Meaning

Studio Practice: Nostalgia Revisited

I was recently on a panel at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum exploring the idea of studio-based practice as part of Guy Julier’s excellent Design Culture Salon series. The discussion followed from a newly-launched book called Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements by Ignacio Farias and Alex Wilkie [1].

Theorising studio practice is always going to be a complicated read, but there are some real moments of lucidity and insight. One quote that appears in the book, from William James (the psychologist brother of novelist Henry James) summed up the book nicely for me:
“what really exists is not things made”, James says, “but things in the making” [2].

Process is where it’s at, in other words.

Working out what exactly happens in a studio is evidently a difficult business. It’s easy to revert to William James era psychology and look for those ‘ah ha’ moments delivered from on high, but really the whole time in the studio is one long, extended, playful, social, accidental, ah ha. More of an aaaaahhhhhh than an ah ha. What we think of as creativity – if that’s what we think happens in a studio – seems to slip through our fingers when we try and point to it. Where is the creativity exactly? Is it cognitive or social or spatial or temporal? The book argues that it is the process that matters, not the atoms that make up the process. It is the materials and practices of the studio – human and non-human – that help to construct that process, however wide we might care to define what a studio is.

David Bowie, talking on one of the many recent radio programmes following his death, sums up this idea well. Working in Berlin in the late 1970s he reflects that:

“I was starting to use the studio itself as an instrument, little accidents would happen with the notes and things would go wrong and the notes sounded so good wrong that I’d make four instruments play the same wrong note and then it sounds like an arrangement, and it becomes an integral part of the composition.” [3] (48:20)

For my introduction as member of the discussion panel, and to link the idea of process, outcome, and how to describe them, I gave two examples.

The first was Artangel’s 2015 installation Recording in Progress [4] at Somerset House in London, featuring the musician PJ Harvey working in her studio with other musicians in full public view. People could book a slot to watch and hear whatever was happening through sound-proofed, one-way glass. A transparent version of the creative black box.

Work in Progress

Recording in Progress by Artangel featuring the musician PJ Harvey recording in public.

For visitors, a lot of the time there was a lot of nothing happening. One reviewer noted:
“Thursday evening they were having trouble with a chorus, “Near all the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”. It sounded turgid. “Could you all sing like you’re somebody else?” PJ suggests.” [5]

Let’s leave aside that ‘turgid’ remark – the aesthetics comes later – and try and summarise the experience of the studio as incremental: adding and combining – sometimes subtracting – elements; trying stuff out to see what happens and what might be the next thing to happen. Building stuff up bit by bit. Looking back It’s easy to romanticise and mythologise the activity; identify the ‘key’ points, narrate the process as logical, inevitable, even mystical, if a little haphazard.

George Shaw's etching

Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks, Etching by George Shaw, V&A Collection [6].

My second example was from the painter George Shaw, whose work records everyday scenes of housing estates – underpasses, dead ends, untended scrubland, paths next to fences, edgelands. The mundane brought to attention through art. One of Shaw’s etchings, Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks (above), appears in a current exhibition called Recording Britain at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex. It was the description on the caption accompanying the work that attracted my attention:
“Since 1996 Shaw has focused on the unremarkable landscapes of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry, where he grew up. He imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia which encompasses the place itself, and the spirit of post-war idealism and ideas of community which shaped it.”

With the idea of studio practice in the back of my mind It was that phrase ‘he imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia’ that got me. It is essentially a process-based description but one, when you think about it, that is wholly inaccurate. The implication is that George Shaw has something like an imbuing machine in his studio, Something that he can programme with ‘melancholy nostalgia’ (or perhaps ’rueful wistfulness’ or ‘sorrowful yearning’) and apply it or inject it into his image. Of course George is that machine, the person who is able to take paint and canvas and produce melancholy nostalgia. But if we imagine for a second that George has made his studio transparent, like PJ Harvey, then when would we be able to point to the bits where the ‘imbuing with melancholy nostalgia’ was taking place? Quick, don’t blink, he’s just about to start imbuing! Ah, there he goes, you can see that nostalgia imbuing itself there now…

There is a problem of aesthetics here; of getting from the practices that take place in the studio – putting sound onto hard disk, paint onto a canvas, sitting around, talking about what else is needed or something else entirely, instructing people about what to do – to the qualities of the outcome. Aesthetic value results from the process, but the process doesn’t seem to be about aesthetic value in any nuanced way; beyond the ’that’s good’ or ’that works’ comments, anyway.

The Studio Studies book refers to this problem as ‘the elephant in the studio’ (p.152), the problem for social science disciplines like sociology or ethnography or ethnomethodology to ascribe aesthetic value to empirical processes and outcomes and to account for something like ‘style’ originating from particular studios.

That’s not quite the case with the PJ Harvey example. Presented as an artwork, the process of working in a recording studio is itself given aesthetic value, independent of the outcome arising. The black box as transparent box turns out to be a bit murkier than we expected though. The boredom or excitement or interest that is felt when watching and listening to the process reveals to us the aesthetic nature of our experience; the process of production thus becomes our object:

“what really exists is not things made, but things in the making” to repeat the William James quote with a dash of melancholy nostalgia.

[1] Farias, I. and Wilkie, A. (Eds.) (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements, Routledge.

[2] p.68, ibid.

[3] BBC Radio 4 (2016) Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, Broadcast on Saturday 30th January, 2016 (accessed February 21st).

[4] Artangel (2015) Recording in Progress.

[5] Searle, A. (2015) PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress Review, The Guardian, Friday 16th January.

[6] Shaw, G. (2005) Untitled 07, 12 Short Walks, V&A Collections.

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2 Cars, 5 Mobile Phones, and 38 Pairs of Underpants: On 10 Years of Consumption

“Enormous weight is attached to all the objects that Robinson Crusoe saves from the wrecked ship or makes with his own hands. I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships. The symbolism of an object may be more or less explicit, but it is always there. We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic”

Italo Calvino, Quickness, Six Memos for the Next Millennium [1]

For just over 10 years, from 2000 to 2011, I kept a public list of every consumer item that I bought. You can see the list on the website Shornbare.com, which I built in 1999, back in what seems like now the early days of the web.

My intentions for the website were hazy at the time but they were part of an urge to both examine and expose my life and in so doing to create a persona that, although related to me, also allowed some form of creative freedom; a blurring between documentary and fictional documentary. I never attempted to publicise the site in any way, apart from occasionally sending a link to someone who I thought might be interested – mainly work colleagues or friends – and there were no contact details. Instead I imagined someone stumbling across it accidently and attempting, from the lists and work recorded there, to figure out the kind of person behind it all. And I include myself in that category of people that accidently stumbled across the site.

The examining and exposing of my life had a kind of moral purpose as well. On the one hand I felt that I’d got into a cycle of consuming too much, but on the other I was intrigued about what that consumption did for me in terms of my activity and life more generally. I conceptualised my consumption as input; a necessary part of transforming my life into new things of value, and I imagined my life as a machine, fuelled by the things I bought and finely-tuned in operation to produce energy, and motion, and forward travel. That’s easy to express for something like music, for example, where one can beat a path between what one listens to and what one produces. It’s not so clear for something like a pair of jeans or a mobile phone. What I was also interested in, of course, was whether these things of value were, in fact, valuable. That is to say, was all the consumption worth it? Was I a stuttering machine rather than a finely-tuned one? A machine with borderline affluenza [2].

I was also interested in another kind of life, and that was the life that ‘things’ have, from their birth (into my life) through to their death (thrown away, lost, given away, or sold). The period in between birth and death, during which the thing becomes part of your life, spawned a series of sub-questions; how often are useful things used? how do things become valuable things? It has always struck me that by far the largest proportion of a thing’s life is spent not being actively used. Chairs just mainly abide, waiting for someone to come along and sit on them; a kettle waits to be called into brief, powerful, service before being left neglected on the kitchen counter-top again. I set out wanting to document all the lives of all the things that came into my life; to map the magnetism and magic in Calvino’s terms.

So this was an inquiry both into the lives of inanimate things, but also into how those lives affected my life. These concerns, of cause and effect, were, and still are, echoed in my professional research where I’ve always been interested in how the intentions of a designer, in forming a design, affect the lives of those who go on to use the design and who may know nothing of the designer and her intentions.

What I decided I needed was to make myself objective both to other people, who could judge for themselves what it all meant, but also to myself, to allow me to experience myself analytically, as someone separate from me; someone other. I needed to create a distance between myself as a consuming machine and myself as a functioning person. Essentially to be able to ask myself the existential question: who is this person and how do the things around them allow them to exist?

So this is what I found.

Between November 2000 and January 2012 I bought and listed 878 things.

What counts as a thing?

Initially, I thought of the list as being solely about products – coffee machines, iPods, telephones, etc. – but that was way too narrow a definition – lots of meaningful stuff like clothes, cars, houses, and bicycles had to be there. Fairly early on I decided to set a minimum price, something like £4, with anything costing less than that, like light bulbs, not making the list. There was no upper limit.

Books, music, and films it seemed to me to belong to a different category of thing – more like delivery mechanisms for changing content – and that play a slightly different, perhaps more cerebral, role in life. I listed those separately on my website [3] as well as adding one photo a month from all those I was taking [4].

Then there are odd things that crop up. What about gifts? I decided they didn’t count, either things given to me, since I had not chosen them as something I needed, or things that I’d given to others which, although in a sense needed by me, didn’t play an active part in my own life other than the initial giving. What about things that were bought for me at work, like an Apple laptop?  I decided not to list these, although I used them outside of my working life they were mainly used for work activity.  And things that deplete – like aftershave or paint? I decided they could make the list as long as there was potential for them to be loved, though throwing away an empty bottle of aftershave or tin of paint is obviously different from throwing away a desk lamp that you no longer want. But that discounted, for example, petrol or washing powder. It seems to me to be the brand (Shell, Persil, Heinz) that is doing the sole work there to inveigle the raw stuff into your affections. Then there is software – what to do about that? I started off putting it down, but it just didn’t feel right, and when Apps came along with smart phones, they didn’t seem right as ‘things’ either. So they didn’t get listed.

Then there were things that were parts of other things, usually as replacement or routine maintenance; bike and car tyres for example, which I listed. I also listed things that functioned as raw material for other things, like wooden planks for example. And there were overlaps between types of things, mainly between sports clothing and clothing, for example, though they seem to me to be doing slightly different things.

There were times when I forgot to list things for one reason or another, or where inconsistency crept in over the years. But hey, I’m not claiming this as science, I just wanted to get a better understanding of the shape of my life and its relation to stuff.

So, 878 things in just over 10 years.

That number was smaller than I was expecting. Worked through as one thing every four days, though, it seems like a lot. The paradox is right there. In large numbers there is only quantity; in small numbers there is quality. In amongst these things were 2 cars (both German), 4 cameras, 5 mobile phones, 3 computers, 2 houses, and 5 fountain pens.

Most of the 878 things were items of clothing – 30% of them in fact, or one item of clothing every 14 days. Over those ten years I bought 24 pairs of jeans, 19 pairs of shoes, 30 T-shirts, 55 pairs of socks and 38 pairs of underpants.

250 of the items, or just less than 30%, were sports related, although 129, just over half of those sport things, were items of clothing. 130 things related to cycling, 27 to golf, 27 to squash, 19 to running, and 15 to swimming. And that gives a pretty good reading of my sporting life in those 10 years – cycling and running throughout, giving up squash with an arthritic big toe, and taking up golf (there is a nice symmetry to that number 27). 20 bike tyres does seem kind of excessive though.

198 things related to the house, either things to situate within the house or to use for decorating and arrangement. And then, of course, there are the two houses themselves. Two houses and two cars in 10 years seems pretty modest to me.

Of the remaining things 20 of them (2%) relate to playing music in some form or other – pianos, effects, recording devices, software; and 44 (5%) are what I called personal (6 bottles of aftershave, though I’m sure I’ve bought more, 5 fountain pens, and 3 pairs of sunglasses).

So that’s the stuff; just over 10 years collapsed into 5 paragraphs. What’s happened to it?

Of those 878 items I no longer have 593 of them. Of the things that have gone I have given away 127 (mainly items of clothing to charity shops), I’ve lost 17 things, sold 96, had 5 things stolen – including Stumpy, a much-loved mountain bike – and thrown away 322 things. That’s right, 322 (or 37%) of items that I’ve had in the last 10 years have gone in the bin. A few will have been things that were simply used up, but not many.

The good news is I still have 285 of the 878 things I bought!

And some of them I’ve kept for a long time. Of 67 things I bought in 2001, 14 years ago, I still have 16 – almost 25% of them, 5 of which I consider highly valued. Three of those highly valued things relate to cycle touring – panniers and a handlebar pack – one is Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer (below) that always finds a prominent position in the places I’ve lived, and the final thing is a Cambridge hi-fi amplifier, still pumping out the tunes, although recently developing a frustrating buzz (perhaps time for a new one?).

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, bought in 20xx

Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer, an item I value highly, bought in 2001.

At the other end of the scale, of the 87 things I bought in 2011, 4 years ago, I still have 56 (65%), 25 of which are ‘high value’ items. 18 of those things are items of clothing, 5 are things relating to cycling, and the remaining 2 are things relating to golf.

The oldest thing in my list that I still have (and value highly) is an Ikea dining table (below), solid and simple, bought in 2000.

An Ikea table

The oldest ‘high value’ thing in my list – an Ikea table, bought in 2000.

Really it is the things that I’ve rated as ‘high value’ that I’m interested in and that, on the surface, hold the key to uncovering how things have become meaningful in my life. ‘High value’ is just a subjective measure; a feeling that, when I read the name of the thing on a list, I like the thing. It conjures up its image, it makes me smile, I can call it to mind easily, and re-experience the pleasure and quality the thing gave me in its use.

So of the 878 original things, I’ve rated 161 of them (18%), as having high value. The largest proportion of these things are 59 items of clothing closely followed by 51 items of sport, 23 ‘house’ items, and 17 electronic items.

If I look down the list of high value items 25 of them I have used in the last month, 6 I have used today, and I am currently using 3 – my Wacom graphics tablet (13 years old), my Bosch washing machine (12 years old), and my Carhartt leather belt (4 years old).

Wacom Graphics Tablet, a high value thing, bought in 20xx

Wacom Graphics Tablet, an item I consider as ‘high value’ and that I am using at this moment,  bought in 2002.

That’s it! The raw stats about all the things I’ve bought and used over a 10 year period. I can’t help feeling disappointed – is 18% all I have to show in terms of value in 10 years?

Where I failed was in fully documenting the life of each thing. At the beginning it seemed simple enough, recording the narrative arc of a thing’s life. The expectations at birth, the early difficulties, the later years of declining use and usefulness. The inevitable end. Of those 878 possible stories I only actually recorded 24 of these and I realise now that this mainly happened when something out of a normal narrative happened – the product failed or broke (a Canondale mountain bike), or I lost it (a Nokia 6510 mobile phone, a Sony portable CD player), or I got it repaired or replaced (a Parker fountain pen). Most of the stuff just abided with me for a length of time and then got thrown away; that’s the normal narrative, hardly worth recording.

I did notice that there were clusters of things that supported certain activities. Golf clubs, bags, shoes, shirts, and trousers for golf; computers, software, keyboards, mixers, and cables for music recording. It wasn’t necessarily the things in themselves that I valued but their combination, providing a scaffold for entertainment, enjoyment and a feeling of progress and development somehow. My investment in these things was also an investment in a certain activity, though I realised after a while that it is a fine balance; the need to have the thing that is smaller, operates faster, is more responsive and efficient can quickly become the focus of your activity rather than the activity itself. Buying a new mountain bike might make big improvements to comfort and performance but it is still the feeling of being out in the middle of the countryside and turning the pedals that I value most.

Unexpectedly, the clothes category contains the highest number of ‘high value’ items. Clothes, it seems to me, become you in a way that other things don’t. They lie close to your skin, they take on your scent, they construct and project your identity – in colour, in form, in detail – and provide a level of comfort and reassurance; a structure to exist in. Clothes adapt themselves to us and they, as we, change through the years, both as fashion changes, but also through continual cleaning. Jeans get looser, T-shirts fade, underpants slowly grow bigger. You grow into them as much as they grow into you; it’s a symbiotic relationship. One thing I have learned is that wear can be a source of value; scratches that accumulate on a plate or surface, marks and dents that record events and interactions (Figure 4). Things can capture a shared history, so no wonder clothes set-off positive memories.

Three imperfect things: (left) laptop dropped at airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) acoustic guitar scraped.

Figure 4. Three imperfect things: (left) An Apple MacBook Air dropped at Biarritz airport x-ray machine, (middle) Phillipe Starck Lemon Squeezer, leg broken and then repaired, (right) Simon & Patrick acoustic guitar banged against furniture.

Sports are the next largest proportion of highest value items and (apart from the sports clothes, see above) represent the possibility of a Heideggerian sense of connection; the piece of sports equipment becomes invisible to your consciousness in becoming part of the wholeness of your performance. When you connect with a squash ball, tennis ball, golf ball so well that it seems like something metaphysical happens; when you flow down a hill on a bike as if floating on air. Sports equipment is intimately involved in your triumphs (small though they sometimes are) and also your failures (large though they sometimes appear).

That description of high value items might be applied to other products too, though less often. When I use my iPhone, or drive a car, or play guitar it sometimes feels like me and the thing are thinking together. I just don’t get that with a printer, or a kettle, or a light; those things mainly just function, though obviously they have to fit the environment and get along with the other things.

So where things work the best is when their story becomes my story, when our narratives combine even just for a short time. That’s when the magnetism and magic works with me in a way that I don’t even notice; the supporting cast to my star-of-the-show. Actually, reviewing my list in its entirety I am amazed by the number of things that I can remember quite distinctly, whether I’ve valued them or not. I often remember where I bought a thing, though not usually where I parted with it. Things provoke memories and recall experiences; the more the thing becomes you, the more intense and emotional that memory is likely to be. Like music, things take you back, things help you out, but they don’t solve the vast majority of your problems.

So what kind of machine am I? I think a not too efficient one, though there have been moments of purring performance. It seems I have far more input than output [4]. I also have a nagging feeling that if I had input less then I would have output more; that I haven’t made best use of the machine or even misunderstood its basic operation. I can’t claim to dislike the person whose life I have examined through this inquiry, but I can’t claim any love either. The things, although constituting a significant part of life, don’t, in the final analysis, really matter that much.

The reason I don’t buy home insurance is that I hope that one day I’ll come home and all my things will be gone. Then I’ll have a blank sheet, to start all over again.

[1] Italo Calvino (1984) Quickness in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Harvard University Press.

[2] Oliver James (2007) Affluenza, Vermilion.

[3] Links to my various lists (inputs) on Shornbare.com are here: 15 years of books, 14 years of music, 15 years of films

[4] Links to my various outputs on Shornbare.com are here: 10 years of one photo a month, other stuff

Gasoline Stations: Signifiers of Future’s Past

The artist Ed Ruscha loves a Gas Station. From Arizona to Oklahoma to Texas to LA, Ed recorded twenty six of them in his book Twenty Six Gasoline Stations (to go with Thirty Four Parking Lots). These roadside pavilions stand with their reassuring brand out front, beckoning to the long distance motorist – modern forms in the face of wild nature – we’re here to keep you going, they say, why don’t you stop by?

Ruscha explains why he is interested in the gas station as a form:

“I would look at a building and disregard the purpose of that building (in this case a commercial outlet to sell gasoline).  I was really more interested in this crazy little design that was repeated by all the gas companies to make stations with an overhang to create shade for their customers.  It seemed to me a very beautiful statement.”[1]

Gas in the tank keeps the world economy going too and Standard Oil, shown in one of Ruscha’s Gasoline Station photos below, was once the world’s largest corporation.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Photo

Ruscha takes this image and stylises it in the drawing below (and subsequent painting), simplifying the form and accentuating the perspective so the viewer feels smaller and the building more dynamic; maybe even hubristic.

Ed Ruscha Gas Station Drawing

Ruscha likens the image he produced to railroad tracks, the camera down low:

“So [the train] appeared as though it was coming from nowhere, from a little point in the distance, to suddenly filling your total range of vision.  In a sense, that’s what the Standard gas station is doing.  It’s super drama.”

The gas station becomes abstract and generic too – the shop is blanked out to foreground the four pumps and the ‘Standard’ sign. We could be anywhere in America now, but it is a vision, or reflection, of modernity – in architecture, in service, and in the victory of the automobile and mobility. The artistic statement, of course, is ambiguous; the celebration, if it is there at all, carries undercurrents; of Hopper-like loneliness and alienation, of urban fragility, of corporate dominance, of Hollywood glamour.

Perhaps inspired by Ruscha’s inspiration (or the Hollywood glamour) I too have become a connoisseur of gas stations – the US and the UK variety – particularly gas stations that have closed down, leaving Ruscha-like abstractions of themselves; frozen at a time when the petroleum ran out (at least for the locality).

I came across a good example recently in West Sussex, an ex-Esso petrol station with the pumps still intact. Esso, coincidently, were one of the off-shoots of Standard Oil when it was broken up for being a monopoly – the S and O of Standard Oil forming the phonetic Esso.

Esso Garage

This time though, rather than a sense of modern design’s triumph over nature, there was a sense of nature beginning to re-take control. The spiders’ webs on the pump handles and weeds beginning to push through the concrete a testament to the first signs of ruin.

Petrol Pump

There was an eerie, pre-apocalyptic feel to the place, like the oil had run out not just in the locality, but in the rest of the country too, the pumps stuck at a time when unleaded cost 98.9 pence per litre.  Less super drama, more like the end of the road.

Petrol pump reading

Today it is Apple who are the world’s largest company, with Google not too far behind. Tech companies have overtaken the oil giants but they need energy to function and fossil fuels are falling out of fashion. In 20 years there may be many more gas stations in ruins – signifiers, not of progress and modernity, as in the 1962 of Ruscha, but relics of a past when we took and took and took from the earth until there was no more.

 

[1] Wolf, S. (2004) Ed Ruscha and Photography, Whitney Museum of American Art.

[2] Ibid.

Respectability and Indigence in the Urban Environment

In his twenties, Thomas Hardy, the author, was working as a successful architect which makes reading his novels with an eye on design a revealing activity. Hardy writes with a depth about the built environment – and ‘place’ more generally – that is unusual in literature. The experience he gained in practice clearly gave him an observational capacity that renders the features of houses, streets, roads, markets, inns, hotels, etc. in fine detail. This is from Chapter 5 of The Mayor of Casterbridge describing a scene where the town band has begun to play:

“The building before whose doors they had pitched their music-stands was the chief hotel in Casterbridge – namely, the King’s Arms. A spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico, and from the open sashes came the babble of voices, the jingle of glasses, and the drawing of corks.”

That ‘spacious bow-window projected into the street over the main portico’ might be a line out of one of Pevsner’s guides to the Buildings of England but it is the social context through which buildings structure human activity that comes through most of all in Hardy – the shaped behavior following the shaped environment, to draw on Winston Churchill’s famous quote. A good example of this comes in Chapter 32, where Hardy describes two bridges in Casterbridge:

“Two bridges stood near the lower part of Casterbridge town. The first, of weather-stained brick, was immediately at the end of High Street, where a diverging branch from that throughfare ran round to the low-lying Durnover lanes; so that the precincts of the bridge formed the merging point of respectability and indigence. The second bridge, of stone, was further out on the highway – in fact, fairly in the meadows, though still within the town boundary.”

That move to describe the first bridge as: ‘the merging point of respectability and indigence’ combines the spatial aspects of the town with the human aspects. It is a point that will be familiar in many other towns: the place were upmarket connects with downmarket, where honest toil meets dodgy dealing.

Hardy describes the bridges further:

“These bridges had speaking countenances. Every projection in each was worn down to obtuseness partly by weather, more by friction from generations of loungers, whose toes and heels had from year to year made restless movements against these parapets, as they had stood there meditating on the aspect of affairs. In the case of the more friable bricks and stones even the flat faces were worn into hollows by the same mixed mechanism. The masonry of the top was clamped with iron at each joint; since it had been no uncommon thing for desperate men to wrench the coping off and throw it down the river, in reckless defiance of the magistrates.”

The bridges, in other words, had become places to ponder, worry, and reflect on things gone awry in life. The external movements connected with those thoughts – toe and heel movements, leg movements, hand movements, and grasping at loose material – had further served to shape, and communicate the meaning of the bridges according to their use.  Like stone steps, worn down in the middle after decades of people climbing up and down. Indeed the bridges said this very clearly through their ‘speaking countenances’.

Did the architects of the two bridges intend that they would find use in such a way? One might think it unlikely, the main function of the bridges really being to take a road across water, but the parapets – the worn down projections – indicate a secondary function: places for people to stop; to fish, for example, or to keep out of the way of wide traffic, or to look out on the river. So the pondering activity is there in the plan somewhere, if not accurately defined or envisaged. What an architect might not expect is the subsequent shaping of the bridge, through friction, to more accurately define the human activity that takes place on the bridge.

Casterbridge, the imagined town in Hardy’s literature, is derived from Dorchester, the real town in Dorset and it is interesting to think how fiction and reality might be connected and overlap, especially when one thinks of the work of an architect or urban planner as a kind of fiction or authorship. The vision expressed through sketches, drawings, or artist’s impressions, that I’ve talked about in other blog posts, show a potential narrative that is then further formed by actual use. And now Google Street View, time-lapsed over years, can reveal a post-design narrative (see Figure 1). Places take on meaning as much as being given meaning.

The First Bridge

Figure 1: A Google Street View image shows the place of the first bridge in Thomas Hardy’s description of Casterbridge (Dorchester) above. The bridge is ‘immediately at the end of the high street’, though the man caught on camera on the bridge doesn’t look as desperate as the men of Casterbridge.

A prime example of this, and a kind of modern day Thomas Hardy example, came to me when I lived in the centre of Milton Keynes some years ago. The centre of Milton Keynes is a shopping mall. A reasonably nice, high quality, grade 2 listed shopping mall; but a shopping mall none-the-less. Butting on to the shopping mall, further down the hill to the east, is Campbell Park: “the largest and most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century” according to Pevsner (Buildings of England: Buckinghamshire). The centerpiece of the park, leading directly from the axis of the shopping mall, is a belvedere; a huge pile of earth projecting out from the natural hill to give a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape looking eastwards. It is place, in other words, conceivably not dissimilar to the bridges in Casterbridge. The amount of ‘desperate men’ (the law courts in Milton Keynes are further than in Casterbridge I’d wager) is probably far outweighed by the number of people seeking a nice view in their lunch hour, but there is a kind of ‘speaking countenance’ there.

Campbell Park was generally emptier than it should have been. Housing schemes surrounding the park were only partially completed, so outside the hours of business the number of people in the park was often in single figures, outnumbered by the sheep that were allowed to graze from time to time.

The flat I rented looked into a wooded area at the side of the park and, after a year or so of living there, I noticed some odd behavior. My flat, as well as looking directly at the wooded area of the park, overlooked a car-park; a place, I assumed, where people would leave their cars while having a relaxed weekend picnic in the park with their family. What I began to notice was a pattern: single men would drive into the car park and wait in their cars while looking at their mobile phones. After a period of time, they would walk purposefully into the wooded area of the park before reappearing, less purposefully, some time later. Then they would drive off. What was confusing was that the path the men (and it was almost always men) walked so purposefully towards only led out of the park again some way down, after passing through the wooded area – it was a path that led nowhere! Figure 2 shows the place.

Campbell Park, Milton Keynes

Figure 2. A Google Street View image shows the wooded area (left) in Milton Keynes where a gay cruising area had formed. On the left, near the ‘keep left’ signs, you can see the entry point for ‘the path that leads nowhere’, while the car park is to the right of the picture (behind and out of view). The man caught on camera looks like he is headed to the path.

Now, it might seem obvious now, but at the time I was genuinely puzzled – why would you walk down a path that led nowhere? The question rolled around my head for a few weeks until my friend D arrived to stay. D, who is gay, had a very simple answer to my question: “it’s a gay cruising strip”, he said, nonchalantly. “How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged, “it’s just obvious, take a walk there and you’ll see people in tracksuit bottoms.” This was all news to me, but to prove D’s point we took a walk down the path and sure enough, up came a man wearing tracksuit bottoms, and paying us a lot of attention. “It’s the sense of danger” D explained of the behavior more generally, “or maybe they are married and don’t want their wives to find out”. A place for desperate men, in other words.

D had another theory. Perhaps the path had been deliberately designed for the purposes of gay cruising? After all why would a path that led nowhere make it on to the plan for the park? Maybe this was why Pevsner had called it ‘the most imaginative park to have been laid out in Britain in the 20th Century’? It’s a nice thought, that someone in the planning office was discretely tending to the needs of a community of people for outdoor sex; intending – by arranging parking, woodland, and a path that leads nowhere in close proximity – that outdoor sex would be the result. More likely is the Thomas Hardy explanation though, that the place came to support, and eventually help to shape, the behavior. And one way of doing that is to place a space at the border of respectability and indigence.

Toothless Cowboys and Spacesuits: The Future of Chewing Gum

Restocking on chewing gum recently (an ugly habit, I admit) I found that the packaging had changed significantly and seemed, prima facie, to have taken a turn for the worse. The photo below shows the old and new package side by side – which do you think is the new packaging?

Image

If you thought the container on the right, you’d be wrong. Although the right hand container has the curving form and sweepy dynamic background graphic of something from another planet in a long distant future – complete with grippy detailing around its top edge, to hold on to it with a spacesuit glove in zero gravity – it has been replaced by the rather plain container on the left.

Why would Wrigleys take what looks like a step backwards?

The container on the right comes in three separate parts – a white plastic ‘body’, a white plastic ‘head’, and a transparent delivery mechanism dispatching either a large or small number of pieces by lifting a large or small tab respectively. There is also a shrink-wrapped label, shrunk, like a figure-hugging dress, on to the curvaceous body of the container. That is four parts to mould and form, and four separate operations to piece it all together.

The container on the left is made of one piece of plastic, the body and lid coming from the same piece of material. Graphics are added with a simple sticker. That is two parts to make and a much easier process to bring them together. A smaller and more regular shape will also mean more can be transported in bulk for the same volume. So the decision looks like a simple decision about reducing complexity and saving costs.

It is never that simple though, is it? Cost is the pretext, but what is the subtext?

Look again at the left hand container. What does that plain container remind you of? Something out of the medicine cabinet perhaps? Maybe Wrigleys are now using the same production line as Bayer – chewing gum in one, paracetemol in another. What it suggests to me is a change of meaning for the chewing gum contents, from frivolous pieces of confectionary to ‘tablets’ that are good for you. (The ‘approved’ by the British Dental Health Foundation stamp attests to its goodness.) A medicalization of chewing gum from sweet to supplement. The new packaging is crucial for this transfer of meaning to take place because the contents have remained exactly the same – a 1.5cm oblong shape. Gum is good – you can buy it guilt free!

The classic chewing gum packaging is Wrigley’s gum – Juicy Fruit (yellow), Spearmint (white) or Double Mint (green) – each piece of gum a rolled out piece of fawn coloured oblong, carefully wrapped in its own saw-tooth edged foil. 8 pieces of gum and 8 pieces of foil! How valuable each piece was to prospective cowboys everywhere; it took a lot to give one away. You can still get it, but it won’t do you any good. Cowboys have long since lost their teeth (not so many dentists in the wild west) or died of lung cancer from smoking too many Marlboros. The future, as Damien Hirst has showed us, is pharmaceutical.