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On Hyperdub’s Flatlines and ‘On Vanishing Land’

Text by Stephen McLaughlin


Audio documents of installation pieces are a tricky thing, so much is caught up in site-specificity, and on the other hand, many are also doomed to the limits of human attention in a gallery environment. However, On Vanishing Land– the first release on Hyperdub’s new sublabel Flatlines– is so packed with ideas and musical invention that it demands repeated listens to absorb them all.

The piece, produced by Justin Barton and the late Mark Fisher, was originally commissioned for an exhibition by Kodwo Eshun’s Otolith group in 2013 and is now getting a release on a newly minted Hyperdub sub-label, Flatlines. Both are prolific writers; Mark helped set up both Zero Books (on which Justin has published) and Repeater, thus giving a platform to a new type of cultural criticism beginning with his seminal Capitalist Realism. On Vanishing Land isn’t the first time the two collaborated on a piece. In 2005 they created Londonunderlondon which experimented with a similar mix of history, philosophy, criticism and music. The release itself is definitely a departure from the generally (but not always) dancefloor focused output of Hyperdub’s mainline so the decision to set up the new imprint makes sense given the slight shuffle away from the hardcore continuum. Label boss Steve Goodman (Kode9) explained how the release came about.

We have done playbacks of On Vanishing Land and Mark and Justin’s other audio essay, LondonunderLondon at our monthly night Ø over the last couple of years. The idea came up in a conversation with Kodwo Eshun who had originally commissioned both pieces. I thought that this format needed its own label, and Flatlines is named after one of Mark’s early concepts concerning Gothic Materialism he was developing in his PhD in the later 90s. Mark & I worked together in the CCRU from around 1996 to 1999, and loosely kept in touch after that as Mark did some early writing for the first Hyperdub website which was a kind of web magazine. After that, we mainly kept in contact kind of telepathically through music we were releasing at Hyperdub that Mark ended up writing about, such as Burial and DJ Rashad.

On Vanishing Land is an audio essay recalling a walk down the Sussex coast from the shipping port of Felixstowe, past the WW2 radar base at Broadsea, ending at the Anglo Saxon burial site at Sutton Hoo – from a totem of a neoliberal, global-commerce-based present to a neolithic ruin of a distant history. This teams with original pieces by Gazelle Twin, Baron Mordant, Raime, Farmers of Vega, Skjolbrot, Eerie Anglia, Ekoplekz and Dolly Dolly., artists working in a peculiarly British strain of backwards-looking futurism which has been loosely grouped as ‘Hauntology’ ‘. What ensues is a peculiar synthesis of these forms, Justin explains how their development came to this point:

Music makes non-sonorous forces audible, as Deleuze and Guattari say, and in a different sense, the same can be said of speech. With On Vanishing Land we were aimed at making people aware of something definitively positive within the domain of what can be called the eerie – a kind of serene, impersonal joy involved in following a dangerous escape-path leading out of ordinary reality. Secondarily we wanted to make people aware of something disconcerting about ordinary reality, something that involves the other end of the spectrum of the eerie and extends into the equally all-too-real domain of the gothic. Lastly, but most importantly, the horizon of this was the planet as a whole, which provides the best way of thinking about the place toward which the escape-path leads. Music was very effective with all of these aims, doing expressive work in conjunction with the writing: however, with the last aspect, some crucial work was done through what was described in the course of the narrative/essay. 

Looked at in a slightly different way, music provided a turbulent wall of the unknown, with an eerie zone of the sublime , occasionally shimmering through this wall, and the fact that the unknown was being described in terms of radar (‘send a few clicks into the unknown’) fitted very well with this sonic-expressive wall.

Hauntology, itself a play on ‘ontology’ the philosophical term for the study of that which exists and relations to other things, has its roots in the work of Jacques Derrida. He used it referring to an object existing in the past and present, but also outside of both and interrelated. In Fisher’s case, he uses this as a way to describe the feeling of atemporality caused by much of contemporary pop cultures recycling of the recent past. He posits that this is a reaction to what he sees as the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ experienced in late capitalism. There is a sense of mourning for the idea of a benevolent state as safety nets disappear. Our gleaming utopia never arrived, so the inspiration is taken from the classic science fiction or early 20th-century avant-garde music as they evoke a truly open frontier absent as contemporary techno-capital creeps further into economising every aspect of creativity. 

However, this framework is used here to create something rich in creeping atmosphere. The BBC Radiophonic workshop and early music concrète, in general, loom large over proceedings, but it never feels recycled or pastiche. They take what was initially symptomatic of a kind of cultural malaise and essentially build a new genre, one which can serve to criticise that which led up to its creation. Its differentiates itself from the psychogeographical walks of Ian Sinclair or Alan Moore by delving more into more profound cultural questions of how past and place haunts our experience of the present in both micro and macro scales. Justin explained to us further:

We ended up thinking that a specific, new sense of ‘hauntology’ was the best term for what we were doing. It is necessary to think about a place in terms of its ‘outside.’ To think about what surrounds it connects with it, and runs through or across it – questions of terrain, social and micro-social flows, and of the atmosphere at the level of climate and weather patterns. However, it is also necessary to ask whose haunt it has been and to ask in what ways it has been connected with the oneirosphere of stories and music. And lastly there is the question of what we are haunted by – and at this point the subject of a specific place is likely to become inseparable from the question of the world as a whole: it seems we are haunted by capitulations and forms of reactivity which are endemic within ordinary reality, and simultaneously we are haunted by a potential which we sense but cannot reach, a potential which relates to what is described in On Vanishing Land as ‘love, lucidity and wider realities.

The piece provides a vision of a coastline in decline. Felixstowe’s current state a result of both market deterritorialization and British holidaymakers abandonment for sunnier climes. It has gone the way of many other formerly grand 19th-century seaside towns and is now mainly a route trade route for goods crossing the channel. The route is dotted with relics of the coastlines violent past as a defence against southern invaders as a reminder of the time when man’s inhumanity to one another was more literal and less financially abstract.

The ‘Nerve ganglion of capital’ is first glimpsed via the sheer scale of a container terminal, each company monotoned to signal its uneasy entrance into the landscape, ‘their names an accidental window into an entirely successful seizure of power ‘. The viewing of these banal artefacts whose actions generally occur behind the scenes of global capital creates a sense of eeriness. – When the mask slips, and we can see the normally invisible machinations which lie behind our Amazon click or the photoshopped facade of the high street. Fisher writes in his book The Weird and the Eerie.

Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.’  Fisher explains in the book’s introduction that the conversations he and Justin had around the production of On Vanishing Land were integral to his formulating of the concepts separating the ‘weird’ and the ‘eerie’: the eerie we find in the absence of humanity – something was here, why is it not?

The recollections of their journey are intermittently burnished with interviews telling lived experiences of the area; a sailor describes how the ‘the sea becomes a wall’ and other mind-bending distortions that the banality of shipping life can bring, the child of one of the WW2 operatives at Broadsea, his mother’s secret history as a war hero erased until her own unravelling mind relayed it to the nursing home staff aiding her final days, and ending with an archaeologist’s description of the intricacies of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. These both serve to ground the piece, to take the focus away from the external observer, yet they appear like apparitions within the expanses Fisher’s measured speech.

Groynes sculpted by sea and air are the modernist rock formations that grace the cover – the weirdness of modernism is the shock of the new, an instinctive revulsion toward change in paradigm but in time as they are reclaimed by vegetation and eroded by the sea they gain the allure of the eerie, that which is an invader from another age.  This becomes the backdrop for a discussion of M.R James’ Felixstowe based ghost story Whistle, and I’ll come to you lad. The narrators also recollect their watching the 1968 TV version (also shot in that location) with the sound off, and Brian Eno‘s On Land playing, Eno himself lived in the area and many of the tracks titles are local landmarks such as Lizards Pont adding an extra disjointed layer to the timeline as well as inspiring the title of On Vanishing Land itself. There are further discussions on LP Hartley’s The Go-Between and Picnic at Hanging Rock tying them together with the eerie and its layering with the landscape. ‘The eerie is an incursion of the unknown into a silence, an emptiness, a gap’.

The arrival at Sutton Hoo – ship burials containing artefacts from around Europe dating from 3000BC – suggests a distant past should not be viewed as a simpler place or a Utopia.’ It is important to be neither romantic or condescending’ toward this, citing the example of a similar burial rite involving the rape and murder of a young girl. I found myself reminded of the traumatic rape scenes in David Gladwell’s folk-horror Requiem for a Village which while offering similar criticism of a culture of building and expansion also warned of the dangers of a pastoral nostalgia, it becomes all too easy to forget the violence and cruelty that dwells in our lands past.

The sad situation in which Mark Fisher lost his battle with depression more than two years ago can’t help but colour one’s listening and air of defeat hangs over much of the proceedings, especially when dealing with the human cost of capital. The enduring feeling is as in much of their past work is that the invisible forces of power and culture that control our realities are densely layered but often paper-thin, and the more we unravel these, the more we have the tools to change them. It is as relevant now as when it debuted, Justin sums it up it best: 

to a great extent, it concerns aspects of the world which run deeper than the empirical in the usual sense of this concept. The planet is a sublime terrain of turbulent forces, and within the part of the planet that is the human world (but not defining the human world), there is a pervasive, ongoing disaster. ‘Landscape alienation’ is a good term: we need to attune ourselves to the spheroambient landscapes/skyscapes that surround us, and this is inseparable from saying that we need to wake our faculties, starting from the faculty of perception. Moreover, I think it is invaluable to start from places and the worlds of stories and music because these will transform your concepts, initiating a process of concept-creation; and, most importantly, because together they have surprising ways of taking you to the Futural terrains that have always existed beyond ordinary reality.

(Media courtesy of Hyperdub)
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