To Those in Search of Immunity
Last in a series of responses to Edinburgh Art Festival, Gordon Douglas takes the latest of Collective's 'Oberservers' Walks' by Patrick Staff, engaging with Calton Hill's botanical, queer and historical entanglements 27 July - 27 August
Halfway into the walk, I come across a secluded patch, a spot sheltered between two bushes relatively close to one of the entrances to the hill. I’ve been walking down this path that’s only apparent through the wilting of individual blades in the long grass. My shoes are soaking. They’re old running trainers and sometimes, when they’re wet, that bitter, sweaty smell that hits the back of your throat, comes back. They’re drenched, and a perfume is revived from all the times I’ve gone cross-country. It’s not raining now, but it was raining before, every time the artist came here to research, it was raining. I get to the sunken depression, it’s marked out by where the water has welled up as it tumbles down the hillside. There are decaying leaves from last autumn (although it’s sometimes hard to tell the boundaries of that season here) that have washed up. Shredded in the pit, sparks of electric blue. Poorly camouflaged packs of lube.
It syncs up with a passage about lava, about the liquidity of rock when we shift our perspective from human lifespans. There’s an urgency here, Staff is an accomplished linguist, and words slip between meanings. As we pace through multiple co-existing subjectivities, the plants, the animals, the bodies, the rocks, all appreciating the hill in their own timeframes, the saliva gathers in Staff’s mouth. Sometimes you hear it as it hangs to the edges of familiar words and instructions. Soft jazz echoed by a soundtrack of woodwind arranging itself with molecules.
The second ingredient is a synthetic compound, it has a faintly sweet taste, low volatility, low toxicity, and is most commonly associated with artificial tears. The polymer (literally translating from Greek as ‘many parts’) keeps eyes wet, and is used both in the domestic process of maintaining contact lenses as well as in the recovery process following eye surgery. There are so many eyes up this hill, so many eyes attached to cameras. I bring my camera out and start taking photos in order to hide myself. There’s a group of tourists operating a drone and making a short film of one of the monuments that Staff imagines people eroding with their pee. There are couples exchanging in the task of photographing each other, accidentally capturing a view over Edinburgh that has become so affiliated with television reports on elections and referendums. Bodies are squeezed in every case into the edges of pictures. I’m reminded of this story of a study into a male homosexual community in the 1960s by Evelyn Hooker. She inserts herself into gay bars and traces gazes across rooms as men make eyes at each other. As she studies, she realises that she is also participating and intruding in this game of looking. One of those things about the scene, is that we document and keep check on our colleagues. We, the self-monitoring species.
‘Look out to sea’: a cruise ship. I grew up here, so it’s natural for me to forget that not all places are like this. The cruise ships bring people every summer for the festivals, and I recall articles that surfaced telling us they were going to ban cruise ships from Venice because of the disturbance they caused. All the waves were slapping off mudflats and dislodging the many stakes (themselves shipped from neighbouring countries) that hold the island together. There’s an expression in theatre about ‘bums on seats’ and a line in the walk about the impressions left on the hill by asses in the mud. I’m suddenly very aware that even sitting down somewhere to look is to be complicit with a type of violence. I keep walking: a moving image is somehow more comforting and less accountable than a still one.
Phenoxyethanol, Ethylhexylglycerin, and Imidazolidinyl Urea
The drone flies overhead again, I naively shelter in another spot where two half-trees form a shadow from the public thoroughfare of the hill. I wonder if drones need lubrication?
In our lubricant, it is used to adjust pH levels. I learn about the word ‘miscibility’, the property in a given substance to fully dissolve into another, ‘A body of water is filled with many bodies.’ A series of bodies shipped between places: the prominence of the slave trade in Edinburgh; botanical specimens linked to scientific enlightenment; spices and perfumes as gifts from exotic lands. Waters contained and designated by their surfaces, by bottles, jars, organs, skins, expectations, performance, inheritance. In some ways I worry that miscibility flirts with the notion of homogenisation, and also that lubrication is just about high performance levels. But I think Staff uses the metaphor to propose the dissolution of organisation, of otherness, towards a full contamination. It’s more a horizon, as we gaze out past the cruiseliners to where the ocean curves past sight.
Gordon Douglas works in close conversation with organisations and groups towards deconstructing the acts of collaboration and performance. He is a performance artist and curator currently based in Edinburgh.