Essay: Walking Space
In response to Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life
Chapters 7, Walking in the City and 9, Spatial Stories
Everyday understanding is managed by speculative and sorting operations. These operations take place in metaphorical and physical space. As physical beings, we are set apart from the world by the surface of our skin. We meet the world in terms of inside and outside. We come to know the world as if we are containers, accepting a continuous stream of information through our senses, the highlights of which are mixed with memories and blended with experience to be contextualized and finally sealed with meaning. Inside, our bodies hold a visceral knowledge of everyday life through our process of receiving the outside world. We comprehend this knowledge through metaphor.
Spatial metaphors are grounding concepts upon which people build all other concepts to understand life. Life is comprised of our relationships with the world through places, people, objects, time, memories, and reflexively ourselves. When we speak of relationships, we are referencing the space between. We are acknowledging an inside and outside, a here and there, the above and below. We instinctually classify and categorize the layers of daily experience through a system of spatial metaphors so incredibly dense that to break down that information, to try to view the contents as they are and see them without their implicit relationships, is impossible. The universe is like a matryoshka doll. Our brains work faster than our consciousness and we simply can not understand the universe without understanding space.
Certeau approaches our everyday understanding through the spatial set theories of a city. He begins above the city of New York, in the sky of the World Trade Center. From this vantage point, he takes a snapshot of life below, a neat package of order, and contemplates the “pleasure of ‘seeing the whole,’ of looking down on, totalizing the most immoderate of human texts.” (92) The joy in this view is that from a single perspective, the complexity of the city is made readable. We clearly see a map, the structure, the design of life in the city. We can follow the circulatory system of economic, political, and social structure up and down the avenues. We see not individuals, but masses of dots moving in rhythm, even car horns faintly heard are in time with the rhythm. The city, indeed, has a unifying pulse – just like the universe. But the universe, life, and the city are not this simple, they are complex. Complexity lies somewhere between order and chaos. It is at this point, we fall back down into the pulse of the city and as parts of the whole, walk through everyday life.
Pedestrians simultaneously read and write the city like text. As readers and writers, they walk paths of “unrecognizable poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, [and] elude legibility.” (93) On the ground, there is no single map. People weave together in subjective ways, existing in spaces translated uniquely for each person and shaped by each. Certeau uses linguistic concepts such as rhetoric, enunciation, and semantics to capture this process of shaping and translation. In a sense, people walk narratives writing sentences upon sentences. Which roads we choose to walk hold in our wake the history of a decision with the content of an action. We enunciate the topography of landscape, transform the signifiers of direction, and insert the “social models, cultural mores, and personal factors” (101) of rhetoric. We walk poems, intuitively processing the perceptual chaos of the world around us writing into it the spatial metaphors of continuous interrelations. As our bodies move, the physical reality of our skin defines the inside/outside, here/there, and above/below of space, ultimately dictating our consciousness, woven by personal narratives of understanding. Simple metaphors build our reality, keeping us sane.
Making things look simple is not easy, because simplicity requires clarity and clarity requires depth. Good art is full of mystery -- secret layers of depth that in a single moment resonate with complexity between the banality of order and madness of chaos that is life. Good art grows with time and transcends static meaning because it too is informed by relationships. Good art is like the view from the Certeau’s sky; it both speaks of and is part of the matryoshka doll universe. Anthony McCall’s light projection, You and I, Horizontal (III), offers insight into this idea. Using a pair of three-dimensional forms of ‘solid light,’ each thirty-five feet long, projected side by side, McCall’s installation cuts, divides, shapes, and changes visual space. One feels like he or she is walking through walls, both omnipresent and contained in a single experience. Light shines upon the natural relationships of our bodies to air, people, objects and all we can not see or ever hope to know. You and I, Horizontal (III) embodies concepts filled with life experiences and expresses them in metaphor -- clean, fundamental constructions of space. The layers, subsets, and categories are there and need not be said, only felt.