Know Your Place: InContext4, Words for SDCC

In Context 4: In Our Time.                                             

InContext4 website

The curators of the South Dublin County Council’s new programme for public art, Aoife Tunney and Claire Power, kindly invited me to speak at the launch of InContext4 on Thursday 15th September 2016. Their commissioning brief invites artists to propose work that acts as “a gathering point and catalyst for social change, focused on the sense of place, belonging and civic awareness in South Dublin County.”  Havoc Dance Company embodied this exciting approach in their beautiful site-specific performance in the civic space around Tallaght Library on the night.  Here’s my text. 

I’ll begin with a paradox. If someone says ‘Know Your Place!’, aren’t you really being told to get lost, disappear? It’s a contradiction explored by Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit points out that “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.”[1] ‘Losing things’ may embody carelessness, absent-mindedness, a sense of dispossession that may be hard to master, but which probably won’t undo the owner’s very sense of existence. ‘Getting lost’ advances further down the scale of loss towards self-annihilation. Disorientation, involving the evaporation of all known compass points brings a forensic urgency to the task of observation. Once you have stumbled off the path, without a map in a place you barely know, don’t you look around for landmarks and take the position of the sun? All those reprimands: ‘Know Your Place’, ‘Don’t Get Above Yourself’, and best of all, ‘It’s Far From X You were Reared’ – all imply that adaptation to new conditions requires small acts of subversion to your identity. Individuality is discovered in the process of slipping that old, familiar leash.

It seems to me that Solnit’s title – A Field Guide to Getting Lost – provides a manifesto of sorts for In Context 4, this exciting new vision for the South Dublin County Council programme of public art.

When I was a kid, my dad decided to take a shortcut through Tallaght on the way to Newcastle one Sunday morning where we were due to go beagling across the fields. Lamp posts, and the skeletal frames of half-built houses, soon replaced the hedges, before the road flowed into a delta of new suburban tributaries around what is now Fettercairn. The Ordnance Survey could not keep pace with Tallaght’s development in the late 1970s. Without a map, but with the morning sun behind him, my father reasoned, we’d soon reach Kerrs yard, or as SatNav today would have it, ‘’our final destination”.

There were no clues in that half-built landscape to guide a stranger, and no kerb or corner had yet acquired the significance that comes with habitation. The sun was useless as a daylight star. My father should, of course, have stopped to ask directions, to start that conversation when a person lost entrusts his safety to a person found, and listens closely to hear the route described. “Do you recall a stack of breezeblocks about a mile back?” The most ordinary things are turned into landmarks when described to a stranger. Only through another’s call to look up and look around, can things passed, or passing or to come, become our way stations on the path back from being lost, places to recover meaning from that moment of panic when we face annihilation.

This is an old-fashioned story. The estates were empty that Sunday morning and it was some time before my father finally admitted defeat and found his way back onto the road that led directly home. It’s hard to get lost these days, and it’s not just the residents who know their way round. On Street View anyone can scope out a neighbourhood without risk of wet or conversation.

People too are mappable. We can all be scoped in profile, befriended or defriended, rejected or accepted before we’ve ever met. Emanuel Levinas says we discover our humanity in the gaze of the other, that moment of trust when we lose ourselves in another’s eyes. How I wonder, is this encounter compromised if we let our social network first determine who appears on that horizon? In the face-to-face encounter, the window rolled down, do we find new features to discover? Or, if we have lost our capacity to get lost, always knowing how to reach our final destination, do we not also lose our ability to engage fully with the people we meet along the way?

Before Sat Nav, there were field guides, but they didn’t announce the species – you still had to use your own eyes to spot and identify the bird. Art’s best ideas come from making strange, from telling others why they should consider an ordinary stone a landmark. They come from risk, and adventure, from getting your feet wet in your encounters with the world. And if public art provides a door to elsewhere as tonight’s performance suggests, then In Context4 provides a brand new field guide to show us what is there to discover and inhabit just beyond those horizons we tend to set for ourselves.

[1] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin 2006.