smoke

keeping it real

The artist and writer Tim Robinson  is known as a unique cartographer. Instead of the usual Ordnance Survey maps of recognised historic landscapes, sites of beauty, village and town trails separated by lines of embedded roadways, Robinson creates special maps that tell the story of the landscape of the Burren and Connemara, where he is based. These maps are hand drawn, hand-crafted and illustrate what would be regarded as ‘alternative’ sites of significance. Within some he will indicate, for example, local historical sites of folk interest, not necessarily those granted official heritage status, alongside a location where you will be able to see wild orchids and perhaps a bog of cultural curiosity.

Archaeologists, museum practitioners and curators all ‘map’ within their practice. Mapping history, making connections and from these connections, communicating the rich cultural vein of their subject area, but with artefacts, objects, memories, oral histories, buildings and sites instead of paper and compass.

As Robinson conveys, all maps contain stories of people and place, and it is these stories which help solidify the individual, thus the community, thus societies. Amanda Leigh Lichenstein and Rachel McIntire write (1):

The inner cartographer in each of us discovers new and worn paths in search of an ever-changing self. And as our paths cross on this great and tangled human map, mapping within allows us to map without, to traverse the unknowns of human experience with a sense of justice and compassion at every turn

For me, the essence of constructive cultural heritage practice is mapping, both geographically the area for which we are responsible, and the stories of people and place which in fact maintain the reality and real relevance of our practice. ‘Keeping it real’ will, in effect, nurture belonging, identities and have long-term benefits.

Stories and the Universe

The universe is made of stories, not atoms – Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Stories are intrinsically part of our being, intertwined with muscle, sinew and flesh. We are continuously composing our own self-narratives, those internally and those we project to the world, our personhood is characterised by a ‘melange of contemporary stories’ and through our ‘set of stories…the analyst and the analysand become bound together in a vital, unique and intimate way'(2).

Ciaran Benson writes ‘the stories we construct about ourselves are also of fundamental importance for locating ourselves across our representations of time and in relation to other self-worlds’. He continues, citing Daniel Dennett who ‘sees the urge to tell stories, our own story included, as biological like spider webs…our tales are spun by us, our human consciousness and our narrative self-hood (3).

And as humans, we have woven narrative across time and space through many forms of cultural interpretation such as performance, song, speech, gestures, objects, drawing, crafting, writing and more. From Gilgamesh, Herodotus, The Iliad and folk-based fairy tales which remain stitched into he contemporary cultural web we weave today alongside the graphic art of the Wajapo, Brazil and the Sbek Thom Cambodian Shadow Theatre, it is this urge to connect and to map ‘history’ through narrative that breathes affinity with ourselves, each other and our landscape.

In the film Smoke (1995), the character Auggie documents the street corner outside his New York tobacco store every morning at the same time, without fail, compiling an archive of thousands of monochrome photographs. He reveals his archive to Paul, saying ‘It’s just one little part of the word, but things take place there just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot’. Bemused, Paul comments that the photographs all look the same. Auggie replies that each one is in fact different, as each tells a different story through what is visual such as the low autumn or high summer light, people in the frame going about their business, and implied change in their circumstances. He says ‘the earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle’.

As Auggie reflects, people often have a strong sense of attachment and affection for their little spot, and it is this profound ownership and knowledge that communities have of their locale which should never be underestimated. Beneath the physical fabric of soil, rock, buildings and woodland of an area, there lies another layer of ancestral wisdom, stories which speak of the character of place and its people. And ultimately, within the confines of war memorials, galleries and glass cabinets bearing the fruits of academic museological labour, it is the connection and narrative of locality, both colloquial and of other cultures, which ensures the success and longevity of any cultural service.

The way into the story 

Certain contemporary changes in international cultural heritage policies have helped secure the longevity of these cultural narratives, including the Venice Charter (1964), the Amsterdam Declaration (1975) and the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted by UNESCO in 2003. All such initiatives broadened the role and perception of cultural heritage, historical values, preservation and significance of cultural traditions.

As Hoelscher (2006) and Kato (2006) have both explored, the changing nature of contemporary cultural practice acknowledges the roots, identity, sense of place and belonging that is crucial to community engagement, writing people and place in their mutuality develop a common identity, a deep relationship with place…without such relationships human existence is bereft of much of its significance (4).

This is echoed by Guy Hermann who has said ‘our stories are what stay with us even after the artefacts are gone. Without their stories…collections may be intellectually important but they are emotionally meaningless. They don’t ask the fundamental question ‘Why should I care?” (5)

The world comes into being, only in the act of going towards it – Paul Auster

Notes:

(1) From internet article ‘Mapping Within: The Making of a University-community Arts Partnership’ available www.communityarts.net

(2) From article ‘The Universe of our Concerns: the human as person in the praxis of analysis’ by Michael Horne, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 2004

(3) From ‘The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds’ by Ciaran Benson, Routledge 2001

(4) See ‘Community, Connection and Conservation’ by Kumi Kato, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol 12 and Steven Hoelscher, Heritage in A Companion to Museum Studies. Oxford:Blackwell Publishing.Ch 13.2006

(5) From article ‘Exploring Narratives: Telling Stories and Making Connections’ by Guy Hermann.

(Photo: Smoke, 1995, Directed by Wayne Wang & Paul Auster)

 

 

 

This entry was posted on April 16th, 2012 at 7:14 pm by Desima

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