Patrick Staff interview: EAF show Observers’ Walks

Patrick Staff presents a Collective Observers’ Walk which combines diligent history telling with sharing of erotic nighttime adventures on Calton Hill

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 28 Jul 2017

For the audio tour, as commissioned by Collective Gallery, Patrick Staff looks to the biological science and colonial history of Calton Hill, as well as its use as a place for cruising and sex in the dark. This approach emerged from an ongoing conversation with Collective – they would send Staff information about the history of the area. In turn, Staff would send Collective their own questions about the particularities of the hill, “a lot of information on the geology… and what grows on the hill.”

Thinking about its more recognisable beginnings as a historical guide, Staff sees this form as taking its cue from the site itself. “It’s a more diligent and well-behaved way to start the piece, which is more historically grounded. And that’s like the way Calton Hill is set up, these monuments to scientific discovery. Then there’s the messiness of people’s bodies that upset this historical narrative.”

Beginning with the plants of Edinburgh, the first layer of bodies that come in are women within colonies who ingested the flower Bird of Paradise to commit suicide. “It was a plant that was considered this beautiful thing but most of these colonial botanists were ignorant to the fact that the plant was being used [for suicides] and instead celebrated how big it could grow in Europe.” There’s a parallel already for Staff in this illicit and obscure second use with Calton Hill: tourist destination by day, seedy hook-up spot by night.

There’s another snapping of the timescale, as the work moves from thinking about colonial histories, to last night’s cruising, then sees Calton Hill itself as “liquid” in a different geological timescale. “It’s a lot about hierarchies.” In this vein, Staff cites Mel Chen’s book Animism as an inspiration. “Mel Chen talks a lot about how culturally we ascribe aliveness and deadness in a hierarchy. We see humans as being most alive and rocks… the most dead. Within that we start to ascribe these other hierarchical judgments. Often it’s cis white men that are [deemed] the most alive.”

Following Chen’s scientific and linguistic troubling of these hierarchies, at one point the hill is the most alive part, then during the sex scene a puddle of piss becomes more active a participant in the sex going on than the person peeing.

While Staff questions and subverts the usual historical tour that’s more oriented towards “100 years ago in this spot…”, the form of headphone audio guide itself was exciting to them. In particular, there’s a closeness to this setup they describe. “I want it to be like whispering in your ear about something… It was fun for me to ask, What does this form offer? It offers me a really close intimacy, talking to you about fucking in your ear… I like that you’re more than likely to be walking around during the day, but being encouraged to think about the place at night.”

This intimacy stems from Staff's own pleasure in getting to know the location. “I was enjoying the intermingling that every time I’ve been on that spot it’s been raining and the amount of people that piss on that hill at night, probably piss on these monuments.” They describe this form of engagement coming into the work as a “hard subjectivity, to take that more historical tone that’s potentially an objective narration. For me as an artist it’s pleasurable to flip that [and the narrative then changes to] ‘when I’m fucking, in my cunt, what I feel, how my body is reacting.’”

Patrick Staff's Observers' Walk is available from Collective during their opening hours, see