How does one notice the ignored?
If I were to answer this quickly, I would say that it requires an active effort in observing one's physical surroundings.
Excuse me if I'm making unnecessary assumptions, but haven't we all at one point in our lives engaged in the act of people watching? Perhaps sitting at a cafe in a public space, watching cars pass by, children running around, maybe even trying to read the graffiti on nearby buildings.
Other times, it's our movement through or around spaces that offer us a more profound ability to observe our surroundings. Movement activates more than just our sense of sight. It heightens our mental awareness of our own bodies in relation to their physical surroundings, giving us the advantage of being actively present while passively observing.
Guy Debord, a French Marxist theorist and founding member of the Letterist and Situationist International, defined the exploration of the physical, with an emphasis on playfulness and "drifting" as having an effect on the emotions and behavior of individuals as Psychogeography. (Debord, 1955)
"Psychogeography is the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." - Guy Debord, 1955
Dérive, another concept or strategy put forth by Debord, is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and "let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there."
Today, it's easy to come across documentation of this sort of urban exploration. Instagram is littered with all kinds of accounts, ranging from beautifully curated photographs of feet against colorfully patterned tiles to dystopic collections of lonely chairs. The result is a visual escape from the every-day situations in which one can stop and observe, absorb, or even play.
How does one document the ignored?
Kellergasse Gaweinstal is not the beautiful wine cellar one would see on a tour brochure of the Weinviertel in Austria. It's dark, disheveled, and forgotten. An acquaintance of mine admitted to me last year that although she has lived in Gaweinstal her entire life, she has never taken a walk through this lane. She says it's merely creepy.
My first thoughts of the Kellergasse were similar to hers. From the outside, the lane is dark and unsettling. Something about a poorly lit alley with abandoned buildings didn't feel very welcoming. This feeling changed when my husband convinced me that the lane is lovely and a pathway we should add to our daily walks. I remember my first walk through the road, how it was a delight to explore. Today, I enjoy walking through the lane for its quiet and peace away from the relatively busy streets running through this town. The looming trees overhead provide shade, and its position in a deep ravine insulates it from nearby sounds.
To better understand this cellar lane, I deliberately walked through it every day for 5 days. I was inspired by Kouichirou Uno's documentation of a 6 day stay along the Shimanto River. Uno documents things like the date, the weather, and how many fish he caught and ate. In this documentation, we, the viewer, don't learn much about the Shimanto River but instead feel the experience of camping there with Uno. The repetitiveness of the daily catch, the mundane actions to set up camp, grill the fish, and even feed a stray cat help give us a sense of what beginning a life on the river might have been like. (Hara, 2015)
However, unlike Uno, I would not be camping out in Kellergasse Gaweinstal. The lane, which is approximately 150m, should not take more than 10 minutes to walk through. Perhaps 20 minutes if I'm stopping to observe and take photos. So what is it about this lane that I can learn that I haven't already from numerous walks in the past?
In 2019, Cluster Cairo, in collaboration with Amman Design Week, developed a series of non-guided tours in both a physical and digital map. The point of the tours was to feature trails taken along Amman's numerous staircases.
"Serving as both path and destination, the stairways have become landmarks in traversing the history of the city, and are in constant dialogue with its ever-growing number and diversity of citizens." (Amman Design Week, 2019)
What really intrigued me was how the focus was taken away from the destination, and mundane elements, such as stairs, were given the spotlight. The staircases were just as much part of the journey as the history outlined along the tour.
Looking back at my own Kellergasse, I thought of how the lane's various elements could reveal themselves through different walks of observation. I took to using a sketchbook to carry out my studies. For each day of the walk, I recorded my findings on a double-page spread, using prints of photos I've taken as well as notes about the date, time of day, and any unusual occurrences that happened.
On this day, the walk ended quite abruptly due to construction that was happening along the lane. We chose to walk the street parallel to it and observe it from above, in the dark.
On this day, I took as many photographs as I could, documenting only the cellars but sparing out entrances to private grounds and houses (out of respect to that street's dwellers).
On this day, I was unable to take more photos as construction from the previous night had continued. I resorted to studying signage along this street, including traffic signs and house numbers.
On this day, I chose to take oil pastel etchings of the cellars' details. There was a construction worker in a cellar nearby, and we were too shy to continue, so we resorted to photographing the details and heading back home to document them by pen instead.
On this day, I chose to read about this street's history before walking down the lane one last time.
How does one bring attention to the ignored?
After the 5-day walk through Kellergasse Gaweinstal, my feelings about its privacy were cemented. Abandoned cellars, entrances to private grounds and homes, and a relatively narrow pathway made this lane challenging to sell as a tourist destination for wine lovers visiting Lower Austria. However, its quirkiness and underlying beauty were undeniable. I want people to see this lane for themselves, walk through it, and admire everything its 150m of unpaved ground and disheveled structures have to offer.
I started thinking of ideas to bring attention to the lane; here were the ones I jotted down:
A new street sign to distinguish it from other cellar lanes?
What about a poster for an imaginary event that can take place along the lane?
Can the lane benefit from a new name so it can be easier to Google?
Can I visualize imaginary happenings behind each door?
What about a map that serves as an unguided tour of the historic cellars?
What if the map told people where to look and where to look away?
Can a way-finding solution attract passers-by to observe the lane more closely? (Thank you for this idea, Harriet!)
The final idea was my favorite of the bunch by far, so I chose to explore it further. Before settling on a type of way-finding solution, I had to reason with the idea to make it a logical solution for the lane. Here were my thoughts:
Can new signs be installed?
Most likely not. Most of the lane is lined with private structures and grounds, making a municipality intervention with official signage a bit of a hassle and probably upset a few of these cellar owners.
Can signage be added to already existing posts?
Yes, but that might be a traffic hazard as it would distract from other more critical messages.
Can the signage be a part of the ground or natural elements along the lane?
Only if they don't cause any environmental impact on the area.
Stoaroas, or what is known as the "Kindness Rock Project" in English-speaking communities, came to mind when exploring environmentally friendly ways to approach way-finding solutions. This project is a trend that originated in the US and gained popularity across many countries around the world. The idea is to paint rocks and leave them outside in places where others can find, collect, and share them on social media.
Stoaroas is the Austrian edition of the project, taking place primarily online through a Facebook group of more than 17,000 members. Most of them are quite active and rather enthusiastic about the activity. There are instructions on how to participate in both German and English, but the rules are simple: if you find a rock, take a photo of both sides and share them in the group. And if you paint your own stones, be mindful of how you paint them and where you place them.
What if Stoaroas could be the way-finding solution in Kellergasse Gaweinstal? Each rock could represent a cellar, bearing a particular color or unique detail. The stones can be placed on their respective cellars, visible enough for a passer-by to notice.
Five of the 35 cellars in this lane were chosen to be given a Stoaroa. Each stone was carefully painted and then placed at its respective cellar before being photographed for my own documentation. These photos won't be shared with the Facebook group, but my hope is that other passers-by will find them, snap pictures of them, and post them to Facebook for all to see.
Stoaroa 1 - The pink door with a grass hat
Stoaroa 2 - The green door with a detailed wrought-iron gate
Stoaroa 3 - The wooden doors painted blue
Stoaroa 4 -The boarded-up cellar door with posters
Stoaroa 5 - The cellar with a repainted green door
Thank you, little stones. I hope you're found by some thoughtful observers very soon!
Thoughts and conclusions
"1 to 2 km away from where you live, not more." Had this project been any more flexible with our chosen locations, I could have chosen a much more beautiful cellar lane only 5 km away. However, I'm glad the brief offered such a constraint and allowed me to revisit this cellar lane and explore it with a new purpose. If I were to do anything differently for this week, it would have been to decide on a fixed set of parameters to observe while on my walk through the lane each day. My walks were too chaotic and unstructured, and I felt that I didn't do the explorations any justice by not doing some preplanning for these observations. Documentation was another problem I came across this week. Documenting things legibly in a sketchbook is quite difficult for me. Normally, my sketchbooks/notebooks are an absolute mess, with notes from all different types of projects crammed into a single page, sprinkled with ugly doodles. I don't want to settle and say that this is just my natural style, but rather push myself to find an analog documentation system that vibes with me. Note to self: get a dotted page notebook, the vertical and horizontal possibilities sound appealing.
Finally, I would like to point out that due to the "social media" element of this project, it's worth revisiting this week to add any additional notes should the stones get picked up, photographed, and posted to the Stoaroas Facebook group.