Saturday, 5 November 2011

Memory Waves

I was in Newcastle for a few days, working on an ARKA group project and surfing the alternate waves of fear and nostalgia that always threaten to drown me whenever I visit the city. Every time I go there it seems smaller. Clumps of memory held together by threads of physical movement.

I am getting ready to do some work in Liverpool with Colin Dilnot, a historian and psycho-geographer who I'll be meeting later this month. We'll be knocking around some ideas for Dialogues, The Royal Standard's education/free school program. Everything is in its embryonic stage at this point, but we'll be thinking about the Situationists and the notion of the Dérive.

I suppose my first connection with psycho-geography (apologies for those who don't like the term, but it is a useful description) was through the works of W. G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn is my favourite book because it was the first Sebald I read, but also because it dragged me through an East Anglian landscape that I knew from my childhood. This is the natural territory for Sebald's strain of memory travels. Movement is the physical connection of ideas, and walking through your own history (or, having Sebald walk through it for you) is the most obvious way of demonstrating that mode of connection.

So what about Liverpool then? Colin is from Liverpol, and so is David Jacques (an artist from Liverpool who spends a lot of his time surfing the city's great waves of history). Even Daniel Simpkins and Penny Whitehead (who I collaborated with as part of my Royal Standard residency) have lived there for long enough to weave themselves into the fabric of their adopted home. I spent three weeks there in 2010.

How do I access that privileged realm of history when I have so few of my own memories of the city?

After taking part in three residencies (Birmingham, Liverpool, Gdańsk) in the past few years, I've had to think about that question a lot. Why should an outsider get a voice, and what can it say? What is the conversation, and who sets the parameters of the discussion?

I've dealt with it in a number of different ways, but the successes always involved collaboration with the people who know more than me, and are happy to share. I like to piggy back on other people's histories, then mesh them with my own. Maybe that's why I like the techniques of psycho-geography: walking, talking, remembering. Just as you lock in step with the people you walk with, you might lock in step with how they think and start making sense of your journey.

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