looking for an exit
Your Wilderness Revisited is a project I’ve been working on with William Doyle and Sapphire Goss for almost three years now.
FKA East India Youth, Will has been reinventing his approach to his music for a while now, pitching this project to me in 2015 as an expanded artistic project about home, suburbia and the eerie nature of existing in the kind of “New Build” developments that are now synonymous with English suburbia.
There is a lot of overlap here between thinking on this blog but it’s not a project I’ve ever mentioned here before (I don’t think), attempting to keep different strands of what I do separate from each other. I’m kinda over that at this point, particularly when these are so relevant to the politics of this blog as I see it.
So, here’s an announcement: following a minor setback behind the scenes (which Will has detailed on his Facebook page), his first major outing of the new project’s live show is due to take place at Chats Palace, London, on January 17th. Come down! It is not to be missed.
Last year, we previewed the project at the East End Film Festival, each of us introducing the project and our view and role in it. Below is my intro which I read out on the night, drawing parallels between what we’d been doing and Mark’s The Weird and the Eerie.
I wanted to say something about strangeness.
When Will and I first started exchanging emails about this project in early 2016, I had just started tentatively on a project of my own exploring a neighbourhood in East Hull where my biological family had lived. Having grown up in West Hull and having never met my biological relatives, I had explored the environment anticipating some sort of connection or surprise. What I found was a place surreal in its familiarity — a neighbourhood with the same kind of houses, the same layout, as the one I had grown up in on the other side of the city. “What would life had been like if I’d grown up here?” I had thought beforehand. It was strange to realise it probably would not have been so different.
Most of the photographs that make up my contribution to Your Wilderness Revisited were taken some time last year, somewhere in the UK. Despite living with these images for quite some time now, they have been affected, for me at least, like most things this year, by the death of Mark Fisher in January. For those who don’t know, Mark was a writer and cultural theorist best known for his 2009 book Capitalist Realism. He was also a lecturer at Goldsmiths in the Visual Cultures department where I am currently a Masters student. What I would like to do with my little introduction to Your Wilderness is give some extra context to these images with a little help from Mark’s last book, The Weird & The Eerie.
In the introduction to the book, Mark writes about the entangled double-bind of the weird and the eerie in relation to our experiences of the strange. He begins by discussing Freud’s concept of the unheimlich — which he translates as the “unhomely”. He writes:
Freud’s unheimlich is about the strange within the familiar, the strangely familiar, the familiar as strange — about the way in which the domestic world does not coincide with itself. […] Is it about making the familiar — and the familial — strange? Or is it about returning the strange to the familiar?
Mark hopes to rescue the Freudian strange from its familiarity by exploring his own nuanced conceptions of the weird and the eerie instead. He begins with the weird, describing it in relation to “that which does not belong.” He writes:
The weird brings to the familiar something which ordinarily lies beyond it, and which cannot be reconciled with the “homely” (even as its negation). The form that is perhaps most appropriate to the weird is montage — the conjoining of two or more things which do not belong together.
Discussing the eerie, he writes:
A sense of the eerie seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscape partially emptied of the human. What happened to produce these ruins, these disappearances? What kind of entity was involved? […] the eerie is fundamentally tied up with questions of agency. What kind of agent is acting here? Is there an agent at all?
(It is far too tempting to invoke letting agents here…)
These two descriptions of the weird and the eerie say a lot about all our approaches to this project. Montage is an obvious part of all our approaches but even deeper than the aesthetic is the intent. As Will and Sapphire have made clear from their introductions, this project is not an attempt to judge these spaces for their familiarity. They are too easy a target in that regard. Rather the intention is to find the beauty and potential in them but that is not to pretend these spaces aren’t strange.
The four central photographs here — double and triple-exposures exposed onto a single negative in camera — are the only ones to feature a human presence — a presence that both ruptures and is inseparable from the environment around it. These images are concerned precisely with the thresholds, egresses and the between which Mark writes are central to a weird that “denaturalises all worlds, by exposing their instability, their openness to the outside.”
The aesthetic form of these environments, with their repetitive geometric shapes, is easy to focus on but what is harder to capture and express is their affect on the psyche and precisely the human agencies that shape these spaces despite themselves. They can so often be over-designed that, when walking around, any sign of human individuality or nature undoing design jars the senses — and that experience is often not unpleasant. It is precisely what is needed to imagine new alternatives and potentials for these spaces; to stoke creativity and imagination, and these instances are more affective for the adolescent brain, in particular, than we care to acknowledge.
Mark writes later of the eerie that it
has to do with a detachment from the urgencies of the everyday. The perspective of the eerie is to give us access to the forces that govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us access to spaces beyond the mundane altogether.
The letting agencies that govern these sprawling mundanities are certainly worth being wary of, but our own agencies can offer these spaces (and their future iterations) many more potentials — and that is why they are worth revisiting.
I am feeling like a hypocrite as I start to consolidate everything else I do under the banner of this blog. My fragmented identity may not remained that fragmented much longer.
Everything I used to do besides writing has simply fallen by the wayside, ignored and neglected, over the last twelve months.
It feels like it’s time to fold everything in together. The radio show as reignited an old passion but there’s plenty more besides that one.
So, you can now visit the Xenogothic shop over on BigCartel. It’s not much right now but, if people like it, I might build it up.
All that is there so far are some zines I made years back which I’ve continued to lug around with me but barely put any effort into selling. They’re odd little things: quick projects that just fell together in physical form. (This is stuff I already have sat in a cupboard at home so no pressure.)
I might put some prints up there at some point…
I’d also like to make some other stuff too: branded merch — badges, tea towels, stickers, maybe t-shirts or some other stuff. Mixtapes? Maybe a patchwork reader…? All just for fun. Very limited runs of things designed using photographs and a new blog logo…
This is never going to be a major free market enterprise but it might be one way of funding a website upgrade and making things better to navigate.
If you have an opinion of this either way, I’ve set up a Twitter poll. I’d be very interested to know what people’s honest reactions to this are and if it’s something that is at all worth doing.
A further note on thoughts swirling from #WorldSuicidePreventionDay (Part 1 and Part 2):
One of my favourite blogposts from Mark, and one which Robin and I were channeling on our recent deep assignment amongst Cornwall’s standing stones and moors, is “Megalithic Astropunk” — an essay on the brilliant 1970s mini-series Children of the Stones.
Children of the Stones is about Petros, the black hole vampire-god of disintensifaction and intensive death, whose hunger for star-energy is similarly diagrammed in Burroughs’ Nova Trilogy.
Children of the Stones belongs to a micro-genre connecting two British seventies’ obsessions, stone circles and outer space, that might be called megalithic astropunk. The other major work in this field is Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass swansong.
The serial opens by (presumably self-consciously) echoing Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Children of the Damned, Quatermass II, The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, inducting its two lead characters , astrophysicist Adam Brake and his son, Matthew, into a near-closed community of ‘happy’ people. One of the great services such fictions provided was to make its young viewers intensely suspicious both of ‘happiness’ as an emotional state and of those who proffer it as a libidinal-political goal.
In the case of Children of the Stones, the Grand Inquisitor Utilitarian-priest is Hendrick, the unctuous-charming Lord of the Manor. It is no surprise at all to learn that Hendrick, a semi-retired astrophysicist who has discovered a supernova, turns out also to be a white magician: a magus, as Adam describes him as the series comes to a close. Like many pulp master villains, Hendrick is not straightforwardly a malevolent monster, but a beamingly altruistic administrator of the pleasure principle, a manager of the hedonic calculus, even as he is an agent of (Burroughs) control. The price of such ‘happiness’ – a state of cored-out, cheery Pod people affectlessness – is sacrifice of all autonomy.
Are we being asked, then, to side with human consciousness against the alien unconscious? Isn’t, after all, freedom from the passions a Spinozist goal? Yes, but freedom from sad passions is not the end of the story if it is at the price of a ‘happy’ passivity, a blank-eyed disengagement from all Outsides, as all (your) energy is sucked up by the ultimate interiority, the time-space implosion of Nova.
Under such pressure, you become a stone.
You become petrified. (Even when you are happy.)
A comment from Arran Crawford on yesterday’s post for #WorldSuicidePreventionDay:
I’m convinced there is a moral component to the paucity of action on suicide. It amounts to a sense that suicide is an accusation against the world. It is as if the idea were that suicide is the ultimate rejection of this world and therefore this world cannot afford to acknowledge it under the fear of acknowledging its degree of delusional and disintegration. I don’t know how useful an observation that is but its the one that has impressed itself on me in the years that I’ve been working with suicidal people.
I’ve thought about this a lot overnight.
I think it’s certainly a useful observation and I think it encapsulates one part of what I was trying and failing to express yesterday.
There are two sides to this: there is the offence caused by rejecting this world and there is likewise the perhaps previously unthinkable realisation that it can be rejected.
I think this is what has always struck me about Mark’s writings — a tension within his words that is never quite presented with the clarity it deserves.
Is it accurate to suggest that his optimism and his depression were perhaps two sides of the same coin?
We can reject this world.
Sometimes this comes as a vision of a new future. Other times as no future at all. Distinct existential positions, perhaps, but from where we’re currently standing within the grip of capitalist realism, they can be very hard to distinguish. An entangled life and death drive captured in a single gesture.
What is most dangerous and so necessary to be aware of is how much easier it is to become stuck in the mire of its negative conception.
So much of Mark’s work could be summarised with the question: “What are we to do with our melancholy?” How, and where, should we channel it?
That is still a question very much alive within his writings. Kodwo Eshun made this clear when I met him to discuss my MA dissertation last year: “Mark’s work may have stopped working for him in that moment but what happened does not mean it has to stop working for us.”
The stakes are too high to let his questions go with him.
Suicide can be an all too understandable response to the nature of being in this world and it’s abject negativity can be infectious but what is needed, perhaps, as Arran suggested previously, in radically new forms of care and treatment, is that we need new solutions that extent beyond the confines of this world as we know it, positively conceived.
Right now, we’re way off balance.
In my last conversation with Damian Veal, we talked about the statistic that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, why this is not a national scandal and urgently targeted for research and action, and about the incompetence, inappropriateness, and often just sheer absence of available help for those in mental distress, despite claims and advertising to the contrary. I remember similar conversation with Mark Fisher shortly before his death.
I don’t have a positive message or incisive proposal. OK, I agree, keep in touch with yr friends. But “preventing” this would take more than we, as individuals, are capable of—it’s a serious major epidemic of psychic suffering.
As usual, harder to say it better than Robin has, as in a short Twitter thread from earlier today.
I’m likewise struck more and more by just how epidemic this suffering is and what horrifies me most is how infectious it seems.
As a teenager, I knew two people who died by their own hands and I’ve been thinking about them today — both people who I knew of but were on the periphery of my social circle, and both of whom surreally ended up in the local news over the circumstances.
Alissia McCoid was a close friend of a lot of my friends at school but someone who I’d never met personally. She committed suicide in early 2010. There was a lot of talk about how her use of M-CAT had contributed to her low mood and it reached the national papers just prior to that year’s summer of M-CAT hysteria.
I remember attending her funeral in an attempt to offer support to distraught friends and, looking back, I was totally clueless as to what they were going through. I’d had a friend die of cancer far too young when I was 13 and I found that really hard. This must be like that, I thought to myself, but I know now it was completely different.
A few years later, I heard about the death of James Mabbett, an boy who, again, I’d only known peripherally. He was around a lot when I was at primary school. I’m sure I went to his house a few times. He was a friend of my then-best friend’s older brother. He took his own life in 2015 and has since become the face of a major suicide prevention scheme across the UK.
At that time I knew I couldn’t imagine what anyone was going through. It really struck me how James, from the distance at which I knew him at least, had always come across as a gregarious clown who was never without a wide grin on his face, playing practical jokes and having a laugh. Many said it was completely unexpected.
And then, of course, in early 2017, there was Mark Fisher, and that was when I realised what these friends of mine had been going through.
It’s a cliche to speak of depression as a dark cloud, but I can vividly remember the demeanour of all those close to Alissia and James in the aftermath. A dark cloud is precisely how I’d describe it. It is the weight of a proximity to the unthinkable — and after Mark’s death I felt it for myself.
Since then, I’ve been all too aware of just how many people have been dying by their own hands in recent years. Celebrities are the most visible — and there have been so many — but still I hear the murmurings in social circles about distant acquaintances who have done this or that. Hearing of the passing of Damian Veal just last week from Robin was likewise heart-breaking.
This is happening all too frequently. It is truly an epidemic.
So what is to be done? Arran Crawford suggests just how radical a shift in thinking we need:
Increasing suicide rates, drug related deaths, alcohol related deaths, and the shredding of mental health and drug services should be held as the grossest negligence. At the same time we don’t need just more funding but different models of care and treatment.
In recent years, an attempt to change things has largely come from attempts at consciousness raising and raising awareness. The latter has been more successful than the former. It is difficult to live with mental illness, whether your own or someone else’s, domestically and socially, and we all remain terrible at even attempting to embark on the impossible task of sympathising with each other’s inner experiences without it taking on the cloyingly corporate air of rehab.
But also, on the flip side, this is something that many of us know all to well.
The worst thing to happen to me following Mark’s death was to be told, in detail, what had happened to him. The whole sequence of events. Someone that I knew and greatly admired, whose thought I spent a lot of time thinking about, had done the unthinkable. This, in turn, made the unthinkable thinkable for me.
In trying to understand and comprehend what Mark had been thinking and going through, trying to put yourself in his shoes, as anyone would do naturally when trying to ascertain why someone has acted a certain way, I found myself succeeding all too easily.
I remember coming home after being told, in a really bad state, and I shared the story with my flatmate at the time, the details of which likewise broke her. I couldn’t believe what I’d done so carelessly and I knew then how harmful that kind of knowledge can be. I don’t think either of us were ever the same afterwards.
Not because what happened was more horrific than any other situation like it. It was just unbearable to hear these actions relayed as having been committed by someone we loved. It was all too real.
I’ve never quite shaken that. It made me think “Could I do that?” and over the years since, plagued by my usual bouts of depression, in my absolute worst moments this answer has come closer and closer to an affirmative one.
(I should stress at this point that, as I posted on Twitter last week, I’ve just doubled my dosage of anti-depressants and whilst I feel quite new and unfamiliar in myself right now, I can already tell I’m feeling lighter and happier; more sociable, less impulsive. I’m doing well. But, at the same time, I don’t want to take for granted the dark places to which I’ve so recently been. No one should. It’s all too easy to believe your own hype — “I’m better now!” — and then be complacent as a slide back into the darkness is taken to be a normal and deserved transition. I do this almost every time before it’s almost too late.)
This is the difficulty of talking about mental health crises and in doing a day like today justice. Widespread suicide prevention measures are more necessary than ever — we are in the midst of a horribly serious crisis — but the paradoxes of depression and suicide become ever more complex as a result.
How can we have frank and empathetic discussions about the unthinkable without making it thinkable? How can you be clear and detailed in describing how we feel and what we have done, rightly or wrongly, to remedy those feelings?
Two of the most high-profile recent suicides are those of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. The bands’ frontmen were close, often performing together. Cornell committed suicide at the age of 52. Two months later, on what would have been his 53rd birthday, Bennington took his life in the same manner.
I’ve unfortunately read a whole host of conspiracy theories online about these events, in trying to get my facts straight. It seems obvious that there is little to ponder. Suicide is infectious. Making the unthinkable thinkable for those that are left behind can be so deeply traumatic in ways that we generally do not discuss, precisely because of this infectious nature which we do not talk about for fear of itself.
It is the side-effect-that-must-not-be-named…
…I have no overarching point to this post. I have no answers. On a day like today, this is now all that I can think about and I think about all of this far more often than I let on. I’m really terrible at talking about it face-to-face and it’s something I usually clam up about, not knowing what to say or how to say it, always arrested by a fear of this danger, for myself and others, not wanting to leave any traces in the minds of those who have been affected.
It’s the wrong approach. It’s a downright bad approach.
To say that suicide is infectious is not to be taken literally and the worst thing we can do is quarantine it and stay silent, but talking about it is something which needs to be done with real care and attention, far more than we currently give it and in a way that is far more rigorous than what we currently see as the “standard”.
If you’re reading this and wanting answers, don’t feel disheartened and please don’t anyone feel alone. I know that, personally, I’m awful at reaching out, whether for myself or to check on others. Really awful at it. But I know there are some people out there who are going through similar things or that really do care about other’s well being. This is an official declaration to say “My DMs are always open” to anyone who wants to chat, share treatment tips, do some reality testing, or whatever.
Not to put a spotlight on the guy, but Meta-Nomad has been a hero in this way to me, sliding into my DMs on a few occasions over the last few months. Even if I’ve just worded something poorly in a tweet and inadvertently implied a subtext that was not intended, he’s there to say, “Hey, everything alright?”
Coming from someone I barely know, in a blogosphere defined by varying degrees of anonymity, it’s something I massively respect and I try to remember to channel his awareness when on the timeline these days.
Likewise, shout out to Bethan who also reached out the other day to offer meds advice. It means a lot.
Not all cries for help are loud and not all check-ins need be either. And these things should just be the start.
P.S. I’d like to share this old post again, because it’s forever important to me: The #MedsWorkedForMe (But Nothing Else Did)
P.P.S. Already, in quick hindsight, I feel like I wasn’t as attentive to these issues as I could have been in the second episode of Xenogothic Radio. It feels like terrible timing to have uploaded that episode on a day like today. The format might be restrictive of going into real depth and I want to stress how I do not take any of these issues lightly but want to explore how music, even music that expresses or even glorifies suicidal thoughts, can be cathartic and therapeutic.
When I was at school and had had my first really serious mental health episode, I started to see a school counsellor once a week for almost two years. I liked her little office being what we’d now call a “safe space”. I could talk about what I want and she had a CD player in there where I could play CDs whilst we talked. I really liked that.
I remember I took in Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead — stuff I thought we both might like. Then I didn’t see her for a year. When I had another episode, I went back but there was a new counsellor now. She dug out my old file and said that, in the notes her predecessor had made, she blamed my depression almost entirely on the sort of music I was listening to. I am still filled with absolute rage whenever I think about this.
All music can be gothic, yes. But also it is my belief that all music can be a tonic. Maybe I’ll write an episode on this explicitly in the future.
From Xasthur to Kanye West to Albert Ayler to Sister Nancy and back to Phil Elverum.
Episode #2 is about breakdowns and breakthroughs.
The more time I spend putting these together, the more aware I become that this is not my natural habitat.
Please forgive my tongue being slightly too big for my mouth and please forgive my laziness over going back and pronouncing words properly.
I never nitpick on this blog. I’m not about start now.
Previous episodes: #1
There used to be these tote bags that Goldsmiths would give out at their Freshers Fayres. They had the university logo alongside the migraine-inducing catchphrase:
“Where reputation meets ambition.”
I remember, around this time last year, I was sitting around on campus trying to finish my Masters dissertation, resisting the temptation to scrawl an alternative version on a blank wall in one of the campus cafes…
…Because Goldsmiths reputation does proceed it but all it is good for now is as a marketing tool. If that reputation gets in the way of good press, it’s no longer useful.
Don’t get me wrong: I was a Goldsmiths student and I have an endless amount of good things to say about its students and staff — which is not to suggest, at the same time, that most of the stereotypes don’t apply but that is our cross to bear. However, you won’t hear about any of the really good stuff in the university prospectus.
Goldsmiths, University of London, is not unlike any other neoliberal university in the UK, bound by a straight-jacket of bureaucracy and money-grabbing, but its reputation, rather than making it a better place to be, instead becomes another arrow in the management’s asinine arsenal.
I was thinking about this again today whilst walking around the university’s new art gallery: Goldsmiths CCA.
On the gallery’s opening night, on Friday 7th September 2018, there were a number of demonstrations held as students and activists protested the university outsourcing its cleaning staff. This is a common practice all over this city but one which keeps workers on the outside of their workplaces, which makes for all sorts of ethical quandaries.
A friend of mine, who I met today whilst walking around, who was there on the opening night, said it was a shitshow.
The gallery’s response was to go into lockdown, only allowing a tight guestlist of art worlders into the gallery for its first private view, hiring security and putting up walls around the venue. Start as you mean to go on, by all means…
On the flip side, apparently troublemakers turned up and some threw punches — including at the hired security, who are affected by the same outsourcing situation as the cleaners…
None of this matters either way, it seems. As The Art Newspaper reports, Goldsmiths has seen it all before:
Unfazed by the protests, and speaking inside the new spaces, the head of Goldsmiths’s art department Richard Noble, said this was “fairly typical for Goldsmiths” and that the protesters would not be disrupted. The university has reputation for a loud and political student body, with a healthy history of protest. “This is the context in which the gallery has been created,” Noble added.
What a sickly paragraph to read…
What is to happen with the cleaners issue remains to be seen, but this attitude from Noble exemplifies my experience of Goldsmiths following the death of Mark Fisher.
Complaints raised about the mental health crisis on campuses across the country felt largely dismissed as the political football du jour at the time. Little seemed to be done by management to stop anything like it happening again. (If I remember correctly, there was a student suicide in Goldsmiths’ halls of residence sometime within the last academic year and still little seems to have been put in place to make a real material difference to student and staff experiences.)
Goldsmiths’ students are certainly full of ambition, for political and social change, particularly locally. It’s something that can be felt all over New Cross. Unfortunately, the university itself continues to use its reputation for such ambition against itself, sapping the hope out of all who try to make a difference. At this stage, it feels like the university’s reputation is precisely what is getting in its way.
Time and again, Goldsmiths is where reputation fucks ambition.
But it’s not Goldsmiths’ fault alone… That phrase could be the depressing mantra for an entire generation.
Fantastic statement on the “Justice for Cleaners” social media:
— Justice for Workers [Goldsmiths] (@CleanersFor) September 7, 2018
I said ages ago that I was going to do this and, well… I’ve been doing it…
This project has grown out of control. The first episode was turning into a 2+ hour monstrosity and so I’m figuring out how best to break things down. This initial titbit, consisting of a ten-minute introduction and a 30 minute mix, is to start us off and also light a flame under my butt so that I might finish the next parts off more quickly…