Reflections gathered from performance in the Anti-Gallery Show, weekend 16,17,18, January 2015
This text is a reflection on the performing of Non-Stop Inertia: A Stuck Record – inspired by Ivor Southwood’s book Non-Stop Inertia. Part of a wider collaborative project between myself and Leeds-based artist/curator John Wright, Non-Stop Inertia was played intermittently over a 3 day period as part of the Anti-Gallery Show, at The Espacio Gallery in Shoreditch, London. As this text deals purely with reflections during and after these 3 days, the explanation for the motives behind this ongoing work can be found here: https://johnledger.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/non-stop-inertia-a-stuck-record-the-anti-gallery-show/ . However, the writing uses other points within the 3 day period in London to talk about a larger project, in which Non-Stop Inertia is just one part.
A Psychological Experiment…
That I am in a well-and-truly-spent state the day after our Non-Stop-Inertia piece means that if it was as much a psychological experiment as it was a piece of artwork then the experiment was successful. The carefully-chosen texts we chose to read out were so fitting, but fitting within the eternal-now, ‘in the loop’ of the performance. Because the gravity of their content could as easily fall from mind as it could be put back there once there performance resumed. The content itself became looped; there was no further level of understanding. It was the poetry of a ghost trapped in the machine.
And ghosts trapped in the machine we became. Neuro-psychically electrocuted by the randomly occurring door-alarm signal, I for one can testify to the physical effect (in my manic body movements) that such internalising of the constant expectation of random interruptions can have. Certain lines read out from our texts would land in unison on the pulse-line of the subjectivation, at which point we’d look to each other as if to confer “yes, that’s what this is, exactly!”, but cognitively building on what was being said/read felt impossible due to this anticipation of interruptions. How can you build on things if you are in a perpetual state of siege?
The door alarm noise signaling our ‘calling’ to disseminate emotionally-laboured welcoming-spiel (language absent of life aimed at an absent customer) was, of course, implemented in a random-fashion by our own design. But the intention was to show how this unending anticipation of unpredictable interruptions of our thoughts is a constitutive part of contemporary life, which (we believe) is intrinsic to the inability of individuals and societies alike formulate, or even imagine, a way out of the current global cultural situation that consumes the hopes, desires and visions of alternatives with the same level of ferocity that it consumes the people and resources needed to constitute a future world full stop.
We came away from this performance with no answers to this, but this was the intention: to give poetic form to the very structures preventing us from finding the answers to the current situation. We believe that if the structures permeating contemporary life are dismissed as irrelevant to the task of building towards an alternative, then any kind of positive alternative is impossible.
No Desire to Converse
Whilst in London, myself and John Wright frequently discussed the difference between desire and drive: that, in an ‘always on’, no-future, hyper-competitive, hyper-capitalist world, desire is both short-circuited and disemboweled from drive. This leaves us trapped in a ‘nothing-left-but…’ state, where we often feel a zombie-like-entrapment to the motions of tasks, duties and habits and especially the end-game pursuit of sugary, narcotic, or sexual stimulus; that can often feel like being in a state of seizure due to inconceivability of there being anything else we can do “but pursue pleasure”. (an overly referenced section of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism book, which I attempted to read out as part of the performance).
As well as the resulting post-performance-state leaving us in a state of incomprehension of what we could possibly do except going and getting alcoholically intoxicated in the city, the performance itself also functioned through pure signal-actioned drive. The words were spoken out of drive, rather than desire. This is why others who attempted to engage in the dialogue, and who weren’t used to the nature of the represented job-type to an extent that they could ‘go through the motions’ like we could, very quickly became frustrated (as was partly the intention). One of the participating artists in the Anti Gallery Show said he couldn’t see the point in trying to make conversation. What was the point of him trying to gain something from a conversation if he was to be constantly sent back to square one by the interruptions?
If we are correct in viewing this predicament as endemic in contemporary life, could it not be said that the breaking down of thought and communication to a sound bite-form isn’t merely the result of a reduction of our attention-spans caused by our immersion in cyberspace, but is actually caused by the lack of desire to engage in conversation due to the anticipation of interruptions slicing through it? We also argued that the increasingly competitive nature of contemporary life further reduces the room for conversation, because the constant sense of the self-under-siege within such a competitive world makes it seem an immediate necessity to get our point heard rather than allow the time for other points to be heard (I, for one, am very guilty of this). Indeed, what was left of our broken up conversations was used to discuss the breaking up of dialogue intrinsic to one of the largest social media platforms: Twitter.
All in all Non-Stop Inertia: A Stuck Record was successful – too successful perhaps; afterwards, the necessary walk (climb) back to Kings Cross station seemed almost daunting.
The (Un)realised Project
This inability to transcend, to get beyond the “this is so relevant!” point whilst we were reading the texts/debating perhaps makes Non-Stop Inertia:A Stuck Record pivotal to a wider sensation myself and John Wright are investigating. That, as numerically-measured time pushes onwards, and one’s skin slowly sags downwards, somehow one hasn’t merely become ‘stuck in a moment’, but that the moment has terraformed, re-landscaped the horizon so that the next step beyond this ‘stuck moment’ seems to have never even existed, and that the places that proclaim to have movement are merely just full of frenetic ghost-like actions, speeding up but going nowhere. The unending nature of the sentence I have just written embodies a unending struggle to put to sleep the ghosts that haunt me. After countless debates around this matter, myself and John Wright began an investigation, of intertwined stories (personal to me) and wider post-millennial cultural moments, that we aim to turn into a solid body of work under the umbrella title The (Un)realised Project.
Thus far it has been agreed on that one specific work, The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The Crash), will take centre stage within this body of work. The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The crash), completed in 2014, uses my own turf (post industrial areas stretching along the foothills of the Yorkshire Pennines) to examine near pasts, lost futures and dead dreams to understand the wider contemporary social condition. Focusing on two lost futures and the un-locatable present, the condition of which is largely caused by the loss of the previous, and their haunting presence. The first lost future is that of popular modernism, which died in the latter quarter of the 20th century. The second lost future being the naively optimistic early to mid-1990’s, and its utopian gaze toward the coming new millennium. The un-locatable present here refers to a specific intensification of life under digital capitalism, looking at a severe disconnection to the passing of time since the 2008 financial crisis. The Mary Celeste Project (The Scene of The Crash) is crucially inspired by my sense of a loss of narrative and of being out of time, amidst a feverishly neoliberal reality. But certain locations I spent time in prior to the beginnings of this project were crucial to reasons behind making of it.
It is clear then that specific geographical spaces are very important to this whole investigation. Thus, with the rarity of two people from northern England planning to embark on the south at the same point, it was essential we had to go another very symbolically important location: Greenwich.
So what makes Greenwich so important? We’d arrived in darkness, and the specifically-threatening-looking silver Met police cars guarding the gates put us off trying to find a way in, so we circumvented Greenwich Park wall right down to the river. One point of agreement on that walk was pivotal to the whole text I’ll write thereon after: my ‘stuck in a moment’ fixation with a 3 month (yet 3 year-long-feeling) time spent in London, unsuccessfully trying to complete an MA in Cultural Studies just down the road in New Cross, prompted John Wright to say to me (in a supportive manner, of course) that I really ought to have done the MA in Leeds (I had considered doing the MA at the University of Leeds, the institution John had recently been awarded an MA qualification at), but we both instantaneously and almost simultaneously responded by agreeing that I had to go to London; that there was something much larger and important at play.
I’ve written way too much already about the mental state I found myself in down London that forced me to leave, and the time leading up going and the time afterwards is far more crucial to the project and the reasons for the usage of my experiences within Greenwich. However, there is one crucial line explaining my state down there that activated this entire project: I believed I’d reached a total dead end, that there was nothing beyond this spell in London.
During this 3-year-disguised-as-3-month-spell, I found myself at Greenwich quite a few times (even ending up with a part time job there, just a week before finding myself back in bed in the north), finding the momentary ease under the autumnal ‘avenues all lined with trees’ an embodier of the wish for a granting of indefinite residence in a place I never really wanted to leave – “I like it here can I stay?” as the lyrics from The Smiths’ Half A Person that weaved through all other thoughts within my room in nearby New Cross.
Something had occurred here to a degree that I was finding it incredibly hard to get out of bed in morning after 15 years of habitually getting up at 7am. The years preceding had seen a building up of both foreboding and understanding of the global cultural situation, to which 2011 felt like the zenith; a clicking into place of a new reality from which we couldn’t go back. And now I was here, in the last 3rd of 2012, and it truly felt like the eye of the storm; the “that’s exactly it!” masters course (that I wanted to last forever, not 1 year of pressurised performance); the financial epicentres seen from my windows; the potential of meeting the world in a world-city; THE HEART OF DARKNESS – as it really did feel like I’d finally found it in as if in an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s novel – because, as comical as it sounds, the plentiful Megabus trips down there looking for a home were symbolic of a wider feeling of being worn right right right down into a man in search of a resting place. And, after the year 2011, there appeared to be no way of going back. And at that initial point before it all went wrong it didn’t matter that there was no way forward.
But as the London-endeavour lead on it became unavoidably clear that there was a dead end rapidly approaching. Throughout the preceding years there had been so much effort to show how entangled my inability to perceive a future for myself was with the dead end that was the endgame of the course the world was taking, to the point where I was exhausted just as it all seemed to come to a head. But as I walked around Greenwich, a place arguably unsurpassed in symbolic importance to creation of the world as we know it, to the extent that it often feels like the meridian was the first line ever laid, it became very clear to me for the first time how our ‘always on’ global capitalist culture was trapped by the past.
Greenwich is a place symbolically laden with traces of ghosts from other eras that refuse to die; a fusion of what-might-have-been’s (lost futures) and unshifting-has-been’s’ (archaic tombs that won’t close up). One that caught my attention was the Queen Elizabeth Oak, an important tree for the Tudor dynasty (a crucial period in the formation of Imperial expansion and modernity). Yet the tree is 100+ years-dead, and has laid on the floor like a wooden carcass for some years now too. Trapped under the weight of the past, with no future to speak of, the speed of life/the ‘always on’ endless labouring within the infinitely accelarating capitalist technosphere, traps us in a frenetic eternal-now epitomised by the Non Stop Inertia project. But in such a Stuck Record state, the present is also a void without a perceivable future in its wake, meaning the past, especially the near past, seeps into the void left by the unlocatable present (think of how traces of the optimistic 1990’s seem to cling to everything); impounding the pressure between the new reality demanded in the wake of 2011 and the lack of ability to be able to even think beyond the current moment. This is well and truly an hauntological state, and through my endeavouring after abandoning London to engage on a cognitive level with the South/West Yorkshire landscape I lapsed back into, these past 2 two years have been profoundly hauntological; all that has followed as felt unrealised…undead.
Connections….Always Looking for Connections…
Of course if we didn’t deem all this crucial to some wider situation we wouldn’t have embarked on the (un)realised projects investigation, nor would we have bothered taking the bus to Greenwich on a cold, dark night. The very fact that I also ‘sound like a stuck record’ on this blog now is more to do with my emotional energies smashing against 4 walls, looking for a way out, than the indulgences of dwelling in the past. Or at least this is what I tell myself. I have to tell myself this, because I am profoundly sick with the way things are, and the conviction that I am not alone means that the current direction of my work is as much as political act as the works I made in my early 20’s that dealt specifically with the threat of climate change.
The closed brackets around the ‘un’ in unrealised, was John Wright’s idea, positing it as the hope that all that is hanging around in a ghostly form will one day be realised. Using Jacques Derrida’s differentiation between an Ending of something and a Closure of something, John and I discussed how this dead-end feeling doesn’t have to be (or at least shouldn’t have to be) the end in itself, but a closure of something that allows the beginnings of another. Of course, our usage of specific geographical locations was a way of simultaneously commenting on this as both a deeply personal and deeply global cultural state. Perhaps using landscape is one of the strongest methods or articulating the fusion of two issues that would appear very distinct on a surface level?
The Utopian Never Truly Dies
As much as we felt it necessary to travel to Greenwich after our performance on the Saturday, after our final, most exhaustive, performance on the Sunday, we deemed it necessary to spend time in the Barbican complex before we set off back for the train.
There is something truly special about this place, which gets beyond the facts of why it remained like this whilst other Brutalist utopian residential schemes failed drastically; that this estate was designed for the well off, the cultural elite, and thus corners weren’t cut in its construction (nor was it fucked up socially by mass job losses), is a seperate matter to to truth of the place which is that it exists as a realisation of the utopianist society that truly could have been. This place doesn’t even seem to have been bothered by the onslaught of Thatcherism; neoliberalism seems to have been kept at the gates of this fort-like-structure, and you can imagine the same being true in long night of fascistic, repressive governance if we don’t find a way of changing the course we are on. It may be a place of the communal/the shared for those who already have their fair share, but in that it actualises elements of the ideal, it shows that they could, and should exist elsewhere.
What I like about this place is what makes me realise that as undead as I often feel, as emotionally-turned-to-stone as I regularly feel, I am still deeply utopian. Utopian is different from a Utopia; arguably Utopia can never exist, but to be Utopian is to be an idealist in life, not to accept any given reality as ‘the way it is’ – such fatalism is dangerous, and has arguably made the situation we are in profoundly worse to deal with.
The Barbican reveals traces of the utopian in the past that was left behind when neoliberal economic theory and postmodernism galvanised the TINA (there is no alternative to capitalism) reality. We sat in the canteen (the only place I know of in contemporary life where the word canteen isn’t associated undesirable eateries), and just sat, without the need for more pleasure-seeking, drink, etc – just sat. As we moved on toward the station, making a closure on this situation still felt as far off as it did before the performance, in the Barbican we did at least get a glimpse of elements of a place that could exist beyond this stuck point. This point has to be moved on from; personally speaking, I cannot stay here any longer.
The Retro bar at the end of the Universe
That my life doesn’t seem to grow and change is because time itself doesn’t seem to move things on anymore.
Oh yes, things change, but it’s as if the entire world is speeding up its exchanging and obtaining of things already bygone. And when all that happens is that things are circulated faster and faster, little of it seems to have any substance. When one thinks of our present time and what could be seen as new, one thinks of applications, social-media sites; they don’t bring anything new into the world they just stretch out and speed up the circulation of everything that’s already happened in our civilisation (recent technological advances merely turn the world into one giant tin of old photo’s, and all we do as a culture now is constantly browse that tin).
I have never found myself able to allow myself to leave my teenage physique and demeanor behind. Reality would show that I have left it behind, but it doesn’t stop the need to maintain what has already gone.I cling to a past that retroactively becomes more and more massive, as a future never seems conceivable. The more I speak to others (although it is played out in different ways) the more I realised it wasn’t specific to myself.
That I make sure that I can still fit into (some) size 30 waist jeans is merely reflective of a culture that continuously makes sure it can still riff on the past. According to The independent newspaper, the United Kingdom, in terms of soft power (or cultural capital) is ranked as the most influential nation in the world, and if there was ever a nation that has continuously managed to riff on its past (whether the royal spectacles or re-hashes of the same British rock group formula every 5 or so years) it’s the United Kingdom.
+We are trapped in a cultural logic that believes nothing can be done to shape and make a new world. Because of this we are held to ransom by the logic of a system that told us its world is the only world. Our culture has nowhere to turn, and as this systemic logic brings the world into farce, we look further and further backwards, in order to grasp something that we feel we can control, in order to stay sane.
I would speculate that with every crisis the capitalist system has produced this side of the year 2000 that it further entrenches this immersion in things of the past (albeit with modern devices that we rarely try to rationalise). The legitimacy of the system has been smashed by farce after farce; we know we it is failing us, but we cannot perceive away around it, so our world is built out of a past that we can control and predict.
Because we can’t face up to the present, or even acknowledge it, time feels out of joint. This disjunction between time and our experience can be unnervingly evident in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Dotted around every urban settlement up and down the U.K are, what I call, ‘Mary Celeste‘ Developments; never completed housing estates, barred off by metal barriers, and skeletal structures which are frozen in their foetal position. Precisely because we are culturally unable to face up to the present, we usually walk past these spaces and instantly forget about them. But if we make a conscious effort to observe them we are confronted with the disconcerting fact the the financial crisis began half a decade ago, when it doesn’t feel long ago at all. It only feels like it happened a few weeks back, and everything at these construction sites stands, waiting to resume business, as if it were only a temporary blip.
Because we have found ourselves at our cultural dead end (or at least at a blockage in the pipelines of time) the world hasn’t been able to come to terms with the truth that the world has been irreversibly changed from that day on. We can’t really picture the world as it actually is, now, because it gives us the sensation of already being dead, and having an after-death experience. So we wait for things to return to as they were; we wait and wait, and only rarely realise just how much time we have spent waiting.
It’s like we are the new Pompeii, but haven’t realised that we’ve been turned to stone and burried by the normal functioning of time. At times when we can passively flow through this world, without observing or experiencing the world-wide suffering that confirms that the world is still alive, one can be forgiven for at least imagining that the end of the world has already occurred, that we are literally spectres going through the motions unaware of being so, like the fate of the Characters in the film The Others, who do not realise that they are the ghosts haunting the living.
More people now dress like people from the past than the people who lived in them time-periods did. People in the 1960’s thought we’d be walking around in space-suits, but we actually walk around looking more like them than they did. More 1960’s than the 1960’s; more 1980’s than the 1980’s; we are more or less living in a simulation of the past, which helps keep us blind to ‘the desert of the Real’. This is the world of simulcra/hyperreality, understood well by the philosopher Jean Baudrillard in the 80’s and 90’s. Yet he makes it somewhat fantastical/exciting to read; it doesn’t feel like the bleak haunted house our post-recession culture occupies. The ghosts of the past are running out of energy just as we crave them the most; the music/pub/night-out scene which embalmed our culture with cheap drink is now often the arena where you feel most like you’re in spaces haunted by their past (empty pubs).
On a personal level, my predicament could be clumsily described by the previous generation as that of somebody who is “30 going on 18”, but the situation is far more serious. Much of the previous generation often refuse to acknowledge the reasons for this cultural inertia, because they grew up in a time when culture burst forward faster than anything before, only to exhaust itself in the form of tragic endings for many young pop icons. I have to ask myself whether I will be still heading to the “indie music” bars, not knowing where else to go, when I’m pushing 40. Experience of my past ten years, living in a culture that turned up the volume on its IPod every time news arrived of another crisis/catastrophe, is that doing so may be a necessary coping-method.