Posted on 27 Feb '18 in Tracing Lines

Fragment from Le journal d’un usager de l’espace: About the (Im)possibility to Form an Idea of Limits

To get in touch with the limits of a space is one of the motivations behind Le Journal d’un Usager de l’espaceLe Journal d’un Usager de l’Espace is the generic title of my artistic oeuvreIt is a sentence from the book Espèces d’Espaces by the French author Georges Perec. Just like Perec in Espèces d’Espaces, I wonder about the daily things and spaces that surround me. In Le Journal I however incorporate my observations into an art work: a drawing, a text, a photo, a film, a sound piece, an installation or a combination of all of these. While making art I am not interested in the ‘art’ of drawing, but rather in the ‘act’ of drawing. It is a form of drawing I don’t want to reduce to the action of ‘pencil on paper’. I recognise the ‘act’ of drawing equally while taking pictures, filming, sculpting, and in performing many other art practices. During the ‘act’ of drawing I put my body into motion and feel, explore, observe and register a space; during which I fail and/or succeed in the making of an image. In this movement I can experiment, get lost, fail and/or succeed while making an image. The ‘act’ implicates an engagement with a ‘being’ in a certain time and context.

As an artist and researcher, I want to draw attention in my images to the small stories, the anecdotes, the hidden and unheard tensions that live in a space. I attempt to visualise the volatile, invisible and flued limits that are present in spaces. These kinds of limits often give me essential information about spaces and the people that live in them. They allow you to approach and to understand the spaces and their inhabitants in a better way. In the ‘act’ of drawing I feed on the potential of being on the road during which an image possibly comes about organically and process-orientated, or not. While being on the road I process images in the studio, collect imagery outside of the studio. I work continuously in and between, but also outside the spaces of the studio. The being on the road takes place by way of a physical displacement of one place to another, by way of an imaginary voyage taking place in a novel, by way of a mentally dreaming when hearing a melody, by way of surfing from one hyperlink on the internet to another, …

What has been the point of departure for this being on the road in the PhD in the Arts? Since finishing my study in the arts in 2001 I have developed an artistic oeuvre. For this PhD I saw an opportunity in both sense and time to delve into the concept of the ‘limit’. It is a concept and a phenomenon in our society that kept fascinating me while making images. But how did I understand the limit, was I able to define it and why does it exist? In the first phase of the PhD I constructed an (art) historical framework around the concept of the ‘limit’ and my understanding of it. In the following I briefly relate to the historical references.

From the etymological dictionary, I learned that ‘limit’ derives from the Latin word ‘limes’, meaning ‘boundary’, ‘transom’ or ‘bending’ (līmus). The book Limes Atlas, edited by the Dutch architectural historian Bernard Colenbrander in 2005, indicates that the ‘limes’ (I cite): 1/ formed the defence of the Roman empire dividing a civilized world spatially from a barbaric one; 2/ formed the division between the Roman empire and the Germans; 3/ from about AD 100 ran from Northern England and the North Sea Coast along the Rhine and the Danube to the Black Sea; 4/ are the product of Greek-Roman thinking and acting in the field of urbanism, architecture and military strategy; 5/ mean ‘a path between plots’, a ‘border’ and – more generally – also ‘the road’; 6/ knew different manifestations throughout history; 7/ knew as a boundary marker, dependent on natural conditions and political situations, a more open or closed structure.

During the research into the ‘limes’ I came across a strange archaeological map while surfing the internet, titled The roads in Roman times according to R. Dekeyser, E. Van Ermen and H. Leclercq. Atlas of World History. Wolters Leuven, 1983. This map shows a secondary road, indicated by a dotted line between the cities of Kassel (FR), Kortrijk (B), Kester (B), Tienen (B), Tongeren (B), Maastricht (NL) and further towards Cologne (DE). This road crossed the contemporary borders of France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. On top of that it almost coincides with our current Belgian language border. As a born and raised border child – a Brussels ‘zinneke’ (city stray dog) – I was curious about this trajectory and thought: could this road possibly be the field in which to further define the concept of the ‘limit’ and visualise it? To understand the ‘limit’ as ‘a road to’ rather than ‘an obstacle to’: ‘a road to’ that has n-visual possibilities for researching n-limits. To meet with the road and designate it as a field of about 1000 km (back and forth), indicated a second important phase in the PhD.

In its turn the road stood in history also for a boundary mark. During the Roman Empire, roads were built to defend territories. On the other hand, these roads also created possibilities for trade and communication channels. These were the first – ingenuously – built roads. They form the cradle of our European network of roads. The roads were plotted in straight lines in the landscape and existed out of several layers of material. The secondary road – which I had chosen as my field – was noted in another edition on maps, Heerwegen in de Lage Landen in de 4e eeuw n. C by the Belgian archaeologists Mertens and Despy-Meyer, as a ‘probable trajectory’. The speculative zone (where can this road be retrieved in our contemporary landscape?), the border stratification (geographical, cultural, grammatical, historical and social) as well as the secondary – and thus not main – road, all confirmed a field that got all my attention. This road invited me to travel. Due to family and work related circumstances I would meet the road in fragments. I put the ‘act’ of drawing into practice. During the walking, cycling, driving along the route of the supposed secondary road, I embodied the spaces by making photos, films, drawings, sound recordings along the ‘road’ and its surroundings. I also plotted virtual trajectories on the internet. It is like preparing a journey during which you visit places and sights beforehand. These virtual travels gave a more distanced view on the spaces and the people that inhabit them. They already provided a window on the world. But both forms of travel through the landscape (real of virtual) contributed to the visual process.

In tracking down and reconstructing the secondary road during the first two years of the PhD research, I felt like a Sysiphus figure who searched in vain for tracks, but hardly found anything of the original route. I wandered literally on paths that I had drawn and imposed on myself to collect images. I chased a ‘hypothesis’. I was continuously meeting a ghost road. How would I succeed in creating an image of a non-existing road? I had imposed myself a limit that was impossible to draw. I let myself be guided by the plotted trajectories and by what I encountered in transit – on the road, in the studio and as well as during public presentations. I created an imagery of and on the field without knowing precisely what I would do with this material. In the studio, I used imagery that I had collected by printing photos, making notes during observations, turning reflections into diagrams, finding images that would show a relation with the found material, and so on. This ‘making’ was a way to explore and process my reflections through images.

Reflecting on the process on the whole until that moment, I missed the intensity that I had experienced while being on the road: the nothing, no one on the road, paradoxical landscapes, the wandering, the routine of going to and fro, the culture of crafting, the bizarre artefacts and constructions along the way, absurd and funny facts, and so on. The images of these intense moments did not acquire any autonomy and in themselves did not reveal anything special. A research friend referred me during that period to the poem Proverbios y cantares by the Portuguese poet Antonio Machado. I cite a fragment:

Wayfarer, the only way
Is your footprints and no other.
Wayfarer, there is no way.
Make your way by going farther.
By going farther, make your way
Till looking back at where you’ve wandered,
You look back on that path you may
Not set foot on from now onward.

The focus on the process and the not ‘being’ of the secondary road came at that moment to the fore.During the making of artefacts – that came forth out of being on the road – I strived to put attention (the camera) on the process and on the accompanying reflections. The field remained to collect imagery and bring these to the studio. The collection of images grew. An index of images was a way to keep up with the multitude of travel trajectories and experiences and to make them available for new observations. I kept however looking for a way to visualize the intensity of being on the road alongside a limit, an image in which I could bring up the mutual relations between several images and actions. To demonstrate what I understand by the ‘intensity in an image’, I will give an example by way of the anecdote of the Little Prince and his friend the Pilot, written by the French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  At the beginning of the story the Little Prince asks the Pilot to draw him a sheep. The Pilot tries to draw the animal several times, but never to the liking of the Little Prince. Until the Pilot – almost desperate – decides to draw a box with holes, saying that the sheep is inside and can breathe through the holes. The Pilot also tells the Little Prince to take good care of the sheep. The Little Prince is pleased with this drawing. The combination of the word, the story, the drawing and the context make us, the reader/viewer, realise that the answer to the ‘right’ sheep is in our imagination. De Saint-Exupéry tried in his story to show the magical power of childish fantasy and that adults can be imprisoned in their rigid thinking patterns. However: looking at the world without inhibitions seems to be an illusion in my mind. Each one of us carries his or her story and background with them and thus has a certain view on the world.

This text was initially published in Dutch for making the film (see below) that was part of my Phd defence at Netwerk, Aalst, 17.03.2017. It was translated into English by Edith Doove in collaboration with Driftingspace.

More info

Mira Sanders Le Journal d'un Usager de l'espace