On Vanishing Land is a 45 minute long audio-essay, based around an 18 mile walk that Mark Fisher and Justin Barton experienced in 2005. They walked along the Suffolk coastline, on an unusually hot April day, from Felixstow container port (the busiest and biggest container port in the UK) to Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge. The piece explores the eerie, as it relates to geography, a coastlines history and capitalism.
It also explores echoes, or perhaps recalls the walk, the territory, and the land through various cultural connections with the coastline and its histories – histories that are either forgotten or re-animated in literature or music. I would like to talk briefly about these memorial confluences….
M.R. James' stories and the 1968 Jonathan Miller adaptations for the BBC (which were based in the area) are very important here, not only because James' 1904 story (Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad) is based around the coastline but because of how it evokes the Eerie; the bristling, brooding, sentient landscape – an unnerving speculation of otherness:
“A long stretch of shore--shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water--a scene, in fact, so like that of his afternoon's walk that, in the absence of any landmark, it could not be distinguished therefrom. The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. When, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened…” - M. R. James, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904).
There is an important distinction to make here, and that is the distinction between a Gothic form of Horror, an anthropocentrically coded horror, and the sheer otherness of The Eerie. For traditional horror, there is always a chase, an object of fear or a threat – the eerie is none of these things, but instead it is a peculiar shift, a change of dimension, or a realization, an awkwardness with the world – the times when you notice the world is strange and indifferent – the Eerie is weirder than any threat or evil force – it is the dawning of an otherness that is malign, infinite and powerful. A non-thing that is unthinkably indifferent to our very presence….
The sea, the burning sun, the stinging rain, the unfamiliar shoreline, the humanless container port (an eerie pocket of mechanization, capital as a cthullhu –here used strictly as Michel Houllebecqs notion of Lovecrafts Cthulhu as sheer amoral otherness entity), the overgrown tank traps for a Nazi invasion that never happened, the castles built for a Napoleonic invasion that never came.... In this strange land, this forth world, whilst lost along the coast, one may need to trace the ruins of ancient symbolic orders: We Must Hunt Under the Wreckage of Many Systems:
Mark Fisher and Justin Barton spent a lot of time watching 1968 Jonathan Miller adaptation of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad” whilst listening to Brian Eno’s 1984 LP “Ambient 4: On Land”, many of the track titles share their names with places along the coastline, this is no coincidence as Eno grew up in Woodbridge, but I’d like to draw particular attention to the ominously Eerie nature of the track titles that hint at a strange, otherworldly, land:
“The Lost Day”
“Unfamilar Wind (Leek Hills)”
Could this clearing be a clearing in space, or time, or memory?
Music and geography can become portals, we can wander into another world different to the symbolic order we have been accustomed too, as Brian Eno mentions in the sleeve notes to On Land:
“What qualified a piece for inclusion on the record was that it took me somewhere, but this might be somewhere that I'd never been before, or somewhere I'd only imagined going to. Lantern Marsh, for example, is a place only a few miles from where I grew up in East Anglia, but my experience of it derives not from having visited it (although I almost certainly did) but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might be. We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with the futures that didn't materialize, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in.” - Brian Eno, sleevenotes to On Land
I feel that there is a strong evocation of this in On Vanishing Land, listening to Barton’s narrative breaking and lapping over the layers of ambient sounds, the listener's mind is very much transported, into the solar glare of a hallucinatory day dream. One slips through to an elsewhere, a dream of sand, shingle and forgotten histories. But this dream that is not about a different place, but about a different world. It is in this respect that the piece evokes the Eerie. There are no reasons for this, but there is a tangible lucidity. Mark mentioned that he wanted to create a piece somewhere between sound art and music; the experience is very much of being transported to an unknown zone through an unknown zone.
Space through sound is conjured. The eerie is a terrestrially amplified resonance. The resonance that sounds when the symbolic fabric tears, our auto-coded world of delights and horrors dissolves and an Eerie silence of otherness and geo-trauma fills the void. There are spaces where this happens (like in Tarkofsky’s Stalker) On Land, on the coast, in sound and in our memories….
Just like a massive political event may mute the bustling roads of a city, stifle the air of the suburbs or snatch meaning from media commentary - I feel that the Eerie is an illusive and potent reminder of the symbolic order just being another dream within a dream:
"I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?"