Haunting the Rift – from Virginia Woolf to virtual reality

Street Haunting, an essay by Virginia Woolf written around 1930, describes a walk across London on the pretext of needing to buy a pencil. It attempts to track the writer’s footsteps in terms of the walker’s think-steps, or vice versa – an account of what the writer observes while she’s walking through the streets of Holborn and Covent Garden to the Strand, and what she imagines – basically, everything that goes through her head on her journey.

You could try to follow in the footsteps of Street Haunting by wandering down through Covent Garden yourself or even taking a walk through Google Street View to  Rymans on the Strand, but that wouldn’t put you into Woolf’s head in the same way, or immerse yourself in early 20th-century London through her eyes, whether you find that irritatingly precious or delight in the flow of her prose. Either way, Woolf aims to break with the normal experience of walking “wrapt … in some narcotic dream”, as the commuters heading home seem to do. She is lucky enough to have leisure time to indulge in a stroll through the streets – even if, as a tentative flaneuse rather than self-assured flaneur, she feels she has to have the excuse of buying a stationery item.

One image that stuck in my head is the way that Woolf talks about her eye as an independent being, pulling her along: “The eye is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure. It floats us smoothly down a stream; resting, pausing, the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks.

In Street Haunting sight is the most important way of experiencing the world: her eye is what keeps Woolf “gliding smoothly on the surface” of the city, with its sights flowing through Woolf’s eye into her brain, swirling around, picking up all sorts of detritus and then trickling out through her hand (and the crucial pencil) onto the page; then flowing from the page through our eyes and into our brains – where it settles and sinks in.

thames shore

Of course this stream-of-consciousness effect is an illusion – Woolf’s essay is actually a highly structured and crafted piece of writing, the stream filtered, mediated and adulterated at every stage of its flow, even before it reaches the brain of the reader. And Woolf’s representation of thoughts and perceptions is very different from James Joyce’s, which in turn is miles away from Kerouac’s or Proust’s or Roberto Bolaño’s or Nicholson Baker’s.

But they’re all bound up with the modernist idea that the writer can and should strive to convey subjective experience as accurately as possible – recreate it for the reader to experience for themselves, across the gap of time and geography. The more I think about this the more disturbing I find it – there’s something peculiarly intimate and claustrophobic about getting inside someone else’s brain and seeing the world through their eyes.

The week I read Street Haunting, Facebook paid a big wad of money for Oculus, a company that develops virtual reality technology. Its Rift headset is supposedly the best attempt so far at a device that immerses its user in a virtual world – although it looks both silly and slightly alarming. Soon you can buy your own if you have £500 or so to spare – it will be on sale in John Lewis and Harrods from September – and try it out for yourself.


Oculus Rift was developed for gaming but Facebook’s acquisition of it has raised all sorts of ideas about what else it might be used for.  Oculus founder Palmer Luckey suggests: “People already spend hours a day on Facebook. What if it was truly engaging and immersive, rather than a filtered version of your real self?” And Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg says the Oculus Rift headset has the effect of making “you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people”. According to Zuckerberg, “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

So I could stay in my room in London and take a walk – sorry, share an adventure – with a friend in Moscow or Melbourne or Taipei or Tel Aviv or Ramallah or Madrid or Athens, by sending the free-floating eye of my VR headset out to glide along the currents of cyberspace. Is this the culmination of what Woolf and others like her were trying to do with their humble low-tech tools of words on paper?

Zuckerberg adds: “People who try it say it’s different from anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives.” Which suggests that either the people he’s talked to have a rather limited experience of real life that precludes being actually present in places with other people, or it’s nothing like reality.

Chris Milk, who runs a VR production company called VRSE.works, also insists on calling a VR work an “experience” according to Wired magazine – although the magazine points out the technology is still at the stage where the virtual reality experience is cumbersome and sometimes vomit-inducing. The word “experience” comes from the Latin experientia “an experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials” and was originally used in the context of observation as the source of knowledge, carrying the idea of looking closely at the world – which comes back to what Woolf seems to be attempting in Street Haunting.

What the VR pioneers skip over is that an experience involves more than the eye – walking through a city, for example, means hearing the sounds, smelling smells, sometimes tasting food or drink, touching textures, having aching muscles, sweating, getting wet in the rain or sunburnt or dirty as well as seeing the sights. Will VR’s next goal be to deliver an all-round, fully immersive experience, indistinguishable from the embodied experience of actually being in a real place? What happens to “real reality” if it manages to achieve that?

Virginia Woolf came up thanks to a walk around the West End with the Walking Reading Group .

to tie a knot in one’s handkerchief

In days gone by, gentlemen would tie a knot in their handkerchief to remind themselves there is something that should not be forgotten. Whenever they reached for their handkerchief, they would be reminded. I believe that tradition is connected with the Greek myth of Ariadne. She was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë who gave Theseus the thread with which he found his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. I love taking photos of the threads and knots I find in the streets. Even if these knots were not made consciously by people to remember something, they might as well have been. It triggers my imagination and adds the sense of confusing navigation to the labyrinth of the city.

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Destroying monuments part two: smashing Lenins

There are more ways to reshape a city than demolishing, constructing and transforming buildings and infrastructure. Sometimes changes to smaller fragments of the city can have a powerful effect.

Recent events in Ukraine have highlighted monuments’ political potency, suggesting that they can be so deeply embedded in the identity of a place they become a natural focus and flashpoint when that identity is threatened with radical change. There has been coverage internationally of the destruction of statues of Lenin in Ukraine following the smashing of the monument in Independence Square in Kiev by pro-European and nationalist protesters. There are online maps showing the places where about 100 similar relics of the Soviet era have been attacked and pulled down.

Srecko Horvat, writing in the Guardian, points out that the destructions were foreshadowed by a virtual demolition in 2011, when a promotional video for Ukraine digitally erased the statue of Lenin in Liberty Square in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, leaving only an empty plinth.

Such erasures of history happen whenever there is far-reaching political change – and the collapse of communism in eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century brought the smashing or removal of monuments on a large scale. Horvat remembers the widespread destruction of remnants of the Tito era as Yugoslavia disintegrated. “In the period from 1990 to 2000 at least 3,000 monuments were torn down in Croatia alone,” he says.

Elsewhere, Soviet-era monuments were displaced from their sites and corralled into holding pens or theme parks – which in turn have become tourist sites. Budapest has Memento Park, designed as an educational resource-cum-propaganda tool (as Hungary’s president said: “The Statue Park utilizes politically neutral means of art to emphasize the dignity of democracy and the responsibility of historical thinking.” Lithuania has Stalin’s World (officially called Grutas Park); Russia itself has Fallen Monument Park in Moscow.

In Ukraine, too, many statues from Soviet times were taken down after it became an independent state in 1991; others were replaced with ones of the country’s national hero, the poet Taras Shevchenko. But plenty remained until the latest round of regime change.

In fact Kiev’s Lenin had been a focus of conflict at least as far back as 2009, when the then president Viktor Yushchenko had called for the country to “cleanse itself” of Communist symbols. The statue was vandalised and mutilated, leading to street brawls that spotlighted the divisions in society. But it wasn’t just pro-Russian Ukrainians who rushed to its defence –  Denis Vertov made an eloquent argument for preserving the monument for the sake of art history.

With the fall of Yanukovych, Lenins in Kiev and the west of the country fell like dominoes – at one point the Lenin in Kiev’s Independence Square was replaced by a golden toilet as a satirical comment, then by an artwork made up of golden mannequins. Meanwhile in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, they continued to preside – the old revolutionary now standing for the status quo, nostalgia, the past or the Russian motherland. In Kharkiv, for example – once the capital of Soviet Ukraine, where Russian speakers are in the majority – crowds defended the statue of Lenin against supporters of the new government who sprayed it with graffiti, in a standoff that lasted for more than a week.

But alongside the ideological reasons, perhaps there is also truth in the reason given by Andrei Borodavka, a Kharkiv journalist and anti-Euromaidan activist: “Lenin is the place where you meet girls for a date. Or where you go after your school graduation. Newly-weds visit Lenin too. He’s in our memories.”

Does a monument come into its own only when it is taken for granted, used as a landmark or meeting point and photographed by tourists as a picturesque historic sight? The suggestion is that Kharkiv’s Lenin (and others like it) is so much a part of Kharkiv that its removal would threaten the memories and identity of its residents – it has become detached from the story of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself as a historical figure and melded with the fabric of the city. It’s hard to take this at face value – the political aspects of the statue’s installation and preservation are surely embedded in its meaning just as firmly as those teenage dates and school graduation photos. But equally, the everyday functions of monuments should not be forgotten; when they are destroyed, part of a citizen’s personal past is ripped away alongside the reshaping of the city’s political and social history.

Part one of this piece looked at a monument recreated with its own destruction built into the design.



reclaiming Nevsky Prospect for pedestrians

“There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least for Saint Petersburg; it simply constitutes everything for the city”, – this is how Nikolay Gogol described the main street of Saint Petersburg in his book.

“There is nothing better than Nevsky Prospect, at least for Saint Petersburg; it simply constitutes everything for the city”, – this is how Nikolay Gogol described the main street of Saint Petersburg in his book.

In July 2013 Nevsky Prospect has undergone planned reconstruction which involved closing part of the street for cars during the weekend. This allowed to make it available for pedestrians’ use during that time. The citizens admired it entirely: hundreds of people were walking, drawings with chalk, playing instruments and making small performances. It even encouraged an initiative to try and convince the city administration to make the main street of the city available for pedestrians on every weekend in the future.

While it remains unlikely that this will ever happen, it is a curious example of how a moment of destruction during which the roads were ploughed up to put new asphalt, created an impulse and possibility for regaining part of one’s own city.

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the second photo says: “Be a Pedestrian!” and the third: “Nevsky to the Pedestrians”

Photos: Alisa Oleva

Transformations at Tesco: a walk round Stoke-on-Trent

Exploring refrains for uncertainly sacred spaces, or a report on walking as imaginative adventure

The other day I went for a walk in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. It’s quite a long way to go just for a walk (about two and a half hours on the train) but there were at least two things that made it worthwhile: it was part of the events around AirSpace Gallery’s Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition which I wanted to see, and it was led by Phil Smith, artist/writer/performer and progenitor of Mythogeography, which is like psychogeography but also quite different (have a rummage in the capacious and inspiring website to find out more).

stoke abc

The walk, titled Refrains for Uncertainly Sacred Spaces, started at AirSpace, a warm and welcoming artist-run gallery whose Glen Stoker came with us on the walk armed with a video camera. The Walking Encyclopaedia exhibition, which includes Tim Knowles’ solo show, Paths of Variable Resistance, ends on 15th March but I hope it will be archived for future reference at the end rather than dispersed – it’s a dense and wide-ranging collection of documentation of “walking as a cultural practice” by contemporary artists, including artist books, leaflets, instructions, videos, photos etc. There’s also a blog to accompany it.

Before we set out, Phil introduced the walk by talking a little about his current interest in privacy and exposure, and also describing the afternoon as an experiment – so if things didn’t quite work that would also useful. There were about 20 of us – a strange and interesting mix of people, some of us shod for a cross-country hike (me) and others who knew or guessed it wouldn’t be quite so arduous. In fact, we never strayed very far from the gallery – the walk proved to be a detailed exploration of the “uncertainly sacred spaces” all around us, and a strenuous workout for the imagination rather than the leg muscles.

stoke chapel

Those spaces included a patch of wasteland that was once a cinema, the arches leading to Tesco’s car park, some peculiar flower beds seemingly modelled on an altar for human sacrifice, unmonumented plinths in a former graveyard, cryptic marks on a wall, a Methodist chapel suspended in aspic-dust halfway between ruin and restoration, and the empty stage of the Regent cinema. We also walked very slowly around the Richard Long exhibition in the Potteries Museum, trying to get in touch with the spirits of the architects behind the 1960s building, and we clustered into a pedestrian horse outside the horseshoe-shaped doorway of a legal chambers. Along the way we cast health and safety to the wind, climbing over hillocks and holes and broken floors and risking arrest (or drawing attention) by quietly looking for things to steal, committing tiny acts of arson or disguising ourselves in black masks (our own personal patches of darkness)…

stoke regency1

This was walking as an imaginative adventure, full of suggestions to look harder at the urban furniture we take for granted and invitations to create fictions for ourselves, whether projecting a memory of darkness onto an imagined blank screen or stealing words from a derelict space. Some parts worked better for me than others – I was quite shocked that I felt a deep resistance to the idea of desecrating a chapel with sneak-thiefery, even if it was a symbolic rather than a real crime. On the other hand, walking round with a secret piece of darkness in my pocket was deeply appealing and the idea of later using that darkness (a small patch of cloth) as a veil of privacy had resonances I’m still pondering. Geographically, we covered a very small patch of ground but that meant we had time to explore it in detail within the various fictional frames that Phil suggested and supported with small invented (or excavated) rituals. What was on offer was a different way of seeing and relating to the everyday, a way to access something hidden beneath the skin of the banal.

stoke boilerstoke obelisk

Thoughts on walking art

I have vague feelings of discomfort around the idea of walking as art, or as a “cultural practice”. For one thing, it seems extraordinarily pretentious to anyone not involved with the art world to label as art an activity as basic and commonplace as eating or urinating. But this is also something I find exciting – it has the capacity to tread that invisible line at the border of art and the everyday, to explore that line and perhaps to blur it.

It can be participatory, pleasurable and potentially open to everyone; or private, esoteric and difficult, available to only the initiated. Or anything between these two. It can be an ongoing project that anyone can pick up and practise for themselves, or a one-off, unrepeatable event only thoroughly experienced by the artist, with the audience allowed crumbs from the table – fragments of documentation or recollection held captive in a stark white gallery far from the action. Either way, it doesn’t easily produce something that can be collected by oligarchs or sold at Sotheby’s for headline-making sums.

Perhaps the obstacle is the label – is it possible to just think of this activity as walking? What is the distinction between undertaking an “art walk” and simply using one’s feet to get around or go for a hike or take an old-school guided tour? All of these walks can have varying degrees of structure and direction. I think the artist’s walk might tend to have the intention of affecting the participant or the audience in some way, whether by involving them in an unusual activity or shifting the way they perceive and process the world. This was certainly true of Phil Smith’s walk, at least for me.

But it can be quite a subtle distinction. Ben Waddington, talking about his current festival of guided tours in Birmingham, says “The Still Walking outlook is that everything around us is worth looking at, thinking about and talking about” – which seems to make that vital connection between walking as a popular pastime and the aims of types of participatory art – does there really have to be a big gap between walking art participant and someone who takes a country walk to look at the landscape or who goes on a tour to learn about the history of a place? But of course, framing a walk as art allows you to apply for a grant or use it as research material for a PhD, which is quite another matter; it can also alienate people who would otherwise engage with and enjoy the experience.

I don’t have a clear answer at the moment. Any comments would be appreciated.

Some links

• AirSpace Gallery

• Phil Smith’s Mythogeography site

• Still Walking festival

• Walk On “From Richard Long to Janet Cardiff – 40 years of art walking”, an exhibition at Mac arts centre in Birmingham until 30 March 2014

• The Richard Long exhibition has ended at Stoke but it will come to Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Devon from October

life, death and reincarnation of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Can you think of any buildings that were demolished to build something instead and then later were built anew? Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is probably the brightest example.

Can you think of any buildings that were demolished in order to build something instead and then were built anew some time later? Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow is probably the brightest example.

The cathedral was commissioned to commemorate the victory of Russian nation over Napoleon in 1812. It took more than 40 years to be built and became the most important Orthodox church of the Russian State. During the Soviet era, when hundreds of churches were destroyed to proclaim a new, atheist communist state, the Cathedral became no exception. Moreover, not only was it doomed to be demolished, but it was also to be replaced by the grand Palace of the Soviets. An old ideological symbol was to be replaced by the another symbol of the new utopia.


On the 5th of December 1931 two explosions destroyed the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.  However, the beginning of the World War stopped the construction works and in 1956, when Stalin was already dead and the contextual frame totally changed, the idea of constructing the Palace of the Soviets was abolished. Instead, paradoxically, in 1960 a huge outdoors swimming pool ‘Moscow‘ was opened on the site of the cathedral. My grandmother told me they were going there every weekend. The view of it, all surrounded with the steam on a Sunday winter morning, must have been pretty surreal.


In 1991 the Soviet Union stopped to exist and, as a symbolic act of reincarnating Russia, the decision was made to restore the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Already in 1996 the first sermon was held in the cathedral and here it stood peacefully as a hundred years ago – as if nothing has happened.

It was, however, already charged with that energy of turmoil and ideological shifts. So probably it is no surprise that it was here that on the 21st of February 2012 the Pussy Riot group made an action called ‘Punk Prayer’ which led to their imprisonment and provoked wide resonance in Russia and abroad. Thus, the Cathedral acquired its new layer of history as it often today referred to among locals as ‘Pussy Riot Cathedral’ or the main Moscow dancefloor.


It is impressive how buildings can be wiped off or reconstructed so easily when big ideologies are at work. Who knows what will be on site of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in a hundred years time?..

Sounds of the city

We often talk about the city in terms of what we see – think of sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or blocks the view. A sound walk offers a different type of urban encounter, one that radically shifts the way we perceive the world, away from what we see and towards what we hear.

I reckon most of us (if we’re sighted) tend to think of the city in visual terms, whether we’re aware of it or not. We talk about sightseeing, tourist sights, eyesores; buildings or landmarks that look ugly or beautiful or dull; architecture that frames a vista or lets in the light or overshadows its neighbours or blocks the view of other sights we want to see. Certainly that’s true for me – it’s just that I’m so used to taking it for granted that I don’t even consider other types of urban encounter.

I recently went on a sound walk through part of south-east London, led by artist John Wynne, that radically shifted this perspective. About a dozen of us gathered in the drizzle outside Island Gardens, the misleadingly exotic name of a DLR station at the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. We’d been told the rules: no photographing, no sound-recording, no talking (unless absolutely necessary), try to stay more or less with the rest of the group. I’m not usually a fan of lots of rules, but it would soon become clear that these were necessary to the task of cracking open our comfort zones and showing us the city as a world of sound.

The initiation

John’s tactic to move our attention from sight to sound was a simple one: the group was split into pairs, with one in each pair wearing a blindfold and being guided by the other, who wore earplugs. After a time, we swapped roles. This was just the first part of the walk – after about 10 minutes we continued without blindfolds and earplugs – but for me it was very effective. To set off walking, relying on a partner I’d never met before to keep me away from collisions and trips, was a jolt. As I settled down and started trusting him, I became more aware of the sounds around me as well as the feel of the ground beneath my feet and the wind on my face. When I exchanged blindfold for earplugs, sound was transformed from something in the world outside myself into an interior pattern of muffled vibrations in my bones. By disorienting and defamiliarising, these artificial handicaps prepared us to listen.

The ritual initiation into the city-as-soundscape took place as we walked through the foot tunnel under the Thames – a site that was interesting acoustically, with its echoes and rumbles, as well as providing an almost-too-perfect symbolic crossing-over. Not that this was spelled out – I wouldn’t want to equate south London with the afterlife, and at the time some of us were just too glad to shed our blindfolds and unplug our ears to worry about the semiotics of river crossings – but it seems typical of the way the walk as a whole was thoughtfully structured to introduce us to sound as a sensory experience and an alternative approach to exploring the city.


After we emerged on the far bank of the river, we followed John through a hugely varied progression of sounds and soundscapes, full of elements that were random and spontaneous but felt carefully orchestrated. The crunch of feet on shingle, the museum-like peace of a tourist attraction on a rainy day, chatter amplified by the high ceilings of a grand hall, snatches of music mingling with heavy machinery, a jostling market, busy traffic, lorries on an industrial estate, construction work, the gush and rush of a small waterfall beneath a railway line… And an hour and a half later we reached a cafe for the after-walk conversation out of the rain.

A couple of people talked about how the sounds of the world came to seem hyper-real, like an exaggerated soundtrack to a film they were in – which was either disturbing or enjoyable, depending on your point of view. Part of the walk, in the market, had struck some people as being like a bad film filled with stereotypical market dialogue – showing that if you listen, you can hear people genuinely talking in clichés in real life.

Some found paradoxically that their other senses were heightened – touch, smell, even vision – once they started paying attention to hearing.

One felt that we were like ghosts because we were moving through the world in complete silence. This was most obvious at one point where we all stopped in a relatively busy courtyard to listen to the sound of music rehearsals in a nearby room – passersby were clearly freaked out by the sight of a dozen people standing still, unnaturally quiet, all listening intently.

We also discussed the difference between indoor and outdoor sounds – outside, you listen to particular sounds with little or no idea where they are coming from; inside a building, you listen to the space – the way the architecture shapes the sounds.

A different angle

One thing that interested me was a double-defamiliarising that I glimpsed from time to time on the walk: not just switching my attention to sound, but a letting go of the compulsion to make meaning from it – to identify sounds as eg cars, footsteps, birdsong, wind in trees – and instead enjoying sounds as pure pattern, pitch and rhythm – as music, if you like. And we talked a little about how once we start listening to sound as music, we stop judging sounds as unpleasant, mechanistic, irritating etc – it’s all potentially interesting.

All of these ideas are interesting to explore further as a way of approaching the city from a different angle (argh, those visual metaphors are hard to escape!). And this is the sort of walk anyone can do – though it helps to take a friend, of course, if you are going to experiment with blindfold/eyes shut at the start. Although having said that, I felt lucky to have the chance to benefit from John Wynne’s expertise and his calm authority as a guide. One tip he gave us (familiar to anyone who’s done mindfulness meditation) was not to worry if our concentration flagged, but to just acknowledge that and bring our awareness gently back to listening.

There’s nothing obviously earth-shattering or agitprop about this sort of artistic activity (plenty of people would argue it isn’t art at all) but it attempts to wake us from our everyday sleepwalking through life, heighten our awareness of the world and shake us out of our habitual views and for me that makes it worth doing and worth talking about. Any views?

sound 1

>> The sound walk was co-ordinated by Tommy Ting, an associate artist at Open School East, a bunch of artists in east London who do all sorts of interesting stuff, including a lot that’s open to the public and free/cheap.

>> John Wynne’s website is full of information on his sound installations and his work with endangered indigenous languages.

Almost lost in the ancient future

Who needs actual historic buildings if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us? Time-travelling through a couple of tourist attractions…

The other day I came across a new (or revived) walk that allows walkers to make a modern pilgrimage between Lichfield and Chichester. Called the Two Saints Way, it describes itself as both a new route and as having been “recreated” (it follows existing footpaths ) – it’s not entirely clear how that works – and it boasts a whole bullet-point list of “themes”, one of which seems to sum up the way the enterprise messes with the concept of time: “Journeying forward to the ancient future”.

I was sort of hoping this would involve a time-travelling immersive sci-fi/fantasy experience including aliens dressed as medieval monks (okay, yes, an episode of Doctor Who), but it seems to mean that the pilgrimage trail includes “high-tech interpretation panels” as well as virtual tours you can download to your mobile. And if you’re lucky, as those on inaugural pilgrimage were, you might be joined along the way by Saxon pilgrims from the Poor Cnights [sic] of St Chad re-enactment group (“They fitted in brilliantly and answered everyone’s questions about their get-up,” according to the walkers).  This is now on my list of things to do when the rain stops. The project cost £86,000 so those high-tech interpretation panels must be worth seeing.

There’s an exhibition on in London at the moment which sounds as if it’s doing its best to recreate the ancient future – or perhaps the futuristic ancient.  Almost Lost: London’s Buildings Loved and Loathed shows an alternative London in the form of digital reconstructions of proposed and rejected developments. You can see how Covent Garden would have looked if the sweeping 1968 demolition plans for the area had gone ahead, the result of a 1950s scheme for “a giant conservatory supporting tower blocks over Soho” and what Westminster might offer tourists if 1960s proposals to wipe out the Edwardian and Victorian buildings around Parliament Square had gone ahead.

Other digital animations show London developing over the years, with buildings and streets disappearing and others being constructed as you watch.

Of course there’s an agenda – it’s produced for English Heritage who are keen to demonstrate how awful the capital would look if conservationists hadn’t rushed in to save its historic buildings. The publicity for the exhibition vaunts its use of “the latest digital technology” including “Augmented Reality” on iPads and something called Pigeon-Sim, which allows you to take “an interactive flight through a 3D photorealistic model of the city”, getting a bird’s-eye view of all the historic buildings that have been saved for future generations.

So, what do we take from this? History = good; high-tech history = even better? Then again, who needs actual historic buildings and pilgrimages if we can fly through their reconstructions like a bird and see the layers of the past peeling away beneath us – not to mention all the futures that might have been? Did someone mention simulacra? Worth going on either or both of these outings to rub up against the contradictions and see if there’s something to learn, I reckon.

Almost Lost is at Wellington Arch until 2 Feb. You can walk the Two Saints Way at any time (weather permitting); some suggestions for planning an itinerary are here.

Debbie Kent

Surveying the territory: part one

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science. I thought writing something about it would be a good way to introduce the project, but then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought…

One of the inspirations for The Demolition Project was a 1946 story by Jorge Luis Borges called On Exactitude in Science (English version here; Spanish original here).

I thought writing something about the story, or about Borges in general, would be a good way to introduce the project, which is a continuing exploration of maps and the city and people’s imaginative relationships with them. But then I re-read the story and rolled it around my brain for a while, and I’ve realised it’s far more complex and slippery than I first thought. Maybe The Demolition Project is too; hopefully we’ll find out more about that in the year ahead.

on exactitude

The story – I’m going to call it On Exactitude for short – tells of an empire with a sophisticated college of cartographers. These cartographers make increasingly large and detailed maps of the empire’s territory, until they finally make a map that is as big as the empire itself and covers the whole of it. Later generations find the map too awkward to use and let it decay until there are only a few tattered bits and pieces left in remote places. The brief tale is presented as a fragment of an old history book, thus avoiding the need for a tidy ending (or a neat opening), but it nevertheless has a sense of completeness.

On Exactitude itself is just a paragraph long – barely longer than this summary – and it feels a little like a fable or parable, and also like a shaggy-dog story, without really falling under any of these definitions. The central idea wasn’t original at the time – fifty years earlier, Lewis Carroll included a map the same size as a country in his novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. But in Borges’ version there is no enfolding narrative: this paradoxical map and its useless perfection is the heart of the tale. Importantly, though, it’s framed by the contrivance that it is a fragment of a long-forgotten history, echoing the fragments of long-forgotten map with which the story ends. And the title is also part of the frame (a frame around a frame?), telling us that it’s not a quirky fiction but has a larger message about the real world. Which is probably as reliable as any other assertion made by the author.

invisible territory

The image in the story does not just take to extremes the difficulties experienced by anyone who’s grappled with a large roadmap in a small car; it pushes far, far beyond that, over the border of the everyday world into the realm of the absurd. It lacks things that many readers expect in a story – detail, character, plot development, psychological realism. But its sparseness appeals to those who like playing with ideas. A few quick clicks through Wikipedia will let you freefall from On Exactitude to some big ideas in philosophy: Alfred Korzybski’s phrase, “the map is not the territory” (ie our models of reality are not the same as reality); Bonini’s paradox (the more complete the model of a complex system is, the harder it is to understand) and Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra (it’s reality that has fallen into disuse and we are actually living in the map – a copy of something that doesn’t exist).

With its image of an empire-sized map, On Exactitude conveys just enough information to tease out the reader’s imagination, goading us to make our own assumptions, draw our own connections and fill in the gaps with memory and speculation. In contrast, the map described holds too much information: the cartographers draw up ever-larger maps in order to include more and more detail – or at least that’s what the title suggests. When they include as much information as the territory itself the giant map becomes useless to travellers, town planners, invaders, or most of the other people who need maps, who would effectively have to walk around an area as big as the underlying territory to find out what they need to know. And the more closely you scrutinise the image, the more delicate and fragmented it appears.

invisible territory2

Alisa and myself tried to make and use a 1:1 scale map in a piece we made with Nauen Park and Li Yeun Jing called Invisible Territory. For part of this work, Alisa photographed the pavement of a small walled garden and printed out the entire pavement at 1cm:1cm in a series of photos; I then had to put them together again on site, matching each photo to the piece of pavement it showed (the pictures here are from that piece). Passers-by asked me what on earth I was doing and some of them understood straight away that it was an impossible task, as the environment had already changed since the pictures were taken only a week earlier – at this level of detail, leaves, rain, footprints etc had altered the landscape. Plus the photos were blowing away, getting wet and being trodden on.

invisible territory 3

This made me think properly about the (im)possibility of a physical map existing in the world of On Exactitude. There’s little to indicate how this map covers the empire – nothing to suggest, for example, that it is carried on supports or suspended from ropes above the ground. There’s nothing to tell you what it’s made of, except that the map falls to pieces through neglect, implying that it is not infinitely durable – although by the end, animals and beggars use the remnants for shelter, so it can’t be all that fragile either. Our photographs showed only the surface of the ground up to a level of a few centimetres – how would a 2D map show objects above the surface, such as trees and buildings? Does the map cover rooftops, and if so does it leave out sheer vertical surfaces like walls? Does it curve along with contours of hills and valleys? What happens to the map in the area of lakes and rivers? And if it’s permanently in place as a sort of carpet across the empire, what do farmers do with crops and grazing animals? I started imagining the map was made of a sort of porous paper that grass could grow through…

This level of ridiculously literal questioning makes the absurdity of Borges’ story even sharper, and all these questions and more are hiding within its bare bones. Like the Tardis, it’s bigger on the inside. Could a map like the one described in On Exactitude be a map at all – and does it help us think about what a map is? At what size does a map stop being a map?

Photographs: Debbie Kent/Alisa Oleva except b/w photo, François Correia

Part two follows soon, in which some of this might start to make sense