Try walking sometime, when you venture out into your site of interest. Walking there means a slow approach, a gradual phasing into your surroundings. Depending on you yourself and your site of interest, your presence there might be relatively inconspicuous, or then again it may not be that at all. Either way, walking can give you time to look around.
And if you try this walking sometime, try drawing as well. Try to draw what you see as you walk where you walk. Don’t worry about revealing some inner creative genius that you don’t think you have. The aim instead is to pay attention: to look around you for what you might draw, to see what stands out to you, to keep yourself present in the space that you’re in, and to find a different kind of concentration as you dart back and forth between the paper you draw on and the space you draw in.
This is roughly the brief that I set for a walk through Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord as an invitation to workshop participants to reflect on the theme of our conference: Common Grounds. It corresponds to the assignment I have set myself for some time: to walk around in my own work (Vos 2019). As I walked around the sites I study – among others, the EU in Brussels, the International Court of Justice in The Hague – I found I came to understand them better. Walking around these sites helped me both to literally see the institutions and to familiarize myself with my own responses to them. I gained a tangible impression to complement my mental image of these abstract institutions.
Walking itself has been subject to academic – and artistic – scrutiny for some time. ‘[N]amely: the walk, as an event; the walker, as a human subject; and, walking, as an embodied act’ (Lorimer 2011: 19). The walk has been conceptualized for example as a geographical line, a political marker (Hilal et al. 2013; Taycan 2013). The walker has been studied as a more and less contested body in a space (Kanellopoulou and Ntounis 2023), and as a vessel for observation and reflection (Solnit 2014). Walking can be a mode of transport, of leisure, or of protest (Youatt 2022). I draw on it here as a mode of exploration.
What I like about walking is that it puts you in a concrete encounter with your object or site of study. In the language of the theme of the conference mentioned: there is a very literal Common Ground involved, it is the ground we walk on. In the exploration of this common ground, we set out from the same starting point, again literally so. What different members of our group experience or perceive subsequently may both diverge and converge. It interests me how the experience of a visitor to a site in this way is both particular to that individual, but also not entirely so. It means that there is some extent to which your experience can stand in for mine, and this is a useful given for research.
Pieces of (institutional) architecture or public spaces, like the Landschaftspark, are made as much as found. In their design they are made to speak, to materialize a certain sense, a message, a value. Whether this message is received, amended, warped, or ignored by a visitor is in principle up in the air. Yet strikingly, observations and responses also recur. The Landschaftspark is a large industrial site which’ original function was discontinued as such in 1985. The central question for its future re-design was: ‘What do we do with rusting steel giants and a 200-hectare polluted industrial wasteland?’. The design-answer articulated by Peter Latz preserved the industrial facilities as well as the flora and fauna that had developed since the closure of the works, yet transformed the brownfield site into a large open recreational space and simultaneous ‘living witness’ to the history of ironworks technology. The Landschaftspark is thus dominated by derelict industrial structures. These are also the common thread spun out in the drawings made by people in our group. Yet where some participants observed the botanical diversity taking over the industry-scape, others experienced the derelict industrial structures as real-life dystopia.
Walking is part of a reflexive methodology related to auto-ethnography, or ethnography of space. In paying attention to a site as I walk through it and draw it, I find inspiration in work in Museum Studies advocating an intuitive and reflexive approach to the physical experience of being in a space (Yanow 1998). Sandra Dudley articulates how the materiality of a space to her is ‘essentially physical and we know it is everywhere, inside and outside our bodies, because we apprehend it through our senses’ (Dudley 2013: xv). She continues how materiality ‘connotes the form and the materials of which an object consists, together with the techniques by which it may have been made or formed, any additions or presentational conventions […] and all and any traces of the passage of time and, especially, physical human interaction’ (Dudley 2013: 7). These are helpful pointers for guiding a gaze around a site.
Drawing is one way of subsequently (or simultaneously) putting to paper the experience of visiting a site. It is a mode of description that – like writing – is far from neutral and that makes explicit your personal presence. Again, there is a realistic component to this – you describe the site as you see it, even if you avoid a neutral or detached perspective. You interpret meaning to someone at this site, and you stand in for that person to some extent. The aim is to derive provisional understandings about the meanings the site has.
Like walking, drawing is an ancient technique. Both are physical and analogue. As modes of exploration, they are clumsy, which is their advantage. They are not about seeing everything or about creating the perfect representation, they are about being there. Their clumsiness moreover gives licence – like walking and drawing in a group give license. Pioneering artists in Dadaism emphasized how intentionally clumsy techniques enhance attention to texture, and how being forced to pause and observe helps seeing an object or site in a much more active, multisensory way (Stolk and Vos 2023).
So, once the slow record of a site has been gathered, what does it show? Clearly, there are any number of ways in which to analyse a site. To name a few, you can look for the juxtaposition of values and needs; for the embeddedness of a site within its larger surroundings or the broader city; or for audience expectations. The ‘whole idea’ of the Landschaftspark is to show that ‘a so-called brownfield site can elevate itself far beyond [...]... preconceptions’ of ‘grey iron and rusting steel’ as first associations of disused ironworks. As you can see, our drawings pick up on the varied textures that can be perceived instead.
Bird, Gemma, Freistein, Katja, Paker, Hande and Unrau, Christine (convenors) (2023). ‘Imagining Common Grounds: New World(s) in the Making?’, Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, University of Duisburg-Essen, 9–11 July, available at: https://www.gcr21.org/events/upcoming/imagining-common-grounds-new-worlds-in-the-making?type=rss%27nvopzp (accessed 29 September 2023).
Dudley, Sandra (2013). Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, London: Routledge.
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Kanellopoulou, Jenny and Ntounis, Nikos (2023). ‘A Chronotopic Evaluation of Autonomous Rog: The Spatiotemporalities of a “Quasi-Public” Urban Squat’, Social and Legal Studies: An International Journal, (online first), available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09646639221147650 (accessed 29 September 2023).
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Solnit, Rebecca (2014 reprint edition). Wanderlust: A History of Walking, London: Granta (original 2000, Viking).
Stolk, Sofia and Vos, Renske (2023). ‘Collaging and Frottage as Legal Methodology’, Critical Legal Thinking, 24 January, available at: criticallegalthinking.com/2023/01/24/collaging-and-frottage-as-legal-methodology/ (accessed 29 September 2023).
Taycan, Serkan (2023). ‘Between Two Seas’ 4-Day Walking Trail,2013–ongoing, first presented at the 13th Istanbul Biennial, available at: www.serkantaycan.com (accessed 29 September 2023).
Vos, Renske (2019). ‘A Walk Along the Rue de la Loi: EU Façades as Front- and Backstage of Transnational Legal Practice’, in Lianne Boer and Sofia Stolk (eds), Illuminating the Backstage of Transnational Legal Practice, London:Routledge, 142-156.
Yanow, Dvora (1998), ‘Space Stories: Studying Museum Buildings as Organizational Spaces While Reflecting on Interpretive Methods and Their Narration’, Journal of Management Inquiry, 7(3): 215–239.
Youatt, Rafi (2022). ‘Walking the International’, International Political Sociology, 16(4):1–18.
Dr Renske Vos is a research fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research and assistant professor of international law at the department of Transnational Legal Studies, Faculty of Law, at VU Amsterdam. She is co-founder of the research platform legal sightseeing. Her research projects are tied together by an interest in visualizations and socio-legal studies of international law and governance.