Walkscapes deals with strolling as an architecture of landscape.
Walking as an autonomous form of art, a primary act in the symbolic transformation of the territory, an aesthetic instrument of knowledge and a physical transformation of the "negotiated" space, which is converted into an urban intervention. From primitive nomadism to Dada and Surrealism, from the Lettrist to the Situationist International, and from Minimalism to Land Art, this book narrates the perception of landscape through a history of the traversed city.
Francesco Careri (Rome, 1966) graduated in architecture in 1993 in Rome. His doctoral research began in Naples in 1996, resulting in a thesis entitled "The Journey". He is a member of the Stalker urban art workshop, an open interdisciplinary structure that conducts research on the city through experiences of transurbance in open spaces and in interaction with the inhabitants. He has taught at the Institut d'Arts Visuels d'Orléans and the Schools of Architecture of Reggio Calabria and Roma Tre, experimenting together with the students on methods of reappropriation and direct intervention in public space. He has recently published a book on Constant and the Situationist city Constant imagined in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Constant / New Babylon, una città nomade, Testo & Immagine, Turin 2001), and participated with Stalker in many international exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture.
by Gilles A. Tiberghien
In Walkscapes, Francesco Careri does more than write a book on walking considered as a critical tool, an obvious way of looking at landscape, and as a form of emergence of a certain kind of art and architecture. Into the bargain he gives the Stalker group, originally made up of young student architects, a work that partly roots its activities in the past, gives it a genealogy in any event, as did André Breton when he considered Surrealism historically as a sort of comet's tail of German Romanticism, and as did the Jena Romantics themselves in their review the Athenaeüm by annexing Chamfort, Cervantes or Shakespeare and declaring them to be premature Romantics. Or then again like Smithson in his text on Central Park, making its creator, Frederick Law Olmstead, an ancestor of Land Art.
More than the Surrealists -whom he none-theless opportunely rereads here via André Breton's Nadja and Mad Love, or Louis Aragon's Paris Peasant-, it is Dada and its outings in the capital, its random wanderings through the French countryside, that Francesco Careri claims kinship with. Nearer still to our own time, it's the Situationists that the Stalkers can be compared to. The two groups share a taste for urban investigation, and a sensitivity to contemporary change as being symptomatic of a society in a state of mutation, not to say "decomposition". They know how to scrutinize the unconscious of the city, as Benjamin once did in studying 19th-century Paris.
When Francesco Careri writes in "Rome archipel fractal" that "We've chosen the trajectory as a form of expression which accentuates a place by physically tracing a line through it. The act of traversal, an instrument of phenomenological knowledge and symbolic interpretation of the territory, is a form of psychogeographical reading of it comparable to the 'walkabout' of the Australian aborigenes," the references, be they implicit, are clear.
But make no mistake about it: neither the Stalkers nor Francesco Careri are neo-Situationists. Stalker is a group, to be sure, but a completely informal one, and if Francesco Careri and Lorenzo Romito are its two most prolific theoreticians they have no final say in the matter. Furthermore, each member of the group knows what he or she owes to the others in the collective, the number of which varies momentarily between seven and twenty individuals. This is its fundamental difference with the avant-garde groups that sprang up in the 20th century, alternatively enrolling and excluding their members. We are faced, here, with an experimental praxis that avails itself of theoretical tools when and as they are needed, and always with a sense of appropriateness, some-thing which gives it great suppleness and considerable intellectual mobility. Indeed, the group launched a manifesto in January 1996, but reading it quickly convinces us of its non-dogmatic quality and its essentially heuristic function. Walkscapes partakes of this same spirit. It gives point to a practice of which Stalker seeks to be the prolongation, the amplification, the adjustment, and -why not?- also the culmination, in a sense. Francesco Careri puts his researches, and also his theoretical inventiveness, at the disposition of the group. At the same time he offers us a rereading of the history of art in terms of the practice of walking (such as he conceives of it), from the erection of the menhirs, through Egypt and Ancient Greece, up to the protagonists of Land Art.
The anthropological, philosophic, sociopolitical and artistic insights the author presents us with serve, at any one moment, a discourse of great lucidity, the ambition of which is to bring us up to today, to Zonzo, that purely linguistic place encountered in the expression andare a Zonzo, and which means drifting without a goal, as did the walker in the 19th-century city.
Such an expression is what's called a "fixed syntagm", one which may only conform to a timeless reality. Today the landmarks have disappeared: one no longer traverses Zonzo as before, with the guarantee of going from the center to the periphery. There was a time when the center was dense and the outskirts of the city increasingly dispersed; right now the center is riddled with empty spaces.
The idea suffusing the book as a whole, and which the author convincingly describes
-and what does it matter if it's historically correct or not, as long as it's operative-, is that walking has always generated architecture and landscape, and that this practice, all but totally forgotten by architects themselves, has been reactivated by poets, philosophers and artists capable of seeing precisely what is not there, in order to make "something" be there. Hence, for instance, Emmanuel Hocquard and Michael Palmer, who in 1990 founded the Museum of Negativity after having spotted an immense hole beside the Autoroute du Nord in France. Or Gordon Matta-Clark, who in the 1970s bought up tiny bits of land in between almost touching buildings, and who declared that "through the 'negative space' a void exists so that the 'ingredients can be seen in a moving way or a dynamic way'."
We find the inventory of a certain number of these attitudes, and the philosophical reflections elicited by walking, in a Bruce Chatwin book Careri often cites, The Songlines, a sort of paean to nomad thinking, more than to nomadism itself, it has to be said. By dynamizing them, the act of walking in fact makes the songlines crisscrossing Aborigine territory visible, those perspective lines which cleave the screen of the landscape in its most traditional representation, "witch lines," as Deleuze would say, that sweep thought along in the wake of the movement of things, along the veins the passing whales delineate at the bottom of the sea, described so well by Melville in Moby-Dick.
But the world Careri and his friends elect to explore is that of the urban changes wrought to what used to be called the countryside, and of which nothing more remains than a "holed" or "moth-eaten" reality -the author utilizes the image of a leopard skin "with empty spots in the built city and full spots in the heart of the countryside"-, a group of territories belonging to the suburbs, a word that, as Smithson explains, "literally means 'city below'," and which he describes as "a circular abyss between town and country, a place where buildings seem to sink away from one's vision or buildings fall back into sprawling babels or limbos." There, he adds, "the landscape is effaced into sidereal expanses and contractions."
This notion is not -or no longer is- uniquely European: far from it, as the reference to Smithson demonstrates. One also thinks of John Brinckerhoff Jackson, a great observer of landscape, who was extremely interested in the traces and organization of roads across American territory, showing how, far from just traversing landscapes and built-up areas, they engendered new forms of inhabitable space, thus creating new kinds of sociability. "Roads no longer merely lead to places," he wrote, "they are places." And so are the paths the Stalkers follow during their walks through "the city limits", far from the main communication routes.
As it is, Jackson observed exactly the same thing as the group of Italian nomads: the formation of a new landscape that didn't correspond to either the one in the classical representations power had described or to their "vernacular" form, which is what he preferred to scrutinize. This unprecedented landscape is created by roads, new habits of mobility and the transporting of goods previously stockpiled at home. It is characterized by mobility and change, and it is on the approaches to these thoroughfares that encounters, as well as an indubitably new type of mutual aid, occur. Thus, "churches used as discothèques, dwellings used as churches […] one encounters empty spaces in the very heart of dense cities and industrial installations in the middle of the countryside."
The interstices and voids Careri observes, and which aren't just on the outskirts of the city but in its very center, are nevertheless occupied by "marginal" populations who have invented branching systems that are largely unknown, unnoticed places that, because they are always shifting, come together, the author says, like a sea whose islets of dwellings would be the archipelagos. This image is a good one, since it illustrates the relative indeterminacy of these limits incurred by walking.
The "marches" was the name traditionally given to territories situated at the confines of a territory, at the edges of its borders. Walking [la marche] also designates a shifting limit, which is nothing other, in fact, than what's called a frontier. The latter always goes hand in hand with fringes, intermediary spaces, with undeterminable contours that can only really be made out when travelling through them. It's walking, too, which makes the internal frontiers of the city evident; which, by identifying it, reveals the zone. Whence the beautiful title Walkscape, which stresses the revelatory power of this dynamism mobilizing the entire body -social as well as individual-, in order to then transform the mind of he who knows how to look. Such an enterprise has a genuine "political" stake -in the primal sense of the word-, a way of keeping art, urbanism and the social project at an equal, and sufficient, distance from each other in order to effectively illuminate these empty spaces we have such need of to live well.