Question your teaspoons

Last year Ashleigh Young wrote a thoughtful piece about omission and the mundane. Her post closes with a set of contemplation prompts that Perec poses in ‘L’infra-ordinaire.’

“Describe your street. Describe another street. Compare.

Make an inventory of your pockets, of your bag. Ask yourself about the provenance, the use, what will become of each of the objects you take out.

Question your teaspoons.

What is there under your wallpaper?

[…] It matters little to me that these questions should be fragmentary, barely indicative of a method, at most of a project. It matters a lot to me that they should seem trivial and futile: that’s exactly what makes them just as essential, if not more so, as all the other questions by which we’ve tried in vain to lay hold on our truth.”

Perec’s suggestion to describe and compare two places sends me running through the streets of my youth. Sandringham Road is where the men in my family have motor vehicle accidents. Parata Street is a 1950s time warp stuffed into twin cul-de-sacs. Truro Road is haunted by cats. Newhaven Terrace hides a path so thick with trees that it feels like walking through a giant green caterpillar. Valley Road is an in-between space where suburbia collapses into a bush trail leading to a glowworm grotto. You can get lost in memories.

I remember sitting upstairs in that cold Collingwood Street house trying to explain to Eran, my physicist flatmate, how academic human geographers conceive of space and place. Something about materialities, co-creation, modes of production, palimpsests and other slippery concepts. He listened patiently for my words to stop, looked out the window for a bit, turned back and said, “So basically, space is where shit happens. Place is where shit goes down.” His words were closer to the truth.

It is nearly 20 years since my high school friends gathered each weekend at James’s house in Valley Road to drink beer, play guitar and wander through the woods at 2am. I remember cold air, red-tinged night skies, morepork calls, running water, a footbridge and the sudden thrill of seeing hundreds of glowworms sparkling amidst remnant bush in the heart of suburbia.

Two nights ago I visited Valley Road through Google Street View. The cottages near the main road have been knocked down, replaced by a medical center and some townhouses. You can awkwardly click and drag a camera down the street to the trailhead, but no further. For now, at least, that small patch of native bush remains an obscure hole in Google’s data fabric.

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My thoughts turned from streets and houses to whole landscapes. I spent several hours exploring historical aerial photography. It kind of blew my mind. At first I loaded up multiple images of the same place and positioned them side by side. I wanted to see how changes carried across a landscape. I wanted to glimpse what is under the wallpaper. Yet direct comparison proved impossible. It seems that interpreting neighbouring views of the territory is something my brain can’t handle. Some minor distraction occurs in that instant while my eyes are flicking from one image to the next that muddles my attention. No matter how hard I try, my memory of the landscape melts the moment I lift my eyes.

So I started blending the photographs together. I treated the past as solid ground, the thing that we build upon. The future is a shadow of what will come. Phenomena that exist at both times stand out, appearing crisp and bright (the main road that circles the ridgeline, the houses on the southern shore). In contrast, structures that were built or destroyed are tentative, two impossible things existing at once. Here is the ghost of an airstrip against a large field. There is a blur of houses on a forested hillside.

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Viewed in isolation, the amalgam is a disordered confusion. We can determine what persisted, but we can never be certain what was created and what was destroyed. When slipped between past and future states, the blended image becomes translator. It is an in-between space where some facts hold true across both moments while others come and go from existence.

two_places

The experiment ended with me wanting to repeat the exercise with my own mind. I want to take a horizontal slice of my personal ethics five, ten, 20 years ago and layer the things I believed at each time period one top of one another. What values have I stayed true to? What things still shine crisp and clear after all these years? Where are the blurry zones that have changed through compromise, nuance, wisdom and personal failure? How have I changed and how did I stay the same?

And I realised that I have no idea what that map of my mind would look like. So I should probably work on that.

Question your teaspoons indeed.

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