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I aim to make each Dialectogram as widely accessible as possible, whether people want to appreciate the odd shapes and textures of line created from the arrangement of the information, or to scrutinise and take in every scrap of information. If all people take away is some interesting information, or pleasure at the look of it, I am happy. But reading and thinking does go into the creation of these drawings, from a range of different sources. For those who are interested, ‘Behind the Dialectogram’ will be an occasional series of posts that give some insight into the ideas I have been experimenting with. It starts with Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
Readings from Bachelard: The Introduction (Part one)
The French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard gave considerable thought – more than arguably anyone before, or since – to how people conceive of and imagine the spaces they inhabit. His masterwork, The Poetics of Space is a dense, closely argued work of philosophy that sets out to show how space is conceived as images that hold particular significance and meaning for us, and in so doing, he draws on the work of poets such as Baudelaire to state his case . The book is almost stereotypically ‘French’ in the way it complicates and exhaustively explores the everyday, apparently straightforward and unremarkable, but I think – beyond ruminating on how certain corners of nineteenth century French living rooms inspired Baudelaire – his work retains real relevance and power. The scope of Dialectograms is by circumstance and inclination, more proletarian, but I would maintain that is not just 19th century French poetasters who turn their domestic surroundings into a mesh of symbols and meanings. I have found Bachelard’s understanding of how the imaginative process is shaped by our immediate surroundings present in both the spaces I am currently trying to draw, and in subtext to the many interviews I have been conducting.
This is why, while I have dipped in and out of Bachelard in the past, I am at present reading The Poetics of Space right through, page-by-page, beginning to end. So, as an aid to thought and intellectual digestion, I am going to post up my ‘readings’ of his book on an ongoing basis. These readings will, inevitably, be heavily influenced by my own interests and purposes, aided and abetted by – what else – some drawings that have helped me to understand and apply the ideas better. Not everyone knows, or cares about theory, some are even hostile to it so, you may choose to skip these posts in favour of those more directly related to the subjects I am drawing. That’s fine; if this whole project works as it’s meant to, it should be accessible on a number of levels. Liking them because it reminds you of something, teaches you something, or just looks strange and gnarly are perfectly fine, valid responses. But if you do want to get into the workings of the ‘brain’ behind the scribblings, then these posts should give some indication as to how I relate those ideas that percolate in my head, to the actual practice. So, let’s keep it linear and begin at the beginning.
Bachelard begins his Introduction to the book with a long discussion of the nature of ‘poetic imagination’ or a ‘philosophy of poetry’ and its relationship to how we inhabit our ‘vital space.
We should therefore have to say how we inhabit our vital space, in accord with all the dialectics of lide, how we take root, day after day, in a “corner of the world”.
To Bachelard, poetry is a process of creating/evoking images in the mind from this ‘vital space’ (put more simply, where we live, grow and develop) and to appreciate it, we must be ‘receptive to the image the moment it appears’ and, more importantly, not seek to distance ourself too much from this process – the ‘ecstasy’ of the ‘newness’ of the image. Poetry, he seems to say, makes us see familiar things and aspects of our life differently; they become new again. Whatever they were to us before that is gone – ‘they have no past’.
This is why Bachelard does not believe the philosophy of science, in its rationalising, dissecting fervour really cuts it as a means of understanding poetry and the effect it has upon us. He also criticises philosophers who fail to develop their ideas in ignorance of the position most people develop their own understanding of the world around them, saying that too many ‘know the universe before they know the house’.
He does suggest an alternative system, but not before he makes us run ahead of this train of thought by trying to break down the processes that take place during the ‘onset of the image’ – the moment when a human being sees or hears something and makes a poetic or imaginative association with it. I have tried to draw it for you, below.
Ok, so what does this show? For Bachelard a human being can be anatomised into a heart, a soul and a sense of being. All three of these are called into play when this human being sees a ‘poetic image’ – they affect and are affected by the process of this image suddenly coming into the human being’s consciousness.
None of this is too hard to understand, I think – you see an object, or phenomenon that is meaningful to you, and you, as a thinking, feeling and complex human being respond to it, infuse it with a meaning and significance that changes it from being just a simple place, or object, to something much more powerful. That something, Bachelard would suggest, is nothing less than the defining point of our humanity. To Bachelard, the soul exists, at least in operational terms – there is something in us that innately orders and remembers our experiences, feelings and perceptions, and is acted on by these. This soul underpins our humanity and experiencing the poetic image is part of what makes us human.
Now, this may already be going a little far for some of you – does this mean that to be human is to be a poet? That depends on whether you define the poet as a narrow professional term. Dialectograms give us some clues here as to what Bachelard means. At their simplest, the drawings give particular attention to the idea that everyday spaces are important, are significant and have meaning to the people who inhabit them. An example would be a small part of a flat I am currently working out how to reconstruct the Niven family’s flat at 7/4 Red Road, and in particular a box room that I would say had a poetic significance to them, so much that their memory of it remains very vivid a few years after they left the scheme. This room was the repository for objects from their past that defined their history as a family; a sideboard they took from their old tenement, the last Robert Niven snr used when he worked as a cobbler, or the children’s toys. They called it the ‘lumber room’ and it seemed to encompass and accommodate almost all of the family’s keepsakes and large valuables in a jumbled up, tightly packed space. The memory of this seemingly impossibly sized room was clearly still very strong, given how many of their stories and accounts inevitably led us back to the box room, and in particular, an image of their mind of how concentrated all of the items in it were – almost a museum of their life in Red Road. Put simply, the clutter of the room has come to symbolise for them, the length of time they spent in the scheme (40 years) and the richness of their own family history.
To go back to my drawing above, you will notice there is more happening here than just a process of identification and imagination – there is also the reference to an archetype that fully renders the poetic image. As any fule know, archetypes are ideas and images that others have already formed and are part of our culture (and if you believe the Greek philosopher Plato even exist in another, perfect dimension of which everything in this world is a feeble copy). Bachelard points out that the images we create often refer to, or attach themselves to some kind of archetype – a rose, for example, will almost inevitably conjure up archetypes of what the rose is meant to be, and what it represents – the perfect rose, with its fanned out petals, its associations with love (thanks to Burns), its sweet smell, its luxury (check out interflora for the going rate on a bunch of roses and you’ll see what I mean), feminity, a feeling of transcendent beauty, of nature at work, balance, harmony or even War (thanks to the houses of York and Lancaster). While some of these are corny and each person will attach different weights to them, we almost can’t help interpret the rose, and do so in reference to past interpretations stored up in our cultural memory. Bachelard calls this reverberation or ‘retentir’ – the moment when a human being intervenes in the world to give meaning to it and detects in it, some sort of sign or symbol. In forming these poetic images we inevitably ‘reverberate’ to a store of archetypes and prior understandings we have been exposed to or somehow know– in that instant we compare, contrast and evaluate. And yet, this image feels very new and unique to us.
It may be simpler to go back to the example of the Nivens and their lumber-room; in searching for a way to characterise the lumber-room and its qualities the family almost inevitably alighted upon a recent, but powerful archetype of a small space that unaccountably contains more inside it than the outside would suggest (much like your average human being…) and of course, called it ‘The TARDIS’. Naming it in this way, a special way, immediately tells us this place has more meaning and associations to the family than almost anywhere else in the flat; that they named it intimates they have a fixed image of the place that stays with them, even when it is not in front of them – we can imagine the jumble of probably very different objects crammed in next to each other, and the confusion of the uninitiated as to exactly how all this stuff fits in here. I already know that a couple of the objects – a big table and a sideboard, came from their old tenement flat in Maryhill and thus, has a further symbolic continuity that connects Mr and Mrs Niven to their old life, through objects that they could feel and touch – a hook for their memory and understanding.
For their children though, who were young, or not even born before moving to the Red Road scheme, these objects from the tenement are probably historical, museum pieces – much more abstract than other objects that were found in the living room, veranda or kitchen. This was shown in the way Bob, who was born in Red Road, throughout showed the greatest attachment, and sense of significance to their flat, while their father seemed to have a much less visceral connection to this place. By attaching their lumber room to The Doctor’s time travel machine, the archetypal ‘big thing in a small package’ that travels in time, they expand that meaning even more. It achieves a deeper resonance as one set of images – the furniture, toys, etc., crammed into a few square feet merges with those we have of the interior of the Tardis and its impossible blue painted exterior. It makes it larger – and almost instantly, at least in the Anglophone world, more universally understood and recognised. People can thus come at the poetic image from two directions; the Nivens, from the grounded, experience-based knowledge of the lumber-room, and the rest of us, through the archetype of the TARDIS, and ‘get’ the poetry of the moment. This is because, somewhere in the meeting between the two, the authentic image, the poetic association itself, is formed and appreciated. The central concern of Burns’ poem about the Red Red Rose is the moment where his feelings suddenly find a resonance, or association in the flower; from the other side, his readers (or listeners – it is actually a song of course) recall and remember the shape, form and exquisite complexity of roses and can come to understand how this might relate to the feelings the poet is experiencing. They are drawn in and, in the meeting point, acknowledge that what Burns is telling us about love is that it is, in this case, seemingly perfect, harmonious, complex, delicate blossoming etc etc ad infinitum. We don’t and can’t share exactly the same feelings and notions Burns has about his direct experience, but can come to an authentic understanding of it, if we are willing to look deeply into the poetic image he offers up to us. By referring to their lumber room as the TARDIS, the Nivens were doing exactly the same thing to me, except generations of schoolchildren are highly unlikely to study their particular poetic image in school. This is why Bachelard’s book is important – it argues that poetry is an essential, active branch of human communication.
It is for this reason that I would disagree, slightly, with the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings whose book, Pandaemonium and the coming of the machine collaged a huge range of written documentary material as part of his ongoing project to critique culture through artistic expression;
Unless we are prepared to claim special attributes for the poet – the attribute of vision – and unless we are prepared to admit the work of the artist (that is to say, the function of the imagination) as an essential part of the modern world there is no real reason for our continuing to bother with any of the arts any more, or with any imaginary activity.
But according to Bachelard, vision is not a special attribute of the poet – it is the poet’s feel for it, his or her craft that is their ‘special attribute’. What makes the poet important is that they have the means to not just form the visions we all see, in some way, but communicate these, that makes their work important. It resonates, because this vision is a widespread, common experience in trying to make sense of the world.
I should perhaps clarify what is meant by ‘poetry’ here – I don’t just mean lines of verse – though it is Bachelard’s starting point – but the ‘poetry’ found in paintings, films, photographs and other associative, representative materials. I’m therefore fully with Jennings when he argues that;
…to the real poet the front of the Bank of England may be as excellent a site for the appearance of poetry as the depths of the sea.
I would humbly submit that Concierge stations are market stalls are just as excellent. Jennings goes on to explain why he thinks this process of envisioning and poetising is so important;
The Imagination is a function of man whose traces are more delicate to handle than the facts and events and ideas of which history is usually constructed…they contain in little a whole world – they are the knots in a great net of tangled time and space – the moments at which the situation of humanity is clear…
But is evident that these delicate traces nevertheless, interact with facts, events, ideas and, I would, submit, places. The imagination can float far and wide, but it is impressed from concrete beginnings. One of Jennings’ great influences was Mass Observation (more about it). In a frequently quoted episode, a researcher noted a moment in a working class pub when a patron suddenly pulled a tortoise out of his pocket and puts it on the bar. The report is cut and dried, but the effect is immediately surreal. Why? Because even though we don’t know it, tortoises have a string of associations attached to them that do not slot in neatly with a working class milieu. The ‘out of placeness’ of the incident immediately makes it an image in our minds – we can imagine this odd scene, rebel against it and cannot help but wonder and reflect as to how this situation came about – what does it mean? And Bachelard – and I – would argue that looking deeply at the everyday in a search for its greater meaning is a poetic undertaking. For his part, Jennings sees this imaginative process as fundamental to the human condition, and any hope of its improvement.
Let’s relate it again, to matters dialectographical and my work in the showman’s yards of Dalmarnock; when you see a fibreglass reindeer sitting amid the greys and sandstone pinks of industrial Glasgow, you are immediately struck by its dissonance; your brain immediately commences on a train of thought and feeling that takes you, like it or not, into poetic territory. If, says Bachelard, that sounds like daydreaming then it’s largely because that is precisely what it is. In such ‘idle’ moments we see the poetry in the oddly placed object, the withered carnation or the tear in the wallpaper, almost despite yourself.
If you think that’s daft, fine; but consider that the most accepted building block of poetry – words – are arguably, the most commonplace aspect of our waking lives, yet we have no trouble in accepting that we can take them, turn them inside out and wrest a string of meanings from them.
As a phenomenologist, Bachelard sees the poetic process as a system in its own right. This sets apart from the main thrust of literary theory at the time which was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis. For Bachelard, poetry was not just a by-product of anxieties, neuroses and sexual desires (although they all play their part) but are an end to themselves – an autonomous system of thought and feeling that is integral to our humanity. In Bachelard’s scheme Vases, ornaments or items of clothing become associated with a person, or a time, a feeling, or a series of conclusions about our common situation. Bachelard frequently refers us to Baudelaire to make his point, and I shall be no different –
The clock! a sinister, impassive god
Whose threatening finger says to us, ‘Remember!’
Soon in your anguished heart, as in a target
Quivering shafts of grief will plant themselves
Note the interplay of new images – the clock, its ‘threatening finger’ and old archetypes – the anguished heart, the idea of pagan gods, graven images and the ‘quivering shafts of grief’ (arrows) that are marshalled in to support, enhance and expand this new imaginative turn. But it is not just symbolist poets, or hoary metaphors that can be used this way. In the novel The Busconductor Hines, James Kelman gives us the titular working class character who is prone to protracted, deep, tangential reflections on his surroundings. This segment comes from a moment where Hines contemplates the shapes formed by the backcourt of his Glasgow tenement, and uses apparently abstract geometry as a means of universalising his experience;
The rectangle is formed by the backsides of the buildings – in fact it’s maybe even a square. A square: 4 sides of equal length and each 2 lines being angled into each other at 90˚. Okay now: this backcourt a square and for each unit of dwellers up each tenement there exists the 1/3 midden containing six dustbins. For every 3 closes you have the 1 midden containing 6 dustbins. But then you’ve got the prowlers coming around when every cunt’s asleep. They go exchanging holey dustbins for nice new yins. Holey dustbins: the bottom only portionally there so the rubbish remains on the ground when said dustbins are being uplifted. What a bastard.
From a simple observation, Hines’ thoughts drift into ever more complex situations, associations and understandings of where he lives, including some that seem very fanciful, such as the archetype of the sneaky and underhanded ‘prowler’, as well as the play on words in the ‘Holey Dustbin’. Hines conceives of his surroundings in more than just prosaic, physical terms; there is meaning, significance, history and narrative all at play. Although Hines knows this back court very well, letting his mind work upon the place almost renders it as something exotic, murky, even sinister. Similar things start to happen when I draw dialectograms.
Working at Red Road gave me lots of examples of this, and my primary task as I continue my work here, and elsewhere, will be to honour the complexity of the imaginations that inhabit such places. Bachelard describes the process Hines goes through as reverie, which I shall go into in more detail in the next part, as it crucial to his ideas as to how we form our own ideas of what ‘home’ is.
I post this – the first dialectogram from Red Road – with a sense of genuine relief. I feel like I have been gnawing at the edges of the project for weeks, but now I’ve been able to take some roughs and realise just a portion of what will be the drawing for the Concierge’s station at 10 Red Road Court.
This is somewhere between an initial sketch and the final drawing – a rehearsal, if you like, concentrating on just one part of the whole concierge station. This drawing shows the reception and CCTV scanning area of the station as it was just before Christmas. The reception is where the duty concierges answer public queries through the counter, and keep an eye on the CCTV screens. Here are some pictures I took during the visit.
The popular notion of jobsworth voyeurs in uniform robotically scrutinising every aspect of what a citizen says and does is something of a received wisdom, but Jacky and Grant (misrepresented as ‘Graham’ on the diagram) gave no such impression; they glanced at the screens here and there during the interview but clearly maintained a sense of discretion and tact in what they did. The station had the relaxed, easy feel of a mail-room or workshop; tomato soup was cooking on the stove in the kitchen and copies of The Daily Record were yellowing in an in-tray. It felt cosy, and human. The concierges I met that day were impressive in their knowledge, tact and understanding of their job, and the very diverse group of people they serve. They knew every inch of Red Road and could speak at length about the buildings, what they had been used for, and the many tenants who had passed through. Both Grant and Jacky had worked there for about 20 years and could recall many of its past tenants by name – and even knew where many of them had subsequently gone since. Not very far, as it turned out; many old tenants had shifted to the new GHA flats and houses across the road, out of a desire to stay in the area their families had lived in before Red Road was built; the concierges, and many of these tenants are North Glasgow people who clearly retain a strong sense of place and belonging.
This set me wondering; would it be possible to draw where, and when a selection of past tenants had gone since they left Red Road – and perhaps where they or their ancestors had been before?
An interesting idea, but there is still the small matter of actually drawing spaces such as the concierge station, which proved to be a rather difficult task. Missing from the above image is a good chunk of the station itself; no waiting room, side offices, locker room, storage areas showers, toilets or corridor is found in this representation of flat 1/04. I had attempted to do full drawing of the flats but soon found myself running into difficulties. I’d taken loads of photos, but when I got back home, I found it very hard to piece them together into a coherent structure; rooms were in the wrong places and the scale was shot to hell. When I can renegotiate access to this and other flats, a small camcorder will be essential, so I can join all the different points together in my head.
I had looked at the plans drawn by Bunton architects in 1962, which can be found in the Mitchell Library, and attempted to use my sketches from here as the basis of a floorplan. However, it was evident from the very beginning, that matching up the original drawings to the present would be difficult, given that renovations and even the process of making the plans (excuse the pun) concrete would change the layout. The ‘orientation’ capsule in the right of the image was taken from one such drawing from Bunton’s original plans, but I think that I would like in future drawings, to work from the blocks as they actually are, as they have no doubt changed even more since then.
What I wanted to do with this drawing was try out some techniques and ways of presenting information, narratives and ideas. I’ve tried using some comic strip elements and cutaways to open up the view of the station and use, as much as possible, visual cues to explain what is here and why. I think some of them work, and some of them NEED work, but I would be interested to hear any comments or ideas on progress so far.
A true dialectogram should always list its mistakes and I had no space on the drawing proper, so shall catalogue my errors here! I am not at all happy that I got the names of two of the concierges mixed up, and I think the CCTV cutaways are pretty dull and awkward looking. I also need to work on drawing people from a bird’s eye view. My first instinct was to be quite abstract and ‘symbolic’ as is evident with Jacky, but by the time I was drawing Grant, I was dissatisfied and trying for a more organic approach. None of the three figures look entirely right at the moment, and look out of scale to me. I know that nothing on the balcony is entirely in the right place either, and referring to pictures after the fact showed a whole raft of mistakes around the counter area – the clipboard with tenant’s details was placed INSIDE the reception, not outside as my drawing has it. Also, none of the men ever smoked inside the office, staying outside to do so, which is why I have noted it on the comic strip to the left – I would not want anyone to get in trouble as a result of a doodle! More important though are the questions and ‘to-do’s’ I am left with. Getting bird’s eye right is one important task for the next drawing, but there is still so much to find out; what exactly are all the keys for? What do the consoles do? What is shown on the CCTV? What other stories do the concierges have to tell (and what is on and off the record)? Why are there Beano stickers stuck to each of the lockers (not shown in the drawing)? And should I attempt to do a ‘key’ for everything you might find in one of these interiors? How long will that take? The answers will, I hope, be forthcoming…
The tragic deaths of three Russian nationals (reported as Kosovan by the Guardian, which does however, get some other details about the schedule for demolishing Red Road entirely wrong) at the Red Road Flats stunned Glasgow and made international headlines. As far as we know, the Serykh family, refugees who had arrived here from Canada, met the news they were to be deported by tying themselves together and throwing themselves off the veranda of their tower block. They were found at the bottom of the block early in the morning.
I had held back from commenting on the incident straightaway, for the sake of general decency, and because the exact picture was so unclear. But a blog documenting so-called socially engaged art cannot ignore what such incidents suggest to us.
Questions remain about the official narrative that explains the incident - a suicide pact in which all three people can be induced to jump simultaneously seems implausible, and going round the rumour mill are suggestions it may have been a murder. But I am also wary that these other counter-narratives – the involvement of the Russian mafia, or Kosovan gangsters (true or otherwise) play into ethnic stereotypes that distract from other, much more important questions over the predicament of asylum seekers in Glasgow.
Whatever the particulars of the Serykh case itself, the wider questions about how people who find themselves in situations similar to the Serykhs are treated remain, and have been covered fairly well in the local press. I certainly agree with the calls for a full inquiry.
As Glasgow gouges out half its eastend to make way for the M74 motorway extension, our vision of urban improvement and renewal already seems woefully behind the times. This thought provoking piece from A Town Square suggests the whole logic behind cracking the city open to let more cars through runs counter to the tide of history (whatever THAT is) into obsolence. Take a read of it. It argues that ‘vernacular’ city arrangements, such as the Middle Eastern souk, the Chinese huton and even Chicago’s streetcars offer a viable template for high density living that is organic, efficient and on a certain level much more human. Starchitects such as Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas have tried to respond, the latter claiming that it is possible to find ‘optimism in the inevitable.’
The M74 is, we have been told by Glasgow’s city councillors, one such inevitability but current thinking on urbanism suggests we may be taking, literally, the wrong direction. The Foster and Koolhaas ideas are interesting but – and this may be sentimentality creeping in – seem less effective than existing approaches. I always get a little disturbed over the grand visions of architects – instinct (rather than reasoned intellectual contemplation of the designs, I grant you ) tells me there is something totalitarian in both the designs here, even though Foster has attempted to construct his design around the traditional souk. I will look at them in more detail, but in the meantime the message that taking note of how people actually do accommodate each other, rather than constantly trying to tell them how they should do so – or, cynically ensuring that what they do build will only suit certain classes of people – is a good one, and very much in line with this blog and the project it stories (I wonder what the average annual income of those living in a Foster or Koolhaas future city would be? Of course, the recent financial travails of the Emirate of Dubai may make our notion of what is ‘inevitable’ suddenly obsolete, and thus never inevitable in the first place…) .