Outside the British Museum was first, where we received hails of giggles from startled tourists and smirks from Londoners passing by. It was surprising that Professor Starling got so many reactions in London, where there’s plenty of street performers and PR stunts, compared to low-key Thetford. People that did engage with us seemed to be more concerned with the spectacle of the costume than talking about the awareness of Starlings and other birds. This was especially the case when we got to Trafalgar square, after checking out the second-hand book and print shops on Cecil Court, the Professor briefly mourning some of his stuffed kin in the window of an antiques shop.
A descent of the steps leading down to the Mall was next. They were curiously empty, lending a very regal air to the Professor as he grandly strode on, cane in hand, towards St Jame’s Park. Circling the lake amongst the many species of waterfowl, eagerly scrabbling at morsels of tossed bread through the fence, we overheard questionable tales of Starling murmurations in fantastical formations, and laments for the decreasing number of small birds in the parks and other public spaces.
Shedding his feathers and back in human form, Andrew and the rest of the team accompanied us to Gaby’s Deli on Charing Cross Road for lunch. It’s currently being threatened with closure by the landlords, after more than 50 years of service behind it – here’s hoping it doesn’t migrate elsewhere.
Tomorrow we’ll be in Oxford, the final spot of the series.
Last Thursday we travelled to Thetford, Norfolk, the first destination ofCity As Material 2, centered on the theme of ‘Migrations’. Joining us were Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer from Dodolab, Josie Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, and Leila Armstrong. Oh, and the “itinerant avian scholar” (in his own squawks), Professor William Starling – Andrew’s alter ego, who is investigating the decline of Starlings and other species in the UK.
After a heinous early start and a couple of train changes, Giles and I were picked up by Andrew in Bury St Edmunds, a short drive from Thetford. He filled us in on what they’d been up to so far, and we started to discuss a loose route for the day. We arrived and worked our way into the town, along its contours of winding roads and down the High Street, where people drifted past in the slow, content manner of those living in a quiet market town on a warm Winter’s morning, then met the others in a Portuguese cafe. The 2001 UK census suggested that almost 30 % percent of the population in Thetford were Portuguese, drawn by work in the farms, fields and factories.
Andrew showed us an aging tome entitled ‘In Breckland Wilds’, which Professor Starling had been studying to get a sense of the area in past times. I immediately turned to the alluring chapter called ‘Traditions, Customs and Ghost Tales’, and learnt about the spectre of the “flaming-eyed rabbit” and other dubious local lore. Smirking aside, there was a genuine interest in Thetford’s folklore – tales that can allude to the real fears and anxieties of people in the area at the time. On that note we departed and headed for the ruins of Thetford Priory, which in the 13th century had drawn pilgrims to Thetford, after the discovery of a number of saints’ relics in a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Along the way, Andrew transformed into Professor Starling, donning grand attire and a giant bird’s head (crowned by a top hat) and spotted one of his namesake in a tree. Unfortunately it would be the only one we spotted that day. He chatted with passing locals who weren’t fazed in the slightest, cheerfully greeting our unusual ensemble.
I was expecting the ruins to be scattered rubble, but the crumbled perimeter walls were still visible, laid out in thick lines of fist-sized flint, two feet tall. It almost looked as if it was in the process of being built; the stonemasons away on an eternal break. I made some rubbings with tracing paper and a graphite block, gleaning traces of the past, and noticed covered grill pits, sadly filled with rubbish – traces of the now. Saying that, despite being a marvel for us, these ruins must seem very commonplace for the local youth.
We split up after returning to the city centre. Professor Starling and Lisa went to talk to more people on the high street, Josie and Leila set off for Ancient House Museum, and Giles and I took a scenic detour around the town edges, observing lovely flint cottages and houses overtaken by vivid green vines, then slowly passing along the river. We noticed statues of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army, which was filmed extensively around the area, and by contrast, one of Maharajah Duleep Singh, who settled in the nearby Elveden Hall, on the opposite bank. There’s also an odd statue of Thomas Paine, born in Thetford, on King Street, poised with quill as if playing darts and gripping an upside down copy of his book ‘The Rights of Man’. A diverse trio indeed.
Reuniting with Josie and Leila briefly at the Museum, we saw a Narwhal tusk, taxidermy birds, and replicas of the Thetford Hoard, unearthed in 1979, and now housed in the British Museum. The circumstances surrounding the discovery are shady and it is thought the treasure is incomplete. We started to think about what might be missing, and what the treasures of Thetford today might be.
Over lunch, everyone together again, Andrew recounted some of the opinions he had gathered as Professor Starling. His favourite, in response to his question about why the numbers of Starlings had fallen in Thetford was “Cats!”. Following chuckles, we left for Castle Hill, one of the tallest Norman mottes in England, although nothing remains of the castle which once sat atop it. There seems to be many rumours about buried treasure and hidden tunnels, though our only surprise was how tricky it was to safely walk back down.
Lastly, we drove out to the remains of the Thetford Warren Lodge, surrounded by wonderfully spongy ground that felt like it was absorbing you into the land, and paths sprinkled with knapped flint. Peering through the bars which protected it gave a sense of the original fortitude and seclusion of the structure, standing firm amongst thickets of trees.
Tranquil as it was, we had another agenda: to drive back to town, and retire to the Bell Inn. Pints up!
Following in the fluttering wings of Professor Starling, who will be investigating the passages of Starlings across Europe and North America throughout the ages, we’ll be looking at the migrations of people to these shores, how these have influenced spaces and communities, as well as more intangible forces – the migration of knowledge, skills and beliefs.
Next up: London and Oxford. Look out for tales from the days, and the eBooks created, very soon.
City as Material recently became part of ARCHIZINES, an archive of independent architecture zines, journals and magazines from around the world, curated by Elias Redstone. I was lucky enough to be able to talk about City as Material and self-publishing at Archizines Live, part of November’s Friday Late at the V&A. Now the collection is touring the world, starting with an exhibition at Spazio FMG in Milan which runs until the 23rd of Feburary. Next up: Paris, Berlin and New York, with details to be announced soon. The photographs of the launch night in Milan look great – best of luck with the other stops!
Thanks to Archizines curator Elias Redstone, tomorrow night, as part of Friday Late at the Victorian & Albert Museum, and to coincide with the transfer of the collection to the National Art Library hosted there, I’ll be talking about City As Material as part of a conversation about the role independent publishing can play in celebrating overlooked and underappreciated spaces in our cities.
Coincidentally, this morning we’ve been developing our proposal for a digital “sketching tool” for collaborative book production, using content gathered from events such as City As Material. This will allow participants to aggregate and curate content from different sources, annotate and tag via themes, then automatically produce draft eBooks for shared discourse and the exchange of ideas, fostering interesting discoveries which will inform later publications.
Archizines Live starts at 8pm in the tunnel entrance, but is just one of many features of the night, this month focusing on “contemporary graphics, typography and illustration through the lens of independent publishing”. Come along!
Archi Zines, due to open from the 5th of November at the Architectural Association, is an exhibition of international alternative and independent architectural publishing, curated by Elias Redstone. There’s an online catalog, where every publication featured is available to view online, along with specifications. The entire collection is also going to be permanently housed in the National Library at the V&A.
Aside from the obvious wealth of interesting content, particularly relevant to City As Material, I think this could act as a valuable resource of inspiration and how-to knowledge for those wanting to create their own publications, thanks to the level of detail attributed to each exhibit – I can only hope more archives like this are compiled in the future.
An enjoyable exhibition called Sense and the City is now on at the London Transport Museum, which explores new ways how our understanding, experience and perception of the city is continually re-shaped by the rapid changes occurring in technology and IT.
The same categories of space and time are radically put into question as the access and fusibility of information is massively altered and boosted by open data, smartphones, and a blizzard of new apps. It is noteworthy to realise how the unconstrained use of these devices make us think of the city, of its vastness and complexity, in a totally different way. It seems we can cover the city, physically and imaginatively, much easier and faster than before. However, the abundance and redundancy of data produced and incessantly consumed, add intricacy and diverse levels of meaning to our vision of the city.
A distinguishing feature underpinning any present project or prototype for future research – as the ones presented by the Royal College of Art – is the restless attention on every consumer’s feeling and perception of the environment which has to be shared and fall in the public domain. The only risk is to accumulate data over data just for the sake of it, and the question is whether out of this over-exposure to information and stimulus we’ll ever find a substantial thread.
Featured in the upcoming London Art Book Fair 2011, held at the Whitechapel Gallery, is The Portable Reading Room. Brainchild of Wild Pansy Press, this flat-pack pop-up booth acts as a gallery, bookshop, social space and studio, and will be debuted from the 23rd to the 25th of September. It’s an intriguing idea – a really dynamic way to interact with people, showcase work and raise the profile of the press.
We’ve had similar concepts for future City As Material events – how about constructing a portable library and making station, that can travel to places lacking access to experimental publications or a self-publishing initiative, and could benefit from a little D.I.Y impetus? The Proboscis circus comes to town!
Hi everybody, my name is Elena and I have been working as an intern at Proboscis since mid June. On Proboscis’ website I posted some reflections of mine initially taking inspiration from a visual essay I am composing on the wall of the studio. The visual essay combines some impressions sprung from the observation of Proboscis’ work and some scattered ideas about geography and identity, the relationship between private and public spaces and the anatomy of the city. I’ll be posting some brief thoughts on inspiring books, remarkable exhibitions or curious places I think are worth sharing.
In response to Hazem’s post about Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night, I’d like to recommend another penetrating and poetic book which draws a personal trajectory on the map of London, that is Iqbal Ahmed’s Sorrows of the Moon: A Journey Through London, which explores petty story-lives of peripheral characters, often marked by resignation, loneliness, failure. This dominant tone of melancholy blurs and dampens the enthusiasm and the celebration of London diversity, underlining how the common destiny of the capital and of all the people inhabiting it for one reason or another is one of sorrow and isolation. Observed on a clear night from Parliament Hill, the moon, which acts as the unifying image across the book inspired by a poem of Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal , wraps and encloses the city in a fate of sterility and desolation.
“3AM is the dark heart of the city, when the carefully repressed anxieties, aspirations and dreams of its emotionally parched inhabitants can no longer be contained”
Elena, who is with us at the Proboscis studio under the Leonardo Da Vinci scheme, used a very eloquent excerpt from Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night by Sukhdev Sandhu, in her post accompanying the visual essay she is currently composing, Mapping The Streets. The book runs parallel with some of the themes we’ve been exploring for City As Material, particularly the notion of an outsider’s forays into a hidden landscape – in this case, ironically, a world normally veiled by the light of day.
I immediately set out to buy it, but soon discovered it was available in full online, as it was originally commissioned by Artangel Interaction as a web project, with chapters, or “episodes”, released monthly. The website uses ever-shifting, distorted pixels and visuals as a backdrop and ambient sound paired with the text, both emanating an eerie nocturnal resonance, as the reader delves deeper into this insightful and poetic work.