Sheilah Wilson

The Invisible Inside the Visible


I was born near a river. I return there, sometimes. The place, like most places we are born into, is marked into me. It is the place that spurned me, the place that will always draw me back. The province is named Nova Scotia, and the river I grew up next to is the Caribou.1

We know an environment by having lived inside of it.2 We understand a place to be true through our body and it is "our vision that goes to the thing itself". (Merleau Ponty 28) The idea of knowing a place through direct and personal experience led me to the project that occupied me for a number of months in 2012.3 The project, The Invisible Inside the Visible, was a search for a misplaced landmark in a rural community of Nova Scotia. I was looking for a racetrack that had been in operation for less than ten years in the 1920's. Supposedly it still existed as a mark in the land.

The racetrack was built in the village of River John, Nova Scotia. River John is a small community becoming ever smaller, as are many rural communities. Recent times have seen a contraction to a largely older permanent resident population, and some seasonal residents. In contrast, the mid 19th to early 20th century was a time of shipbuilding and prosperity in River John. This was when the racetrack, a source of community gathering and pride, flourished. In its heyday racedays attracted over 1000 people. The local horse, Rockboy, famously beat out "away" horse, The Ghost, who had been bought in the United States, in the final race at the track. (Advocate newspaper 1927)

After I heard of the mysterious track in 2009, I searched for two summers with friends and friends of friends who thought they could find it. We did not succeed. The place where the track existed is in the midst of a huge area of land (200 plus acres) set aside in the 1950's for community pasture. The trips through the pasture to find the racetrack were surreal experiences of walking into large fields and looking for something, without knowing precisely what. I realized that it is not often that we search for something without having the horizon to orient us. The trace remained hidden, somewhere in the sea of grass.

I was asked to create a piece for the W(here) festival, a conference on contemporary art in rural communities, and decided to record the journey of finding the racetrack. I sought out a larger sampling of people who could describe how to get there. I began by asking River Johners who had a connection with the racetrack to give me both oral and written directions. All of the people I spoke with had some direct experience with the racetrack, although only one had actually been at a race. Of course, each person I spoke to referred me on to another, who they thought would be able to describe it better. The knowledge and ability to tell the story of early River John resides mostly in the older generation, and it was from them I gathered memories and directions.

I was completely unprepared for how it was remembered. The directions were told with a strength of conviction, followed by an unexpected vagueness and inability to commit to exact location.4 I realized that the racetrack was remembered as a historical and cultural symbol first of all - a myth of a time gone by. This mythology co-existed with the passage of time, and the eventual and inevitable process of the myth becoming a marker to point to how you use the land in the everyday. As a marker, the racetrack was used to reference where you picked strawberries, swam or gathered cranberries. Barbara Bender states of landscapes, "They are always in process of being shaped and reshaped. Being of the moment and in process, they are always temporal. They are not a record but a recording, and this recording is much more than a reflection of human agency and action; it is creative of them." (2) This was true of the Cape John racetrack. Its initial landscape use was clearly defined as an event and destination. When this usage ceased, it became a part of the larger landscape of markers and pointers, for those who lived in the place. It pointed to the past while referencing the present.

When it became clear that the racetrack existed in temporal movement and without a fixed address, I decided on the title, The Invisible Inside the Visible. It was not just the idea that the mark of the track exists invisibly inside the larger landscape, but also that the lived experience exists invisibly unless you are of the place. These two kinds of invisible (one of the lines of the track, and the other of the lines of movement through the space) were equally elusive. I agree with Donald Meinig in the analysis that, "…Thus we confront the central problem: any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads." (271) Indeed, this racetrack was entirely a construct of illusion, created through intersecting stories of place and past.

The drawn and oral maps, however divergent they were, gave me the confidence to go out again and try to find the racetrack. I did find it this third time - by touch. It is the most unusual way I have ever found a landmark, to feel gently with one's feet for a rise in the land.

I began to follow the feel of the rise, realizing that indeed I was walking in an oval. The next step was to trace the feel with chalk.

I hired an airplane to take an image of the mark I had made, without having any idea whether or not it would work. Would the mark be legible as the mark of the track? The aerial shot revealed that touch is indeed a fairly precise way to make a mark in the land.

The final step for the project was to translate it back into the community. I wanted to put the photograph of the mark, another story of presence and absence, into the collective narrative of the track. The story was embodied in a white line seen from the sky -- a brief hovering over multiple tenses (past/ present) and idea of revenance. This story existed as another doubtful version, briefly present.

The newspapers I created were available at the gas station, which also functions as the gathering place, restaurant and grocery store for the community. They were also hand delivered (by myself) to the residents of the Cape John peninsula, where the racetrack was located. I wanted the newspaper to be authoritative in the allusion to 'news', and simultaneously highly subject to temporal relevance and irrelevance. I realized that idea of the track was equally real and unreal, the most real being the most recently told. For instance, one evening as I was replenishing newspapers a resident started telling me a story about the track. I was keenly aware that each telling was as authoritative as the one that came before it. It was a temporal equivalency. In its doubtful invisibility, language charted authority over place.6 This story I just heard is the version to believe, its horizon most visible. The track exists as both object and mirage.

This brings me to the central question, can shared memory become a substitute for physical knowledge of a place? Barring one person who had actually been at the last race between Rockboy and the Ghost, none of the people interviewed had seen the racetrack, and yet it existed. It was a shared cultural memory, a marker towards lived experience. A memory is a mark. A mark is embedded into a land. As Michael Shanks and Mike Pearson propose, "All those things which we might never regard as authentic history but which go to makeup the deep map of the locale." Place, ultimately, is carried as a deep map in the body. I would propose it is carried through language, which is a way of remembering into body and of place.

The stories transform the racetrack from a physical location in place to a physical location in language. This is clarified in the writing of Merleau-Ponty in his unfinished essay Visible Invisible, "It is as though the visibility that animates the sensible world were to emigrate not outside of every body, but into another less heavy, more transparent body, as though it were to change flesh, abandoning the flesh of the body for that of language." (153) I would propose that the language told through the body is equal to the vision of the land. The vision and the body become tangled up, and the idea of the truth of the story becomes irrelevant. There are multiple stories being told at all times and it is not possible to extricate which one is most true. They are, "…an interior horizon and an exterior horizon between which the actual visible is a provisional partitioning and which, nonetheless, opens indefinitely onto other visibles." (Merlea Ponty ) The track remains, still, as a mark in the land. It exists in a continued state of doubt, hovering between myth and marker. For a moment it was a mark on the land, visible from the sky. It rained. The mark is gone. The last story told is once again the most true.

Language creates its own geography a thousand different times.



1The province itself has a lot of shoreline, an impossible clawlike looking thing extending into the water on the right hand side of Canada, as you look down on the map. Maps mark the edges of things. I feel like I could spend my whole life running my hand over the edge of it, trying to understand how I can truly be a part of this place, or why I will never truly be a part of this place. By truly I mean that you do not think about it, it is. By this definition, I suppose, I will never truly be of the place.

2The way we learn it as a child is by holding onto it, and pulling ourselves around the form of it. So it is that I am still looking for the form of the place I am from. I return often. To try to understand it, to explore, to feel it and try to remember who I was then, and who I am now, and how we can know a place in two different times.

3The project was commissioned for the W(here) festival, curated by Mary MacDonald.

4Supposedly / So I've been told

5 Barthes, 'not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.' (p 82 Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography)

5Landscape may be seen as a dialectical image, an ambiguous synthesis whose redemptive and manipulative aspects cannot finally be disentangled, which can neither be completely reified as an authentic object in the world nor thoroughly dissolved as an ideological mirage. (1990:206) p. 272 Stephen Daniels