trajectory, the tracings only refer to what has passed by, missing the actual act and rendering it invisible (page 97).

pedestrian speech acts

The act of walking is to the urban system as the speech act is to language. Walking is a way for the pedestrian to appropriate the topographical system as speaking is a way for the speaker to appropriate the language. Walking is a spatial acting out of place as speaking is an acoustic acting out of language. Walking implies relations among different places as speaking implies relations among different people. When the walker uses a city, he chooses specific “fragments of the statement”, actualizing some given to them by the constructed order, increasing possibilities by inventing shortcuts, and culling options by deselecting available options given by the constructed order. When you walk, you both follow a path and have followers, creating a mobile organicity in the environment, something phatic, the act before information. The act of walking is of a limitless diversity and cannot be reduced to their graphic trail (page 97-99).

walking rhetorics

While walking, the options of turns and detours are comparable to “turns of phrase” in speaking, in the style of being and operating. Walking takes place inside and manipulates spatial organizations without receiving its identity from them. The synecdoche expands a small spatial element to make it play the role of its whole and replace it. The asyndeton in walking selects and fragments the space it travels by skipping over joints and removing sections. These two together take the space and mold it into enlarged singularities and separate islands. The walking population dismisses parts of the city and heightens others importance, changing it from the immobile order (page 100-102).

3. myths: what “makes things go”

stylistic procedures link discourse, dreams, and pedestrian practices. Not only is enunciation dominant in the trio, but also the discursive development (verbalized, dreamed, walked) is arranged as a relation between the origin it proceeds from and the nowhere is creates. To walk is a social experience of lacking a place (102-103).

names and symbols

There is a relationship between the direction of a walk and the meaning of words that creates two opposing movements: extraverted, outside walking, and introverted mobility “under the stability of the signifier”. Walking is both lured and repulsed by nominations (proper names on street signs) with vague meanings. The city becomes a desert for people where the terrifying meaningless turns from shadow to light that illuminates the urban text. Proper names create pockets of secret familiar meaning, while numbered streets “orient he magnetic field of trajectories”. The proper names slowly lose their original meaning, becoming emblems for the travelers they direct and decorate, a liberated space. This is a “poetic” geography layered over the literal meaning of it, these names now amount to almost nothing and serve only to orient the steps of the walker. The functions of the relation between spatial and signifying practices are the believable, memorable, and primitive (103-105).

credible things and memorable things: habitability

A “local authority” allows a void, permits the creation of an area of free play within the system of defined spaces and makes places habitable. Proper names on streets are a local authority, and totalitarianism hunts them down, replacing them with numbered streets. This hunt cancels out the habitable city and removes what makes its special. Travel is a substitute for the legends that used  to open up space into something else. Rumors are not stories, as rumors are injunctions, initiators and results of leveling a space. Stories diversify, becoming private, while rumors totalize, propagating in media and wipe out whatever combats the city. Places are identified by their past, by what or who is no longer there. The hidden identities of the clear, the definition of a place is created by a series of displacements and effects among the broken and shifting layers (105-108).

childhood and metaphors of places

The memorable is what can be dreamed about a place. This place is a palimpsest, the original text written over. It must be seen as a reenactment of the child’s differentiation from the mother’s body, a “decisive and originary experience”, where we first understand that we do not encompass all, that we are simply a being in space. To “practice space” is a repetition of this childhood experience of joy. In a place, this means “to be other and to move towards the other” (109-110).

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the journey

Walkshop 6: Listening For Silence

Today we are to go on another audio-focused journey. But this one, my fellow adventurers, is not about seeking out a specific sound. It is actually, as it turns out, about seeking silence– and discovering just how loud it really is. For the first half of my walk, I simply wandered the immediate area with Comet, listening to Marzan’s podcast.The instructions did not begin until the podcast was nearly over, so I simply walked and listened. As always, I recorded the walk on strava- though this time, it ended prematurely, before the end of my journey. You’ll see the path as a little bit erratic, as I let Comet, a better listener than I, choose the direction of our jaunt.

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It is a cool day, dark clouds heavy with rain approaching from the west. The whole week had been marred by downpours, so I was worried this would be too. We left our house and started to walk towards the dock, and I made note of the aggressive wind. Marzan begins by explaining that the sound of the land is being drowned out by the sounds of civilization. “it is our birthright to listen, quiet and undisturbed”, he says. Later, he would ask me to stop and listen. Below is a playlist of the tracks from those places I listened, so that you may listen to them with me.

“Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything”. Silence, as it turns out, is simply the sound of nature. As Marzan describes the sounds of silence he has found, I am walking through my neighborhood, the sounds of Comet’s nails scraping the pavement one of my only sounds. The wind rustles through the trees, and a few brittle leaves rush by us in a gust. Comet has decided against the dock, so we doubled back, passing the house. Behind us, inside the house (see below), someone is playing music loud enough to be heard from the street. My tinnitus is acting up today, a harsh, high pitched, strange sound, like tv static echoing in my brain. I haven’t heard silence in a long time, really, this sound haunting me day and night.

Marzan describes the way listening to the land can put us in tune with nature, developing a relationship with place. The land around here is an ever changing place- the back half of Middle Sound Loop was barely developed when I first moved here, mostly woods and tiny, decrepit houses. Now, layers of neighborhoods dominate the space, people jockeying for the privilege of waterfront property and proximity to the elementary school. As we walk up the street, I catalogue the sounds I hear: crows in the trees, a barking dog, cicadas and my tinnitus trying to out-shout each other, a golf cart rumbling past with giggling children behind the wheel. But there are other sounds too: cars driving by the neighborhood on a parallel road, the rushing wind and rustling trees, the roar of an engine from a boat speeding past our dock…. a square inch of my neighborhood’s sound contains multitudes.

Where is the place I spend the most time indoors? I am being prompted to go to this place. For me, I think I spend the most time in the kitchen, as I often end up responsible for cleaning it, then end up doing work from my chair at the counter. So we return to the house, Comet is released from the leash, and I go sit at the counter. I am told to sit, eyes closed, for ten minutes. It is at this point that I record some of the sounds in the kitchen.

The kitchen, it seems, is not a quiet place. While my head is down, someone is vacuuming in my mom’s room, which is to the left. Someone else is unloading the dishwasher, the rattle of cups and silverware a nearby clatter to cut through the vacuum white noise. This is a common occurrence, this lack of silence in the kitchen, a together-but-separate feeling of everyone doing their own task. When I am done listening, I resume the track. I am supposed to seek out a public or urban environment, so I put my shoes back on and head outside. This time, Comet prefers to stay in his bed.

The spot I finally arrive at is across the street from my neighborhood. There is a church, Middle Sound Advent Christian Church. It is also just a few steps away from the Middle Sound Loop road and Mason Landing road intersection. This church has always been a little spooky to me, as I never really know what goes on in there. It’s an unassuming building, for sure, but sometimes a cop car just idles in its “parking lot”, that little patch of gravel next to the road. I stand in the grass off to the side of the gravel, a careful distance away from the road. Upon Marzan’s prompting, I spend 10 minutes listening to the sounds around me.

There’s quite a bit to notice. The trees around the church and lining the road are tall, and I count four or five distinct birdsongs coming from behind me. In front, cars rush past, and the cicadas are as loud as ever. I think the wind has dialed back a smidge, but the clouds still loom, a dark threat. I am now being asked to find a natural green space, like a park or garden. So I continue down the main road until I reach the next neighborhood, the Mason Harbor Yacht Club. Before we moved to Register Place, we didn’t have our own dock. We rented a boat slip here, from this neighborhood. The place has its own pool, a “club house”, and a patch of greenspace where children play. 

It is perfectly cultivated, with a manicured lawn, uniform trees lining a white picket fence, and flowering trees against the corner where the street entrance to the neighborhood is visible. Here I am asked to spend 15 minutes listening. As for the quality, it is remarkably similar to the previous track: the same birds echo their songs my way, cars still rush by in a hurry. The wind still rustles through the trees, and even more bugs join in the cacophony. The sound of the cars going by reminds me of the beach, the white noise sound of an approaching wave, and the water retreating after the crash. I think the trees are muffling them just a bit.

Now, it seems, I am to seek out a natural space “away from the hustle and bustle”. So I continue down the road, past the neighborhoods, until I reach a good spot. The Winston Broadfoot Nature Preserve, according to a UNCW natural area report, was deeded to the university by Mr. Broadfoot ” to be used for educational and research purposes and to prohibit, in perpetuity, the possibility that the land would ever be developed or sold”. It is accessible by a gravel road, and waterfront properties can be found beyond the preserve.

I was to listen for a half hour, while laying down. Off the gravel road was a pine straw path that I was able to get semi-comfortable on, so I did what I could, then began to listen. The sounds of the birds are much clearer hear, and there are more of them. The wind rattling the trees is louder too, overwhelming almost. The weather has began to turn for the worse, and in the distance the echo of a dog bark rings clear.  A siren can be heard too- even in this little spot of nature, one cannot be free of the sounds of civilization when trying to reach somewhere in walking distance of my home.

Now it’s time to go back, to turn around and go home. When I arrive, I am to repeat the first exercise. The kitchen is overcrowded, so I sit down in the living room, just adjacent to the kitchen, and listen for a little while from that spot.

You can hear the clatter of the kitchen still, and the urgant jingling of Comet’s collar. My eyes are closed, but I think he has a bone, which he is anxiously chewing. Someone’s using their laptop keyboard, jabbing at the keys with aggressive determination. My own breathing can be heard on this, as can the clicking of a kitchen burner, and the shifting of my position on the couch.

Has your experience of listening changed? If so, how?

My experience of listening has deepened with this exercise. Usually, when I am doing things- whether that’s in the house, the car, or out walking the dog- I listen to podcasts, cutting myself off from outside sound, immersing myself in entertainment to avoid the silence. This exercise definitely put me more in touch with my surroundings and made me more aware of the soundcape.

Debrief questions:

What was one sound that you heard that surprised you?

One sound I heard that surprised me was one I didn’t get a chance to record: the sound of dry leaves being scraped along the pavement by the wind.

What made it surprising?

That sound is a quniticental sound of fall, the sound of a gust rather than a breeze, the sound of leaves changing color, falling down, and drying up into a crunchy husk. I knew it was September, of course, but something about that sound brought the changing seasons into sharp clarity.

What distracted you from listening?

I was very anxious about standing or sitting in one place with my eyes closed, or even just being visibly alone for a long period of time. Between that and the weather concerned, I was definitely a bit distracted.

What did you do about it?

For the weather, I had my umbrella on hand. For my concerns about vulnerability, I also had a very large knife.

What did this teach you about listening?

This experience taught me that listening is not passive, that people can choose to actively engage in the use of their senses. We are constantly intaking sound, constantly hearing, but that is not the same as actually listening. It is through listening that we process meaning.

How is listening directional?

Listening is directional as we are naturally able to pinpoint the direction a sound is coming from. This can be difficult when a lot of sound stimuli is flooding your ears, but generally speaking, we are able to determine where the source of the sound is. The closer we are, the easier it gets, and certain tones cut through background noise with varying degrees of clarity. But the more you listen, the more in tune your ears will be.

What did you notice about your awareness the longer you were on the walk?

The longer I was on the walk, the more my awareness expanded. It was not simply paying attention, but rather, a shift in understanding about what to pay attention to. It felt like I was categorizing the sounds I heard an entirely different way.

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Responses the journal

Reflection 3: The Painter of Modern Life

INTRO

Today’s reading is from The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, by Charles Baudelaire. The response will be divided by the title of each essay that was read. The essays vary in length, but I will address each portion, giving my thoughts or suggesting connections. Baudelaire puts forth a concept known as flâneur, which will be detailed below. This response will also feature an answer to either question: “What purpose could the flâneur serve now? What purpose does the flâneur serve now?”

I. BEAUTY, FASHION, AND HAPPINESS

There are many people, according to Baudelaire, who will think all they need to see is the only classical painting, all they need to read is the one classical book, in order to have mastered the history of art and literature. It is the critics, the amateurs, the curious inquirers, who come forward to “right this wrong”. These men stand up and proclaim that we can love the general beauty of the classics, but ignoring the particular beauty of circumstance and the lesser known deprives us of a critical portion of “the whole secret”. He goes on to say that while some are beginning to appreciate the valuable beauty of non-classical historical works, their secondary value is because of their historical value. Baudelaire wants to focus on art of now, which has secondary value stemming from “its essential quality of being present” (Baudelaire, page 1). I already find his writing strikes a chord in me, that one cannot glean the true breadth of creation from studying only Raphael or Racine. Literature is far more than a single genre, and a genre is far more than a single artist. There is an infinite fountain of art and literature throughout all of history, and in the modern world more is being produced every single day. It is perfectly well and good to choose one time period, one movement, one genre as the focus of your study, but that is not the same thing as denying the existence of all else, of dismissing it as low art or lesser literature. All creation, I believe, has the power to change people, and to dismiss any part of creation is to deny its impact on unknown multitudes. I am reminded of an article I read about the public backlash against Twilight, cleverly subtitled “it’s not that bad, you’re just misogynistic”. Without going too far astray, it discusses the way criticism and hatred is often directed towards literature enjoyed by girls and young women, with pompous sneers deriding it as empty-headed drivel and unworthy of being on the shelves with great writers. Lots of modern art and literature, but especially written for or by anyone who is NOT cisgender, heterosexual, christian, able-bodied, white, middle/upperclass male, is treated this way. It’s the intersection of elitism and bigotry, the idea that a work is lesser if not from or for this very small, but very powerful, circle.

Baudelaire goes on, discussing a set of fashion-plates he owned. The costumes, he says, are not only beautiful and well-drawn, but are important symbols of the “moral and aesthetic feeling” from their time-period. Beauty changes with time, it seems, at the same pace as schools of philosophical thought. A “profound harmony” coordinates all aspects of history, so one can tell from clothing, gesture, even facial feature, when the artwork comes from. This is the “rational and historical beauty”, the body of art, the element of beauty comprised of “the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions”. The other element of beauty is “unique and absolute”, the soul of art, the “eternal, invariable” element of indeterminate quantity (page 2-3). It is a connection that makes perfect sense, but one I had not before thought to say. Of course the morals of a certain time would change with the predominating school of philosophy, and it only makes sense that shifting morals allowed a different definition of beauty throughout the ages. It reminds me of my philosophy class, where we read The Perfect Body by Simon Goldhill. It is about beauty in Athens, the viewing of a specifically cultivated physique as a sign of a good citizen. In that time, the male body was public property, the good philosopher supposed to stop you on the street if you were not in proper shape. Male art was nude, female art well-covered. Now, it is the female body that is subject to such harsh criticism, that is “acceptable” to be publicly scrutinized and given unwanted advice. Instead of statues of naked men, we have giant advertisements of naked women, a different kind of art and a different kind of message.

II. The sketch of manners

Baudelaire’s “sketch of manners” is art that depicts bourgeois life and modern fashion. For such work, the more beauty adds the more value, but daily life changes so rapidly that the artist’s speed in recording it is what makes it the best. To be a “painter of manners”, says Baudelaire, is not pure artistry. The genius should have a strong literary element. This man is not a painter of the eternal, he is an observer, a philosopher, poet or novelist, moralist even…. a flâneur. A flâneur is “the painter of the passing moment” (pages 4-5). Ah, I see. This is our flâneur, this man who focuses not on the classics, but on the fleeting moments of everyday life. He is well-rounded, viewing what he sees with a mind educated in things other than art. I do not see an issue with this per say, with having multiple ways of viewing the world, with trying to capture things as they actually happen, with bearing witness to life outside a studio.

III. the artist, man of the world, man of the crowd, and child

Baudelaire wishes to discuss a man who does not seek approval, whose work is signed not with his name but with his “dazzling soul“. The man, “Monsieur C. G.” (I will call Mr. G), is a lover of “crowds and incognitos”, and doesn’t like being talked about by name, if his art must be discussed at all. Mr. G is older, and did not begin at art until his 40’s. He is self taught, a “powerful master”, whose travel sketches populate an English illustrated journal. Artist is too narrow a descriptor, so Baudelaire gives Mr. G the title of man of the world. Artists know nothing of morals and politics, they are specialists. Mr. G is a “spiritual citizen of the universe”, and he understands the whole world, the lawful and mysterious alike. To understand him, you must know that the force powering his genius is curiosity (page 5-7). This description of Mr. G feels like a rebuttal, a counterattack against the limitations Baudelaire perceives as an inherent part of the artist, to the point where to deviate from it puts you outside the definition entirely. Instead of seeing Mr. G as part of a new wave of artists, as a new school of art emerging in his footsteps, Baudelaire chooses to categorize what is happening as something entirely different. Does he believe that art as a body is too slow, too old and stiff to change? Does he think it incapable, see Mr. G and a few others as outliers, so far astray from the “normal artist” that they might as well be another thing entirely? It makes me wonder if Baudelaire himself is influenced by the school of art he seems so dismissive of, too steeped in that current definition of a proper artist to make the connection that Mr. G is an artist too, just of a different sort.

Mr. G’s nature, says Baudelaire, is always in the condition of convalescence, which is in itself like returning to childhood. A child is fascinated by the trivial, and the delighted absorption of form and color resembles inspiration. Genius is “childhood recovered at will”, equipped with the analysis and self-expression capable only in manhood. For Mr. G, life is never stale. Mr. G is similar to a dandy, but not quite. They share a “subtle understanding of the entire moral mechanism of this world” but deviate in that Mr. G is “passionately in love with passion”, while a dandy strives to be insensitive. Thus, Mr. G is a flâneur, a passionate spectator, who feels at home everywhere, and wishes to be incognito, seeing everything and remaining hidden, drawing energy from the crowd. Mr. G rises early, going out to marvel “at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities”, and remains until evening, drinking in the last of it, then going home to rebirth what he has witnessed, his own soul changing it as he does (page 7-12). I am beginning to see the worrisome elements of this flâneur, this Mr. G, who spends all day walking around and simply watching life go on, then goes home to make something beautiful. Where, I wonder, did Mr. G ever find the time to begin such an endeavor? The modern middle-aged man, I would speculate, has much to keep him occupied throughout the day. Work, family, friends, community responsibilities- I don’t think I know a single one who could regularly spend the whole day just out for a leisurely stroll. And this is the flâneur, after all, the middle aged man. What of the modern young woman, like myself? Or a man who isn’t white, like Mr. G, or able-bodied, or have access to disposable income? To watch life ceaselessly, one must be able to remove their own self from life. One must be able to focus on everything as a source of inspiration. I cannot do that, cannot wander down a crowded city street without a care in the world. The city is not a safe place for me to roam aimlessly- but neither is the countryside, for that matter. I will speak more on this when I answer the question later.

IV. Modernity

Mr. G apparently has a loftier aim than the average flâneur, according to Baudelaire. He is looking for “modernity”. Baudelaire goes on to bemoan the tendency of artists to clothe their subjects and furnish their backdrops with that which belongs to the Renaissance. It is lazy, he proclaims, to decide everything about modern clothing is ugly, instead of working to distill the small beauty it might contain. Modernity is that temporary beauty, the harmony of costume, of glance, of gesture, all stemming from the same age. To paint a modern woman in ancient garb is a mistranslation of her era. You may study the old masters to learn how to paint, but the way they paint the fabrics of their time is incompatible with that of modern make. Mr. G has given himself the task of ensuring the modern will be one day worthy of joining the ranks of antiquity, by working to distill its beauty (page 12-14). I see Baudelaire’s point here, that without someone appreciating the way things look now, they will not be recorded for the joy of future viewers. I sincerely doubt these Renaissance painters thought of the clothing they painted as special, or as a costume- it was simply the clothing of their subjects. Our historians rely on surviving artifacts to tell us about the past, and one type of artifact is artwork. They have to hope that the art they discover is an accurate depiction of the time, that the jewelry, hair style, clothing, and other things present in painting and mosaic, statue and tombstone, actually represent the way things were when the art was created. In this case, Mr. G’s work seems like the snippets of a documentary, an account thoroughly devoted to depicting life as is, with no frills or artistic liberties taken. Of course, I can think of many cultures whose existence needs accurate documenting more than 1800’s Paris, but to each their own I suppose.

Baudelaire continues on, explaining that within the unity of a Nation, there is variety between classes, professions, and passing centuries in manner, gesture, and the face itself. Different types of nose, for example, will be featured prominently in different periods. There is always a correlation between the body and the soul, just as the material always mirrors the spiritual. The antique is only to be studied for pure art, logic, and general method. Anything else will erase memory of the present, lose the rights and privileges offered by the current time and circumstance. Mr. G, directed by nature and commanded by circumstance, did not start as an artist. He was an observer of life first, and only later decided to learn how to create a representation of what he had seen, eyes and memory full of “the fantastic reality of life” (pages 14-15). This is curious to me, as it seems like Baudelaire is claiming anyone who learns as an artist early on will inevitably lose what Mr. G has, that it is too late for many. I am not sure what to make of this idea, that the self taught man is superior, this anti-elitism. This is more than simply saying only exposing yourself to one art style will inevitably affect your own, this is a total dismissal of those who are “classically trained”. It it that hard for those with such training to separate themselves from antiquity, to create their own work rather than reproduce that of someone long gone? I am unsure.

ix. the dandy

The dandy is a man who, rich and idle, is wholeheartedly committed to pursuing happiness and performing elegance. He has ample fortunes and endless freetime, no job to keep him from making his fantasy reality. While love is “the natural occupation of the idle”, it is not the dandy’s target. While money is integral to the dandy lifestyle, he does not aspire to obtain it. The dandy views his perfect wardrobe as a symbol of his “aristocratic superiority of mind”. The passion of the dandy is to create “a personal originality”, to astonish others while remaining unruffled. He represents the finest of human pride, the need to combat and destroy triviality. He appears in the disorder of dying aristocracy and rising democracy, the “last spark of heroism amid decadence”. Democracy is destroying the dandy’s legacy, but, says Baudelaire, Mr. G never fails to record the dandy accurately, with all the things that make a dandy, dandy. The distinguishing characteristic that Mr. G so perfectly expresses is the air of coldness, the determination to be unmoved, a fire that chooses not to roar to life (page 26-29). The dandy, it would seem, is the kind of man that is exhilarating to read about, but you might never want to really meet. He is inherently privileged, free from the troubles of the average soul. He is an unobtainable goal, this handsome young gentlemen with the finest of clothes, the coolest dimenor, the endless resources to finance the cultivation of his image. The dandy, I think, I have seen in Gatsby, setting himself apart from the crowd, throwing a lavish party overflowing with excess and being the only one to not partake. He is dapper, and handsome, and aloof, someone you only wish you could be, or be with. It sounds rather lonely.

x. woman

Baudelaire believes that woman is the source of “the liveliest and most lasting delights” for men. Woman is the being that all mens efforts are directed towards or on behalf of. He compares woman to the Deity, incommunicable- the Deity too overwhelming, woman having nothing to communicate. She is an animal, her grace and beauty making politics easier. Men make and unmake their fortunes for her, and through her. For her and through her, poets and artists create their best works. She is “all the graces of Nature” compressed in a being, a stupid idol, her bewitching glance holding will and destiny. Everything she wears, the accessories that accentuate her beauty, are part of her. Woman is “general harmony”, from her bearing and movement to her clothes and jewelry. The woman and her dress are “an indivisible unity” (page 29-31). This, it seems, is the other shoe dropping, Baudelaire’s sinister nature revealed. What a distasteful viewpoint this man, supposedly one of the greats, has about half the human population! He thinks of women as empty-headed, a silly little doll who is inseparable from her clothing? Does the value of a person’s life stop as soon as the lack of a penis is revealed? Is her only worth really as a muse for some “great artist”, unable to be considered a great artist in her own right? Excuse me, dear fellow, while I tell the nice young ladies from Paris to put down their paintbrushes and pull out their jewelry. No no, my dear things, you are not here to show off your own work! Your true place is on that couch, behind that curtain, draped suggestively over that young man’s lap! What, a exhibition devoted entirely to your work? You silly little creature, that cannot be the case! It is at this point that I am overwhelmed with anger, in case you can’t tell. Female artists have always existed, but the oldest form of bigotry has kept them down, hidden away from public consciousness. When will an art class, I wonder, give equal representation to the ladies present? Must I seek out a class titled “Women in [x]”, just to learn the names of my foremothers? Why was my childhood literature full of male protagonists, my first lady hero a girl who pretended to be her brother in order to learn to fight? How much longer will the contributions of female scientists be reduced to footnotes, to “female assistant” or “the scientist’s wife”?

xi. in praise of cosmetics

Nature, according to Baudelaire, has been misrepresented. People believe it to be a source of Good and Beauty, but that is far from fact. Nature compels man to do what he must to survive, but she also encourages murder, cannibalism, torture, imprisonment. Philosophy and religion save us from Nature (who cares only of self interest), and it is they who encourage us to take care of the poor and infirm. “Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation”, he says, and gods or prophets have to teach us virtues. Reason should be applied to beauty, and therefore external finery is a sign of the “primitive nobility of the human soul”. Fashion is an “effort in the direction of beauty”, brought to life by the beautiful women wearing them. Further, it is a woman’s duty as an idol to devote herself to appearing magical, to make herself worthy of being adored. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows about the “trickery” of makeup, as long as she succeeds in making herself irresistible. Rice-powder makes the flesh “superior and divine”, bringing unity to color and texture of the skin by hiding Nature’s blemishes. Black eyeliner and red-cheeked rouge bring supernatural and excess life, the black making the gaze penetrate, turning the eye into the window of the soul, while the rouge brightens the pupil and gives the wearer the “mysterious passion of a priestess”. Makeup, says Baudelaire, is not for the boring imitation of Nature, and should be displayed with frankness and honesty. Women receive a spark of sacred flame at birth, and with makeup, can set their whole being ablaze (page 31-34). There is a lot going on with this segment. I am a fan of his fashion-positive thinking, that it is okay to dress up. Where I draw the line is his idea of fashion and makeup as a woman’s duty, that their beauty has to be upkept and accentuated in order to be worth noticing at all. This is an idea that persists into the modern world, where it is perfectly legal to require female employees to wear makeup. Once again, the man is reducing all of womankind to their looks, and now he says their looks aren’t even enough. Even the natural state of a woman isn’t worth it, she has to do personal art to make herself prettier. That has always been my hatred of makeup, the way it is enforced on us as a unfair double standard, that it is expected to cover blemishes, make lips look “kissable”, make the eyes innocent. This harmful culture has girls, young girls, middle school aged, thinking they need a full face of makeup to survive the day. But the makeup must be done in a specific way, to fit the desire of the male, and any deviation from that is horrid too. My own enjoyment of ridiculous makeup has led to comments about it as clownery, unattractive, as sabotaging future respect or employability. What’s so empowering about that?

response 1: What purpose could/does the flâneur serve now?

The truth is, I don’t believe flâneur serves a purpose now. The modern creator is not a monolith of Mr. G’s and Baudelaires. We are a diverse bunch, with a range of lives and experiences that simply do not fit the mold of this so called “man of the world”.

The lifestyle of the flâneur, of the dandy, of even the “Renaissance man”, was built on the disposable income of some upperclass fellow born into family wealth. He didn’t keep his own house, make his own meals, mend his own shoes, or handle any of the arrangements for publishing his great works. His servants filled those roles for him, and even if he was married, then any “real world tasks” would be tossed at the feet of his dutiful wife. He was free of any real responsibility, as even the task of paying these people was left to another.

This is not the case of the modern artist. We do not have servants, are responsible for doing all the work at home. It is not the norm for us to be born into great wealth, and we are expected to work, even if we are a “dutiful wife”. The demands of capitalism, the ever growing gap between the uber-rich and the poor, make this idea of never needing to work an irresponsible dream. If I were to go for a wander across the city for a few weeks, I would tank my grades. Anyone with a regular ob could not hope for that sort of flexibility from their employer, and even employers have deadlines to meet. Anyone with a child to look after, or a pet to take care of, would be considered neglectful for constantly dumping a life they are responsible for in the hands of another- if they can even afford to do so. No-one has the luxury of freedom of this flâneur, the lack of attachments necessary to live his life.

The flâneur’s purpose was to be part of the crowd, but hidden from it, a silent observer of all the parts of life. This is an unrealistic expectation for the modern artist. The artist as a woman is never hidden from the crowd. She is always being watched, being perceived, always a source of unwanted eyes. How can she enjoy wandering around a city without a destination, when she must be constantly aware of the potential threats around the corner? The artist as a person of color is unable to silently observe. Their movements are always questioned, their motivations for existing in public space considered inherently suspicious for authority figures. They cannot simply draw in a public place, or loiter too long on a street corner. Even entering a coffeeshop can be a tricky task. The artist as a disabled person is unable to walk the breadth of a city. Many large cities are inaccessible for the disabled, with hostile architecture preventing those with mobility aids a moment of rest, and lack of properly made sidewalks, if any exist at all, to accomodate a wheelchair. Those whose disabilities are unrelated to mobility still cannot wander a city in the same way. A service animal sticks out in a crowd, and the maliciously helpful try to insert themselves into situations where they are unneeded.

I read an article hosted on The New Republic titled “Death to the Flâneur”, by Josephine Livingstone and Lovia Gyarkye. The authors mention that the flâneur represents “a fantasy of a time when a universal subject was a realistic proposition”. This is a brilliant bit of words. We know that who a person is cannot be separated from how they perceive the world, so why should we try? The flâneur is supposed to only watch, only observe, never to take part himself. This is an absurdity. For many types of people, their simple presence in the public space changes the dynamic of the crowd. A visibly queer individual may draw mockery, scorn, or violent insults. How are they to go home and pour their soul into artwork that represents the crowd without showing the way the crowd harmed them? White men themselves are not safe from this, not all easily blending into a crowd. If they do not have the luxury of a fine wardrobe, or a body that does not match “acceptable” norms, they will be scrutinized just as much as the rest of us.

I offer no alternative to the flâneur, no modern reinterpretation of it. I simply don’t think it’s earned that. Let him fade into obscurity, let him be stuck as a ghost, forever wandering the streets of a Paris that no longer exists. The modern artist has no need for him. We live in a time of crises un infinitum, with wildfires, pandemics, an endless battle for civil rights, and it all keeps getting worse. Art cannot be separated from the political, and the modern artist cannot separate themself from the crowd.

Categories
the journey

Walkshop 5: Five Practices for Listening to the Language of Birds

Disclaimer

Before I sat down to write this post, I went to do the thing I always do: export my precious audio to soundcloud. As you will learn, the majority of this walkshop was dedicated to seeking out and recording bird sounds. I had gone on a long walk with my dad in Airlie Gardens, a nearby park with a large variety of birds. As the audio was meant to be specifically of birds, I was using his phone to record only when there were birds to hear, and my phone to take photos/listen to the podcast/run strava. After each recording, I saved the file off of the app to keep it safe, then recorded the next one. I would estimate I used his phone for the first half hour of the walk, switching to using mine as the recording device after the podcast had concluded. As I have just discovered, all the audio recorded with my dad’s phone (fifteen minutes of sound) has been corrupted. Additionally, some of the audio recorded from my own phone, which I had been exporting from the app in exactly the same fashion, is partially corrupted for seemingly no reason. As a result, my audio is not as diverse or lengthy as it was meant to be, and I may supplement it by going on a second walk, making this post a two-parter.

Initial visit to Airlie gARDENS

For today’s walkshop, we were asked to explore a wooded area near our neighborhoods, in order to get acquainted with the local birds. Since my neighborhood is pretty suburban, there is a bit of a shortage of nearby woods. Instead, me and my dad went to Airlie Gardens, a combination of historic public garden and local nature preserve. As I mentioned above, I used both my dad’s and my own phone to record the sounds of birds, via the MOREC app. I have spliced together all the useable audio files into a soundcloud, so that you may listen as well.

As per usual, I also ran Strava on my phone to map our route, as well as listening to professor Marzan’s podcast. As you can see in the images, Airlie is a wooded area surrounding a lake, and bordering the intracoastal.

The professor began the podcast by speaking of the divinity of birds, their place in the Torah, Bible, Quran, Norse mythology, and others. He speaks of the modern world, how our walls have muffled their song and closed our minds to their secrets. I am fascinated by the way Marzan describes the anatomy of birds, the intricately designed bodies capable of producing such an awe-inspiring variety of sounds. We walk into the gardens, which begin with a layer of carefully cultivated flowering plants and uniform bushes, but as we walk farther from the enterance, begin to change, reflecting the natural diversity of Wilmington’s plant life, especially its trees. My first spotting of birds is at the top of one of these trees, a flock of American Crows perching barely within eyesight. They look quite grand through the binoculars, but the camera is less flattering. I tried my hand to doodle one later.

there’s a half dozen birds at the top of this tree, though without the binoculars I might have missed them

Marzan continues, speaking on the types of birds, their special library of calls that are uniquely tuned to their environment, climate, and time of year. He says that the birds are becoming harder to find, harder to hear, as our industry changes the landscape as well as the soundscape. I find myself in agreement, as I am searching the tree-tops not for a crow, but for an osprey (see my doodle). During middleschool, we took fieldtrips here, and could spot the “sea hawk” en mass. Now, I am worried that the next generation might not be so lucky.

At this point, we have reached Airlie Lake, which is usually home to a diverse range of birds. Today, it seems, the only ones hanging around are the Great Egrets, whose long necks are a dead giveaway in comparison to other egrets in the area. I snap a few pictures of the shoreline, though not as close as I’d like. At this point, Marzan asks us to stop and listen, to see what songs we hear. I record some audio, which mournfully did not survive. But the sharp, rapid notes of one particular bird would be heard over and over again, and the first minute of my above audio contains this sound. A gentleman birdwatcher whom I met near the end of my walk recommended my download of the Merlin Bird ID app, and by cross-referencing its sound library with the eBird website’s September birdwatchers list for Airlie Gardens, I was able to take a guess that the culprit was a Red-winged Blackbird, as they are the most-sighted bird in September.

The bird in the above photos is a bright red bird. I was unsure what I was looking at, and decided to follow him. I briefly lost track of his movements while in slow pursuit, but getting a little closer allowed me to spot the black mask and distinctive crest of the Northern Cardinal. The day was hot, muggy, and altogether miserable, so I understood his need to be under multiple layers of shade, but the thick foliage continued to prove itself as my enemy.

The voices of the birds are beautiful, but even with the recording app to help me, I find it hard to distinguish the individual voices. Marzan speaks of the way each bird has their own voice, exploring acoustic spaces as they grow up, so each bird in the same species has a voice all their own. I cannot hope to understand the complex meaning behind each call, each song, each alarm. From the sound of Marzan’s words, it sounds like scientists are no closer to this understanding either. Marzan asks us to pause the track at this point, to listen with my recording device, see what I can pick up. Again, this sound was lost, but it is just as overwhelmingly filled with calls as the section of sound from 1:07 to 2:17 of the soundcloud track.

walkshop 5 gallery 6

As I imagine the “sonic neurotransmitters” of the birdsong lighting up the trees with each sound, I look up at the sky. It is a smudgy grey, heavy with clouds. Beneath them dart agile shapes, and I turn my attention to them, watching them dance in the sky. I can’t even tell if this flock I’ve spotted mid-flight is among the ones I’ve been listening to the calling, if their voices are part of the cacophonous choir. But Marzan asks us to stop the track so we may watch the birds, so I adjust my binoculars to track the movements of these graceful beings.

walkshop 5 gallery 7

Marzan says that listening to these sounds is our inheritance. Our ancestors relied on sound to help us navigate the world, to ensure our very survival. By listening to these birds, we are reclaiming what is ours. My heart is moved by Marzan’s words, the fact that we are in ecological crisis. The urging to seek these creatures now, the implication that their time may be running out, renews my spirit and compels me onward. The songs of these birds may overwhelm me, but I am grateful that they are still here. Just in time too, as we move into the Five Practices.

walkshop 5 gallery 8

Practice 1: “Revel in the acoustic diversity of bird-sound on your walk. Make an inventory of the textures, cadences, pitches, and rhythms that you hear in the voice of birds. Let go of the need to identify the species. Use your ears in the way a wine-taster uses their nose and mouth. Open your senses to the sounds, linger in them, compare them, and enjoy their many layers.” So I do, finding a spot to stand still and readying my recording device, pointing it at the loudest sources the best I can. There are so many sounds, some short and piercing, some almost a squawk, others a stereotypical whistling sound, one bird even seeming to twitter! It’s hard to focus on any one individual song, as it seems they are all in a hurry to make their voices heard. I admire their ferocity, but taking it all in, attempting any sort of coherent inventory, is a herculean effort. The sounds from about 2:17 to 3:17 are a close approximation, as they were taken in roughly the same spot as we made our return later.

walkshop 5 gallery 9

Practice 2: “bird sounds reveal the many pulses of the world, minute by minute, weekly, annually, decennially. Compare the sonic textures of the region you were just walking, to the one you’re walking now. How do they differ? What remains the same? Which sounds seem especially sensitive to the passing minutes? Return to this assignment in a couple of days, and notice how the speech of birds differ from how they do today…..” The region I am in for this section, which corresponds to 3:17 – 4:02 of the audio, has quite a different texture. The high pitches remain, but they are joined by an almost plaintive mewling sound, a sure sign of the Grey Catbird.

Another newcomer in the soundscape is something much more guttural, a rolling, deep note reminiscent of a frog, one that has to be the Great Egret. Between this prompt and my audio fiasco, I am double incentivized to return to Airlie, so I do so during the weekend. The associated audio will be found at the bottom of this post. That audio differs from today’s audio in the following way: it is eerily devoid of birdsong. On a 30 minute walk, I was only able to find some birds ready to sing for a minute or two. The hiss of the insects and the echoing sounds of people are loud enough, but the birds didn’t seem particularly chatty. I wonder if the culprit is the weather- this second walk was less humid, less cloudy, brighter and cooler, in the upper 70s instead of high 80s. Could that shift, the signaled onset of fall, really make a difference? I suppose it’s as good an explanation as any.

walkshop 5 gallery 10

Practice 3: “bird sounds are tuned to the space around them. A leafy woodland, a canyon, a wind-slammed shore, a city street. Sound flows and resonates in radically different ways in each of these places. in the voices of birds, we hear the diverse physicality of the world, each species adapted to its home. how do the birds of treetops differ from those skulking in the grass? ….note in each place the relation between bird sounds and other voices” The other voices Marzan speaks of are the ways the environment enhances or muffles the soundscape. This is 4:03 – 10:56 of my audio track, and this segment was the only one recorded while standing on a wooden partition overlooking the intracoastal- specifically, Bradley Creek. It is clear that the salty water is amplifying the sound, not just the birds, but all of it. People standing on docks across the water can be heard as well as the birds, but the birds are clear enough. The fast-paced chittering sound of the Belted Kingfisher is unmistakable, while the American Crow makes another appearance with their distinctive caws.

My other audioclips seemed to layer the voices over eachother, the trees and underbrush smudging the lines between each singer. The water adds clarity, not exactly ordering the chaos, as it amplifies the bugs as well, but I think each song has a bit more distinctiveness to it. Of course, these singers could just have more of a difference than the birds elsewhere in the garden, but I don’t expect there to be that great a change from the trees to the shoreline, given the marshiness of it.

walkshop 5 gallery 11

Practice 4: “as in human friendship, names help us to connect and remember, especially in the early days of our acquaintance. Give names to the five most common bird voices you hear around your home…. Make up your own taxonomy of voices.” It is at this point, standing on the wooden partition, that I made contact with the gentleman birdwatcher. He spoke fondly of the birds, expressing a level of familiarity that signaled lots of experience. It was through him that I found this library of birdsongs, the one I’ve been using to make educated guesses about whose voice I am hearing. Without this app at hand, I listen again to the segment, trying to give names to what I hear. A few of them are as follows:

  • the strong “caw caw caw” belongs to the voice of a ghost bird, for this is the song we hear in a classic horror film
  • the quiet “pshew pshew pshew”  belongs to a lonely bird, because this song is so distant it feels it belongs in a quiet canyon, isolated from all else
  • the high, fast “tshtishtish” belongs to a panicked bird, as it sounds like an urgent song, a hurrying rush
  • the throaty, lower, caw-like “agh” is in the same taxonomy as the ghost bird, but belong to a more monstrous, sticky sort, a song fit for a swamp, comfortable among a chorus of toads
  • the quiet, high, “hah eii-eii” is kin to the panicked bird, but is more excited than panicked, sounding adventurous

walkshop 5 gallery 12

Practice 5: “Tell others what you hear…. speculate about rhythms and seasons. by sharing your observations in your ePortfolio, you’ll stitch strands of bird language through the weave of human conversation. through your stories, birds minds and human’s minds will unite.” What I hear, what I’ve heard throughout my walk, is a glimpse into a hidden culture operating just outside the periphery of human experience. My mind already opened by Muir’s writing, which I discussed previously, I had hoped to get a closer look at the ways these birds communicate, the way they interact with their flock, other bird species, and the larger living world. While I only saw tiny flashes of the birds themselves, the dynamic soundscape they created drove home just how full this world is, how much it teems with life. I am in awe.(The above bird is the Sandwich Tern, who I watched circle above me while looking at the creek.)

SUPpLEmentAry visit to AIRLIE GARDENS

I took a quick trot back to the garden with Chase, determined to get some more audio of birds. The weather was a bit nicer, the air less heavy with humidity. There were fewer clouds as well, and I hoped the bright blue would allow a clearer picture of any birds I saw. But it was not to be. The bugs were in full force, an overwhelming assault of cicadas clamoring to be heard. The birds were… quiet. Downright spookily quiet. Just a few days ago, the birds were an endless wave of song, but this time, it seemed like they just didn’t want to bother. We walked, trying to listen as well as we could, but nothing cut through the insects for a good while. When I finally found a tree that seemed to have activity, I did what I could to listen, using the MOREC app and trying to fiddle with controls, hoping it could pick up the songs better than I. but they only sang for a short while, and it didn’t seem the app was able to cull the background well enough. We continued to walk, to listen, and I think the weather must have triggered the shift. Where were the birds? Why were they so quiet? I left the garden rather unsettled.

Categories
the journey

Walkshop 4: How to Summon The Spirits of Fellow Wanderers

Today, dear friends, it appears I am joining a secret society, called The Wander Society. They seem to be a hidden group of adventurers, bonding over the very thing this class is all about: the art of walking. Before we even began today’s excursion, I was tasked to fill out a membership card, to give proof of my initiation to this mysterious club.

By now the drill of any walkshop is familiar. Our assigned location was to be a local park or trail, and I immediately knew just where to go. I live in a small neighborhood off of Middle Sound Loop Road, which is a circular road lined with neighborhoods on a chunk of land potruding into the intracoastal. Just four minutes up Middle Sound is a nature walk, known as Pages Creek Park Preserve. I consider it a pretty safe place, but my parents have a habit of thinking I need a companion, so I was joined by Dad, Comet, Mom, and her sister Carla. I would use strava to trace our walk, which you can see below.

Walkshop 4 gallery 2

When we arrived, I explained what I would be doing, then set everything up. Phone in one hand for pictures, printable wander society booklet in the other, Professor Marzan’s podcast in my ears, sketchbook and waterbottle on my back. After the podcast concluded, I remained on the trail for a bit, recording the sounds of the woods around me.

This walkshop started with a story, with the professor’s personal story, his introduction to the Wander Society. Marzan had found a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walk Whitman in a secondhand book shop. The book had a number of secret symbols, including a thunderbolt, and some mysterious phrases: “W. W. will show you the way”, “solvitur ambulando“, and “the wander society”. He wanted to investigate this wander society, but the website was cryptic, and the latin phrase seemed to mean “it is solved by walking”. As I pondered this mystery, I began my own journey, traversing down a path covered in pinestraw, but sandy underneath, the roots of trees protruding just enough to snag the foot of the unwary. It is silly to say, but I think of the paths I walk not as a walker, but as a mountain biker. The pinestraw reads as a place for my tire to slip, the sand an obstacle to halt my forward motion, and the roots a nasty surprise when going at speed. I try to think of my surroundings in a kinder light, to ignore the influence my usual method of traveling through nature has, and to just absorb what I feel.

walkshop 4 gallery 3

It is clear that the wander society held great meaning for the professor, that his desire to learn about its hidden secrets moved him. His description of reading Whitman sounds almost unreal, the intensity of emotion and the expansion of his soul had changed his life. I admit, poetry has never been a thing to move me in such a way, but literature has always sent my heart racing, has molded and shaped me from an early age. There is something special about a good book, about the way the same words everyone knows can stir the spirit depending on how they’re spoken. Marzan believes the act of wandering can change our lives, so I breathe deep, walk slow, and view everything with an open mind. Now comes the parameters for today’s walk:

walkshop 4 gallery 4

The secret world is open to me, Marzan says. If it is a call to adventure, I am determined to take in it all. I take care to watch the treetops, to scan the path, and to look for the things that speak of magic, that would have been the most fascinating part of the walk in my childhood. I open myself up to the paths, and feel instinct tugging me down one fork or another. The photos above are all paths, though not all are the ones I’ve taken. This trail is mostly devoid of signs, of direction, so I amble along, lured this way or that by what catches my eye. I stop at a stump, see the shining shell of the local crab as he rests upon it, the pale bulbous flesh of a mushroom decorating the other side.

walkshop 4 gallery 5

I am continuing my walk, stopping briefly at the kayak launch to gaze at the water. It is a beautiful day, tranquil, and the water is calm. Beneath the surface, shrimp dance just in the shadow of the wooden launch, pale blurs impossible to photograph. I remember afternoons spent with a little butterfly net, desperately trying to scoop some shrimp, counting out my catch in a little contest with my brother before returning them to the water. There are some shrimps, I’ve heard, that have 16 color receptors, an unknown infinity of color in their worlds, while our own eyes only sport 3. But even as limited as the human eye is, I can appreciate the bold, bright colors of the creek for a moment, before continuing down the trail.

walkshop 4 gallery 6

It is now time to be introduced to the wandering spirits, which seem to be living in the trees. Marzan speaks of the trees as links between sky and earth, between the spiritual world and the modern one. Today, the trees are the physical representation of wanderers past. To quote the wander society: “an extremely high percentage of great thinkers, writers, philosophers throughout history have been avid wanderers”.

walkshop 4 gallery 7

I am directed to look to my left, to view a tree that is older, and next to a yellow one. This tree (shown below), craggy and splintered, is Walt Whitman. Marzan names him as one of the greatest wanderers, enlightened by the world around him, a source of enlightenment for all who knew him. What does it take, I wonder, to reach a higher plane of existence? If I wanted to do the same, who would I become? I am almost afraid to find out, to risk letting go of the material, as it is woven through me as much as nature was through Whitman. I imagine him peering out at me from between the broken slivers, his long beard blending with the feathery edges of the bark. I know I will find him again, under my bootstraps, as he tells us so in him poem. I move onward.

Our next spirit, who lives in a downed tree to the right of the path (see below), goes by the name of Fernando Pessoa. Pessoa was a Portuguese writer, who described himself as “a nomadic wanderer through my consciousness”. He would wander the streets of Lisbon day and night, says Marzan. I am struck by a not-unusual moment of jealously, for the things male creators take for granted. Lisbon is a city, but Pessoa felt comfortable there, felt safe to roam it. I never feel quite safe when I walk alone, whether it’s in my neighborhood or in a mall. I cannot imagine strolling around a city by myself, and especially not at night. I am always supposed to be aware, be alert, and be wary. If free-spirited, solitary walks are the way to achieve greatness, I suppose that path is closed to me. I am naturally suspicious, and I am too cynical to take the world for good faith.

Fernando Pessoa

The walk continues, and I spot the next of our spirits, Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in the form of a mediumish tree (see below) that is dappled with red and orange splotches. Apparently, he would stop mid-walk on the path to draw symbols in the mud. At this point, I am prompted to do the same, to sketch the symbol of the wander society, and I do so, using my fingers to sift past the sand and into the dirt below.

The next trees I am to search for should look like twins, and I am pleasantly surprised to find a tree that splits, two identical trunks jutting up from a curved base. They are Dorothy and William Wordsworth, English romantic poets, siblings who walked together for months with pencils and not much else. I think of my own sibling, Max, and try to imagine a lengthy walk with him. His spirit is far from twin to my own, we are diametrically opposed. The idea of walking with him and writing about the landscape isn’t absurd, per say, but it would be cataclysmic to suggest entirely.

The next of our spirits, Charlotte Smith, is meant to be hiding in a tree coming up in front of me. As Marzan says this, a partially felled tree seems to materialize, cutting through the open air above the path. Another English romantic poet and novelist, she wandered the countryside and the shore. Her poems are non-linear, reflecting her contemplative state. I’ve tried poetry on occasion, both as required for school and when the mood struck me, but never when contemplative. They’ve been whimsical, sure, sometimes, but they are mostly an outpouring of anger, a burning need to expel the source of rage.

I continue walking, camera ready, watching the trees. Charles Baudelaire is on my left, “creeping behind another tree”. He was a French poet whose character embodied “wandering without aim” as much as his poetry. He wandered the streets of Paris. I admit, I find it hard to connect to these spirits. I need an aim, need a structure, need a place to go or an end goal, or I risk getting lost. I am easily swayed into overindulging, into endless distractions, in losing sleep as I consider endless possibilities. I know that aimlessness can be freeing, but to me, it is also dangerous.

So I walk, passing a big tree on my right. Henry David Thoreau, an American writer and naturalist who lived in nature. His philosophy of “living deliberately, being awake, and feeding what the soul thrives on”, is much more in tune with my own sense of self than these previous spirits. I especially focus on feeding my soul, consuming literature in the genres I love, listening to informative podcasts, and learning new ways to be creative.

The little tree on my left, it seems, is Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher who promoted the idea of the wanderer in the modern city, who needs the crowd but is so isolated by it. He is, unsurprisingly, another spirit who wandered the streets of Paris. I understand the feeling of being alone in a crowd, the feeling of disconnect from the people around you. It is eerie, for sure, to know that though people walk the same direction as you, you cannot speak to them, you have no meaningful method of connection.

Aristotle, that famous ancient Greek philosopher, hides in a tree entangled by a woody vine, whose snakelike coils climb up his trunk. He founded an entire school of philosophy where thought was harnessed to physical movement. Aristotle is a forefather of Western philosophy, and like all famous men, has skeletons in the closet. He wrote many great things, and many terrible ones. One of my readings for a class I’m in, is his writing about “natural slavery“, as he believed there was a biological element making certain people naturally suited to enslavement. This, along with his other sinister ideas, are the vine coiled around his trunk. Public consciousness has chosen to ignore it, but there it remains, inseparable from his body of work, changing the shape of his trunk’s shadow just as it influences his thoughts.

There are a few more spirits, and a bit more ways to go on this walk. Peace Pilgrim, an American spiritual leader and anti-war activist. She walked across North America for 28 years. I am in awe of her, this woman who vowed to wander until mankind found peace. Her time was that of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and it is a tragic thing that our nation continues to invest so heavily in waging bloody wars, and so little on the things that matter, including the preservation of our natural world.

Then comes John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist whose writings about the Sierra birds I’ve discussed in the Journal. He was devoted to the preservation of nature, and is the father of national parks. Of these spirits, he is probably the one I respect the most, whose tireless contributions to memorializing nature is directly responsible for many of our famous natural places. Without him, so much more would be lost.

Professor Marzan’s favorite spirit is Virginia Woolf, who said solitary trampling allowed her to spread her mind out Walking would be her main method of plotting her novels. This idea of plotting a novel while walking sounds amazing, but a little daunting. The difference between a novel and a daydream, after all, is writing it down. And when my ideas run wild, I have to make fast notion of them before they disappear.

The next spirit lives in a tree in the distance, near a house. Thankfully, this point in the path cozies up against a neighborhood, and Guy Debord, the French Marxist theorist, doesn’t stay hidden from me. He made urban exploration into a conscious experiment, performing “psycho-geography”, moving around a city by randomness. He also founded a theory of drifting, dropping your normal reasons for going and being guided by the terrain. This sounds fairly meditative to me, removing yourself from “real life” and just seeing where your feet take you.

We are nearing the end now, and on my right I spot Søren Kierkegaard, leaning up against another tree, his roots exposed. The man was a Danish philosopher, who used walking to inform his writing. “when you go for a walk, let your thoughts wander aimlessly”, he said, roaming Copenhagen each afternoon after writing all morning. My thoughts wander as best they can, stumbling through the trees and getting tangled in the underbrush, until I am covered in random burrs, asking questions that I cannot answer. This path is a curious one, that is for sure, and it invokes many a query.  But by now, I can see the trees are beginning to thin, and the metallic glint of cars peeking between them.

It is here, 0nly just before the path’s end, that I am prompted to stop. I see the tangled trees lining it, the collection of spirits the professor reads out, their infinite trunks a wall of energy. It is here that I quiet my mind, breathing deeply, and repeat the words of summoning:

summoning the spirit