Harriet Hawkins
Department of Geography
Royal Holloway, University of London

How to move beyond dichotomous thinking that casts place either as static fixity, a bounded, reactionary concept, focused on rootedness, attachment and singularity, or as distributed, open, progressive, associated with flows, networks and relations?

How to get to grips with understandings of place as based in variously obdurate and provisional inter-weavings of heterogeneous bits and pieces that compose lively worlds of difference?

How to engage with the lived experiences of places with all their material and forceful gatherings and dissipations?

Questions such as these and others have catalyzed potent new conceptual imaginaries of “place” within and beyond geography. In this essay I want to examine how aesthetic strategies of montage might offer geographers a material-conceptual strategy that is equal to the challenges posed by the manifold spatialities and temporalities, the ethos of materially diverse configurations and the open-ended nature of the social formations, that shape our understandings of place. I do so through the lens of the collaborative artist’s book project insites (Figure 1), that I developed with artist Annie Lovejoy.

Montage is one term of a compositional pairing collage/montage that is generally recognized as the “the single most revolutionary formal innovation to occur in artistic representation in our [the twentieth] century” (Umar 1985, 84). Pioneered by Cubist artists Picasso and Braque in the first few decades of the twentieth century, this ancient technique became firmly part of the canon of art, and one of modern art’s defining forms. Key to the formal and conceptual innovation of these compositional modes was their incorporation into artistic canvases materials drawn from everyday life, including newspapers, wallpaper, scrim and other household materials. Such a strategy has been interpreted as having formal, conceptual and socio-political imperatives (Taylor 2006). For many artists these material assemblages provided a solution to the illusionism of perspective that had dominated Western painting since the early Renaissance. As such, these innovative “combines” played a key role in Cubism’s evolving exploration of representations of time and space. Alongside such formal innovations, the materials that were drawn into productive discussion with one  another have also been ‘read’, sometimes literally in the case of fragments of newspapers, as forms of social critique, often constituted by commentary on key political events of the era, such as the Balkans war (Danto 1998). As strategies that foreground process over a finished end project, and create meaningful relations between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary, collage/montage has rich critical potential. 

Figure 1: Insites (2009), Annie Lovejoy and Harriet Hawkins.
Figure 1: Page from Insites (2009), Annie Lovejoy and Harriet Hawkins.

Montage/collage are often understood – from visual arts to literature and in cinematic forms- in rather generic terms, “lift[ing] a certain number of elements from works, objects, preexisting messages, and to integrate them in a new creation in order to produce an original totality manifesting ruptures of diverse sorts” (Ulmer 1995, 84). Other theorists have, however, sought to deepen our understanding of the forms of critical work that this compositional pairing might do. Sometimes this occurs by thinking about the differences between the two terms; collage is the transfer of material from one context to another, whilst montage is the dissemination of these borrowings in their new setting (Ulmer 1985). For others, four key principals delineate the “work” of this compositional pairing; découpage or severing of the materials from their original context, the potential of preformed or existing messages or meanings of materials, processes of assemblage of the materials, and discontinuity or heterogeneity in their bringing together (Poggi 1992; Ulmer 1995; Taylor 2006). Ulmer draws on Derrida to deepen his engagement with the critique of mimesis mounted by these compositional strategies. Focusing on the formal, he elaborates on the importance of artistic practices of material assemblage and their associated lexical fields of “building, joining, uniting, adding, combining, linking, constructing, organizing”. He affirms however, that this process is not a reproduction of the real, but the construction of an object, more than this though, he concludes, montage actually mounts a process in order to intervene in reality, to change it, not merely to reflect it (Ulmer 1985, 86).

For geographers these principals of collage/montage have already proven invaluable with respect to thinking about space and place. Perhaps most famously, David Harvey in The Condition of Post-Modernity evokes the compositional pairing as a means to get to grips with the complex temporalities and spatialities of modernity; “freezing time and all its fleeting qualities; and getting to grips with the need to spatialise time” (1992, 21). Collage/Montage, “provided one means of addressing this problem, since different effects out of different times (old newspapers) and spaces (the use of common objects), could be superimposed to create a simultaneous effect” (Harvey 1992, 21). Allen Pred, in his book Recognizing European Modernities: A Montage of the Present (1995), and in a debt he acknowledges to Walter Benjamin, experiments with montage as a literary method. He was primarily interested in its potential for overlaying information and ideas to bring about a re-layering of multiple pasts and ongoing presents. More recently, we find Cresswell (2014) citing Pred’s influence, conducting written experimentations with textual ‘gatherings’, montages of created and found texts as a way to engage with place. His experiments bring together archival sources, theoretical discussion and personal reflections to evolve a form of place-writing that is equal to the contemporary issues around thinking place in all its complex spatialities and materialities.

If geographers have a history of finding in textual and visual forms of montage the means to explore some of the discipline’s key ideas of time and space, I want to take up these ideas with respect to contemporary questions of place and assemblage theory. Discussion will query what it might mean to move beyond merely noting a semantic resonance between montage as a material-aesthetic strategy involving the assembly of bits and pieces from everyday life, and assemblage as rapidly emerging as one of the bodies of theory that geographers are using to think about place.

Doing Montage: Place as Assemblage

In the context of the complex spatialities and temporalities through which we have come to think about place, foregrounded in the questions which opened this essay, we witness concepts of place finding form in ideas such as “constellations of lines of becoming,” for Doreen Massey, as “mesh-works” for Tim Ingold, or for Tim Cresswell as linked movements of gathering and dispersal that resonate with recent propositions of an ethos of assemblage.

Assemblage, as “descriptor, ethos and concept” (Anderson and Macfarlane 2011, 124), has become common across geography, often used as way of thinking about everything from security, to ideas of the region, territories, and  scales, and recently theorizations of place (Adey 2013, Allen and Cochrane 2007, Anderson 2012, Cresswell 2014, Legg 2009, Painter 2010). Assemblage has been put to varied forms of work, but tends to amass around certain key ideas, concerned with “emergence, multiplicity and indeterminacy,” and with processes of the provisional compositions of “diverse elements into socio-spatial formations” (Anderson and Macfarlane 2011, 124). As Anderson and Macfarlane (ibid), go on to note, “assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements that might be human and non-human, organic and inorganic, technical and natural.” They summarize interrelated sets of processes that work across these ideas of assemblage, most importantly, assemblage emphasizes dispersion as well as gathering, things that endure as much as things that might change or be disrupted. It concerns issues of both spatiality and temporality, and the labour of “assembling and reassembling socio-material practices, that are diffuse, tangled and contingent” (Anderson and Macfarlane 2011, 125). Assemblage also connotes collectivities, and as such distributed agencies. The emphasis, above all, is on formation, rather than only on form, assemblage as a verb rather than a noun, a process rather than a finished composition. Perhaps unsurprisingly, assemblage has become associated with a certain ethos of engagement with the world, an ethos that “experiments with methodological and presentational practices in order to attend to this lively world of differences” (Anderson and McFarlane 2011, 126). It is the potential of montage to become part of that ethos of engagement with the world that I want to begin to explore here by way of reflecting on the practice of composing insites. 

 Figure 2: A page from Insites, Lovejoy and Hawkins (2009).
Figure 2: Page from Insites, Lovejoy and Hawkins (2009).

Insites (2009), was produced as part of wider investigations into the relations between art and site that were developed during the course of Lovejoy’s socially engaged art work, Caravanserai. As a material object insites is five-inches square, designed to be roughly palm-sized, and covered in stiff black card. It is a limited edition multiple; only 1500 were printed. Its 52 pages of text and images were produced by the digital manipulation (using Photoshop and Indesign) of materials generated during the period of shared ethnographic research. The discussion that follows centers on how we deployed montage as an aesthetic-material strategy in composing both the individual pages and the volume as a whole. The account will interweave the four principals of collage/montage outlined above.

insites as montage – découpage, meaning, assemblage, heterogeneity

The content of insites was selected from a body of material collected and created during ethnographic research into Lovejoy’s artistic practice, together with material drawn from the ongoing processes of her development of Caravanserai. The collection included interviews, readings, focus groups, participant observation, photos, sketches and all manner of found and created material.  Arranged into short sequences composed of three or four-page spreads the material interweaves elements of the materiality, practice and meaningfulness of a particular place: Porthscatho, Cornwall, UK, where Lovejoy’s project was based. The found material included newspaper articles, diagrams and images made by those participating in the wider Caravanserai project, pictures of signs and texts from interviews, local history books and local collections of myths and legends (see Figures 2 and 3). The created material included drawings, sketches, rubbings, photographs, sound files and creative written reflections developed by Lovejoy, myself and her group of resident artists. The rich, sometimes conflicting, meanings of this material enabled an opening out of some of the socio-political tensions in a place that once had a thriving local community, with a strong history of local skills and traditions. This was not simply however, a story of the history of the place, but also a thinking through of how, while some facets had endured, others had fallen away or been excluded as the local community was priced out of the village by wealthy second-homers. These materials tell critical stories about the specificities of place, doing socio-political work as commentaries on the changing lives and landscapes of that rural location.

Figure 3: Page from Insites  (2009) Lovejoy and Hawkins.
Figure 3: Page from Insites (2009) Lovejoy and Hawkins.

We were concerned to resist the page as primarily a narrative space in which to tell a story of place, we wished instead to explore page and book as spaces within which to compose a series of aesthetic experiences that created an imaginary of place that resonated with those central tenants of assemblage theory. Post-Modern thinking about montage has long posited its critical force to lie in the gathering together of materials less to suggest equivalency, than to create, after Walter Benjamin, novel disjunctions of the dissimilar. An awareness of difference in sources and forms of information is retained as a force generative of instability, and so of energies of interruption and disruption from which the new can emerge. In insites we were concerned with rather different alignments of composition and concept. We were not looking for disjunctions but rather to compose gatherings that enable the recognition of multiplicities of differences.

We experimented with creating sequences that brought together different ways of knowing place, composing for example, geological diagrams alongside parish maps (Figure 2), and splicing these multiple mappings with local lore, myth and embodied accounts – our own and others – of the same cliffs, rocks and paths (Figure 3). We sought aesthetic-formal strategies by which the make space within the tales we told for multiple stories and voices. Furthermore, in place of storyings of place that appeared fixed down and stable, we wanted to emphasise place, its stories and meanings as unstable and shifting over time. As such we sought image combinations, sequences and forms that not only made dislocations, mis-matches and discontinuities clear, but which also sought to replace a sense of resolution of the text into a complete whole, with a sense of the ongoing processes of composition of page, and of place. 

To develop these ideas of place as provisional and contingent, we made use of material dissolves and blank spaces. We were trying to develop a visual vocabulary that promoted “an open-ended interest in a multiplicity of trajectories (themselves ever in transformation) and the concomitant fractures, ruptures and structural divides” (Massey 2005, 189). So, for example, weaving its way along the scribbled out contour-lines, and tracking the gradually fading out of coastline paths of reprinted maps are quotations from anthropologist Tim Ingold concerned with way-finding as story-telling rather than map-using. The line of text leads us over the page to an image and textual description of vernacular knowledge in the form of a long-used local pathway, a short-cut that does not appear on any map. Seeking to use visual devices to keep alive the sense of place not as a “whole” a finished achievement or composition, we experimented with layerings, fade-outs, as well as creating gaps and fissures in meaning and visual effect. As the path-way fades out, skeins of twisted nettle string wind their way across the pages, linking narratives on the histories of local making practices with accounts of the contemporary housing market and reflections on critical art practices. We sought, in short, to formulate image sequences that in terms of both form and content, resisted closure, completeness and seamless coherence in favour of seeking forms that opened out the possibilities for on-goingness of place; assemblage as verb, rather than as noun.

Concluding reflections: “The poetics of my textual strategy are the politics of my textual strategy”

If montage/collage are understood as compositional practices of bringing things together, we are also required to think about how they stay together or fall away, meaningfully, conceptually, formally and materially. With respect to the complex materialities, spatialities and temporalities of place that currently confront us, what is sought is a strategy that moves beyond merely suggesting an ecology of relations, but rather is able to engage us with questions of composition of gathering, dispersal, of endurance and of precarity and provisionality. Montage, I would suggest provides some form of material-aesthetic answer. Its four principals of collage/ montage; découpage, found meaning and forms, assemblage and heterogeneity, draw us towards queries of the form and quality of the gatherings that constitute places, we can examine and depict accretions and endurances, as much as absences and changes. There is not sense of a whole, a totality that is either progressed towards or reached, rather it is all in the processes of ongoing formation. Furthermore, such thinking about montage as a process, over and against a composed end product, situates it as potentially politically powerful strategy. A strategy that does not reproduce reality, or even critique it, but has the potential to intervene within it and so in the process change it, in this case to make place. To paraphrase Allen Pred (2005, xv), the poetics of our geographical strategies, just might also be the politics of our geographic strategies.


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* Caravanserai is detailed further at Lovejoy’s website: https://tinyurl.com/od3jhom, 2/8/14.

Download the PDF of this article here: Hawkins

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