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Memory, plagiarism and the truth

Here’s a funny story. Many years ago, way back in the mists of time, I started a painting. Here’s a picture of it.

IMG_0320 (2) - Copy

I never finished it, and it got shoved away in a pile of junk under a bed in the spare room. It was forgotten. It stayed forgotten for a long time, and then I stumbled across it and was seriously impressed with what a great idea I’d had to invent such a painting. The idea that if we poke our head through the curtain of the sky we will see the clockwork that drives the environmental system: the clockwork of climate change. Look at that clever graph of the long-term climate-change signal! How clever I was.

I got the painting out, dusted it off, and I think I even tweeted a picture of it to show the world my genius. Then I put it back under the bed and forgot it again.

Time passed, and then this week I saw a Twitter tweet in which @JDProuty had posted up a picture  alongside one of his haiku.

Screenshot 2014-12-06 13.45.24

This picture looked familiar and suddenly I remembered mine again. For a moment I thought – my picture! Somebody must have stolen it from when I put it on Twitter! Then I looked closer and saw that this picture was much, much better than mine. Of course. How unfair, they stole my idea and did it better – the injustice. Then I thought: this is unlikely. I asked @JDProuty where the picture came from, and he kindly sent me some information and a link, demonstrating that this was an old picture, of which there were many versions floating around on the internet, and which had a long and interesting history. Certainly it was not mine. It’s even up there in Wikipedia!

Screenshot 2014-12-06 14.10.15

What must have happened, of course, is that long ago I must have seen the original picture and decided to make one of my own. I then forgot the original. I then forgot my own. I then discovered my own. I then  failed to recall the original. Whoops.

Another reminder that where memory, imagination, belief – in fact more or less anything – is concerned, you can’t really ever be quite sure of what comes from where, or of what you have ever really done, or that anything is really new, or that any idea is in fact your own.

Did somebody once say “there is nothing new under the sun”? No, I’m sure that’s one of mine!

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Three exhibitions of things not quite

I have been working on ideas for some exhibitions focusing around the idea of collecting things that are not quite present. The first exhibition started life under the title “Spaces” and was intended to be a collection of scenes captured at the moment when the important subject had just moved away. Rooms photographed just after the person in whom the photographer was interested had left. Branches just after the bird that a photographer had been stalking has flown out of frame. Moments just after the important moment, which are then redefined to become important themselves. These are the moments immediately after most people have looked away. These are the points where the period of noticing has just ended, and a different period is just beginning. With practice, we can extend our period of noticing and learn to capture these moments. Otherwise they may as well never have existed. We can learn to be not only in the moment, but in the moment after. We can learn to keep noticing.

As that idea evolved it became clear that what I was trying to capture were not just spaces, but moments, and so the working title for that first exhibition became “The moment after”. It was important that these were not images simply of things left behind. I did not want the detritus after the flood, or the circle on the grass after the circus. I was not looking for after-effects, or signs, or evidence. I was looking specifically for absence, rather than for any indication of former presence. Without an accompanying caption or story it would not be apparent what had just been missed, but once the absence was known, the moment after would acquire some significance.

As the idea of “The moment after” moved forward I found myself struggling to capture the notion that these were moments other than, but close to, the important moment. There was always the trap, the danger, of capturing the moment itself, or some shadow of it, rather than the blankness of the moment after. The moments I wanted were obviously not “the President making a speech”; they were not even “the room where the President had made the speech”. Also I didn’t want simply to capture a relic such as “the podium at which the President had stood”. What I wanted was specifically a moment when the president was not there; the speech was no longer being made; nobody was paying attention. These were moments that had escaped and may almost as well never have occurred. They were moments that did not matter other than in that they were adjacent to moments which had. And that idea of adjacency drew my back to my geographical roots, setting me on the path to a new idea: the idea of locations adjacent to, but absolutely other than, important or well-known locations. Here would be an image not of the room where a famous event had occurred, but a room in a building across the street. A room in the unremarkable apartment upstairs from the famous apartment where the event had occurred. These were peripheral locations. Locations to which everybody had their backs turned at the important moment. These locations were simply nearby, which gave me the title for the exhibition: “Nearby”.

“The moment after” and “Nearby” drew attention to moments and places that were close to, but other than, the moments and places that everybody noticed. In trying to identify items for inclusion in those collections I found myself discounting and discarding objects that were neither moments nor locations but nevertheless fell into that same category of “nearly but not quite the thing to which everybody would pay attention”. Hence the origin of my third exhibition: an exhibition of objects that were nearly, but not quite. I would include, for example, a sheet of parchment from the workshop of Leonardo Da Vinci. But it would be a blank sheet that he had never used. Had he done so, it could have been as famous as any work of art, and perhaps the sheet that was above it in the pile in the studio is now behind bullet-proof glass in the Louvre. But this sheet is one on which Da Vinci never drew. And here is a roll of unexposed film found amongst the effects of a famous photographer: had he lived longer, this would have been the roll he used next. Here is a type writer that Hemingway did not use, but would have done if things had been different that year. Here is the car that James Dean did not drive. Here is a piece of fabric from one of the flags that they did not raise that day on Iwo Jima. The title of this third exhibition: “Almost”.

Nowadays, everyone is a curator. I shall curate these moments, places and objects that are not quite. But they may be hard to find. They may be difficult to notice.

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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I met somebody new this week, and when I first met him I was under the impression that he was a sculptor. I noticed his hands, and I thought yes, those are a sculptor’s hands. It turns out that he wasn’t a sculptor at all. So now my map of the world has these hands just hanging there uncategorized. I think Carlo may actually have been a former aircraft engineer. So does that mean that those were “former aircraft engineer’s hands”? I don’t have a place for those. I don’t have a file or a drawer labelled “former aircraft engineers’ hands”. I don’t know what to expect of such hands so I don’t know whether Carlo’s fit the role. Were those echt aircraft engineer’s hands? And what, anyway, do I really know even of sculptors’ hands? Who was I to say “ah, yes, those are just so, exactly as they would be”? We rush to judgements on the basis of so little knowledge. In the short period of a day or so when I thought that Carlo’s hands were those of a sculptor, I looked carefully at my own hands and wondered, of what type of person would these appear to be the hands? What should I tell somebody that I was, in order for that person to say “ah, yes, those are exactly the hands of such a one”? And I really couldn’t say. Of me, and these particular hands which I know well, I cannot rush to judgement. Somewhere, somewhere between me and Carlo, perhaps there is a middle ground where I would be able to say something useful. A middle ground of just the right amount of knowledge. I thought that REM sang “I know too much”, but they didn’t, it was “Oh no, I’ve said too much”, so that doesn’t help here. T.S.Eliot wrote: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus’ Litauen, echt deutsch” (I am not Russian, but Lithuanian, real German), which helps a little more.

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I have been working with an artist. She describes her work as being the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing. The paying heed of things overlooked. Exploring contemporary notions of where “wilderness” might now reside when the last bit of the world has been mapped, she has put together, amongst other things, a carefully curated collection of lost buttons, found on the street, the location and date of the discovery of each one carefully recorded. We are looking at the small moments that make up landscapes. Trying to help people to notice. To see more. For me, as a teacher, that is the coal face of my work.

Link: Miriam Burke’s website

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