A journey without a destination
We know where to meet – CAST Car Park. We know we are going somewhere. The destination is not provided. We arrive and encounter a huge silver luxury coach parked outside the CAST office. A small group of people gathers. A woman in a nice uniform with a clipboard smiles reassuringly and advises the departure time. It’s a Mystery Tour.
2:42 is the specified gathering time. (A friend told me that was once a term for a joint – it has influenced her expectations somewhat). This is what we have, expectations, anticipation. A shimmer of contained excitement runs through the group. This situation is dragging up associations, different ones for all of us with the constant being a willingness to submit.
2:50 Departure time. I have addressed the passengers with some bonhomie as I make my way to my seat. I am a little excited it seems. Most of us would never have been in a coach like this, it’s the type they reserve for the European tour. It has drop down monitors and a camera on the front, just like the planes. Fold away footrests and comfy seats. We are taking photos of the interior of the bus. We are very interested in our new world, like new fish tipped into an aquarium.
We move off and begin to chatter and settle into it. Left into Argyle, (it’s one-way so that makes sense). Then left again into Burnett, (a two-way street). Those who already know the artist’s work must now be a little suspicious. Left again into Elizabeth, (another two-way street). Left again into Tasma. We arrive again in front of CAST. The bus stops, the door opens, hesitation – we alight.
The fog clears, the dust settles and ultimately John Cage’s 4 minutes and 33 seconds comes to mind, a performance of which I call up on You Tube soon after. It has over 7,000 ‘Like’ hits and just over 2,000 ‘Don’t Like’ hits. The experience is clarified – Mystery – Anticipation – Excitement – Adventure – Dénoument.
The bus was called Isabella. I think of the Queen of Portugal as I take a photograph. I think of Columbus, of his great mistake and how the Chinese were Indians, of how America was still waiting to be discovered anyway. How these famous mistakes became his final prize. I even think of Amerigo Vespucci and can’t remember what he did.
I saw it quoted in a book I picked up in the bin at the Salvation Army about the making of ‘Exile on Main Street’ – “It’s déjà vu all over again”. Technically though I don’t regard that as a tautology.
Departure point – same place, CAST Car Park. There’s Isabella, our luxury coach parked in exactly the same spot. There’s the nice lady in the uniform with the clipboard. There’s the same driver and here’s the group of travellers, many the same as last week. This week there’s a different departure time 2:59. Last week it was 2:42. I had checked the two remaining departure times and they were different. Before setting off today I checked the differences in the times. Was the incremental rate the same? No. Did the totals of the gaps reveal a clue? No. The total of the differences? No. The grand total? Still No. Hoping for the Duchampian reveal I sounded them all out loud. Still nothing. This is still a mystery but it’s also a game, and a compelling one.
We head off, into Argyle, left into Burnett, left into Elizabeth and left into Tasma, just as last week. It’s only approaching the intersection of Argyle and Burnett that the penny drops. This time I really look, I mean vulture eyes. I don’t know what I’m looking for; I think it must be difference, the unfamiliar. Yes he’s doing to my eyes what Cage did to my ears. I’m staring holes into the familiar streetscape. We are high up, is it high? Is it a message, dressed up to resemble a band poster in the window of the Republic? Is it an altered sign? A political poster? Is it some juxtaposition is it semiotic? Semioptic?
We arrive and a clue appears. I re-run the trip and I think I have it, I’m sure I have it but I won’t know until next week and I can’t reveal it anyway. If you have not been on this trip there is no point going on the last one but maybe, if you are sharper than me, or more observant you will get it in two. That is of course assuming that I am right. I’m still not sure myself and it will take the third trip to know.
Where I had perhaps been hoping that each trip would be different I now need them to be exactly the same. Then I’ll know. If I’m wrong I’ll still have the artist to thank for the Augenblick that ate North Hobart but I know there’s more. Next time I want to be alone, alone at the front of the bus, and when I am sure I’ll start looking harder. I’d better bring my IPod. Someone may yell out. I want to sort this myself.
I’d arrived early, about 20 minutes before the 4.06 departure time. I noticed Anthony Johnson getting into his car. Then I watched from the side street as he pulled away. The temptation to follow him was overwhelming. I watched him drive around the corner. What to do? I could follow and I might learn something, but I might learn something I really wanted to find out the hard way. I gave in to the impulse, pulled my hat low, donned my sunglasses, (although it was raining), and pulled out into the traffic. There he was, about 4 cars ahead; I was in the middle lane. He turned right into Burnett Street and then the better me killed off the gumshoe me so I turned left instead. Those few seconds of tailing were so sweet and seductive but this was no way to learn. It would be like sneaking behind the curtain to see if the magician really cut the girl in half. Which satisfaction is greater, the demystification or the deconstruction? I chose the latter. Same same – Olivia, the nice lady (sans clipboard on which I commented, apparently insignificant). People boarding, more this time. I put my earphones on, turned Josh Ritter up high, (he does sound like the bastard son of Leonard Cohen), took my seat, alone at the front of the bus. Spoke to no-one, didn’t engage and off we went. Route the same, all exactly as before. Then I saw it, then I saw another, and another. Three confirmed sightings – unequivocal. I knew, there was no doubt, this layer was revealed. Had there been more of them? Were there other layers? Both of these questions will hold till next week but I knew that the riddle was solved. And then finally that one, just as before. Case closed?
On the bus I’d got to thinking about how we construct the world, how all relations, society, all collaborative conceits, originate in the imagination. We can orchestrate the world; we do it all the time. The artist constructs a conceit, it is articulated, externalised and from that point a series of implications follow. We conceive and that idea alters lives. People become enmeshed. This idea could have stayed inside the artist’s mind but no, it is out in the world and constructing action in the lives of others. We are all implicated, David had an idea, gave that to Anthony who had an idea which he gave to me and now I’m sitting on a bus in the rain and the better part of my brain is playing this game. And that’s how the world grows and that’s how we grow. We all act out of the brains of others.
Now I can tell you. Anthony Johnson created a work which, on first experiencing it seemed to be almost nothing at all. Imagine this – a five minute ride around the block and return to the point of departure. Like many I was talking to friends and most of my focus was inside the bus at times but no matter how hard I’d been looking I still would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. Life just went on and we just circled the block. For me it played straight back into Johnson’s off beat, wry humour and I was kept scrambling for any other thing to hang this experience on. Like many writers I thought I had to fill a vacuum with some small shred of associative meaning which I did, and which was correct but I could not escape the feeling of having been a little short changed. Some were visibly unhappy with the outcome. Toby Huddlestone wanted to stay on the bus, to get his money’s worth of this free event.
I thought of other things I’d seen which were just as slight or less and put it down to a gesture. (Don’t even go near the value of the taxpayer’s money).
So the second iteration would I hoped be different, and it wasn’t, in fact it was identical – perhaps too identical. The same Maxi Cab stood on the bus parking area as last week. Then I remembered that the window cleaner had been cleaning the lighting shop windows last weeks and this week – odd, but hardly implausible, even given the shift forward in the departure time. I also seemed to recall that older lady with the dog who crossed in front of the bust at Tasma Street, and wasn’t there a young woman with a baby at Burnett Street and what about that guy on the odd scooter who turned into Tasma Street as we were pulling out?
The third iteration was conclusive. The cab was there, Scooter guy came around the corner, the woman and the baby were crossing, and the man was cleaning the windows, the older lady and her dog all were in the same places doing the same things. I had noted others but needed to wait a week to confirm. The guy looking at the car in the caryard, the girl with the bike, the girl texting as she walked up the street, the guy in the hoodie and so on, the girl with the movie camera, and there were more.
At the fourth iteration some of these reappeared but some did not. I wondered how many there could be but this game was over.
Nikos Papastergiadis made the point that contemporary art used to use the everyday as a source, an influence, now, he asserts, it uses the everyday constitutively. Nowhere is that more true than in this work. The sheer elegance of the complex choreography and meticulous crafting of this work are crucial to its success. The concept has been expressed in the most artless way. By that I don’t mean artless as grungy of course, I mean it as lacking artifice. All possible inclusions of drama, spectacle or any overt intervention have been eschewed in this work that is the reason why for me it is an enormously satisfying work, slow to unfold but rich in its rewards. My whole second journey was spent looking for the ‘intervention’ but it was too subtle, to embedded to show itself to me in any overt way.
That this work was produced without anything identifying it as art also assists in proving that entering public space and public time and not only creating an intervention or insertion that on the face of it is ‘real’ and ‘natural’ is the sweetest form of subversion, and entirely seductive in its manner of worming itself into one’s consciousness. The piece still resonates as I wonder who else was involved, and I am sure the artists will never tell.
Finally all the sub texts are still relevant, John Cage in particular. The artist told me that when the bus movies were edited down the mean average time was 4 minutes and 33 seconds, what an unforseen elegant, and entirely appropriate symmetry.
Seán Kelly, 2011