I am just back from a trip to Edinburgh for a rather unusual conference/workshop called ‘Experimenting with Geography: See-hear-make-do’:
an event dedicated to developing a diverse range of craft skills associated with audio, visual and site-specific methodologies, at different city locations, both inside and out-of-doors. It will take place at the University of Edinburgh, 3rd-7th May 2010.1
The application forms were due in January and since then there has been a steady build-up to the five-day event, with an online forum. This was a space for us to introduce ourselves (e.g. myself) and for us to begin thinking about projects that we might like to explore when we met up. I travelled up on Sunday evening by train and checked in to a small but nice guest house a few miles from the centre. The programme began Monday afternoon with an introduction by Michael Gallagher, who had organised the event. Although he was self-deprecating and claimed his talk was “just the boring stuff” there was something else going on.The conference/workshop, it was hoped, would provide a collective and expanded sense of what is possible along the boundaries of academic-artistic practice, and how to go about it. An attempt to create a new community of experimental researchers who might develop a diverse range of craft skills. The projects that had been mentioned were not obligatory, but would provide some focus throughout the conference. Towards the end of the week, if we felt like sharing some work with the group, we would arrange sessions for ‘crits’ (critical feedback, as found in art-schools, rather than the Q&A at academic conferences). More workshop than conference, the event was to be informal, convivial, experimental, collaborative and impose no obligations. Each half-day would comprise an introductory talk (of some sort) and then a practice-session.
First up was a presentation by Hayden Lorimer, a geographer whose writing I admire2. It was no surprise then, that he was to talk about narrative and style. His paper, work-in-progress we were told, was titled ‘Some thoughts on narrative and style. Or, can geography produce special effects?’ and was, in his own words, a provocation with no clear answer. The paper was composed of six parts (1. Narrative Styles and Genres / 2. Scaling Narrative / 3. Inhabiting Narrative / 4. Learning to Value Narrative / 5. Styles of Learning Narrative / 6. The Politics of Style) and was a call to change cursive practices, to extend the notion of narrative and to re-consider geographical writing as a form of art. Hayden’s concern for leading with stories goes against those who claim that a geopoetics favours style over substance, instead arguing that, whilst it is not without risk, it can convene the particularities of place.
Through the process of storying into shape a place, self and world blur; tone and atmosphere are conjured up. It also asks questions of how we respond to these writings: is critique and evaluation possible, and if so, what shape might these take? Stories do not invite questions in the same way and there are no journal guidelines outlining the merits or mechanics of a good story. What space for a presentation without closure, for a celebration of the inexplicit? I asked Hayden if we needed to create new journals, new outlets for these kinds of writing but he thought it would instead be better if people tried to submit to established journals, and to try to change practices and approaches this way. After all, it’s not a case of getting away with it, more a question of getting on with it. Perhaps I might need to re-submit the paper on fieldwork… The paper ended with a hope that more geographers might be willing to experiment and, foreshadowing Nigel Thrift’s paper later on in the week, noted the need for more languages, new expressions, and more poetic, emotional and personal styles of writing.
The second half of the afternoon was ‘Songs from before – creating the conditions for appreciative listening’ and was animated by two questions:
What might it mean to speak up imaginatively for the archive’s existence as a site as much as a set of sources? What might it mean to give greater voice to those social contexts orbiting out steadfast consultation of documentary content?
To give the workshop, and those methodological provocations, greater grip and focus, it pivoted around a single historical item/object/text: an illustrated sound-book, called ‘Songs of Wild Birds’. Listening, discussion, reading, interpreting, and later, our own recordings. A sound archive, bird-song as a mobile event (transformed, warped) and a querying of the relationship between ‘archive’ and ‘field’. Not bad for an afternoon.