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Myriam Lefkowitz - Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh), Talbot Rice / Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller - Night Walk for Edinburgh, Fruitmarket

Edinburgh looks different with your eyes closed. So it goes in Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh), Paris-born artist Myriam Lefkowitz’s guided tour with a difference that forms part of Talbot Rice’s wider inquiry into cognition in the gallery’s accompanying exhibition, The Extended Mind. Senses are shaken in different ways in Night Walk for Edinburgh, Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s gothic noir thriller that leads its prey down some of the city centre’s rarely explored back alleys, where they become an accessory and willing pawn in someone else’s game. The fact that these two very different walks are running concurrently speaks volumes about the power of the imagination to change one’s inner landscape as much as the outer one that exists just beyond your front door.

In Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh) (****), audience members are taken by the hand and led individually through a familiar everyday landscape made new by the fact that they have their eyes shut through the walk’s hour or so duration. Such an act of self-discipline might have been made easier with a blindfold, but, as with everything that follows once you go willingly into someone else’s hands, it’s done on trust.

As you’re led through the streets, brushing against strangers with no recourse for apology, gingerly moving up and down stair-wells and effectively being lost and without a compass, the care bestowed upon you gives you the confidence to turn baby-steps into strides into the unknown.

At moments, your guide instructs you to open your eyes, then to close them a nano-second later. Inbetween, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it view of a door or a panoramic view of the city through a window, maybe, become mental snapshots or picture postcards reimagined as somewhere better.

Lefkowitz has introduced Walk, Hands, Eyes to various cities over the last decade, training up a new set of guides each time as she goes. Her methodology in part echoes the Situationists and their notion of the derive, a way of being that saw these serious-minded urbanists drift through cities to absorb their ever-changing energies in order to make psycho-geographic maps of the experience. The difference here is that for the participant, those energies are absorbed as a blind child might do, with the shifting clash of sounds, silences and smells heightened even as you wilfully deprive yourself of sight.

There are moments you think you’re going round in circles, your mind playing tricks that this is all a set-up, and that you’re being taken for a ride, metaphorically at least, if not actually. As you go on, however, snatches of conversations drifting in and out with the traffic noises while wafts of hot food-smell pervade the air, as you navigate the uneven terrain underfoot in the cold light of day before the temperature changes once you move indoors, entire new worlds open up.

This is done in tandem with your guide in a two-way exchange that finds an unspoken empathy, rapport and even intimacy in the choreography that ensues. As you gradually learn to move in rhythm, the relationship evolves into an improvised dance of co-dependent bodies and minds at one in the throbbing heart of the city. 

There is a more calculated narrative thrust in Night Walk for Edinburgh (****), originally commissioned and presented by the Fruitmarket as part of the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival, and now revived for winter with the intention of it becoming an annual event. This new context gives Cardiff and Miller’s hi-tech mix of sound and vision relayed through a mobile screen and headphones a frosty air that lends it even more atmosphere.

Beginning at the bottom of the steps on Cockburn Street, the breathy drawl of Cardiff’s voice acts as narrator and guide as she leads you around the same corners and down the same dead ends mirrored in the video you’re watching. The urgency in her voice sounds possessed with the dramatic deliberation of a spoken-word artist re-booting Raymond Chandler by way of Robert Louis Stevenson. 

From here we’re led through a disarming back-street maze where something untoward lurks behind every metal grille, and poetry unfolds where you least expect to find it. Once you’re in, however solitary, you’re cast as co-conspirator, diving down closes where the dark underbelly that lurks behind the pretty chocolate box façade of this arcane and ugly-beautiful Jekyll and Hyde city comes to grudging after-hours life.

 Out of this emerges an impressionistic detective story that sees Cardiff give chase in a narrative as elusive as the forever-just-out-of-reach woman in a red-coat who comes in and out of view. Her barely-there presence recalls scenes in Nicolas Roeg’s similarly eerie and forensically fragmentary film, Don’t Look Now. Roeg’s Daphne Du Maurier adaptation was set in Venice, another city loaded with hidden menaces.

Even what’s left of Edinburgh’s public spaces, it seems, can put the frighteners on you, as their wide-open desolation is rudely intruded upon by drunken grotesques leaping from the shadows in packs. Jump-cut glitches in the film seem to foretell a messy end.

There are musical cameos from folk legend Dolina MacLennan, who performs a 19th century Gaelic song, and singer/song-writer Kathryn Joseph, whose other-worldly keening bridges ancient and modern in striking fashion.

There’s always a chance, of course, you may stumble on a real life intervention, as I did when the trio with a dog hunched out of view down a close passed around a crack pipe, oblivious to anything beyond. As absorbed as they were, they could easily have been mistaken for extras in Cardiff and Miller’s construction. After almost thirty years devising audio and video walks, such accidental glimpses into harsh reality are probably an occupational hazard. But as parts of their film acknowledge, they are also a sharp reminder of a world beyond the dead-of-night mythology conjured into view in a city where there really are eight million stories.

Myriam Lefkowitz - Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh), Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh until 1st February, 2020. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller - Night Walk for Edinburgh, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh until 31st January 2020. Advance booking is essential for both events.

The List, November 2019

Ends


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