PRINT September 2013


One of fifty images from projection sequence by Justin Barton and Mark Fisher in collaboration with Andy Sharp accompanying Barton and Fisher’s On Vanishing Land, 2013, sound, 45 minutes.

“MEMORY DISORDER provides a compelling analogy for the glitches in capitalist realism,” claimed the cultural theorist Mark Fisher in 2009. Such glitches in the current socioeconomic order are explored in On Vanishing Land, 2013, an audio essay by Fisher and the writer and sound artist Justin Barton—their second joint venture in what one hopes is a continuing collaboration. The work, largely narrated by Barton atop an electronic music sound track, offers a psychogeographical recounting of a trip to southeast England—a landscape that leads Fisher and Barton to various provocative historical and theoretical reflections, all expressed through sound.

When visiting Suffolk’s coast, the pair discovered a terrain replete with ruins: World War II–era fortifications reveal geographical border zones, while Felixstowe’s container port, Britain’s busiest, evidences the incursions of global capitalism. The sixth-century Anglo-Saxon burial ground at Sutton Hoo, with its mystical artifacts, anticipates the ghost stories of English medievalist and writer M. R. James, particularly his 1904 tale “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and its 1968 BBC TV adaptation, shot partly in nearby Dunwich. We also learn that the area is home to musician Brian Eno, whose 1982 album On Land translates the region into a droning, haunting soundscape.

If all this seems arcane, the work’s own sound track makes such ethereal visions more palpable. Barton’s narration is complemented by atmospheric electronic sounds, contributed by musicians including Ultravox!’s John Foxx, Gazelle Twin (Elizabeth Walling), and Farmers of Vega (Aled Rees). Yawns of deep bass, chattering synth beats, and breathy quasi-orchestral strings color the verbal portrayal of an estranged landscape of artifice, industrial and military ruins, and geologic monumentality. When exhibited this past spring at the Showroom in London, the piece (co-commissioned by the Otolith Collective) was presented in complete darkness and followed by fifty minutes of still images, projected in silence. This digital slide show (which was produced in collaboration with artist Andy Sharp of the musical and literary collective English Heretic) featured views of windswept coasts, a sunset over a silhouetted countryside, a rock cave, and much else that offered a glimpse of a disfigured naturalistic atavism.

With echoes of Situationist dérives, Sebaldian journeys through former ages of glory, and Freudian dreamwork mediated through Ballardian sci-fi, On Vanishing Land proposes something between a documentary recording of wayward wanderings and a speculative sonic fabulation. At its most intense, this audio essay hollows out reality—the two artists “are a dream within a dream, the planet is a dream within a dream”—even as it viscerally conjures material presences from a land of disjunctive temporalities.

The piece follows the duo’s other artistic collaboration, londonunderlondon, 2005, a ninety-minute audio work that, in fragmented and polyphonic tones, similarly traces an archaeopsychic investigation of an imagined dreamscape under the UK’s capital. The oneiric adventure—at once below ground and into the past—describes an encounter with a troglodyte clan, descended from people fleeing London’s seventeenth-century fire and now living in a labyrinth of subterranean passages and disused underground stations. And with the drones and rhythms of Farmers of Vega and samples of other tracks supplying the affective sonic dimension, the piece emblematizes the relatively new musical genre of hauntology. Over the past decade, Fisher (on his blog k-punk and in his forthcoming book Ghosts of My Life) has become a leading theorist of this aesthetic of skewed perception, sonic sampling in minor keys, and nagging revenants from former times, having developed it from the Derridean concept of a present always determined by the spectral persistence of the untimely—specifically, communism, capitalism’s repressed other.

On Vanishing Land builds on Fisher’s analysis by advocating a concept of the eerie as an aesthetic paradigm, distinct, in its very indeterminacy, from close relatives such as the uncanny and the gothic. In a panel discussion in March, Fisher and Barton explicitly posed the eerie in relation to ambient music, weaving connections between the necessarily atmospheric, immersive quality of sound and dark psychic processes. At stake in Fisher and Barton’s acknowledgment of the ultimate unknowability of the world—the premise of the eerie—is a post-Enlightenment and post-anthropocentric ecology premised on nonhuman agency, whereby consciousness is projected beyond the human. “The planet is teeming with inorganic sentience, as is the cosmos—potential allies, parasitic entities, explorers of the unknown,shadows, M. R. James demons,” explains On Vanishing Land’s narrator. As such, the eerie proposes a hauntological sensibility, an affective state occurring in the wake of humanity’s demotion from its sovereignty over nature.

The category of the eerie—which looks set to inspire further collaboration between Barton and Fisher—is thus a far cry from the deadening managerial functionalism of present-day neoliberalism. The “vanishing land” discloses a terrain existing beyond the certainty of a boundary between inside and outside, let alone of capitalism as reality’s only possible horizon. New forms of knowledge and sensation are opened up by On Vanishing Land’s expansive historical sedimentations. If the eerie favors environment over subject, the work’s multiple paths of sonic and poetic exploration intermingle material and immaterial worlds, engendering an enchanted zone where the ghosts of the past, in spite of all modernism’s attempts to tame them, are constantly emerging from the shadows.

T. J. Demos is a reader in the department of art history, University College London. His most recent book is Return to The Postcolony: Specters of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (Sternberg, 2013).