Nothing but a few signs, like stars in an immense black night: clandestinity and night-faring practices in the Underground Railroad
The text focuses on how clandestinity, understood as the articulation of spaces of secrecy and invisibility, is traversed by a singular form of architectural knowledge centered on embodied practices. A set of minor know-hows playing with the lines of the visible world while understanding the material effects of individual and collective bodies, all founded on a finetuned awareness to the fuzziness and material qualities of the world.
(…) However, the lack of knowledge about abstract navigation methods meant that would-be fugitives needed to master their body senses far beyond the visual to turn their body into compasses. Aurality and touch were essential to manage the encounters with the surrounds. The fugitive Charles Ball remembered how, “at dark, I again returned to the road, which I traveled in silence, trading as lightly as possible with my feet and listening most attentively to every sound that I heard.” Sound signals were an important part of the railroad codes. For instance, prearranged signals were used to detect a friend or foe in the road. One fugitive told how: “As a signal of our meeting in safety he would give the signal crying out, ‘yea! yo!’”. A sound signal created a common spatiality, a connection between two isolated bodies, a bond capable of orienting the body in darkness. Thus, for the station masters and conductors, using sounds to codify encounters was essential. Touch was another important bodily orientator, if we go back to Delany’s novel, we see that when the stars could not be seen, haptic navigation had to be used, and “you must depend alone upon nature for your guide. Feel, in the dark, around the trunks or bodies of trees, especially the oak, and whenever you feel moss on the bark, that side on which the moss grows is always to the north.”
An article covering the presentation at the «Nocturnal History Of Architecture» conference organized by HEAD – Genève, Interior Architecture Department.
Published in 2023 as part of the A Nocturnal History of Architecture collection (ISBN 978-3-95905-674-8): download the article here.