Some observations on public space from a walk and talk between Jacqueline Donachie, artist, and Diarmaid Lawlor, urbanist
Francesco Carreri, in his book Walkscapes, suggests that walking was the first form of public art. It is a deliberate action in the landscape. The marks of the walker are a physical transformation of space. The space becomes negotiated, between one thing and another, a place of many possibilities. It becomes public.
Within the spaces we call public, there is meaning. People gather in places that mean something. Places are marked. Ideas are negotiated. It is important to have public spaces to make sense of things, to observe, and work out realities.
This is important because much of our understanding of places are based on stories and hocum histories, patchworks of understanding of the facts of history and our filling of gaps. When we tell and retell stories, we may also create more distance to the facts, to the origins of why particular spaces and places are important.
Sometimes, an intervention in the spaces we call public make us pause, question why this, why now, why here. We question. We discuss, test, negotiate, affirm and rethink why places matter. This is an important part of the process of renewing the public-ness and purpose of places. It is an important component of understanding values.
Jacqueline Donachie is an artist who helps negotiate ideas of public, and invites debate about the layers of meaning that exist in a place, layers we see, layers we remember, layers we have forgotten. Her ‘Slow Down’ work is a collaboration with people to mark routes in places, using pigmented dust attached to bicycles. The marks of the journey, the decisions people took, the overlapping of choices are revealed as the colour marks the ground. People coming to the marks after the event question why this, why here, who did it? These questions are about people, place and purpose, a useful framework to re-think the contexts of a place and its public-ness.
Donachie’s new work for the Edinburgh Art Festival comprises a line through the city linking two sculptures, Mary which is positioned across from Edinburgh Castle, and Elizabeth which is positioned across from the Scott Monument. The sculptures are in dialogue, and form part of a route of exploration of histories, places and settings within and beyond the city. The setting of the sculptures is important. They raise questions. Why locate a sculpture about a particular history in a landscape of war memorials? Is the terrible history between the two women, and their families and the confusion about how this history is re-told an important context? Is the way Walter Scott romanticized a view of Scotland, and spawned mythologies about Scottish-ness an important context? The sculptures, and the walk and talk with the artist as part of the Edinburgh Festival provided a setting for learning, for questions.
Originally, Donachie wanted to create a work around the St. James Centre, a building which elicits great passions in Edinburgh, a building which is very different to the New Town traditional contexts. The hulking concrete forms, and the building’s histories invite speculation. They also represent one view of how we made cities in time, and such, form part of the collage of the city that explains the history of ideas of culture and society. In discussion with Donachie, the idea that there is a dialogue between the castle and St. James Centre emerged as a notion. The St. James Centre complex is roughly half the size of the castle, but if you include the Multrees Walk area, it is nearly the same size. The shapes are different, but the size of the castle and Waverley are not far off being the same. The castle/St. James complex [Multrees Walk] is about 1/5 the size of the original New Town plan.
There is an interesting opposites relationship in terms of how the castle sits relative to Royal Mile, and St. James sits relative to George Street. Both the castle and St. James centre occupy key shifts in city topography; both have occupied important institutional roles in the city; both have dramatic impacts on the cityscape, and skyline; both confront reality. The castle is a real barracks in a landscape that is often thought to be imagined. The St. James Centre was really a centre of government in the past. The stories we tell about the buildings we see are not always the same as the factual histories of these same places. Stories are like lines; they pass from person to person across time, and modify our understanding of what we see.
In cities, not all lines are visible. Before we make streets, people look for relationships between points. If the points make sense, have meaning, people pass between them. Over time, the passages become formalised, and we build streets. Every street though was once only imagined. The city as a place of imagination is an interesting idea, where lines come and go, and what we actually build is not what we imagined. Time is important. To see the lines, and to make sense of the lines, you need time. The best way to experience the city, as the landscape, is to slow down.