Since time immemorial, parents have advised their offspring to look up when walking to be alert and appreciate their surroundings. Many of us have internalized our parents’ claim that there’s nothing on the floor, which is why we tend to feel like Charlie Brown on a bad day when walking with our gaze fixed on our shoes. And while it’s true that there are many things to be noticed when walking if you just pay enough attention, Tempo by Sebastián Mejía tries to validate the significance of details we tend to miss when our chin is up. This curious photobook is the result of four years of work distilled in only a few pages, mixing quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust with monochromatic pictures that show the wear and tear of a city via textures, patterns, and shapes on the floor.
“However, this is not the jubilant abstract vision of an urban explorer in the age of Instagram, but one that resembles the work of a forensic civil engineer looking for proofs of systemic failure among the ruins of a metropolis. “
“Roads and paths cannot be perceived as a whole and all at once, they develop over time while you travel them, just like a story…” writes Solnit with her customary perceptiveness. In an introductory text, the art critic Nathalie Goffard frames Mejia’s project in terms of Situationist practices, particularly that of psychogeography, but I find the Solnit quote above more generative. Here, her concept of ‘story’ shouldn’t be taken literally but rather as suggestive of the narrative potential of photographic sequences to capture a subjective experience of urban space. According to Mejía, he decided to include these quotes to evoke the pleasures of gradually discovering a landscape. Whether Mejia’s walks were planned or improvised does not really matter – the impetus for discovery remains the same – although one gets the feeling that he favored getting lost to increase the chances of finding something that fit his taste.
The places depicted are anonymous – you can find similar stains, scuff marks, gravel, and broken pieces of cement in every city – but together, they construct a personal geometry of Santiago de Chile that is deliberate in what it chooses to include. However, this is not the jubilant abstract vision of an urban explorer in the age of Instagram, but one that resembles the work of a forensic civil engineer looking for proofs of systemic failure among the ruins of a metropolis. Mejia’s sharp images show our fixation to mark the earth’s surface, to customize it in a way that leaves no question that we own it and can bend any terrain to our will.
“We often expect high-end production values in contemporary photobooks, but not every publication can afford some of the eccentricities that we have become accustomed to. In this sense, Tempo reminds us that our material expectations shouldn’t dismiss publications that use humble materials, often produced outside the usual centers of culture and power. “
The book’s modest materials – folded unbound sheets housed in a cardboard shell – match the images’ ordinary subject matter, producing an atmosphere of scrutiny and tension. The irony is that materials such as stone and cement, which tend to be regarded as constitutive of durable infrastructure, are here contained in a fragile and flexible disposition that grants us complete autonomy as to how we consume them as images. We can, for instance, easily break their original sequence or spread out the sheets on a table to see them all at once. The inclusion of a poster invites us to further summon these pictures into our personal space. While the creative decisions behind the book’s structure demonstrate the myriad possibilities of form in photobook publishing, they can’t be divorced from the particularities of the artist’s socioeconomic context. We often expect high-end production values in contemporary photobooks, but not every publication can afford some of the eccentricities that we have become accustomed to. In this sense, Tempo reminds us that our material expectations shouldn’t dismiss publications that use humble materials, often produced outside the usual centers of culture and power.
Mejía’s book is about traversing space and transforming that experience into an analysis of the urban environment. What’s absent here is the artist’s body, who imprinted the work with the rhythm alluded in the title at the moment he pressed the shutter, producing an image that in turn became the sole evidence of his walks. That the pictures feel familiar and abstract, like when you pass by a spot repeatedly, until one day you notice something unique about it, is because they embody the process in which old knowledge becomes the seed for a new idea. Tempo shows no decisive moments – or any kind of event for that matter – but is itself the result of a ‘tactic,’ to use Michel de Certeau’s term, whose purpose is to incite a reaction on the viewers: get up, go out for a walk, and pay attention to all those cracks on the floor. You might learn something from them.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Arturo Soto. Images @ Sebastián Mejía.)