There’s something quite remarkable about street level living.
And when I say street level living, I don’t mean the standard fare we trot out when we talk street life – about street food, pavement culture, busked music, tagging, midnight city walks, clubbing and vibrant multiculturalism. The stirred, slash cut, jagged, muscular, rippling, colourful, odorous, fusty, littered – the fierce and the free.
Nor do I refer to its profoundly saddening counter-culture cousin of the bleak stained streets, the shadows of humanity; the homeless and the abused propped in its doorways. The runaways, drop outs, drug addicts, alcoholics, despondent, broken, fragile – the lonely and the lost
When I say street living I’m talking about the act of living in a city at street level – the relentless act of passing through the urban space – connected to its ordinary everyday – neither floating above it nor tunnelling beneath it.
I am talking about pavement and tarmac bashing – traversing a city using feet and buses, as opposed to dropping into the dusty air-blown human vat of the Underground, its elevated un-tunnelled cousin the Overground, or any of the arterial rail lines coming in and out of the city for that matter, shifting people like emotional clusters of fleshy data from one side to the other.
Trammelling the streets is a goldmine of experience because the rewards are plenty – gifts, revelations, illuminations and surprises at every turn.
If only we remember to look up and look around more often, ‘there’s gold in them thar hills’.
One surfaced in my journey on Monday morning.
And it smacked of an art school exercise long forgotten and suddenly remembered.
As the 73 bus scarped the edges of Marble Arch the most striking thing was not what had appeared – like the arrival of the inverted horse’s head or the jelly bean people sculptures.
Beautiful and enriching though their appearance was, this morning’s revelation was inspired by quite the opposite – by what had in fact disappeared.
The old Odeon, perched on the edge of Marble Arch and Edgware Road for as long as I can remember, was gone. In its place a large space revealing the buildings behind it and to the side of it. A 90 degree, dog-legged breather amongst the claustrophobic clutter of city buildings.
The building that was, was not only enshrined in my material view of the city I traverse – its geo-located bulk a firm, fixed point in my universe. It was also located on both my emotional and temporal maps of the city.
The Odeon Marble Arch played high stakes in my youthful rummaging around London – the western edge of the West End. The corn-franked, pop-furtered fust of its dark interior home to many happy and boisterous outings. Heady times indeed.
So, to me, its absence was truly remarkable. An experience that was both a mournful missing and an urban eye bath in one. Truly bitter-sweet.
And it struck me that our enjoyment and the relentless revelations of the cities we inhabit are as much driven by the things time takes away – and the negative spaces that their departure leaves behind – as they are by the staggering multiplicity of new developments, redevelopments, re-generations and resurgences of neighbourhoods, communities, boroughs, villages, estates, high streets and thoroughfares.
And it was the relationship between what is, what was and what might be that intrigued me. The tension between them.
So to the art project.
When doing basic foundation art, in still life and spatial studies, one of the first things you are taught is not only to draw the things you see in front of you in your still life – the positive – but also to render the spaces between those objects – the negatives. You are given the task of turning the negative space into a ‘thing’. To make the unseen seen. And to explore the relationship between the negative and positive. To make them both an equal part of the structural symmetry. And understand the role of both in creating Tension in the composition of things.
Simply put, this is about looking through, looking beyond – about truly ‘seeing’ – beyond the obvious
So its worth remembering that our seeing is only complete when we’ve engaged our ability to see what isn’t in the cities we live in, as well as what is.
And that we are as invigorated by the absence or removal of things as we are by the presence or addition.
The value of this level of seeing and awareness?
Hopefully it raises questions in us: questions of What if…? What was….? When did I…? Why there…? We question the way we and the spaces we exist in connect, how we attach to each other – materially, spiritually, emotionally.
Looking in this way, seeing the dynamic multi-dimensional relationship and nature of how things co-exist, not just as physical things but across time and cultures and generations reasserts our connection to the world and each other.
This kind of seeing brings the quanta level vibration of life writ large in our world. Each disappearance and appearance a vibration in the world.
Watched through the lens of time lapse – through a fluid eye – the cities would start to resemble a graphic equaliser of our existence and the utility and function of the buildings within it.
And I sense it would be beautiful.
So, to see or not to see. That is the question. And in the No. 73, for me that morning, lay an answer.
‘ got to love a bus.