I have slept badly and awaken already exhausted. My eyes are heavy – perhaps I am getting a cold. The wind has built up over night and the atmosphere is stormy, expectant. I know I need to work but cannot settle so instead, after breakfast I set out to walk the streets near my house.
My intention is a wandering. I decide to walk for an hour with my phone-camera in my hand. I decide to record things I notice. I realise that I have never walked around my neighbourhood, only perhaps a short and direct trip to the shops, or a café. I have lived here for almost three years and have not yet mapped the through ways and cul-de-sacs. I have noticed specific houses as I have driven by, but not stopped to really look, to see what it is that draw my attention to them in particular over their adjacent, near identical neighbours.
My photographs are of leaves on the path, of individual stained glass window-panes, abandoned toys in a drive, builders waste. Of course I am seeing more than I photograph, feeling more that I recall. It is 9am but I hardly meet anyone else. A dog walker, a couple of builders, a woman washing her car an a couple pushing a pram. That is it. Everyone is at work I think.
I’m thinking about Bill Beckely’s 2001 The Sticky Sublime; the suggestion that
‘The sublime is not simply sublimity – it is loss of a self, which first must be acquired – through study, connoisseurship, through one’s varied relations to other people – through the impulse, memories, principles, and energies that evolve into a sense of self.”
I wonder how this applies to an exploration of the suburban neighbourhood – how this walk away from the home as defining self, and into a ground that is somehow about absence, might inform my practice-based research?
The walk I take is a Dérive – an unplanned route through the suburban landscape. A drifting. As Guy Debord defined it the derive as a ‘mode of experimental behaviour… linked to the conditions of urban society.. .a passage through various ambiences…’ As Debord might suggest I am directed by the feelings evoked. A derive is performed – it is a doing action. As such, without conscious planning I act on the suburban street. I find myself attracted to certain features in the terraine. I notice the contrast of colour between the pavement and a bright purple leaf. Later, a bright purple sweet wrapper is framed on green grass verge.
Unlike Debord’s observations I do not see change between a few streets. The architecutral and landscape themes are consistent. Public space –road, path, grass verge, is varyingly sculpted but generally in good repair and maintenance. Edges and border are defined according to the function of the roadside. I follow the paths and roads as routes of least resistance – going with the curve of pavement into a dead end, or following a drive way to cross a road. A boundary between the home / house and this public space is described by a fence, hedge or wall - or a combination of all. Almost without exception the gateway to the property is open onto an expanse of drive that is described in tarmac or block paving.
I wander / wonder in the lack of specificity of this and how I am mapping in my mind a psychogeography that is probably as much to do with the orientation of my body as it is a visual guide to the streets.
I am not sure that I want to change the way I look at the space – I think I already know how I look. Neither am I seeking to disrupt. Indeed I feel self conscious, like I am ‘casing the joint’, and feel relieved to see ‘For Sale’ signs which in my mind legitimise my intrusion onto the empty paths to stare at the vacated properties.
My photo taking describes me as a ‘creative’ I think – something I can explain away if confronted- though I am never confronted.
I notice the attempts to delineate boundaries between the domestic space and encroaching nature. I see bags of garden waste that tells of recent pruning and clipping. There are carefully groomed lawns and pot plants adjacent to tufts of weeds or swathes of uncut grass. Similarly boundaries between public and private are interrupted. In places people have placed large stones (often whitewashed) to stop other people parking on ‘their’ grass verge. Whilst at the same time households have paved over front gardens to turn them into carparks which in turn blur the distinction between (public) roadside and home side.
There seems to be a continual process of repair and rebuild underway. Of the few people I see most are builders. They are replacing driveways, window frames, roof tiles. They are fitting bathrooms, refurbishing extensions, installing sheds. Property is in a state of flux, never finished – always paint peeling,
I turn to Wrights and Sites as a reminder of what the walk is – can be.
The spaces that are the house exteriors seem to be in a constant battle with change –change that is permitted, invited, managed; change that is unsolicited, fluid, unkempt. It is the negotiation of this troubled (in)balance that seems to be the sub – below, under. The under is revealed in the change and struggle to manage change. The placing and removal of objects of the house. The planter, the garden chair, the kids trampoline. I am reminded of the language of Dada – of every product of disgust – the peeling, cracked, weed-infiltrated, stained thing becoming as much part of the suburb as the pristine render and mowed lawns.
The walk reminds me of the small things –the ordinary. The attempts of the house-builder/ DIY homemaker are interventions to pause, place, frame that have no effect at all in the bigger picture. The actions serve to perpetuate a market economy. Not of ‘home improvement’.