Stonehenge? Just a load of old stones
This performance project is centred on a portable museum/exhibition consisting of small fragments gathered in special circumstances and exhibited in other special circumstances. It could be seen as an exercise in micro-psychogeography. Asking how fine-grained can you get with these things? Usually psychogeography has been concerned with fairly large artefacts such as streets, buildings, cities and with their consequent modulations of human affect. How about tooth fragments, splinters of wood, or even dust—do you stop at the pavement…. the beach beneath or on each grain of sand? Moreover, implicit passive logging of place through documentation, image/sound recording and feeling can obscure the motive forces of active intervention and ephemeral displacement. These hidden geographies merit special attention in pursuit of the ever-retreating yet multiplying liminal. By displacing and re-contextualising facets of our environmental sense world (Jakob von Uexküll’s ‘Umwelt’) we can weave new understandings of the performance of place. Place becomes more akin to a direction than a fixed cartographical geometry. The objects themselves (Pocket Museum specimens) have mutating identities that depend as much on their fellow entities and the new contexts in which they are performed as upon their origins. Thus the Pocket Museum of Displacements is an exercise in hybridity that questions convention, representation and institution.
Origins of the Pocket Museum—an object-led odyssey
Like many projects, this one arose out of a constant engagement with the mystery of materiality. Things always change. Things seem to have minds of their own. Whether you actively pursue abstruse forms of vitalist materialism, ancient belief systems like shinto, or simply swear at things when they don’t do what you want them to do, you are acknowledging the deep and mysterious tie we all have with materiality. When philosophers, scientists and capitalists wield their Razors of Reason and Analysis to sever the ties of Mind and Matter, they set in motion a whole series of snares and problems that span cognitive, epistemological and environmental ecologies. These problems thrive on various forms of displacement and are the arrival and departure points of what I call DisplacementActivities. The Pocket Museum of Displacements is an ongoing project within the overall exploration of DisplacementActivities. Here is how it arose…
It began with an invitation to take part in a forthcoming Terminalia Festival (23 Feb 2016). I had been thinking about various ways in which i might approach this celebration of the God of Thresholds and decided I would operate on the axis of a fundamental theatrical/ritual displacement. Central to my conception was to draw attention to the demarcation of stage/non-stage. Inside the circle, outside the circle. This or that side of The Line. Aspects that are fundamental to mapping, territory, belief systems, and the like. I required a way of defining theatrical/ritual space. Traditionally, chalk has been used for this. Consequently, I was hoping to find some chalk somewhere.
Presently, I found myself on top of Cley Hill in Wiltshire. This beautiful and complex Iron Age earthwork is made of chalk, and there is no doubt that chalk itself plays a significant role in our ancient history (not forgetting all those thousands of beings that created it in the first place). I decided to take a piece and use it to define the space for the Terminalia intervention. The chalk was first used on 23rd February, 2016 to draw a line defining the displacement space that the audience/participants were invited into one by one in order to experience the sonic boundary ritual (a future post will cover this piece).
At this point I had no idea about making a museum, it was simply a utilitarian piece of chalk with meaningful properties. I carried it around in my pocket in case situations arose where I might do impromptu performances. It was while carrying the piece around that I began to reflect on my stone collections. I had huge piles of them all over the house. Stones from beaches, sand from the other side of the planet, rocks from mountains, dozens of them. As time had moved on, most of these pieces had become detached from me and I couldn’t remember where they were taken from or why I had gathered them. They usually had some quality I found appealing but many of them seemed dull and uninspired once they had become dusty and domesticated. I began to think there must be a more meaningful way to collect stones whilst on walks, a way less like an imperialist museum collection. Something for the stones themselves rather than fulfilling some vague acquisition urge (of course, not all my stones were of this category—some are loved and treasured to this day—but I had so many!).
Soon after the performance I found myself on the east coast of England observing how the cliff was eroding so rapidly that people’s homes were toppling into the sea. Wires and pipes sprang out at odd angles from the muddy cliff face and the clay marl had many gravels hailing from the days of glacial melt. Two forms of major displacement. I looked closer and found a beautiful shiny black piece of flinty rock and immediately thought of the white piece of chalk I had with me already. An idea was taking shape. I put the piece carefully in my pocket.
Some months later, I was walking on one of my favourite beaches, Seaton in Cornwall, and I thought of the two stones I carried with me. At this point I began to look consciously for a piece to join them. I found one. I then found another. I decided the first one was possibly too large for an assemblage of small stones and would have limited the scope of any future collection, so I gave it to a friend who treasures it to this day. This left me with a small piece of rose quartzite.
Once I had three stones I began to think I would need a container for them since they were banging around in my pocket and the chalk was wearing down. I began to think about what I might do with the collection and decided I needed some rigour in logging their collection points and developing short narratives about their properties, circumstances and mythologies, then I would be able to recall their properties and improvise freely with them. The stones would become part of a mnemonic system and part of living memory: they would come alive again! The ‘Pocket Museum of Displacements’ was born. Its nomadic, portable nature naturally militated against its institutional, static, architectural counterparts, and sets up questions of inside/outside, valuable/worthless, meaningful/meaningless. Even though it comprised only three ‘ordinary’ stones, it was now ready for its World Premiere…
On 22nd May, I was walking in Leeds with friend and colleague Phill Harding when a particular bollard caught the sun at in a certain way and I was inspired to present the Pocket Museum of Displacements for the first time. The Round, flat area seemed ideal and the angle of the Sun created beautiful shadows for the stones. The three pieces sat there patiently while we discussed the situation.
The feature of the circular form as the appropriate space for the stones was carried forward in subsequent outings, and where necessary the chalk was used to define the space. Otherwise tree stumps, tables, circular rocks would serve the purpose. The circular form had obvious echoes with the tradition of stone circles, but also resonated with other forms of stylised/theatrical ritual such as the circus or the sumo dohyō. Thus it wasn’t long before I realised that direction or alignment was was a key element in the displays, and so I included a compass in the equipment. After the fifth stone had been found in autumn 2016, I requisitioned a Clipper lighter case to house the specimens and protect them in transit. They would remain in my pocket or bag from then on as they augmented over the months and years.
So what exactly is it, what are its components and how is it set up?
The Pocket Museum of Displacements (PMD) is currently a collection of around 20 entities that travel around in a Clipper lighter case (3.75inx1.75x1in) wrapped in a cloth bag that was once used for Herbes de Province. There is a compass in the bag used for aligning any performance along the North-South-East-West axes. There were no rules to start with, but a set of preferred practices, names and terms has evolved as collection and performance have continued. Briefly these are:
- The pieces are called ‘specimens’. After a while calling them ‘stones’, ‘exhibits’ and other words, ‘specimens’ has been arrived at since it relates to erstwhile collecting practices and Cabinets of Curiosities (Wunderkammer), but also because of the etymological origins of the word from the Latin “indication, mark, example, sign, evidence; that by which a thing is known, means of knowing”. The meaning “single thing regarded as typical of its kind” was first recorded in the 1650s which raises a whole set of questions about how things can stand for other things and the extent to which they are unique, or different. The specimens in the PMD constantly confound themselves.
- The surface on which they are displayed is called the tabula rasa simply because it is an area scraped clean and ready for new inscription. The empty table is also associated with an empty and fully malleable mind, which is a good thing to have when improvising. Any ‘good ideas’ should be discarded at once and the specimens allowed to emerge in their own ways.
- The ‘Cley Chalk’ is then used to inscribe a circle large enough to encompass the specimens, which may be placed on the line or inside the circle. The Cley Stone is then placed at the opposite side of the circle to the audience.
- The next stone is the ‘Barm Stone’ which is aligned with North.
- The last compulsory specimen is the ‘Seaton Rose’, which may be placed anywhere within the circle or on the line. The following specimens will come out or remain within the case depending upon the circumstances. Now there are around 20 specimens, it is very unlikely that they will all come out together, indeed there has never been a full display since around the fifth acquisition.
- Once the first three specimens are in place, the performance continues with any of the other specimens depending on the time and enthusiasm remaining. Although there are some key points to get across, the rest is largely improvised.and depends upon relations between the specimens themselves and the site of performance.
The 20 specimens
The first specimen was a piece of chalk from Cley Hill (30.4.15 around 4pm)I had not decided on the museum at this point, I just decided I wanted a marker to mark things. I was fascinated to read about the mythological origins of Cley Hill where the Devil was depicted as a Grand Displacer, perhaps an ancient casting of what we now call ‘Geology’.
“An old legend tells how Cley Hill came to be formed. According to the tale, the Devil was angry that the citizens of Devizes had converted to Christianity, and decided to bury the town under a pile of earth. He put a mass of earth in a sack and set off to find the town. On the way he met an old man, and enquired how far it was to Devizes. The old man guessed who he speaking to, and cleverly told the Devil that he himself was on the way to Devizes, and had set out as a young man, but now he was old and aged, and had yet to arrive at his destination. The Devil was so discouraged by the tale that he abandoned his journey and simply dumped the pile of earth beside the road. The town of Devizes was saved, and Devil’s pile of earth became Cley Hill.”
Humorous stories such as these carry forward a whole mass of meanings that can be told and retold over the centuries, helping us to make sense of place and the ineffable links between us and things.
The second specimen 27.2.16 (3pm ish) was found just south of Barmston on the east coast – a brittle piece of black carboniferous shelly limestone? coal? flint? I am not sure. I call it the ‘Barm Stone’. It is probably the result of ancient displacements transported via glacier across Doggerland from Scandanavia and deposited in boulder clays and meltwater gravels.
The third specimen 2.5.16 Seaton, Cornwall Red and white (rose) quartzite. I call it the ‘Seaton Rose’. Seaton just happens to be one of my favourite beaches. Not because it is picturesque or anything, quite the opposite, it is unremittingly grey and usually beneath a grey, drizzly sky and next to a moody grey sea. The River Seaton empties its clear, cold waters into the bay and splits the beach in two. There is something about the place though that makes me feel grounded. It affords a sizeable linear walk and it is best to return the same way you went by which time the grey will have altered slightly along with the view. Off season, the Seaton Beach Cafe is a treat.
The fourth specimen 10.6.16 between 3:34 and 4:00. A piece of mudstone found near the peak of Mont Real, Montreal.
The fifth specimen 14:42 on 23.9.16 collected on top of Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor– a beautiful sunny and windy day after the equinox. It looked like a star in the sunlight, and should be set to reflect light (Sun or torch).
The sixth specimen found at 17:30ish on 25.9.16. on top of Carn Brae near Redruth in Cornwall. A small quartz obelisk to the west of the Cross with the setting Sun (actual 19:24).
The seventh specimenfound at 11:53 on 7.11.16 on the Kings Esplanade beach at Brighton to the west of Medina House. A piece of flint in the shape of a mini-lith.
The eighth specimen found at 14:42 on 9.2.17 a piece of white quartz like a worn tooth from amongst the Twelve Apostles a Bronze Age stone circle on the Burley Moor part of Rombald’s Moor. Around the Westernmost stone. Many or all of those stones have been displaced, some are missing and probably added. My toothless socket was aching and the snow flittered about.
The ninth specimen found at 3pm on 12.3.17 a piece of red volcanic siltstone found in Ruddy Gill beneath the looming flank of Great End and where the path to Seathwaite darts off back down the valley. I picked it up on the way back from the peaks since I had noticed a ruddy gash of heavily iron filled rock. Like blood. It was the day of the biggest full moon I had seen for a while. It was my first proper walk since being rushed to A&E with an unstoppable nosebleed
The tenth specimen found at 17:12 on 28.6.17 Seaton, CornwallFound at the far end of Seaton beach near the slanty rocks that need clambering over. This was probably the cap of a washing up detergent bottle top. Red plastic. It is the first to break the run of stones. The criteria of portability, significance, and durability are preserved here. The sea has affected it. There were remarkably few bits of plastic on this beach. The pressing issue of displaced plastic. Of things moving within and beyond our control. Whatever you make will make you back. Recall ‘A Plastic Whale’ a stomached message that swam to Bergen, Norway, a place where they normally do not go. The call of a Cuvier’s beaked whale.
The eleventh specimen found at 20:15 on 6.9.17 Human tooth fragment.I have had it since I was around twelve years old. This piece sheered off the lingual side of my first right lower molar number 30 leaving a jagged hole. Enamel, the hardest substance produced by the body. My teeth seem very brittle. Sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything. Tooth fairy for fragments. Complements the Fairy Liquid in the 10th specimen. What stands for what?
The twelfth specimen found at 15:32 on 24.09.17 Small piece of black and whitey quartz from the vicinity of The Smashing of Everything, Jiro Takamatsu, 1972. Gallery 3, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. This is a shard of indeterminate provenance. It was found near the exhibit and could have been dropped there by a visitor, or might have been an illegal immigrant brought in on someone’s shoe.. Placing it back within the artwork might have contaminated the artwork, whereas not putting it in might have left the artwork slightly diminished. Due to the nature of the artwork and the stone, it was impossible to tell. The artwork itself was a box containing thousands of tiny fragments Takamatsu had produced by taking apart everyday items lying around in his studio. I was reminded of Michael Landy’s 2001 Breakdown piece is related. Landy systematically pulverised all his possessions in an industrial process. Takamatsu had demonstrated the principle thirty years earlier. Whereas Landy had ended up with a problem of how to discard the now valuable waste—he displaced the waste to undisclosed landfill sites—Takamatsu’s ‘waste’ technically still has value as being part of an existing artwork. This might therefore be the most ‘valuable’ piece in the Pocket Museum. Possibly. No one can be sure. The issue of the value of art comes into play with the PMD itself. As an inert box of ‘stones’ it is worthless. Once activated, possibly priceless! Value depends on context, recall the potter in Ugetsu Monogatari by Mizoguchi.
The thirteenth specimen found at 2.11.17 Lands End at around 1pm. Piece of greenish shale veined like an angel’s wing. The specimen had the status of ‘Unknown Stone’ for a while until I found its accompanying documentary photograph. It has sheered down the middle into two.
The fourteenth specimen found at 15:47 on 27.01.18 Broken brown flint with thin coating. Something confectionary about it.
The fifteenth specimen Seascale Beach 20.03.18 (Vernal Equinox) half hinge of a clam shell, worn shingle.
The sixteenth specimen Chesil Beach 29.05.18 at around 3 o’clock. This flinty smooth roundish whitish pebble like a worn molar was found on the steeply shelving shingle shoreline of Chesil Beach. As I stared out to sea, I recalled a repeated dream I had when I was a child about being taken under the sea by the undertow on a steeply shelving pebble beach just like this one. It is quite possible that we stopped here on the way down to Somerset when visiting my grandparents. Death stalked the dream, the precipitous slope did look dangerous as the sea pounded the shore.
The seventeenth specimen. Milton Keynes 9.08.18 at around 5:30pm A small fragment of black painted concrete from the Simulacral Concrete Cows at Barncroft, Milton Keynes. Found at the foot of the cow with her face crumbling off among other shards. The copies were made by Bill Billings (‘a prophet without honour in his own country’) based on the original ones created in 1978 by Canadian artist Liz Leyh. Billings died in 2007, and I am not sure when he made the replicas. The originals are now at Wolverton Museum having been displaced several times. This piece has a strange relation with the 12th specimen, problematising the value of a work (or copy of a work) of art
The eighteenth specimen White Cliffs of Dover 7.11.18 This piece of white chalk, naturally enough, was found as I contemplated the plight of refugees and migrants attempting to get into the UK. I wrote a small post for Insta in reply to friend and artist Guy Wouete. The issues of inside/outside, black/white, EU/non-EU loomed large as I was still awaiting the results from a CT-scan. The limbo feeling as with the holding pattern at the Calais Jungle, waiting. Waiting for what? The wind howled. Dover looked bleak and dingy and it was exceedingly cold.
The nineteenth specimen Maryport: South Beach. 28.1.19 A small arrowhead shaped piece of flinty carbonised slag from a low cliff. These fragments reminded of the black teeth in the white cliffs of Dover (18th specimen). The piece replaces a chunk of charcoal found at Lake Bassenthwaite on 19.1.19. The charcoal crumbled to dust, some of which smudged the PM Guardian, Punkita. Before it completely went to dust, it was used in a performance of ‘Out of It! Post-urban Desire Lines’. by Edgeogs at theTerminalia walk in Leeds on 23.2.19. It now resides outside the museum, as does the Okinawan sand that was used in the Displacement Activities Light Night (2017) PMD performance. The black piece was originally sought after as a complement to the white chalk and raised by the psychogeography of the White Cliffs. The idea being that when the tabula rasa was a light colour black would show up better than the white chalk. Figure and ground. The slag along the coast between Maryport and Flimby confounds standard geology since the stones are metamorphosed in strange ways, the agglomerations are startling in their bizarre associations. What is an artefact and what is natural is called into question. Undoubtedly metamorphic, these layers mix with those that are genuine glacial displacements from the volcanic cores of the Lake District.
The twentiesth specimen Maryport: Ilkey and Flimby wool combination (WoolCombo) 14.2.19. A significant day for combining wool I found near Flimby with art-partner Ursula Troche’s Ilkley wool. The Ilkley wool formed the supernoval core of one of her ongoing ‘infraventions’. Being a hybrid piece created on the spot, this is a first for the museum. By filleting an unnoticeable piece from an existing artwork it echoes two prior pieces (12th and 17th specimens) but at the same time moves the framing forwards once more by unleashing a parallel (meta)artwork.
There is far more information that could go into this list and for some specimens only the bare bones are indicated. The beauty of performance is such that any of the pieces can be elongated or contracted according to the interest shown by the audience. As mentioned earlier, a single performance will be unlikely to reveal all the specimens. Sometimes none may come out at all!
Since engaging with the PMD I have been thinking a lot about how mutable our boundaries and categories are, how difficult it is to set up a perfect curatorial and/or archival system, a heroic task but ultimately futile. No notation can be exhaustive, just as any system of categories must be open to revision. From the original stone pieces, the PMD has started to incorporate plastic, body parts, ephemeral traces, the whole range of possible objects. Even whether an object is solid or not becomes questionable. The Bassenthwaite charcoal turned into dust, for instance, and could no longer be contained. Self-destructing art has recently been pushed forward a notch by Banksy’s ‘Girl With a Balloon’ painting. Before that, time-based works by artists such as John Latham have presented institutions with nightmares about whether to preserve or allow disintegration. Questions abound on this liminal edge of what is/is not art on a simply material basis, let alone on a conceptual one. The Pocket Museum is always re-focusing me on what Jane Bennett calls ‘thing power’, as objects demand their own histories and logics. It is all the poor artist/curator can do to keep up with their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Around all this is the art of confabulation, how to draw the selections together in unlikely and entertaining ways depending upon the new (displaced) circumstances any given performance may throw up. The audience whether it be one, several or a multitude has a marked effect on what happens, as I do when I find a specimen and/or perform it. Everything is contingent, but somehow the objects maintain their lines… without falling into essences, representations, or metonymic appropriations. The objects stand for themselves and we stand with them for a while. We can enjoy the fleeting time we’re with them or ignore it. My work with these things is to forge memories with their help.
Finally, the practice of the PMD has alerted me to new readings of several other miniature, portable artworks and mini-collections by a range of well-known artists: Marcel Duchamps’ boite-en-valise, Paul Neagu’s portable tactile sculptures, Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Nanomuseum, Andy Warhol’s Timeboxes, Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, and Kurt Schwitters’ Merz techniques, to name a few. These relations will be the subject of another blog post at some point, but for now all I can say is that the similarities and differences between these works constitutes a fascinating study yet to be undertaken. Perhaps my ongoing odyssey with the Pocket Museum of Displacements will help uncover some of these connections
The Pocket Museum of Displacements has been performed throughout the UK and in Canada. A performance might be to one other, as was its World Premiere in Leeds on 22nd May 2016, or to a sizeable audience as with the intervention in Gareth Rees’s Superstore Carpark Walk on (9.9.16) at the 4th World Congress of Psychogeography. The Pocket Museum also appears in Displacement Activities events, since ultimately it derives from that project (see previous post). The last conventionally advertised public outing was at the 2108 Terminalia Festival, Leeds (23.02,18). Impromptu performances to audiences of one, or more, continue.