Writing on water – thoughts from Silverton (Guest spot)

This week’s post was written by guest spotter Julian Holland, who is a science curator and historian. Julian has been travelling recently in far western New South Wales.

Water – and there is a steady insistent drizzle as I write – water remains the central conundrum of the European experiment in settling Australia.  Water is invisible in most of the Australian landscape most of the time.  But sometimes – at rare intervals – it appears in abundance, even excess.  Much of the drive for Australia’s exploration in the nineteenth century was the search for water – for an inland sea around which agriculture could develop and for navigable rivers which could transport people and produce to markets.

But the explorers’ quest gave way to the reality of Goyder’s Line, the boundary in South Australia beyond which rainfall could not be relied on for agriculture.  The disjunction is marked on the landscape by a sudden shift in the character of vegetation.

Yet the myth of water remains powerful.  In the old school house museum in Silverton, beyond Broken Hill, plastic stencils of different states reminded me of this.  Apart from their boundaries – coast lines and surveyors’ lines – the only features they could guide a child’s pencil along were the courses of rivers and boundaries of lakes, patterning impressionable brains with the idea of water in the landscape. 

But South Australia’s lakes are salt pans.  And perhaps the stencil-joints along the rivers should be read more literally.  Australia’s rivers are often no more than strings of waterholes.

The river that runs through Silverton, Umberumberka Creek, most of the time doesn’t run anywhere.  It is a river of sand.  It is characteristic of Australia’s dry land rivers, visible in the landscape as a ribbon of larger trees, their roots embracing the invisible river below the sand. 

Instead of the ephemeral ripples of wind or insect or falling leaf – or the splash of oars – these rivers of sand carry slightly more enduring inscriptions.

Heading back to Broken Hill, on the outskirts of Silverton, the road bows down in courtesy to a passing creek – a feeder to the Umberumberka – dry too much of the time to warrant a bridge, the possibility of water, or the probability of its absence, marked by lines and depth measures of 0.50 and 1.00 metres.  We inscribe the landscape and the landscape is inscribed in us.  The two landscapes do not always match.

Urban versions

Graffiti Tunnel, Waterloo

On the last day of the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference in London, a group of delegates went on a field trip to study ‘urban subversions’. They watched parkour practitioners on the South Bank, skateboard tyros in the Undercroft, and graffiti artists in the Leake Street Tunnel at Waterloo. In the tunnel they were obliged by me to take note of what was on the ground as well as on the walls.

Thanks to organisers Oli and Brad, this was all very interesting, but I’m afraid my eye was drawn away to rather ordinary chalk marks that had almost certainly been left by hash house harriers. I’ve mentioned this urban version of cross country running before. Recreational runners may not be exactly subversive but they do extend the range of uses of streets and public spaces. And as they pound through the city in the early hours of the morning they leave pale traces of their passing in the form of chalk arrows and symbols.

Chalk arrow on Waterloo Bridge

Chalk mark at the Undercroft skateboarding area on South Bank

Exhibition Road experiment

Exhibition Road in London is a mess. In a busy cultural precinct, it runs past the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the Imperial College, and links South Kensington Station with the Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Gardens. But right now, from one end to the other, there are barricades, wire fences, earth moving equipment, temporary traffic lights and improvised pedestrian crossings.

It’s all part of a big experiment, with Exhibition Road planned to become the first shared-space street in London. Apparently the local residents are not happy with the scheme, presumably because they are less interested in accessibility for cultural tourists and more interested in parking spaces and easy access to and from the area for their very flash motor cars.

According to information posters hung from the wire barriers, the street will have “a kerb free single surface” and “visual and tactile lines distinguishing pedestrian areas from those used by vehicles”. Just this week workers have begun to pave some areas of the street with artificial cobblestones, forming geometric patterns in a range of designer greys. Road users will have to learn to read these patterns. When the work is all finished the paving will have become the instructions for its own use.

Pole position

Photo by Bradley L. Garrett

How did workers know where to install street furniture before the invention of the downward squirting spraycan? Can you remember when pavements were not dotted with instructions for the placement of bus seats, pram ramps, traffic signs, trenches and power poles?

London-based place hacker, Bradley L. Garrett sent this photo of promise and fulfilment. Congratulations to Brad for his geometrically artistic patience in waiting for the precise alignment of the shadow.

Crime story

Princes Highway at Brodie Sparks Drive, Wolli Creek, January 2010

See, there were these armed robbers being chased by police, and they ran a red light and crashed into another car, and two people were trapped in the wreckage. And the robbers, see, they jumped out of their stolen car, and … well, if you can’t read all this off the yellow marks sprayed by police on Princes Highway at Arncliffe, then you’d better look it up in the paper.

Look fight

Look! There’s a fight going on down the street. That’s what this sign seems to be saying. And it’s true. There’s a constant struggle for territory going on in the streets and almost every sign, symbol, graphic and graffiti marked on the roads and sidewalks is evidence of this struggle.

I made a video (actually, a photo compilation) on this topic last year. Called Street Writing, it’s been published in the on-line Interdisciplinary Themes Journal. Turn your sound on while you watch.

Hicks, Megan. 2010. Street fighting. Interdisciplinary Themes Journal, 1(1).

The ‘Look fight’ photograph was taken several years ago in Harris Street, Ultimo (Sydney). I’m delighted to say it’s been added as a guest photo on the ‘Submissions’ page of one of my favourite websites, Misplaced Manhole Covers.

Unselected readings

Starting point - Smith Street, Surry Hills

In the ten years since I became obsessed with pavement inscriptions I’ve taken hundreds of photographs. With so many to choose from it’s not too hard to find examples to illustrate any point I might want to make when I write about the pavement as a medium for expression.

But what if I took a walk on an arbitrary route from an arbitrary starting point and photographed every picture, sign and scribble on the pavement along the way? Would that series of unselected inscriptions unfold as a coherent story?

I tried this as an experiment for the Open Fields forum at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney). I started in Surry Hills at a street with a very common name, Smith Street, and took a zig-zag route in a direction away from the centre of the city. I got as far as Waterloo, only about 2 km as the ibis flies, but I had taken more than 3 hours and photographed around 150 pavement inscriptions.

End point - Danks Street, Waterloo

I made a slide show of these Unselected readings in the order in which I found them. But here’s a confession: although I stuck to my arbitrary rules for the day pretty well, I did stop photographing every manhole cover and every wet cement inscription, because there were so many of them.

What did I find out from this experiment? Well, perhaps I will talk about that in future blog entries.

Hard judgement

In an earlier guest blog, Bradley L. Garrett revealed his excitement upon discovering a pavement penis. Well, there’s a lot of them about.  These examples are in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern, where encroaching trendiness has turned a closed-off street beside the railway line into an official bicycle route and a parking lot for cultural-industry workers and the newer type of resident.

Older established residents and their offspring may well feel resentful. I choose to believe that these alterations of official traffic signs express a local belief that the car parkers and cyclists are wankers.

Clapham Common (Guest spot)

Today’s guest spotter is Bradley L. Garrett, a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he is studying Urban Exploration. Bradley’s own blog is here.

I have lived in Clapham, in South London, just across the street from Clapham Common (a huge park) for about eight months now and six months ago I bought a bicycle. This was a significant event because it meant that I no longer took the bus to Clapham Junction train station, I now rode my bike through the park every day instead in what I thought to be a small victory over mundanity.

The first time I encountered the little freehand graffiti penis was on one such ride. I was listening to an audio lecture by Arnold Weinstein about Baudelaire’s poem The Swan and here comes this phallus, standing erect in the road like a raucous troll, exacting some sort of fare I was sure. But how to pay it? Figuring all it wanted was some attention I photographed it and moved on.

For six months now I have encountered this masculine assemblage, swerving around it at the last second, sure that, like some form of voodoo charm, it would hurt somebody if I ran over it. Sometimes I would remember it before my encounter, anxious to see if it finally had aroused enough offence in the community to have it painted over. Every once and a while I would stop next to it, seemingly not of my own accord, and stare around, wondering what sort of thought or action it was meant to invoke, feeling like someone was watching and noting my confusion with pleasure. One biker stops, check.

It’s almost mathematical in is perfect pointedness. Even the fact that one testicle hangs slightly lower than the other seems to me to be anatomically correct. Thinking that after months of study, I had now understood its form, my analysis of the thing moved on to function more seriously. The phallus points straight down the asphalt path. My first inclination was, of course, to assume that it points the way to something. Perhaps it was the remnant of a petty birthday party joke, a Facebook tagline proclaiming “when you arrive in Clapham Common, follow the penis to Dave’s party.” Later, I began to wonder if the trajectory of the penis was subsidiary to its location. Could it be a meeting point of some sort?

This notion seemed to be reinforced by my mate Mike over drinks one night who proclaimed Clapham Common as a place where gay men go to “get bummed” which in America (where I come from) means to be depressed but here is some euphemism for anal sex. Could it be that this innocuous little sign I swerved around everyday was a meeting point for clandestine homosexual encounters at night? Perhaps one day, I thought to myself, I would conduct a 24-hour stakeout to satisfy my need to unravel this mystery.

Finally last week, wrapped up in sweaters, scarves and gloves, in some strange sociological crisis, I did indeed undertake such a weird experiment. What happened was this: just across from the white penile package, there is a park bench which, if you were to sit on it, positions you perfectly to observe the sign (or encounters with the sign). I sat there on a lazy Sunday, pretending to read a book so that I could view interaction with it. And what I saw disturbed me.

Time after time, whether confronted by pram pushing Mommies, solitary walkers or ambitious runners, no one noticed the phallus. They rolled over it, stepped on it and ran past it without even a glance. Thinking that maybe I had, in some sick vision, just imagined the damn thing, I walked over to it. Still there. And then what I saw gave me the shivers.

A second phallus, just up and to the left, barely visible, but there. Even worse, it was a different colour and facing a different direction! How could I have missed this before? Horribly disturbed by the new revelation, I walked home, sullen, curious as to what kind of ghastly person would sketch a pair of horrors like this, knowing the frustration their presence would invoke.

[Now that Bradley has pointed out this parkland penis in London, the Pavement Graffiti blog site will return to the subject of street wangs from time to time]