Recapturing the magic

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

Parking space fly, Darlington, 2002.

In my so-called office at home I am attempting to regain control. The room has been overtaken by stuff and progress is slow because I have neglected the fundamental rule: DON’T READ.

Amongst things that I have sinfully paused to read while culling superseded files, I found notes I took at the orientation day for new PhD students in the Division of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy at Macquarie University in 2008. It was on that day, by the way, that I discovered I was not the oldest PhD student in the world, and that there were many other culmination-of-career candidates. Anyway, here’s one piece of advice I dutifully noted:

At the beginning, keep a journal of what you read and what you think about it. Your notes will be like Ariadne’s thread leading you through the maze. They will help you to solidify your thesis topic or even change your mind about what that might be.

"Suck shit up". Stanmore, 2003.

“Suck shit up”. Stanmore, 2003.

Well, I did start a journal, which became a series of A5 notebooks. The PhD has since been completed but, many volumes later, I still keep this journal, with notes on what I have read, seen, heard, talked about, and thought about. It is quite separate from my daily diary of appointments and humdrum domestic events. As a diversion from room-tidying I hunted out Volume 1 to re-read the first thing I had written in the journal. Here it is (slightly edited):

If I am going to do this project I am going to have to re-find my belief in the magical properties of the pavement. These last few years my writing and thinking have become prosaic. I have lost fun and wonder – beaten out of me by [my workplace]. When I first started photographing footpaths eight years ago, suddenly I could write poetry.

Over the next few years I did manage to recapture the magic as I enjoyed the luxury of exploring, photographing, reading, thinking and writing without the need to churn out memos, attend interminable meetings, play office politics, carry the dead weight of work-shy colleagues and endure the hysterics of others, attend to bureaucratic niceties and write formulaic justifications for every decision – and that was in what many (including myself) would have considered a dream job.

Once I left that job, how lovely it was on a nice sunny day to admire the sparkles in the asphalt and concrete, on a nice rainy day to enjoy the wavering reflections of the world on the ground, and on any day to seek out the messages people leave on the pavement and speculate why they leave them. And, in imaginary dialogue with scholars past and present, to discuss both the enchanting and the disheartening aspects of public places, and to consider what’s so special about the pavement.

"Bread is making birds sick". Enmore, 2010.

“Bread is making birds sick”. Enmore, 2010.

These days I’m a bit more relaxed about the pavement. I don’t feel I have to look at the ground all the time in case I miss something, but I’m still interested in what’s so special about other places in the urban landscape that are so obvious they’re invisible.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Poster history book. Petersham, 2014. All photos by meganix.

Destruction and adaptation

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In Sydney’s Angel Place, Michael Thomas Hill wants us to experience longing for nature long since lost and destroyed. His ‘Forgotten Songs’ installation charms us with its hanging bird cages and piped calls of native birds. But the sting is on the roadway where brass plaques inform us that the birds we are listening to “once sang in central Sydney, before Europeans settled and gradually forced them away”. The list of bird names inscribed there is like a wartime honour roll that we should follow along the laneway, lest we forget. The name label for the Regent Honeyeater is coincidentally positioned beside a manhole cover that, if opened up, would reveal the Tank Stream coursing beneath the lane in its modern-day guise as a stormwater pipe. Not only have trees been felled, Hill is reminding us, but the natural features of the landscape have been obliterated by the pavement itself.

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But be careful what you want us to wish for, Michael. Regret the loss of charming songbirds and what do we get instead? Squadrons of honking ibis – swampland birds that have flown back from the countryside to learn the art of city living. Street smart and urban savvy, these scavengers revel in consumerism’s cast-offs.

 

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Inner city ibis, Surry Hills, Sydney (All photos by meganix)

Michael Thomas Hill’s ‘Forgotten songs’ installation belongs to a class of text-laden public artworks on the pavement that reproach us for wrongdoings past and present. I have written about these in an article called ‘Words of regret’ in Issue 3 of Sturgeon magazine, which has just hit the stands.

 

Drift

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!

beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.

Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.

This is what Kate wrote to me:

‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.

‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:

‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.

‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.

 

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail)

‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail). All photographs by Kate Riley

‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’

Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.

 

(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)

Your typical pedestrian

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My WordPress avatar is a pedestrian traversing the asphalt. Despite a continuous battering by passing traffic, you can see that my pedestrian still has a burning heart, thanks to an implant by the 90s band Junglepunks.

Pedestrian and Junglepunks stencils, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

Pedestrian and Junglepunks, Broadway (Sydney), 1999

I have met many such pavement people since I began my graffiti project way back in 1999, but I seem to have only mentioned them once on this blog site. A desire to revisit them has been prompted by some of the photographs in a new little book by Phil Smith, Enchanted things, where he writes:

‘The pedestrian figures here were all intended by some designer as generic representations; yet to the glad eye they display their eccentricities, amputations, stretch marks, wrinkles, prostheses and rearrangements. They serves as memento mutabis (“remember you will change”), a reminder of your body as unfinished business, inscribed into its path and subject to all that passes along it, a history made on the hoof.’

In this photo-essay Phil, an ambulant academic at Plymouth University, UK, urges us to undertake an ‘experimental pilgrimage without destinations’ where disfigured pedestrian figures are just a small sample of the absurd, ironic and accidental artworks in the urban landscape that, if we take the trouble to notice them, will rearrange our attitude to the world.

My Sydney pavement pedestrians serve to confirm that walking in the builtscape is no simple matter.  They don’t need Phil to tell them they should LOOK, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT. But even if they have an opinion about what they see, they are made to shut up. It is sometimes permissible for them to manifest their gender or age status, but more often than not they are stripped to their naked genderlessness, a mere shadow of their supposed selves.

Although exposed to assault from all sides, they can hardly complain they weren’t warned. Even so, when cautioned to THINK BEFORE YOU CROSS and STEP SAFELY they generally decide to make a dash for it. Some do so with a defiant display of insouciance but others are so terrified by the traffic they jump right out of their shoes.

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Pedestrian whose comments have been censored, Summer Hill, 2010

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Wise walkers, Stanmore, 2000

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Unwise street crosser, Newtown, 1999

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

Left and right shoes left behind, Newtown, 2000

The more purposeful striders who stick to the footpath find they are obliged to share their way with cyclists and sometimes even elephants. Hidden trenches and falling manhole covers are additional hazards.

Casualties are high and many pavements are haunted by the remains of hapless pedestrians, last seen in healthy condition maybe twenty years ago, now reduced to making ghostly appearances from between the cracks in the asphalt.

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

Pathway parade, College and Liverpool Streets, Sydney, 2011

 

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian in trench, Newtown, 1999

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Pedestrian under manhole cover, Chatswood, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

Traces of a pedestrian, Berry, NSW, 2007

 

Like my flat mates, I find it hard to keep up with Phil’s ambulant ruminations. Nevertheless, the next item on my reading list is another recent book by him, larger in size and no doubt equally challenging.  It’s called On walking … and stalking Sebald and its cover features an array of pedestrian figures. How could I resist?

 

Smith, Phil, 2014, Enchanted things: signposts to a new nomadism, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Smith, Phil, 2014, On walking … and stalking Sebald: a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff, Axminster: Triarchy Press.

Chicken trail

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Apart from the Scallop Shell Trail for pilgrims I found another, less permanent trail on the footpaths of Antwerp. On Molenberg Straat these stencilled chickens and arrows led … where?

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I think I might have found the answer on a sticker attached to a mooring bollard in another part of town. It is advertising ‘Ceci n.est past une galerie – a unique dinner concept’. Apparently this is a nomadic  ‘restaurant’ where a small number of people share a table to eat, converse and view artworks  in a private studio or house. The stencilled chickens I saw must have led to one of these locations. But was it the current one?

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Flotsam and jetsam

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

Photograph presumably – but not necessarily – taken in Paris in May 1968. Original source not known.

‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’ – it’s the most well-known slogan from the May 1968 uprising in Paris. But what if it is misguided? What if the pavement is the beach?

I think the pavement is a littoral zone with tides of people and their vehicles washing backwards and forwards over it in their daily cycles of movement. Searching for graffiti on the pavement is like scavenging for sea drift on the sand.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Fish + “Sol”, Chippendale (Sydney), 2010.

Novelist Tim Winton, the author of Cloudstreet and Breathe, says he is ‘forever the beachcomber’. Passages in his book Land’s Edge  show just how much the search for pavement graffiti resembles beachcombing.

‘A long bare beach, like the sea itself, is capable of many surprises. The unexpected is what I’m after when I go trudging along the firm white sand  […] it’s the possibility of finding something strange that keeps me walking …

‘From the distance every found object is merely a black mark on the sand, and half the pleasure of beachcombing lies in wondering, anticipating the find …

‘Yet however comforting and peaceful beachcombing is, it ends up, like the sea, as disturbing as it is reassuring. In dark moments I believe that walking on a beach at low tide is to be looking for death, or at least anticipating it. You will only find the dead, the spilled and the cast-off […] The beachcomber goes looking for trouble, for everything he finds is a sign of trouble.’

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train 2012.

Tributes to graffitist Ontre, hit by a train at Lewisham in 2012.

 

Tim Winton, Land’s Edge, Sydney: Picador, 1998, pp. 98-101.

Etiquette

'Dog-owner polluter', Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

‘Dog-owner polluter’, Newtown (Sydney), 2003.

In the city, life is complicated and boundaries are indistinct. Because people’s lives butt up against each other, behaviour is bound by rules of social etiquette. Feelings of loss and frustration are exacerbated when others overstep boundaries and fail to observe ‘the rules’. When this happens, people look for ways to re-establish their individuality.

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‘Another shitting dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

The lowly pavement – that shared space that belongs to everyone and no one – is sometimes co-opted by people attempting to assert themselves. The anonymous airing of petty grievances on and about the pavement is a satisfying way of alleviating feelings of powerlessness.

'Filthy dog owner', Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

‘Filthy dog owner’, Enmore (Sydney), 2001.

People paint ‘Bread is making birds sick’ on areas where other people feed pigeons; they chalk circles around dog droppings and write ‘Filthy dog owner’.

'Whose dog?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Whose dog?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

Their notices are rather like the notes that are left in the kitchens and bathrooms of workplaces and share houses to ‘Wash up after yourself’ and ‘Use the toilet brush’. Someone who ‘breaks the rules’ is rebuked, without the need for face-to-face confrontation. Pavement remonstrations are delivered and received with eyes lowered, and in this way public decorum is maintained.

'Who owns this?', Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

‘Who owns this?’, Balmain (Sydney), 2012.

 

For more about this kind of graffiti see:
Hicks, Megan, 2011, ‘Surface reflections: Personal graffiti on the pavement’, Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 1(3): 365 – 382.

 

Announcement

Squawk! It’s been a long time in the making, but my new website is now up and running. Pavement appreciation: a step-by-step guide to asphalt graffiti is the ‘creative component’ of my thesis. It showcases my collection of snapshots taken since 1999 and suggests that, if you follow my example and start exploring graffiti on pavements and roadways, you might gain some surprising insights into places you thought you knew.

I invite you to take a look. Please feel free to comment or like the site on Facebook.

(I found the chalk cockatoo this morning in Wilson Street, Newtown. I’ll be having some more to say about chalk in the next couple of blog posts)

Palimpsest

(Warning: Another vocabulary lesson coming up)

I am always interested in finding instances where someone has overwritten or commandeered a previous pavement inscription. A week or so ago I found two quite different examples not far from each other near Sydney’s Broadway.

The first involved a large hairy spider. An infestation of these stencils appeared on the footpaths in the Newtown-Chippendale area some time last year. But the example I came across recently in City Road has since been appropriated by both Mr Kat and Geko.

City Road, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

Across the way, a chalker with something to say seems to have taken over the corner outside the Broadway Shopping Centre, writing long messages  then covering them over with new ones. On the day when I took my photograph the most legible message was ‘Does the cold make street people invisible’.

Bay Street, Broadway, Sydney, 2012.

The chalker’s activities bring to mind the idea of a ‘palimpsest’. A palimpsest is a page of a manuscript which has been re-used after the original text has been incompletely erased.  Because of the costliness and scarcity of writing materials, in former times manuscripts made of parchment, papyrus or vellum would be overwritten. The word comes to us, via Latin, from an Ancient Greek term meaning ‘scratched or scraped again’.

Perhaps everyone knows what ‘palimpsest’ means these days, but I did not encounter the word at all in my younger years. I am still uncomfortable with it. It does not roll lightly off the tongue, and using it in written text seems pretentious. Having said that, here I go. Despite my optimism about nearly finishing my ‘Pavement graffiti’ thesis (see my former blog about the light at the end of the tunnel), I have since been advised that I should re-write the whole thing in order to give it more cohesion. In his memoir titled ‘Palimpsest’ the late great Gore Vidal described his technique of palimpsest as involving “erasing some but not all of the original while writing something new over the first layer of text”. I think that’s what I’ll be doing with the thesis. The result, however, will just possibly fall short of the literary standard set by Gore Vidal.

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