FIELDS OF KNOWLEDGE: BERGER, THE OUTDOORS, AND THE POSSIBILITIES OF EXPERIENTIAL PRACTICE.
This paper (with accompanying illustrations) was written for & presented at the ’Thinking With John Berger’ conference held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on the 4th & 5th of September 2014, organised by Jeff Wallace, Professor of English, Department of Humanities in the School of Education.
‘At first I referred to the field as a space awaiting events; now I refer to it as an event in itself’. John Berger – ‘Field’ (1971)
As artists, in the widest sense of the word, how do we read, experience and learn from Berger? I’m going to start from the position that creative practitioners might be able to have a more fluid relationship with texts than is allowed the orthodox academic; that we can start from the position of not knowing, and then continue to embrace and even nurture this position.
There is a Hegelian maxim that says that ‘it is only in the hours of Darkness that the owl of Minerva takes flight’. This is perhaps an elegant way of saying that it is the territory that precedes the domain of understanding in which we think (Bolland 2014). Receptiveness to the potential of such territory, to the spaces that are the gaps in certainty and knowledge, is the cornerstone of what I would describe as ‘experiential practice’. Berger’s writing – often discursive, wondering, anti-didactic – produces such a space: the ‘space that is in itself productive’ (Lewis 2014, in conversation), the field ‘that is an event in itself’ (Berger 1971). Berger introduces his 1978 essay Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag by saying:
‘The thoughts are sometimes my own, but all originate in the experience of reading her book.’
This is a brief example of the types of self-facing / explicatory phrases in which Berger allows himself, as reader, to respond to the spaces that can be sought out; that indicate agency, generosity, and reciprocity between the reader and the writer. In a 2002 conversation with Michael Silverblatt he says that:
‘…it is a question of the hospitality to the reader… hospitality has nothing to do with being polite, or being frightened of being offensive… hospitality is a question of allowing a space in the story for the reader to take her or his place, then that place has to be such that naturally there is the possibility of the reader participating, actually participating in the telling of the story, and that finally at its most extreme comes to that line which I will misquote, but it’s the end of one of the marvellous Borges poems in which he says “and the reader who has read this poem, he has written it”’. (My transcript).
I think that there is a link here between the act of reading and what I will call a ‘psychoanalytical situation’ (and I’m talking here of the broader processes of the psychoanalytical encounter, and not of any thematic or sectarian preoccupations) . The creative reader and practitioner might be said to be in the position of both analyst and analysand. A sort of chimeric reader who is receptive to what Adam Phillips refers to as ‘Side Effects’ (Phillips 2006), those thoughts and responses which are unpredictable and surprising. To slip further into therapeutic language, one might say that the opportunity of analysis (reading) is the opportunity for a speculative therapy (interpretation) and for a collaborative and intuitive process of speaking and listening in a space of receptiveness and ‘not knowing’ – a ‘leap into a relative dark’ (ibid). The artist and writer Emma Cocker, in Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), suggests that to persist in a productive state of not knowing, given that we are culturally conditioned away from such states, especially in academic and professional contexts, is a challenge. She insists, though, upon its worth, stating that:
‘Artistic practice recognises the practice of not knowing, less as the preliminary state (of ignorance) preceding knowledge, but as a field of desirable indeterminacy within which to work. Not knowing is an active space within practice, wherein an artist hopes for an encounter with something new or unfamiliar, unrecognisable or unknown’.
Emma Cocker’s essay is all about the value of not knowing – and yet, paradoxically, not so very long ago, I would have been afraid to read it, paralysed by a state of not knowing that I had no way of valuing. Far from feeling fruitful, it felt shameful. I’m going to use an analogy now that I think is from Alain Badiou (and I’m purposefully using something here that I may be attributing wrongly, and that I do not have the breadth of knowledge or the resources to verify or disprove), and this is an analogy that talks of the weight of the water. A fish does not feel the weight of the water – it is the ‘natural’ environment through which it moves instinctively. So a person who is comfortable in the environment of the academy, the gallery, the institution, whether by class, education or the fact that such institutions represent their culture and their interests, does not feel the weight of these waters. I used to really feel the weight of the water; now – not so much. Berger’s habits of ‘local’ and attentive looking and working, whilst indisputably informed, value the intuitive and the ‘not knowing’, and provided me with a framework for valuing my own thinking, for meeting texts such as Emma Cocker’s on equal terms.
PAYING ATTENTION: THE OUTDOORS AND THE ENCOUNTER
‘Seker Ahmet, on the other hand, faced the forest as a thing taking place in itself, as a presence that was so pressing that he could not, as he had learned to do in Paris, maintain his distance from it’. John Berger – Seker Ahmet And The Forest (1979)
In 2003 I recorded some audio-video footage whilst walking in woods near the house where I grew up, woods that had been a childhood refuge. That day was the first time I had entered them for twenty years. A quarter mile away my mother was slowly losing her grip on life, the woods visible from her bedroom window. I had no outcome in mind; the activity was initiated by the coming together of a need for an hours respite from the day’s events, having a camera to hand, and the proximity and familiarity of the woods – but in retrospect it was the beginning of what John Newling evocatively calls ‘a backward cartography involving place and memory’. The footage was first used two years later, almost unedited, in a full room projection, and has since undergone many transformations.
The walk that day was not the detached, often apolitical ‘dèrive’ or ‘drift’ of the psychogeographer, but an immersed experience of place that positioned the walker not as flotsam, not as neutral observer, not as touristic seeker of sights, nor as conquering explorer, but as attentive and receptive, as a brain and a body. More importantly, as a corporeal and active body – not the passive, dissected, examined & observed post-modern body, nor the male body to whom the privileged status of anonymous flaneur is more readily available (Solnit 2001) – but as a body that is part of, and subject and vulnerable to the narratives of the landscape; an experience having much in common with what the artist and writer Helen Scalway (2002) describes as a kind of ‘counter-flaneurie’. It was a walk in which thoughts and visions of the past, present and future, were collapsed into an experience of time as spatial. An encounter with landmarks and sight-lines as inseparable from memory, prophesy, physical sensation and emotion: a sensory and symbiotic extension of the Wordsworthian concept of ‘moving with thought’. The landscape told its own history, and told and continues to tell me mine.
In 2012 I began collaborating with curator Judit Bodor and artist Tom Rodgers on a project called MilkyWayYouWillHearMeCall, for which the process of ‘experiential site visits and walks’ was adopted as a deliberate research methodology. Our starting point was the novel Nineteen Eighty by David Peace (2002), which is a fictional retelling of an actual historical series of events – the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, and the subsequent hunt for and capture of him in the city of Leeds in 1980. We went to sites in the city based only on the directions or descriptions given in the novel and began the processes of attentive and intuitive exploration. What marked these sites out was their anonymity, their lack of dramatic play. There was no obvious story to be extracted from the topography itself – a narrative was waited for and listened to, through a process of experience of and even meditation on the site.
These walks differed from the walk around the woods, in that that we had gone there with an agenda ‘to make art’, or at least to enact a process of ‘creative research’. However, there were similarities in that we had no agenda in terms of the outcomes of this research – we had made the decision that the research itself would suggest or even be its own outcome. In Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) Berger makes the point that whilst traditionally the term ‘outcome’ refers to how a story ends, ‘it can also refer to how the listener or reader or spectator leaves the story to continue their ongoing lives’, and goes on to say that:
‘… in following a story, we follow a storyteller, or, more precisely, we follow the trajectory of a storyteller’s attention… ‘ and that ‘we become accustomed to the storyteller’s particular procedure of bestowing attention… we begin to acquire his storytelling habits…’
The narrative we started with was David’s writing, and our own relationships (all very different), with the sites and with the histories enacted upon them. We attempted to allow the sites themselves to take over the narrative of both the history and the author (David), and for the interactions and relationships of and between the sites and ourselves to shape our actions and outcomes, to tell the story of our collaboration.
We realised that we had begun to enact informal rituals and acts of remembrance. On the morning of a visit to the Soldiers Field I impulsively put a vial of real gold dust in my pocket, and at the site had used it to obliterate a swastika that had been sprayed on a wall near to where one of the murdered women was found.  The dust got everywhere, and Judit drew attention to my metalled hands. As I stretched them out towards her, Tom took the photograph that captures them: weathered, burnished and speaking of work and loss. The encounter between the space, our actions and our interactions invoked the image and the story of the present and the past.
Crown and Target also captures a moment when place, intuition, encounter, movement and collaboration came together. We were preparing to leave Lewisham Park. Tom was at the car, his camera packed away. I had paused, and on an impulse pulled a clump of wet grasses from the earth and twisted them into a circlet, placing them on my head; and, as I did so, turned back to call to Judit who was still in the field. Tom heard my call, looked up, lifted the camera and captured the image with the last of his film. A sightline that joins us to the space and to each other.
TRESPASSING KNOWLEDGE: WALKING TOWARDS PEDAGOGY
‘… the idea for Ways of Seeing began with going round museums… and seeing so much insufferably, intolerably boring stuff which was called art! – and so we thought, well maybe we should just accept this and admit it and try and explain why it is so boring …’ John Berger in conversation with Michael Govan (2002)
Wrapped in luminous cloud, pushed by the wind, we walk up out of Hayfield in the steps of the glorious trespass, April 1932. The cloud is not a metaphor, the art is terrestrial. Eventually our heads will clear it. Stamping the ground, stamping mystery and privilege into the soil, we walk up into our work, hauled on our breath. The foundation of the state is not violence but education. Thought is free on the wind-steps. Rills under grass arches. It can only be a completely open field.
Peter Riley – The Ascent of Kinder Scout (2014)
We decided that we wanted to try to use ‘walking as research’ as a tool for teaching and learning with people in settings outside of formal education.  In the Place and Memory project, which ran from June 2013 to May 2014, we worked with eight adults with mental health difficulties who wanted to develop their creative practice. With varying states of confidence, recovery and previous education, it’s fair to say that they really, really felt the weight of the water. We needed to enable them to take ownership of ‘research’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise’, and remove this conceptual territory from the hands of the institution, the academy and what they perceived as the elite other. Tom, Judit and I all had our own overlapping and complimentary frameworks for facilitating this. Judit, for instance, brought the ideas of the French artist Robert Filliou and his 1970 document Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts to bear, perhaps summed up in this quote:
Research is not the privilege of people who know – on the contrary it is the domain of people who do not know. Every time we are turning our attention to something we don’t know we are doing research. Fillou (1970)
What all three of us emphasised was the importance of the participants each developing and valuing their own ways of looking, moving and paying attention. In his introduction to Understanding a Photograph (2013) Geoff Dyer states, with reference to research and criticism, that ‘Berger’s method was always too personal, the habits of the autodidact too ingrained, to succumb to the kind of discourse… that seized cultural studies in the 70’s and 80’s.’ And Berger himself states, in his conversation with Michael Govan, that all of his writing as an art critic came first and foremost, not from reading biographies or art historical documents, but from looking at the work. We also accepted that they could challenge the orthodoxies that we would inevitably bring to our ‘teaching’. As project mentors, we had to accept the criticisms levelled at us about the ways in which we presented our versions of culture and practice, and about the ways in which we used, and I quote, ‘arty bollocks wank speak’. It pleases me greatly that the author of that phrase was recently accepted onto an MA in Creative Practice, where she promises that she will continue to challenge and unpick such language.
The eight participants were each given the task of choosing a place or places in the city that held, or could potentially create, memory or meaning for them. Over the summer we went as a group on long ‘research walks’,  talking, drawing, collecting, photographing, recording sound and moving image, asking ourselves questions about these places, sharing stories so that new stories might be told back to us, but most of all paying attention, listening to the space. The sites we explored included woodlands, wastelands, housing estates, disused graveyards and the place where a river flows underneath the city. One of the participants took us to a hospital’s Accident and Emergency unit where she had spent a traumatic night, and we retraced her journey around its corridors in covert ones and twos, meeting on corners to exchange whispers. Filming and audio-recording on hidden devices.
The Place and Memory participants started from the position of an un-valued not-knowing, and worked and walked over the space of a year to a position of valued not knowing – to an ownership of knowledge and research, to an ownership of their own learning, and to an ownership of a creative practice. They developed (to varying degrees) the muscle to resist the weight of the water and created works that have an authoritative voice, but that still leave both their audience and themselves a productive space of uncertainty.
The Place and Memory project outcomes included two exhibitions, film screenings, performances and readings, a ‘creative documentary’ using footage and texts from the site visits (to view the film see below) and a book that wove their visual work, photographic documentation and writings into a text / image psychogeographical poem that explores the emotions of ‘place’ across the city of Leeds during the summer of 2013. The book costs £5 plus post and package and is published by Gordian Projects: you can find out more and buy the book here.
 It might seem odd to talk of psychoanalysis where Berger is concerned, given that he is often (though not always) dismissive of its theory, at least where Freud is concerned. (See John Berger with Michael Silverblatt, Conversation 1, link below).
 The tiny vial of gold dust had been bought in 2002 on a trip to Venice with my mother (then aged 82) a year after my father died and a year before she died. She walked my legs off, fearlessly hopping on and off the Vaporetti, and, somewhat suspiciously all the bar owners – with whom she flirted outrageously – greeted her by name and pulled bottles of homemade extra-strong Fragolino from under the counter to pour her a measure without her having to ask. Born into poverty on a working coal barge in 1919 – a fact we only discovered after her death – she had reinvented herself in a spectacular fashion. A capricious, cold and bewildering disaster as a mother, as a woman she was to be admired.
 In February 2014 I used some of the teaching and learning tactics developed in Place and Memory with students on the MA in Art, Society and Publics at DJCAD, University of Dundee. For visual and textual documentation of the workshops and their outcomes, and an annotated suggested reading list click here.
 A note here about walking. Walking is free, useful, democratic, and often political in terms of environmental impact and issues of private and public space. Above all it is ordinary. Although walking and the concept of walking are rich areas for creative thought and exploration, walking is not the property of psychogeographers, urban explorers, or anyone who seeks to mystify and intellectualise the everyday. It belongs to all of us and we should glory in that.
BIBLIOGRAPHY / SOURCES
Berger, J. Field (1971), in About Looking (2009) Bloomsbury.
Berger, J. Uses of Photography: For Susan Sontag (1978), in Understanding a Photograph (2013) ed. Dyer, G. Penguin Classics, London.
Berger, J. Seker Ahmet and the Forest (1979), in About Looking (2009) Bloomsbury.
Berger, J. Bento’s Sketchbook (2011)
John Berger with Michael Govan, Conversation 3, Episode 6, October 2002 http://podcast.lannan.org/2010/03/30/john-berger-with-michael-govan-conversation/
John Berger with Michael Silverblatt, Conversation 2, Episode 5, October 2002 –http://podcast.lannan.org/2010/03/29/john-berger-with-michael-silverblatt-conversation-2/
Bolland, E. Tides, Texts and Transformations (2014) https://emmabolland.com/2014/05/16/tides-texts-and-transformations-unpacking-my-library/
Cocker, E. Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), in On Not Knowing: How Artists Think (2013) ed. Fisher, E. & Fortnum, R. Black Dog Publishing, London.
Dyer, G. Introduction to Understanding a Photograph (2013), Berger, J. ed. Dyer, G. Penguin Classics, London.
Filliou, R. Teaching and Learning as Performing Arts (1970). Translated facsimile published 2014 by Occasional Papers.
Lewis, B. (2014) In conversation.
Newling, J. Writings by John Newling 1995 – 2005 (2005) ed. Newling, A., SWPA.
Phillips, A. Side Effects (2006) Hamish Hamilton, London.
Riley, P. The Ascent of Kinder Scout (2014) Longbarrow Press, Sheffield
Scalway, H. The Contemporary Flaneuse: Exploring Strategies for the Drifter in a Feminine Mode (2002).
Solnit, R. Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001) Verso, London.