Excited by this multi-faceted game that I was now playing, I tried to continue with my walks. But the cold was brutal; the worst I had experienced since moving to Australia. This would turn out to be Melbourne’s coldest winter in 26 years, and there was no playing through it.
While I hibernated, I reflected. Specifically I thought about photography and its role in these methods that I was developing. Just before I stopped walking for the winter I made a decision, one that I had been contemplating for a while: it was time for a new camera. I loved the portability of my phone, and I concur that ‘the best camera is the one that’s with you’ (Jarvis 2009), but I was beginning to feel that the project had evolved beyond my phone’s capabilities.
Throughout my years of walking, photography had been an act of collecting. Collecting moments; collecting something akin to trophies during that brief frustrating phase that felt like hunting; collecting remixable components for the game as I moved into making installations. This collecting was always creative; I considered it a collaboration between my own perception and the present moment. But it was also reasonably straightforward. The constructed nature of the frequencies with which I had been playing made for moments and resulting images that were easy to read. Their ambiguity factor, in retrospect, was typically quite low. The resonance that I could still detect in these images was imparted by my personal connection to the moment, even if that resonance managed to transcend the narrative of memory. I saw now that the only participation I could bring to these straightforward frequencies was the filter of my inner world, and when that context was absent the collecting started to go stale.
Perhaps it was this very boredom that made my attention more available for other frequencies; a resignation of expectations that opened up a space for the unexpected to unfold. For as these new frequencies crackled to life I found that they did indeed require more space; more attention. Or rather, more participation. They did not emit discrete, straightforward signals that could be collected by simply pressing the shutter. What they offered instead was what I had detected in the most evocative of my early photos — an expression of something inexpressible; something that only this moment could convey, yet which seemed inextricable from so many other moments that might be.
I found that these frequencies often communicated through a language of composition. Not just this broken plate, but its particular pattern; the precise lines of its break. The two halves stacked together just slightly askew. An arcane geometry of shadow, light and texture that seemed to hint of things beyond itself. T1
T1:As I finished writing this passage I realised that it was not the arcane or the esoteric that I was encountering in these compositions, but rather the endotic. The writer Georges Perec (1973) proposes the endotic as that within the everyday which is unknown because it remains unexamined, and further suggests that the endotic is more worthy of our fascination than the exotic.
‘What’s needed perhaps is finally to found our own anthropology, one that will speak about us, will look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic,’ writes Perec. ‘What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us’ (ibid. pp. 177-178).
I first encountered Perec’s ‘surreal take on the social sciences’ (Highmore 2001, pp. 176) in the writing of Surrealist masqué Max Cafard (2008), whose detournement of the Situationist drift into his own notion of deep play also appropriates the endotic. Indeed, it is Cafard’s endoticism that has influenced my own thinking both consciously and unconsciously.
‘Georges Perec … describes his approach to the endotic as a concern with “what happens everyday, the banal, the quotidian, the evident, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual” and with the questions “how can one account for it, how can one question it, how can one describe it?”’ (Cafard 2008, para. 54). Cafard extends this project to propose an endoticism that ‘is concerned not only that we focus intently on the evident, the common, and the ordinary, and allow them to reveal what they are, but also that we be open to finding the unexpected in the evident, the unique in the common, and the extraordinary in the ordinary. And that we explore the ways in which all of these things both are what they are not and are not what they are. We must be ready to discover that they all lead beyond themselves into other worlds, other regions of being and experiencing’ (ibid).
Not just this broken plate …
Would a more sophisticated camera enable this participation, and allow me to go even deeper into the game? Or would it just get in the way? I gambled on the former, and traded in my bulky old disused SLR for a new mirrorless Olympus that was small and capable — the camera that would always be with me. T2
T2:In my winter bookstore browsing I happened upon a book called The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood (2011). The book offers itself as an introductory guide to Miksang, a school of photographic thought that the authors developed following their studies with the Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa. The practice that the book outlines is ultimately focused on the production of striking images, an outcome which at most had been a secondary consideration in my own photography thus far. Of greater interest was the book’s attention to process, which offered me a new perspective on the perceptual shift that I had begun to experience during my walks.
‘Normally we ally ourselves with thinking-mind: we obediently follow wherever it leads,’ the authors write (ibid. p. 41), noting that emotions are also a part of thinking-mind. ‘The contemplative approach presents an entirely different alternative: we can align ourselves with intelligence that is not bound up with either thoughts or emotions. This intelligence is called insight, mindfulness, awareness, wisdom, and so on. (In the traditional Zen analogy, these terms are all different fingers pointing at the same moon.)’
In reading this I realised that while I had been working intuitively on my previous walks, the personal narrative that I brought with me (in particular during seven years) was still a process of thinking-mind. The conscious/unconscious divide that seems to play such a significant role in creative expression (Winnicott 1953) is not a distinction between thought and emotion, but rather between conceptual and non-conceptual. Representational and non-representational. Self and no-Self. In order to evolve the game I had needed to restitch my sense of self — specifically in relation to place. You have to be somebody before you can be nobody (Engler 1986, p. 34). But as that phase of the game concluded I found myself experiencing the boredom that one typically encounters as the mind begins to settle into a meditative state. The restless urge to turn away from the unformed and the unknown. Collect, collect, collect. In finally accepting that boredom and relinquishing my need to find something to see, I had walked myself into a new way of seeing.
‘The root meaning of the word “contemplate” is connected with careful observation,’ write Karr and Wood. ‘It means to be present with something in an open space. This space is created by letting go of the currents of mental activity that obscure our natural insight and awareness’ (2011, p. 3).
But what did the camera have to do with this?
‘Photography can be used to help distinguish the seen from the imagined,’ the authors conclude, ‘since the camera registers only what is seen. It does not record mental fabrications. As the photographer Aaron Siskind said, “We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there, [what] we have been conditioned to expect … But, as photographers, we must learn to relax our beliefs”‘ (ibid p. 2).
Not just this broken plate …