Writer and author Selina Guinness was invited to write a piece about the ideas and contexts behind IN CONTEXT 4 - IN OUR TIME programme. 

IN CONTEXT 4 - IN OUR TIME                                              

Selina Guinness

'I’ll begin with a paradox. If you’re told to ‘Know Your Place!’ aren’t you really being told to get lost, disappear? It’s a contradiction explored by Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit points out that “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” [1] ‘Losing things’ may embody carelessness, absent-mindedness, a sense of dispossession that may be hard to master but which probably won’t undo the subjectivity of the owner. ‘Getting lost’ advances further along the scale of loss towards self-annihilation. This disorientation, the evaporation of all known compass points, brings a forensic urgency to the task of observation. Once you have stumbled off the path, without a map in a place you barely know, don’t you look around for landmarks and take the position of the sun? All those reprimands: ‘Know Your Place’, ‘Don’t Get Above Yourself’, and best of all, ‘It’s Far From X You were Reared’ – imply that adaptation to new surroundings will take small acts of subversion. Individuality is discovered in the process of slipping that old, familiar leash.

It seems to me that Solnit’s title – A Field Guide to Getting Lost – provides a manifesto of sorts for In Context 4, this exciting new vision for the South Dublin County Council programme of public art.

When I was a kid, my father decided to take a shortcut through Tallaght on the way to Newcastle one Sunday morning where we were due to go beagling across the fields. Lamp posts, and the skeletal frames of half-built houses, soon replaced the hedges, before the road flowed into a delta of new suburban tributaries around what is now Fettercairn.  The Ordnance Survey could not keep pace with Tallaght’s development in the late 1970s.  Without a map, but with the morning sun behind him, my father reasoned, we’d soon reach Kerrs, or as SatNav today would have it, ‘’our final destination”.

There were no clues in that half-built landscape to guide a stranger, and no kerb or corner had yet acquired the significance that comes with habitation. The sun was useless as a daylight star. My father should, of course, have stopped to ask directions, to start that conversation when a person lost entrusts his safety to a person found, and listens closely to hear the route described. “Do you remember passing a stack of breezeblocks about a mile back?” The most ordinary things become landmarks when described to a stranger. Only through another’s call to look up and look around, can things passed, or passing or to come, become our way stations on the path back from being lost, places to recover meaning from that moment of panic when we face annihilation.

This is an old-fashioned story. The estates were empty that Sunday morning and it was some time before my father finally admitted defeat and found his way back onto the road that led directly home. It’s a hard task to get lost these days, and it’s not just the residents who know their way round. On Street View anyone can scope out a neighbourhood without risk of wet or conversation.

People too are mappable.  We can all be scoped in profile, befriended or defriended, rejected or accepted before we’ve even met.  Emanuel Levinas says we find our humanity in the gaze of the other, that moment of trust when we lose ourselves in another’s eyes. How I wonder, is this encounter compromised if we let our social network first determine who appears on that horizon? In the face-to-face encounter, the window rolled down, do we find new features to discover? Or, if we have lost our capacity to get lost, always knowing how to reach our final destination, do we not also lose our ability to observe and engage fully with who we meet and where?

Before Sat Nav, there were field guides, but they didn’t announce the species – you still had to use your own eyes to spot and identify the bird. Art’s best ideas come from making strange, from telling others why they should consider an ordinary stone a landmark. They come from risk, and adventure, from getting your feet wet in your encounters with the world. And if public art provides a door to elsewhere as tonight’s performance suggests, then In Context4 provides a brand new field guide to what we can discover and inhabit just beyond those horizons we tend to set for ourselves.'


[1]  Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin 2006, p.

Selina Guinness is a writer and lecturer in English.  As writer-in-residence with Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (2015 - 2016), she ran two collaborations, The Pale Project, and Salon Nights at the Studio. Selina is editor of The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2004) and co-editor of The Resurrection: Manuscript Materials by W.B. Yeats (Cornell University Press, 2011). Her memoir, The Crocodile by the Door, (Penguin Ireland 2012), was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards (Biography) and the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards (Best Newcomer). Her essays have appeared in The Dublin Review; her short stories are included in All Over Ireland (Faber 2015) and The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction, 2005 - 2015 (New Island, 2015).   She is currently writing a novel.