Car Crash

Vocho, Francis Alys, March 20-22 2011

Close to a year ago, the Belgian-Mexican artist, Francis Alys, created a short video entitled Vocho.1 The video documents the process of Alys driving an old VW beetle into a tree at the botanical gardens in Culiacan, Mexico, and then getting out of the car and walking off. This is followed by a brief inter-title explanation and a concluding statement, “Nature will do the rest.”

The botanic gardens commissioned Alys to produce the work, which he conceived as a kind a road movie, in which he’d drive his car the entire way up to Culiacan only to crash it into a tree. He initially pitched it in terms of its capacity to establish “empathy between nature and culture”:2

The plan was for the car to remain in the site and devolve into a sort of giant flowerpot for the garden’s flora and fauna, becoming integrated with the local ecosystem.3

However, the absurdity and violence of the act clearly lends it wider poetic implications. The town of Culiacan and Sinaloa state generally are notorious for drug-related crime. But even more than acknowledging this violent social background, the work emerges as a reflection on the dilemmas of socially engaged art. As he is driving intently towards the “wretched tree”, Alys describes a sudden moment of realisation:

It was as if I’d been punched in the chest by the absurdity and tragedy of this art mission in this lost town of Sinaloa. I don’t know; a lot came to my mind . . . 4

Despite its neat finality, the car crash confronts an awkward, unresolved problem. Fond dreams of art-driven, ecologically inflected, social amelioration fail to adequately speak to the complex and intractable local situation, so in typical style art adopts a deliberately perverse, destructive guise. But this is still not sufficient – still cannot hope to constitute an effective form of social critique and transformation. The strength of Vocho is that it pushes critique to a meta level – acknowledging its own limits through sardonic bathos and a minimal, self-deprecating poetry. In this manner the work appears as a charged crystalisation of the contradictory forces which shape it.

  1. viewable at
  2. Carla Faesler interview with Francis Alys BOMB 116/Summer 2011:
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid.
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Trail Run 1

I remain very cautious about positioning my weekend recreation as aesthetic practice. But of course it all depends upon what you do with it. And there is probably nothing wrong with employing artistic strategies to reflect upon my various stupid pursuits – just as my stupid pursuits help me reflect upon additional aesthetic possibilities.

Anyway, I rode my motorbike up to Otford today and ran my usual track to the top of the northern Garie headland and back. I took photos along the way, mainly at 20 minute intervals, but at the turn around point I took three images at shorter intervals. Then I put the images together as a grid and scribbled over the top my rough memory of the cumulative time at which each image was taken.

And I have the simpler start/finish image as well.

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No more moon – just a movement of clouds, a change in light, and a slight, accidental change in focal length.

I wonder how long I can keep this practice up. Is there any need for me to do it more than once? Does doing it over and over again make it more interesting or just demonstrate a capacity for repetition? At one level, I could argue that I continue to do it as long as it seems interesting, as long each morning presents a new problem – not only of what to document, but also of running – of how to make sense of my running. Yet at another level, the project is plainly very much about repetition, about the strangeness of repetition, which can only takes shape as long as I continue with this practice, until, as it inevitably will, some unexpected impulse or event brings it to an end. So, putting these observations together, persisting with this activity becomes a means of exploring, experiencing and thinking through the correspondence between novelty and repetition.

In some ways this has a superstitious aspect. As long as I can continue with an activity – as long as I can repeat it, as long, paradoxically, as it can never be repeated – then somehow any possibility of genuine novelty and repetition is suspended. The danger is warded off. It is placed at a safe distance.

[And I realise this sounds very much like the ‘fort-da’ game from Freud’s “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, except that Freud’s focus is exclusively on the dimension of repetition within the child’s game, ignoring the element of novelty that also motivates each throw.]

[Nietzsche’s dice throw is also relevant. The “eternal return” as the precise conjunction of repetition and chance.]

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My Walking

My interest is not in recasting the activity of walking so that so that it can be summoned to the altar of art – as dream; as drift; as estrangement; as metaphor; as participatory critique – but rather in pushing art to the point of erasure, to the point at which it discovers the aesthetic silence of walking. My aim is not to employ walking, or to change walking, or to designate walking in other terms, but rather to discover improper means to register an experience that falls properly outside art, that is aligned more closely to oblivion than to representation, evocation, and poetry. Walking appears not as an aesthetic means but as an aesthetic attractor, as a condition of alterity that demands an indirect approach, that shapes the possibility of all my efforts at summoning and indirection.

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Somewhere to Put This

I’m putting together the “writing” page and came across this bit of writing from a few years ago:

Technology appears to be about functionality – getting jobs done more quickly and efficiently, enabling greater precision and control. The computer does all the machine work and we do the conceptual, creative work. The computer is our obedient servant. But it is always possible to perceive things differently – the computer as the sublime double of consciousness, enabling not only the accomplishment of instrumental goals, but serving as a point of access to something else, some other mode of thinking, some other terrain of creative agency. For Kant the sublime was associated with wild nature (vast prospects, violent seas, etc.), but modernity has introduced another sublime – the technological sublime (huge belching factories, the speed of driving, flight, and space travel, the accelerated conscious/unconsciousness of computing).

My first effort with word-processing (early 80’s):

A kind of automatic, pseudo-rational writing that I associated with word-processing (regarding the latter as a wondrous space of avant-garde writing rather than as a tool for the efficient composition of ordinary documents). I used to write something like the above and then reduce the margins so that the text would appear as this huge long poetic string and then – wretched tree-killer that I am – print the whole thing out on reams and reams of blue and white computer paper. I can recall once taking an additional step – arranging the full stream of text on bits of cardboard on a large hinge-lock wire frame (I was building fences at the time) and splattering the whole thing with red paint (a nod to Pollock). Of course none of this exists any longer.

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Big westerly wind last night – pool full of leaves. (Searching for another image of light.)

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So I normally run in the morning, but this time I ran in the early evening. After a few laps a little kid appeared and scuttled a lap around the field. Then a guy with a labrador walked up from the creek and jogged behind me for a portion of a lap. By this time the kid had stopped running and was playing on the playground equipment. I was still following my usual track around the field, noticing that it was becoming a distinct track (the grass was becoming worn down) – a bit like Richard Long’s 1967 work, “A Line Made by Walking”, but less regular and following the boundaries of the park.

At some point or other, as I often do, I lost count of the laps. One thing I hate about running around the park is counting the laps. I’m meant to do 12, but am almost never sure whether I have done 12 or one more or one less. The problem involves the issue of counting from one. The first lap is not a whole lap – does not properly represent the number one – until the lap is finished, but I still can’t help thinking of it as the number one from the moment that I begin the lap. So it becomes easy, for instance, to lose track of whether I am on lap 9 or whether this is actually lap 8 and will only become 9 when I finish the current lap. When this happens I have to make a choice. I must opt for either the higher or the lower number – whichever seems more likely – and so can never be sure whether I have completed more or less than my allocated 12 laps. The most minor distraction can lead to this dilemma – a kid mimicking my laps, a guy jogging with a labrador, thoughts about the increasing distinctness of the track, whatever.

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Started earlier this morning. Ran 16 laps.

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Interference represents a characteristic aesthetic strategy – supporting the self-image of art as a force running counter to the dominant signal flow, opposing, disrupting and defamiliarising ordinary signals. But, of course, art also contributes to the overall flow. It is as complicit in the field of signal excess (pollution) as any other force. Furthermore, it can scarcely claim interference as an exclusively aesthetic strategy. The French philosopher, Michel Serres, argues, for instance, that interference is a condition of any medium.1 He draws attention to a constitutive and productive play of noise within any signal. Regarded in these terms, art itself becomes subject to a dimension of interference. All efforts to simply harness interference as a means of critically undermining mainstream signal flows end up assuming an over-simplified distinction between the pure contours of a signal and dimensions of interference, as well as disregarding the integral space of interference that affects all communication. This paper examines these issues and posits an alternative conception of art’s relation to the broader field of media and lived events. It argues that innovative strands of contemporary art, specifically social-practice based art, discover means of interleaving art within the texture of other activities. To maintain the signal flow metaphor, they engage in a process of multiplexing rather than of interference. Activities that may not ordinarily be thought in terms of art come to carry an aspect of art, but without the latter appearing as a crudely oppositional force. In this manner both art and non-art activities, through their mutual imbrication, gain new energy and critically-reflective capacity.

  1. Serres, M. 2007 The Parasite (trans. Lawrence R. Schehr), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
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Switched at the weekend from daylight savings to ordinary time, so now have to get up an hour earlier to catch the sunrise. Not sure I’ll manage this, so this may be my last run sequence for a while – not sure.

A small note. My efforts to frame the same space in the before and after images are thoroughly approximate. I may pay attention to the details of where I am standing and try to retain a memory of the overall composition, but I employ no technical means to ensure a constant framing – no tripod, no memory-jogging check of the pre-run image. Often the two framings vary significantly – the differing lighting conditions prompting slightly different compositional choices. However, this morning the two images are astonishingly close, particularly on the horizontal axis.

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I flagged in the previous post (“Run_8”) that there may be no more of these run posts for the time being. But when I went for my usual run this morning, I couldn’t resist taking before and after photographs, suggesting that the the artistic and the athletic dimensions of the overall activity have become intertwined and mutually reinforcing. This time, however, in order to mark a transition beyond the original project and the original set of constraints, I have allowed myself to combine two very differing images – rather than slavishly adhere to the rule of combining two similarly composed ones.

This sets me thinking about the rules that characterise this practice. First there are the more general ones:

  • the run itself is not to be shown
  • the running activity is not to be compromised
  • photographs are to be taken before and after each run

These rules, which were established after the initial run, set in train processes that themselves demand further choices and further rules. For instance, although the running activity is not shown, it becomes important that it actually happen – that it is not cheated. This is linked to the rule that the process of running not be compromised. I must run the whole distance that I set myself at the outset without stopping or taking any rests. This appears a jointly aesthetic and ethical rule. If the running were to be faked, if the duration that it determines were to be a fiction, then the project would lose all interest for me.

The photographic process breeds many more rules. I cannot, for instance, take the beginning photograph until I am actually about to begin my run – I must have my shoes on and be ready to go. Similarly, when I return I must take the end photograph straight away (although not in any strictly timed manner; I permit myself, for instance, to jump back across the creek boulders at an unconstrained pace). If I have taken a range of differing images at the start (so that later I can choose the best one) then at the end I must take the corresponding images in respective reversed order. There can be no cheating of the durational integrity of each before-after image pair. It is like the logic of braces and parentheses within programming – opening braces must always be matched by closing braces and inner nested parenthetical instructions must always be performed prior to outer nested parenthetical instructions.

I discovered early on the value of shooting a portion of sky in each image (even if only as a reflection in the pool). This has become a firm rule. Furthermore, with only two exceptions, I restrict myself to taking photographs in the backyard. Although I had been tempted to take the camera to the running field, I quickly recognised that this would risk compromising the integrity of the running activity itself. I could list many other rules, some already discussed in previous posts, such as the rules related to composing and recomposing photographs, but the key point is that the practice develops formal coherence not only in the initial conception but also in the process of enaction. As soon as an initial choice is made then it has the capacity to serve as an ongoing rule. The work is characterised not only by a sequence of actions, but also by a gradual elaboration and consolidation of rules.

There is also a need, however, to step back from the rules – to negate them. This itself represents a meta-level, artistic rule.

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On the Notion of Media

For my purposes, media is not the plural of medium. Media is integrally plural. It represents a multiplicity and an heterogeneity that cannot be resolved to a determinate set.

As the etymology suggests, media is concerned with the in-between. It suggests a condition that is at once active and passive, associative and disruptive, supplementary and constitutive.

Media is certainly not synonymous with technology. The conventional emphasis on technology – video, photography, computation, etc. – distracts from more fundamental processes of mediation.

Media resists the self-identity of any medium. It undermines conceptions of medium specificity.

Media highlights dimensions of ambivalence, subterfuge and indirection. It suggests the indeterminate relation between being and non-being, communication and estrangement, revelation and veiling.

Media does not take shape as a field, as a species of practice, as a discipline.

Media can sit anywhere and belongs nowhere.

Media cannot allow itself to be media.

Media cannot be itself.

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In a place not thinking. Grey above the sky, but bright, drifting in the midday mist. For what is this? Possibly a change in weather, but I have no recollection of seriously taking notice of the sky. I did indeed, however, squint, as I trudged along the beach, in an effort to lessen the consequences of the sun, to push it into the background, to position at the distance of a decade, past the point of the lived – the point of vibrant memory. To which, in my haste, and with scarcely any reflective effort, my eyes grew hazy, like the breathing of lizards, like the interminable number of spiders in the bush, with their endlessly expansive webs – with their soft stickiness. And this is known and clearly communicated in all manner of missives, in all manner of whisperings and attached to all manner of bricks. So it should be clear. One might hope it would be clear. One might insist it be clear, but the day reckons otherwise. One has only to glance briefly out the window, through a gap in the leaves, towards the escarpment, to discover the swirling bright mist which afflicts me. Harpies. For they are dragons. For they are alien men with foreign faces in fast cars. Actually not so foreign, now that I recognise them, now that I see them in their proper light, now that my sleep is once again interrupted.

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Longer run today, although this is not apparent. Ran up Mt Nebo and along to Mt Kembla village and back. Harry Graham Drive was closed to vehicles, with the road significantly undermined in places by recent rain. Approaching Mt Kembla, my right calf began to cramp. The cramp gradually got worse for the rest of the run. All the rules in the world won’t enable an activity to continue indefinitely.

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No running with calf injury. Walked up Mt Nebo instead. Aware that another image concept was needed. Decided to take two images at the top of the walk separated by the slightest of intervals. But this concept quickly fell by the wayside. Took lots and lots of photos of the dusk scenery. Care required with the exposure to capture the growing darkness and changing hues of the sky. 94 images altogether. Many failures, but these nine register the shift from late afternoon to early evening. I stumbled down the final slope in the darkness with lone deer running rampant through the undergrowth and across the grassy hills.

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Another walk up the hill, but without the camera. Discovered that a portion of the dirt road running along the top ridge had been gravel asphalted since I was last up there a week ago. There had been piles of blue metal lying on the side of the road for many months but no sign that anything much was happening. I followed the newly paved road down through an old metal gate to an equally new clearing. Could somebody possibly be building a house up here? Is the whole ridge privately owned? Walked a bit further down the track to discover another flat area, with puddles, mud, deer tracks and the remnants of an old cottage rotting in the adjacent brush. Further up the hill I came across an old foam mattress, seemingly less inclined to decompose. I walked back up to the main ridge and then descended down another track on the Mt Kembla side. It led to another large open area, with a line of small boulders placed in the ground, as though as a barrier to cars. At the far end of the open area was an old wrecked steel shed with a concrete floor. I could hear the Mt Kembla coal mine in the near distance.

Returned to the before and after image convention this time. Once again I went for my walk late afternoon, approaching dusk, so the top image is brighter than the lower one. This time I took photographs inside.

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For me, art is multiplexed. It is incorporated in my non-art activities – in walking, running, climbing, etc. While it may be possible to position these activities wholly within art – pointing, for instance, to the tradition of the 19th century flaneur, Surrealist ambulation, Situationist strategies of the derive and psychogeography, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton’s walk based art, etc. – this is honestly not how I perceive things myself. Or certainly not entirely. These activities are equally, if not more, related to traditions of leisure, sport, wilderness encounter, etc. My aim is not to strip these other conceptions away in order to distill a properly pure aesthetic essence. Rather it is to acknowledge the impurity of my activities – the admixture of dimensions, the grafting of art within non-art, the piggybacking of aesthetic interests upon other interests.

Equally, however, when I speak of art’s multiplexed relation to non-art, it is not to insist upon a fundamental, absolute distinction between art and non-art. I am well aware that my walking, running and climbing, even without any thinking of art per se, contains an aesthetic aspect. It draws upon a cultural imaginary shaped by notions of the sublime and the beautiful, the picturesque, etc., as well upon an aesthetically imbued conception of embodied experience, but this only indicates how muddy the categories are at the very outset. The grafting is not between two genetically pure conceptual organisms, but between two already grafted ones.

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Injuries are tedious. Only five laps this morning. Soon there will be only the shortest gap between my before and after image, and then no gap and no images at all.

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255 words

Some kind of sensible observation, which picks up on the concerns of the multitude, plus the manifest needs of the individual, and transforms, as though a refulgent phenomenon, the ancient scope of divine deeds, which are scarcely to be acknowledged, which are scarcely to be seen, which carry me off on dirigibles to the flighty heights of ignoble precipices and bring me here, neat and shining, as though scaled and gutted like a fish, to the scene of all our most obvious adventures, where evil demons dance in the skins of the good, while the good bide their time within the belly of death, within the bowels of death, like the clouds that descend in the late afternoon, like the motivation for shrugging off all my cares, perhaps to wander off, in a nomadic spirit, towards the untoward advances of large cars and women with possums tucked under their arms, alongside the voluminous books and the dark shawls, which call down the night, which summon the night, which have no other function than to silence all speech, or at least which offer up this option as a temptation, as the only pathway towards the blank forest, which of course is only blank just now, and just now also grows rich and complex like one of those awful cakes that one is forced to eat as a child, marbled with chocolate and coated with icing that resembles a choppy sea, that is a choppy sea, that is every thought of drowning, that is every abandonment of thought.

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In Book X of The Republic, Plato describes Socrates’ rejection of mimesis. Socrates employs the example of a bed. There is, in his view, the original ideal bed created by God. Then there is any particular actual bed created by any particular carpenter. Finally there is the artist’s representation of that bed. The original bed represents a site of truth. The carpenter’s version is modelled on this ideal prototype, so has secondary status. Its construction depends upon an intimate knowledge of relevant materials and bed-making processes, but can never literally attain the singular ideality of the one true bed. Socrates argues that the artist’s representation is yet another level removed from the truth. This thrice-removed version (based on a inclusive count) renders only the appearance of the true thing. Unlike the carpenter’s bed, it does not demonstrate any understanding of wood, nails, or physical principles of construction. It engages only with the surface. It appears then as a parasite of a parasite. As much as this argument no longer holds convincing force, it nonetheless indicates art’s tendency to latch on to other things, to attach itself to them, to prey upon them for its own interests. Mimesis is a basic form of multiplexing – and multiplexing is a form of parasitism.

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The DADA readymade removes an everyday object – say a bucket – from its ordinary context and exhibits it as art. Initially, this works less to claim the bucket for art – to strip away its everyday ‘bucketness’ and make it amenable to disinterested aesthetic appreciation – than to question the nature of art itself. The bucket serves as a provocation. It mocks the bourgeois self-understanding of what properly constitutes the aesthetic realm. Instead of the unique, hand-made object, we have the mass-produced bucket. Instead of an obvious expression of profound and poetic human spirit, we have an abject, functional thing. At the same time, however, precisely through this work of critical self-reflection, the bucket suggests another notion of art – one in which the lines between art and ordinary life are less clearly drawn, and one in which the exploration and breaching of accepted boundaries becomes an integral aesthetic expectation. In this sense then the bucket is also positioned within art.

a bucket filled with art

The problem here is that as soon as the bucket comes to occupy a position within art, as soon as becomes an acceptable aesthetic thing, then it loses whatever it is that lent it initial critical aesthetic force. The genuinely aesthetic moment of the bucket takes shape as a paradox. It is only in its alienation from what is currently given within the aesthetic that it gains the capacity to serve as effective aesthetic provocation. Hence the death of the historical avant-garde. Hence the need for an endless series of neo-avant-gardes.

How then are we to conceive the relation between art and its non-aesthetic other in the readymade? Does it, for instance, take shape as a dialectical relationship, in which the bucket is consumed by art (in the manner of the Hegelian aufhebung)? Is the everyday dross of the particular thing winnowed off in the transition to the generality and alien concrete space of the aesthetic statement? Or alternatively, does the bucket somehow retain its alterity in the midst of this work of aesthetic incorporation? I doubt there is any simple means of resolving this issue one way of the other. Indeed the aesthetic of the readymade would seem to play upon this ambivalence. Incorporation can never become comfortably settled. The bucket is drawn within art, while also resisting art. In this sense, the readymade is constituted aesthetically in terms of its relation to non-art alterity. The paradox of the readymade suggests a fundamental medial dimension within avant-garde art. Rather than having a determinable essence, avant-garde art takes shape in terms of awkward relations, works of perverse montage, modes of parasitical attachment, etc.

The notion of multiplexing engages with this tradition of practice. Art-making is drawn into intimate, coterminous relation with other orders of experience and being, but without dominating them, without claiming them altogether for itself. Furthermore, the art-making never appears as itself per se, but rather emerges in terms of a risky grafting on to other activities, other modes of doing and thinking. In a similar manner then to the readymade, multiplexing shapes what may be described as a relational aesthetics – not in Bourriaud’s sense of fostering social relations, but in terms of a fundamental aesthetic orientation towards non-art alterity, an opening beyond the aesthetic within (and away from) art.

Where multiplexing differs from the strategy of the readymade is that it does not aim ostensibly for incorporation. It does not provocatively position the non-aesthetic within art, rather it explicitly acknowledges the limits of art. It enters into a non-subsumptive relation with other dimensions of existence. It appears as an imposition, a clinging on to, an extraneous adaptation.

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Other Metaphors

I draw on the technical metaphor of multiplexing to explain an aspect of my current practice (and perhaps a broader tendency within contemporary art) because it responds to the notion of interference. Instead of disrupting and corrupting the signal (from a notionally exterior position), multiplexing suggests an interleaving of diverse signals within an overall signal field. Art loses its heroic autonomy – its sense of innocent distance and alien viral force – and reveals a more mundane, complicit and opportunistic aspect. At the same time, in avoiding the bad faith of an illusory critical autonomy, it comes to recognise its genuine powers of attachment, its actual potential for engagement.

But I could have employed other metaphors. I have already, for instance, spoken of grafting and of piggy-backing. Art could also be positioned as a component (in the sense of the colour components in a RGB signal), or, in terms of the language of computer programming, as an interface, mix-in or trait. The latter are all means of enabling polymorphic entities – entities that are not derived from a single class blue-print, but that reveal a dimension of multiple inheritance, and, as such, a capacity to be both this and that, to be recognised equally as one thing and another. A spaceship entity in a game can both descend from a general spaceship class (and as such be positioned within a set of spaceship objects) and also draw from of any number of more generally defined traits – elusiveness, capacity to animate, capacity to die and be reborn, etc. In a similar manner, I associate the art trait with my walking and running and the latter become polymorphic. They obtain an additional aspect. They no longer simply correspond to the set of outdoor leisure activities, but also to the set of art activities. They demonstrate an integral multiplicity. There is no need to decide absolutely between one mode of categorisation and another. The dimensions are not mutually exclusive but multiplexed.

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Back up Mt Nebo in light rain to the new gravel-asphalt road. Then through the gate and down to the small clearing with its chainsawed stumps and small piles of sawdust.

On the way back, an unexpected sunset – lighting up the clouds, the steel works and the distant cargo ships.

Now that I am reduced to walking, it is easy to carry a camera. I only incidentally get some exercise. I don’t bother checking the time or hurrying from one point to another. The photography takes precedence. I am especially interested in the dusk light – in the contrast between the gathering darkness of the bush and the conch-shell tones of the sky. It is evening by the time I stumble down the final muddy incline to my suburban street.

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Three Days Ago

Short morning walk.

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Another Dusk

Up the hill to the same spot – a small clearing before the narrow lantana track. Apparently nothing much to see. Grey sky, a few clouds, a tinge of red in a saddle near Mt Keira. But I hang around anyway, waiting for it to get dark.

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