Cities, Like Dreams


Grete Dalum-Tilds looks ahead to A:L:L

Grete Dalum-Tilds is a visual artist and photographer educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and California Institute of the Arts. With a strong interest in the relationship between poetry and visual arts, writing is an important part of her artistic praxis. She currently teaches at University of Northampton and regularly gives talks and exhibits her own work.

Cities, Like Dreams

ART:LANGUAGE:LOCATION [A:L:L] is a artist run project now running in it’s second year. It is part of the Cambridge University Festival of Ideas and primarily initiated by artists from Anglia Ruskin University Cambridge School of Art. The initiative uses public spaces, shops, corridors, along with dedicated arts spaces, to represent over 40 artists spread across the City of Cambridge. The experience is facilitated by a map and by online listings and allows the audience to experience facets of the exhibited artworks.

Looking at art is like looking at maps, maybe slightly obscure maps, but still maps. These ’maps’ are shared concepts that help us navigate and ‘remap’ the information and challenges we meet on a daily basis.

Contemplating A:L:L sets up the dichotomy between the careless open minded strolling and the directed contemplation of a labyrinth. Some visitors will carefully try to explore all elements of the offered sites, and others will come across the artworks and then continue on to explore other elements, as they find them interesting. There is not one planned route; the website and the printed map will offer an overview of the nature and location of the artworks. Some of the artwork is transient, woven into the fabric of the existing sites and locations. In a project with multiple locations the activity of getting from site to site becomes an important part of the experience.

In following the map conscientiously the meditation on the city, the fabric of the street and the nature of the artwork feeds into overlapping experiences which define the day. A freer exploration of the artwork allows the explorer to follow the outline of the map, in a search for the personal experience, looking for known artworks or specific types of artwork – like a reading as opposed to a sculpture, or an artwork inside as opposed to in the street. Choosing between the meditation or the mapmaking; the mediation allowing soul searching and open reflection and the mapmaker looking to define and describe the themes and aspects of the artworks. All share the experience of the city, the season and the discourse while bringing along their own ‘air’ of the day and each having a different experience at the end of it.


In 1978 American Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles became self appointed artist to New York City’s Department of Sanitation and her first act was to personally thank every 8.500 sanitation workers by shaking hands and saying ”Thank you for keeping New York alive”. (Finkelpearl) By acknowledging the importance of each worker she is linking the visible and the invisible working patterns of the city, creating a shared narrative, crossing bridges and building ‘monuments in the mind’. Remembering that the bigger patterns are made up by individual’s contributions. Sharing public space is a precondition for having a well functioning city, with a pleasant community feel in the street. The key impact of art presented on the outskirts of the existing networks is the dialogue created through new collaborations across traditional divides and the opening of doors generating shared experiences.

A:L:L exposes the action of making sense, of playing and of sharing of ideas, and by it being in the heart of Cambridge; the city of thinking and the city of ideas. It is an arts project which takes the subject matter of language and shapes, moulds, plays and tweaks it into multiple forms, linking to multiple traditions and very different types of practices. The project’s style is uncharacteristic of many contemporary projects, where the model is that the projects are run by a funded arts organisation, which curates and delivers a project to the public. A:L:L is an artist run initiative created to share ideas with other artists and with the public.

In ‘Invisible Cities’ Italo Calvino writes “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Exploring the layers of experience as the traveller passes through in new places. This notion seems to forecast the interactive projections of dreams and thoughts as well as the spatial information that now precedes our experience of physical space. In engaging virtually with physical ‘slabs’ of the city and the images recorded by Google vans, combined with the actual and imagined information the layering of information changes the pace of the footsteps through the street. From moving at a confident pace, looking for markers and directions as well as written signs, we now listen and follow, step by step directions like a blind person navigating a space only directed by a neutral voice in the dark.

When one enters an urban space, we enter an already established visual; we are familiar with the object and symbols. In Cambridge the preconceived notions are dominated by the colleges and the cows, whereas the working part of the city is a more general fabric of new and old, residential streets, extensive parks inscribed with recent shopping malls and leisure centres.

Feeling part of a community or feeling at home in a neighbourhood is about knowing the rules, following the codes, having a sense of purpose and knowing where and how to go about your business. In Cambridge the gang colours of urban Los Angeles are replaced with colour coded scarves from the colleges. The students mix with the tourists in parallel universes and the art explorers contribute to the fabric of the neighbourhoods for a few weeks this fall.

When walking the city one always looks for signs of belonging, people acting in a similar manner, people wearing similar clothes, people who appear to be in a similar situation. If you’re on the Spanish Steps in Rome, it seems perfectly normal to take a break, sit down on the steps, even have a sip of water – or for the more risqué sharing a glass of wine – if you try this behaviour in a public park and stay for too long or even a suburban residential neighbourhood you will quite quickly be treated as a homeless freak; an outsider.


In the book “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon, he describes the concept of eruv – this a conceptual expansion of the home to include the whole of the neighbourhood, to allow the carrying of things to and from service in the synagogue and food to share with others. This is an intricate concept, which is in use in orthodox communities. Even though it is a primarily conceptual premise, it is also a legal and boundary right, along the lines of English, right of way and common land or footpaths, partly based on old common laws. The boundary is a physical marking usually with string, put up on pre-existing poles and fences, literally corralling the community and expanding the allowed activities that usually takes place in the home. The concept of eruv resembles the crisscrossing lines of different discoursed in art, how one artwork is related to the next, but still stays within the near invisible line that divides art from other things or concepts. A:L:L combines art from very different traditions; from the very literal translation of a poem to a reading of the lines in the computer code defining the PDF document to the small worlds or sculptures built from books.

We share a system of sound attached to the physicality of the letters and the rules defining words and sentences. The difference between a word typed in pixels and a word typed as a vector stretching with mathematical precision to any size keeping it’s roman proportions as a gateway across time. We are able to read text’s thousands of years old – but do we understand the meaning and the context? Probably not, probably not at all.


Can I hear you thinking or is that just words coming at me as an invisible cloud painting over the cracks between us, the crevices where the fussiness of feelings disappear and the sentences retain their framework of meaning – “See you at the stairs of the church at noon”? Never use the term 12 pm, it is redundant, it’s official, it has no meaning, as people will equally use it for noon and midnight, a perfectly innocent number in a cycle inscribed by 2 x 12, defined by the abbreviations am and pm. The directions we follow blindly; given by a GPS, by the voice of a cartoon figure or an esteemed news reader. “Meet me at the stairs at 12 pm… marry me in spring”? Now, do you really understand? Some artwork is made by instruction. Laurence Wiener’s instructions or statements as represented in the first issue of ‘The Journal of Conceptual Art Art-Language’ in 1969 at a time of great confusion and of breakdown in instruction? A time where patterns were breaking up and the instructions did not match the traditional ‘map’ and the ‘routes’ and ‘paths’ of living were changing. Art was one medium assisting with this research, facilitating the process of change, redrawing the maps, and helping understand the changed instructions. Art helps us notice the road we’re walking on and it helps understand other routes, while questioning how the map was written.


Famously apple launched their own map APP and people living in old and highly estimated locations were suddenly living in abandoned white spots, that could be re-discovered, they ended up having to give in to Google’s detailed expertise where every road is regularly scanned and reviewed and any feedback on errors or misinformation is fed back into the map, and the route planning based on the maps. The map and the mapped can never be 1 :1 because then nothing is gained.

Comparing water to letters: letters and words stream through our world taking on different meanings depending on the where and when they are used. A:L:L artist Claire Weetman paints with water on the busy pedestrian street, showing the directions and paths across a pedestrian square in Istanbul. Painting with water like kids paint on a hot summers day or like waves mark the beach, the are no traces left behind yet layer up on layer is sedimented onto the video tape and onto the experience of the pedestrians choosing to step on the painted slabs or to walk around them. A seeming meaningless choice but still a choice of respect and homage or ignorance and disregard.

The letters and language are like codes only making sense if read according to a system of sounds. The aural aspect of meaning is closely linked to us understanding language as an emotional human form of communication. As opposed to computer languages that make perfect sense in processors. The pronunciation of the text becomes abstract with only glimpses of recognisable syllables connecting it to human language. A:L:L artists Bryan Eccleshall and Rachel Smith interprets the poem ‘Grantchester Meadows’ by Roger Waters as text converted from the shell of a PDF file.


When memorising a speech or a poem using mnemonic techniques you walk into a virtual room, creating a trail you have to follow over and over again, until you have tied each part of the text to a series of portraits or a pattern in the layout of the building and you repeat to your self the words hung on each visual clue implanted in the mental trail.

You map the information to a location, mirroring how information is physically mapped on to different sectors of the brain – depending on how it is presented. When walking through the rooms of the exhibition of A:LLL or walking through Cambridge to get from venue to venue the information from the artworks are layered on top of the architecture of the buildings and the texture of the city. The artworks in the exhibition becomes part of the city and it is merged into the game of finding art; the endurance test of reading maps and deciphering what is art and what is city, the challenge of perseverance and determination to explore the artworks in their physicality. Text is rarely about information, it is often about confirming a sense of simultaneity we already are experiencing. In words we confirm that plywood is a characteristic material in contemporary sculpture as it’s raw neutrality reflects a sense of fabricated materiality and economical operation contrasting the lush marbles and granites of previous decades. In our eyes and in our experience we know that this is the case, if we follow these news streams, and the verbal statement is the end result of a complex set of negotiations already in the past.

The Hollywood sign was originally a real estate advertising devise – now the emblematic sign of the Hollywood film heyday in the 50’ and 60’s.

At a time where the focus is moving towards time based art forms – the poem is read live or filmed, artworks has an ephemeral character, words become transient, art becomes performative and the audience is recognised as a partner in the process.


Walking the map. In a 1:1 map I walk the map with my feet, I wear the map, I change the map, when I cut through the bushes and set a new footprint. I sing my own song of the road, left, left, left, straight, straight, and right at the light tower? “Please turn left at the next exit” the voice of the map is in my head, even the map is time based and available on demand. My own map of cities I have lived in fades from lack of use, down the street passed the churchyard with the yellow wall, with the black gaps into the overgrown wilderness; for a while when the gates were missing or always open, past the roundabout heavily trafficked, on the second light, right at the church and park. Past the friendly drunk on the steps and up 2 flights of stairs. The map does not differentiate between the public space and the private space. The maps of past houses are on the same page as the commuter maps of getting to and from work.

I am looking at the artefacts pictured in a book about Northeast Greenland (Pia Arke – Scoresbysund- Stefan Jonsson contribution)– the 3 dimensional carved maps used for navigation – collected in the 1850’s, but easily older. The maps shows signs of use and wear, the same as the Google maps; they are corrected and made better with use as information is added and the level of precision is increased. The text becomes 3d or the information is folded and layered until the creases in the paper becomes more important than the words on the page. Not obsolete, surpassed.

If images and art help us navigate and respond to situations beyond our control, the job of the arts is to examine and test out scenarios, material, information and emotional contexts. From exploring alternative lifestyles to staging social scenarios, where the audience are an integrated, and important part of the artwork. The narrative of alternative systems of response and classification appear in dialogue with design, science, mental health issues and progressive ecological disasters.


“Memories, images, once they are fixed in words, are erased.” Italo Calvino. TRY: “Memories images, once they are fixed in photographs, are overwritten.”

The space between art and language is mediated by location – the spheric notion of place defined by memory, rituals and repetition. Is art that? Is art the method of inscribing ownership in a diminishing world? Where we have bound the whole of our surroundings into a grid system arranged to benefit the human species, but with no sense of belonging, of ownership for the individual while art tries to bend the beam – direct it towards non-authorised objects – to get the images to reflect the dust in the corner, the milk in the back of the fridge, the crossing of a street and the book forgotten on a shelf in the local library since India’s independence and since Blair sunk into his religious activities and Brown ran off to Scotland.

The artists at A:L:L are adding to the multiple lines of discourse currently being tested in the arts and it’s vicinity, examining relationships between context, place and the many aspects of language. The aim of this text is not to set up new theories – but to open up the artwork and to get people interested in the project.

Now try to find:

A project that is scientific

A project that is poetic

A project with community involvement

And a project that is surprising

Grete Dalum-Tilds is a visual artist and photographer educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and California Institute of the Arts. With a strong interest in the relationship between poetry and visual arts, writing is an important part of her artistic praxis. She currently teaches at University of Northampton and regularly gives talks and exhibits her own work.

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