Walk 7

19492012This is the Cumberland Basin, where the Floating Harbour is held apart from the tidal waters of the New Cut.  Directly above is 2012, from the air.  2012′s mud and traffic.  Almost the same as 2013, except when we were walking the island last week the tide was out and the Floating Harbour was hosting an intervarsity rowing event and we were viewing it at an angle perpendicular, looking across the flexing waters.  As one of our participants was only two months old, we walked and stopped and drank some tea and ate some chocolate and watched the rowers for a while and returned to Spike Island to write in the warmth of the cafe.  Outside, the water turned.  And time passed.

And we, writing.

And not writing.

There isn’t anything to show for it yet – but this is the way of collaboration.  Sometimes, it takes longer; sometimes it might grow into something else; sometimes this moment we are turning around now might be lost later on.  And it’s best not to plan the ending before it has arrived.

Collaboration is an action performed by more than one on more than one actor’s terms.  It needs dual attention.  It can be an embarrassing airing of a process we normally roll through privately or intuitively or with complete freedom.  Collaboration asks for different levels of care and the requirements for clarity and communication can ask questions of your own work, later on.

Sometimes this process can be halting and full of difficulties.  Sometimes it doesn’t work, but in this process and its failure is something else.  Something curdled, split.

But don’t throw this away.  Let it fester a bit.  Come back to it from time to time.  Even this can be useful.

But when it breaks, when things slow and the tide turns and things get claggy—let it.  The other artist is thinking too.  And living and sleeping and working and caring and paying and breaking.  It is not a case of walking at the pace of the slowest, but moving in time with them from the beginning.  Even if you’re walking in opposite directions, keep pace.

These thoughts were prompted by reading SJ Fowler’s interview on collaboration with The Learned Pig from last week:

For me it is entirely about the process. I do not feel comfortable in any situated objectivity when it comes to the end results, and more than that, quite fundamentally, I’m seeking out these collaborations because of what the process provides me. Which is a mediation of sociality through the creative act, a wholly communal engagement with a normally private process.

Yes.  That’s it, right there.  This interview comes after the recent publication of Fowler’s book, Enemies, which in turn is the product of an innovative, multidisciplinary project in which Fowler has worked with over 150 artists and writers from across the UK.  It is recommended.  Ferociously.

Further into the interview, Fowler wonders about geography’s role in his vast project.  His comments have been particularly useful to my thinking about this project (being regional, being not-London, being site-specific and specifically a channel of water and a slip of land in south-west Bristol).  Speaking on London, Fowler claims that the incredible cost of living, the pressure of work and the “little aperture” of time leftover for art means artists living and working in the capital “work rapidly, roughly, and often. They are freer in collaboration” while outside of London “the energy is lower because it can be [...] and by consequence [regional artists in collaboration] are less prolific, less self-effacing and less adept at collaborating.”  By his own admission, this is “horrific” generalisation.  Of course it is.  But it does prompt a discussion on the frameworks of collaboration, the expectations of partnership and the ‘contract’ between collaborators.  How is, for instance, “adeptness” in collaboration different to or affected by participation and engagement and access to employment?  Fowler’s statement suggests collaborative success is affected positively by the agility and concentration of the activity, and to some extent the stress on time that forcibly distances the maker from the work.

But are we confusing matters by talking about geography?  Those that live outside of London are many and regions outside of London are manifold.  There are countless reasons for the aperture to snap shut, even outside of London.  Enough time / enough money / enough work /enough strength / enough clarity / enough clout / too many commitments / too much ego / too much authority are not mappable things.  Not entirely.

But most importantly, when the aperture is not open, we wait.  That’s OK.  The work can stand it.

Walks Four and Five

horwoodWalks Four and Five returned again and again to the site and story of John Horwood’s death – and began with a visit to the macabre and fascinating object that is what remains of it all.

Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood.

‘The Real Skin of John Horwood’ is a book in the collections at MShed.  It is also a work of abject documentation, a true corpus, a kind of poetic object. The book is bound in the skin of Horwood who was flayed after the execution that was ordered by the trial that is documented in the pages of the book by the surgeon who sketched the deceased and coincidentally also operated on the murderer’s victim’s fractured skull before her death.   Horwood was the first man to be hanged at the New Gaol on Spike Island, on the theatrical gallows at the end of what is now the car park of the very same museum that holds his skin.  The story folds over and over.


Along the way, we searched for Trin Mill, a buried mill pond outside of the city which now gives its name to a small housing development on the very edge of Spike Island, and looked through maps of the city that drew out a sequence of imagined islands, one over the other.  We could almost navigate with this 1750 map by John Rocque, if we squinted long enough.  Eventually canal boats became galleons and we could take a short ferry across to Prince Street to reach Arnolfini. It seemed every corner we turned took us to another turning: a man turning into a book, a thrown stone that turned to murder, a gate house that turned into gallows that turned into a garden at the end of the car park of a harbour warehouse that turned into a museum for a city that turns itself over and over.


Pauline Masurel led a mapping project that would have challenged Rocque himself.  Using index cards and arrows we drew out a direct line that charted our walk in a series of translations from this to that.  We then reworked this as a single sentence that moved us through each transformation in turn, sometimes propelling us through the vibrating changes of a single word. The “flawed” city that opens this piece, for instance, arrived out of an encounter with the room-sized floor map of Bristol at MShed and a discussion of Spike’s Island’s fractured narrative.  In amongst vital conversations about the nature of collaborative work for writers, a strange wheel of fortune rolled in.  You can read the sentence here.

Walk Three

bridgescoverThe shelter of the bridge drew out a corridor of still water in the New Cut, outlining the old route of the ferry that once carried ten thousand people a week from Southville to Spike Island.  You can still see the ramps that people lined up on, where now low tide reveals a lost bike, a shopping trolley, the green mud.

wappingwharfWe walked over the bridge, over the ricochetting echoes of the ferry, over the route of a wedding day procession from the church to Brandon Hill, over the line between life and death as we approached the remains of Bristol’s New Gaol. The old prison walls are now almost exactly replicated in the bright orange swags of developers’ promises: hotels, houses, homes, here.  But not yet.  Until interest picks up, the old New Gaol is a car park.

car park

And, underneath the tarmac, the site of an old rope walk – a long, recursive pathway where ropes for the docks were stretched out and wound – is recalled in the design of Wapping Wharf.


Rope walks were historically difficult, uncomfortable sites of labour, sometimes dangerous sweatshops and now rebranded as shopping centres, as in Liverpool, and car parks here in Bristol.  A different mode of repetitive action, perhaps.

And still acting as gate to the car park is the gate to the New Gaol.  It has erupted into forest and, by shadowy turns, takes us from entrance to exit to no place at all.

gateBuilt as a grand gatehouse to the enormous new prison built here in 1820, the archway was altered to include a ‘drop’, a trapdoor for public hangings.  The body of first man to be hanged here in 1821 would have been framed within the enormous bulk of the gate.  A grim theatre for those crossing the river from Southville.

This first man was none other than John Horwood, whose skin was subsequently flayed and used to bind a book containing the legal papers from his own trial.  The book is now held in the collections at MShed, whose car park now also sits on the site of the old prison, the old rope walk and the last walk of John Horwood.

We set our course back to the Mud Dock Deli, to shelter from the rain and to drink (delicious) coffee.  We began to feel a little better, a little more able to talk about the trees pushing up the roof of the house that saw men walk to their deaths.  We started to write together, bridging sentences between us.


We were building an exquisite corpse, we were walking the rope of the sentence between us, handing the fraying end to the next writer and seeing how far they can take it before we fall as those men did through the gate which was a welcome which was a way in which was a way out which was a doorway which was a trapdoor which was an exit which was a trip which was a drop which was a ditch which was a pitch which was a stripped back skin which was a length of rope which was a rope wound round itself which was the rope walk, the turning of the text against itself, against your skin, in, out, gone.

The resulting text, R O P E W A L K, is a strange thing, full of echoes and happy, unhappy coincidences and the evidence of writers bridging gaps between each other and the messy history we park our cars on.