A Long Time Between Suns
“A Long Time Between Suns”, The Otolith Group’s latest exhibition at Gasworks in Vauxhall, offers a unique opportunity to showpiece the concerns of a collective whose lineage can be traced back into the Black Audio Film Collective and the Cybernetic Culture unit at Warwick University. Last week they presented Mark Fisher’s audio-essay “LondonunderLondon”, which was originally broadcast on Resonance FM in 2005. Fisher may be better known to some in his Kpunk guise (a site which lingers somewhere between a blog and a thinking machine), and his piece centred on a series of themes which reappear in that space.
“LondonunderLondon” sounds as if it were made by the cyborg children of Iain Sinclair. There appears to be a conjunction between his psychogeography project and Kodwo Eshun’s notion of sonic fiction in an attempt to produce an alternative map of the city. It is fiction that really comes to the fore here, and one could certainly identify the presence of Ballard. The opening passage, focusing on a walk through Oxford Circus and Tottenham Court Road, was a kind of channelling of the detached, analytical voice that occupies High Rise. But what Fisher and the other voices of the Otolith Group have produced with “LondonunderLondon” is not only an audio walk through the spaces of the city, but also an engagement with its temporalities. The essay encounters what Eshun called the capability of buildings to act as recording devices, architectural machines soaking up the sounds of all who passed through them. In fact it was suggested that ghosts could be thought of as playbacks, the sonic memories stored in these buildings seeping out into the streets (interestingly The Overlook Hotel was mentioned as a way to think about this). As much as “LondonunderLondon” was an encounter with the city’s ability to memorialise its inhabitants, it was also an imagining of what is to-come. The dystopian feel of the London Fisher can see forming on the horizon is both terrifying and compelling, but as he maintained, that future is always in part here amongst us.
Despite the unavoidable intensity and richness of the essay, I have some nagging criticisms which gather precisely around the strengths of the work. “LondonunderLondon” is at points too well read, and too aware of itself to realise all its own possibilities. It appears to have emerged too easily out of an engagement with both fiction and philosophy, particularly through the Derridian preoccupation with haunting. There was a moment, around the imagining of a lagoon in Wandsworth, where the essay threatens to break out of these references. The thing starts to take shape around a deep thrum, almost as if the work was taking on a pulse, taking on a life and moving ahead of those of who conceived it, but unfortunately this moment was too fleeting.
Perhaps “LondonunderLondon” should be considered in relation to other recent soundworks which have also sought to operate at the juncture between the sonic and the geographical. The mappings and playbacks which Dusk and Blackdown’s “Margins Music" and Burial’s two albums (they apparently were made with night bus journeys in mind) produce, offer something which I think “LondonunderLondon” misses out on. But I suppose there may be a distinction to make between music and the Otolith Group’s attempts to realise and release sonic fictions. Putting any reservations about Fisher’s audio essay aside, sonic fictions is certainly a project I believe needs to be given room to develop and work itself out. One possibility that springs to mind is an uncanny resonance with the improvisatory poetics of Nathaniel Mackey, a writer who operates in the breaks between modernism, sound and mythology.
Edit: just a quick note to say that the Londonunderlondon project was incorrectly solely attributed to Mark Fisher when it was in fact a collaborative work between Fisher and Justin Barton.