Encounter was a public arts project that happened in town centres across North Kent. Between July and November 2011, Encounter transformed six urban sites in Medway and the boroughs of Gravesham and Swale. The project commissioned a creative documentation team to the commissions, and more broadly, to the sites Encounter occupied and the themes it explored. The team included writer-in-residence Johanna Linsley and photographer-in-residence Alex Eisenberg.
This is the first in a series of reflections on the spaces of the Encounter project. Now I am the detective, thinking of myself as an observant outsider, piecing together a puzzle from atmosphere and interactions. I am, of course, firmly planted in the amateur tradition, obligated only to my own instinct and intuition, with the privileges and pitfalls those entail. I have drifted through Gravesend, taking note of details and also, surely, failing to grasp the big picture. It remains to be seen if I am a lucky savant or a bumbler, or both.
I am familiar now with the high-speed train that terminates at Faversham, which takes me from St. Pancras station to Gravesend. Like any hobbyist, I find my own personal pleasures. It is important to get a table and a seat facing in the direction of travel. A sandwich or some crisps are nice companions. I read sometimes, but mostly I look out the window, or eavesdrop. Eavesdropping is important, actually. Key, even. Banal pleasures these, exactly what I would expect to be pleasurable, which only adds to it really.
Not all pleasures are expected, though, and not all idiosyncrasies are (only) pleasurable. It may be a result of methodology, but my encounters with Gravesend have thrown up a range of obsessions, enthusiasms and personal quests. I am interested in the risks ¬– the dangers – of these. Visiting the Gravesend market stalls (for the opening of Lucy Steggal’s project Mr. Whale), I spoke with a young woman named Esther, who has recently opened her own stall selling African clothing and hair style accessories. She had shining eyes and palpable energy. She spoke with excitement about being her own boss and with weariness about the hours she worked and with an edge of concern about the numbers of people who shop at the market. What does it take to create your own world, I thought? How much money and time and other people do you need to be in charge of your life?
I am interested, as well, in shared pursuits. The language of teams, the shorthand that stops short of jargon, confirms purpose and gives form to passion. I am keen to think of the shape of places by feeling the contours of its enthusiasms. I am hoping to specify this generic sentiment by considering Gravesend’s consuming interests.
I have two leads, two fugitive hints, that I hope might help.
It is Saturday, 23 July, and it is Gravesend’s Big Day Out, a town-wide celebration which is itself part of a week-long festival called Big 7. Gravesham borough council has organised the space of the celebration into five ‘rings’ and an ‘Olympic torch’ area, emphasising the town’s proximity to London in anticipation of the most famous amateur display in the world. I wonder who the audience is for this reminder – the people of Gravesend are presumably aware of London 2012.
The Blue Ring is the sporting zone. Various organisations are displaying their skills and signing up new prospective participants. I stop and watch as a group of small girls and a few small boys line up at a blue gymnastics mat. One at a time, but in quick succession, the children take running starts and flip, handspring, somersault and cartwheel. These acts, while impressive, are not quite for an audience, though they are public. The mats are set behind a tent that blocks the view from the largest part of the gathered crowds of the festival. The other children watch as one of their members performs her feat, but with the slightly distracted attention of one preparing or recovering from her own routine. The spectacle has a displaced quality. The children are flipping to flip, and the spectators, while tolerated or even welcome, are just ever so slightly beside the point.
There is a romance to this for-the-sake-of-it attitude, which I am surely, at least partly, manufacturing. As I wander towards the brass band playing in the bandstand in the centre of the Old Fort, I feel out of time and place, and this effect is partly manufactured as well. So English, all of this. I sit and I let myself stop worrying about authenticity, and the team-ness of nationality. Two teenagers walk past me and the band and fall over themselves laughing.
I am sitting in the Riva Waterside Restaurant and Bar, at the end of the refurbished Gravesend Town Pier. At the end of the pier, where I am sitting and eavesdropping, there is a view of the Tilbury Ferry Station on the Essex side of the Thames. It so happens that a barge race is taking place on the river as well, and the objects of my covert observation are hobbyist photographers snapping the big, beautiful ships on the water.
An older man, I’d guess he is sixty-five or seventy years old, is the most prominent in his enthusiasm. He is wearing trousers high on his waist. He is talking to a younger middle-aged man about other races he has shot, and the ideal angles and positions for his pursuit. A woman wearing a long jumper and silver jewelery arrives and begins to photograph as well. The man with the high trousers leans over and points. ‘There’s your shot’, he says.
‘Yes’, she says.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to tell you how to suck eggs’.
The man in the high trousers turns to the other man and swallows, and says: ‘there’s your shot’. The other man nods.
(Photo inside the Gravesend archive by Alex Eisenberg for Encounter (a project of NKLAPP).
Photographic Documentation for Encounter by Alex Eisenberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Please credit Alex Eisenberg and Encounter (a project by NKLAPP) in any re-use.
Based on a work at www.encounter-northkent.co.uk.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.alexeisenberg.com.