seven years

seven years

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.
“The bridge is not supported by any one stone or another,” Marco answers,
“but by the line of the arch that they form.”
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds:
“Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.”
Polo answers: “Without the stones there is no arch.”

— Italo Calvino (1972, p.82)

In my first real victory for process I embarked without design upon this endeavour that I would come to call seven years. My only framework was a schedule, often impractical, that charted the chapters of my life in Melbourne. I had never thought much about these chapters, but now their currents rose like ley lines across the city. Each day mapped a distinct passage, and that was all I had to follow.

I used public transport to arrive at most of my destinations, which were too dispersed to practicably be reached on foot. Once I alighted at my old tram stop; my old bus stop; my old train station, I would simply walk. Each day, without forethought, I found that I was making my way slowly toward that place which once was home. This approach was always anxious, fraught with the uncertainty of what I would encounter. And in truth every encounter was difficult. There was little in the way of absolutes; no obvious conclusions or resolutions to be reached. Even tears and laughter failed to resolve any particular experience into a simple bad or good. I had to stay with each irreducible moment (Jones 2009), or else turn away from the entire project. After these specific encounters I found that I would drift through my old neighbourhoods, retracing routes of habit and revisiting old haunts — again without conscious intent. The emotional intensity would begin to dissipate but always remained unsettlingly ambiguous.

I brought my phone and the Instax camera on this journey, uncertain as to how or if I would use either. As it turned out I did use both — intermittently, experimentally, and in a few cases accidentally. I also fell into taking notes almost immediately, which was unexpected. So unexpected in fact that I hadn’t even thought to bring a notebook or a pen, and on the first day found myself tapping out lengthy notes on the cramped screen of my phone. Despite its frustrations I decided that I liked this method; there was something conceptually pleasing about having a notebook and a camera together in one device.

And so this is how the evidence of my precarious game survives: in text and photos, and a few fragments of video. To be honest, I still don’t know what to make of these artefacts. Collectively they can be described as a reflexive diary, which documents the very thing that it creates. But what does it create? A research record, or an artwork? My chosen methodology asserts that it can be both — and indeed that it should be. This is the essence of performativity (Haseman 2006): the creation of ‘symbolic data’ (ibid. p. 6) that ‘not only expresses the research, but in that expression becomes the research itself’ (ibid). Yet each time I revisit that symbolic data I feel exposed both creatively and critically. Because here is the thing: I did play for real. For seven days without remit, I got up and went out and followed this process no matter how it made me feel. Euphoric, agitated, heartbroken, frustrated, consoled, and many other emotions that were too complex or unfamiliar to grasp. I tried to express it all, without censure or defense.

But performative does not necessarily imply personal, and I question whether this diaristic data conveys anything universal enough to qualify it as research. Equally, these unfiltered words and artless images feel too raw to present as a creative work. Yet there is no question that seven years was a key phase in the game; a crucial moment of release in my struggle to allow the possibilities of the unknown. As such I have made several attempts to find the best expression of this journey into process.

My first attempt was sparse and rational, a diary in name only. Its envisioned context was here within the dissertation, as an interlude but not quite a fully realised artwork. Stripped bare of nearly all autobiographical detail, this version focused on logistics; just the facts. Notes on how I used (and didn’t use) the cameras; observations about what had changed in my old neighbourhoods; a running commentary on the weather. Careful, structured thoughts triumphed over risky, messy feelings. Despite this restraint it clocked in at 8000 words, and read like it was embarrassed of every single one.

Acknowledging the failure of this austerity, my second attempt was simply a full transcription of my original notes. Risky, messy feelings were restored to the record. Alas, this approach merely rendered a staccato narrative that was more cryptic than evocative. Who could possibly understand why I took that photo of the graffitied laneway fence, or why moments later I laughed through tears when a stray tabby wound its way between my ankles? Even I could barely articulate the meaning of these moments, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to.

My third attempt remains a work in progress. Here I have tried to fill in certain gaps while leaving others to their mysteries; to listen for what still resonates and what has fallen silent. Nothing about the original experience has been altered in this presentation, but certain contours have been emphasised. In this approach I have been informed by the non-representational theory of human geography, which in its urge toward the evocative allows the unknown to remain unknowable. As ethnographer Phillip Vannini (2015) describes, it is an approach to research that seeks to present possibilities rather than establishing a definitive account.

‘Imagine you are actually the one academic frustrated by your all-too-human inability to represent an event or feeling or encounter as you experienced it,’ Vannini writes. ‘Your orientation is toward the past of knowledge: you struggle to report precisely — or sufficiently creatively — something that happened already. That is happening because events are unique and their mimesis is impossible. But let us say your orientation changes. You cease to be so preoccupied with how the past unfolded and with your responsibility for capturing it. You become instead interested with evoking, in the present moment, a future impression in your reader, viewer, or listener … It is no longer depiction, reporting, or representation that frustrates you. Rather, it is enactment, rupture, and actualization that engage your attention’ (2015, p.12).

It is perhaps fitting that the final form of seven years remains unresolved. In this spirit I offer as an appendix to this document not a definitive account of the experience, but an excerpt of a possibility.