As I board a plane to Stockholm to give a lecture at the Museum of Ethnography I ponder upon the perhaps preposterous idea of walking a BILL in Stockholm as a kind of homage (or counter homage) to Bill Drummond’s essay, ‘A Smell of Money Under Ground’, published in the book, ’45’. The essay is, amongst many other topics, about Richard Long and walking as art. I am rapidly overcome by how thrillingly sophisticated the act of taking a flight to Stockholm feels. I do travel a lot but this thrill is a throwback to the 1970’s when Stockholm appeared to be the European Cold War thriller film destination of choice. Paul Newman, a very blond woman, chemistry and defection come to mind.
In the essay, Bill Drummond eulogises on the subject of OS maps. “Ordnance Survey maps in all their shapes and sizes are the most beautiful manifestation of twentieth-century British functional design.”. As I check into my hotel a couple of hours later I am more than aware how much is lacking from my street map of Stockholm which was free in the reception area. The street layout framed by adverts for TGI Fridays, the Hard Rock cafe and numerous other globally shared commercial signifiers of a tourist destination.
Whilst studying the map I am also aware how I am already moulding chance to my own wishes. Even though the streets in the modern part of the city are far more accommodating to the word BILL I stubbornly want to explore Old Town as I want to see some traditional architecture. I finally succeed in tracing out a spurious BILL in the small and awkwardly streeted Old Town. This made me reflect that whilst this is a exploration on psycho-geography it is also a meditation on the role of chance in art. I hope my grim resolve to walk the old town hasn’t already delivered chance a blow.
In the essay, Bill Drummond likens the walking of the outline of his name BILL in Liverpool, London and Scotland to the tags of graffiti artists. “On the most basic level, I was the same as those adolescent taggers who decorate our inner cities…with barely legible spray-can tags. But my work had the added bonus of being unseen. I was aloof…the good citizen…was never even aware that I had made my claim, left my invisible stain, cast my spell.”
I enjoyed Bill Drummond’s idea of a secret magical route with no visible traces of the journey, working rather like a homoeopathic treatment, affecting by residual presence alone. I meanwhile felt driven to record my journey using a Polaroid camera, which I had just found whilst recently sorting my darkroom, onto two eleven year old packets of Polaroid film that I found with it. The film was a precious commodity as I recalled that Polaroid stopping production a few years past. So whilst I was not leaving my journey particularly strewn with psycho-geographical scat, excepting a few binned film box wrappings, I was taking small rectangles of light away from the journey. Chance was going to lead me to the particular rectangles of light I was going to thieve. Chance and kinesis.
In the essay, Bill Drummond links an idea of magic and his own personal form of psycho-geography (or walking as art) which follows on from the last paragraph I reproduced. “’Cast my spell’ leads me onto another unfocussed reason for doing it. It had something to do with magic…You would discover things: shops, cafés, old saucepans, skips full of discarded treasure…and secret signs. The secret signs were always the best.”
I was hoping that this particular spell, of a BILL drawn on the streets of Old Town in Stockholm, would bring me a little magic and lead me to some secret signs that I could steal away. As a magician one must prepare the conditions within which magic can best happen, and this is where ritual and ceremony begin. In art, as in religion, one has to make the conditions for magic more conducive. Bill Drummond’s (and Richard Long’s) walks are rituals to let magic pass through the membrane. I recently did a commercial photography job and discovered that I am increasingly finding the process of putting a rectangle or a square around life, on demand, quite painful. I am sensing what a special act it is indeed, to frame life in this way, and I only wanted to do it when called in some other way than commercial obligation. I have already been exercising a restraint in my personal life from framing the world. For the last thirty years I have never taken any photographs of my holidays or special occasions. I am increasingly in opposition to the current glut of popular photography on digital cameras and telephones, which seems to a kind of modern communal affliction of the medieval St Vitus Dance. Or a Tourette’s Syndrome of the shutter.
I took a test shot of a Haitian friend before I set off. He was utterly underwhelmed with the result saying how much clearer the images are on his digital camera. I certainly had no conceptual process-based hoop that I was jumping through to explain my use of Polaroid film for this project. I’d simply forgotten that I had the remaining two packs of film and found them just before I left for the trip. But retrospectively I did feel there is something elegiac and there was a need for some kind of enchantment to convert this last remaining film into something special. I like the small sac of chemicals at the bottom of Polaroid film which is spread over the exposed surface by a roller during the mechanical expulsion of the photographic print. A marvellous internalised alchemy for stealing light. I find no such occultism in digital imaging. An image on exposed film is composed of of spherical grains clumped together, all earthly material is made of of spherical atoms clumping together with spherical electrons orbiting them and the universe is made of up spherical planets orbiting together. Digital photographs are made up of rectangles. This therefore cannot be a media with which you can converse with the divine.
Many artefacts, as are displayed in the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm, are objects which are created to have a role in ritual. I wonder what is an object created out of ritual and how different is that from art? This brings me back to Bill Drummond’s essay, ‘A Smell of Money Under Ground’, where he notices how some of Richard Long’s art, for him, loses its magic when placed in a gallery. This takes me back to my first reactions to the 1st Ghetto Biennale which I co-curated in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2009. This is the first thing I wrote, “ The Ghetto Biennale led me to the revelation that the creative act is an energy, a revolutionary energy and the products at the end, the art objects, are merely a part of that revolutionary energy – some parts of society are afraid of that energy – very afraid – but enthralled too – so they gather up the material objects of that energy and worship that – they put it in so-called sacred spaces, the clean, white galleries – but these are not sacred spaces really – but containment spaces or decontamination chambers – spaces where they can separate the art object from the revolutionary energy of creation.” I eagerly emailed this to a good friend who said I sounded like John Reed after the ten days that shook his world. I am certainly not saying that museums or galleries cannot be a good environment for works of art. Just questioning, whilst I am kenetic, the focus on the cold, static object thrown out at the far end of creativity rather than the more performative aspect of making it.
Drawing my route on the map will require another cup of tea. I sit on a commercial street in Wayne’s Coffee with a Biro and my tourist map. I experience a mild wave of apprehension over my cup of Earl Grey as I admit to myself that I must have a role in this event. I cannot abdicate all responsibility to chance, the conditions in Stockholm Old Town and the spell cast by the name BILL. In the film ‘Five Obstructions’, Lars Von Trier challenged Jørgen Leth, the doyen of Danish experiemental filmmaking, to remake his seminal film, ‘The Perfect Human’, five times with a different set of filmic obstructions each time, from length of shot to awkward locations. The most shocking moment in the film was the third obstruction when Von Trier declared the obstruction was ‘there were no obstructions.’ It felt a naked and insecure moment. So now, as I have drawn the BILL and am about to set off, I face up to my conscious imagination and vision, or lack of? I ponder upon all these artistic devices of chance embedded into art theory, from the surrealists’ many strategies of bypassing the rational apparatus of the artists mind, to psycho-geography, relational aesthetics and social practice. I wonder whether these could also be expressions of many fold crises of the imagination?
In Wayne’s Coffee I also wondered, more prosaically, how did Bill Drummond actually draw his BILL. Was it joined up writing? Knowing his posters I cannot imagine it was flowery with curlicues and flourishes. But if it was in capitals how did he get from one letter to the next? I make decisions. I will start from Gamla Stan which is the tunnelbana (metro) stop in the Old Town as an obvious B has revealed itself. This gives me a north along Munkbrogarten, first right onto Kåkbrinken, right again onto Lilla Nygatan, next right on Tyska Brinken, right back onto Munkbrogarten and finally for the middle of the B right on Schönfeldts Gränd which positions me for the I which is a quick up and down Stora Nygatan. The first L takes me along Västerlånggatan then left along Tyska Brinken then finally south down Svartmangatan from the town square Stortorget and a final left onto Kindstugatan for the last L. I shall take one Polaroid where I enter each letter and one when I leave. Eight Polaroids in all.
Stockholm Old Town is on an island and one must cross the water by bridge to enter from the mainland. I am surprised to find that my first impression are more Rome than the backstreets of Venice, more Empire than Commune, as I pass under a heavily carved imposing arch. This is actually a pre-island called Helgeandsholmen which houses the Swedish parliament. I cross the Stallbron bridge and finally enter Old Town which was more Venician. Bells started peeling to add to the medieval ambience. I head to the beginning of the B glimpsing many alluring alleyways and sites, but pass them by. I take my first photograph, I like it, an d place it into the clear plastic envelope that I have brought to store them. I depend on my map as I wander in and out of the B. I’m an animist by nature it seems. A kind of superstitious atheist, which is the worse of all worlds. After a day or two in any city with a map, be it an OS map or tourist map, it becomes imbued, in my mind, with all the walks, sites and experiences of my meanderings. Almost a holy object. I can become unnaturally distraught if I lose it. As I leave B I take another photograph. I note that if there is to be a theme, it will be revealed later.
Old Town’s main commerce is to provide provisions for tourists and an accurate portrayal of the area would be a document of this. Perhaps all the shop windows selling Sami jewellry, Dala wooden painted horses and reindeer t-shirts. But my aesthetics take over and I know these cameras. The Polaroid is wonderful for close shots of traces and detail. They are not for the wide shot. More often than not I use a 50 year old Roleiicord camera and what I have learnt is that great cameras demand their own subjects. A jack of all trade camera is a soulless chap indeed in my hands. At the beginning of the first L I find myself looking into the window of a photography shop with many Polaroid 600 land cameras. I enter the shop and after a chat with the owner I find that Polaroid film is being produced again by a company called ‘Impossible Project’ which saved the last Polaroid production plant in the Netherlands in 2008 They now produce bespoke instant film to work on Polaroid cameras which prevented 300,000,000 existing cameras from becoming obsolete. So rather than being elegiac this now feels rather like a rebirth. I relent and photograph the shop window. I love my picture of a Polaroid 600 land camera sitting in the window. The overarching hue of my photographs has been brown up to now, possible due to the age of the film. The whole window seems hazy and sepia except for the land camera which is propped on a bright blue box as a plinth. The magic has started.
Tyska Briken takes me past a sign for ghost tours and an amazing, but closed, German church. Around the corner I totally break the rules on a street that is not on the exact route but a shortcut leading me to the beginning of the last L. I photograph the details of a studded door and also a square of light, behind a latticed door, down a narrow alley. The minute I have done this I know I will never really accept these cuckoo images into my heart as they are malevolent changelings born of my own weakness. I will not do that again. I’m back with the programme. But after watching a group of singing Swedish football fans punching the air as they pass through the old Stortorget town square I start to feel guilty about the two exiles. After all I did create them and even though I do not place them in the clear plastic bag I put them carefully into another packet which contains the test shot of the unimpressed Haitian artist. All is sorted and I finally turn into the last short line of the last L. I end at a lovely wall of distressed orange and wonder what this final co-mingling of ancient Polaroid film, equally ancient chemicals and Old Town walls aided by the dying afternoon Swedish sun will produce. I place the image into the warm light to help it develop. As I watch the image appear I am at first dismayed to find that magenta is winning a Darwinistic battle against red and yellow. I place it into the packet and back into my rucksack and the next time I take it out into the light I discover that equilibrium has been found and there is an intense block of beautiful orange.
Now I am returned to London and take these hazy prisons of light from my bag. They still seem to vibrate with a certain numinous quality. I wonder what to do with these images created out of the ritual of walking a BILL? Of course the answer is obvious. Both in terms of Bill Drummond’s artistic past and my own experience of feeling photography to be the imprisonment of light. And myself as a thief of effulgence. I will burn the integral photographs so as to release the light back into the atmosphere.
I will document this too, but on a digital camera, and thereby end the enchantment.
It is late and I am in Newcastle in a hotel and tomorrow I will give a talk at a show of photographs from my Kanaval project. Earlier today, in London, I burnt the polaroids that I took during my walk in Old Town, Stockholm. I went to my local park, Victoria Park, and discovered that it is nigh impossible to burn polaroid photographs armed with only a bic lighter. I had to go to the news agent to buy some lighter fluid. I was somehow surprised that they sold it to me. As if I suspected myself as a potential arsonist. I returned to the park and I secreted myself beneath some trees and bushy cover at the far extreme edge of the park. Under the natural cover I placed my pile of polaroids on the dark earth patterned with fallen blossom and leaves. I reneged on my self-promise to burn them all and slipped the photograph of the land camera in the shop window back into my bag. I liked it too much. After that it wasn’t hard to get them going with the lighter fluid and I would have watched it through to the end but then the park warden’s van appeared and I had to stamp the melted, gnarled, curled and burnt remains out very quickly and scoop them up and throw them in the bin.
 Jørgen Leth & Lars Von Trier, The Five Obstructions,(Zentropa Real, Wajnbrosse Productions, Almaz Film Production and Panic Productions 2003)