Deep mapping as an ‘essaying’ of place


(Illustrated talk given at the Writing seminar at the Bartlett School of Architecture, Friday 9th July, 2010)

Jane Rendell has invited us to explore different sites of experimental writing practices across art, architecture, cultural geography, performance and poetics – focusing on such terms as ‘art-writing’, ‘place-writing’, ‘site-writing’, etc – and to consider the specifically spatial dimensions of writing. She suggests we think about how writing as a practice is challenging disciplinary boundaries but also protocols for specific writing genres. She reminds us that given forms of writing are now be questioning, so that we can ask what constitutes the art critical essay, the geography essay and so on. She suggests that, in doing so various forms of critical and academic writing may be coming closer to art, fictional, poetic practice – but also that these new forms are perhaps challenging conventions of creative writing. She also indicates that another area for discussion is how where we write conditions what we write and who we are writing to and for.


My difficulty here is that, while I understand and am very open to Jane’s questions, I’m uncertainly placed in terms of responding to them. Although writing in various ways about sites and places is part of my creative practice – which involves making extended artist’ books – my basic presuppositions and competences are those of a visual artist. To complicate things further, my practice has for some time been in the process of metamorphosing into a variant of ‘deep mapping’, one in which geographical and ethnographic practices and concerns play a large part. My solution to my own uncertainty is to talk today about essaying as an orientation or, maybe, a form of interdisciplinary, multi-media poetics. In talking about essaying in this way I’m hoping to support the development of a new thinking and terminology able to challenge the increasingly tired and archaic conceptual framework within which both arts practices and academic research are currently framed – at least when seen from the perspective of those who acknowledge our need to create new ecologies of understanding appropriate to the world in which we find ourselves.

I will try to be more precise. Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks have argued that, in the final stage of the emergence of theatre/archaeology – a formative approach in the development of deep mapping – the two disciplines are no longer discrete:

“They coexist within a blurred genre … or a science/fiction, a mixture of narration and scientific practices, an integrated approach to recording, writing and illustrating the material past” (Pearson & Shanks 2001: 131).

However I’d want to argue that the kind of essaying I’m engaged in is not concerned with blurring different disciplines to create a new, hybrid third. Rather it’s about interweaving many disparate, tensioned strands of experience, genres of writing, knowledge positions and narrative perspectives so as to produce a richer, more resonant patterning of meaning while retaining the pleasures of discrete threads within the larger whole. In short, it’s important to me that each particular ‘voice’ retains its own distinct inflection within the harmonies and dissonances of the song as a whole. In terms of the ‘where’ of this work, it’s important to acknowledge that, in addition to engaging with the specifics of a particular geographically-located place in that place, the work is also carried out in, and mediates across the social, cultural and epistemological borderlands between the territories of the art world and academia – where these are seen as .

For this project – 8 Lost Songs – I produced summaries of historical material that were then collaboratively rewritten as song lyrics, a set of detailed ethnographic notes for eight entirely fictional but geographically carefully located Borders ballads, a map, eight images and a framing historical text. Some of the writing involved draws on my awareness of the academic conventions and specialisms of historical, geographical and ethnographic writing, some on the imaginative processes of the novelist or artist. What is significant, however, is less the genres referenced but the place of each strand of writing within the juxtaposition that make up the work as a whole. Hopefully the result is not just a science/fiction in Pearson and Shanks’ terms but also what James Hillman calls, in the context of social psychology, a “healing fiction”.

This issue of the juxtaposition of modes of writing or ‘voices’ – and of writing as one form of documentation, re-presentation or evocation among other juxtaposed forms – is particularly important to me because of the specific contingencies that currently locate my writing/making. That is as somebody employed as an artist/doctoral supervisor/researcher within a larger team of people, themselves half of one of eight related “work packages”. Our aim is to open up to debate and reflection forms of connectivity between four constituencies: older people living in rural central and north Cornwall; ourselves as a team of artists and academics; a large international group of social scientists; and the ESRC, who are funding the whole overarching project to the tune of £1.1 million pounds. This requires that we move beyond categorical modes of thinking – but without disempowering ourselves as professionally-trained people – to engage with Geraldine Finn’s insight that: “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”. An insight that serves as the basis for the critical solicitude that has to underpin our particular Janus-headed orientation within the project as a whole.

In practice this means acknowledging and working with a difficult insight from the Czech poet Miroslav Holub. Holub earned his living as a chemist and immunologist and argued that there is no point in debating the differences between the scientist and the poet because:

“… 95 per cent of our time we are really secretaries, telephonists, passers-by, carpenters, plumbers, privileged and underprivileged citizens, waiting patrons, applicants, household maids, clerks, commuters, offenders, listeners, drivers, runners, patients, losers, subjects and shadows”.

He continues:

“We pretend to live inside a world-fruit of our creativity and culture. But in fact our work happens to be a tiny, subtle, at times permeating, but most of the time confined, domain in a world and in an age dominated by the giants of management and manipulation, by untamed autonomous superstructures that look down on us as if at an easily manageable microbial culture”.

My concern as someone involved in deep mapping is to find ways of writing/making that respond adequately to the complexities of lived experience as Holub evokes them.

So I’m interested in a form of deep mapping that consciously aims to listen from, work in and to mediate a ‘space-between’ that can acknowledge and work with this lived situation. One that requires what Geraldine Finn calls:

“… speaking from the space-between representation and reality, language and life, category and experience: the space of the ethical encounter with others as the other and not more of the same – a space and an encounter that puts me into question, which challenges and changes me, as well as the other (the otherness of the other) and the socius/the system that contains and sustains us”.

Arguably it’s this issue of a ‘self in question’ – a writing and making self that is always both more and less than its categorization as ‘academic’, ‘student’, ‘artist’, ‘ethnographer’, ’visitor’,  ‘producer of documents’, ‘authority’, ‘social scientist’, ‘supervisor’, ‘citizen’, etc – that gives deep mapping as essaying its social potency.  The view of deep mapping as ‘essaying’ we’re working with is derived from Edward S Casey’s distinction between position and place, where he claims that [I quote]:

If a position is a fixed posit of an established culture, a place, despite its frequently settled appearance is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture. (repeat).

This presumes a need to go beyond ‘disciplinary’ forms of deep mapping – for example as now practiced by Michael Shanks – that are too firmly oriented by fixed ‘disciplinary’ and academic posits, particularly given the close and complex relationships between ‘place’ and assumptions about normative behaviour identified by Tim Cresswell. I understand Casey’s sense of ‘place’ as an essay in experimental living as paralleling Finn’s concern with speaking from – or in this context writing/making from – a space-between. Both refer to an encounter that puts us in question as speakers whose authority is normally located by a professional category. Understood in this way, writing or essaying ‘place’ challenges and changes us, as well as changing our understanding of the limits of those ‘territories’ or ‘disciplines’ that both contain/constrain and sustain us.

This line of thinking is in turn convergent with Ruth Behar’s description of feminist concerns with the essay seen as “an act of personal witness” that is: “at once the inscription of a self and the description of an object”, open-ended in nature and able to desegregate “the boundaries between self and other”. The process of deep mapping as a multi-media essaying is, in consequence, taken to be an uncertainly located qualitative act, rather than something positioned in terms of a history, a status as a genre of writing, and so on.

These are transcripts of interviews that are coded both to indicate their relevance to themes under investigation by the team but also social sensitivities within a local community detected by an interviewer familiarizing herself to the structuring tensions of tact and disclosure that manage the antagonisms and sympathies central to discursive connectivity. ‘Writing’ here is a response to an emotional colour – an additional marking by a listener/reader who is seeking to visualize and make explicit a complex social dynamic only implicit in the text itself.

All that I’ve said to date presupposes a deep mapping occupied with, and attempting to give an account of, both a particular geographically located ‘place’ and, simultaneously, a second space-between that both mediates and contests the exclusionary position of the authorizing official networks of culture and knowledge. It does so by treating our categorical knowledge of, and the manifold threads of our experience in, ‘place’ – literally geographically located or, for example, in memory – as material for an act of weaving and looping together by which to create the types of intricate patternings of metaphorical connection found in traditional storytelling or ballads.

That is to say deep mapping produces new patterns and juxtapositions that relate directly to what anthropologists call ‘culture’. A significant aspect of this is the productive tension between politics and ethics that the feminist essay specifically set out to reclaim in the 1980s and early 1990s. A tension that Geraldine Finn locates between [I quote] “category and experience, representation and reality, language and life [that] is … the necessary and indispensable space of judgement: of creativity and value, resistance and change”.

Some etymology may clarify both my referring to deep mapping as ‘essaying’ and its relation to Peason and Shanks’ notion of ‘science/fiction’. The English term ‘essay’ derives from the French essai—a trial, attempt, or essay—which in turn derives from the Latin exagium, a weighing, and relates ‘essay’ back to ‘assay’. Deep mapping appears then, following Casey, as a lived, experimental essaying of ‘place’ that simultaneously ‘essays’ and ‘assays’ it. It does so through imaginative juxtaposition and interweaving of distinct aesthetic approaches and documentary perspectives that may be presented through a broad range of media and genres. I understand this as corresponding to Clifford McLucas’ reference to deep mapping as requiring a sumptuousness of presentation that embraces a range of different media and registers in a sophisticated and multilayered orchestration of material. A process that needs to include a database or archival system that is open to continuing reworking or re-writing that allows “the easy combination of different orders of material – a new creative space”.

Historically, I see deep mapping construed as essaying as developing Janet Wolff’s argument that the feminist essay provides an important model for challenging the authoritarianism latent in forms of ‘high-altitude’ thinking that forget the contingencies of its particular geo-political location. In the context of the ‘telling’ of ‘place’, deep mapping as essaying performs a function analogous to the feminist essay as Behar, Wolff and others present it. It does so in part because, like Wolff’s essay, it works with much the same “bricolage of cultural events and moments through which the experience of culture is mediated and in which it is encapsulated”.

I should pause here and say something about this and the following slide. These are the first three in a series of fluctuating texts that work by juxtaposing the ‘long dure of habitation in terms of documented local names (green) with the temporality of the research process that identifies these again in terms of living persons (red brown). This fluctuation is in turn juxtaposed with the cultural position set out by the art historian Miwon Kwon in One Place After Another: site specific art and locational identity, where she claims that it is “historically inevitable” that “we” will abandon “the nostalgic notion of a site and identity as essentially bound to the physical actualities of a place”.

There are further analogies between the feminist reconfiguring of the traditional essay and deep mapping. In each the autobiographical or auto-ethnographic element may be reemphasized as the basis for an act of personal witnessing; as providing a lens through which to attend to the fragment or concrete detail as a proper focus for social analysis; or as giving access to otherwise overlooked or suppressed cultural histories.

Both practices focus on an attentive essaying of concrete particulars that is at once the inscription of a subjectivity or inter-subjectivity and the description of an object or process. Both may deploy the ’discursive strangeness’ cultivated by ethnographers to enable practitioners both to distance themselves from the social world as defined by theory and yet to retain membership of it. Both also aim to provide forms of “non-dominating, dialogic knowledge”; and seek to critique cultural theories that “often simply do not work at the level of concrete experience” so as to resist “the distortions of theoretical orthodoxy”. In the case of deep mapping as essaying these concerns correspond to McLucas’ view that deep mapping should be a “politicized, passionate, and partisan” evocation of a site, involving “negotiation and contestation over who and what is represented and how” and giving rise to “debate about the documentation and portrayal of people and places” but, above all, should strive to remain “unstable, fragile and temporary… a conversation and not a statement