Before, between, in, on, and after: an account of the weekend in relation to some prepositions.
A preface to the writing:
Both the Travelling Dialogues weekend and Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan’s multi-part and multi-site work Are you LOCATIONALIZED which formed the spatial framework for the weekend’s activity seemed contingent on relational interactions – of one place in relation to another, the past in relation to the present, people in relation to place, people in relation to other people – and in beginning this text it was these temporal and spatial positionings that were most prominent in my memory. Therefore the travelogue that follows has a particular prepositional organisation that sits alongside the linear narrative, the structure of the work and weekend guiding the writing of the text.
In an introduction to Are you LOCATIONALIZED given by the artists at the start of the Travelling Dialogues weekend, Joanne remarked that the work existed as much in the spaces between the different parts of the work as it did in its various elements. Spanning the Hebridean islands of Skye and North Uist and including a number of different parts – two outdoor structures, one on each of the islands, an information desk in the ATLAS Arts’ office and a series of photo-works in Taigh Chearsabhagh depicting publicly sited sculptures in Uist and Loughborough University campus – the negotiation of these constituent pieces becomes an important part of the work itself. When thought of in this way, the physical and temporal space between takes on a particular tension between anticipation and memory; thinking forward to the yet seen, thinking back to the just seen.
The programming of Travelling Dialogues too drew heavily on the space and time between, its geographical framework shaped by the various sites of Are you LOCATIONALIZED. The travel between these places encouraged conversation between travellers, the journeying punctuated by tangential presentations and performances by a diverse group of invited speakers. Moving between Skye and Uist (and later, unexpectedly, between Uist and Harris, and Harris and Skye), Travelling Dialogues’ island hopping also drew attention to the necessity of the in-between for the physical and conceptual formation of islands; each island’s edges delineated by the sea and reached only by a traversal of this briny space between mainland and island, island and island.
Travellers congregated on Saturday morning in the ATLAS Arts’ office and, for the duration Are you LOCATIONALIZED, the site of the first part of the work we encountered – an anthropomorphic information desk from which visitors could collect a series of four posters or information sheets. As became apparent as our journey progressed, the information offered drew connecting lines between the various sites of Are you LOCATIONALIZED, allowing visitors in Skye an interestingly indirect insight into the work in North Uist and vice versa (the same posters available in Taigh Chearsabhagh too).
With the group assembled, the timetabled travelling began; a short walk from the office up to ‘the Lump’, a small hill overlooking Portree harbour and the location of the Apothecary’s Tower. A surprisingly squat octagonal structure, the original function of which was disputed by the local residents within the group, it had recently been given new cladding by Joanne and Tom, painted bubblegum pink with bold black and white details. Climbing the stairs inside the tower we were both in the work, but also rendered unable to view the work, the tower’s redecoration extending to its exterior only. Thus, the work so vibrantly evident from afar, became surprisingly quiet in closest proximity, deflecting attention from itself, back to the tower and to the view it gives across the surrounding landscape.
Standing at the base of the tower, Richard Williams gave the first presentation of the weekend, a talk titled Sex, Buildings, and Public Sculpture with the suitably phallic Old Man of Storr visible on the horizon behind him. Though touching on the sexualised appearance of buildings, the focus of the talk was on what people do in buildings and how buildings and people interact, with sex as a suitably provocative behaviour for stimulating this discussion. Describing a contemporary tendency towards ‘neo-libidinal’ architecture, spaces of flirtation but not consummation, Richard drew on a number of interesting examples of buildings where the architectural design might influence sexual behaviour; Schindler House in California, an ultimately failed attempt to create a co-operative live/work space for two couples which ended up with one separated couple living in its two halves; the Playboy mansion as an imaginative, if patriarchal, attempt to reconsider the nuclear family; the Orgone energy accumulator, a metal lined box designed to focus a hypothetical universal life force developed by the Austrian psychoanalyst Reich following research into the libido.
Having descended from the Lump and travelled by coach from Portree to the port at Uig, we boarded the first ferry of the weekend. The crossing from Skye to North Uist was animated by The Architect and The Intern ‘in conversation’ in the Calmac ferry lounge, a performance of a text by Joanne and Tom that most viewers would encounter in its written form on one of the four information sheets available. Through the dialogue between characters, the purpose and meaning of Are you LOCATIONALIZED was debated, and in some ways the text offered potential ways into the work. However, presented as a fictional, theatrical dialogue and a part of the work it discussed, the purpose of the writing playfully eluded a purely interpretive function, and continued the artists’ interest in the mechanisms and structures through which art is produced, displayed and disseminated.
On arriving in North Uist, we made the short walk from the ferry terminal to Taigh Chearsabhagh and gathered at the gable end of the old dairy that stands adjacent to the centre to view the second temporary structure made for Are you LOCATIONALIZED. Visually recalling the anthropomorphic desk in the ATLAS Arts office, the building’s gable wall was clad in Milky Way wood with prominent facial features. From a conical mouth extending outwards, the wall spoke, reciting a fragmentary and poetic text that drew together the macro and the micro, the universal and the local with a strangely eccentric cadence and distinctly Northern accent. Collaged from writing that a visitor might more usually encounter when visiting the island (tourist brochures, leaflets and websites) this repurposing presented a possibility for a different reading and a different understanding of what it might mean to relate to place.
Having spent much of the day in motion, an evening in Taigh Chearsabhagh afforded a welcome shift in pace and a pause in the travelling. It was also an opportunity to view the series of photo-works hung in various spaces throughout the centre, beautifully framed behind glass and stained board. Depicting North Uist’s road-end public artworks and the public artworks on Loughbourough University’s campus grounds, this unusually collated selection of black and white photos resisted easy definition.
Responding to the archival appearance of the photo-works, Fiona Jardine gave a talk exploring the origin of the term ‘archive’ and its subsequent meanings. With the help of Topshop’s premium range in the form of a fantastical pair of unworn heels, she traced a path from Derrida’s archival fever to Heidegger’s alternative to an aesthetic understanding of art (as he explained using Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of shoes). Continuing the evening’s apparently accidental footwear theme, Olof Ollson rounded off the first day’s programme with a performance of The Slipper Dilemma, offering the audience the opportunity to decide his choice of footwear. Early uncertainty around the true slippery-ness of the footwear options available resulted in an odd and occasionally heated debate with no clear outcome.
Sunday began on board a coach, artist and long-term Uist resident Sophie Morrish taking the role of reluctant tour guide. Her own practice informed by a deep engagement with landscape and immersion in place, our travels en masse, on a bus were the antithesis of the artist’s usual solo explorations of Uist’s rich environment. We talk of being in a place but always on an island, a lexical particularity that articulates, perhaps, a difference in the level of engagement which we were demonstrating; while Sophie was immersed in this place, and generously shared as much of her knowledge of its environments and ecologies with us, we were most definitely visitors, stepping briefly on, then off, the island.
The particular logistical complications that being on an island can present were made abruptly apparent when we discovered that our anticipated departure time from Uist was incorrect and our ferry back to Skye had sailed. Some speedy rearrangements by the Travelling Dialogues team and we were once more on our way, an additional ferry ride through the sound of Harris and a fleeting glimpse of Harris’ distinctive landscape further emphasising our superficial engagement with our passing locations but providing an opportunity for further conversation between ourselves.
Once on board our final ferry, we gathered for the last presentations of the weekend. Gavin Morrison’s talk A Typography of Towers had originally been written with our planned route across Skye and visit to Dun Beag, an iron-age broch, as the intended backdrop but subject and context found themselves un-partnered by our reconfigured route. Through his talk, Gavin connected the particularly Scottish broch to the Martello Towers around the UK’s coastline, built to a Corsican design to fend off Napoleon Bonaparte, also Corsican; an instance of ‘homeopathic architecture’ though never fulfilling this role, becoming out-dated as defensive structures soon after their completion.
The final presentation, or provocation, came from Jonathan Baxter. Tasked with bringing together the loose strands of the weekend, he posed a series of questions, not always comfortable, around who we were, and who they are, in relation to the Travelling Dialogues weekend specifically and also perhaps more broadly questioning what we mean, or who we mean when using various collective terms common in contemporary art – audience, participants, funders etc. However, the docking of the ferry left many of these questions unanswered, and heralded the end of the weekend’s journeying.
What is the afterlife of events and of temporary public-sited artworks, particularly those bound so tightly with the particularities of a place? What legacy can we predict? The physical work of Are you LOCATIONALIZED will, most likely, find its way to a storage facility, cared for by the gallery that represents the artists and the two outdoor structures suggest a folkloric potential, entering the collective memory and remaining in place through image and imagination. As for what ‘after’ has been shaped by the Travelling Dialogues weekend, that may be harder to trace, but once conversations are started they are difficult to end, thoughts and themes of the weekend undoubtedly rippling onwards and outwards until the point of origin becomes unclear.