An Archive of Unknown Incidents
Crouching down, I’m discreetly picking up shards of glass from the kerb of a hectic junction in the nowhere lands of East London. One eye on the glass, the other scanning the road for traffic, I feel like prey in a documentary, urgently gathering food whilst wary of predators. A man interrupts to thank me for my service. Bewildered, I trawl my brain, looking for an explanation for his gratitude at this purely selfish act. With my bike flung on the ground, he has assumed that I’m altruistically removing glass for the benefit of my fellow cyclists, I make a half hearted attempt to live up to his expectations.
Ordinarily the awkwardness of strangers is enough to keep me from having to explain myself as I assess the scope and nature of the glass I find. Can I gather it easily or has it been contaminated by nearby debris? Will I need a bigger bag? For four years I couldn't pass even a single fragment of glass without crouching to gather, label and date my find. Every pocket of every bag, home to a selection of ziplock bags, evidence bags. My finger tips stinging with the memory of a thousand glinting fragments. Extra time allowed for journeys likely to be rich in this improbable treasure.
Bus stop glass and beer bottle glass, clear glass and dark glass, green and brown, thick and thin. Glass that is sticky from a fresh breakage or crushed to a powder by the rush hour traffic. Glass that is buried deep in the mud or scattered lightly on the pavement, cutting sandalled toes on a summer evening. Champagne bottle glass, tinted glass, windscreen glass. Glass that is printed or reinforced, glass that is printed and reinforced, eye glass glass. Perhaps my favourite was the wafer thin, milky white glass of a fluorescent strip light bulb, incongruously encountered in the alleyway between St Johns and the big Tesco.
I’ve always felt drawn to and comforted by rubbish in the public realm. Not litter per se but the bits and pieces that hang around the edges. The imperfections that are the difference between reality and a hyper realistic render. I see humanity in the detritus around me, every piece of discarded chewing gum, a trace of a person. Constellations of greying circles on the pavement lying in testament to the humans who passed through this space on different days, different years. They are connected by an imperceptible thread that somehow gains strength through its smallness.
As a child my local station was at the end of the line, where detritus gathers. I’d gaze with endless fascination at the collection of plastic oddments that had congregated behind the buffers: smarties caps and burst balloons, fragments of a broken lighter, multiples of the unnamed piece that holds a bottle top in place. All welcome adornments to the otherwise cheerless gravel. The places where people can’t reach or won’t reach, they are the best places. Currently a giant candy cane deflates slowly behind the station fence in Cheshunt, I know because I pass it every day and every day it gives my heart a very small lift.
The glass, in its turn, seems to do more than simply drawing an invisible thread between me and its previous caretakers. Implied in its existence is the fact that something happened. Whether through violence or carelessness, accident or design, glass was broken. A bus veered into a lamppost or a drunken city boy dropped a bottle to the ground; a car window stoved in by an angry lover or a brazen thief. An abandoned warehouse decaying until its windows smash onto the path below. Perhaps someone intended to hurt a stranger, or a friend, or themselves. Glass was broken, a noise rang out, a dirty, crunchy noise with violence at its core. Something happened.
Once in my ownership the glass becomes a piece of source material, an ever changing negative from which I create cyanotypes, postcards from the places where I crouched in the kerb. Glass is surprising, it will let through more or less light than you expect, revealing embossed numbers or embedded dirt, invisible to the naked eye. The images might resemble clusters of cells or a remote island. The Fluorescent tube glass becomes a beautiful galaxy with depth and complexity whilst Corona bottles invariably create a slightly whimsical print, beautiful but not quite to my taste. The thick dark glass of a champagne bottle allows a long exposure and so a deep blue background which somehow feels appropriate. Even the most regimented windscreen glass, designed to stay in one piece, embodies a kind of beautiful chaos.
I’ve learned that cyanotypes made using glass are better when exposed in the shade, no sharp shadows, the images somehow more detailed and revealing. But cyanotypes need the bright light typical of a sunny day. I find myself chasing shade, wandering away only to find yet another overexposed print on the bow of my boat, the sun having shifted whilst I was distracted. The exposed paper has a different colour to the final print, the trick is to catch it just as the paper moves from blue to a dirty grey and then plunge it into water as quickly as possible. Still then, there is the anxious wait of washing and drying before the final image is revealed.
At some point I found myself able to walk past broken glass and the collecting phase was over. The prints have been made and the glass has taken on a new role as ballast, working to compensate for a slight list on the boat that is my home. There is an archive of unknown incidents underneath my bed.
Cyanotype is an alternative photographic process that allows you make images without the use of a camera. Cyanotypes or sun prints are made by placing objects onto specially coated paper in order to create inverse images when exposed to daylight.