if these streets

if these streets

As I moved on from seven years I also moved on from any lingering idea that I was designing this game for others to enact. I was not play-testing, refining the experience before a public release. I was playing, and in doing so I was creating the ‘symbolic data’ (Haseman 2006, p. 6) of the experience. The play was the game. There was no test version; no trial run. T1

T1:Here I return to the concept of play as a relationship that is open to surprise (Carse 1986) and which is anchored in an ability to communicate with one’s own inner self (Winnicott 1965). It is a manner of play evoked by psychoanalyst Marion Milner, who writes of the adult tendency to suppress this form of magical thinking. ‘Moments when the original poet in each of us created the outside world for us, by finding the familiar in the unfamiliar, are perhaps forgotten by most people,’ Milner writes, ‘or else they are guarded in some secret place of memory because they were too much like visitations by the gods to be mixed with everyday thinking’ (Milner in Winnicott 1971, p. 39). And yet we gain so much when we are able to cultivate an unguarded relationship with the unknown. As Winnicott notes: ‘It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self’ (ibid p. 54).

This decisive shift released me from the constraint of creating a balanced schema with which to engage other players, as John Cage had made his project. I was still intrigued by the transformative potential of ambiguity and indeterminacy, but now that I was no longer trying to facilitate the experience of this potential for a playing public I could follow more freely when it manifested of its own accord.

And where I wanted to follow was back out into the world; into this landscape that I could finally see. From seven years I left behind personal narrative but continued with the simple framework of neighbourhood and day. A collection of hours spent wandering a particular geography, drifting on its tides of resonance. No longer compressed by an itinerary, I let weather and whim dictate the when and where of these explorations. Autumn in Melbourne is warm and long, and my own inner-city neighbourhood nestles in among others that form a rich tapestry of urban life. Many days I walked out the door and did not return until the sun was low, only to have wandered less than a square kilometre over the course of the day. I would get lost in laneways that branched off from other laneways and then branched off again; entire worlds folded into streets I thought I knew. I spent the entire day on foot, never boarding public transport until my day was done — and only then if my drifting had carried me so far and tired me so thoroughly that I required a lift. In truth I much preferred to walk home in the dying light.

It was interesting to play without any specific frame. During seven years my history had been a lens, but a filter too. The synchronicities and signals that crackled through those days were a resonance between the outer landscape and my inner world. I was looking for my own traces, even in those left by others, and the city in its ever-flowing ambiguity had reflected what I sought.

Now I was seeking nothing, which seemed to open up a broader range of frequencies. I walked and photographed, and sometimes I made notes. I had no agenda other than to be out in the sunshine, allowing myself unmetered time in the spaces of the city that were often overlooked. For these were the places that exerted the most pull: residential laneways, quiet in the midday; and the industrial zones that invariably fringed each neighbourhood, not so quiet but with their own alien appeal. I avoided main avenues whenever possible, for there seemed to be an inverse relationship between the width of a street and its capacity to retain energy.

As I attuned to these marginal places their visual frequencies became more distinct. There was the street art, abundant in a city renowned for the form (Westbury 2009), and the base vandalism of graffiti tags. But flickering in and out between the two, sometimes overlapping with either frequency or both, was a signal of another sort. Obvious, oblique, ugly, beautiful, funny, sad, mysterious, bizarre: these signals had nothing in common except their lack of artifice. Confessions whispered to brick walls; found objects opportunistically adorning infrastructure; messages scrawled on all manner of surfaces with a simplicity that spoke neither of art nor of aggression (or which managed to combine the two). And as I walked, pulled from one signal to the next, a sense of communication began to accrue. An unintentional but undeniable call and refrain; allusions and suggestions; a conversation winking into existence and then out again.

It was almost as if these streets could speak, in a language that was all their own. T2

T2:The idea of the city as a communicative entity can be seen as the evolution of a proposition, which threads its way through the varied histories of walking in the modern city.

The earliest expression of this proposal is the notion of the city as a dynamic, traversable text. The German writer Franz Hessel articulates this idea in his 1929 book Spazieren in Berlin (Walking in Berlin): ‘Flânerie is a kind of reading of the street, in which faces, shop fronts, shop windows, café terraces, street cars, automobiles and trees become a wealth of equally valid letters of the alphabet that together result in words, sentences and pages of an ever-new book’ (translated by Frisby in Tester 1994, p. 81). Hessel was a close friend and collaborator of the renowned urban philosopher Walter Benjamin, who also constructed the city as a text. As the sociologist Graeme Gilloch remarks of Benjamin’s writings: ‘The physiognomical gaze transforms the urban setting into a hieroglyph, a rebus, to be deciphered. The archaeology of the metropolis involves the discovery and interpretation of its hidden inscriptions and traces. The city is a secret text to be read’ (2013, pp. 139-140). Gilloch notes that Benjamin ‘seeks not only to ‘read’ but also to ‘write’ a city’ (ibid.), but his meaning here is both literal and literary: he speaks of the city-like qualities of the texts that Benjamin produced. Benjamin’s sprawling Arcades Project ‘constitutes nothing less than a vast text-as-city, text-as-labyrinth,’ Gilloch writes. ‘Its formal properties mimic the very set of urban experiences to which it gives voice. It is animated by the rhythms of the city that it endeavours to record’ (ibid.).

Thinkers of the 20th century carried forward this concept of city-as-text, while offering a more kinetic understanding of what it might mean to “write” the city. The French theorist Roland Barthes asserts that the city ‘can be known only by … walking, by sight, by habit, by experience … to visit a place for the first time is thereby to begin to write it: the address not being written, it must establish its own writing’ (1982, p. 33-36). Likewise the French scholar Michel de Certeau describes the ‘ordinary practitioners’ (1984, p. 93) of the city as walkers, ‘whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it’ (ibid.). ‘The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author not spectator,’ de Certeau continues, ‘shaped by fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces …’ (bid.).

Contemporary theorists have retrieved earlier ideas of the semiotic city, while further advancing embodied notions of engagement. The American writer Rebecca Solnit references Hessel’s linguistic view when she observes that a ‘city is a language, a repository of possibilities’ (2001, p. 213). Moving beyond the textual, Solnit further suggests that ‘walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities’ (ibid). The Australian academics Benjamin Rossiter and Katherine Gibson similarly refer to the ‘speech act of walking’ that ‘creates stories, invents spaces, and opens up the city through its capacity to produce “anti-texts” within the text’ of the city (2003, p. 440). The authors foreground the embodied experience of enacting this textuality, an emphasis that could perhaps be attributed to the fin de siècle material turn in human geography that concerns itself with ‘lived experiences as “material”, the body as “material” site of experience through bodily differences, and bodily production of particular subjectivities within “material” spatial conditions’ (Cheng 2011, para. 9). ‘The body is introduced as a sensual being,’ the authors write, ‘smelling, remembering, rhythmically moving — jostling with other bodies and in the process constituting active, perhaps multiple, urban subjectivities’ (Rossiter & Gibson 2003, p. 440.).

The affective, multiple subjectivities of this proposal begin to suggest a ‘relational view of the lifeworld’ (Vannini 2015, p. 8) that acknowledges ‘the sociality of “things”’ (ibid.). And indeed, Rossiter and Gibson articulate these tenets of non-representational theory in their invocation of Walter Benjamin, who writes of losing oneself in the city ‘as one loses oneself in a forest’ (1978, p. 8). ‘The walker becomes lost,’ the authors write, ‘allows the city — street signs, bars, cafes, billboards, passers-by — to “speak” to her as does a bird call in the wild or a twig crackling under foot’ (Rossiter & Gibson 2003, p. 440).

Here finally the city is given voice. Not the voice of alphabet or hieroglyph, but the wildish, more-than-human voice of ‘things themselves’ (Cafard 2008, para. 35). With this voice the city speaks on its own terms, no longer a projection or subjective creation, and invites us into the deep play created by ‘the many interpenetrating worlds of those things themselves’ (ibid.).