Confused? Lost? […] If you don’t know where you are, can you know who you are? Just tumult everywhere endlessly, tumult modulating into another tumult all over and without end. The change is so constant so pervasive so relentless, that identity, place, scale – all measure lessen, weaken, eventually disappear.
– Roni Horn, Saying Water
IF IT IS IN THE NATURE of things to be lost[i], then we are not exempt from this: it is also in our nature as humans to be lost sometimes, to go beyond what we know.
With the tracking devices we are willingly slipping into our pockets, and with the connotations of non-productive failure attached to being lost, perhaps we are now, squeamishly, on the brink of abandoning our nature to be lost in any sense, even within artistic practice.
Creating art of any form is often a matter of knowing that you need to find something, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. So in order to find something unknown to you, you need to saunter somewhere unknown to you. Like the labyrinthine fantasy land of Tlön,[ii] whose unknown power swamps the ‘real world’ around it, this is an admission of the need to wander away from the desired object of knowledge in order to, serpentinely, better understand it. Artistic knowledge that is borne from lostness is invaluable in that it originates from a wellspring of honest unknowingness.
We have been trained to see ‘undisciplined’ forms of knowledge (like fantasy), or those who get lost in the world, (like the original saunterers[iii]), as challengers to productivity[iv]. But it is precisely these subjugated (Foucault’s term) ways of knowing or being that are the most likely to present us with unexpected practises.
If sauntering, or wandering aimlessly, is considered to be unprofitable erring[v], then a day and night dedicated to being lost on purpose on the streets of former east Berlin, far from the results-driven arts industry of Australia, could work as an initial act against disciplined forms of knowledge acquisition. Losing oneself with the only stated aim of allowing oneself the counterpleasure[vi] of feeling lost, could be seen as a transgressive practice of gaining ‘non-productive’, potentially artistic, knowledge.
My day and night of being lost was satisfyingly dense with autumn fog. I made a quiet resolution to truly let go, not only of geographic bounds, but of identity – a voluptuous, urgent need to shake off all context. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to surrender to uncertainty.[vii]
I wandered through industrial wastelands; no map, no money, no glasses to see into the distance, rain dripping down leaves turning more vivid the longer they were gazed upon. I could feel the layers of lostness deepening from one state to another, as all around me became rooted in the elsewhere, in the ‘benign indifference of the universe’.[viii]
My sauntering took me from a former death strip beside where the Wall used to stand, along chaotic tracks carved into muddy riverbanks, down natural tunnels trees had made. A panic fluttered within me at the prospect of mistakenly venturing into the eastern enclaves known for their neo-Nazis.
Cussed out of a highway bar (aptly named ‘Stern’), chased down an abandoned railway line by a local and her barking dogs, I realised that it’s only the homeless and the other wanderers who take kindly to the lost. You are an exile, you have the air of the Uncanny. But ‘who would we be if we could not forget ourselves at least some of the time?’[ix] as Susan Sontag asks. Still not allowing myself to read any road signs, I chose a direction at random and hurried through the fog towards a multi-lane highway, not looking back.
In the darkness of a high-rise sprawl-more lost than ever-I realised the world around me had become larger than my knowledge of it before. I ‘allowed’ myself a loss of control until I was completely beyond it. As I walked, expectation fell away as new experiences rushed onwards through me, but I was still marked by the panicky movements of one not accustomed to the pleasure of it. In the end, I ceased to be lost not by returning home but by actively turning into something else. My vulnerability became an instant way for resisting familiar thought patterns and climbing out of emotional ruts. I became skinless. I welcomed unknown inhabitants to well up inside me.
Counter to the ideals of success-oriented artistic productivity, purposefully getting lost explores the critical potentials and risks of embracing error, chance and failure[x], or in the words of Samuel Beckett, how to fail better. It is a reminder to take more risks outside of ‘disciplined’ thinking. One way to seek forms of lost, subjugated knowledge, across our culture and within our artistic practices.
The art of being lost is not one of ignorance but of letting go.[xi] When you are truly lost and everything you know is gone, that’s when you can find fullness in your loss. That’s when you can acknowledge the lost knowledge of what you do know and surrender to it with grace.
[i] ‘It is in the nature of things to be lost and not otherwise…The word ‘lost’ comes from the old Norse ‘los’ meaning the disbanding of an army…I worry now that people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.’ Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking Press 2005), 3.
[ii] As dreamt up by Jorges Luis Borges and cited by W.G Sebald, Rings of Saturn, translated from the German by Michael Hulse (The Harvill Press London 1998), 70.
[iii] The original saunterers were the idle people who roved about the European countryside in the Middle Ages under the pretence of going à la Sainte Terre, (the Holy Land). They knew the secret of successful sauntering because they felt equally at home everywhere. As observed by Henry David Thoreau, Walden, (Ticknor and Fields, Boston, 1854).
[iv] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1999).
[v] ‘To saunter is to wander or travel about aimlessly and unprofitably…Such wandering is erring – in which one not only roams, roves and rambles but also strays, deviates, errs.’ Mark C Taylor, Erring, a Postmodern A/Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1984).
[vi] As Karmen MacKendrick points out in Counterpleasures (State University of New York Press, 1999), those who take pleasure in non-productivity have the power to disrupt our society of productive and consuming subjects.
[vii] As cited by Fran Tonkiss, Space, the City and Social Theory: Social Relations and Urban Forms, (Polity Books, London, 2006) 119.
[viii] Albert Camus, L’Étranger, (Éditions Gallimard, Paris, 1942) .
[ix] Susan Sontag, as cited by Jennifer A. Wagner-Lawlor, Postmodern Utopias and Feminist Fictions, (Cambridge University Press 2013), 219.
[x] As inspired by Judith Halberstam in The Queer Art of Failure (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011)
[xi] Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking Press 2005), 6.
Siouxzi L Mernagh is an Australian-born writer and artist and an affiliated fellow of the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. She is a former...