Monday 30 August 2010

Empty Benches

I've just posted the 50th and 51st Empty Bench over on our Flickr photo page. I've been collecting them for a while, and have recently been gathering a few close to home and work that I haven't gotten around to. Of course it's not just any bench. There are some rules. So here's where it started.

This is a text in wrote in response to our travels for Pleasant Land in 2004. A version of it was published in the artists' book Slow, edited by Ian Abbott, and then I performed it as part of the Art-Science Encounters event How To Be Creative last March. That led to it being included in Words & Pictures last year, too. It explains where the bench obsession comes from.



I’m taking a photograph of a bench [1], trying to line it up centre frame, and worrying about whether I should have the bench or the sloping pavement level in the viewfinder. Beyond the bench is a small tree, a road, an industrial estate and a factory. Behind me is a queue of traffic, crawling towards a roundabout. It’s a hot sunny day and windows are down.

“What is there to take a picture of there, mate?”

The passenger of a car right behind me is leaning out of the window trying to find out if there is something I can see that he can’t.

“Why has someone put a bench looking at the the view?” I ask him.

“I don’t know,” he says, as the car pulls away, “I’ll have to think about that…”

We [2] are travelling around England, researching a project about Englishness [3]. We are visiting places we have never been to before, and revisiting places we have been to, to look at them afresh. We are talking to people in the street, at bus stops, in chip shops, and taking photos of things that interest us [4].

I have begun to notice benches. Not park benches [5], or town square benches or any congregation of benches. Solo benches; individual benches placed in a specific position by someone [6].

How [7] are the positions for these benches decided? Some are clearly to look at a particular view. Others are in places where people might need to break their journey, to rest. Some are dedicated to someone who has passed away, who used to visit that spot. Occasionally [8] the positioning defies logic.

But what I particularly notice is that these [9] benches are always [10] empty. Again, not park benches, which are [11] often used as a lunch venue by people who work nearby, and are therefore locations that people choose to use to pass time.

No, these solitary benches, placed facing ‘a view’ [12], placed en route from one place to another, are always [10] empty. At first what bothers [13] me is that these benches have been placed to look at a view and no one ever [14] stops to see that view.

I start taking photos of [15] benches and their views.

But after a while [16] what begins to bother me more is that whilst park benches [5] are used at lunch times [17], solo benches aren’t used at all. No one justs sits on them. No one stops. No one stops, sits, thinks. No one rests. No one waits. No one does nothing. [18]

I decide to start putting instructions on benches [19].

[1] In Hexham

[2] Rachael and I


[4] This is 2004

[5] Or ‘destination benches’, as I will come to think of them

[6] A town planner? An architect?

[7] I wonder

[8] It seems to me

[9] Solo

[10] Okay, nearly always

[11] As comes up in a discussion with friends

[12] Or rather, a nice view

[13] Intrigues

[14] Okay, hardly anyone

[15] Empty

[16] How long is a ‘while’? In Sheffield they don’t say 9 to 5, they say 9 while 5.

[17] To facilitate another activity: eating, reading, smoking, filling a lunch hour

[18] Alright, hardly anyone

[19] How to use this bench: Stop a moment and sit. Do nothing for a bit. Rest. Think. It’s okay. You have enough time.

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