Composing the Ordinary, Part 1: Beginnings
Citation: Johnson, Petra. “Composing the Ordinary, Part 1: Beginnings.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 12, 2015. doi:10.20415/hyp/012.cm01
Abstract: This essay sketches the genesis and methodology of a participatory art practice called 'walk with me' that mines the narratives that inform us and concludes by describing the process of translating a practice that takes place in body-time into a web-format using a non-commercial online tool conceived by artist Martine Neddam. Some of the contents of this essay have been presented in a paper called 'Composition of the Ordinary' at the conference 'Mapping Culture: Communities, Sites and Stories' held at the University of Coimbra, Portugal in May 2014. In this paper I described how the practice connects everyday spaces in China, the U.K. and Germany – countries I had lived and worked in – by enabling platforms that exist outside a 'shared, socially validated order' but within a shared everyday space.
Prompted by an enquiry from Cologne Cultural Office to develop a project that would address the 25th anniversary of the Beijing-Cologne City partnership, I began to think how shared everyday spaces across cultures could serve not just as reflective actors as they had done in my earlier work kioskxiaomaibu (Johnson, 2013), a practice that connected small neighbourhood shops (Kiosks) in Shanghai and Cologne via Skype over a six-month period, as actors that co-script a narrative. The work that resulted from those deliberations, walk with me, is a practice that consists of repeated 1:1 walks in different cities along prescribed routes. Before I outline the methodology in detail, I will first take the reader to a small town in Germany in the late 1950s in order to illustrate how a childhood experience became a resource for this work.
I was born in the mid-1950s in a small town in Germany. The front door of our house was often left open because my great uncle and his friends frequently sat on a bicycle rack outside a small sweet and tobacconist shop just a few houses further up the street. 'One day', my parents told me much later on, 'you were gone. We couldn't find you anywhere. A neighbour told us, he saw you walk off with some strangers toward the centre of town. You seemed so familiar with them, he had assumed they were friends or relatives.' My parents finally found me at the market square near the cathedral: a considerable distance from home for a three-year-old. I showed no signs of distress. I was surprised to see my parents.
I try not to project too much onto the three-year-old child, who knew the route she walked with the strangers; who had walked it with her father, mother, grandfather, as well as great uncle. Rather, it is safe to say that at this moment in time the child encountered her environment in the presence of strangers who saw it for the first time. And therefore she too saw it anew. I include this anecdote in order to illustrate the argument that the earth is 'a synthesis of my perception and that of others' (Appels, 2011: 660).
Plato identified the space that had hosted a dialogue between humans and gods in myth as the chora (Pérez-Gómez, 1994). I interpret the word 'god' in this context as a presence that is neither part of, nor subject to the local context. My childhood recollection pointed to a potential, which was waiting for the right conditions to germinate. For that I needed a catalyst. In 2002 I moved to Shanghai and begun to walk a particular route obsessively on my own. I observed several phenomena. As I walked, the movement of my body adjusted to a different rhythm. Unable to decipher the local language, my sight felt liberated; it was free to roam around looking for different forms of understanding. Only my hearing recognized something familiar straight away: microtonal sounds I had heard whilst listening to contemporary music performances at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham. For the first time in my life I heard these sounds whilst walking through ordinary streets filled with people conducting their daily life. One day the sight of a furniture shop stopped me in my stride. Looking at it I wondered, 'Why am I surprised that there are chairs and sofas and beds?' I stayed with the question, absurd as it seemed. Holding on to the question and walking with it caused a fundamental shift in my work.
The experience of encountering a complex tonal spectrum in an everyday setting acted as one catalyst. The experience of a conflict between a superimposed generalized narrative (in this case a confusion between post-war Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese furnishings) and what I saw made visible a mix of acquired ignorance and situated knowledge rather than a not-knowing. In this choric space, the ordinary causes a moment of wonder, of awe and serenity: an affect. I asked myself how I could produce settings that enabled such affects.
Process and Methodology
The methodology I developed in light of these experiences staged three elements in particular: (i) the combination of stranger and local moving together, (ii) their joint immersion into the affective environment and (iii) prompts that alert us to take note of moments of wonder, surprise or irritation.
i) Stranger and local move together
Like Contact Improvisation, a dance form developed by Steve Paxton in the 1970s, the walks provide a space for two or more bodies to engage with the rhythms and propensities each body brings to the walk. Each shared walk draws out a different quality of engagement, of tempo and of intimacy. In walk with me, gesture and movement do not engage by direct physical touch but rather by rhythmic movement and conversational dialogue, all of which are maintained over a duration of at least ninety minutes creating a unique and distinctive walk with each companion as well as a 'big feedback system' (Paxton, 2006).
Predetermined routes set up a structure that enables surrender to experience. Builder of labyrinths Stephen Bosbach observes that when following a path laid out in advance, 'right brain activity shifts toward the intuitive' (2006), whilst writer Rebecca Solnit argues differently but to the same effect that walking for pleasure between two points returns the space between to a garden, a 'public garden without walls' (2002: 167). As in my previous private walks, the routes are anchored at one end by a kiosk or small neighbourhood shop and at the other by a building or landscape that defines the city we are walking.
ii) Immersion into an affective environment
Meandering a distance initially identified on Google Maps, I followed intuition, curiosity and suggestions made by local people. In this way, the 'lived' street becomes co-author of the route. Equidistance is determined by duration: the routes conform to sixty minutes of non-stop, solitary walking.
Proceeding from the small shop embedded in a local neighborhood, the routes in Cologne and Beijing end at Cologne Cathedral and the Forbidden City (Imperial Museum).
Thus the question 'What sensibilities and perceptions have been nurtured for these buildings to be imagined, built and preserved?' subliminally accompanies us on the walk. I am indebted to Sinologist and philosopher Francois Jullien (2011) for articulating the further insight that such a question opens up a space of divergence that reveals differences in sensibilities and thus new fields of learning. To explore these further I then designed a structure for the routes that consists of three main components: passages, prompts and islands. First, I paced the distance and by dividing the total number of paces by 15, I locate 14 equidistant passages along the route.
Second, I prepared 15 prompts to hand out to my companions on route. The prompts help to filter our impressions as well as ensure that we share the same field of attention. Finally, the islands that punctuate the passages allow us to stop, to write down our observations/impressions and to read and discuss the next prompt. Before merging again into the pedestrian flow, we can be seen standing and discussing. This structure also acts as a theatre of memory and enables my walking companion to re-walk the route from memory.
iii) Prompts that alert us to take note of moments of wonder, surprise or irritation
At the beginning of each walk, I give my companion a small pad of 15 blank pages, a pencil and the first of fifteen scrolls made of brown paper and held together by a colored thread.
Each scroll contains a handwritten prompt extracted from the book Ordinary Affects by anthropologist Kathleen Stewart (2007):
- Composition of the Ordinary. Observe an everyday activity: Who is doing what?
- Identify a moment of tension
- Observe an act of kindness
- Where do you feel out of place?
- Take note of something not quite right
- Note a gathering of people: what are they doing?
- Spot a desire as it is emerges
- Describe a person you see waiting
- How can you tell it is Sunday (Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat.) today?
- Sensing distance: Where is the next island?
- What responds to your emerging need for rest?
- Which one of the people you will be passing, do you identify with?
- Between the known and the felt is a slippage. Can you identify one?
- Spot a moment of disquiet/irritation
- Probe for a moment of anxiety
The exchange of experiences activated by the prompts allows us to re-address our past, present and future. The languages that emerge from the conversations and the writings by my companions are different. The writings (see http://walk-with-me.org.uk/Composition.php) are a subtle connecting and readjusting and have the quality of private meditations, whilst the conversations can be likened to those enacted by the chorus in Greek theatre. We, the walkers, observe events as they emerge and unfold out of our 'commensality'. As we walk in synchronicity we increasingly move toward the intuitive. The fourth prompt: 'Where do you feel out of place?' alerts us to ourselves in the reflection of the other and begins a process of 'unselfing'. The fifth prompt, 'Note something not quite right', directs our attention to the outside again. From now on the prompts shift our attention continuously. The tenth prompt, 'Sensing distance: Where is the next interval?' returns awareness to our bodies moving together. At this stage we have been walking for a minimum of one hour. The following prompt, 'What responds to your emerging need for a rest?' acknowledges the onset of exhaustion. The prompts ask for observations that resonate and enable conversations that are unpredictable.
The conversations we share during the walk are recorded from memory the following day. They demonstrate how my own experience of the walks becomes layered with each different co-creator and make visible the fluidity of knowledge about place. By immersing ourselves into the flow of the street, my companions and I move along a meandering line and within a format that can be likened to instruction-based theatre whilst to write of the everyday as it happens is to take a moment of seeing the world becoming world into our hand.
To find walking companions, I use different strategies in different cities. In Xiamen I stood in a park for three days with various paraphernalia to attract curiosity; in Shanghai, I presented the project at the Biennale 2012; in Taidong, I run workshops for primary school and high school children; in Beijing, I walked the route so frequently that people approached me and asked what I was doing; in Cologne, I attended a local 'China' event; in Oxford, word of mouth attracted companions; and in Berlin, I set up an installation in a non-commercial gallery.
Translation into Web Format
It had always been challenging to share the intimacy and richness of a work like walk with me with an audience. Clifford McLucas' work on Deep Mapping (2010) helped me to structure and collate the various outcomes of the work, which consisted of films, a website, an animation, artist books, an archive of my companion walkers' writings, small hand-held maps, photos and installations. Nevertheless, a sense of frustration remained. In November 2014 I encountered the online software developed by artist Martine Neddam and programmer James Hudson. The objective of this Web Mixing tool is based on a 'desire to develop a shared expressive language' (Neddam, 2014) and thus offered a perfect means to translate a practice like walk with me, which although achieved through physical platforms working in body-time, likewise pursues the objective of exploring and negotiating the narratives that inform us. With the help of this tool the outcomes gathered from the walk with me practice create more than an assemblage of visual scenarios. Rather like actors on a theatre stage, the various outcomes are enabled to enact their different roles dynamically and thus stage a complex spectrum that in turn reveals unexpected articulations and shifts in cartographic methods of presentation. Initially conceived to create 'a mental space' (Neddam, 2014) between a desktop user and the data on the desktop, the Web Mixer tool enabled precisely the quality of intimacy I had been searching for. Building on a skeleton of spoken words that interweave snippets of recordings, visual flashes of islands on route and a set of basic instructions , I could suggest a choric space through the pulsating emergence of a relationscape centred at the small neighbourhood shops and spreading out to each cities' respective landmark.
This was possible because of the variety of time modes the tool offers: amongst others I chose pulsating/breathing; flashes; leafing as if turning a page in a book; erratic wanderings; sequential lettering and doddering and layered these on top of sounds: footsteps and the voice. Together they not only recalibrate the experience of the walks but also give a taste of sensibilities lying dormant.
Thoughts on Further Research
Nigel Thrift argues in his paper 'Different atmospheres: of Sloterdijk, China and site' (2009) that the current spatial condition demands an attitude that requires a different body of training and discipline than that available in cultures (predominantly Western cultures) where logographic traditions have been displaced. He proposes that 'It is possible to think of different means of describing how the future is being scripted' (p. 119). Thrift argues that non-discursive languages made possible by digital platforms better capture and even produce affects but that this undertaking requires a greater critical understanding of the various logographic traditions in order to explore some of the mechanisms by which culture becomes engrained in space. It is by locating itself within this discourse that my further research into ordinary affects as 'lines of potential' (Stewart, 2007) continues.
A recent proposal to use WeChat (the Chinese version of WhatsApp) had to be dropped because in the near future users in China need to give their authentic identity, whilst in the Western context recent disclosures about the NSA likewise lead to self-censorship. A follow-up project, Mapping Transnational Vulnerabilities, continues to pursue the objective of working with non-material forms of engagement and explores ways of making an interactive platform that rethinks frameworks of connectivity through shared fields of attention using a combination of performative techniques that allow the local to communicate with a stranger. The objective of these platforms is to help recognise the complexity and negotiated provisionality of culturally specific practices across life spheres and cultures.
'ordinary affects are public feelings....
rooted in the actual lines of potential...
they are things that are in motion...
they map connections...
they cannot be apprehended through arguments about structures and underlying cause...
they point to the spreading lines of resonance...
they are a live surface of difference'
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- This expression comes from architectural historian Alberto Pérez-Gómez, who argues that in order to step out of imitating such (shared, socially validated) orders scripts need to be developed that 'invite the "radicalized individual" to participate with his/her freedom' (1994: 31).
- The experience of 'wonder' allows fundamental questions to emerge and gives access to the chora (Pérez-Gómez, 2008: 63).
- Writer Ryszard Kapuscinski argues that we participate in a collective process of creation. To differentiate between one's own thoughts and those that have been absorbed from outside becomes increasingly difficult (2008: 25).
- I am generally considering the phenomenon of a superimposed narrative. In my case it is (in)formed by U.K. and German media, see also the study by researchers Gebauer and Richter (2011), The Portrayal of China in German Media.
- In texts by human geographers John Wylie and Nigel Thrift, amongst others, the word 'affect' is used to describe energies that can be located in the ordinary: energies that in common parlance are described as 'wonder': 'An affect is an intensity, a field perhaps of awe, irritation or serenity, which exceeds, enters into, and ranges over the sensations and emotions of a subject who feels' (Wylie, 2005: 236). See also Thrift (2008).
- Below is a list of the cities walked, the number of
paces counted for each route, the number of companions who walked with me as
well as the time period made available for the event and, finally, the month
and year in which the event took place:
• Beijing: 8093 Ho (Elaine Ho) paces = 539 ppp (pace per passage) | 9 days – 19 companions | July 2012
• Cologne: 7905 Johnson paces = 527 ppp | 9 days – 14 companions | Aug 2012
• Shanghai: 6660 Johnson paces = 444 ppp | 11 days – 15 companions | Oct 2012
• Xiamen: 6825 Johnson paces = 455 ppp | 7 days – 11 companions | Jan 2013
• Taidong: 6304 Johnson paces = 420 ppp | 7 days – 9 companions | Jun 2013
• Berlin: 7260 Johnson paces = 484 ppp | 9 days – 11 companions | Sep 2013
• Oxford: 5974 Johnson paces = 398 ppp | 9 days – 9 companions | Feb 2014
- 'Commensality', anthropologist Seremetakis proposes, is 'the exchange of sensory memories and emotions and of substances and objects incarnating remembrance and feeling' (1996: 37).
- Musician Jonathan S. Goldmann distinguishes between four different brain wave states; I will just mention two: beta brain waves distinguish themselves from alpha waves in that they are present when we focus 'on activities of the external world' (Goldmann, 1995: 220). Though we focus indeed on such activities we do so in the metaphorical framework of a walk through a garden and can therefore approach a state of daydream and/or mediation typical for alpha waves, which pulsate at a lower frequency (8-13 hz).
- Elaine Scarry writes: 'unselfing' means 'the space formerly in the service of protecting, guarding, advancing the self... is now free to be in the service of something else' (1999: 113).
- I was seeking for something equivalent to John Cage's work Inlets (1977) with conch shells on which Cage comments 'the rhythm belongs to the instrument not you' (Caras, 1982: 76-77; see also Cage 1983). The shells filled with water gurgle when moved, but the quality of the gurgle cannot be manipulated by adapting the movement. No pattern evolves. The passages between islands likewise enable conversations that are unpredictable.
- I am deeply indebted to theatre maker Mike Pearson's work 'Bubbling Tom', an intimate walk with local inhabitants through the village of his childhood documented in his book In Comes I (2006).
- I am grateful to the suggestion made by one observer, 'You should look at the film Fight Club (1999) and develop a set of instructions for the walk'.