Mapping a digital quipu

CC-BY-NC: Elspeth Penfold

Elspeth (Billie) Penfold is a textile artist who brings her experience of teaching and research into performative work. In 2012 she formed the arts group Thread and Word. Through call outs and personal invitation Elspeth works collaboratively with invited artists and academics to develop performative walks.
Elspeth was one of the speakers at The spaces between the words – Practices of locative literature, which happened during Sound Walk September 2020, where she talked about A different LENS, where she weaves together text and space.
Elspeth was born in Bolivia, and she likens the digital threading of texts with the physical threading of Andean quipus.

When I create ideas for projects I reach out to artists who I think might be interested in walking and working with me on a particular theme. I then create a project brief for us to explore and develop ideas.
A wonderful group of people, including artists, authors, friends and community members, gathered under the umbrella title Thread and Word, a very fluid artists group I started in 2014, co-created the map A Digital LENS with me.

Thread and Word is inspired by the Chilean Artist Cecilia Vicuña‘s poem Hilo y palabra. This means Thread and Word in Spanish.

In 2010 I had created an immersive installation in a gallery space in Whitstable that was inspired by the poem. I have since used elements of the poem for walks in Edinburgh, where the poem was written, and in London , Margate and Whitstable.

I am from South America, born in Bolivia. I was spoken to in Quechua, an Andean language, by Justina, who looked after me as a child.
In Quechua the word for “language” also means “thread”, and the word for “complex conversation” also means “embroidery”. In Quechua, no word exists for a singular entity. In the ancient Andean communities, a single thing was an aberration while the interrelated pair was the norm and defined completeness.
This is also reflected in weavings, which documented a philosophy of life during the time of the Incas before the Spanish conquest. I can see connections between this ancient world view rooted in the land, and I believe making this connection might contribute to my understanding of the map and why I have been drawn to using this process. This, while I have drawn a great deal from Rebecca Stone.

The digital map A Different LENS has entries which are made up of many threads (texts, photos, video and sound), which are spun together to create multilayered stories. Some of these are secret or hidden. The map is a tapestry, an embroidery of multilayered conversations about selected authors and their stories. These are woven into the fabric of Margate and its surrounding area in Kent.

If you look at the map it is visually very beautiful, with repeat patterns of blue, green, grey, and pink. Each colour represents an area in Kent. These locations are placed on the green surface of the GPS satellite mapping which connects the entries for you to feel connected to, and enable you to explore the location.
The repeated shape of the tear drop with a magnifying glass in the centre points you to the locations chosen by each artist for their entry on the map. This symbol was designed by Fred Adam, artist and curator of CGeomap. The magnifying glass is the lens with we choose to view our engagement with place and literature and I am here taking you through my own lens for viewing the map.

The map’s design reminds me of a Quipu which is the cloth that was held in the highest regard by the Incas. The Inca civilisation used textiles rather than written text to record their stories. The Quipus are knots used by the Incas to record and document valuable information and remain with us today in museums as artefacts for display representing a past civilisation. I have been walking in the UK for over six years, exploring the relationship between weaving, walking and storytelling. Participants who walk with me are invited to knot ropes to record the experiences of the walk .

The design for these walks often includes selected poetry readings as well as performative actions. When the walk is finished I then attach the knotted ropes to a vara, or pole, which has a particular weave wrapped around it.
This weave is woven on an inkle loom and responds to the theme or location of the walk.
These weaves are symbolic, like those of the woven Quipu. The knotted ropes from the walking event are then attached to the pole and each pole becomes the text for a walk.
At present I have 22 poles of the walks I have undertaken in collaboration with festivals, and co-created with participants who join me under the umbrella of Thread and Word.

Our map at A Different LENS has embedded in it the process of knot making while walking. Through the map’s locations, the knots connect the stories, as each becomes a URL node or a nodulo (in Spanish, the word for knot is nudo). Nudos, during the time of the Incas, would have been known as quipus.

The map A Different LENS contains many further connections to the past culture of the Andes, including elements of the Quechua concepts of Thread: Ayni, Ukhu, Tinku, Q’iwa, and Ushay. These five ideas illustrate how the general Andean worldview is complex, layered, and based on a different understanding of the world to that of most Westerners.
For instance, whereas we say the future is ahead because it is a place not yet reached, Quechua speakers say it is behind because it is not yet visible.
I hope that the digital layering of our map illustrates this complex multilayered world view.

My final thought is with reference to the secret entries on our map A different Lens. These are pink markers, if you view the map on your laptop, or, if you are outside walking it, the location for secret entries are signalled by the chimes of the Margate Clock.
Our Secret entries open to reveal a walking prompt designed by Sonia Overall. These link to the artists locative entries and responses to the chosen texts. These texts include works by James Joyce, Milton, Thurber, Borges, Deanna Quietwater, Bill Lewis, and the music of Victoria Claire.
Our #DistanceDrift prompts to secret entries on our map have become the Tinku of the map.
This concept from the Quechua language is beautifully described by Rebeca Stone as the novelty of what is produced by encounters between different people and things which allows for creative innovation. The image, below, is of a response by Julie Brixey-Williams to a secret entry #DistanceDrift prompt, which is attached to Dancers an entry on the map by Diana Lane. In Quechua, the word Tinku means change, or that which is different. Tinku adds the element of change to the balancing idea of ayni, which typically means to encounter, specifically when two things converge into a new third entity.
The Distance Drift offers all who engage with the map the opportunity to take part and in this sense the entry gets changed through this participation and becomes our Tinku.

The idea of connecting our digital map to Quechua, and through this language structure connecting it to the the Quipu, became clear to me following a short talk I gave as part of a panel discussion on locative media and literature, hosted by Geert Vermiere, as part of the International Analogio Festival and in cooperation with walk · listen · create.
I am grateful to Geert, my fellow panelists, and the attendees who through their conversation pointed me in this direction. I have written this to connect the threads of a conversation which were discussed a part of this panel.
My ambition when I started my walking practice was to research the relationship between walking, weaving, and writing. I am very much enjoying the journey and would like to thank all who have contributed to this rich and ever evolving experience.

You can participate in Elspeth’s A Different LENS, right now, both online and in Margate, UK.

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