The Art of Getting Lost is an unguided tour for wanderers that we launched at the Plymouth Art Weekender 2015, a contemporary arts festival featuring more than 400 local, national and international artists.
It combines a hand-drawn map, audio and land art and is a collaboration between myself (devised, wrote and voiced it); Alan Qualtrough, who did the visual art and design; Jo Loosemore, who recorded the audio; and Belinda Dixon, who did the sound design.
It was a response to the opportunity of the Art Weekender and informed by a desire to make something small, quiet and self-contained (in contrast to the PhD work that’s currently sprawling across my life).
The title came early and led the project. I began in June by brainstorming around the meanings of being lost, reading and pinning a scrapbook around the topic, following up some interest in psychogeography, and going out running with no pre-planned route.
I wanted to experiment with non-linear narration, light-touch interaction and enable something emergent, with audience autonomy in how it was experienced.
What knocked out quickly was a map that won’t show you the way, a series of audio letters and temporary land art inspired by artists like Andy Goldsworthy, Tim Pugh and Robert Smithson.
I had a clear sense of the aesthetic being whimsical, DIY, gentle, naive and wistful. I was thinking about Moonrise Kingdom… I was also keen to make something with no one route/critical path, so it was as much about what happened between locations, and beyond the materials of the project.
Two quotes helped me frame the idea, this one from Plato: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” And this one from Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance —nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city—as one loses oneself in a forest—that calls for quite a different schooling.”
Alan’s response to initial ideas was to draw up the font and a sketch of the LOST compass, which fitted perfectly. I liked how much white space there was to give a sense of freedom beyond the defined. He wrote a blog about doing the art and design.
We then cycled around the city to various possible locations. Alan sketched them to prepare for making the map leaflet and I wrote notes on the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. Everything felt quite familiar until I got to the sound.
I wanted the intimacy of audio and was inspired by audio journeys from Circumstance, Invisible Flock and Aminal. The aim was the sounds of vinyl, acoustic and something that wasn’t literal. The quiet of dawn and dusk and of going up in a hot air balloon.
I’d met Belinda Dixon and Jo Loosemore to talk about another project previously and knew they were experts in sound. Fortunately they were up for getting involved, and it was hugely enjoyable and illuminating working with them both. With sound designers confirmed, I could write the audio letters, which I did sporadically over a couple of weeks whilst in England and Canada.
I recorded the letters on my phone beforehand—thank goodness—because they weren't at all what I was looking for at first, and not just because it’s always awkward hearing your own voice. I realised I couldn’t just speak them, I needed to act and consciously lighten and speed my voice. I wanted to create a character where an audience might ask: ‘do I know this person, or not?’
It was a very weird experience recording them behind a rust curtain in the corner of a tiny windowless room in the BBC. You’re aiming for something naturalistic in a completely contrived environment with a massive furry mic millimetres from your face. Jo used a flash mic, which is good for capturing intimate conversation, then the recordings went off to Belinda for SFX.
The aim was to disorientate slightly in the sound, so you might hear things that aren’t there. We knocked the early ones back and forth a few times until we found a clear style and pacing that fitted the aesthetic. It’s interesting how things, a stream for example, don’t sound like you expect when you record them direct, and how layers emerge on a few listens. There was a big difference between playing them on my tinny laptop speakers and then going out to the space with quality headphones. In situ, they seemed to breathe more, and the affect of enclosing the sense of sound enhanced my sense of smell. I think Belinda brought poetry to the sound in the interaction between voice and FX.
We made an error in not recording teaser audio for publicity so tried two approaches: one, an edit of lines from various letters, which turned out completely nonsensical; second, we tried an extract from what was probably the most personal letter for me. Sentences were a bit truncated in editing it down but it turned out ok…
Over the Weekender we had 193 listens on the Soundcloud, which we were pleased with considering the packed programme. I met one woman at the Karst gallery party, who I didn’t know before and said she’d played it and it had changed her life that day. My work is usually concerned with audience agency and improvisation, so as part of the design process I consider and playtest interactions carefully, but that can never predict the workings of a mind, even if it seeks to enable it. I try to separate the work from the part of me that seeks validation and approval but it was a very nice thing to hear it had an impact.
We also had some poetry left at a location, postcards through the door from people who’d played, and some friends sent some moving messages about it. I think the best part of its reception was that a friend and her son, who lost their husband and father last year, played it, made their own land art and posted to say how much they enjoyed it. It was an unexpected consequence but felt really good to have made something they had fun playing together.
If you’re interested, and in Plymouth, you can still play it by downloading the map from our site and listening to our Soundcloud. If you aren’t in Plymouth, you could substitute places by the water, in woodland and parks wherever you are. The project is also archived on Google Maps.
Share what you find when you get lost at Facebook.com/theartofgettinglost