‘navigating’ a sense of place

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About Navigation Projects

nav·i·gate (nv-gt)
v. nav·i·gat·ed, nav·i·gat·ing, nav·i·gates
v.tr.
1. To plan, record, and control a course or position.
2. To follow a course, across, or through: navigate a stream.
v.intr.
1. To create the course
2. To voyage over water.
3.
a. To make one’s way
b. Informal To walk…

‘Navigating’ projects may or may not have anything explicitly to do with water and boats, often they’re more about describing a journey of exploration,

If the term slow boat is seen as a collective noun that helps provide coherence to my overall output and attitude to life, then navigating is more specific, and perhaps best seen as a verb, or doing-word.

Navigation Projects explore the distinctive atmosphere or pervading spirit of a place, they’re about making connections, about belonging and history, and about individual subjective experience.

Of course I’m not alone in trying record my efforts to make sense of world around me. There are millions of people doing it, in millions of blogs, through countless millions of photographs and through the viral use of myriad forms of social media. In fact it seems to be an increasingly necessary even urgent practice, an antidote to indifference, to explore our relationship with time, people and place. There’s a diverse infrastructure out there, from social media sites to theoretical movements, furiously producing products and strategies to help us to see, to celebrate and/or unpick the seemingly mundane, to help us to make sense of the world around us.

In terms of theoretical movements, whether it be:

  • Phil Smith’s mythogeographyIt is the stepping and steeping of people in the flows and tugs of all the images around us. Its central tactic is old-fashioned – walking and journeying. By setting ourselves in motion through a world of images we make ourselves human movie cameras or camera phones – both interpreters and producers. By the particular focuses and the angles of trajectory we choose, we make an interpretation of our world, and from our impressions we begin to re-make its meanings. The productions that follow from these experiences – a conversation in a bar, a procession, a conspiracy, a plan, a map, an organisation, a gesture – are what mythogeography is. It isn’t anything more difficult than that.
  • Tina Richardson’s schizocartography: […] providing an opportunity for multiple ways of operating in space and reading the environment; it critiques the conventional ways of viewing, interpreting and mapping space. While the term “schizoanalysis” is derived from “schizophrenia”, it does not promote mental illness; rather, “schizo” is used as a way of offering up the possibility of multiple voices, and alternative world-views, amongst other factors.
  • Wilfried Houjebek’s cryptoforestry: The cryptoforest is a cultural and not a biological way to classify nature and the recognition of a cryptoforest is a visionary act, not a mechanical operation: there is no machine vision here. In this respect the ‘cryptoforest’ is no different from common, but ultimately ambiguous, terms like ‘weed’ or ‘forest’

or whether it be Gareth E. Ree’s wandering around the liminal spaces of East London in Marshland, Nick Papadimitriou keeping the country of Middlesex alive and defining the drama of the north London ridges in Scarp; or John Rogers in This Other London meandering out of Leyton to inspect the world… there’s a whole world of experimental thinking and writing going on out there.

To be honest, although I find a lot of what’s being written both interesting and stimulating, I also feel that some of it’s in danger of taking itself far too seriously. So much of it takes on a quasi-scientific pomposity, more ‘academic paper’ than ‘artefact of a journey’. And that can have the effect of making the simple act of getting out and walking; of seeing, reading, researching and doing, seem hugely loaded, portentous, pretentious and tricky.

In setting up this blog I went through a period of writing a lot of theory (about what the blog would be about, and why…) but I’m increasingly hopeful that the posts will move on and become records of doing rather than planning; that they’ll tell stories linked to actions, and practice based on theory rather than the theory standing coldly alone…

He is slowly working out a model of thought – no more than thought, of self – not as something rooted in place and growing steadily over time, but as a shifting set of properties variously supplemented and deleted by […] passage through the world. Landscape and nature are not there simply to be gazed at; no, they press hard upon and into our bodies and minds, complexly affect our moods, our sensibilities. They riddle us in two ways – both perplexing and perforating us.

p 341 The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Navigating Projects will:

  • be my modest contribution to the pantheon of psychogeographic activity, despite the fact that often my navigations will run counter to many of its prevailing assumptions: where as much of psychogeography is an urban endeavour and topographically-based, navigating will be more fluid, both rural and urban (depending on the journey) and mediated by a response to a specific object (often a boat) rather than necessarily a specific place.
  • be about recording the process of coming to terms with, or getting under the skin(s) of a subject, they’ll be about walking, boating, journeying in all forms including armchair journeys taken as a result of research and imagination.
  • make connections, without obsessively pursuing a dominant narrative form. Navigating is neither history nor fiction. It involves research and imagination. It composes of a ‘drift’ across numerous stories and gives permission for freedom-from-constraint and leaps in the dark in search of a deeper sense of place. It’s about a hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge a space. Navigating encourages a broad unfolding of a story over time.
  • at their most basic, the projects will be about coming to know the here & now through being open to the resonances of the past. The projects may begin with the boat, or with an airman who died in WW2, but these are catalysts, the starting point for a journey of discovery not the end point.
  • be about providing the freedom and permission for my chaotic, ill-formed thinking to take off in unexpected directions, loosening constraints, losing sight of myself and that habit of ‘control-freakery’ for a while, and simply enjoying a journey. So be warned, in a Navigation Project there are likely to be sudden U-turns and changes of tempo and tone, as I follow my nose, perhaps down a well-trod route but trying to see that route in a new way.
  • cultivate a sense of place/space through personal experience, local knowledge and local lore.
  • not just be about the history, geography or topography of a particular place or the biography of a particular person, but through utilising my senses, making sense of things through associations, stories, memories and flights of imagination. They’re about thinking about being there, and enjoying the impact a place/space or person have on my senses and emotions.

It strikes me that what I’m really trying to do is use the practice of navigating to help me to understand a little more about how history and place, imagination and location, provide drivers that control our responses to, or emotional reactions to, people and place.

“Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear. More precious, though, are the unpublished maps we make ourselves, of our city, our place, our daily world, our life; those maps of our private world we use every day; here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, I was heartsore; but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth, things of that sort, our personal memories, that make the private tapestry of our lives.”

Alexander McCall Smith, Love Over Scotland

The tools I use in trying to snare a fleeting sense of person or place in Navigation Projects might include reading; studying maps; taking photographs; writing stories and poems; making drawings; taking notes; or making paintings. Each is an entry point for appreciating the interconnections between person/place/space. It’s important to remember however that they’re all ‘second-hand’ strategies at-one-remove from that most vital of activities, first hand experience, nothing beats it and it’ll be undertaken as often as  possible.

Nick Papadimitriou calls himself a ‘deep topographer’ rather than psychogeographer and provides six tips to help kick start your very own ‘deep topography’ experience:

a). Go walking. Stay away from bright lights.
b). Explore second hand bookshops. Buy books on topography – on areas, regions, counties. Study them. Then walk around and see whether you can make sense of the present landscape in relation to the past. This way you’ll get more tension and depth in your engagement with the landscape.
c). Go out on your own without any maps and without a digital camera. Digital cameras are the death of the imagination.
d). Go in any direction that suits you. Go in unfamiliar directions. Go in familiar directions and try and see things in a new way.
e). Develop a sense of contours. They tell you a lot about the tensions and releases of the landscape and the way the ancillary aspects if the landscape (such as sewage and drainage systems) are organised. It will build up your sense of place.
f). Develop a poetry out of the commonplace. The two aren’t opposites. The inexplicable and the obvious reside alongside each other.

With a respectful nod to Nick’s work, here’s my take on his six tips, amended to more closely apply as to Navigation Projects…

a). Get afloat. Stay close to the water. Go inland.
b). Explore second hand bookshops. Buy books on the inland waterways – on social, industrial, natural history; on navigations and folk art etc. Study them. Then walk the Water Road, or sit aboard the boat, or gather around the stove and talk, and look, and see whether you can make sense of the present in relation to the past and your own engagement with both, and with the landscape and waterscape around you.
c). Go out on your own with old maps and a digital camera. Digital cameras can frame the imagination.
d). Let your thinking take off in any direction that suits you. Go in unfamiliar directions. Lose sight of yourself. Follow your nose. Go in familiar directions and try and see things in a new way.
e). Develop a sense of the transience of things. Enjoy the moment and the history. Build up your sense of place by valuing the senses, knowledge and feelings equally. Notice what is glimpsed from the corner of your eye.
f). Develop a poetry out of the commonplace. The two aren’t opposites. The inexplicable and the obvious talk to and reside alongside each other. No, go sighting!

Current projects include Navigating Eileen and Navigating Cyril.

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