Places I've Nearly Been To But Have Not

Adam Thirlwell

There are two kinds of project: the projects you will execute, and the projects that you would like to have executed, but will not. And while maybe other people are not haunted by this second category, I really am. I feel they demand some kind of preservation, like in some miniature geniza. It is maybe guilt or maybe tidiness or maybe both together. Whatever the reason, it means that I always carry with me a list of the projects that I would like to have made but never will. These projects, for instance, include:

1. a viewing platform suspended up in the air, maintained by a hot air balloon – which would be a sort of homage to the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose idea it was, but who never made the project either. So, then, a doubly incomplete project.

Or also:

2. a transcription of all the junk mail I receive in one year.

And so on…

Yes, I think the not-to-be-executed is its own important category. Because what you don’t execute has its own contours. By which I don’t mean things that you have never had and never will have the intention of executing. What you will never do is of no importance at all. No, what’s important is the edge: the not-quite. It’s like that Merleau-Ponty thing about the objects’ outlines in some paintings by Cézanne, where Merleau-Ponty makes a distinction between a line and a contour: ‘If one outlines the shape of an apple with a continuous line, one makes an object of the shape, whereas the contour is rather the ideal limit toward which the sides of the apple recede in depth.’ Sometimes, I’m just saying, it’s important to investigate this ideal limit.

And the more I look at this list of projects that I would like to have executed, the more I realise that they are often forms of travel. Really, they are places I would like to have been to, but have not. So that possibly what this list of projects represents is the ultimate limits of the studio: not places I will never go to or have no interest in – like for instance the lost Mayan cities or Almaty – but the places I would like to go to, or nearly went to, but have not.

So, starting from the furthest west on a map, with London at the center: there is the island of Samoa, and also the island whose name I’ve forgotten where the original Robinson Crusoe resided. And then, moving onto the landmass of South America, there is Santiago and Patagonia and Buenos Aires. While moving northwards into North America there would then be various areas of Los Angeles, like Malibu, and the casinos and strip malls of Las Vegas, including that building in the shape of a duck, until I would settle on the eastern edge of the continent, in Miami and especially Key West. Until eventually I would float out once again over the Atlantic Ocean, to Mustique and also Haiti.

But then, as I write these places down, it occurs to me that even this small selection shows that while the straight lines of geography offer a kind of arbitrary order, the real structure is more hidden: in each case, the location I have never been to corresponds to some kind of fantasy. So that really the category I’m investigating is not just the project that remains unrealised but the fantasy that you prefer not to make real. In other words, Malibu would be in some kind of beach house category, with Mustique, and Key West, and would therefore share this category with other locations I have never been to, like the Calanques near Marseille or also Goa and a general South Indian vibe. While Santiago would probably need to be joined by Mexico City and also Buenos Aires and
São Paolo, and would be part of a fantasy I nourish of becoming in some way a South American novelist, a sudamericano, seeing as so many sudamericanistas are my heroes.

I seem to have a lot of fantasies. Another is my fantasy of investigating the Caucasus. Because sometimes I would like to write a journey to Armenia, that would finish in Yerevan, and this fantasy of the Caucasus, which in some way means that I have a fantasy of central Asian glamour, also includes therefore Tbilisi, and also, further east, the architecture of Isfahan and Samarquand. Maybe all these fantasies are one giant fantasy of world knowledge. I think I might be that megalomanic. Because to go vertically down into history I would therefore have to include a list of ancient sites, like Gerasa and Heliopolis and Thebes and the monastery of St Catherine at Sinai.

While another fantasy would be more horizontally gluttonous and is all about food: and would feature me eating Dan Dan noodles in Shanghai and Chengdu, and ma po tofu in, Beijing, and tonkatsu in some miniature joint in Tokyo.

Or maybe this is only usual, this kind of list. They are all projects for experimental selves. And so, I know it, they definitely have their comic side. Of which perhaps my favorite is my surf fantasy, in which I go to the Atlantic coast of France, to Cap Ferret, and eat oysters at Chez Boulan, and then learn to surf, after which I then travel down that Atlantic coast, stopping at Hossegor, Bayonne, and Guéthary, before ending up at J-Bay in South Africa or in Sydney at Bondi or Cronulla .

And in fact this list of projects can very quickly start to look more endless than I thought. Because to abandon any attempt at classification, I have also not gone down into the sewers of Paris although I did investigate this on the internet. I have not listened to music in Mali, nor Senegal. I think it’s very probable I will never make it to Timbuktu. I have not done war reporting from the DRC. Nor, if I finally come to rest at London as the central point in this map, have I ever been to Rye, or even Margate. I have never been to Tintagel or Whitstable. Just as I have never been to the yeshivah in Gateshead, nor Panzer’s deli in St John’s Wood. I have never been to the Isle of Skye in homage to the Jacobite cause. But all of these are projects I have begun and abandoned.

And sure sure sure: I know the tone you’re meant to take for this kind of list is very sad, or at least I think it is. I can imagine some general description of this list under the melancholy title: The Unlived Life. But I’m not so convinced that the lives you don’t live are so different from the lives you do live: I kind of envisage them all stacked up together, like in some outsize armoury. So why can’t the tone for this kind of list be just as gleeful as any other? It’s like some basic theory of the silhouette. Definitely, if you want to describe where you are then you could do that with all the detail you can see around you. But also you can do it inside-out, and back to front.