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Into The Nerve Ganglion: Mark Fisher & Justin Barton On Vanishing Land
Johny Lamb , July 25th, 2019 09:16

On the first release from Hyperdub's new spoken word sublabel, Mark Fisher and Justin Barton journey from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo with the music of Raime, Gazelle Twin, Mordant Music, and John Foxx

“It is April, but it feels like summer,” is the opening sentiment of On Vanishing Land, with which the superb Hyperdub launch their new sub-label, Flatlines. It is a sort-of-account of a walk from Felixstowe’s container port to the Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo in 2006. Our guides here are philosopher and sound artist Justin Barton along with the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, and this is their second collaboration, following londonunderlondon, an audio-essay journeying through the capital’s subterranean secrets.

This release is marked by Fisher’s untimely death in January 2017, which adds a further resonance to what follows (though the work was originally exhibited while he was still alive, at The Showroom, London, in 2012). Accompanying this release, Barton also gifts us a short essay within the sleeve notes that provides useful context to the walk and suggestively proposes the idea of a “‘haunt’, as in a place”. We talk, don’t we, of our old haunts, past tense, where we used to be? Barton writes about the “singular and the local” as fundamental and further questions whose place it is, within a “debilitating” capitalism.

Despite the setting, this work is some way removed from the recent trend for nature writing and walk-driven non-fiction. In a funny way, it’s a little closer to Antonin Artaud’s To Have Done With The Judgement of God, using a radio-like mode of delivery with drones and noise in order to think through the meandering preoccupations and interlinked philosophical conceits of our walkers. Here though, the theatrical is replaced by narration. Third person narration at that, which allows the ghost of inevitable fictions to stain the text. It positions us neatly as invited guests let into the thoughts and feelings that otherwise might remain between the two active participants. It becomes literary.

The narration is entwined with contributions from various artists including Gazelle Twin, Mordant Music, Dolly Dolly, and John Foxx. Most of whom make an appearance more than once. These musical contributions take in sound art, acousmatic music, concrète, and field recording. Sound and text then form a composition – an essay, really – that at once provides a poetic account of terrain (both literal and discursive), and a critique of “suppressive forms of reason”. This includes modernism, religion, empiricism, capitalism, and masculinity within its discursive borders. It is often the sound and succinctly vivid imagery that carry the ideas along like flotsam in a tide.

In addition to the narration and the sonic work, we are also given fragments of interviews with writer and critic Dan Fox, Mary Wain, chairman of the Bawdsy Radar Trust, and archaeologist Angus Wainwright. These arrive from spluttering LFOs and sculpted noise. Themes of memory loss and familial secrecy, leaving events erased and histories corroded. What is told and untold. Tales, too, of time at sea, the unchanging horizon affecting a sort of time-space dilation. The last of these interjections contains archaeologically based discussion of seventh-century jewellery and its undisturbed time under the ground. This segues into the “semiotic silence” of the site (Sutton Hoo), ultimately finding that “human beings are crippled slaves” which begets our frustrated and impotent violence.

On the A side, one of the early images of the “nerve ganglion of capitalism” (i.e., Felixstowe itself) is the horizon blighted by cargo ships and ferries, each one listed – deadpan – by company. A stirring collision of the natural and the monetary, the industrial and the wild (“it is a place of rabbits”). The scars of humanity’s darker endeavours litter this journey, remnants of war and invasion across hundreds of years. But, we are starkly reminded that the land, so often, is lost. Reclaimed by the world.

I am mindful, strangely, of Brian Catling’s remarkable Vorhh Trilogy and his great African forest’s malignant altering of the atmosphere to bring down, corrupt, and gently, slowly, poison the minds of the humans whose knowledge was never meant for them. In Catling’s text knowledge was intended for the trees, and the forest itself is sentient and it reduces and erodes the memories of the humans that endeavour to visit it. Hollowing them out to broken and lost bodies. In this way On Vanishing Lands too seems to question our status, or our relevance in the world. We have marked it, we exist in it, but it remains at best indifferent, at worst hostile. In both of these works we find that the internal logic of narrative is elusive to us, and things move along often without accounting for their arrival or departure.

There is a recurrent explication of the TV adaptations of MR James’s ghost stories (which are watched by our narrators with the sound replaced by Brian Eno’s On Land), where the Felixstowe they initially occupy blurs with James’s fictionalised coastal Suffolk (Burnstow). The uncanniness of ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ is mirrored within the atmosphere here as Fisher and Barton turn their attention to the beach.

There is a prominent theme of groynes drawn from both the walkers’ journey and the ghost story they’re thinking about. Those horizontal monoliths to our successive attempts to arrest the erosion and transformation of the territory that we briefly suppose is ours. They are not unpicked, but left, as constants. As shadows. We are drawn to the coast, aren’t we? Drawn to edges. Beaches, cliffs, the tops of tall buildings. They allow us a proximity to… something. And the beach is so often – and geographically, always – a point of change. Of departure, arrival, or invasion. We are reminded here that “The beach is the outside. It is a locus of encounters, not an instance of a familiar interiority.”

Frequently I find my thoughts brushing up against Eugene Thacker’s Horror of Philosophy, specifically, the notions of the “world in itself” where the planet is indifferent to humanity, and the “world without us” which we find is “both impersonal and horrific”. Within On Vanishing Land, there is a tremendous sense of isolation and abandonment. Even the active cargo ships are “monastic”. Thacker, later in his series writes that, “Our own era is one haunted by the shadow of futurity, precisely because there is no future.”

This sentiment seems to chime with both Fisher’s own writing and the musical contributions herein. For Fisher, music can no longer represent the future. ‘futuristic’ sounds are rendered retro. He wrote in Ghost of my Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures that when “Invited to think of the futuristic, we will still come up with something like the music of Kraftwerk”. This is perhaps the irony of synthesis? To paraphrase Fisher, that contemporary electronic music with its ‘futuristic sounds’ has arrived after the future. The future we expected never arrived.

This is not a criticism of the sonic work in this offering, which is consistently affecting, eerie, and interesting. But rather to concur that those synthesised timbres of sci-fi cityscapes always seem to signify a certain vintage amongst anything new that occurs. Sometimes it feels as though electronic music is not congruent with the pastoral, but I don’t think this is true. Where the industrial meets the land here, the sounds and drone-driven music seem to marry and enhance the text deftly – tenderly, even – and with an atmosphere that can be deeply and richly unsettling. If it is ‘hauntological’, it is knowingly so.

The B side is book-ended by passages on The Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the “disappearance of extraordinary women” as a springboard for a discussion of what might be two modernisms. The one we have, and the one searched for, “unfettered” by the debris it brings with it. As with the A side, the music merges thickly and seamlessly together, making distinct tracks not immediately apparent as they occur. The ambulation of Fisher and Barton seems somehow faster now and they seem to be covering ground as swiftly as they move through the text. As listeners, we accelerate toward some cadenced conclusion to this walk of ideas, dreams, and fractured places.

However bleak or pretty one might deem the conclusion of this,  what has been achieved here, much as we are told of the disappearance of the girls from Picnic at Hanging Rock, is a shocking revelation of the proximity of dystopia. Preternatural, apocalyptic structures, carcasses, and abandonment exist now already, all around us. We occupy a world marked and hobbled by capitalistic wrongs, by detritus and folly. A world where modernism and then a parallel postmodernism encouraged and then failed to deliver the promised future. As Barton writes of the WWII ruins, “they seemed to have only a sunlit, planetary quality of serenity”. I think that is a good starting point from which to imagine the tone of this release. We are left, neatly, with just “Radar. Send a few clicks into the unknown. See what comes back”.