‘A City Romance: A Response to CHART Collective’s “I Was Here” Project’, by Molly Lukin, with photos by Alan Weedon

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All photos by Alan Weedon.

 

Together, we mapped the city. I had fantasised hard about this – the ways I would translate my streets to you in a diagram of myself; how I would show you not just this city, but my city. I wanted you to know how I walk a street in my hometown. We had lived around each other for over a year in another place that wasn’t ours, with another language to articulate our feelings and give directions to the bus. Now you were here.

I wanted you to know how I walk a street in my hometown.

What ghosts of a person inhabit the places they’ve been, and where in their mind do those sites haunt them back? Memory is a city of built-up structures, underground and lesser-known passageways, crumbling yet resilient facades. And it is always under (re)construction in the re-telling.

To map someone’s mind through the places that shape them is intimate; CHART Collective’s I Was Here project was a different kind of intimate, a mapping of the city by the memories that got stuck. It led us through a gallery of stories haunting Melbourne. The 44 printed posters told anonymous ‘micro-stories’, pasted up around the CBD in the place they were set: corners, alleys, cafes, shops and university campuses. I Was Here made public art of recalling individual experience, tempting collective memory.

Every word held the weight of countless others left unsaid.

The 300-character constraint of each story created a delicacy in their structure. Every word held the weight of countless others left unsaid. Some referenced events experienced collectively by Melbourne residents—fireworks in Fed Square; the wall collapse on Swanston Street in 2013 that killed three people—interweaved with private narratives. Many simply described interactions, moments of alienation, connection or solidarity: “Before concepts like age and loss and grief soften and dispersed us, we met here, pledging to keep the knife’s edge.” Some held a sense of finality: “He murmurs goodbye and runs for the tram. I watch the fireworks alone.” Another, more ambiguous, hinted at trauma: “Then I knew what she was for them. She’d only ever be a body in the ice.” Some cast the narrator as protagonist and Melbourne public figures as co-stars: “I don’t say I might have a disease which could make me blind. I shake [Jack Charles’] hand and thank him for being legendary.” In others the narrator was a detached observer: “The cleaner looks puzzled so the lady shouts, staccato ‘Not. A. Very Good. Job.’ The cleaner replies in a thick accent ‘I know; it’s the worst job ever.’”

Unsurprisingly, the city itself emerged as a theme. The setting was important to each story, but it also provided the rare doubled context of being read in the place where it happened. At Elizabeth Street corner, a tram clunked by and dinged its bell and the musical hum of vendors yelling prices in the market hall droned on, while we read about summer discount mangoes, life chats, and sipping juice with a stranger after a financial exchange – all moments that had unfolded in the clamour behind us. Words alone can evoke a strong setting in a story, but in this instance, the physical reading environment enriched the experience. Well, that’s the damn beauty of reading, you said, its ability to transport you to a place or time you’ll never be. But now, we were there.

The arch of Flinders Street bore down on me

We stood on the steps of Flinders Street station, which were buzzing with people who had a date with a train. I told you about Flinders St during the hottest days of the year, when I would skip school and make a plan to meet my friends under the clocks and ride the Sandringham Line out to the beach. Before we had mobile phones. We waited without knowing if someone had been caught by their parents and made to go to school or if they were just late. Once, I waited hours alone. The arch of Flinders Street bore down on me, the air thick with heat. I sat on the grey, scuffed tiles of the foyer, eyeing off the heavy-clasped boots of my dream goth girl, and glanced up to see her snakebite piercings smirking back.

I Was Here didn’t set itself up to be entirely offline. An online map showed people where to find the posters, though some had been taken down or we just couldn’t find them. You remember, 5pm on a Friday: our first attempt. The streets vibrated with footsteps leading screen-eyed workers home. Between looking up in the analogue search, I was looking down, moving the digital map around with my forefinger, minimising and maximising, squinting at the small screen. “How does this little red cross translate IRL right now? The fuck is it?!” You were stubborn and refused to participate. You asked if I thought I Was Here was a provocation to get people off their phones and engaging with their environment. You walked behind and back around the same corner, pontificating on the value of ‘looking up’. We both failed. We prepared ourselves to better ‘enjoy the art of walking’ by printing a map I could fold in my hands, something you felt freed us from our screen cages.

There’s ghosts of dirty angst and illicit teen activity in there, lemme tell you.

Walking through Degraves, I showed you the table I drank my first coffee at, where I rolled smokes for my friends back when I swore I’d never be a smoker. And see, those toilets? They were once public, always unlocked. There’s ghosts of dirty angst and illicit teen activity in there, lemme tell you. You laughed at me and rolled your eyes. I took you downstairs to find the story pasted at Sticky. On the zine-store shelves, I pointed out all my friends by their comics, told you which ones were sad guitar players at seventeen.

The project got me in a nostalgic headspace. As we walked, I started noticing things I’d stopped noticing: where the phone booths are, which streets are lined with trees and which are not. I’ve spent most of my formative years navigating the CBD, and I Was Here provoked dormant memories: hailing a delivery truck on Spring Street, 4am on a Friday, and convincing the driver to give a lift to two wasted teenagers. Bagels rolled around our feet in the front seat where all three of us bunched in together. An individual’s memories of place are distinct, though they become porous and overlap with others through intersecting experiences. What of people whose emotional histories are outside of major cities? You were a visitor; you said it felt like a new way to get to know an environment that was still foreign but starting to become familiar. The city is also a place where my friends have been assaulted and where I have been sexually harassed, told I’m a dyke and going to hell. The identity and experience of an audience, as with all art, shapes meaning-making and interpretation; we were sensitive to the specific parts of our experience that lit up in our encounters with the stories.

My memories haunted me but I was also thrust into a state of heightened awareness of the people around me, imagining their story arcs in this moment summarised into prose 300-characters long. Looking for stories, re-rooted in the present, I Was Here had my brain switched over to storytelling mode; I was experiencing the present as a past described, I was narrating happenings in real time, and they tumbled into the past before me. At lunch, we sat in the bright courtyard of QV and I narrated to you: “A young girl in snappy business attire comforts a distressed older woman in the steps leading into a bank. They shape their bodies in the space they share like strangers. There’s a noise, startling us all, that sounds like something from Jurassic Park – a tram screeching to a sudden stop or a crane on construction site. They look up and we share glances.” A creative dissociation, as if experiencing life as a film. I enjoyed it. This was one of the strongest effects of I Was Here: once absorbed in the premise, I was gone.

We hid from the security guard and I watched, entranced

Continuing our search, we passed through the food court where I broke in after-hours with my first great love, when we were still pretending to be ‘just friends’; I explained to you how we hid from the security guard and how I watched, entranced, as she slid her back down the locked automatic doors, our backs facing rush hour Bourke Street.

I kept returning to the absence of authors, and how I instinctively felt an abrasion. Why did I crave an author? You suggested an obsession with authorial legitimacy. There’s a freedom that comes with anonymity, and that can be strategic, but on the other hand it avoids accountability and transparency. Collective memory is always political – the nature of ‘the city’ is shaped by dominant colonial historical narratives and tourism branding. What would be lost and what would be gained by removing anonymity, we wondered. I felt that a project like I Was Here could touch on this in some way, but it wasn’t as present as it could’ve been. Not that the stories weren’t political, but, in a way, the anonymity of the author clouded issues of representation. You liked the anonymity of the stories. You said that with their grounding in place rather than specific personhood, the experience of finding them became a conversation between you and the city. Whose city, though, was the question that lingered.


 

Posters left on the streets don’t last, they decay into the landscape. It creates something else, something that can be predicted but can’t be controlled. If you put up a poster in an established street art alleyway – which is now, due to strategic city planning, one of the only places in the CBD where graffiti is ‘allowed’, co-opted into the Melbourne brand – it’s going to get sprayed on. What unintended meanings does a story about being chased from Union Lane by renegade dumpster bins have when it’s so obscured by tagging it’s nearly illegible? We talked about this as we sat in the crafted aesthetic of ACDC Lane, blue-tinted new apartments above reflecting the clear sky and office buildings of nearby Collins Street. There was a man I assumed was a tourist because he too was in ACDC Lane taking photos of the street art. He had a leather jacket, Ray-Bans and goatee, and said, “He was such a dag, Bon Scott.”

I came to think of the decay as more of a blooming. The posters naturally blossoming into the city environment, instead of being protected by the glass cabinet of bookshops or the paywall of trendy cafes with $4.50 coffees. Isn’t that what public art should be? Brave, vulnerable, and at the mercy of the public to interpret or ignore it, to reappropriate or tear it down in protest.

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An example of such unintended beauty: a story pasted on the bollard in Degraves. A poster for a comedy show had been glued on top of it and we tried to unveil it, like we had at other street corner bollards, but I knew we’d just destroy it. We settled with what could be read, the last two words or so from each sentence:

Saturday
lumbers
at no one.
I come beside
the corner into,
together. I
face and feel
You just
knows it, so
and wonder

I got so off on it I reread it aloud to you, next to amused city shoppers lining up for Belgian waffles. The same place where my teen girlfriend took us for our first date. We had got Nutella stuck on our teeth; our hands, dusted with icing sugar, had touched along the counter edge, my heart in a rush. The handsome owner of the shop looked as young and charming as he did ten years ago. I face and feel.

We walked back up along the tram tracks across Princes Bridge, down the steps, pass the boathouses and sat on the grass. We watched skaters from afar. I told you I know it’s egotistic, dragging you through Melbourne like this, but it’s a trip I’d hoped you had an investment in. We compared cities; compared cultures; compared lives. You listed the places you’d take me in your hometown, told me how you walk your streets.


Molly Lukin writes poetry, short fiction and non-fiction, mostly on love, sex and queer intimacies. She’s run queer storytelling workshops, she makes community radio for 3CR and also works for The Lifted Brow. Her writing can be found online at The Suburban Review, Scum Mag, SPOOK. She has a self-published collection of poems called Intimacy and other bruises, released in September 2015. She hates bios; loves strip karaoke.

Alan Weedon is a writer and photographer brought up in the badlands of Melbourne’s West. He’s keen on urbanism, architecture and other things explored in VICE, Broadsheet Melbourne, and The Quietus, among others. He tweets @alnwdn