Monday, September 21, 2009

The Temptation of Albertopolis by The Archaeologist

I went in order to research a hypothesis arising from The Windowless Consultant's last post. It would seem that there is a force in the area drawing those passing through at least parts of it, not only into the superficial behaviour, but into the very status of the statues. This may either be a result of the people's being effected by the statues or the statues the people, the people who made them, or both.

The means that I had chosen to track the phenomenon - if phenomenon there was to prove to be - were those that have become my staple. There appears to be something about the stills camera that makes it the most satisfactory means of pinning down aspects of the world that one knows to be there, but which are somehow obscuring themselves behind artificial resemblances to other things. Perhaps it's time, perhaps space. Perhaps it may be that what in one moment in certain area separates a thing from the others it may appear to be is lost in the next without something to freeze them out.

It's known that Albert, in building what became affectionately, humorously, though, I believe, for its accuracy, should perhaps better be considered ominously Albertopolis, was attempting to influence the public. This tends to be taken to mean that the populace was expected to study the excellent museums, architecture, and statuary of the area and somehow learn from them to create a better world. This, I have to say, has never convinced me overmuch as a notion. Surely there must be subplot.

As a once archaeologist, I've experienced at first hand that what are generally considered to be traces of a past world are in fact parts of a present. A dig is not some cessation of everyday life - potentially intensification. I'd never have put it that way while in employment; perhaps it's one of those things you can't see from up close. An archaeologist isn't an antiquarian. My aim in setting out, I recall, which unfortunately I'd long lost sight of beneath the daily grind, was to learn, through an investigation of the past, free of it, at last to be there for the present.

I say an archaeologist isn't an antiquarian. I'm discussing an ideal world. In many ways my trip to the V&A and its surroundings was with a view to tracing out the boundaries. Perhaps then when work picks up I can engage in it more knowingly.

Albertopolis represents Victorian antiquarianism as political, philosophical and cultural system. Are we free of it? The essence of life shall be emulation, and, since the models to emulate are models, its highest aim would be the status of modelhood. What is remarkable is that, in this area at the same time so clearly defined and yet so easy to confuse with the city as a whole, the aim is achieved so perfectly it goes unnoticed.

To achieve my aim of drawing attention to it at last, I set my camera to recording the ways in which the statuary of the area - surely London's densest for public sculpture - imposes on the inhabitants behaviour aspiring to repeat it. Albert's message is posted everywhere both literally, in exhortations to admire, commission, learn to create, engage in crafts emulating those of the past, and in representations of people, both of the past and the present, who are taken to represent those practices. What's stunning is that, despite this, those who go there consistently appear not to realise that the exhortations have been given the power to force their object on - and from this group I don't pretend exclusion - the unwitting: somehow, by a power be it symbolic, geographical, verbal, architectural or so far unnamed, the behaviour of the statues and that of the passer by inextricably interact. It's not just that the public become in some sense like statues under the stultifying influence of so much tradition, for instance, in so little space - I'm not in the habit of that paranoia peddling threatening to have the blogosphere sewn up - but also that the statues become like members of the public, that they start, live, engage with and act unnoticed on their surroundings with the stolen collusion of whoever's to hand. Albert lives.

However, it was as I focused on one such incident that a mounting self-consciousness made me turn round.

I myself know that it's extremely easy to appear to be photographing a person when in fact one is photographing a notable object of cultural interest behind them. That is what enables the street photographer, or, in my case, aspiring archaeologist of the present, to include passers by within photographs without their being distracted by one's having to ask them for permission, since it follows indistinguishably that it's also easy to be appearing to photograph a notable object of cultural interest when in fact seeking an image of a stranger standing in front of it. However, it's because I myself am so often obliged to pull this trick in the way of my own work here that I was in this instance not remotely fooled by the attempts of the man behind me to suggest by his innocent appearance that he was quite unaware that the object filling his zoom was not Albert at all, but myself, attempting to photograph in turn a member of the public whose gestures, reading a guide about the area, interacted with an unconscious attention to detail that could only have been intentional, with the carved stone figures before her. The question whether the statues drew them into their cold still world, or she, on the contrary, fed mammalian life into the stone I would perhaps resolve later. At that moment, with a mixture of calm and excitement, involved but detached, I sought only the image.

There's no reason for a person photographing others to be happy to be photographed themselves, though no defence should they not be. I fixed the man with what I hoped was a sufficiently subtle blend of irritation and indifference to both convince him to desist and deflect any suggestion that I should hypocritically be seeking to do so.

The man, dropping his camera hand to his side, first frowned and then smiled, tilting his head quizzically before shaking it in disbelief and exclaiming my name and expressing his surprise at how little I'd changed. The man's genuine and direct smile worked to soften the discomfort I felt at not only having been caught out like this, but also now this one-way recognition that left me defenceless. It was a smile that I recognised in turn, and manner, but in a past so unlocatable that the recognition only destabilised me further. I'd been caught so unawares, photographing others I believed unaware, but what exactly the man had taken with my image I couldn't even guess at.

I accepted the offered hand, then, and allowed the searching gaze to attempt to jerk me into a recognition that was stubbornly unforthcoming. Mile End, he explained, the Arms, as we had indeed used to affectionately refer to it as, and it all came back. I recall making posts on the pub earlier and indeed entries on it by the Windowless Consultant, the barman in our university days our friend, so I don't need to go into details here - perhaps a label's in order, though: the Arms.

We'd felt back then much in common, had even planned things together after university that, of course, had never materialised, but so now to find that he was - is - engaged in a blog which, from his account as we sat on the steps and reminisced, updated and compared, has many concerns in common with this one, surprised me less than it explained: why, primarily, my sense of disruption and how, restoring my sense of balance, to free me from the uncomfortable sensation of having been shot.

I'll leave it to the Landless Landlord, as he's come to call his blogging self, to explain in detail what had had him taking the pictures, and his eventual aim. There I was, though, in his camera, holding up my own at the reading stranger. In my excitement I'd thought of myself as somehow excluded from the scene, as uncovering a behaviour in others with no effect on my own. But it was quite apparent that my gesture, and, perhaps, the gestures I've been making all along with the camera for the blog, were prefigured no less, perhaps still more by the project of Albertopolis than those I thought I could only shoot. The act of blogging would no longer be a record of things going on in the world, then, but another alongside them, and not only that, but incorporated within his. To incorporation in itself I could make no objection, but what I'd been attempting to do didn't concern myself alone, it was intended for everyone, to release us from the hold of Albertopolis. For the Landless Landlord to include me within its very centre, the frozen heart itself or the living stone which is the work of the Memorial would risk undoing in fact precisely what I was only then finding myself free to do. I wasn’t sure I'd be able to go on with The London Archaeologist at all as a blog, I explained, unless he agreed to include at least that entry of his - Pub Signs Taken for Wonders, it turns out to be called - here on ours, at least alongside his.

I'm glad to say that he was very happy to do so, then, and I'm sure readers will agree that I've taken the right step in suggesting since that he bring his blog in its entirety over to ours. It was looking at it in the light of our conversation that I realised that there's much in our projects that's similar, and posting together will combine our forces more favourably towards realisation.