My work for An Unofficial Alumni (a Cognitive Mapping of Now)

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Image courtesey of Rob Nunns

Within this exhibition is basically my full year’s expenditure of energy that didn’t otherwise go into earning a wage, maintaining social bonds, our down the plug hole mixed with alcohol. So obviously it’s something I deem worth sharing, alongside the blogpost cover the entire An Unofficial Alumni exhibition.

The crucial work for this exhibition was my Psychogeographical account of an area I still see worth describing as the West Riding of Yorkshire (because the base point for most of my 29 years living here is more or less on the border between South and West Yorkshire, to cover just one of the counties would be insufficient to my experience of the landscape I inhabit the most). Having come back from London, after only 3 months, after failing to manage the pressures of doing a masters, whilst supporting myself financially, it was essential that I rebuilt things, from what largely felt like a wreckage, developing ideas that were at least thrown my way down there, and using them ‘back home’.

This isn’t to make out the 3 large drawings I put in this show mean any less to me.

The West Riding of Yorkshire: A psychogeographical account.

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Image courtesey of Jason White

I aimed to conbine all memories/experiences from a year of walking/train/bus and car journeys through 4 areas that span the old West Riding of Yorkshire. It has culminated from years of wandering and musing around an area loosely centered around Leeds, Wakefield, Barnsley and Sheffield. I’m trying to show what inhabiting these places /walking through these human landscapes feels like. All too often I find reality is massively cropped to take the more picturesque; but I’m also trying to show that the issues the world faces today can be observed on a local level as much as in any international city.
I have chosen this area because it is a landscape I know better than any other.

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It relates to a course I began, but couldn’t complete, in London, called Mapping Capitalism, and in particular theorist Fredric Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping, as a modern means of class consciousness and awareness of our real material conditions, in the disorientating 21st century world governed by global financial capitalism. Informed by both the philosopher Althusser and the urbanist/town planner,Kevin Lynch, who used psychogeographical ideas to create better living environments, Jameson argued that the “mental map of a city explored by Lynch can be extrapolated to that of the social and global totality [one that we] we carry around in our heads in various garbled forms”.  I travel often but regrettably I don’t often leave the 15 mile radius of my home that includes these areas of my focus. London was an anomaly which didn’t work out, yet it allowed me to look at (what I would class as) my home landscape with new eyes.

Image(I intended the map to be a culmination of all the ‘Mind Maps’ I have made of this area during the past 7 months. I wished to exhibit it using objects such as mesh fencing which, whilst being largely ignored as we make our way through our day, feature very heavily in the urban/suburban landscape)

I’ve found this project deeply helpful.  I look back on what I have written and the landscape reveals its true identity to me; something an A-Z or Google map could never do. It also made me realise that there is potentially something to be gained conceptually from any walk. Not just a walk through the most tourist-friendly spots on earth.

But I must ask myself why do this here and why now? Well, disparate issues seem to have come to a head and collided; personal reasons, such as memories, lost dreams, a coming of age that are all embedded in this landscape, are becoming entwined with deep concern about the changes to the world happening at the moment; an increase in poverty, homelessness, mental illness, and recent weather patterns that go far to suggest we are amidst a rapid transformation of the Earth’s climate. These changes are very noticable at a local level.

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The philosopher Franco Berard ‘Bifo’ writes that “in the last decades of the [20th] century, the utopian imagination was slowly overturned, and has been replaced by the dystopian imagination”. The social landscape is no longer a place for hope and opportunity but one that we increasingly fear; as theorist Mark Fisher says we use headphones, what he terms ‘OedIpods’, as “a walling up against the social”. We are encouraged to live in what Baudrillard called the Hyperreal, our own universes of simulcra that have no basis in, and which blind us us to a social void he called the ‘desert of the real’.

This landscape I know best more or less culminates around two railway lines; the Hallam and Penistone lines. I begin with the northern most point of this landscape of my mind: Leeds city centre.  Many parts of this area were visited by George Orwell whilst he was note-making for his book ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’, about life in the industrial north during the great depression. After 30 years under a neoliberal political economy, it is arguable that the quality of life for many, in relative terms, may be no better than it was in the 1930’s, and I am certain that the collective imagination is in an even worse state.

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(the traffic cones worked well as a common feature on the landscape that also provided a place in which to place audio players. The accompanying sound tracks – 3 in total – are recorded critical discussions between myself and friend Michael Hill whilst we walk through certain parts of this landscape, urban and non-urban).

This video piece, although it regrettably didn’t feature in the show, is essentially part of the same body of work.

Drawings

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The Place of Dead Ends (biro and collage on paper, 2013)

“In the last three decades of the [twentieth century] the utopian imagination was slowly overturned. and has been replaced by a dystopian imagination” Franco Berardi (Bifo) – After the Future (2010)

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For some years now I’ve had this feeling that things cannot carry on in the manner in which they have been doing. Furthermore: that we are watching the slow collapse of our civilisation. The feeling is closer year by year. It’s a broad-reaching feeling that dampens/taints the appearance of the world. I cannot switch this feeling off; there are traces of it in every thought. The only world (reality) we know seems to have reached a dead end. And because it cannot allow us to move forward, the past (or rather its past) takes control; it’s darkest ghosts re-emerge as a reaction to the huge problems we face; the dead come to rule the living. We run to the past for protection from the darkeness unfolding in the 21st century – right into the arms of the archaic forces that rise amidst such confusion and threaten to drag everything down back down with them.
The idea for The Place of Dead Ends fixed itself together whilst I was walking around the park-lands of Greenwich, London (a place saturated with popular history), in the autumn of 2012. I stumbled across the Queen Elizabeth [the 1st] Oak, a tree that the Tudor queen is said to have often taken refreshment under. Queen Elizabeth the 1st reigned over an historical period that played a crucial part in the formation of the British Empire, and (of course) the modern industrial world.
What I didn’t realise until then was that this tree had actually been dead for well over 100 years old. Yet the tree trunk remained; laying heavy upon the ground. Always having the gravity of the 21st century stalking my thoughts, I couldn’t help but see this dead relic as a metaphor for a world which is being ruled to ruin by ideas and beliefs that belong in the past; a result of a civilisation that is unable to look to the future.
In the past 5 years we have seen the massive failure of the neoliberal economic system (or global financial system);  yet, because we are unable to picture an alternative/unable to picture a future past the ‘end of history’ announced with the inauguration of global capitalism, ever-more extreme neoliberalism is being enforced onto the world. Neoliberalism is dead as a idea, nobody believes in it, yet it rules in an almost zombie-like manner (using thoughts expressed by Mark Fisher in his Visual Futures lecture). This bad medicine is being inflicted by a global elite structure whose dominance is beginning to be dangerously similar to the archaic feudal rule the kings and lords once had over the population. At the same time as this, we are made witness to scandal after scandal amidst the ranks of those  people, institutions and companies we used to see as the pillars of society,. The entire belief system has failed, but still governs us; we are ruled by the dead.
In the drawing the pillars of (a) civilisation have fallen across the route, like dead trees blocking the path. In this landscape protests are being made by many who desperately want to change the world into a better, more just place, but these pillars have landed on the protests, trapping them, making them unable to move – unable to make a difference (the most well-know example of this would be the 2003 protests against the US/UK imperial war on Iraq, where millions filled the streets world-wide, and were utterly ignored by the decision makers). On the rotting of the tree-like pillars grows all the forces that feed off the death of a future; runaway finance with no grounding in theory, and jingoist patriotism that feeds off the fears of global uncertainty.
The rest of this blocked route is occupied by people who have given up on the belief of a better future, and have given up fighting ; they live in a never ending avoidance of truth and empty feeling, condemned to the pursuit of immediate pleasures (drugs, alcohol, sex), only to spend much time in stupors of dissatisfaction and depression. I am not excluded from such a scene; I am both the protester and the individual drunken and frustrated roaming the evening streets, trying to forget reality. Every figure is interchangeable in my drawings; no individual is solely to blame and yet everybody is complicit.
Each side of the road are the barriers one faces when they try to think of a way out: the violence of the nation state, which becomes more ruthless and repressive the more it is threatened; and at the other side one faces the even worse plight of the poorer parts of the world, and the parts of the world already suffering greatly from changes to the global climate brought on by this governing system. There seems to be no way out. Clouds envelope preventing us from imagining another kind of world; they are both the very real human-made pollution we are failing to tackle, and the blotting out of imagining ourselves somewhere different; the clouds are full of the faces of ‘dead stars’, the icons of 20th century capitalism, who died and became immortalised in our collective hearts, having an ever greater ghostly presence that seeps onto the skins of us as we run backwards from the current world, in search of better times.
Drawing, for me is as much as a controlling (or management) of my darkest thoughts in which everything seems out of control. Yet, I hope my work can reveal the modern world to viewers in a way that is constructive to a collective demand for a better world. As much as I struggle to picture something more hopeful, the dead end is not the end of the world; only the end of a world, a world humanity surely must transcend in the 21st century else it may well be the end full stop.

Mind Camp (biro and collage on paper, 2013)

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The title of Mind Camp is taken from a very ignorant error I made when I was somewhat younger; believing it to be the English translation of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s notorious book. Of course, Hitler’s book is actually translated as ‘My Struggle’, and the remaining connection here is that which I always thought my interpretation of the title referred to: the occupation of the human mind by ideas, doctrines, logic, as a means of making them socially compatible with a system of power; that is, power that doesn’t only (or doesn’t even need to) insert its influence externally, to make sure we are compatible entities within a system, but internally (what I would later understand as what philosopher Michel Foucault termed Biopower).
The theorist Franco ‘bifo’ Berardi refers to the current stage of capitalism as ‘semiocapitalism’: a system no longer driven by mass industrial production, but by signs/communication, which is all the more evident now human life is almost completely orientated around digital communications. Berardi writes that “semiocapitalism puts [our] neurophysical energies to work, and submits them to the speed of electronic machinery. It compels our cognition, our emotional hardware to follow the rhythm of net-productivity” Capital has synchronised itself with our conscious and subconscious. It is proliferated by the “digital web…” which “…spreads and expands by progressively reducing more and more elements to a format, a standard and code that makes different segments compatible”. In such a world, brands/logos have a seemingly unlimited reach over the imagination – as we can now see all too well. , Precisely because it is internalised, Capitalism is so culturally extensive and intensive that it is hard to consider that anything may be outside of it, so that “when we sleep, we even dream of capital” (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism).
But this means new styles of exploitation for a new organisation of power.  Franco Berardi believes it is important to see the global worker no longer a proletariat but a cognitariat, as capital  puts more and more of our neurophysical energies to work. Michel Foucault’s reference to the Panopticon (an architectural structure built to allow total surveillance over the ‘inmate’s  to maintain order and control) as a analogy for a whole form of maintaining obedience to a power structure, is still alive and well, but perhaps need only now be used in certain circumstances, when the internalisation of power fails to work. Most of us are now governed internally, a biolpolitical intrusion of all the flows and anxieties of the political economy, depolitising us in the process, as we become the guard in the watchtower of our own lives.
Franco Berardi describes the Life of the cognitariat: “labor has become fractalised. With the end of large industrial monopolies, new workers, now delocalized in the global peripheries, start resembling computer terminals, cells in the circulation of the commodity-sign”. The worker is condemned to be a component in the constant production and consumption of signs/information.”Each individual is a cell put in constant productive connection with others by the web, which ensures a deterritorialized fractal, and fluid sociality. The cellular is the new assembly line, deprived of any carnal sociality”
Precisely because total competition is the name of the game, social mobility has actually become harder in societies more saturated by neoliberalism, and the more we partake in our ‘daily races’ against one another, the more we exacerbate the dynamics of an every-man-for-himself system where the winners have already taken all. Yet, because of the “non-stop inertia” caused as the cognitariat’s libidinal energies are constantly wired/re-wired into the digital matrix, the anxiety of this enforced competitive state of being makes it sometimes feel impossible for us to withdaw from these dynamics; indeed Berardi speculates that only when we crash (depression/mental exhaustion) do we withdraw our libidinal energies from the reproduction of semiocapitalism. Alone together, protesting through innactivity.
Within the drawing I wanted to try to visualise mechanisms that function by appropriating these ‘neurophysical’ energies from the cognitariat, but then merely dumps them once the required labour process is over, as the wealth accumulated by semiocapital becomes the preserve of a small section within the social system, who own the rights to the sign language as “intellectual property”. The ‘cognitariat’ is in a state of constant becoming; once their mental energies have been used, they drop (perhaps mentally exhausted, in what Berardi describes as a state of depressive withdrawal), only to find themselves reattached to the constant and futile ‘career-climb’ (the prospect of falling out of reach is often unthinkable as the welfare systems there to protect the financially vulnerable becomes less and less existent).
It often seems the case that the more one sends cell phone texts, posts images/links on their Facebook/Tumblr/Twitter wall, in the aid of becoming more (more financially, socially, and identity secure), the more one actually dissapears/becomes less, as they invest mental energies in an infinitely expanding information web, whose increase in size means increasing fragmentation of identity and of communitiy, as media wedges itself between more pockets of time/space; also this expansion not only engenders further exploitation of our psychic resources, but of our material conditions, as an increase in connectivity for the financial plutocracy means a greater reduction in labour costs for profit maximisation.
As the system refines its mechanisms in this so-called recession (the global 1% highest earners have seen their profits surge during this ‘recession’ period), jobs become so scarce to the extent that more mandatory, low paid jobs are absorbed more and more into the competitive, ‘careerist’, ‘life-as-a-CV’ job market, which was initially only the reality of those who were willing the work the career treadmill in the hope of a top salary. You stand still in a world of unrestrained ruthless capitalism and the fear is that one will be wiped from the game. It is evidential that we are witnessing a race to the bottom for (to use the now-common terminology) the 99% of us, as the concentration of wealth/power becomes more refined, with a logical conclusion that renders the fiction of films such as the recent Hunger Games imaginable.
The bulwark of information that is disseminated from the concentrated power is structurally designed to divide and confuse the population it relies on to utilise mental and physical energy from. This is the the only source that passes from the top to the bottom within this piece of work. The mechanism appear almost like pinball games levers, knocking all that is below back down, whilst only allowing these ‘media bombs’ to drop downwards. Sometimes I find the mechanisms visualised in games, especially early computer games, useful metaphors for the procession of power relations in the world, especially in the digital age.
Within the brain-like part of the work (which also attempts to refer to something inflated, and still inflating; a bubble of the logos of semiocapital) all signs, all logos, all companies, all sections of capitalist reproduction are shown to be connected/dependent on each others’ existence. Just as no individual is exempt, no sign/no commonly-seen logo is exempt from a network of images that descends into the darkest networks of reproduction; some brands seem to float like little fluffy clouds in a guilt-free cyberspace, but they are just as much as part of the system as the most destructive corporations wreaking havoc to the social/environmental, and also the darkests forms of image production from violent pornography to the filming of murder.
It’s an uncomfortable truth that the language of our times that often seems innocent on face-value is part of the same logic that allows the most brutal forms of exploitation in the world. Within this drawing there is no solution, I admit this (although there is cracks appearing in the super structure). But, to quote Franco Berardi again, because I largely agree with his opinion here, “The task of the thinker [to which, in my understanding of art, would include the artist] – if thinking has a task – is not to breathe hope into hearts, but to help in understanding  reality, because only understanding can bring forth new possibilities”.

The Planet’s Mental Illness (biro on paper, 2012)

The first thing I need to explain about this piece is why I chose the word planet instead of world; the latter being specific to humanity and all of its concerns, whilst the former describes everything that makes up the ball of rock, gas and liquid that constitutes the earth. I need to do this as it is evident that what I am trying to depict here is life in the grips of the dynamics of the human-made system. The word planet seemed more specific to dealing with an infliction on the earth of this all-consuming human system. I wanted to look at this culture (or civilisation) as something that, despite its initial intentions, has coated everything, making its logic inescapable, a logic that deals with maximizing all resource extraction, destroying the body upon which this civilisation needs to survive. This is why the word world simply did not suffice in representing the extent of the saturation of the issue we have here.
In a completely unreligious way, I see humanity as being life’s brain: its ability to think about everything that is and has been; the ability to look back at what came before it.
I don’t mean it in a sense that it is our destiny, more that the evolutionary process has placed the human being in this position. Yes, this way of seeing has been inspired by the Gaia hypothesis (a scientific hypothesis), which argues that all of the ecosystems on earth, and each living thing within it are interdependent to the extent that life has adapted this ball of rock, gas and liquid into a super-organism, self-regulating the earth to maintain conditions the best it can for life, in the way that a smaller system regulates itself in order that its stability is maintained. And I am in no way a new-age hippy: I’m too saturated in this wasteful and exploitative cultural logic/too infected with this globally-spread mental illness to be anything that comes near to genuinely fitting such a persona.
The term mental illness applies at every level here, right down to the individual. As we now clearly see, this life-sapping system is now creating a mental-illness epidemic, where the use of anti-depressants has become on commonality, and it being rare to walk around a shopping street without noticing a victim of eating disorders. Earlier this year, my friend spoke of how such a high number of his friends were complaining from migraines due to the stress of being unable to fathom out what the hell is going on, from the local to the global, that it couldn’t be dismissed as mere coincidence. I situated such heads, fit to burst, in isolated computer screens within this piece of work, as more and more of communication between one another is mediated through mechanisms. The spaces between us, in cyberspace, are full of arguments and attempts to explain what just is going off all around us. However, rarely does the action transcend the screens and have effect.
Computer screens seemed like the best place to position individuals separated from each other to suffer from the exact same causation, alone. It may be worth adding here that the scientific methodology that dominates our culture, has always sought to reduce everything to its individual components, to see everything as atoms per se, rather than as interdependent/connected atoms. And although this is certainly very useful, it seems to be a methodology with penetrating perception in one eye, but utter blindness in the other. The philosopher Martin Heidegger uses the term ‘modern technology’, where I would always use capitalism, to show how it is not a coincidence how a system based on reducing everything to “standing reserve” for future exploitation appeared historically not long after the beginnings of modern physics. This one-sided view of the world saturates our culture to an extent that it’s hard to imagine anything else, even whilst it slowly makes us more and more ill.
The tube-like tunnel this landscape is situated in is just this: the hegemony/the logic that has spread so intensively and extensively that one cannot imagine a world outside of this tunnel, even as it leads us into a darker and darker place. Towards the end of the last century, as systems that tried to challenge capitalism began to fall apart, the theorist Fredric Jameson claimed that in this time of late capitalism (or what he called ‘a time of no time’) “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that an end to capitalism”; and as humanity stumbles into the second decade of the 21st century, this diagnosis is becoming terrifyingly tangible.
As the heads inside the computer screens veer closer to the dark ends, they burst, re-releasing the cultural logic, in a chronological waterfall of the destructive cycle in motion since early European colonialism and the beginnings of the industrial revolution pours out, recreating the only world they know, as they self-destruct. It is almost the genealogy of the system being revealed, like DNA within we who know no other way even as it causes us to break down.
The landscape being constructed from the genealogy of our culture is of course intended to be the world we have now. As much as we see the brutality of the social gradient, from the private houses, and finance skyscrapers to the corpses of the global poor as they are the first to reap the harvest of climate breakdown, and those who are cultivated to sell their bodies in whatever means as the only means to earn a living, it is still clear that nobody is safe from these destructive dynamics. The lyrics of the late Richie Edwards in the Manic Street Preachers song Motorcycle Emptiness claim that “every where’s death row, everyone’s a victim”; this is the case under a truly global capitalism. Whilst this doesn’t excuse the vast injustices, where more and more millions are being dumped on the waste pile, whilst a minority enjoy the luxuries of kings, it certainly makes the case that we all have an investment in a different the future to the bleak one the logic of capitalism has in store for us and the planet.

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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