“A summer warmth has broken through in spring”, as two men take a daylong walk along East England’s Suffolk coastline, from Felixstowe container terminal – “a nerve ganglion of capitalism”, past the Bawdsey Manor radar base – “a place of relative social freedom” where a large number of women operatives were recruited during WW2, to the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial site at Sutton Hoo. They are late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism and the legendary K-Punk blog, and Justin Barton, philosopher, writer and sound artist. They were scouting locations for another project but “the landscape demanded to be engaged with, in its own terms (Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie).” Fisher was especially sensitive to this pastoral hauntology, exploring the phenomena of uniquely British ambiguity below the surface.
These artists set out under the “immense skies”, inspired by the eerie forces animating the landscape. Their journey, narrated in the third person plural by Barton himself, is a starting point on which they built a dense and complex narrative in the surprisingly underexplored audio-essay format. This was their second collaboration, after the much-lauded londonunderlondon (2005). While it was conceived without artistic pretentions, On Vanishing Land was presented as a part of an exhibition (2013): a communal, but intimate audio/visual event. Now as the inaugural release for Hyperdub’s new spoken word imprint Flatlines, OVL “came as a result of our ongoing experiments with installations and music at our monthly Ø parties at Corsica Studios more or less, where we had a playback of this piece last year,” the label explained.
The work explores the central notion of the eerie, while deep indexing the Suffolk coastline through the art it inspired, primarily M.R. James‘ ghost story Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, the BBC adaptation of which they watched with Brian Eno’s ambient classic On Land (1982) playing on top. It’s easy to get lost in OVL’s heady mix of historical landscape factography and dense cultural references topography, only to remain firmly on the surface of this terrain and completely miss the eerie point. The connection to this land feels loose, almost accidental, vanishing in the culturally deterritorialized landscape towards some yet unformed consciousness. They chart “an abstract space that is instantiated in particular physical spaces, but that isn’t locked to them” (Fisher, Outsights interview).
An intermedial hybrid of sorts, the sonic fictioning of OVL reads like a profoundly estranged zero-gravity text, without the visual anchoring of the linear succession in print. Of a fluid nature, but not immediately accessible, fiercely singular, wickedly elusive, subtly contrarian, oversaturated with gentle incursions, radically new, peerless. Like a cultural rite of passage, the OVL experience feels like the liminal stage of the initiation process, when the subject is successfully removed from the known environment. It outwardly calls for the “evacuation of ordinary subjectivity” (Fisher, Outsights) and operates under the premise of lucidity over reason. As Barton explains: “Everything here concerns lucidity and groups, as opposed to the empirico-rationalism and religion of the empire of ordinary reality” (Outsights).
The featured soundscapes of intensely charged, translucent aural atmospheres at times evoke The BBC Radiophonic Workshop experiments, but there is no clear lineage to this sonic form, which carves out its singular space. Its spoken-word eerie journey into sound bares similarities to pioneering works like Inventions for the Radio: The Dreams (1964), Barry Bermange’s collection of interviews made with people describing their dreams, coupled with Delia Derbyshire’s experimental editing and musique concrete. OVL explores and re-conceptualizes the dreamings of the land and wider cultural imprints of terrain. Its docu-fictional edge is enhanced by the fragments of loosely scripted interviews embedded in the narrative. Side A brings arrestingly visceral descriptions by writer, artist and longtime Frieze editor Dan Fox of his experience of life aboard a container ship. He compares it to an “industrial monastic retreat”, exemplary of OVL’s deep sense of existential isolation and non-human sentience.
OVL’s sonic palette of carefully disjointed sound effects is a most unusual blend of atmospheres, a kind of solar trance and pastoral horror, serenely mesmeric, filled with jagged electronic industrial clutter and wobbling time-warped dubby vortices, pierced with eerily high vocal passages and haunted ballroom piano accents, scattered like tumbleweed through the empty land by some unfamiliar winds.
Despite the fact that a roster of superb ambient-minded collaborators (John Foxx, Gazelle Twin, Baron Mordant, Raime, Pete Wiseman, Farmers of Vega, Skjolbrot, Eerie Anglia, Ekoplekz and Dolly Dolly) contribute their newly composed and beatless pieces for the project, OVL is not ambient in spirit. It doesn’t disperse the focus or erase the boundaries between foreground and background; instead, they are reinforced. The project is not symptomatic of the times, but profoundly contrarian, fixing the third eye and ear on the exit, seeking something utterly other than capitalism. This is landescapism at its finest, a deep listening manual for the planetary future haunts echoing in “semiotic silence“ over the vast abstract terrains outside the capitalist realist box. As the eerie itself, OVL is a positive anomaly, a true maverick.
Its distinctive literary edge serves as a barrier, like the concrete groynes made to prevent the erosion of the land into the sea, featured along the Suffolk coastline (and on Fisher’s cover photo). OVL prevents the eroding of the cultural landscape. It’s an immersive experience of intense internal thoughtspace demanding one’s complete attention.
Under the scholarly, rhetorically dense and poetically charged surface of Barton’ narration, a thousand little nuances and insights shimmer like treasures under the sea, both enigmatic and illuminating. Despite narrating their journey as a matter-of-fact report on what they see along the way, the visual is abstracted, its absence strongly felt and constitutive towards the absolute space hollowed out by the sound. The sound seems closer to the truth, less susceptible to the illusions. OVL feels as if narrated fresh outside Plato’s cave to its still shadow-bound captives, making us viscerally aware of our similar condition inside the capital’s image-dense ecosystem of entertaining projections, but whispering into our ear of the beyond, something vital that’s been carelessly edited out or maliciously coded as evil, with the gothic fears and Christian mythologies on the negative side of the eerie guarding the thresholds of the unknown with a caution to the curious and a promise of a curse.
OVL peels away the oneiric layers of the existential enigma of “living amongst the fortifications of a war in which the human species overall was defeated, but with the general loss of the memory of the defeat being an imposed effect of the event.” As Fisher noted in 2009, “Memory disorder provides a compelling analogy for the glitches in capitalist realism.” OVL’s atmosphere is charged throughout with the sense of enigmatic disappearance, as mirrored in the examples of Eno’s track The Lost Day, about the episode of amnesia, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1975 mystery drama film which “dares to be about disappearance and ultimate scandal in a male dominated world, the disappearance of extraordinary women”. It’s not hard to see the Eerie as a profoundly feminine force in exile, that vital thing violently edited out, denied a seat at the table. It’s an uneasy a-ha moment imagining a completely different world, a haunting of alternative histories and futures, lost too many times.
Maintaining a positive sense of an escape into the unknown, OVL brings an acute awareness of the fundamental mysteriousness of (our) planetary) existence being a “dream within a dream” within a dream, each more alien than the other, as an infinite expansion into the unknown.
Our protagonists are attracted to the coastal environment of heathland mixed with derelict spaces, crumbling towers and fortifications. This function-empty, relic-infused architecture of non-places holds a re-imaginative potential, opening the way to enigmatic spaces of pre-personal subjectivity, evoking Deleuzian concepts of Body Without Organs or transcendental empiricism. They tune into the place of infinitely rich absolute virtuality, possibility, where all that has been, could have been, can be and never will materialize are at once present. It is the raw fabric from which the reality is made, sometimes interfering and flashing into our constricted reality. “The eerie is an incursion of the unknown into a silence, an emptiness, a gap”, OVL narrator defines in the standout B-side moment around the six-minute mark, intertwined with Elizabeth Bernholz’s (Gazelle Twin) disturbingly beautiful high vocal delivery of pure eeriness. A “failure of presence”, as Fisher defined the eerie, in their masterful hands becomes a triumph of absence so visceral to take a presence of its own. A movement towards “the outside” is a form of resistance here to the late capitalism and its imploded neurotic subjectivities and eroded boundaries outside and inside the system, trying to sell the dangerous illusion that there is nothing beyond it. The now-iconic Capitalist Realism phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (attributed to Frederic Jameson) where, as Fisher puts it, “capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable”, defines this beast as a stubborn paradigm. Realism is the mother of mediocrity, the crisis of imagination a pressing political issue, and the revolution of the consciousness necessary to go forward, if in a positively retrograde motion. Our futuristic arsenal requires oblique fighting strategies.
OVL hollows out the new theoretical thought space into which to plant the seeds of new ideas and dreams of a world that can be free(er): seeds of something that will in Fisher’s later and never finished work become known as “acid communism”, the utopia or whatever you want to call it. OVL’s strongest accomplishment is the re-affirming of the narrative, vital for the civilizations’ existence. The loss of narratives about the future is symptomatic, forgotten in some capital engineered hazy immediate nowness of instant gratification and its “reality-blocking addictions”. That’s all an unsustainable system based on the wrong premise can sell – now. OVL is an call to arms towards collective psychological disengagement with the debilitating forces of capitalism, “the latest form of capitulation”, as they call it.
If the coastline the authors pass through is all about “fending off incursions from the outside”, invasions, intruders, the sea itself, with its architectural relics from the WW2, the Landguard Fort and the coastal architecture of the groynes, OVL re-establishes the lines of dialogue with the outside. We’re still on land, but it’s disintegrating and we have to bridge the gap towards the new paradigm. Despite the solemn tone, OVL remains utterly hopeful and forward-looking, following the eerie threads in the direction of “love and lucidity and wider realities”, realigning with some larger and perhaps wiser planetary sentience leading the way out of a capitalist realist dystopia. The closing lines echo on: “Radar, send a few clicks into the unknown, see what comes back.” On clear days filled with this kind of solar lucidity, when “something is becoming perceptible behind the surface of the land, the surface of the day”, utopia is visible from the edge of the land, shimmering, blinking back. (Danijela Bočev)