October 2015: Lia Wei and Rupert Griffiths

“Archaeology is a discipline that seeks to understand unobservable hominid behavior patterns from indirect traces in bad samples” (Clarke 1973:17).

Archaeology is an imperfect science, it can never fully answer the questions it sets itself, it is hypothetical by definition.

We take this as our point of departure, to fill the absence that the ‘bad’ sample represents, to reconstruct a unified whole from the fragment. Our intention is to ask what art can learn from archaeology and vice versa in developing these creative hypotheses. We will interpret a series of sites, through the artist’s open-ended hypothesis and the archaeologist’s constrained hypothesis, producing a contestable, perhaps fictional, but unified whole from the fragments we encounter.

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Our project is presented under the rubric of Site/Seal/Gesture: Our sites are a series of abandoned military structures along the Thames Estuary and South East Coast of England, which we will explore over the coming year – these can be thought of as Clarke’s ‘bad’ samples, the incomplete fragment; Seal refers to ‘indirect traces’, the absent tool inferred from the tool mark perhaps. This is akin to a figure/ground of the Chinese seal – a trace, a mark of authenticity, a relationship to place and a contract between people. Finally, Gesture refers to the ‘unobservable hominid behaviour’, which in this case is the actions that we make as artist/archaeologists to create something complete from the fragments and traces we encounter.

Site

We will visit, occupy, map and document a series of sites, which are unevenly integrated along estuary and coastline. While some of them are already formally managed as wildlife reserves and by the infrastructure of tourism, most are only known to the occasional visitor, or to the local, daily walker. Finally, a few sites are isolated from the land by permanent or cyclical strands of water, sometimes responding to an industrial function or classified as military zones of restricted or denied access.

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Over a period of decades and centuries, the once intrusive structures have built their very own specific bond to the surrounding natural environment. The access to the territories they once guarded, is now paradoxically facilitated by these monolithic ruins, giving human presence in the otherwise bare lands a feeling of permanence. In terms of their wider function in the landscape, the sites have thus undergone a radical transformation.

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Seal

We approach these sites as artefacts that impress themselves upon us, leaving traces for us to interpret. Approaching from the perspective of archaeology, we take these fragments and traces of encounter and create hypothesis to fill in what is missing, transforming absent material into presence. As artists we will push this process, creating our own counter artefacts, which will be purposed as remains of uncertain provenance.

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Rather than reconstruct a militaristic interpretation of function, we aim to create a counter history evidenced through material artefacts both real and imagined. Through this we aim to give access to the sites, opening them to a public by revealing their extraordinary evocative value for ourselves as for any single other visitor. We can only achieve this through the very human urge of physically making, and leaving a trace that outlives a one-off visit to the places.

Strongly criticized by the methodology of modern Archaeology, indigenous traditions of appropriating one’s past often act directly on ancient material, irremediably betraying its original function and meaning. On the other hand, our orphan times of new-born nations, fragmented communities and displaced individuals are in desperate need for ancestors and homelands. In the process of assembling lavish burials to an unknown relative or adopting a foreign land as a place of origin, we might run into misunderstandings, faux amis and far-fetched projections. The ethics of interventions on traces of past activity are therefore at the forefront of our concerns.

Gesture

As part of our dual interpretive and creative approach, we pay attention to a variety of embodied gestures, both our own and of those who built these structures. We look at tool use, at movement to, from and through the sites and we treat them as temporary dwellings. We plan to walk and dwell in the remains of past activities, to document this process and to contribute to it through our own creative practices.

To our eye educated by the concrete cubicles that share our urban spaces, these isolated cells suggest the exact opposite of hostility. The innumerable waves of sound, light, wind and water absorbed and deflected by these dense volumes, suggest the fundamental architecture of shelter, emphasised only by traces of the occasional projectile impact visible on their outer surface. By spending at least one night at each site, in different seasons, our duo wishes to fully test and experience this impression.

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In between the extremes of the military fort and the home or dwelling, a host of potential functions might be considered, including the possibilities of purely symbolic use. Indeed, many of the sites considered never served the military function they were designed for, and instead became expressions of the miscalculated fears and follies of those their builders. Most sites are a layering of several architectural interventions, distanced from each other by several decades, periods described by renewed moments of threat. Our approach acknowledges the speculative nature of the builder’s intentions and those futures that never happened, in order to access a fertile interpretive framework and an inclusive, transhistorical tree of counter-narratives.

One Example – Sound Mirrors

In the example presented here, we seek a suggestive reformulation of the sound mirrors’ function, as a mould for casting perishable kit domes. Only a couple of fragments of the cast shells are left in situ, accidentally baked during a factory fire. The fragments are made out of clay found in situ, our intervention being reduced to the simple act of displacing earth and hardening it on a campfire.

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The site, only accessible by boat across a strand of water, requires an amphibious attitude ruling out daily local walkers or occasional visitors. We might think of a way to facilitate access to the site, by simply placing signs of passage, or connecting both banks with a rope.

Originally, these structures were meant to simply gather and concentrate the sound of hostile airplane engines roaming in the sky above, and despite their impressive shape, they were not destined to be looked at. We do not rule out this option, but instead of directing our attention to the sky, we look to the sea.

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In the process of preparing our interventions, discussions, sketches and models are posted on our blog page http://sitesealgesture.wordpress.com/ sometimes well in advance, inviting opponents, participants and future visitors to the sites to react on our intentions.

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September 2015: Nadia Bartolini, geographer

My interest in the last few years has been to examine how pasts – specifically tangible pasts – are incorporated in urban environments. Most of my work looked at particular sites in Rome where a number of experts are brought in to find options in which remnants and modern development initiatives co-exist.

But London, the city I’ve lived in for the past 7 years, has also proved a fertile ground to reflect on the same issues. One of the things that I’ve been increasingly interested in is how pasts are part of the everyday landscape that I frequent. Since London isn’t a ‘fieldwork site’ per se (where I travel to investigate, gather data and then leave), I have been wondering about what the past in broad terms means for urban memories, and also what it means to ‘dig deeper’ to find things we hadn’t thought of uncovering.

Benjamin’s Metaphor

As a non-archaeologist, one of the ways that inspired me to think about archaeology as a discipline and the idea of excavating is a quote from Walter Benjamin in ‘A Berlin Chronicle’:

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. (…) He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is only a deposit, a stratum (…) True, for successful excavations, a plan is needed (…) Fruitless searching is as much a part of this as succeeding, and consequently remembrance must not proceed in the manner of a narrative or still less that of a report, but must, in the strictest epic and rhapsodic manner, assay its spade in ever-new places, and in the old ones delve to ever-deeper layers. (Benjamin 1932/1997: 314)

Benjamin thinks about the practice of archaeology as a metaphor for uncovering buried memories: digging, going over the same matter, and considering ‘new’ alternative recollections that may reveal multiple meanings. I find that these words give me a license to play with archaeology by questioning the extent of its artefact-based inquiry, and by attempting to ‘do’ archaeology without the rules and training. (It almost feels like I’m a fraud, but I’d like to dip my toes in the term just to see where it can go.)

Urban Archaeologies

While I am unclear at this stage what I would be doing in September 2015, I have some ideas about the kinds of enquiries that intrigue me. If my reference point is London, I would like to explore the following ideas flowing from Benjamin’s metaphor:

  • look at the different layers of times and meanings amidst contemporary urban developments
  • consider other types of ‘artefacts’ that can be traced in and out of the city with reference to Andreas Huyssen’s (2003) metaphor of the palimpsest

To explore these aspects, I was thinking of spending half of the month of September 2015 in London trying to get impressions from the general public, experts and councilors and expose reflections on the Public Archaeology 2015 website in the following areas:

  • around the city’s ‘ancient’ pasts to explore the impact of tangible remnants in everyday circumstances (see figures 1 and 2), and
  • in the borough of Haringey to contemplate how Banksy’s artistic imprints could be seen as artefact-palimpsests that are indicative of regeneration and community identity (see figure 3).

 

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Figures 1 and 2: Roman remnants publicly accessible in London

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Figure 3: Graffiti art on a Poundland wall in Haringey

In the course of 2014-2015, I will be involved in other research projects that will lead me to Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle. I hope that this (and any other suggestions that people might have!) will inspire me for the second half of September 2015. These research projects will enable me to interview community members as well as participate in an art exhibition which could potentially materialize in September 2015. These public engagement activities would coincide with posting reflections and photographs on this website.