It is December, but it feels like Groundhog Day. Thursday 12th, 10pm. Exit polls all but confirm the inevitable. The year ends with an abominable affirmation of the proceeding ten, sealing the fate of the next ten to come. Conversation ensues, most of it a blame game. I’d be angry if I didn’t feel so numb.
Two days later, I drag myself to The Showroom to sit in a dark room with strangers. Enough talking; we’re here to just listen. ‘Incursions, Departures’ presents two audio essays by Justin Barton and the late Mark Fisher. Fisher remains one of our most influential thinkers; surprisingly, this event marks the first opportunity to listen to these works together.
‘londonunderlondon’ (2005) was first played in sections on Resonance FM. Here, it is presented in its entire ninety minutes. The essay merges Barton and Fisher’s own words with found text and audio, borrowing from all corners of London’s cultural cartography: from ‘The Wastelands’ and ‘The Waves’, to ‘Sapphire and Steel’ and ‘The War of the Worlds’. These fictional accounts of the city, we hear, breach the city’s flood barriers against the real. Barton and Fisher’s hauntological survey of the city goes beyond nostalgia, excavating the unbreakable bondage we have to our cultural and political past. These spectres continue to haunt us in and beyond the present. The gothic horror of Marx and his blood-sucking tale of Capital is alive today, in the vampires of The City. Subterranean secrets lurk within the depths of the Tube and those who inhabit it; or are they above ground, walking among us?
One vivid section taken from John Foxx’s ‘The Quiet Man’ (1980) recounts our modest protagonist’s daily routine. He awakes, eats breakfast, travels to work: “He was content - an unusual state amidst all this rush and ambition.” As the description continues over a sustained piano melody, the city becomes verdant. Buildings have eroded away over an indeterminate passing of time. We’re not sure when or how we got here, but it doesn’t seem matter. The quiet man is happy in the deserted city as the leaves of many autumns pile up.
The essay moves across time with the ease of a cab driver navigating London’s streets. At points, the soundtrack overwhelms. Certain phrases creep up again and again - “When space breaks open, time turns sideways” - until what we hear spirals into a tempo-spatial loop that drops us where we began. It’s disorienting, and when the audio stops I wonder if we’re even still in London, what city I might step out on to when I exit the gallery. To my relief, and disappointment, nothing’s changed.
‘On Vanishing Land’ (2006/2013) is the neater of the two audio essays. Comprised of words by Barton and Fisher, alongside interviews and an ambient soundtrack, it maps the Suffolk coast from Felistowe to Sutton Hoo. Modelled after Brian Eno’s ambient masterwork ‘On Land’ (1982), we scope the parameters of the vast landscape sonically as Barton and Fisher recount to us their own findings. The Suffolk coast is presented as a place of threatening eeriness. It is haunted by the lost city of Dunwich, a port once rivalling London in size that was eventually washed away to the sea. Haunted by the hollow shells of postindustrial structures resembling H.G. Wells’ alien tripods. Haunted by radar - its signals and secrets. “Send a few clicks into the unknown. See what comes back.” And there are the container ships that silently stalk the horizon, laying bare the inconceivably large and invisible structures of capital of which they are a mechanism. Capitalism is, Fisher wrote, the most eerie of structures, invisible yet pervasive in everything we do, everywhere we go.
I leave the event and walk around for a while. Fisher once wrote a love letter to collective listening, to the potential of these acts of coming together and tuning in to different frequencies. They followed in the tradition of listening events organised in the 1950s as part of self-education initiatives of the working classes. “Can we rediscover and develop modes of listening that are intimate yet public, collective but anti-social?” he asked. I send that question into the unknown as I turn left on to Edgware Road. Let’s see what comes back.