A reflective conversation

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The walking piece TRACE: A Remote Geography of the Mind, is a collaboration between Christopher Kaczmarek and Deirdre Macleod, and it explores how we can create new geographies of the mind by collaboratively exploring our local environments, slowly.

This walking piece is one of the shortlisted pieces in the Marŝarto Awards 2023. Here, Chris and Deirdre discusses their work, in the form of a conversation.

Deirdre Macleod (DM): I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of how we first started working together, because it helps explain why our project, TRACE, takes the form that it does. TRACE is a responsive sequence of images of two places, transmitted remotely using Whatsapp. We met for the first time in May 2020, at a walking arts conference which had been moved online because of the Pandemic. We were paired randomly for group work and began to discuss our practices and research interests. These are, in part, place and technology-based.

Christopher Kaczmarek (CK): Yes. The physical and geographical constraints resulting from the Pandemic meant that we couldn’t travel, but, as remote working became more widespread, we considered options and projects that we might not otherwise have done. We began to think about how to explore and share the places in which we lived and worked using digital technologies and to consider, together, the implications of transmitting images of place.

DM: So, the focus of our work over these past few years has been twofold: we’ve explored the value of long distance exchange and we’ve also started to examine the critical and poetic possibilities presented by visual technologies such as messaging apps. In particular, these apps encourage transmission in series, rather than in parallel. This prompted us to adopt a serial – one thing after another – methodology to explore space and place, rather than a simultaneous – side by side – approach which might be more comparative.

CK: And I think an important part of what we’ve been doing is creating for the other person an intimate knowledge of the places in which we work. I certainly feel like, when people talk about Scotland, or Edinburgh or even Portobello, I’m like, I know that place!

DM: I know what you mean!

CK: And, the images of Portobello that I received are now embedded in the places that I worked in Peekskill. They’ve formed a kind of hybrid image which becomes activated when I’m back in some of the spaces which I filmed. They’re a hybrid sense of place and they’re highly personal, but I think they’re meaningful and valuable, because they heighten our awareness of the places in which we live – which is a local scale – and make connections to the places in which other people also live – which, in this project, is over a global scale. And while the hybrid images are personal, held inside our heads and can’t be reproduced, the methodology that we’ve developed can be used by anyone to connect and understand place.

DM: Yes, I think that’s very true…. and I think that the images we’ve made and sent to each other have also increased our own understanding of the places in which we both are based. For example, I’m aware of the textures and granularity of the beach wall in Portobello, the way in which it is slowly eroding and crumbling in some places. It’s unlikely that I’d have noticed that, without such a close focus in our filming.

CK: I think it’s been important to us that our method could be used by others, because what we’ve been creating is a form of mind map and that’s something that sits within a person.
We’re not trying to create something that ‘pins down’ a place, that can be distributed to thousands of others as an external, impersonal depiction of a space, as maps often are.

DM: And that takes us into thinking more about scale, which is a big part of this work. There are lots of different scale relationships at play within TRACE.

CK: The dandelions that we both filmed come to mind here. I filmed a dandelion and then you found one in the park in which you were standing. It was a simple connection through which we focused down on something small and easily missed, but which exists in both places, 3000 miles apart, a spatial scale which is of a completely different order. The dandelions could have been side by side on the grass, but they were in fact separated by global-scale distances and national and international borders.

DM: And coming back to the idea of the map – I’m a geographer and I love to come back to maps – what was important is that what we have produced cannot be used to navigate these spaces. If I’d given you this film and asked you to set off from the place that I started, you couldn’t have found your way, but if I’d directed you to the places in which I filmed, I suspect you would have recognised them immediately, because you are now very familiar with the shape and texture of the street sign that I traced, the manhole cover on the pavement and the moss-covered wall of the railway bridge, because you’d seen them up close and in great detail. You would almost know them as friends!

CK: In our previous projects, we’ve worked with horizontal elevations, showing vistas and horizons and also images of ourselves within these places. But, in TRACE we made a very deliberate decision to show only one hand engaging somehow with the micro-scale environment. I think that decision was very important to this piece of work – showing only hands emphasised the small scale of the spaces with which we were concerned and really added to the sense of intimacy.

DM: Yes, we chose to show only one hand and, I think, most of the time, we used a different hand so that they made a pair. The haptic engagement of our hands with the ‘material’ of the environments which we were filming, the grass, walls, dust and leaves, was in contrast to the ‘immaterial’ nature of Whatsapp transmission of the images to each other…

CK: …yes, our hands were slowly and laboriously engaged with the local, but the video record of these engagements was transmitted instantaneously, globally.

DM: When we started out on this project, I don’t think we realised that using our hands would resonate in so many ways, both geographical and poetic. For example, when I watched our film clips, I became aware that we were not just pointing and tracing on one plane, but that we were sometimes joining things up that existed on different spatial planes and at different depths of field within our camera frame. We were connecting things in the world that would not normally be connected and were drawing the viewer’s attention to these imaginative and imaginary connections.

CK: So, we were joining up within spaces, on a small scale, as well as between spaces, on a much larger scale?

DM: Yes, I think so.

CK: I think we discovered a lot about what the project meant and what it could say as we executed it. For example, I suppose what walking and using hands have in common is that they are both a universal part of the general human condition. They are widespread human activities, although there will be cultural differences and interpretations in what walking and using hands might mean. However, the use of the hands to express, to emphasise, to bring attention to, to communicate is something we all do. For example, most humans tend to use their hands as they talk.

DM: I’m watching you do that just now!

CK: Exactly!

Screenshots from TRACE (Kaczmarek, C. and Macleod, D. 2023)

DM: I think what you’re describing is the importance of hands in human communication. And what we were trying to do through TRACE was to communicate something about the environment. We could have done that simply by pointing our cameras at the little bits of land that we filmed, but including our hands made us present in the space, drawing the viewer into it as we did so. These scraps of film were not a ‘view from nowhere’, as maps and satellite images of places can be, but, as a consequence of their small scale and the presence of our own hands, a view from somewhere, from someone.

CK: Yes, they are active and not passive images because of their scale and because of our presence in them. They are not ‘de-authored’ images in which the artist is ‘not present’. It’s the opposite. These are landscape images at the scale and eye-level of the person who dwells there. We know exactly where these images come from.

DM: That’s interesting, because often the large scale, hi-res image from a distance is regarded as being the powerful image of landscape, because it encompasses and seems to show so much. These are regarded as reliable, objective and rational images of place and space. Often these are satellite images which are not photographs, but are constructed instead from data and made to look like photographs. I think what we’re doing here is putting forward the opposite case. That power actually lies in the small scale, human-made image. The consciously subjective and personal. This is an argument about the politics of the visual representation of land and place. How we are accountable for place and space and how we choose to represent it.

CK: Agreed. Going back to our discussion of ‘images from nowhere’ – large scale images that really show so little – images like that homogenize the idea of responsibility for environmental stewardship. It’s difficult to tell who is responsible for the degradation that might be contained within these large-scale images and, as a result, we are all lumped all together, and blamed equally, whether we’re rich or poor, from the Global North or South.

DM: Yes, cultural theorist, T.J. Demos, makes very similar arguments in his recent book, Against The Anthropocene.

CK: So, we can create these small-scale images, treasure them, give them value, share them, absorb each other’s images of place and construct something of a sense of place from them.
I think that’s really important in drawing attention to the kind of human effort and engagement with the local that we’ve talked about.

DM: And, as we’re talking, I’m thinking about the Jorge Luis Borges story, On Exactitude in Science, which is an allegory about mapping and knowing the world. The protagonists in the story are set on creating a map of territory that is 1:1 scale, that is life size. Eventually, they abandon their efforts because they are futile. What is the point of having a map that is at the same scale as real life? So, I’m thinking about scale, knowing and futility.

CK: Our work keeps becoming smaller in scale, but I think the images and the connection of the small and intimate, and even potentially insignificant, within a structure of vast global connectivity become more powerful.

DM: Yes, it feels paradoxical doesn’t it? We talked earlier about the fact that we could not use our film as a map with which to navigate space, but, at the same time, it had helped us gain a unique sense of each other’s local environment and our own places too. TRACE is made of life-size fragments of our worlds that are discontinuous, whereas maps are abstract, scaled down, models of continuous space. I feel like we might have found a way of using and making sense of life-sized scale images of landscape, by acknowledging that they must necessarily be fragments and must be seen in series, rather than in parallel.

CK: Indeed. Sequence, iteration, development, revision. That’s how ideas are also built and refined, right?

DM: Yes. That seems like a really good place to pause. It’s been so good to have this conversation. Talking in this way seems like another example of using a sequential and iterative method to develop our collaborative thinking.

CK: Yes, and I think it’s certainly identified areas for work that we might continue to explore together in future. Good to talk to you!

The winners and honourable mentions of the Marŝarto Awards 2023 will be announced in February 2024.

Deirdre Macleod

Deirdre Macleod

Marŝarto23 shortlisted

Deirdre’s artistic practice sits between contemporary art and the discipline of human geography. She uses a range of fieldwork methods and observational strategies to reveal and frame material and experiential aspects of cities, using drawing and movemen...

Christopher Kaczmarek

Christopher Kaczmarek

Marŝarto23 shortlisted

Christopher Kaczmarek is a New York based artist whose work spans both experimental and traditional practices, including sculpture, site specific installations, performance, video, built circuits and solar-powered objects. His work is often interactive and...


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