Old paths became mediums in two senses: means of communion as well as means of motion: […] spectres stepped from the verge or hedge, offering brief addressRobert Macfarlane
On 14 September 2020 I become a full-time practice-based PhD student at the Royal College of Art. This is a short extract from my research proposal which I presented to the RCA interview panel:
Tracing fotminne’s geometry: how might walking in shapes imprint the idea of ‘foot memory’
The idea that artists leave their mark on landscape is familiar: Agnes Denes, Nancy Holt, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long have all done so. Harder to establish is the trace that landscape leaves on us. This practice-based research project attempts to express ways in which the visual and sonic arts might register a formal, quantifiable mark of landscape’s power, using as its touchstone the neologism fotminne devised by Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman. Meaning ‘to remember with your feet’, it suggests a trajectory in which the natural landscape marks the walker in such a way as to become a visceral imprint; it also embeds the idea that the walker can become so attuned to a particular landscape that their feet can find their way instinctually. Ekman describes footpaths in anthropomorphic and multi-dimensional terms: they are ‘walking veins’ and ‘memory vessels’. This registers temporal and spatial qualities as well as a particular aspect of Sigmund Freud’s nachträglichkeit or ‘afterwardsness’ in which a repeated encounter can give retrospective meaning to an earlier one. These aspects will be integral to my practice, shaped by the organisational, schematic principles of geometric form: does walking in the shape of the triangle, rectangle, or sphere offer a means by which fotminne can be more readily imprinted and assessed? How might site-specific soundscapes be created, using geometric principles, to reinforce the concept of fotminne? Can fotminne transact the climate crisis as a form of loss?
Research Background and Questions:
My practice involves two fundamental strands: geometric sculptures larger than the human form of site-specific landscapes. Constructed from etchings, photographs and text, they will be created to invite the onlooker inside as a form of visceral, fotminne encounter: geometric books to walk in. The second strand accompanying these larger-than-life landscape books will be my composed soundscapes, again relying on geometric principles: the freeform fugue embedded in the circular landscape, the postmodern waltz combined with the triangular landform and so on. These experiments will be aided by my former work as a BBC radio documentary-maker working with quarter inch magnetic tape.
Rebecca Solnit argues that language is ‘like a road; it cannot be perceived all at once because it unfolds in time, whether heard or read. This narrative or temporal element has made writing and walking resemble each other in ways art and walking do not.’ This identifies three key elements of my research: what is the resemblance between art and walking; how might text and art be combined to explore fotminne; how might the removal of simultaneity in a print or photograph play a part in defining foot memory? By unravelling and detaching the temporal concept that everything appears to happen at once in a photograph or print, I intend to experiment with forms of practice in which multiple, minutely-adjusted photographs and etchings can extend my practice beyond the confines of the simultaneous.
My questions have arisen, in part, during my printmaking MA. I have been working on photographic representations of landscape and of casts of the miniscule ‘footsteps’ of elm beetles which engrave lacey pathways on the underside of elm-tree bark. My plans to construct vast A0-sized ‘walking’ books have been interrupted by the pandemic, but they will be embedded in my future research. I also plan to enlarge my series of miniature books, constructed out of rusted microscope slides, containing my fixed verse. Poetry, in the form of sonnets, villanelles and paradelles (a kind of literary geometry) will form part of my large-scale landscape sculptures.
In choosing landscapes to document in my practice, I will be guided by geometry: the hexagonal stones of the Giant’s Causeway, the rectangular Limestone Pavement, the triangular shape of the Glyderau, or the circular An Lochan Uaine. I hope that by walking the landscape in shapes, or walking shaped landscape, I can interrogate my fundamental research questions: can the visual and sonic arts record, document or establish fotminne? How might the schematic principle of geometric shape reinforce memory’s role in fotminne? Can the age-old mantra of ‘going round in circles’ move away from its pejorative sense of futile repetition and be reconfigured as a new, visceral engagement with the natural landscape?
The RCA offers opportunities for PhD researchers to teach on the college’s MA programme and on BA courses at other art schools. As an experienced teacher and Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, this is something I hope to do. I will also continue my role as College Lecturer in English Literature at Hertford College, University of Oxford. The richness of its creative and intellectual environment feeds into my practice.
- While focusing on my PhD practice and research, I’ll continue my role as a writer on art and culture for both Cereal and Disegno magazines.
WORK SELECTED FOR EXHIBITION:
- Two of my photo etchings have been selected for the forthcoming Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair in November.
- Along with a group of MA Fine Art students from Camberwell, I’m involved in planning and putting on an exhibition called Solid Air to take place at No Format Gallery in November 2020.
- I’m collaborating with the soprano Annie Mackay and the concert pianist Jack Gibbons to write a series of songs to accompany my videos. The collaboration will result in a live performance and screening in the summer of 2021.
- In May 2021 I’m having a joint show with artist Caroline Meynell in Oxford.
- Post-Graduate Community: Works in Online Places, Volume 2 My hand-coloured linocut Beneath My Feet was selected for this exhibition.
I’m planning to launch a podcast titled Ridge and Furrow, in which I walk and talk to artists, scientists, mathematicians and writers. It’s an interdisciplinary project in which the soundscape forms a vital part and ideas are at the forefront.