But then what I had feared; what I had experienced as the week of seven years neared its conclusion: I became a hunter of these signals, an acquisitive collector. No longer was I drifting in an open state, responding instinctually to the streets. Now I was looking deliberately and debating the merits of what I found. Should I take a photo? Was this signal “good” enough? Once these questions entered my mind, any sense of play departed. The enchantment was broken.
During seven years I had made note of this perceptual shift and carried on regardless, adhering to the project’s itinerary and also its intent. To see this through; to reach a predetermined end in space and time. As it turned out my awareness of this shift provided its own countervailing force; or perhaps the force was asserted by the landscape itself. For on the final day, as I wandered my old neighbourhood where I had experimented with the badges, the resonance returned. This place that had once spoken to me so strongly again crackled to life with messages and meaning, generating a current that carried me through to my final destination and the project’s poetic conclusion.
Now I lacked any of these forces to bring me back into the game — I had neither the structure of a schedule nor an emotional attachment to project or place. There was no real that I was playing for; I was simply walking around. This freedom turned into its own constraint: I began to think more consciously of what I was doing as making work. And of course, work is the opposite of play. It is full of expectations, which when unmet create frustration and self-doubt. I had felt these prickles of anxiety during seven years as well; had blamed myself for failing to maintain the balance that made the tightrope invisible. Don’t look down. T1
T1:The contemporary British artist Tacita Dean relates a similar experience of losing her effortless ability to find four-leaf clovers growing wild, after she exhibited her found clovers as a creative work. ‘When I first showed my collection in 1995, for the first time in my collector’s life, I became paralysed by an inability to find any more four-leaf clovers,’ Dean recounts. ‘It was as if I had turned the accidental action of finding a clover into something altogether too self-conscious … I suddenly searched too hard and could no longer find’ (2010, p. 215).
In Dean’s experience as well as my own I find clear evidence of the assertion, sustained across decades of scholarship (Carse 1986, Huizinga 1955, Winnicott 1971), that play is by definition voluntary. It must have no reason beyond itself; nothing to interfere with the ‘purposeful purposeless’ that John Cage (1958, p. 5) saw as the essence of playing. This liminal state of surrender is perfectly described by a musician who performed Cage’s experimental music: ‘You are in a sense outside yourself. You are anonymous … secondary to the moment of now. That now takes precedence. That now is almost playing you’ (Clarkson 2001, p. 77).
Indeed, once Dean relinquished her external motivations for collecting she found that this experience of playing gradually returned. ‘My clover collection is not a dead collection, although its constituent parts are dead,’ she writes. ‘No, because I had to surrender it and let it go, and stop my obsessive searching of grassy verges and uncut paddocks, I have at last now managed to re-find something of my ability to chance discover and to find by not looking. And I can now add, from time to time, a new clover to my collection’ (2010, p. 215).
My photo collection was beginning to fill up with perfunctory images that bored me when I looked at them, and so I took a break from walking for a few weeks. But I already knew where I was headed next — I just needed some time to prepare.