January 4, 2013, by aezna
A site-specific experience: Meshwork Worcester
While attending the bi-annual Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference in September I found myself unexpectedly in the middle of a site-specific event. All conference delegates had been given two options of ‘day trips’ in the middle of the conference: either a walking tour of the local Malvern hills or the mysteriously-titled ‘Walk and Talk Worcester’. Having given a paper on the tensions between the natural and the artificial in contemporary poetry earlier in the week, the decision was a difficult one for me. A ‘natural’ ramble or an ‘urban’ walk? In deference to the argument of my paper, as well as my tendency to be contrary, I opted for the latter.
Although clearly not the popular choice of conference delegates (one unfortunate walker ended up on the trip by organisational accident), the appropriateness for my own research was undeniable. I was in the depths of writing a PhD chapter on site-specific poetry, my paper at the conference had highlighted the need for a critical examination of the natural and the artificial in contemporary poetry of environment, and by sheer chance I had landed myself my very own site-specific experience. ‘Meshwork Worcester’ is a site-specific initiative by artists David Patten, Robert Colbourne, and Stuart Mugridge, supported and funded by Worcester City Council’s Design and Heritage Team and funded by the Arts Council England. The exercise began in the tunnel of an aqueduct with two of the artists, Robert and Stuart, introducing themselves to us and explaining what they wanted us to do. The aim was to walk around a designated area of Worcester city in small groups and, using the words ‘Convenience’, ‘Beauty’, ‘Symmetry’, ‘Method’, and ‘Nature’, write down our observations, thoughts, and questions about the site around us. The words were taken from a poem by John Gwynn, Worcester architect: the booklet given to us after the walk states the aim of ‘re-interpreting John Gwynn’s The Art of Architecture (1742)against Meshwork Worcester Aspiration’. This was all the information we were given about the project at the outset.
Each group wandered off for about an hour, sticking to the areas detailed in the large-scale map pinned to the interior of the aqueduct tunnel. As someone with little natural spatial awareness, this was challenging, but certain landmarks such as the gold ‘bee hive’ library helped us to stay within the boundaries of the experience. We all noted down our observations – which I will leave out of this blog for reasons that will become clear – and reported back to the organisers. On our return Robert and Stuart went round the groups asking for their thoughts on each word, and later, specific areas on the map. They then answered our questions and provided exceedingly detailed historical information about the area, making links between the past and the present and our own experiences.
‘Meshwork Worcester’ deliberately leaves the agency of the site-experience and interpretation to the participants, as they construct their own opinions and thoughts on Worcester before being given additional information on the landscape. This reverse form of walking tour allowed us to see the city from a different perspective: as steeped in history, but also as a contemporary moment and experience. This seems to contrast markedly with other site-specific landscape performances such as Mike Pearson’s ‘Bubbling Tom’ (2000), where Pearson re-creates his own memories of his childhood village, Hibaldstow. Pearson walks around ten locations in the village, recalling and performing his memories as the audience look on. ‘Meshwork Worcester’, on the other hand, allows the audience to create or recall its own memories (of which this blog is an example), without dictation from the artists. This is a two-way process: the audience’s views on the walk inform the artists’, and the artists’ knowledge of the area benefits the audience; the artists collected our notebooks of site observations, which will become important for the next stage of their project.
The word ‘Meshwork’ in the title deliberately responds to Tim Ingold’s notions of taskscape, meshwork, and wayfaring, giving the site-work a theoretical basis. It put me particularly in mind of Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst’s idea that ‘the movement of walking is itself a way of knowing’; as the audience walked and wayfared through the city they came to know it in their own way. The project meshes together not only the practices of walking and performing and the experiences of the audience and the artist, but Worcester itself; the booklet picks up on themes of the area, including terracotta sunflowers (which, unfortunately, I failed to observe on my walk!), landscape views, flooding, and specific features such as the Screen House, creating a distinct narrative of site. The key word I picked up on was ‘method’: whilst walking, we had been unable to tie in our experiences with the notion of method, but as the architecture of the event became clear I began to think about site-specificity and method. Why does site-orientated work seem to highlight and foreground so explicitly its methodologies? In the case of ‘Meshwork Worcester’, we were given a clear preamble (or rather, post-ramble) on the processes and theory behind the walk. My own work has been focusing on the processes of site-specific poetry, and Nick Kaye has called attention to the relationship between performance, recording, and documentation of site-specific art. He claims that ‘documents do not simply reflect upon the apparent contradiction of attempting to record site-specific works in another place, time, and through another medium, but act out some of the complexities of the relationship between work and site.’ Poetry could be seen as a document of site, then, a linguistic recording of a particular moment in place and time, and a working through of the apparent gap between site-experience and site-work. ‘Meshwork Worcester’ attempts to address the problem of method and documentation, it seems, by integrating the audience and performance into the actual recording itself, as the words of the audience become part of the site record. This echoes Alice Oswald’s poetic methods in Dart (2002), where she recorded voices of the community before re-writing their voices into the poem; and Alec Finlay’s White Peak/ Dark Peak (2010), in which readers of the text are invited to follow the project’s walk of the peak district, listening to the collaborative poetry along the way. Here, then, we can begin to see that site-specific performance and poetry have a good deal in common; both foreground their methods of documenting sites, and site-specific experience, through language.
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