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Walking and Archiving: Locus Solus in Elephant and Castle

Page history last edited by Panos Kouros 4 years, 2 months ago


Reading Architecture Symposium. History and Theory Program, School of Architecture, McGill University, Benaki Museum, Athens, 16.6.2015 













Walking and Archiving: Locus Solus in Elephant and Castle.

Panos Kouros



The time of transmission is the only neutral ground of an artistic work.

The Living Archives. W. Borowski, A. Turowski, 1971


I will discuss a particular use of Raymond Roussel's novel Locus Solus in the context of Locus Solus Public. Conversations Curatives [Talking Cure], a public intervention project performed in Spring 2009 at Elephant and Castle,[1] a conflicting inner London borough. Locus Solus has a unique position in modern literature. It is a conceptual literary work, if I may thus describe its dependence on the arbitrary process which produces the narrative. Narrative is a matter of language and not perception. The novel does not tell us anything about place and urban space. Its operative role in the project is based on its linguistic and performative, rather than narrative space. What happens if we insert the novel, as performative device, in an urban area under regeneration? How can it shift meanings and identities, when actively read and manipulated in gentrifying public space? Locus Solus Public was part of a series of projects I have realized, linking archive practice with public art. My argument is that the archiving process, conceived as plural and performative, can be an intervention tactic in the public sphere, shifting the emphasis from archival installation and the "ideology of the trace" to a co-uttering situation and a production site.[2] Archiving is thus conceived not merely as documentation of a past event, but as an experimental process of public making, evolved in the present, as a pause in the course of events, in order to question place, identities, actions.

        The project intervenes in public and social spaces in Elephant and Castle using archival practices and processes of documentation, drifting, translocal exchange of data. Elephant and Castle has been the theatre of one of the most ambitious urban regeneration plans, associated with "new urban colonialism" and the social cleansing of British city-centers. The history of gentrification in the area symbolically started in 1997 with Tony Blair's speech in Aylesbury Estate, the largest social housing estate in Europe. A rhetoric of devaluation of Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle as "sink estate" and "hell estate" was used by the local Council and the media[3] to persuade the residents to accept the regeneration program, followed by the progressive demolition of social housing blocks, and the eviction of tenants and owners of flats. Locus Solus Public project took place during this transitional period of emptying social housing estates from their inhabitants. During the course of the project (28.4-1.5.2009), gathering activities and discussions were taking place in the streets, social spaces and tenant meeting rooms, as well as real time generic archiving, either by the state/real estate, or by activists and collectives, documenting the course of events as they were happening.[4]


Plural archiving actions

Locus Solus is used as part of a complex strategy to unfold a collective space of archival imagination, through (relational and translocal) public actions of reading, writing, and re-writing. The archiving scenario involved two groups of acting persons, in-situ archivists and remote writers, working in parallel and together via a wiki-archive, set up during the project. Archivists recorded, transcribed, archived a double city/novel situation, and made the archive public in public space, while its content was constantly reconfigured in real time by the second group of remote writers. Writers from various places and backgrounds, with no direct experience of the place, used the archive as base material for text production. Their recensions were re-inscribed in place, making it an archive-public place for residents, archivists, and writers.[5] I will focus on the first part of the project, discussing the experimental archiving actions, as they relate to Locus Solus.

        During site-traversing, archivists are given the task to prepare a textual support-surface[6] of the Elephant, using a common internet wiki as archival carrier. Each day, they move without direction in pedestrian space, using streets, construction bypasses, building corridors, blind alleys, etc. They are asked to record and archive various voices and co-utterings in public space. They enter in rooms where tenant meetings take place, in gathering places inside La Bodeguita shopping mall, in public laundries, autonomous spaces, parks or bus stops. They initiate conversations at street intersections, or they set up conditions of confrontation through spontaneous actions. The garage courtyard of one of the housing blocks of Aylesbury Estate was used for such action. The same place was used as publishing and meeting locus for the archiving works.

        Elephant public utterings form a vast everyday archive. Not accumulating, but selecting and sorting is the fundamental work in archival science.[7] Let us consider a diagonal documentation method, destabilizing the aesthetic perception of the archivist who collects significant fragments in already determined categories. Featherstone noticed the ways Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault used national libraries, by "reading seemingly haphazardly 'on the diagonal', across the whole range of arts and sciences, centuries and civilizations, so that the unusual juxtapositions they arrived at summoned up new lines of thought and possibilities to radically re-think and re-classify received wisdom."[8] This is for Featherstone a way of reading the archive, also linked to the movement of the flaneur, who attempts to organize an archival reading of the city, based on insignificant fragments.[9] In the context of this project, documenting in the diagonal means unfolding unexpected actions and chance encounters while moving, but also being attentive to insignificant utterings that resist a thematic centre. Any idea of archival unity is fictional. Diagonal here refers to a certain distraction in perception, which also became possible by the doubling of the archival field. Introducing the space of the novel as a parallel to the city archival field was such gesture. 'Moving' in the novel shifted the way city archiving proceeded, and moving in the city shifted the way reading paths were followed inside the novel.


Archiving the novel

Archivists are asked to simultaneously read and document the place and the novel. Traversing the space of the novel, producing archival entries: what is the space of the novel? How do we document a novel? There is an apparent narrative space: Archivists walk in real space but they also "move" inside the novel, while reading it; they mirror the group of invited guests in the tour of Locus Solus Estate (the solitary place Estate). Roussel's guests walk in successive loci of the Estate where marvelous mechanisms are described and explained in detail. At the time of traversing, Elephant and Castle was still a place of diversity. Streets and the latino shopping mall were public spaces with dense everyday encounters. Elephant 'guests' interrupt their drifting when they enter such meeting places. Archiving works take place in these loci. There is an evident analogy in the mnemotechnic function of both traversing spaces. At a descriptive level, infra-ordinary everyday encounters in Elephant contrast the extra-ordinary narrations in the secluded places of the estate of Locus Solus.

        However, archiving works in the novel are not undertaken in this narrative space, but in a multi-layered textual space, partly disclosed by Roussel, in his book Comment j'ai ecrit certains de mes livres, published posthumously. Roussel described how narrative was produced by an elaborate technique ("a very special method") of linguistic transformation, cutting off any personal experience of events. He described two processes. The first begins with two found identical words with double meanings:

        "I chose two almost identical words. For example, billard [billiard table] and pillard [plunderer]. To these I added similar words capable of two different meanings, thus obtaining two almost identical phrases. (...) The two phrases found, it was a case of writing a story which could begin with the first and end with the latter."[10]

        He then described a second variation of the evolutionary process, almost exclusively used in Locus Solus: "...I was led to take a random phrase from which I drew images by distorting it, a little as though it were a case of deriving them from the drawings of a rebus.[11] The method did make a reappearance in its original form with the word demoiselle considered in two different senses; furthermore the second word itself underwent a distortion to link it up with the evolutionary method:

1st. Demoiselle (young girl) à prétendant  [suitor]; 2nd. demoiselle (pavior's beetle) à reître en dents [soldier of fortune in teeth]."[12]

        The word pretendent, or the word déluge does not appear in the novel. Roussel's technique can be thought of as a process of continuous repetition and displacement.Anything he heard or read by chance in his everyday movements, any found language, could serve as initial material to be performed. We become aware of the existence of a hidden network of banal everyday utterances, encountered by chance. He writes in Comment...:

         “I used anything at hand. For instance, there was a well-known advertissement for some apparatus called “Phonotypia”; this supplied me with “fausse note tibia” [wrong note tibia], hence the Breton, Legloualch.

I even utilized the name and address of my shoemaker: 'Hellstern, 5, place Vendome,' gave me 'Hélice tourne zinc plat se rend (devient) dôme' [Propeller turns zinc flat goes (becomes) dome]."[13]

        The narrative is thus the outcome of the performative linguistic machine. Roussel's project is at the same time the textual production and the product-text. The post-humous meta-discourse of Comment... has a principal conceptual role in the reading of Locus Solus. It really transfers the performative dimension from the process of writing to the act of reading: The reader reads the narrative as an archaeological fantasy linking various ruins. Each word becomes, thus, the echo of an absent past layer of association of elements. This underlying network of affinities, is not only analogous "on an intellectual level, to rhymes", as Leiris noticed,[14] but also defines a resonant void space where words seem to belong and which the reader is seeking. Foucault has exactly described the space of the novel as an empty space, "prepared inside language, which opens in the interior of the word this insidious, deserted and trap-like emptiness."[15]

        During their traversing, archivists know that Roussel, in his Comment... book, archived certain fragments as paradigms of his hidden method. Other traces are discovered by Roussel's commentators:  for example, Ferry, as Trevor Winkfield noted, found key words "which set in motion an entire "suggestive chain", that kind of orderly stream of consciousness of which billard-queue-chiffre-bandes-reprises-blanc-colle is the prime example".[16] Archivists also know that Locus Solus is a vast visible array of detourned traces of actuality, readings, scientific theories, urban actualities, fait divers, spectacles and political events. "These encyclopedic fragments come in the inside of the book in an often perverse way: the allusions are rarely simple and direct, but mostly detourned."[17] The archivists' archival task is not so much to multiply such cases, verifying Roussel's construction method. It is rather to extract, to excavate, to document what they assume are traces of this resonant empty space, without referring to the specific missing language. If the "phonetic fragments of this first language, sparkling, without our knowing where (...) are displayed in the enchanted surface", as Foucault eloquently writes,[18] the archiving task is to correspond to such signifiers. Archiving is a conjectural work. Using continuous cutting acts, archivists disassociate signifiers from their narrative context, archiving them for their conjectural possibilities.


Archival desistence

During their walks, archivists used a slightly modified, ready-made wiki to place the Elephant and Locus Solus findings. The relative position of fragments is not fixed. This is an archival surface which keeps elemental metadata and a non-hierarchical structure; it is a "metaphorical" archival structure[19], which resembles the act of disassembling an archive in order to carry it. Archivists bring fragments of two extraneous spaces in proximity. Resonant signifiers of a missing language from the a-temporal Locus Solus spaces are juxtaposed to insignificant utterings in Elephant's social spaces. Locus Solus centrifugal fragments de-contextualize Elephant utterings. In this way, the wiki functions as a neutral archival support-surface,[20] open to reiterations.

        The wiki function does not separate storage from use. The initially constructed topology of fragments is reconfigured again and again by the writers. Any re-writing trope[21] may be used for any archival content. New archival recensions are produced by this polyphonic (and antagonistic) public performance. An archive public gathers in the Aylesbury Estate individual garage doors, where copies of archiving recensions are attached.[22] People meet in this open archive place. Elephant utterings become important for their generative, transformative potential, and not for their preservation in a culture of documents. The only remaining resident in Aylesbury had to be forcibly evicted from his home in 2013. Paradoxically, the condensed time of the archival performance is a slow-down in the stream of events during an effective regeneration process.[23] Archiving can be seen as an act of desistence.


[1] Panos Kouros. Locus Solus Public: Conversations Curatives”, performative archiving actions, Elephant and Castle, 2009. Out of the Box Intermedia, LondonFestivalofEurope. (Acting persons: Elena Chronopoulou, Nora Demjaha, Giota Dimitropoulou, Athena Kokla).

[2] Panos Kouros. "The Public Art of Performative Archiving"  in: Panos Kouros and Elpida Karaba, Archive Public. Performing Archives in Public Art. Topical Interpositions. Patra: Cube Art Editions, 2012.

[3] See: The Myths of Heygate Estate, in: https://elephantamenity.wordpress.com/archive/

[4] See: http://www.elephantandcastle-lendlease.com, https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com, https://elephantamenity.wordpress.com/archive

[5] This second part of the project was partly realized.

[6] The function of the archival wiki surface can be compared to a minimalist work, in the sense of a formalized system of reiterations and modifications. By using the term support/surface, I allude to the specific art movement, and the idea of a performative manual intervention in rolled or unfolding surfaces.

[7] See Wolfgang Ernst, Underway to the Dual System. Classical Archives and/or Digital Memory. In: Net Pioneers 1.0. Contextualizing Early Net-Based Art (ed. Dieter Daniels & Gunther Reisinger) Sternberg Press, 2010.

[8] Mike Featherstone, "Archive", Theory, Culture & Society, May 200623 (2-3), p. 594.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Raymond Roussel. How I Wrote Certain of My Books (ed. Trevor Winkfield). Exact Change: Cambridge MA, 1995, p. 3-4.

[11] Ibid. p. 12.

[12] Ibid. p. 16.

[13] Ibid. p. 13-14.

[14] Michel Leiris, "How I Wrote Certain of My Books" in: Michel Leiris, Brisees: Broken Brunches, North Point Press: San Fransisco, 1989, p. 52.

[15] "Roussel's experiment is located in what could be called the "tropological space" of the vocabulary. It's not quite the grammarian's space, or rather it is this same space, but treated differently. It is not where the canonical figures of speech originate, but that empty space, prepared inside language, which opens in the interior of the word this insidious, deserted and trap-like emptiness." [my translation in italics]. Foucault. The Death and the Labyrinth. The world of Raymond Roussel. London New York: Continuum, p.18.

[16] Raymond Roussel. Ibid., p. 31.

[17]  Patrick Besnier, Pierre Bazantay, Petit Dictionnaire de Locus Solus. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993, p. 18.

[18] Michel Foucault.The Death and the Labyrinth. The world of Raymond Roussel. London New York: Continuum. p. 45.

literal ‘metaphorization’ of the archive 

[19] Wolfgang Ernst uses the term literal ‘metaphorization’ of the archive, to refer to the transfer operations of the archive, in a media archaeology perspective (see: "The Archive as Metaphor. From Archival Space to Archival Time". Open 7, 2004, p. 46-53.) Here, I refer to a minimal archival infrastructure, allowing multiple, unpredictable arrangements. See: Panos Kouros. Adopting the Archive of Contemporary Greek Art Institute in: Sharing our methods, work and experience on public art and architecture @ Arch_06 Lab, Microgeographies @ Storefrontnyc, 26.9 – 21.11, 2014, and Panos Kouros. Desistence of living archives. Key note lecture, Symposium Archive Public II, 4th Biennale of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki. 2013.

[20]On the notion of archival desistence as an organized neutral zone for performative archival action, see: Panos Kouros. Desistence of Living Archives. Keynote lecture, Symposium Archive Public II, Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, 2013.

[21] Specific devices were provided in the wiki platform as writing-aid for the writers. Locus Solus Mnemeden was such a writing mechanism, specifically modified from an earlier version of Mnemeden project. See: Panos Kouros, Mnemeden: a Net.performance of Mnemonic Conceptions. Sky Art Conference 2002. l. Knot and B. Kracke, eds., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Visual Studies, p. 186-189.

[22] The same location was used by archivists as a Locus Solus reading space, initiating discussions in front of each resident's garage space, as part of the collecting acts. Locus Solus first appeared in a fragmented form, as a serial (feuilleton) in Gaulois du Dimanche, with the title: Quelques heures a Bougival. "It passed completely unremarked", Roussel wrote in Comment...

[23] For the recent evictions, occupation events and fencing-in of residents in Aylesbury Estate blocks, see: https://southwarknotes.wordpress.com/2015/04/01/aylesbury-estate-is-everyones-fight/ and https://fightfortheaylesbury.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/what-next-on-the-aylesbury-article-from-southwark-notes/ [accessed May 2015]





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