WHEN THE MEASURING STICK IS RAVAGED – On Mark Fisher and Justin Barton’s On Vanishing Land and Jessica Warboys’s Pageant Roll

Mark Fisher and Justin Barton – On Vanishing Land. At The Showroom, 6 February – 30 March 2013

Jessica Warboys – Pageant Roll. At the Whitechapel Gallery, 16 January – 15 April 2013, Glasgow Sculpture Studios, 16 February – 6 April 2013

by Chris Law

(image attribution: Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia)

Local and national modernisms have always born a relation to the landscapes that – whether real, imaginary or symbolic – situate art in space and in time. Landscapes can be the limit of what might be imagined, or the imagined outside of what is thought or said. Some landscapes remain static for millennia, whilst others change beyond recognition between the human generations through which we live and experience them in time. Myth has its part to play in any overlap of landscape and art, of course, but it is not the exclusive actor. To put it another way, myth operates negatively; its working is always defined more by forgetting than by memory, necessitating other collective means by which people situate themselves geographically and historically. As Gilles Deleuze writes in his ‘Desert Islands,’ ‘literature is the attempt to interpret, in an ingenious way, the myths we no longer understand, at the moment we no longer understand them.’ Recent formulizations of the relation between landscape and a purportedly singular British modernism – particularly those going under the name of ‘hauntology’ – have, after a brief interdisciplinary flourishing, become undeniably hackneyed: what was once proclaimed strange now seems wearingly familiar; novel constellations appear faded. Self-fashioned ‘eeriness,’ rather than militating a genealogy of estrangement (estrangement of the past, and of the present through the past) increasingly looks like a label that one wouldn’t wear anymore.

The concatenations of technology, theory and its objects in this milieu require us to ask what makes the networks responsible for hauntology’s dissemination less than a decade ago appear so jaded in light of more recent (and more specifically art-theoretical) conversations about the digital. Perhaps hauntology’s favoured crossover (of blog, object and analysis) always lacked substance, its exhaustion revealing simply the denouement of the mining of a wholly determined catalogue of cultural objects. Scrolling through the archives of seminal sites like Found Objects, still regularly updated, it’s as if the theoretical project behind the artifacts on display – that very sense of commitment whose loss is being lamented – is doubly missing from such resuscitations, no matter what aesthetic-political terminology of ‘avant-garde’ such contemporary longings are accompanied by.

Two current explorations of British landscape, nonetheless, explicitly manifest their debt to British modernism, and attempt to expunge new potentials from its connections with landscape. Justin Barton and Mark Fisher’s On Vanishing Land, commissioned by The Otolith Group and currently running at The Showroom in north-west London, is a forty-five minute audio essay exploring a walk taken by the artists along the Suffolk coast in 2005. Pageant Roll, by Jessica Warboys, was commissioned for dOCUMENTA (13), and is currently showing as part of Artists’ Film International at the Whitechapel Gallery, having recently run at Glasgow Sculpture Studios, as part of ‘The Objects’.

In essence a soundscape permeated by quotation and reflection, On Vanishing Land is also intersected by interviews conducted with the region’s inhabitants that proffer upon the piece a documentary efficiency. Although clearly linked to the artistic-theoretical operation of the piece (the recollection of work, most pertinently, foregrounds economic and cultural memory) the interviews seem somewhat ancillary; indeed they are one of many features of this work that clearly mark it as something other than (just) an artwork. Whilst the interviews are the very stuff of the piece, it is landscape that works as its formal, critical operator. Landscape, and particularly the corroding Suffolk one, provides a means for germinating and exploring connections between modernisms, M.R. James’s ghost stories and Brian Eno’s 1982 album On Land being the two main intertextual points of reference here. Landscape provides a literal, spatial shoreline, albeit one whose insistent, real decaying affects its own functionality as a calibrating device, necessitating reflection in situ. How to compare these two modernisms that have both been rendered eerie by the passing of time, when the measuring stick itself is ravaged?

Questions such as this force us to reconsider in what sense the concept of British modernism is utilized in contemporary works. The notion of the haunted depends upon evocation and relation, yet it could be accused of lacking any critical attention to the conditions under which such convolutions can take effect. Its relationality exists in the name of a continuation of modernism, yet – at a critical or temporal level – the modernism in question is a set one, defined empirically. Consider, at the level of politics for example, the fixity of the socio-historical narrative of hauntology in its relation to its aesthetic: a post-war welfare state, manifesting itself publically in institutional avant-gardes (paradigmatically: the revival of festivals, the proliferation of modernist architecture in social housing, and the infiltration of mass media such as the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop), filtered through cultural and technological motifs that have characterised certain counter-cultural moments in the pursuing three-and-a-half decades of neoliberalization. This is not to say, of course, that hauntology’s advocates are reluctant to allow for the existence – in the past – of previously ignored empirical movements that partake in ‘British modernism.’ There is, indeed, a crude tumefaction at work here, and anyone who feasts on this stuff might have a field day after hearing Fisher and Barton’s work. Indeed, for the hauntologist reading of On Vanishing Land, James and Eno are equivalent figures, but the roster of electronic artists featured become British modernists too, as indeed do Fisher and Barton themselves (theorist-come-artist as apotheosis, no less). One is reminded, in this context, of Ben Watson’s vicious critique of Simon Reynolds’s Rip it Up and Start Again in which the author was accused of harbouring a morbid, liberal positivism: ‘for Reynolds, society is a stable, reasonable entity “unsettled” by a few dashing highwaymen.’ On one level, this exhibition operates in a similar way and seems to offer nothing new from the old.

On Vanishing Land, it’s worth remembering however, is an essay, despite the relative closure that any gallery space confers. As an essay, the piece explicitly questions its engagement with its outside, with what the outside as ‘eerie’ means. That is, in its conscious construction of the outside that is its very object, the essay creates the conditions of its own possible success. The spectres of cold war airbases in the Suffolk landscape give a conceptual weight to radar, a technology developed in Dunwich that gives the area a central role in the history of the Second World War too. Radar’s operation becomes paradigmatic of the experimentalism that the whole essay practices and condones: ‘throw something to the outside, see what comes back.’ Unlike the prefabricated connections of hauntology, the exhibition’s experimental method plunges the piece into an undeniable uncertainty and a hit-or-miss relation to success and failure. It’s probable nothing will return, but what does will be unknown, genuinely new in its relation to the antiquated. Whilst The Showroom has suggested that the still, pitch-black set-up communalizes the white cube norm of headphones and ambulant spectators, the spatial and temporal sense created is not one of humanistic collectivity. The audience are not curators of the past, but are like radar dots themselves, objects of a more molecular structure. Beyond the coastal landscape, islands play their role in this piece, apropos, particularly, of Eno’s experimentalism; to cite Deleuze’s early essay again, islands are always something that humans encounter ‘from the outside’, in an experimental fashion.

In August last year, Fisher spoke with Kodwo Eshun of The Otolith Group at ‘Contested Territory,’ an event centred around Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (a film with its own interest in ‘the molecular basis of historical events’). Couched in somewhat vague terms during the course of the discussion, the understanding of Keiller’s self-reflective ‘image’ clearly determined the experimental operation of On Vanishing Land, though its visual aspect – a fifty-minute fade-montage screened immediately after the essay – seemed like an unnecessary appendix. More essentially visual was Pageant Roll, despite some uncanny resemblances between the two works: one reviewer has summarized Warboys’s film as ‘a trip through a Cornish coastal landscape with wind-swept grass and rock formations, accompanied by a slightly eerie synthesizer soundtrack’. Warboys’s ongoing project Sea Paintings, Dunwich even spares the spectator the imaginative labour of shifting the landscape from coast to coast. Itself deeply experimental, the asynchronic and perpendicular nature of Warboys’s filmic practice is a stylistic feat that affirms her method – spanning film, painting, dance and sculpture – as one that successfully embroils art and its nonlinear history: its elements are disparate, yet form a language of sorts, open to all kinds of recombinations. Pageant Roll’s conjuring trick paradoxically puts film’s medium –specific operations in the service of a wider post-medium conception of experimental fictionality. Warboys’s engagement with landscape is a making-strange of and with its location; refusing to grant any predetermined significance to land, the film is more genealogically invested in the possibilities of such spaces for art. If Fisher and Barton’s essay suggests the possibility of thinking what a British ‘desert island’ might mean, Pageant Roll begins to envision and enact it deliriously. Although time should be hauntology’s lifeblood, it hasn’t been kind in demystifying its central assumptions, forcing a revaluation of the means by which we relate to the archival. These pieces suggest some new, critical and disjunctive ways in which such an artistic and theoretical space might develop.

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