Saturday, 7 February 2009

20 Sites n. Years

I don’t know much about art but … it beats me why anyone bothers with unmade beds and sheep in formaldehyde when they could be stimulated, provoked and moved by the work of Tom Phillips instead. Phillips tends to mirror the repetitions of everyday life by working incrementally, collecting similar materials together or recycling leftover mixed paint to produce a series of works, then meticulously documenting and cross-referencing this development in diaries of activity. His autobiographical concrete poem, Curriculum Vitae, connects this aspect of his work with childhood obsessions, recalling the ‘anal diligence’ with which he collected trolleybus numbers and steamed labels from matchbox tops, ‘all strife of art inside a filing clerk’. His work Brent Cross (1991-2) is a crucifix created out of glossy advertisements from Sunday colour supplements. Named after a particularly soulless shopping mall off the North Circular Road, it is perhaps a reflection on the residual pull of spirituality in the rituals of mass consumerism. Women’s Work (1997) is a gigantic patchwork quilt made up of the vividly coloured calling cards left in London telephone booths.

My favourite work of his is 20 Sites n. Years, an ongoing photographic project begun in 1973, the development of which Phillips illustrates in a biennial lecture and slide show held at the Tate Gallery. (You can check it out at Phillips’s website at Every year, on a day between 24 May and 2 June, Phillips takes photographs of the same twenty locations around Camberwell and Peckham on the closest walkable route to a circle half a mile in radius from the central point of the house he was living in at the beginning of the project. Between 10.20am and 5.30pm on the designated day, he walks the circumference of the circle, stopping at the various sites at regular intervals, which are thus photographed at the same time of day each year. He marks each spot with a cross using a car spray aerosol, so that the pictures are always taken from exactly the same position and angle. The sites are humdrum locations chosen more or less at random: residential streets, shops, pubs, car parks, bowling greens, housing estates and cinemas. This is what I wrote about the project a few years ago in an article for an art journal:

“Phillips locates 20 Sites south of the river, in that generally less cosmopolitan and more domesticated area of the capital that the nineteenth-century novelist and historian Walter Besant once referred to as ‘a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history’. The photographs are taken in a particularly downbeat and economically deprived borough, one which is almost literally off the map: Camberwell and Peckham are routinely excluded from guidebooks, and are not serviced by the London Underground.

But Phillips’s project is not a sociological investigation of urban decline, even though it mimics the form of the longitudinal study, an attempt to identify the causes of social change through an observation of the same group or situation at regular time intervals. Instead, he uses the fact that these neighbourhoods have not experienced the impact of property developers or the upwardly-mobile middle classes (unlike most areas of London since the 1980s), in order to reflect on important but barely perceptible changes in urban landscapes which are not covered within the conceptual frameworks of social science. In some of the sites, the evidence of external events will be seen in the minutiae of private lives: a general election poster, a sticker celebrating the Pope’s visit, bunting for a Silver jubilee party. Other sites will show how daily routines change under the impact of technological or commercial innovation. A milkman delivers bottles in 1981, soon to become an anthropological curiosity; the Peckham Odeon is knocked down, perhaps under pressure from the multiplexes; Giles Gilbert Scott’s classic red telephone box morphs into the more functional glass kiosk of the 1980s; satellite dishes sprout sporadically from roofs. While cars, fashions and street furniture change, though, this project is largely an exercise in sameness and resemblance. In one housing estate, change can only be spotted in tiny, insignificant details: a new drainpipe on one of the houses, a splodge of yellow paint on the road, a piece of tape on an iron railing. If these photographs were not clearly organised as a series with a running commentary from the photographer, it would be difficult to work out their chronological sequence.

When change occurs within the project, it often seems pointless, as if, in Phillips’s words, ‘there are spots in suburbia where the world feels an itch and needs to scratch itself’. Benches, paving stones and flower beds disappear and then return in slightly different places, while some streets seem to be used as practice areas for road diggers or sign erectors. Phillips speculates that, if 20 Sites is typical of the country as a whole, then a lot of people ‘are involved in totally random and arbitrary activity. They seem to cancel out each other’s work in a long dance of job protection.’ Like the I-Spy Books, those monuments to trivia which have sent many a postwar British schoolchild on the useless quest for a ‘no loading’ sign or a mini-roundabout, Phillips’s search for mundane detail in the urban landscape generates its own logic.

Photography has a potentially closer relationship to the everyday than other visual forms because of what Walter Benjamin calls its ‘unconscious optics,’ its ability ‘to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyse the associative mechanisms in the beholder’. For Benjamin, photography succeeds in uncovering elements of experience that are overlooked by the fallible human eye. No matter how posed or artful the camera shot is, it will still reveal contingent elements which are not part of the compositional strategies of the photographer. Photography thus makes visible ‘the physiognomic aspects of visual worlds which dwell in the smallest things, meaningful yet covert enough to find a hiding place in waking dreams’.

Phillips’s photographs break some of the cardinal rules of ‘good’ photography. The subject matter has not been selected or arranged in any way, so the compositions are untidy and lopsided; there are several points of interest, with no attempt to hierarchise them; individual figures are often moving out of shot and looking out of rather than into the picture. The people who enter the frame are determined not by the whim of the photographer but by the rhythms and rituals of the day: a retired woman walking her dog in mid-morning; a man walking past at lunchtime eating a burger; a boy returning from school in mid-afternoon; groups of men and women filing home at the end of the working day. These people are rarely aware that they are being photographed, and are often at the edges of the pictures, obstructed by objects or slightly out of focus. The artlessness of the photographs suggests that they do not represent a self-contained universe: life goes on outside the frame.”

All this may sound familiar to fans of Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s 1995 film, Smoke, in which a writer, Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), befriends Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), who works behind the counter of a cigar store in downtown Brooklyn. Auggie proudly shows Hurt his life’s work, a photographic project of over 4000 stills. Every morning at eight o’clock for fourteen years, he has stood at the corner of his street and taken a picture of the same view, and has then collected the photographs together into a series, with all the dates meticulously recorded. At first, Paul is puzzled at what he is being asked to look at. ‘They’re all the same,’ he says. When Auggie tells him to slow down and look more carefully, Paul begins to see what he has missed: subtle changes in the weather, seasons and angle of the sun, the shift between weekdays and weekends, and the same passers-by appearing and reappearing on their way to work, in slightly different configurations each day. Auggie’s seemingly boring and mechanical snapshooting is an attempt to capture the meaning of those aspects of city life that normally lie beyond the realm of the visible: the intricate texture and fabric of lives, the unconscious ways in which human activity moulds itself around the physical environment.

In 2002 I started my own Smoke/20 Sites-inspired project, taking pictures at every bus stop on the Sheil Road circular, the number 27 bus route that goes all the way round the centre of Liverpool. Taking a tip from Phillips, I made a little mark on the pavement with an aerosol can of black paint* so I would know exactly where to stand the next year, and the year after that. But I gave the project up after a few hair-raising encounters with people who, perhaps understandably, did not like their neighbourhoods being turned into a piece of art-cum-urban sociology. After one of these people threatened to lamp me, I made my excuses and left – on slightly wobbly legs - for good.

*This blog accepts no liability for any damage which may or may not have been done to public property by any person or persons associated with it.

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