Posted on December 31st, 2012 in musings and tagged memory, nature, sketch
In winter of 1506 the cold winds came down from the north with a fury, bringing with them a polar frost…
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There was no rain that year. The old adage about April showers proved false…
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As the spring thaw cracked the frozen ground into a million tiny fragments, the first shards of green…
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Centuries passed, slow behemoths pushing into the wind. Color had drained from the world, leaving only outlines of shapes and forms. Or rather, there remained memories of colors long gone which were overlaid on gray tones filled between the lines…
Posted on November 23rd, 2012 in musings and tagged mapping, memory, philadelphia, spatial_practice
I am not alone in my longtime fascination with maps. My earliest map memories originate during boyhood family road trips across the southwestern United States while diligently following our route with my finger on the many free gas station roadmaps I collected from the various states we traversed. Also during my boyhood, I collected an array of maps brought to me via our family’s subscription to National Geographic, these all with quite different programs than the pragmatic roadmaps I consulted on our journeys. Over time, my interest in maps evolved as I began to travel on my own and by different modes of transportation. Maps became much more a necessity for augmenting my less than reliable sense of direction as I explored foreign lands. They also became a mnemonic device I used to piece together fragments of spatial experiences collected during my travels.
Increasingly, as I matured as an artist, my aesthetic and conceptual interest in landscape, cities, and architectural space meant looking to maps as a way to orient and represent my relationship to the world around me. Soon, the social and political dimension of maps and mapmaking and its attendant discourse (particularly from the field of human/cultural geography) greatly impacted my work, and I identified myself with critical spatial practices, a theoretical designation corralling a diverse group of contemporary and historical artists, designers, architects, geographers, and urbanists. In the more recent past, maps again became much more pragmatic tools for me in the context of my work as an activist and organizer promoting community interests in large-scale urban planning and development issues in Philadelphia. As such, land use and zoning maps overlayed upon plat maps overlayed upon political district maps overlayed upon environmental impact maps revealed narratives of competing interests vying for control of the space of the city.
The above is a grossly abridged account of some key moments from my life with maps. (It occurs to me that a longer, more detailed history might be quite helpful to chart a major thematic concern of my life and inform my future work!) The impetus for this reflection stems from a map experience I had earlier this week at the newly renovated Philadelphia History Museum (formerly known as the Atwater Kent Museum) where the ground floor features a room-sized map of Philadelphia. Stepping into a map of that scale places you on the outer edge of the smaller, conventional map’s quality of abstraction — the map ceases to be a singular, digestible whole taken in all at once and instead must be physically navigated in order to piece together the territory. (In this way, it takes on the quality of the map described by Borges in “On Exactitude in Science” where the pursuit of the perfect map yields one that is overlayed onto the earth at a scale of 1:1; the map begins to become — and ultimately supersede — the terrain.) So, I spent a long time exploring the map, checking my sense of the spatial relationships between various districts in Philadelphia and piecing together visual fragments and memories of the city according to my movement through this map. The experience was engrossing and strangely satisfying, as each point on the map led to the next location to discover, and then to double back to a previous one so that I might triangulate my spatial awareness.
I relate this map experience to two other exemplary ones I’ve had. First, one of my favorite spatial points in Philadelphia is in the exact center of the City Hall courtyard where on the ground is painted an image of William Penn’s original grid plan for the city — and this point, of course, is the exact center of the original land area of Philadelphia. To stand on this central point is to experience a strange correspondence between the two centers: that of the map overlayed upon that of the city itself. My second reference is the Mapparium at The Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston, which is a 35-foot reverse globe that one walks into. The cognitive dissonance of being inside a globe looking at the map of the world as if you were on the outside of the globe is so disorienting to the point of being irreconcilable.
Posted on November 29th, 2008 in musings and tagged architecture, art, memory, walter benjamin
I recently discovered a remarkable (to me, anyway) connection between my past and the past of Walter Benjamin — or rather, my past as reconstructed in images drawn out of memory and Benjamin’s as recounted in a memoir (of images) of his childhood in Berlin. What we share is a vivid, vital, shadowy architectural space, one which looms somewhat significantly in my intellectual and creative evolution as it seems to anchor both a sense of loss and an aboriginal permanence in the early life of Benjamin the expatriate. Thinking back to his youth in the city of his birth, he writes in “Berlin Childhood around 1900″ (excerpt available) of the loggia, that classically modeled transitional space wavering in between interior and exterior depending upon the relative push and pull of light and dark, warmth and coolness. Here, he remarks on the loggia as memory space:
In the years since I was a child, the loggias have changed less than other places. This is not the only reason they stay with me. It is much more on account of the solace that lies in their uninhabitability for one who himself no longer has a proper abode. They mark the outer limit of the Berliner’s lodging. Berlin — the city god itself — begins in them. The god remains such a presence there that nothing transitory can hold its ground beside him. In his safekeeping, space and time come into their own and ﬁnd each other. Both of them lie at his feet here. The child who was once their confederate, however, dwells in his loggia, encompassed by this group, as in a mausoleum long intended just for him.
My explicit engagement with architecture and memory began with the above image of a loggia, sketched shortly after returning from a year abroad in Rome as an undergraduate. The loggia held a similar fascination for me as a very particular container of memory, a representation capable of describing the relationship between memory and architecture. (Albeit often suffused with nostalgia and romanticism; it became my task later to problematize such notions and investigate the politics of memory, both personal and collective.) This image led to the construction of other images of architecture — half-remembered, half-invented, part literary, part autobiographical, part who-knows-what — and then provoked me to enter grad school to actually study architecture and understand the role of memory in the practice and theory of architecture. In the preface to my master’s thesis — ostensibly about 20th century Italian architect Aldo Rossi — I recalled this potent remembered architectural image in order to begin an exploration of how we make meaning in the buildings and spaces we inhabit:
Later, there was a time when architecture happened to me and I became conscious of its happening. I remember it. I remembered it. Meaning, I first became conscious of architecture happening to me as it happened to me in my memory. Meaning, the architecture was just an image, but an image of such profound significance that it single-handedly provoked me to embark on what can only be called my “life’s work” — meaning architecture. Meaning meaning. Meaning building. Meaning building. Building meaning. Making meaning out of the memory of architecture.
Curiously, I first noticed architecture as it appeared to me in an image, as a brief flash in my memory. I was a painter; I quickly drew it on paper. Where did it come from? It was familiar yet vague; it was the place I had never been but revisited everyday for the past year. Some ancient loggia in Italy — in Cinque Terre, by the sea? or in Rome, on the bank of the Tiber? (The previous year, I had lived in Rome and studied art and art history.) I became obsessed with the image. I made paintings about it, returning to it, exploring it (at this time I was working in a dingy studio in the midst of a very cold and gray Philadelphia winter).
It’s satisfying to me to unexpectedly share the loggia with Benjamin in this way. Like most young art students, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” was one of my earliest introductions to art theory in general and critical theory in particular (I serve it up to my undergraduate students as well). I’ve found solace and inspiration in the richness of his multivalent reveries; I’ve wandered the streets of Berlin with his words and ideas supporting my own thoughts; I’ve imagined the stalls of Les Halles while thumbing the pages of his Arcades Project; I’ve wrestled with his political philosophy. This latest reengagement with Benjamin is borne of a current video project dealing with the structure of memory and a summer spent in Berlin and small recorded fragments of everyday life, and I find that his words say more effectively the things that I am thinking:
Language shows clearly that memory in not an instrument for exploring the past but its theater. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. This confers the tone and bearing of genuine reminiscences. He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. [...] (from “A Berlin Chronicle”)