The Story of the Place You Are In Tim Ingold

William Utermohlen, Night (detail), 1990-91. Oil on canvas. Collection Mark and Divina Meigs, Paris - Courtesy of Chris Boicos Fine Arts, Paris

Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou speak to Professor Tim Ingold, Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He is interested in the connections between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture; and how they can be used as media through which to explore the relations between human beings and the environments they inhabit. His current project, 'Explorations in the comparative anthropology of the line', is concerned with the relationship between movement, knowledge and description.

Tim states that ‘age does things to your sense of time’. He argues that our movement through a building is sequential, temporal and narrative, rather than spatial. He suggests that the effect of dementia is to disrupt or confuse this narrative: ‘things can end up next to one another that should be in different positions in the story’. He is critical of the use of mapping metaphors in neuroscience, rejecting the notion that we create an inner neurological representation of our environment; that 'the way we know the world is by representing it in our head’. Instead, he believes that ‘knowing where you are’ is not about being able to locate a spatial position, but about ‘being able to tell the story of the place you are in’.

Tim suggests that narrative ability is the same as perceptual acuity; that ‘knowing’ and ‘articulating’ are inherently linked, and that perception and memory are bound up in the narrative activity of perceiving and remembering. He says that there is no distinction between doing something and remembering how to do it: ‘If I play Bach on my cello by heart, I’m not pulling something out of memory – a schema that I’m enabling – I’m re-creating the music as a whole-body performance. Every time you remember something, you’re reproducing it…one is continually creating and re-creating one’s knowledge of the world through the process of going about in it, rather than having it stored away somewhere’. Considering this, Niall references Michael Donaghy’s poem Machines: ‘As bicyclists and harpsichordists prove/Who only by moving can balance/Only by balancing move’.

Niall suggests that there are those who view the mind as something separate from the world: an entity upon which the world is overlaid as a series of representations; and that Tim, by contrast, sees the mind and the world as being in an intrinsic, reciprocal relationship. Tim agrees, saying that he is influenced by the theories of ecological psychology as presented by the American psychologist James Gibson. He explains that to him, human perception is the process through which the human body – all of it, as a complete organ – moves through the world, establishing direct and immediate relationships with the invariant properties of the world. He contrasts this with the cognitive model of psychology, whereby each sensory organ is bombarded with stimuli from the outside world that must travel to the brain in order to be processed and allow the formation of perception. Tim believes that perception is the ‘achievement of a whole organism in a world, not a mind in a body’.

Fundamental to Tim’s argument is the idea that what we know or understand is the product of a whole system at work: that we must stop thinking of the brain as a central control centre. He references [anthropologist and social scientist] Gregory Bateson’s analogy of the woodcutter chopping wood, in which the man, the axe and the timber are part of a complete system, which the cutter continually adapts based on his observation of the evolving cut. While he accepts that the brain degeneration associated with Alzheimer’s disease can have a profound effect on perception, he argues that this is due to a break in the circuit rather than to the destruction of the processing point. He suggests that when we help people with dementia to do things they could previously do unaided, we are ‘complementing’, or filling in the circuit.

Yeoryia draws parallels between Tim’s notion of perception as a continual process in the world, and our drawing for the Biennale as the recording of a process, rather than the production of an artefact or representation. Tim builds on this, referencing the view of art historian Norman Bryson that drawing is something that is inherently bound into its local circumstances, responding to them with no sense of the totality of the image – establishing the line is like walking with eyes focused on the ground. Bryson contrasts this with the totalising view of the painter, who is always considering the whole, from a privileged vantage point. Some discussion follows on which of these the architectural plan most resembles.

Tim raises the possibility that, as when encountering an impressionist painting, we make sense of the world by continually moving in and out between panoptic and local perception. He suggests that artists do this exceptionally well, and that perhaps this facility is impeded by dementia. Niall compares this to neuropsychologist Sebastian Crutch’s hypothesis that Alzheimer’s affects allocentric perception (for more on this, listen to Sebastian’s Dialogue).

Returning to the concept of perception as a narrative, Tim discusses his discomfort with architects’ use of the word ‘space’, stating that it is ‘too abstract’. He prefers geographer Doreen Massey’s definition of space as the ‘simultaneity of stories so far’ – or a number of different things on a journey through time, concurrently. Perhaps it is in disrupting the sequence of these stories that dementia confuses our understanding of time and space.