Jerusalem Chapter I, August 2012
A journey is in the telling. From the waves of crusaders to Palestine to the treks up to the healing hilltop town of Lourdes, the long history of religious pilgrimages was created, and perpetuated, by the tales of exotic lands and miracles told by those who returned. The waning of religious paradigms and waxing of scientific views hasn’t quite precipitated the same votive rituals; we don’t, as yet, have a steady stream of devoted followers, wearing white lab coats and lighting their way with small LED lights, gathering at Cern once a year to celebrate the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. But a quick thematic survey of the desires and journeys represented in cultural texts, scanning our narratives for equivalent tales of transformation and affirmation, shows we might not be mistaken to think that the contemporary pilgrimage is that of the journey back in time. We’re more than familiar with Back to the Future’s flux capacitor, the impossibilities of La Jetée, the time paradoxes presented by films like Source Code or Looper. The 2006 Tony Scott-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced and Denzel Washington-led film Déjà Vu tries to play it with a CSI realism: FBI operatives have found a way to look back exactly three and a half days in to the past, via a television-like viewfinder that happens to work a lot like satellite surveillance. “Basically,” one of the technicians casually explains, “we’re folding space in a higher dimension to create an instantaneous link between two distant points [in time].” They know what’s going to happen—the past (in this case, an explosion on a New Orleans ferry) is a fait accompli—but they are using the window to locate the perpetrator. The pilgrimage itself is, in this case, a journey into the seen but not known, the fact of the already-occurred made re-familiar from a new perspective.
Jerusalem (the mobile artist residency, not the place, curated by Claire Feeley and Ciara Moloney) casts architectural sites across the UK as loci for visitation and transformation. In asking participants to propose spots of interest, their reinstatement of the pilgrimage takes place within a particular contemporary conundrum. Where most pilgrims before might have chosen their journey based on healings foretold and revelations divine, our pilgrims will be Googling images of Brutalist architecture and old film sets. What about a visit to the places to which we are already familiar- but which we have never directly experienced? We now get déjà vu of places we have never been. The streets of New York, Miami or Los Angeles can appear like little more than film sets. Contemporary information culture allows us to experience more than ever by ever more readily available proxies of images and video.
The first inception of Jerusalem realised performances by Dennis McNulty, Francesco Pedraglio and Cara Tolmie over a weekend in Norfolk and Kent. Each project in its own way involved the re-inhabitation of existing tropes, genres, and spaces, of taking the familiar and making us journey back into the fact. McNulty, Pedraglio and Tolmie pose the pilgrimage itself as déjà vu. As Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis puts it, pilgrims “try to relate what they see to the descriptions which had inspired their pilgrimages in the first place. […] The pilgrim narratives describe a process of reading the physical landscape in light of these ‘texts’ and in turn re-reading these ‘texts’ in light of the landscape. […] These descriptions of mutual transformation of landscape and ‘text’ are in turn connected to the personal transformation of the author/pilgrim.”[i] Or, as Denzel puts it, with one eye in the present, and the other eye looking three and a half days into the past: “This is trippy.”
As the five set off on their road trip, retracing the lines of maps and directions found online, other echoes already howled overhead. Punctuating the journey, Pedraglio overlayed what he called …an ordinary healthy romance, which is the old story (and other stories) (2012), four ambling lectures or monologues of sorts. The talks were, on the surface, casting the weekend’s journey as a replay of another road trip, loosely re-enacting four scenes from the 1945 film Detour. The film, a quickly assembled, woodenly acted Hollywood ‘B’ crime movie, hangs heavy with the air of predictability, and is an archetypal film noir. On one level, Pedraglio’s ‘romance’ is a re-placement, taking the film’s stock settings (the roadside diner, the hotel room, the gas station, and the anonymous road itself) and relocating them to their ambivalently British equivalents—respectively, a London East End pie and mash shop, a room in Margate’s Walpole Bay Hotel, the roadside on the Essex-Sussex border, and the A256 road. But Pedraglio’s arrangement and delivery quickly dissipated the ‘ordinary’ part of the relationship: his travelling companions were cast as stand-ins, with square panes of glass drawn on with marker used to mimic the position of the camera and framing in the film, all the while Pedraglio providing a running commentary that mixed in explanations of the film, slightly uncomfortable personal musings, and dissections of the mechanisms of storytelling. Detour’s anti-hero, Al, is sulky, sweaty, and a pretty unconvincing on-screen piano player, who throughout the film inadvertently kills several people—giving pills to a driver who picked him up hitchhiking, and later pulling a phone cord that unfortunately happens to be wrapped around the femme fatale’s neck. It is this transient power of inanimate objects that seems to sit as a central fascination in Pedraglio’s swirling episodic discussions, as he interrupted the film’s narrative to tell of his role as an unwanted confidante for a friend’s spouse’s infidelities, or to speak about the uneasy authority of the narrator. Interestingly, what remains after his verbose interweaving of fact and fiction, the personal and the generic, is the series of glass plates, scrawled with dense cursive writing and vague shapes that could be people. More than simply storyboards of a stock narrative, they are maps of the web of relationships, objects themselves that silently speak of the potent agency of objects, narrators, audiences in any story.
The construction of narrative, its assemblage and instincts, is similarly at stake in the work of Cara Tolmie. Her examination of the layering of experience, how it is understood and told, here took a deceptively basic approach. In contrast to Pedraglio’s over-speaking, for Jerusalem Tolmie instigated a non-verbal event. With a series of previous performances, the artist has been juxtaposing constructed locations with sound—rooms mysteriously overflowing with mounds of aggregate, providing the setting for improvised jazz, an unexplained soundtrack which leaves the viewer to assemble their own connections and associations. Choosing the exhausted, disused Lenham quarry, Tolmie led a silent walk around the perimeter of the site at dusk, before leading the group into the soft silt and low brush of the man-made indent. Quarries, in addition to their obvious, ancient geological histories, also hold an odd cultural status. The disused quarries of Kent have long provided the dramatic background sets and stand-ins for other planets for BBC productions, in countless episodes of Doctor Who, Blakes 7 and Quatermass; media by which many more of us not involved in the aggregate business might have encountered these sites. Pit (2012) was a sixteen-minute soundscape for the location, a journey of bleeps, pops, vocal harmonies, and mechanical bustle. Tolmie makes us aware of her construction, her noisy breath overlaid with rhythmic static, interrupting her recordings of spaces with digital outbursts. At one point we hear what sounds like the drilling and clangs of a construction site, and the sounded pit takes architecture back to its origins, the site from which we have built our cities. Her performance became a cinematic evocation, while also turning the quarry in to an unsettled amphitheatre, fusing these factual and fantastical histories.
The unsettling of a place is no easy feat, particularly those as trenchant as a quarry, or in the case of Dennis McNulty’s Some Sense of Living in Today (2012), the solid concrete of Denys Lasdun’s 1963 University of East Anglia campus in Norwich. Known for the ziggurat-like shape of its halls of residence for students, the Brutalist building exemplified much of the new ideals and thinking within architecture and planning at the time. Drawing from an interview with the architect, as well as an online chat group of prospective students for the university posing questions to current students, McNulty assembled a set of questions with which to apparently interrogate the place itself. Beginning within an outdoor amphitheatre, a group reading of commentators on the online forum gave a range of current responses to those actually living in the buildings and the area. Never having visited the site previous to the Jerusalem weekend, McNulty had exclusively used Google to find images and plans of the campus to devise and then lead the audience on a guided walk, stopping at particular points to direct questions towards the façade with a megaphone. The questions, posed in a TV interview at a point in 1963 when the building was just in its planning phase, were then followed by short musical interludes, floating excerpts of Stockhausen’s Plus-Minus, also composed in 1963 – erratic ambience that could be either the building’s response, or maybe even just giving it time to think. The event culminated by the campus’s lake, its water being used to mix concrete which was then poured into an angular, multi-faceted casting form. In the performance, planning, inhabitation, and possible futures of the building all seem to merge. Some Sense created a dense locus of concurrent questions and responses to the site, jumping between different present tenses and inhabitations, binding them to each other and pushing at the architect’s stated aims of ‘flexibility’ and ‘coherence’, and destabilizing the building’s own sturdy weight.
On the closing evening of Jerusalem, having returned to London, the cast around the still-warm concrete birthed from the Some Sense performance was broken open. The mute object, a tangle of edges and rounded bulges, a terran meteorite, seemed like an untold artefact from broken parallel pasts. Its illegible response to Lasdun’s architecture, though, was an appropriate punctuation to the weekend. Whether through eliciting this response from the staid, stolid mass of a Brutalist landmark, restructuring the remains of a sci-fi slag heap, or problematically personalising the worn structure of film noir, the residents of the first Jerusalem picked a careful and conscious path of returning to and disrupting the sense of contemporary déjà vu.
We don’t, we can’t, know the outcome of altering the déjà vu; what we’re left with are ambiguous artefacts, illegible questions, impossible misrecognitions. Like any good time travel narrative, the risk is always in the fact that the past gets altered, changed, and thus disrupts the original present from which the time travel took place, with unknown consequences. In the déjà vu pilgrimage, the return to the (un)known site breaks the stock narrative of the past, pointing towards provisional futures, ones that might necessarily be mutually exclusive of the present we now occupy.
[i] Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, “Narratives of Transformation,” in Simon Coleman and John Elsner (eds), Pilgrim Voices, Oxford: Bergham Books, 2003, p. 106.
This text was originally commissioned for the Jerusalem Residency, Chapter 1, 2012.