It was nerve-wracking running a workshop that was essentially built around an attitude of “Let’s just go outside?” We were in White City and I didn’t know the area at all. My tentative suggestion was, let’s just see where the wind takes us and maybe end up in a pub. It’s one thing explaining a dérive in a classroom but it is another making it fruitful under the productive pressures of an academic institution. Thankfully, the students were as keen to slip out from underneath its watchful eye as I was.
On exiting the building where I’d thrown a century’s worth of literature, art and philosophy at three unsuspecting postgraduate students — essentially asking “What connects Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to Kim Kardashian’s Selfish?” — we left buoyed by the rich current that I had attempted to describe: What impact has modernity had one our understanding of the self in its environments? The environment we found outside was more immediately interesting than I could have hoped.
Turning left, off campus, we walked the short distance up Wood Lane to the Westway flyover. The disused land that lurked underneath was an immediate point of interest. Formerly home to a large contingent of the homeless — the detritus of human refuge clinging to the walls and pillars — the underpass felt eerily reminiscent of a dismantled refugee camp. Food containers, clothes and the occasional duvet and blanket appeared in strewn across the concrete expanse.
It was an odd sight. Homelessness is endemic in this city but it felt unusual to see such a wide-open area bearing the signs of a collective shelter. (Not to mention an open area not undergoing some sort of (re)development.) It was nonetheless closed off by large concrete pillars and fencing, beautified with a superficial lick of purple paint. To look at it — to really look at this space — felt voyeuristic, precisely because the suffuse intention was evidently for it to be hidden.
Nearby, various office buildings, university departments, generic and soulless institutional spaces insisted on being looked at. Postmodern architecture has begun to dominate White City’s more recognisably modernist structures and the big windows that make up almost every ground floor space felt like the rows of empty tanks that you might find lining the back wall of your local struggling pet store. Goldfish bowls awaiting occupants.
The contrast between this hyper-visibility and the ambient secrecy of more traditionally industrial spaces was stark. Walking through an underpass that passed under the Westway we became fascinated by a series of heavy iron doors, attached to the former Cardboard City, previously ignored by the students who had walked this way on other occasions.
Looking through the cracks, they were shocked not to be welcomed by darkness and the stench of damp urban decay. Behind one door in particular we could glimpse a large grey-painted room with a single desk and computer located at the far end. It was an acutely Ballardian vision. We felt like we had uncovered some deep state operation, hidden in plain sight. The surprise that one of the students experienced was palpable. She responded like Nada in They Live!, donning his sunglasses for the first time and seeing a new world underneath the superficial gleam of the one he otherwise knows.
In the classroom, it was precisely this sort of intersubjective tension I had wanted to explore. Fascinated by the corporous relationship between Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, it was precisely a sense of being a part of (and apart from) “the crowd” — an otherwise collective subject — that I wanted to unearth in the London of today. Whether this was even possible was part of the tension I wanted to explore. How has London faired under the “mandatory individualism” of late capitalism and how has it changed compared to the radical modernism of Virginia Woolf’s urban wanderings?
This was a question I had hoped to take three weeks to ponder but our first and only session — although I am sure this question will remain pertinent as we partake in the UCU strikes — nonetheless provided us with strangely telling spectacles, as if the world was already keen to show us the answers.
Descending a flight of stairs into an underpass, below the Westway, for instance, we were greeted with a bizarre mosaic at a pedestrian T-junction. An unnerving parade of school children’s self-portraits watched us, separated by mirrored shards, with even more shards arranged into an oddly didactic message, “It’s good to be me.” Above, a convex mirror reflected our distorted selves back at us. A security measure, no doubt, to be watched paranoiacally by those traversing this space after hours. To the right of this, the black eye of a security cameras blinks silently in our direction. The mural’s message becomes increasingly anxiety-inducing as a message of individual self-worth is enclosed within apparatuses of risk management and crime prevention. The individual must be protected, perhaps most elusively from itself. The multitude much be surveyed, so as not to gain any form of momentum.
Pulled in both directions by sub-street level public art is to feel an unconscious — part your own, part something else’s — suddenly aware of its own innate disorientation. The medium of school children only makes this all the more dystopian. The unruly and desirous id of the Cookie Monster is poised around the corner to tell us the letter of the day. It’s the letter “A” — for alienation.