XXXVIII: The Reunion

Despite my predictions, it looks like the new year actually did bring in a very noticeable change. On Saturday January 2nd, for the first time since god only knows, the sky salivated at about 10am as I made my way along the streets of the Borgo Dora market. Many sellers packed up and left, but some remained hopeful while their tatty radios and bike lamps got a little sodden and the crowds turned away in disappointment. I remained outdoors for most of the day, and as I munched on an apple on the rainy walk home I felt like I had suddenly landed in England earlier than planned. Although these were the same streets I had known for exactly a month, I perceived them through the new acoustic environment of my raincoat hood. This wintery feeling was most reminiscent of being at home. My perception of the Italian environment has been rooted in my English background, and at once they were far more equal.

In the rainy streets there is no care for a sense of place – all that matters is that the place we want to be is not where we are right now. In the rainy city all streets become alike, and all surroundings merge into a blur of  soggy concrete. The world was wet and grey, my fingers were numb, and my head too uninspired to look around. This was one of the few times I’d actually rather be at home than letting the open air flow my thoughts. It feels unoriginal to write about the weather but I cannot deny the fact that it motivates and inspires my thoughts more than just a little bit. So medial and apparently worthless to some is the topic of the weather, that it is filed under categories of ‘smalltalk’ and ‘idle chat’. Its terminology has been adapted into more ‘important’ topics such as economic climates or stock market forecasts. But even in the depths of concrete canyons the weather (of at least the natural environment) shapes many moods and decisions – to visit the museum in the morning or the afternoon, to cancel the walk, or to take a trip to the seaside. No number of ceilings can completely detach us from the sky, and this fascination has influenced many belief systems across cultures worldwide. Today as I looked out onto the fluffy plateau from the aeroplane window I saw the obverse of the vast ceiling that we live under, and whose laws we often live by, even if we do not realise it.

Without my pluvial English companion, my decisions in Turin have been more independent and this has made scheduling my time more difficult during my first weeks here. The grey days of late have led to a more desk-bound lifestyle that I had pictured when I applied for a winter residency here. This ‘pluvial companion’ has made me feel at home, because the image of rainfall completes my idea of normality. Last weekend ‘he’ visited, and today as I boarded the plane, I wondered if I’d meet him again on my arrival into Stansted.

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On the runway at Turin (Caselle) Airport at 10am

Nowadays, plane journeys signify our progress in the invasion of the sky. Over the past hundred years humans have spread upwards into the sky like the American population spread west two centuries earlier. Today there is a lot to distract us from the feeling of flying that the Wright Brothers achieved. Before reaching the gate we must navigate through aisles of over-priced wine and chocolate. The plane interior is as comfortable as any earthly waiting room, and the salespeople that patrol the aisles are as persistent as market-sellers. Altogether the magic of being airborne has been lost to the undistracting earthly comforts of the contemporary western world. These are the gifts man has brought to the once-silent realms of the atmosphere, and as the satellites orbit further up, this space is the sphere of information as much as the earth is. In this ‘information age’ they are both precious human territories.

As we abseiled down the cumulonimbus, the heavenly glow became scattered between denser whites with localised showers beneath. Upon the runway, the dark horizon was a tornado compared to Turin’s weak mist, and when I stepped off the plane a sublime fresco of pastel blues and greys loomed overhead. I could not believe how different the air quality was – a cool glass of water after the spoonful of cinnamon that Turin served me. The Italians seemed to walk on disinterested in this change in flavour. Perhaps it was a little strange, but for me this was reality, as shaped by English skies and lower land. More potently, this was the smell of home.

The topic of the weather has survived the bombardment of media information because it is something that will always affect us. But more accurately it is our local ‘climate’ that shapes who we are, and it is easy to forget how the smallest change affects our perception of place, and disturbs our vision of reality. Today more notable changes in the natural environment are felt worldwide making it more important than ever to talk about the weather. Now that I am safely back in England, I have doubts whether I will take much notice of it in the long run, but at least today have learnt the importance of it in my practice (…of daily life). On this day, January 7th2016,  I have been reunited with these clouds and winds of south east England, and certainly havn’t take them for granted.

 

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XXXVII: Voi Siete Qui?

On the day I arrived in Turin I felt immediately lost in a dream, and now that five weeks have passed my eyes are still half-shut. I could always hear that the city was alive, and touch the hard stone walls, but I didn’t really feel like I was really there. My thoughts were still in England, because England was written all over my DNA and my subconscious mind was a cauldron brimming full of it. I wrote about the strange feeling of departure, bearing fear and uncertainty. The ground was trembling and I didn’t know what would happen next.

Now the tables have turned and I am due to fly back to England tomorrow. This time the feeling is less ecstatic and fear is out of the equation, but departure is certainly felt and with it, as my thoughts race 700 miles ahead of my body, I am already partly in England. I have been lost to the gushing streams, hazy heights, and dazzling lights – a dreamland made complete by the big white orb that oscillates between the city and sky. In twelve hours time I will finally awake. The end of the dream is nigh.

Before London tolls me back to the life I knew, I wish to reflect for a moment on my relationship to my immediate environment while I’m still here. As quoted in my exhibition statement, c.2000AD was founded on this ‘sense of detachment’ – I could not have begun to turn the present into a fiction if I did not feel that it already was! Yet before I had conceived my first idea for this Turin-specific show, I’d already considered some ideas for identifying an awareness of place in more general terms, although still specific to Italy. Inspired by several public information boards I had seen around the city my intention was to create a series of site-specific street-maps with ‘Voi Siete Qui’ (you are here) arrows on them. The arrows would, however, be incorrect or imprecise, and the idea was to see if anyone would realise this. With the addition of a question mark, the phrase ‘You are here’ in Italian becomes ‘Are you here’[?] and this play on language was central to the work. The effect of c.2000AD owed a lot to the easy-to-understand display with the addition of some handouts that had been translated into Italian, with thanks to gallery director Barbara Fragogna. For this early text-based idea however, the only language was Italian.

I reserved this idea as a side-project, making a printing block in my spare time out of old wooden letters (from a market stall) wedged into a fragment of chair frame. And now that the exhibition is over, I have finally devoted some time towards making some prints. While thinking of different papers to test the block I found some blank postcards that I’d brought with me from England and realised how this would be more favourable than using a display board. The postcard is a perfect format because it is a symbol of ‘distanced travelled’. Instead of ‘Wish You Were Here’ or any representation of a place, ‘Are You Here?’ turns the receiver rather than the sender into the subject of the postcard. The phrase is ambiguous in questioning their location but also their understanding of reality. Such questions as ‘are we really here?’ and ‘why are we here?’ have tempted me to read philosophy since my mid-teens. And more recently, in my art practice, I have been examining the feeling of detachment that makes the unfamiliar so extraordinary, or at least detaching oneself from the familiar.

I have been slowly waking up here, and now feel used to the climate, sights and sounds of the city, the cross-rhythms between river and engines, not to mention the music of the Italian language. It is that language that buzzes in my head each evening as I return to my studio and has provided the soundtrack to my adventures here. On the surface, those tunes tell me that I am here, but something far deeper vies to tell me otherwise.

XXXVI: ‘…longer than the earth and broader than the sea.’

I am glad that I had the chance to visit the suburbs before leaving Turin. Away from the historic facades of the city centre, the #36 bus toured me through a more familiar urban aesthetic under clouded skies, though when I finally reached Castello di Rivoli I was greeted by arches and colonnades once more, this time even grander than those in the city.

Its vaults were filled with installations by world-famous contemporary artists whilst its walls boasted original decor. This resultant dialogue between past and present themes made the gallery particularly unique. Paradise Institute (2001) is a remarkable cinema-simulation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller which reanimated an old performance room. Meanwhile, further down the hall, a surreal barrel sculpture by Paloma Varga Weisz was complimented by similar mythical depiction on the faded walls. Richard Long’s organic rings stood out from the colourful crowd because, with the exception of Penone’s tree-forms, they were the purest natural exhibits and offered much room for thought. Finally, it was Olafur Eliasson’s cosmic lightshow titled The Sun has no Money that I found to be the most mesmerising.


On the top floor the gallery space was closed, but the view towards the surrounding suburbs and hills made up for this. From a small barred window the scene before me was an ‘installation’ of human life – a clockwork diorama under a frosted lightbox. In the foreground the subjects at the roundabout were tender prey for the forces of nature, and their own collisions a greater threat. I figured out that this work is about the frailty of human efforts among sublime proportions.

From up here time is slower; everything crawls. People shift like loose petals in a gentle draft, while cars take the form of larger dry leaves gliding faster but still susceptible to being crushed to dust. These are delicate components among the (only slightly) more robust trees and houses. The occasional raindrop slipping off the eaves sent shivers down my spine. Against the stagnant sea of stick-figures below, each drop evoked the vision of tripping and falling forty feet and the sound of bones breaking. The effect of the work was completed by the distant hills. This turned the trees and houses into plastic figures and the thought of human achievements into ashes. The view was a reminder of our size on a geological scale. From multi-storey car-parks to towering fortresses, man has engineered many firm structures, but at high vantage points iron girders become pick-up-sticks and skyscrapers teetering Jenga spires. The broad clouds bore the threat of crushing or toppling these, but they didn’t. Movement was subtle and quiet, yet the clockwork would not cease. Everything worked.

The vast staircase was fragile and I didn’t feel comfortable until I was back at the reception desk. The dizzying heights had disrupted my sense of scale on the earth, making me feel far smaller, like my room-travel imagination had done. From the tower the world was bigger and human existence became diminished, both in scale and effect. I stepped outside to resume my role as a background figure, and the cinematic installation morphed back into everyday life.

Before I returned to the city I watched Francesco Jodice’s film Atlante – a montage of 20th-century media imagery interspersed by a slow panning shot of a statue of the Greek god Atlas. The nine minutes of silent footage were pervaded by a dramatic minimalist score reminiscent of dystopian films like 28-days-later. The video was extremely powerful in condensing a century into less than ten minutes, as if it were a short TV episode or a splicing together of historic footage to create a memorial to planet earth. The intention to create myth out of the recent past was very effective. I watched in awe as the 1960s suddenly became eons ago. The feeling was powerful and the images apocalyptic, showing how small we stand amidst the ‘weight of the world’ and the passage of time. In a succession of TV transmissions, fashion shoots and nuclear explosions, everything will vanish in the blink of an eye – like petals and leaves crushed to dust. If we don’t ‘eclipse’ ourselves, the sky eventually will[15].

XXXV: Dora [RIP]Aria

After dreaming the morning away, I was determined to mark whatever was left of the day by attempting my ‘river recording’ idea, so I raced towards Ponte Ramello to reach the 2pm matinee performance. From there I followed the flowing melody and performed alongside it. The resultant walk was a duet between primitive human movement and the far older forces of nature. The bridges were ‘rests’, several bars long, not in which to breathe silently, but to wait for the fidgety guffawing city to pass – an interval measured out by crosswalks in order to recommence the riverside stroll. My constant footsteps provided the continuo section while the flowing harmonies rose and fell. Meanwhile the mechanical urban cross-rhythms, though brash and largely improvised, were not too disruptive. Perhaps this was the sequel to my first jaunt along this river over a month ago. By now sound had become not just an idea but a devoted area of study, and I tuned not only my own ears, but my camera’s HD settings toward the dense splashy airwaves.

The microphone was however inferior to the organs of human perception, and I realised early on that the more immediate pen-and-notebook recordings can relay the truest experience of this performance, rather than any precise camera footage. The marlstone sky soon turned to a damp slate and this lighting was surely too miserable for anyone else to favour the riverside stage today. After Parco Dora it was more difficult to access the river, but much later on, at Ponte Rossini, I found a sort of concrete beach that I remembered having seen from the roadside last week. There I began a video from the corner of Via Catania to show my descent into, and along, the bank-side auditorium. At first I wondered why this route was not more popular to cyclists, like the Po-side promenades, but soon took note of the slippery conditions deriving visions of Bas Jan Ader-esque failings and more fatal tidal gulps.


The thin strip of land became more isolated as the tides up ahead climbed onto its flagstone shore. Though the watery melodies were overpowering, I carried on playing my part regardless. The ice thickened and my jittering gait became evermore off-beat and fuzzy, until suddenly, in one monumental scuff-up, my strings snapped. I slipped and hit the floor while the water music played on unhindered. My performance was over and my instrument was seriously damaged – not my legs but my now-fractured eight-year-old Panasonic Lumix FX35 (which can still see but has now lost its ability to communicate in the way it used to). I then backtracked along the stony spit until re-entering the urban world and felt it best to ‘walk off’ the disappointment along the tranquil River Po as the cold night set in.

Long before the ‘incident’ occurred, the performance had begun smoothly, up until the ‘Environment Park’ where the ensemble broke apart for some time while the river disappeared underground. If today’s mishap felt like a step backwards then at least I had found something fascinating about this environment. The space appeared to have the potential for both weekend recreation and environmental ‘re-creation’. Under the sullen sky this world was still prenatal, if not stillborn, and showed little signs of life. As I followed the path I spied the subterranean river through a crumbled concrete grid to my left and a far more discrete metal one to my right. Peering through its keyholes into a cavernous watery wonderland, I could see the River of Styx flowing forcefully, whilst up on ground level, a small hydroelectric power station hummed steadily. This building stood midway along an ornamental canal, speculating what a river on ground level might look like – a monument to the Dora that has been ‘buried’ here.


And this was not the only relic of an ‘extinct’ natural environment familiar to our time. On the canal there were cages of rocks, as if they were fine specimens preserved from an ancient geological past and at the end of the towpath stood a huge metal cage housing several tall trees – exotic species to the concrete future that the park seemed to suggest. The newer saplings took the formation of the calculated planting that I saw near Lingotto, to compose a dull landscape, far from a wilderness. Beyond the tree-cage was a wasteland that I had seen before from over the fence. It was populated by several species of colacanthus, hubcapotamus, and umbrellamas, as well as many bluebottles and greenbottles among thousands of their brown and clear cousins in various sizes.


I concluded that this Environment Park must have been inspired more by dinosaur parks than any conventional wildlife park; or perhaps the name got lost in translation. As a public attraction it appeared to take in few visitors, and even as a pedestrian bypass it is thwarted by the railway track that slices vertically through the city, with a construction-site metal fence blocking off the eastern exit. This environment successfully curtails any direct experiential or spiritual connection between man and river, in favour of a connection to a power supply and the production of electricity. The music of nature is now hushed, and the humming and buzzing of generators are the new timbres here. The visible landscape appears wilted and crumbled and there is still a lot I do not understand about what is going on here and how this qualifies as an ‘Environment Park’; rather, it is a shrine to hydroelectric power – the city’s mild attempt at being ‘green’. Perhaps this is still a work in progress and I can remain hopeful that the ‘flowers will bloom’ here and people will begin to notice them. Today they appear unpopular, and I predict that I will remember Turin for its car-dependency, smog, and overall disinterest in recycling. Sure I’ll miss its green spaces and riverside paths, but sorely won’t forget their inherent conflict with the city.

XXXIV: Room-Travel Guide

Before arriving in Turin I had a few ideas specific to the city. One of them was dedicated to Xavier de Maistre who, in 1794 whilst under house arrest in Turin for 42 days, decided to document his indoor movements in a travelogue entitled ‘Journey Around my Room’. Since reading this now-popular book in April, this optimistic account, which turns confinement into discovery, has had a profound effect on my ideas about travel and living. Later that month it inspired the concept exhibition ‘Orientations’ at Stew Gallery, which positioned the viewer’s ‘journey around the room’ as a work of experiential art. ‘Room travel’ and ‘being a tourist at home’ remain interesting concepts to my art-practice, which is prone to inverting conventions and challenging the quotidian. But I feel that spending my time in Turin entirely indoors, in homage to a long-deceased creative cavalryman, would step the boundary from art to ridicule, and is probably harmful to my own sanity too.

In Turin, as much as back home, my movements are restless and I am always changing routine and studying in different rooms. During the days leading up to my exhibition I felt compelled to sit still and explore only one room – the studio. Here I travelled far and wide through many vigils before cultivating what was fast becoming a landfill site into a new cleaner environment. But now that I am on a new smaller plot of domestic land, one quarter of the size of the studio, and I feel more comfortable and inspired. With fewer walls it is easier for me to vision this six-by-three-metre space as a microcosmic landscape, and here I can have many journeys from the shady depths of the desk to the towering plateau of the bunk-bed mattress. I suppose I am so intrigued by this form of travel because it breaches another realm, outside of perceived reality – the imagination of the human mind.

I often find being at home in the day frustrating, but when the night arrives the feeling is very different. The thought of the sleeping city makes the world smaller, until there is only myself and the room I inhabit. Beyond the walls there is nothingness; therefore the space within the walls becomes a space to relax and think, and from there the imagination begins to thrive[14]. While the freeze bites the windy world that the daytime knew, a warmer air sets in across the land of ‘planet room.’ Especially under that veil of darkness the room can be any terrain imaginable, and within touching distance of the grey painted sky the feeling of being up high is enough to turn the edge of the bunk-bed that I am sitting upon into a precipice before a network of valleys below. The walls are just an illusion here and the doorway to the bathroom marks the way to fresh springs and deep wells. The radiator and stove become volcanic hotspots, and the stairs a mountain path towards a higher ground as yet unknown.

This subversion of scale brings me back to my younger mind, when the bed really was a mountain to climb, and the table top a grey desert at eye-level. Names like ‘Table Mountain’ in Cape Town evoke such a proportional mix-up between the domestic and geological scales, and we can thank Hispanic etymology for popularizing this comparison in the ‘Mesa’ plateaus landform. At some point in Brazil’s history too, the mountain beside the estuary was compared to a sugarloaf, and I am sure there are plenty of lesser-known examples where landforms are brought down to the human scale. Absent from the mechanised West, the gift of imagination still thrives in such indigenous people who blame skyward beasts for thunderstorms and squirming subterranean eels for earthquakes. It is the role of imagination today to reconstruct myths that science has disproven.

Back in the room, if I sit and stare at things for enough time (like de Maistre did), I can transform them into a new wilderness and reinvent the dullest of interior landscapes. The drawing that I have been creating is a study of the living space. Its aesthetic marks a return to a style familiar to my pre-Turin practice – a proportionally accurate map rendered in a playful imagination, to illustrate a fantasy world modelled on a familiar environment. The design is an interpretation of ancient cartography, but the gridlines suggest more contemporary diagrams. Ironically on this occasion Google Earth or Wikipedia were not on the agenda. Instead, a tape measure, ruler, pen and paper were the only physical tools used. This is therefore a map that de Maistre’s contemporaries would have been capable of producing with technological ease.

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In my projection the interior landscape is multiplied by a hundred, to suggest that there are many more crevices to explore than meets the eye, and this is familiar to many works of fiction since Gulliver’s Travels. The furniture’s material origin is hinted at in names of tree species or rock types and this provides a fairly objective account (a red wooden table becomes Redwood Mesa, and a pine wardrobe Pinewood Peak etc.). Conversely the floor-space has been labelled to animate the landscape with my habits: Morning Valley is the passage that proceeds climbing down from bed, and Nightshift Canyon where I work nocturnally, at Marl Mesa – the grey table. The three apples currently on this desk have been mapped as trees to give an additional reminder of the source of possessions and consumables.

The room has been inverted from my desk-bound, ego-centric perspective, and aligned north to reorient a sense of place far beyond the exterior wall. Beyond that wall the backyard is a ‘stormy sea’, whereas the only cold and wet conditions the interior knows are found in the standing water and craters of Htab Moor (Bath Room). Any indoor region will always be distinct from outdoors in scale, but the difference in climate has set us apart gradually from our cave-dwelling ancestors. The central heating system breathes out warm currents further than just the Arid Plains where the tea-towel dries. In merging the indoor and outdoor environment on the common format of a linear map also outlines the differences between the two environments, just as much as the similarities. After all, this is what room-travel is about – merging outdoor and indoor spatial orientation, climate and scale.

Over two centuries have passed since de Maistre’s hibernation, and I am sure that in the online-delivery/home-studio climate of the Information Age, some people have surely spent a lot longer indoors, even on a voluntary basis. We seem to be continually evolving into indoor creatures as the computer screens provide gateways into ever-clearer landscapes. But in my room-travel guidebook, this screen will always only be a shimmering lake on a plateau among ravines well-trodden. And if this is just a three-by-six-metre floor-space at the back of an artist’s studio then there will always remain a colossal universe to be discovered in the stormy seas outside!

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Stormy Seas!

XXXIII: Shedding Skin

I have done more exciting things in the last few days than taking out the trash, but I suppose the subject of the following post qualifies me as an environmental observer and not a sightseeing raconteur. When I visited the non-recyclable waste crate in Piazza Peyron yesterday I saw a menagerie of litter-species, in a variety of shapes and sizes, all squirming chaotically. The card and paper enclosure showed an almost identical sight. I found it hard to distinguish between the two and even harder to remain faithful to recycling, among the locals’ unanimous disregard.

The trees around Piazza Peyron have shed their litter too, but this will never last, and come spring, the leaf-tide landfill of autumn will be a thing of the past. Nature is a shoreline that ebbs and flows, but never clots or bursts its banks. Yet in and around Turin (and I’m sure many other cities) lie plastic subspecies of the human race, both in conflict with the standards of cleanliness on the streets, and the living conditions of a greater eco-system on the riverbank. Unlike the mausoleums ashes, the plastic and metal along the riverbank can never rest peacefully and neither can the more lively winged or legged creatures that nest around them. Their synthetic colours are loud and obtrusive and, in some places, their abundance makes any efforts to control their numbers feel futile. I think that the local council could do more to make recycling more accessible; not having the general waste and recycling bins the same colour and shape could be a start. But a general change in attitude is also necessary to dig Turin out of the scattered rubble of unwanted junk, wine crates and cardboard boxes as well as the clouds of smog, which the neighbouring towns and country homes don’t have to worry about as much[12].

Pavements and greenery are only the starting point, over walls and fences the scene is worse and the core of the problem becomes clear in the depths of wheelie bins. People just don’t seem to mind their waste outliving them[13]. In England I do not recall such entanglement of different synthetic species, but then again the bins are not left open/on display at curb-sides, disguised as parked cars. Perhaps, in five days when I return to England I will begin to notice waste there, for I have found that if I really focus on the situation, as I have been doing for the past month, human presence becomes see-through and our litter noticeably out-populates us. If we were to suddenly vanish then litter will seemingly take our place.

This is an image I have already drawn up in writing, but I saw it redrawn much clearer today, in a visual, spatial form by Adrian Villar Rojas at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Here, among an exotic archipelago of igneous boulders, perched the riches and ruins of the human race. Like an 18th-century still life painting, wealth of nature was amassed in a single glance: grapes, pumpkins and exotic shells. But the fruits were decaying, like the slabs of animal flesh on the next rock, and mouldy rags further on. The shoes and colourful clothing not only represented human absence but effectively carbon-dated these ruins to a time familiar to us. These were far more monumental fossils of the ‘late Plastic Era’ than mine in c.2000AD.

Initially I saw ephemeral organic life paired with the eternal geological strata, and concluded that this display must symbolise our helplessness against the passage of time and the forces of nature, in some way (and more effectively the stubborn degradation of our waste on the patient hills and plains). The last rock that I came across, gilded with a single blue running shoe, epitomized my modern-day fossils concept. The shoe is the most iconic trace of human presence – its imprint puts man on the same track as the animals, all racing over one ground but leaving different traces. Our mark is weightier than theirs, not in the prints of our hooves or paws but in the skin that we shed.

We’re all snakes shedding skin over the ground we pass over; skin that seldom turns to umber, and never to dust; skin of a thousand pigments that binds onto natural surroundings like knotted cables. If only we could take the time to move at the snake’s pace too, then maybe we can notice this second skin, untangle and divide it. The reason why the crates are such a jungle is because the majority, it seems, would rather waste the earth, than waste their time. To most, there’s neither time to waste, nor time for waste besides the five minutes ‘wasted’ tying a knot in a bag of pick ‘n’ mix refuse and tossing it into the nearest anonymous green crate. When the lid is closed it is no longer our business (…but perhaps one day its greater impact will be). What I saw in Adrian Villar Rojas’ surreal installation was a vision of that day, far in the future after the fall of mankind where that second skin is left scattered over the rocks like grains of sand … though some of it reminded me a little too much of scenes I saw last Tuesday along the riverbank!

XXXII: Crowded Chimes and ‘Starry’ Skies

Taking a lens that I keep in my wallet I gazed out towards the complex star-field from the balcony of Starship Cappuccini. The galaxy was loud and explosive, and in the space of twenty minutes a thousand new stars were born into the night sky before hopelessly disintegrating into the hazy abyss. Each spark stood for a new beginning, its embers the fading of past habits. To add to the lightshow, several capsules of candle-lit space-junk were being unmoored from the deck where I stood to drift aimlessly through the dark orange void. That brief moment, 00:00 – 00:20am on January 1st, 2016, was a magical time to be alive.

But then all of a sudden the colour faded both from the faces of passengers around me and the sparkling star-field. The show was over and the galaxy was transformed back into the city once again as the dirge of honking and humming recommenced. When the magic had cindered, I soon followed the crowds downhill knowing it would take another 366 days until all those red and green stars will be visible again[11].


In a less relaxed manner, the ticking of the second-hand was almost tangible when cycling across the city in a race to meet the New Year from the hilltop perch. In just 25 minutes after leaving the front door I was near the top of the hill, and on the way up I realised that my plan was not so odd after all. The crowds here were in fact bigger than they were at sunset; it seemed that for one day only the monotonous Gregorian calendar was under the spotlight, while the juggling acts of the sun, moon and stars were hidden backstage. The fireworks and streelamps were the new cosmos.

The setting of the sun may divide out days of remembrance, but the New Year’s cheer marks a far more monumental transition to the human race. While I cycled frantically I couldn’t help but think of the different designs my tombstone would take if I was fatally hit by a tram on the way to, compared to the way back, from the mountain. But on this ‘eve of head injuries’ (‘cappodanno’) I wished only for my mind to be mangled by thoughts about time and place, and the experience of the wave of euphoria sweeping across the iridescent city was indeed inspirational.

Although my two-minute video was a rather unoriginal work of art, it is significant in composing a picture of a landscape. Like an historic landscape painting may be dated 1782-83 for example, my video can be correctly labelled 2015-16, suggesting two years of work when only two minutes were involved. This comparison follows my continuous theme of ‘historicizing the present’, where 2016 is only a fixture in a distant past and a record of days and months have become irrelevant. But more effectively, when I compare a random date of the distant past with our current time I think about the increased speed of living, and even faster rate of ‘composing’ images. Technologies have sped up our movements in space, across land, sea and sky. The New Year marks the beginning of another twelve months in which to achieve what an 18th-century nobleman would struggle to experience over the stretch of a whole lifetime, in distance travelled, or an even greater scope of information accessed. The camera’s memory, however, cannot compete with the onlooker’s mind and imagination. With all the speed, sights and signals that technology delivers, there is little room left to pause and think about our position in time and space.

Looking down from the hilltop toward the Mole Antonelliana’s pinnacle, orbited by iridescent explosions and ecstatic voices at the stroke of midnight, I am reminded exactly when I am, if not only where I am. And at this moment millions of lives are recalibrated, filled with renewal of hope, which may gradually fade, at least until the galaxy is ignited in greens and reds once more.

 

XXXI: III, II, I, …MMXVI

On Monday December 28th 2015, one week after the shortest day of the year, the sun, still fairly high in the sky, lit up the River Po as I showed my parents around some of my favourite sights of Turin. The plan was to visit the medieval village then cross the river and ascend Monte di Cappuccini before sunset. With ten minutes to go we reached the viewing balcony and witnessed the city aglow. At 4:38 the orange haze turned to blue in a blink of an eye. A crowd had gathered to witness it and as I headed back down, some were still arriving, but too late. It was a moment marked by a noticeable change to mark the closing of just another day in the calendar year.

Today, in several hours time, the viewing platforms will be bar-stools, living room sofas, the pavements of Turin, Italy and further across the realms of GMT+1 and sequentially worldwide. But this is no momentary solar eclipse or dramatic sunset. The scene won’t appear greatly changed, and as Ben Gibbard’s lyrics reminds me each year, I won’t feel any differentThe change comes in things that we construct – a resolution perhaps for the coming months, or a new record ‘head injury’ the next morning[10].

We do this every time the earth’s orbit around the sun reaches this checkpoint and therefore we are celebrating part of the mechanism of the cosmos. A moment each year when the temperature is dropping and the trees are bare, like at any annual festivity; we are marking a point in the cycle of the year. Though really we are only embracing the creation and establishment of that calendar. Those who celebrate the New Year celebrate a unity under a common system of measuring time. We are all equal players in the slowest counting game that was ever dreamt up. Here there are no winners; the prize is a (personal) sensation sparked by the highest sense of communal happiness at the stroke of midnight – to mark a new number added on each time we write out a cheque or sign a document. Shortly thereafter, a new ring-bound king is enthroned on the kitchen wall to watch over our busy lives and keep record of our movements.

My celebration came a little early this year, on the occasion of a leaving party that I organised last night at my apartment to celebrate the end of my residency at the Fusion Gallery. The feeling of reaching that end is definitely present today. With no plans tonight, I propose to spend this New Year’s hootenanny far from the haze of a drunken hour, but with the haze of a buzzing city still very much in sight. Away from the crowds I can still make my memorable move in the mutual counting game. At 11:50pm, this evening, Thursday December 31st 2015, I shall return to the viewing balcony of Monte di Cappuccini to see the city under electric light, as I had done when I first reached this summit to visit the Museum of the Mountain almost a whole lunar cycle earlier. And at 11:59 I will begin a two-minute video to capture thousands of cheers at a glance ricocheting across the city.

XXX: Flowing Melodies

Yesterday, as I followed the path of the Dora once again, the sun was shining and it was another day in paradise. When I reached the Po there was a widespread smell of marmalade on toast all along the riverbank by Corso Casale – more pungent than the cinnamon smell I recall from the middle of the Monumental Cemetery the other week. These scents disturb my cognitive footings and reach another part of the brain that seems more closely linked to emotion. I register them because they seem out of place and I automatically start thinking up possibilities as to their origins. Without these moments of unexpected sensory excitement our lives are reduced to entirely what we see, particularly in the indoor environment where sight and touch seem to mean everything.

I have expressed my belief that ‘to be human’ and fully ‘alive’ is to be continually in touch with the natural outdoor environment. The prisoner in the cell is half-dead and yet many free individuals also prefer to spend their time living within ‘four walls’ of various designs. When outside, the malnourished sound and olfactory senses are fully revived; not to mention a sense of place and time of day. Smell, and its effect on the mind, is overlooked by many, but partly because of my enthusiasm for music, it is sound that I rejoice among the greatest joys of life, as much as being outdoors. And it is this that I turn my focus towards as I approach my final week in Turin.

I intend to explore the possibilities of sound as I continue to ‘research’ the river on foot. I have written already about the sound of both the Dora and Po, and today I took my first recordings at the banks beside its bridges. At these checkpoints, the water whitens as it very gradually lowers altitude. These rapids mark cadence points where the symphony encounters energetic motifs, before calming down to sweeter melodies with trickling scales and calmer dynamics.

The duration of a river is a lengthy piece of music whose tempo and dynamics are marked by the shape of its banks and bed. Although the texture is at first additive, the ending at the coastline (double bar-line) is often quiet and passive. But unlike the unexciting finale, its first and second movements see a great flux in dynamics, and it is this liveliness that makes Turin’s Dora Riparia so exciting. This river is only a prelude in ‘Opus Po’ one of the most substantial works of ‘Water Music’ in the whole of Italy. I feel that this prelude deserves further study and at attention, particularly the section that the Torino audience are most familiar with.

Fundamentally I am interested in the relationship between the city and the river and, in making recordings of the Dora, I want to focus on the overlooked wilderness more directly through sound rather than through any visual artefact. Unless I conjure up a sturdy boat from somewhere pretty soon, this project will operate on walking as a source of movement in order to study the length of the river. My proposal is to walk at a steady pace along sections of the river while taking an ongoing sound recording, keeping my distance from the water’s edge consistent. The walk will span only the (small) section of the Dora that is known to the city – from Parco Carrara detto della Pellegrina in the west to Parco Colletta in the east where it reaches the Po. I may then speed up the recording so that its changes can be more easily registered.

Although the riverbank is home to several small mammals and thousands of birds, a comparatively enormous human nest is woven around it. For ancient travellers, the river, when it wasn’t a valuable site for planting a community, was an obstacle along an earthen path, and to commuters today it is perhaps still an obstacle, if the nearest bridge is several hundred meters away. To the attentive pedestrian it may provide a space for leisure and exercise, but I wonder how many really concentrate their senses on the river and feel grateful for all the life it supports and represents. If exhibited, my finished sound recording will seek to bring a gallery audience closer to the ‘stage’ where the river’s melodies play, and ultimately unearth this record from dusty archives that the ‘human nest’ embowers.

XXIX: Plateau Lingotto

The fact that the two galleries I visited today were old car factories is evidence of how gritty industrial workhouses can be renovated into a pristine space for exhibiting visual art today, similar activity to that which I had witnessed taking place in Bilbao three years ago (see images below). The Foundation of Mario Merz in the former Lancia building was a large warehouse with an unforgettable installation of artwork by Christian Boltanski titled ‘After’. This display, accompanied by a documentary starring the artist, collectively provided a richly evocative reminder of the frailty of human presence and memory. The photographs inherently taught me about time, its passing, and the significance it has on the individual.

In comparison to c.2000 AD the works here were a lot more open to interpretation and appeared untitled, unlabeled and altogether inseparable among the installation. On the objective-subjective spectrum this display stood at the ‘white cube’ end, whereas my show had been intentionally more museological. From my perspective the stacked, veiled objects downstairs presented a city of white walls illuminated by the glow of a hundred neon suns. The vast revolving photographs upstairs were similarly architectural and nondescript about the viewer’s navigation.

The Pinacoteca Agnelli, which I visited earlier on, was not so evocative and the Ed Ruscha display felt too culturally estranged, despite the artefacts loaned from the city’s own museums exhibited alongside. But when I stepped out of the gallery onto the speedway roof-terrace I was taken to another world, a vast open space (and I had wondered why this building made such a mark on my map)! Now home to the Lingotto railway station and a shopping complex, this former Fiat factory offers art gallery ticket-holders a chance to relive a small part of its history (with the help of a little imagination), by roaming across its roof. While walking along the racetrack it was easy to imagine a dated Fiat 500 speeding past, while machines hum in the warehouses below. From up here I had a clear view over the city. However, there was a stronger presence of some utopian vision engineering a fractured urban landscape.

Peering over the barrier to the west I saw a patchwork of hedges and trees that turned natural plant growth into a car production line. As in the landscape painting tradition, the greenery wore square corners; the view from the roof down to the dense forest courtyard was sunk deep within a concrete frame. This was a clearer distant future than the one hinted at in c.2000 AD, where the growth of (what is left of) nature, is almost completely under the rule of man.

The building’s height had obscured the skyline, giving the appearance of a concrete desert extending as far as the eye can see. Architecture had turned into landscape, and natural wilderness was extinct. The omnipresent blue background, with its soft sun and ‘cloud streets’, completed the vision of a desolate concrete planet. On this grey plateau two spaceships stretched into that sky: one was the boxy penthouse containing the Pinacoteca’s permanent display, and the other was a rounded glass capsule from a 1960s sci-fi comic book. Several tubular blue tree-trunks lined the path at regular intervals like the formulaic planting of their leafy arboreal ancestors in the 21st century down below.

What had felt like a graveyard of the late 20th century, now became a fictitious ’40th century’ landscape – a surreal vision shaped by images of moon landings and renderings of some faraway planet’s surface. And this dream began before I had even stepped out onto the terrace. The red tinted glass at the gallery’s foyer created something utopian and almost intergalactic, warping my understanding of reality on planet earth. The walk around the track was more evocative than indoor museum exhibits, and walking the path of the motorcar had turned out to be monumentally thought-provoking. After an hour on the roof, I stepped back through the portal to the other side of the glass. The elevator plunged me back into the 21st century and the dream was over.

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Looking east, through the glass facade (under a Martian sky).