Karen O’Rourke is an artist and Professor of Digital Art at Jean Monnet University Saint-Etienne, France. Her work has been exhibited in Europe, the United States, and South America.
She’s also the author of Walking and Mapping: Artists as Cartographers.
Karen’s piece Drifting to Third Ward, submitted as a piece for the Drifting Bodies / Fluent Spaces conference, and shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards, echoes a particular walk set in Houston, Texas.
How to get to Third Ward Houston when you’re 5379 miles away and the world is in a pandemic.
Walk down Main Street, make a right on Alabama and cross over the freeway.
It’s that simple?
I first went to Houston in June 2018 to visit Project Row Houses and do research for a book. I had heard about it, read about it, imagined it. Project Row Houses is renowned for its mix of cutting-edge art and community action. I had met one founder, exchanged emails with others. I had browsed the web and Google Street View, gathered maps, pictures and details.
Back in 1992 when artist Rick Lowe saw potential in the twenty-two rundown houses in Houston’s Third Ward, builders told him they weren’t worth renovating. Better tear them down and rebuild. But he had in mind the shotgun houses that structure John Biggers’s paintings of African-American communities. Mobilizing thousands of volunteers from all over Houston, Lowe and his friends transformed them into spaces for art and housing for young mothers.
H-Town was, I thought, more familiar to me than the town just up the road.
It wasn’t, of course, but it took a walk to convince me.
I refashioned that walk in Houston as a sound walk for Drifting Bodies / Fluent Spaces in Guimaraes, Portugal. The contours of this second walk emerged from notes I had made in 2018 and a conference call in July 2020 with Geert Vermeire in London and Yannis Ziogas in Athens to prepare our joint intervention. In France under lockdown I had just finished Remapping the Neighborhood, looking at a wealth of maps drawn by residents, artists and architects as part of their efforts to revitalize Houston’s Third Ward.
The sound walk would be a counterpoint to that visual essay. I had taken over two hundred photos during the original walk in Houston but chose not to show them – the point of doing a purely audio piece was to let listeners make their own walks and do their own looking. Yet at the same time I narrate an experience that is specific, personal and not easy to photograph. Is it true that the most personal is the most universal? Scientists tell us that, even captured digitally, individual speech patterns are as unique as fingerprints – or walking gaits. (Their findings have not been lost on the global surveillance industry.) My voice wavers and stumbles sometimes – I find it embarrassing, too revealing, hard to listen to. Without Geert and Yannis it would probably not be online at all.
In this new space of Sound Walk September, with readers who crave context, and viewers who are potential listeners, the images are back. Fortunately, not all of them. If you want to listen anyway, just plug in and begin walking.
If you want to walk, try walking on your Main Street. Walk toward an art gallery. Go into every room and look around. If you don’t find an art gallery, make one. Continue to move in and out of air-conditioned places. For those of you in the southern hemisphere, central heating will work too. If there’s a freeway anywhere around, make sure you cross it. If there is no freeway, look for railroad tracks.
Karen’s reflection is the eleventh in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2020 Awards talking about their work.