I was very saddened yesterday to hear of the untimely death of the writer, lecturer and theorist Mark Fisher. I started reading Fisher's work some years ago by way of his excellent blog k-punk. Then came his books for Zero: Capitalist Realism (2009) and Ghosts of My Life (2014), to say nothing of his numerous articles, essays and posts in between. His just published book, The Weird and The Eerie looks set to be just as penetrating and provocative.
Lots of tributes have surfaced in the last day, rightly so. Fisher's writing was incisive, committed and most of all accessible. I drew on it in my own research and often included it in my seminar teaching. That I remember these as successful sessions has little to do with my abilities but a lot to do with the quality of the material. Complex ideas were offered with clarity and without reduction; autobiographical elements were instructive, not indulgent; the handling of popular culture was exemplary. As regards the latter I'd recommend his essay on Basic Instinct 2 to anyone with an interest in the functional links between criticism, theory, value and interpretation. Reading Capitalist Realism, you very quickly got the sense that at the crux of Fisher's writing lay concentrated praxis, and this was the key to its vitality. Capitalist Realism was a call for applied theory, the work of thought marshaled to the task of negotiating, navigating and negating the acceleration of contemporary life.
During a late night drive some time ago I found myself fiddling with the radio. Out of the static of phone-ins and muzak suddenly came talk of Lacan, Derrida and Foucault. Arch-Conservative Roger Scruton was holding forth on the poverty of 'theory' as if it was a coherent, homogeneous species of writing. As you'd expect it was all very well put but it essentially boiled down to the same set of classic arguments resurrected from the frontline of the theory wars (circa 1980): an intolerance for difficulty and something of a refusal to entertain the use-value of interrogating one's tools. Fisher was the interlocutor. Carefully, calmly he unravelled each of Scruton's arguments. And, yes, he also dealt with the inevitable: he could explain Lacan's ideas. Andy Sharp put it perfectly when I mentioned the programme afterwards: Fisher wanted to be the new Colin Wilson, a public intellectual who wasn't afraid to think through 'weird' material (the Lovecraftian implication is intentional) and who opened ideas to the audience rather than explaining why they couldn't possibly hope to understand them.
I didn't know Fisher personally - I met him on two very brief occasions, had some e-mail contact and hoped to invite him to speak in the near future. Not much to warrant a testimony at a time of very real grief for his family and friends. But if its not too presumptuous I'd like to note, with gratitude and admiration, that his writing had - and continues to have - a very big influence on my own work. No doubt I'm joining a chorus of other bloggers, writers, theory-heads, hauntologists and the like in marking this loss and offering these sentiments. Fisher often painted a very bleak picture in his writing: uncompromising systems, svelte surfaces, inhuman velocity, work that dissolves and the dissolution of work. There was very little hope because the worldview offered was so horribly accurate. But by the same token the perspective was far from nihilistic. There were no easy answers (precisely because there was no alternative) but the call nonetheless was one of action. Coming away from Capitalist Realism and heading out onto the next motorway you felt courage enough to think in the face of such horror.
'We'll call you if he dies'
Last week I awoke to a series of e-mails about Charles Manson. He had been taken to hospital amid reports of rapidly declining health. I found myself being approached for my opinion on this turn of events by a number of media outlets. At one point I had a phone conversation with a radio producer in a very hectic sounding newsroom. They were interested in doing an interview with me about Manson but it became clear that for the next news cycle they were after something of a memorial piece rather than a commentary on how things currently stood.
It felt slightly odd to be linked to Manson's health, however tenuously. It brought to mind Kurt Anderson's Turn of the Century (1999) and the brief media furore that erupts in the novel when it's announced that Manson has been released.
In the end I was happy to write some texts and was grateful for the interest shown. A short opinion piece for The i appeared on Saturday in both the print and the online editions:
|Foxhill Bank. Picture: davemac43|
A recurrent trope of the ongoing Slender Man narratives is the uncanny representation of public / recreational areas: playgrounds, parklands, nature trails. There’s the Red Tower in Marble Hornets, an industrial structure located somewhere in Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama; the Rainwood day-camp in DarkHarvest00 and the boardwalk in Victor Park, Florida that serves as a key location in TribeTwelve. These are each open, ostensibly public spaces geared towards outdoor pursuits, the preservation of wildlife habitats and an attempt to connect ‘leisure’ with the experience of ‘nature’. As they appear in the videos, they’re also strangely typical, like something out of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, a generic packaging of nature as a series of non-descript features: the lake, the camp, the tower. Before it came to something of an abrupt halt, the Marble Hornets team appeared to be mapping out a similar territory in their follow-up Clear Lakes 44. Set in what appeared to be a suburban housing project, its unobtrusive landscaping, sparse interiors and pleasant but resolutely unexceptional vistas created a sterile, resonant ambience out of which the anomalies of the series emerged.
As well as offering convenient ‘found’ locations for the production of these videos, the use of civic non-places clearly fits in with the ideas and aesthetic of the ‘original’ Slender Man meme. Posted by Eric Knudsen / Victor Surge on the Something Awful forum in 2009, one of his photo-shopped images attributed to ‘City of Stirling Libraries, Local Studies Collection’, depicted a group of children at a playground. Visible in the background is a tall, elongated figure with tendril-arms who holds court over a second group. It’s not clear whether they are departing the scene in the company of the Slender Man or if they are approaching the children in the foreground. To this already unsettling scene Knudsen appended short, caption-like texts that permitted it to leap from doctored image to active myth. Dated to 1986 with the added detail of ‘photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986’, Knudsen offered the following as context:
One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.
It’s easy to see why this post quickly went viral. Here, ready for instant development is the signature combination of elements that constitute hauntological folklore. As with the likes of Black Meadow there’s invented history, public institutions, paranormal evidence and a fictional narrative pertaining to catastrophic loss. All this neatly packaged together by way of a framing device of re-mediated, archival investigation, in this case a ‘recovered’ photograph posted to an online forum.
That said, in addition to the form of Knudsen’s image, the importance of its depicted setting should not be underestimated in the appeal of the Slender Man motif. As the subsequent additions to the ‘mythos’ have demonstrated, there is something neo-gothic about the public park, the nature reserve and the recreation ground. Hovering somewhere between the great outdoors and the city limits, alternately crowded and deserted, full of sights and sounds that one should not find in dense urban areas, the spaces are the perfect breeding ground for the Slender Man. The character is similarly neither here nor there, he’s a figure of spooky nostalgia who’s also utterly contemporary and who, like the childhood park can be found in any town, but seems to be indigenous to points of specific visitation.
|Tribe Twelve: The Boardwalk|
This morning, I went for a walk round Foxhill Bank Nature Reserve in Oswaldtwistle. It’s a 22-acre site that occupies a shallow, wooded valley. Tinker Brook (a tributary of the River Hyndburn) runs through the middle and the site as a whole converges around two still-water lodges. The larger of the two holds a small island out of which grows a sprawling tree. As the Lancashire Wildlife Trust describe it,
[…] the lodges were originally constructed for storing water for the dyeing and printing of fabrics and major work was needed to convert [them] from concrete-sided reservoirs into their present-day form. Vegetation has since colonised the lodges producing a mosaic of open water, Reedmace, Soft, Hard and Jointed Rush and Common Reed. This, along with the undisturbed scrub and bramble, provides seclusion for Coots, Moorhens, Mallard and many warblers.
This conversion was completed in 1999. Prior to that the reserve was the former site of the Foxhill Bank Printworks which first opened in 1780. The ‘dyeing and printing’ relates to the production of calico fabric which was a staple Lancashire commodity until the end of the nineteenth century. At the turn of the twentieth century Foxhill bank entered voluntary liquidation but managed to survive as a bleaching plant until 1958. From here it fell into what Hyndburn Council called ‘disuse and ruin’. For more than a decade the plant works stood in some state of dereliction along with their vast bodies of still, stagnant water. Moves were made in 1987 to fill-in the whole site but the public support for a nature reserve won-out and the reconversion began.
Foxhill bank borders onto another area called White Ash. We used to go walking there and Foxhill Bank, seen from the higher fields of White Ash was an ominous, chemically-infused wasteland: the point where White Ash and its brooks simply ran-out. I have a particularly strong memory from what must have been the late 1980s / early 1990s. I’m looking down from the top path and I’m seeing a dense, black space full of earth movers and bulldozers. Half-structures and industrial ruins are strewn about and the two vast lodges gape open, full of thick, grey water. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible pathway between the piles of molten rubble. The site also goes on for miles, it seems. On more than one occasion I think I dreamt of this scene. Weird, terrifying dreams about reaching the end of everything.
The conversion of the site was an interesting process. It happened gradually, quietly even. Pathways emerged, industry was covered over. Concessional gestures appeared on the borders. I remember during one walk through White Ash we came across a new clearing in the tree line and a fresh set of climbing bars. Long rusted goalposts were replaced. A horse paddock appeared and before long a bike track pushed its way out of the ground. As the landscape down in the pit was smoothed out, the cosmetic benefits of its transformation spread elsewhere.
This was, and is, all to the good. Foxhill has become a lovely place. Since 1999 it’s developed into a fertile ecosystem that looks as if it’s been there for generations – despite the area’s much longer, deep-rooted industrial heritage: an underlying, two hundred-year history of dyeing, bleaching and chemical processing. For me through, the site extends a pull precisely because of the proximity of this ‘other’ life. In part, I think I walked out this morning looking for, or at least hoping to find, traces of Foxhill’s shadow-self: the supermarket trollies that float in the brook; the iron bars fixed into the flowing water that shore up the flotsam; the vague chemical sheen that’s still carried by the main lodge.
This sense of prior form is, I think, what Marble Hornets and Tribe Twelve et al are keying into via their choice of location. Particularly in the case of Adam Rosner’s Tribe Twelve, the Victor Park boardwalk becomes the site of the Slender Man’s first appearance in the series: complete with the character’s accompanying video distortion. Just before this visitation, Milo Asher – the subject of the haunting – expresses his utter disinterest in the lake at the end of the boardwalk: there’s nothing there. In amongst its themes of visitation and disappearance, the first few episodes of Tribe Twelve capture the intense boredom of its suburban environment. Neat houses surround ornamental lakes, finely cut grass borders neat roads and the brand-new, flat-pack boardwalk leads to a neat, almost off-the-shelf, body of water. It’s the type of polythene space which is utterly at odds with the dense, ancient and peripheral woodlands where we might expect to find the supernatural. And yet, the Slender Man appears.
This combination of sanitized space and anomalous event brings to mind the final scenes of Edward Hunt’s The Brain (1988) in which a superimposed triangle containing a hideous face appears to rupture a sedate suburban horizon. It’s not an image of that which is long-buried within the location but something which is intradiegetic, existing momentarily in the space between the viewer and the depicted location. Hunt’s ‘Brain’, like the Slender Man is a figure that’s designed to suit these depthless spaces, those which have truncated or otherwise shallow histories. Were Foxhill Bank ever to generate its own monsters (stalking things in white calico hoods - the uniforms of solitary convicts?) they would be similarly interstitial. Despite its deep roots, the site has neither erased nor buried its industrial mould. Wait until the ice has left the surface of the lodge and take a sounding. Physically, the water is very deep. But it sits within a basin that’s been re-sculpted out of the existing industrial curvature. There’s no subterranean history beneath it. Just two spaces intersecting in simultaneity, possibly generating a third.
Following on from the success of the first Alchemical Landscape symposium in March 2015, we're mounting a second event. It will be held at Girton College, Cambridge on 7th July. For more details relating to ticket purchase, venue and to see a draft programme, please head over to the project website.
Photo: Evie Salmon
Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make The Other Side such a successful event: Evie Salmon, Jo Brook, Jeremy Hardingham, Robin the Fog and Howlround, Andy Sharp, Hannah Gilbert and Documents. It was great to see so many people there. I think we really achieved what Bad Timing and The Alchemical Landscape set out to do! We've gathered together various photographs, video and sound files as documentation of the event. Scroll down for some images and captions. A link to video evidence will follow shortly. Bad Timing have a photo collection visible here.
|Preparing for 'Dust'|
Photo: Evie Salmon
|'Dust' in performance|
Photo: Jo Brook
|'Dust': Strange energies |
Photo: Jo Brook
|Documents preparing |
Photo: Evie Salmon
|Documents in performance |
Photo: Jo Brook
|Documents: Boleskine House|
Photo: Jo Brook
|Bad Timing DJs|
Photo: Ed Ramage
|Matter and sound|
Photo: Ed Ramage
|Machine noise |
Photo: Ed Ramage
|Bad Timing DJs: at the controls|
Photo: Ed Ramage
|Howlround: View from the bridge|
Photo: Evie Salmon
|Howlround in action |
Photo: Evie Salmon
|Howlround, audience and extended tape|
Photo: Jo Brook
|Howlround after show|
Photo: Jo Brook
|Bishop James Pike|
I'm very happy to announce 'The Other Side: An Audiophonic Séance'. Working with Evie Salmon under the Alchemical Landscape banner, we've had the pleasure of collaborating with Jo Brook of Bad Timing to bring together "a night of dead formats, traces, sites and spectres from the underground".
The event features a series of acts and performances connected via a shared interest in the mediumistic power of recording technology:
Evie Salmon & James Riley performing 'Dust'
bad timing djs: mix tapes from the underground
We'll be holding the event at the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, Faculty of English, 9 West Road, Cambridge on Thursday 12th May, 7.30pm.
Tickets are free but places are limited. Please reserve via eventbrite:
We're also inviting you to consider a £5 donation towards performers' travel costs.
For more information, see the Bad Timing website and scroll down for details of each act.
Howlround is an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of magnetic tape as a creative medium for electronic music. Their live performances and compositions are created entirely by manipulating tape loops of natural acoustic sounds on vintage reel-to-reel machines, with additional reverb or electronic effects strictly forbidden. Their fourth LP Tales From the Black Tangle was released at the end of 2015 and was a dark and compelling concoction of industrial sirens, foghorns, seawash, ship to shore distress signals and even the creaking of a Broadcasting House microphone cradle in need of some oil.
'Uncanny, mesmerising, difficult and sublime' The Quietus
Documents is a nascent development of the long running creative occult project English Heretic. Documents has been set up to explore a remit of ethnographic recordings from the imaginal world. Combining the aesthetic of Bataille's surrealist journal Documents with the hermetic psychology of James Hillman, the project represents a deepening of the themes laid out by English Heretic. Documents first broadcast was released on the Eighth Climate imprint in December 2015.
Documents will perform two pieces. "Music For The Execution Of Geoffrey Firmin" An imaginary séance for the tragic protagonist of Malcolm Lowry's Under The Volcano abstracting dialogue from the film adaptation of Lowry's book to achieve rapport the spectre of Firmin. "Last Broadcast at Boleskine" manipulates field recordings taken at the cemetery overlooked by Aleister Crowley's notorious Loch Ness home. These recordings, carried out on the 1st December 2015, anniversary of Crowley's death, shortly before Boleskine House burned down, constitute music to precipitate the violent demise of an abode on the borderland. Together these pieces explore landscape, film and documentary dialogue as a form of theatrical EVP.
Evie Salmon and James Riley work across multiple faculties at the University of Cambridge. They co-direct The Alchemcial Landscape, an ongoing research and public engagement project looking at occulture and geography.
'Dust' is a speculative investigation into the afterlife of two lost recordings by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Spoken word, archival murmurings and dead formats.
bad timing djs mix tapes: experiments from the underground
A note on the image above: Bishop James Pike (1913-1969) was an American Episcopal Minister, one of the first to make regular television appearances. Following the death of his son in 1966, Pike began to experience paranormal phenomena. In 1967 he appeared with the medium Arthur Ford as part of a television seance to contact his son. These experiences formed the basis of his book The Other Side (1969). Philip K. Dick based the character of Timothy Archer on Pike when he wrote his novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).
Pike and his book will not be directly referenced on May 12th, but for obvious reasons his symbolic life has informed some of the thinking behind the event.