Thursday, December 30, 2010

The hotel fight

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

I woke up with a dusty feeling in my throat and the light from the early morning sun filtering through the slats on the window shutters directly into my eyes.

The noises of a foreign city came into my room from the street below: the swish of car tyres on the wet streets, the clanging of a beer barrel being unloaded from a delivery truck, the continuous whirr of the mechanical sidewalk cleaning machines.

After a while my attention turned to a noise that was closer. Two people were arguing in the room next to mine. It sounded like they were speaking French, so I couldn’t understand all that they were saying. But from the tone of their voices, I could tell that it was a dispute of some sort. There is a rhythm in the voice when a man and a woman are shouting at each other which sounds the same in every language. The back and forth between the low voice and the high voice. The talking across each other. The outraged pauses when one side simply can’t believe what the other side is saying. The gradual escalation of the tone, like singers edging closer to the top C of their anger. And this couple in the hotel room next to mine were like highly-trained experts, specialists, divas of resentment.

After a few minutes, it was clear that they weren’t going to stop for a while. I got out of bed, pulled on some clothes, and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth. Suddenly there was the sound of a loud thump, accompanied by a scream. I dashed back into my room, picked up the phone, and dialed ‘0’. After two long sustained beeps, the concierge answered:

‘Yes, sir?’

‘I’m calling about the people in room 312. There’s a lot of shouting, and I think someone might have got hurt—‘

‘We have already had four people complain about the noise, sir,’ said the concierge, interrupting me. ‘The police are on their way.’

In fact the police had already arrived. When I opened the door of my hotel room, two officers were standing in the hallway. One of the officers was standing next to a young woman with long hair, sheltering her by holding his arm across the front of her body. She was pressing both hands to one side of her face and sobbing loudly. The other officer went through the open door of room 312, from which came the sounds of the man’s voice, still shouting loudly. The young woman was wearing a grey t-shirt which only came down as far as her belly, exposing her white cotton underwear. From the end of the hallway, one of the other hotel guests who like me had come out to gawp at the commotion came up to the officer and handed him a blanket, which the officer carefully draped over the sobbing woman’s shoulders. A few moments later, the second officer led a handcuffed man out of the room by the elbow. He was dressed in t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He was well built, with curly hair that came down to his shoulders, and a dark growth of beard. He was quiet now, but as he was led past the young woman, she began screaming at him and tried to punch him. He ducked to one side, and the blow landed clumsily against his shoulder. It was apparently enough to re-ignite the argument, so the officers led both of them away, the man to the elevator at the end of the hallway, the woman to the staircase.

When they had gone, I looked at the other guests, prepared to exchange an amused or annoyed roll of the eyes, or a shake of the head and a smile, some gesture that would indicate a response to the incident that we had all witnessed. But no-one met my gaze. There were perhaps seven or eight people in the hallway, and each one of them merely looked away, walked quietly back to their rooms, and shut their doors.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

She took me to her place

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

I met someone at a bar today. She was tall, slim, with long dark hair. She interrupted me as I was reading a book at a table near the front window, and said that I looked lonely. We chatted for a while. I asked her where she lived, and she told me that it was not far away. I asked her if I could see her apartment, as the only living quarters I had seen so far were my hotel room and the insides of Renaissance palaces. She smiled and said, Sure, why not? 

We left the bar and walked just two streets to a building with a big arched wooden door and a smaller door for residents to come and go through. We went up a winding staircase with stone steps to the third floor. I noticed three things after we went in. The first was the view from her windows across the rooftops to Lake Lucerne. The second was that, as I turned back to look at her, she was already lifting off her sweater over her head. The third thing was a framed poster of a swan, hanging over the bed.

“I have to leave,” I said.

“What?” she said. “Are you serious?”

“Yes,” I said, blushing and walking back towards the door. “I’m sorry.”

As I closed the door behind me, I heard her say: “You asshole.”

The funny thing is, when she said that, my parting thought was: Wow, your English is really good.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The swans on Lake Lucerne

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010. 

Everybody says that Lucerne is an easy city to walk around. That depends on how far you have to go on any particular journey. I didn’t have to go far, for example, to see my first dead swan. 

I had just eaten fondue in a restaurant, during a crowded lunch hour in which diners were being ‘entertained’ by a man dressed in lederhosen and a trilby hat with a green feather sticking out the top who was yodeling, not quite in tune, at the top of his voice. I tried to eat the fondue as fast as I could, but the hot cheese kept scalding my mouth. I was determined to finish it, however, because it was a fairly expensive menu item. So I endured the yodeling and tried to county how many times he sang flat notes, how many times sharp. He was more flat than sharp, I think. 

Anyway, as soon as I had finished my meal and paid, I left the restaurant and headed towards Lake Lucerne. Because everything is so close at hand in the centre, I reached the water’s edge in just a few minutes. I sat down on a wrought-iron seat overlooking a weir, and taking out my bottle of sparkling local mineral water, I once again found myself admiring the view of the mountains that surround the lake. It was then that I noticed the swan, swimming in a slow circle in the weir. It was making a plaintive honking sound, lifting its head back on its long neck and delivering the noise into the moist air, then lowering its beak back towards the water. It kept on circling around the same spot, as if bothered by something. I couldn’t see what it was at first, but then I saw a dark shape floating in the water. 

When I stood up to get a better look, I saw that it was another swan—presumably the first swan’s mate—drifting in the current of the weir, it’s neck twisted to one side, apparently broken.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The scent of sacramental candles

from an imaginary Lucerne diary, 2010

I went to some of the museums today. I took a sketchbook and some coloured pencils with me, and inside the Picasso Museum I settled down before a painting from his high Cubist phase and began to draw from it. I tried not to look at the page as I was drawing, and instead tried to move the pencil in the direction that my eyes were moving. Occasionally this means that the pencil strays off the edge of the paper, but that’s all right. I find that as I relinquish the feeling of wanting to control my hand, I start to draw more slowly, in longer, more continuous strokes. And then when I look back at the page, it turns out that everything is more or less in the right place; even if it isn’t, an interesting drawing of some kind is always there.

This way of drawing induces a meditative state, where you stop hearing and seeing what’s going on around you. But after I had been sketching for maybe twenty minutes, I began to notice a couple arguing a few feet away from me. They were American, a man and a woman in their sixties, and they were arguing about me.

“Is that pencil or crayon?” said the woman to the man.

“That’s crayon, definitely crayon,” he replied, in a tone that implied ‘how can you be so stupid.’

They went back and forth like this for a while, without even looking at me. So at some point I held up the pencil and said loudly:

“They’re definitely pencils.”

Their reaction was not what I expected. Their heads whipped round towards me, as if I had just grabbed them by the arm, and instead of looking grateful that I had settled the argument for them, they looked almost hostile, like I was interfering in their private business. The man was almost sneering at me as, taking his wife by the right elbow, he steered her away from what he evidently considered to be some form of danger.

When I left the museum, I overheard another conversation between an old man and the person at the admission kiosk. He was also American, but not well-dressed like the arguing couple. He had thin grey hair that was plastered over his scalp in oily tendrils. He was hunched forward in a way that suggested he couldn’t really straighten his back. He was asking the admissions person how much it cost to go in. She told him the price, clearly not convinced that he had the money to enter. He rummaged through the pockets of his long, shabby tweed overcoat and pulled out a few coins in shaking hands. As I went around him to get to the exit, I caught the faint odour of sacramental candles.

Monday, October 25, 2010

On the Kapelbrucke at midnight

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

No matter where I walk in this city, I keep coming back to the bridge.

Today I went there after spending a few hours in a subterranean bar, the kind that has rocky stone walls and low vaulted ceilings like the crypt in a church. Sconces were fixed into the walls bearing huge candles that were covered with rippling cascades of dried wax. In the centre of the ceiling hung a chandelier that looked like it was made from the metal rim of a cart-wheel. It was suspended over a wide plank table, but one person sitting at the table still banged his head every time he stood up or leaned over to kiss the woman sitting opposite. I sat in a table tucked into a corner, reading a book and drinking wine, until a gay couple started to have a loud argument. They were a young pretty man and a much older man with grey close-cropped hair, and although I couldn’t understand what they were saying it was clear from the raised voices, the talking at the same time, and the fact that the older man was getting red in the face that things weren’t going well for them. When the younger man abruptly stood and knocked his chair to the floor with a loud bang, I decided to leave.

It was past midnight when I went out into the street. Without really thinking about where I was going, I realized that I was standing near the narrow walkway that leads onto the Kapelbrucke. Only a few people were on the bridge at this hour, compared to the crowds who throng the bridge during the day. Halfway across I stopped to look down at the lights from the bars on the quay reflected on the river in broad brushstrokes of magenta and blue. About ten feet away from me, an old man was doing the same. I don’t know why, but he looked Swiss. I wondered to myself how many times in his life he had walked across this bridge, and how many times he had stopped to look down at the river at night.

Just then, the wind rose, and through the slats in the wood beneath my feet came a smell of diesel oil and fish

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

After the rain

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

Things are a bit better since the last time I wrote. The carnival is over, and the streets are less crowded then they were. But there are still a lot of people around—mainly tourists like me. I find myself following the guided tours at the interesting sites, keeping at the edges so they don’t ask me to pay, trying to discern which language they are speaking, hoping that they will be speaking mine. The city is beautiful, and more impressive than I had expected. Everyone makes fun of Switzerland for being built on a small scale, and for being clean and efficient, as if running an orderly society is a mark of dullness. Hardly any of the buildings are more than a few stories tall, but there is such variety in the facades, from medieval wooden cross-beams to Renaissance palaces. Many of the streets in the city centre are cobbled, so that even your feet adjust to a new surface, are forced to be aware of the difference between here and home.

Towards evening, as the sun was about to go down, I was returning to my hotel when I saw an interesting looking woman crossing the square ahead of me. There had been a brief shower which had coated the cobblestones in a bright sheen of reflective water. She was walking with the sun at her back, so that her figure was in shadow and seemed to be joined to the shadow reflected in the wet road to create one vastly elongated person. As we passed each other, she glanced at me, briefly, and for a second I glimpsed her face, and saw that her right eye was missing.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know what all these people are doing here. There is a giant float in the street, with bamboo walls and a palm frond roof. Inside the float are miniature human skulls, and the heads of roaring animals. The skull of a deer with huge antlers protrudes from the front of the float. No-one is on the float, and the driver is hidden somewhere below all the decoration. The float glides by, unmanned and somehow sinister. Yet the people standing around it are cheering, and hooting, and blowing plastic horns that make an ear-splitting noise. They are speaking a language that I can’t understand, so that even if I asked them what was going on, I wouldn’t be able to understand their answers. I wonder why I came here. I am starting to miss home, and the way that back there we respect the space between people even in the narrowest of streets.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Strange trio

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

There was man in chainmail which came down to his knees, covered his arms, and covered his head like a faceless balaclava. Over the chainmail he wore a red tunic with the design of a black shield on the front. He was accompanied by two women. One of them was a vampire, who was exposing her animal-like fangs and pretending to bite through the flesh of his neck. She wore a crushed red velvet dress with a high collar. The other woman wore a pink dress and a pink and white feather boa. On her head was a wide yellow hat made from foam. Her hat bore symbols in black writing that I couldn’t recognize. She was pressing her hand against the vampire woman’s chest in an effort to keep her away from the man. At the same time she was leaning towards the man with her lips pursed as if attempting to kiss him. The women started to tussle with each other, which seemed to please the man. He grinned as they reached around him and began to grab at each other’s clothes. As the woman in the yellow foam hat began to scream at the vampire woman, the man took his life-size fake sword, raised it into the air with both hands, and shouted: “I command you in the name of the King to stop!”

Friday, September 24, 2010

The red fireball

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

I saw the red fireball spinning in the black night air. I watched it for so long that when I closed my eyes I could still see traces of it, scored into the back of my eyelids like scratches on metal. I had just woken up and left the hotel in a dream-like state, not knowing yet whether I was awake or still asleep. The streets were already full of people even though it had just got dark. They all stood shoulder to shoulder watching the red fireball go round and round, trailing tails of flame as it spun. I felt afraid for the people standing near it, afraid that they would be burned and in running away from it start a stampede in the crowd. But no-one moved. Everyone stared without blinking at the red flame, which now had ceased spinning and instead appeared to be growing, like the film of a noiseless explosion running in extreme slow motion. The heads of the people furthest away from me and closest to the fireball made black silhouettes against the red. I realized that this is what medieval believers had in mind when they thought of the souls of sinners, huddled together in the dark abysses of hell while the scorching plumes of fiery brimstone bore down on them from above.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Arrival in Lucerne

from an imaginary visit to Lucerne, 2010.

We got here yesterday and checked into our hotel. The hotel is a little far from the centre of Lucerne, but the public transport system here is so good that you can get to the old town in about ten minutes. The man at the desk who checked us in was very friendly. Unlike in Prague, where the person at the front desk tossed the room key towards me so that I had no chance of catching it, and then when it fell to the floor and I picked it up, she didn’t say sorry or even acknowledge that she might have done something unfriendly. The people in this Swiss hotel seem really nice, by contrast. The room is basic, but clean. There are two small beds, and when we got there we just lay down and looked at the view of the mountains from the window for a while. We went out armed with a phrase-book to look for something to eat. We were so tired that we just went to a pizza place on the same street, where it turned out that they all spoke English, and so we were able to communicate even though our English is not so good.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Three map-fold books

I've just started a series of map-fold books, so-called because the paper folds and unfolds like one of those collapsible street maps that you can buy when you go to a major city like New York or London.

Each one starts with a print of a street map of central Lucerne, onto which I over-printed found images from the internet of people posing in front of Lucerne landmarks:

I then printed another layer of a found internet image of another Lucerne object, such as a tower, a street, or a bridge:

Finally, I printed some linocut images drawn from the alchemical investigations of Nikolas von Flue, who was a Swiss Catholic mystic associated with the city of Lucerne, and who designed the six-pointed image of the face of God that is instantly recognizable to Swiss people (or so I have read):

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

How did it look back then?

This is a map of Lucerne from the 1881 edition of Baedekers, which at one time was the indispensable guide to European travel. I wonder what the city looked like then? How much more of a medieval or Renaissance city it resembled? How many modern buildings have been constructed in the last 129 years, in that way that old European cities have of nibbling away at their architectural heritage when they are not permitted to do away with it altogether, as in parts of Great Britain? What would the personal narrative of a person in 1881 have looked like?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stolen place names

I went to Maine recently. On my way to the Acadia National park, I passed through a village called Lucerne-in-Maine. I looked it up on the internet when I got back to Chicago, and discovered that it was developed about 100 years ago as a 'planned community', but this idea was shelved when the project ran out of money during the Depression. It was called Lucerne because it is surrounded by wooded mountains and lakes in an area that the locals call 'the Switzerland of America'. Apart from a big resort hotel, there was no real town as such.
Lucerne-in-Maine, USA
I suppose the surrounding area is reminiscent of Swizterland. But I would bet that the real Lucerne is very different.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

She pitied him

from a series of prints based on
random internet photos
She pitied him, and that is why she was more patient than she would normally have been with a customer. It was the lined face, the hunched shoulders, the frayed collar of his old dress shirt, and the slight odour of sacramental candles that did it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The tower

from a series of prints based on
random internet photos
The tower was there when I was born. It was the first thing I remember seeing apart from my mother's face. I used to stand on the walkway of the bridge when I was a child, staring down through the gaps in the slats, interrupting the flow of pedestrians, inhaling the smell of oil and fish from the port.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The glare of the bulbs on the carnival stall

from a series of prints based on
random internet photos
I watched you for half an hour as you stood there, your face hidden in shadow, your entire body a silhouette created by the glare of the bulbs on the carnival stall.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Empty spaces

from a series of prints based on
random internet photos
They come and they go through the empty spaces, the vacant air that they try to fill with purposeful movement, occasionally interrupted by something seen out the corner of an eye.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A private display of emotion

from a series of prints based on random
internet images
She walked down the street and the buildings behind her appeared to deliquesce. There was a half-smile on her lips, as if she had just remembered something amusing, and then caught herself, embarrassed that a stranger might have caught her unawares as she let slip a private display of emotion.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My shoulder bag

I have been carrying my shoulder bag for over a year now, and I had forgotten that it was made in Switzerland, and has this finely-wrought metal badge sewn into the fabric:
I bought the bag because this Swiss brand has a reputation for making stylish and very durable products. It is a well-deserved reputation. Maybe I forgot about the fact that I was carrying a Swiss-made bag because it was under my arm most of the time, present but less visible. Maybe I noticed it again because of the prints I've been doing for the Lucerne Project, which seem to be dealing with making presences out of things that are invisible to me.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

From A Lucerne Project Sketchbook

Gel medium transfer of xeroxed, damaged photo. White oil pastel. Watercolour.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Here is the first book for the Lucerne Project. Click on the image above to play a short slideshow. The book consists of eight pages, each 6.5 " high by 11" wide, in an accordion fold that opens out to be 89" wide. The method of making the book was as follows:
  • Trawl the internet for publicly-available photos of Lucerne that people have uploaded to the web.
  • Print out small jpegs.
  • Xerox the jpegs and enlarge by as much as 1000%.
  • Ink and print the xeroxes onto light grey printmaking paper.
  • Write a short phrase suggested by each image.
  • Edit the phrases slightly so that they connect to each other.
  • Print each phrase onto the corresponding print.
  • Glue the pages into one long strip, with the division between each page scored so that they can be folded up accordion-style.
Already I can see how this method might be a way of producing a narrative about people I've never met, in a place I've never been, while still retaining a poetic quality to the combination of image and text.

Monday, June 14, 2010

10 things I know about Lucerne, Switzerland

Lucerne is in Switzerland.

It is next to a lake, which might be called Lake Lucerne. I can’t remember exactly.

It has a very old covered wooden bridge across a river.

It has hosted a jazz festival for at least fifty years.

It has a museum with a lot of Picasso’s art in it. I think Picasso might have made some large-scale steel sculptures for Lucerne in the late 1950s or early 1960s.

I think there might also be an annual classical music festival, thought I’m not sure.

I have a vague recollection of the contemporary artist Urs Fischer having a connection with Lucerne.

It is surrounded by the Alps. I think.

It is one of Chicago’s twin cities.

And the tenth thing I know about Lucerne, I now realize, is that I only know nine things about Lucerne. Naturally this will change over the course of this project. If you asked people from Lucerne to list ten things about Newcastle (the place in the UK where I was born and raised), I bet they would know even less. So there’s a point here about the gaps in our knowledge of the world, even with the apparent interconnectedness of our digital universe.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

First damaged photos

I trawl the internet, searching for photos that show the streets of Lucerne, buildings in Lucerne, people in Lucerne. The choice is as much determined by accident as the process of converting them to prints. The images can be standard tourist shots of people posing in front of monuments and ancient edifices, or shots of buses taken by automobile fanatics, or random pictures taken by people during street fairs.

I print out tiny copies of these photos, and then enlarge them again and again on a xerox machine, often by as much as 1000%. I stop when the graininess threatens to dissolve the entire image -- when the 'damage' to the photo is so great that it almost destroys it. What I am left with is always a detail that is different from the original.

I then soak the xerox in a mixture of gum arabic and water, and roll the xerox with a mixture of etching ink and setswell compound. The ink sticks to the toner, but not the white areas. I print these inked xeroxes onto paper, like so:

Or onto wood panels, like so:

The print on wood panel also has some oil pastel added to it. I will proceed with this method until I have created dozens of these prints. At some point I will start to think of text to add to them. The personal narrative is not clear yet. It is contained somewhere in the casual detail, the unfeigned expression, the shy glance, and the brooding presences of the ancient structures. I will keep working until I hear that narrative and can express it somehow.

What is The Lucerne Project?

I make art based on personal narrative, using 'damaged photos'. I use my own photos, or found photos, and enlarge them on a photocopier until the image starts to break down, thus 'damaging' them further. Interesting details and shapes emerge from this process. I then print the images using a process called paper-litho transfer. I combine the prints into artist's books, and these form the basis for work in other media. All the time, I am looking for combinations of image and text that suggest a personal narrative.

Facebook 1, accordion fold book, 16 damaged photo prints+text

Often the personal narrative is my own, based on memories of growing up in a mining town in the north of England. Sometimes I use the personal narratives of other people. The Lucerne Project is an extension of this. The project starts from the fact that Chicago, USA, where I now live, and Lucerne, Switzerland, are twin cities. I asked myself the question: how would I make a personal narrative about people I've never met, in a city I've never been to?

As I explore answers to this question, I will post the results on this blog. My preliminary method is to take publicly-available photos of Lucerne, or taken in Lucerne, print them using the 'damaged photo' method outlined above, and write narratives suggested by the resulting prints.