Archive: June, 2019

New Beige

Hot Summer

I returned to the eternal Holloway Road in a dream. I was missing a lot of buses to a lot of destinations, no matter where I positioned myself with regards to the bus stops. Then again, I’m not sure that it had been established where I was supposed to be going. This hadn’t set itself up as a dream where I was late for school or late for work. It may have been late in the evening because I told someone how bad a particular fried chicken outlet was, before leading them there so that they could enthusiastically order several items from the menu. Then again fried chicken on the eternal Holloway Road is an all-day feast.

Everywhere was filled with artifacts that carried two texts: the first text was banal to the point of infuriating, the second text was deeply sad. They might have been books or vinyl albums, but I suspect that they were everything.

One thing that they weren’t specifically was comic books. There was at least one of them, an intensely bad Star Wars spin-off in a bad imitation Jack Kirby style. It was full of explosions and chases and near escapes. I tried to explain to Hugh Metcalfe how very bad it was, but the more I told him, the more enthusiastic he became about the whole thing. As with the fried chicken shop, there was no way to warn people about the tawdriness of the goods on offer.

Meanwhile the sun-drenched pavements of the eternal Holloway Road were a racetrack of supercharged Jamaicans and Irishmen. You had to keep your wits about you to avoid colliding with them. And still the buses wouldn’t stop at the bus stops, or at least wait for long enough for you to establish where they were going. One of the supercharged pedestrians followed my spouse all the way home. I found the weighted truncheon in the chess set where it is usually kept, along with the medals for military service in Belfast, and I waded out of the front door to pursue the brute, but he was already gunning the engine of his long low Cadillac, and speeding off across the well-kept suburban front gardens of the neighbourhood.

“And don’t come back if you know what’s good for you!”

Systematic Series

Those of you who haven’t muted me over the last few weeks (I don’t judge) may have noticed that I have been working on a new set of paintings. The first few of these involved a lot of curves and the rest have been composed around subdivisions of circles. They are bold and modern, and I don’t mind saying that I’m very much enjoying them.

One of the things that I have noticed in the process is how much more planned and accurate my paintings have become in the last few years. They have eschewed the struggle with paint-as-paint, and wild improvisation in the mode of the Abstract Expressionists, and have moved on a decade or two to become something which has more in common with Op and Pop Art. When I started my engagement with painting as an adult, about twelve years ago, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to use a ruler, let alone a compass; now they are as important as brush and paint in terms of executing these paintings. It is not necessary to think of oneself as some sort of primitive. Even some quite geometrical things a few years back had a little bit of paint flung at them to keep it real. I lose patience with that sort of real.

Perhaps some of the macho and angst of the angry young painter has left my technique, or maybe it is that the intensity of the work has shifted and focussed on one level while opening up the opportunity for a more distanced approach to the canvas on another. Who knows? The actual process of the work is fairly lacking in close self-examination or interrogation of motives. In many ways it resembles musical composition or harmonic development; dancing about architecture.

There’s a large canvas somewhere in the future of this series, but the longer I hold off work on that, the richer the possibilities for that painting become, both in terms of the scale of the canvas, but also in terms of resolution. Paint is a relatively lo-res medium, although working on increasingly intricate lines on quite small canvases develops the sort of accuracy one can bring to the medium.

Oh, and some of these paintings will be available for sale soon. Possibly a book containing colour illustrations of the whole series too. Watch this space and keep yr credit card handy.

Head of a Pin

It was on a drilling platform, two metres outside of the territorial waters of Greenland, that Soma Jones found himself at a DVD viewing party for the new Carl Jung bioflic. A white sheet hung over a washing line served as a projection screen and the whole world of Jung’s early years rippled with convection currents from the kitchen, where hip eightysomethings ladled glögi from a copper cauldron into white plastic cups. The subtitles were in Spanish, for the film, and Czech for the voices in the room. It was pointless attempting to sort it into any useful divinatory pattern.

The host, an American who called himself Lars, was counting out a fat stack of luncheon vouchers as payment for the last assignment. “It’s just as well these people don’t know who you are.” He told Soma Jones. “You wouldn’t get out of this place without a dozen hot-takes and a pitch for a graphic novel or three.”

“And how does one get out of this place exactly?”

“Restroom? Other side of the kitchen and down the stairs. There’s probably a queue though. Probably easier to piss off the side of the rig.”

“Which direction’s Greenland?”

“Hey, don’t take it like that Jonesie! They were a young empire. If they’d concentrated on consumer technology rather than stutter drive they wouldn’t have brought the attention of the Galactic League upon themselves.”

“I was mostly trying to avoid being transformed into a pillar of salt.”

“Rather than a heap of language, huh?”

Soma Jones let that one slide; his confrontational days were long behind him. Having said that he would have been willing to kill for a heap of braised tofu at the moment. He took his leave of Lars and went out to brave the wind on deck. The Atlantic was barely discernible from the sky; there was less than one Pantone number between them. The rig gave the impression of movement, although Soma Jones assumed that the platform was by definition fixed in position on the ocean floor.

From somewhere inside a half-remembered Incredible String Band number was playing or being played. This installation attempted to carry too many cultural signifiers for its pin-like proportions against the endless frequency modulations of the sea. The density of self-consciousness here was difficult to maintain. It regularly drove octogenarian revellers to fling themselves from the platform to take their chances in the icy waters. It was, he realised, the polar opposite of a shopping mall, or a museum, or even a cathedral. It was, he was willing to propose, difficult to remain a ghost here. Lars had threatened as much.

Soma Jones took a luncheon voucher out of his stash pocket and started to fold it into a paper plane. You wouldn’t illegally download an easy cop out.

Systematic Painting #6

Favourite of the series so far. Larger 40x30cm canvas board, and took a couple of days to finish this. Both looser and tighter than the earlier canvases.

Acceleration

In this morning’s broadcast from the unconscious I was in London with a friend from Sheffield, we were trying to get to the Barbican for an exhibition, and we found ourselves on a tube line that had been built since I’ve been away from the city; all of the station names were in classical Greek. This was the most straightforward aspect of this new line, because instead of sitting inside the carriages, passengers had to hang onto the outside using purpose-built hand-grips. But of course, this being London, you couldn’t just hang on, you had to keep moving along the carriage even as the train hurtled down the tunnels.

When I woke up I exchanged a flurry of messages with the friend who had made a cameo appearance. In the dream he seemed to be enjoying the process of climbing along the outside of the carriage. He is a comic artist, amongst other things, and inevitably the Empire of Termight in Nemesis the Warlock came up. From the earliest incarnations of this story as Terror Tube/Killer Watt, there is a fantastical extrapolation of the British elation and fear of the London Underground system. Interestingly, the original Terror Tube specifically references Going Underground by The Jam on its first page.

Londoners are highly adaptive creatures. They will live in the smallest shoeboxes with a shower and an electric hob arranged Tetris-like alongside the bed sofa. Every impossible challenge that is thrown at them is normalised within a week. Sure, there will be some who wouldn’t want to climb along the meat-grinder trains of a line that is labelled in classical Greek, but they’d be considered a bit snobbish, a bit up themselves. Given a bit of practice, commuters will fairly swing along on those hand-grips while practicing classical Greek on the Duolingo app. After a while, the main complaint would be about trains delayed in the tunnel for extended periods and how tiring hanging around gets.

Commuting to my early jobs in central London, the easiest journey was a Routemaster bus. Unlike the current iteration, the older Routemaster had an open back with a hand-rail. You’d see kids on skateboards gripping the hand-rail so that it could pull them along. If you arrived at the stop just as the bus was pulling away, you’d jump onto the back, matching yr leap to the acceleration of the bus; and then you’d ask yrself why you did anything so stupid and dangerous rather than just wait for the next bus, and then you’d leap off the bus before it had stopped, because who wants to wait around in traffic? Of course the new Routemaster has a closed back, but I suspect that that is less to do with safety than maximising LRT profits.

Returning to the dream it is tempting to draw simple symbolic interpretations: the hurtling tube train that is contemporary life! The constant struggle to understand the sign jungle as we race forwards, mindless of the dangers all around! There is drama, both comic and tragic, that can be drawn out of this image, but in the end it’s all Greek to me.

Tactics of Mistake

There were a number of bands at the beginning of the 90s who had started from a position of garage rock, and had disintegrated the form to the extent that they had as much in common with free jazz and electronica, but hadn’t necessarily made the leap into either. I’m thinking in particular of the two factions of Loop, The Hair & Skin Trading Company and Main, but there were other similar acts at the time. There was something in common with shoegaze, the effects-heavy strategies and the unimportance of vocals to convey meaning, but there was less of a reliance upon the pop music structures, that were even still discernible in related bands such as Stereolab, for instance.

What was notable about these bands, on record but even more so in the live arena, was the extent of their failure. The word failure here is not used in a pejorative sense. I feel that it was taken as read in their audiences that they weren’t here to be entertaining. What occurred on stage wasn’t necessarily anything to do with what appeared on the recorded material, but everyone implicitly understood the live/practice/recording principles of Can. One came away with a sense that envelopes were being pushed and thresholds were being tested, and sometimes the experiments went awry.

I came to live music some years later, although I was recording throughout this period, and while I was doing something different from either of these bands, their failures were a useful lesson. They freed me to not feel that I needed to entertain, and to consider the stage as a tabula rasa to fling pigment at. It made the whole sense of success or failure difficult to judge. Not only on the basis from the feeling from the stage but from the reactions from audiences. Sometimes there was a favourable response to things that felt like ill-judged gambits, or even a sense that the audience had seen something quite different from what had been happening from the operational perspective; and in many cases, of course they had.

So in some strange way, seeing a lot of gigs that provoked an ambivalent response was highly instructive. The Hair & Skin Trading Company eventually folded unresolved, and Main diluted (him/them)selves to a point where he/they were barely present. Having said all of this: the Main T-shirt that I bought at a gig was one of the most aesthetic items of clothing I have ever owned. Unfortunately I do not have a picture, and the T-shirt itself also disintegrated under wave upon wave of blim burns and ill-advised laundry strategies.

Menu Level

Jan becomes conscious of the curtains lit up with morning sunlight. There is no rising from sleep into wakefulness; no ascent of the levels of consciousness through a reverse AUM. Jan is conscious. Single-sided. Full density. The breathing of a kettle and the rattle of ceramics and metals ostensibly suggest to him that Fransziska is making coffee and tea down in the kitchen. Tea for him; coffee for her. Possibly it is the other way around.

He dives beneath the duvet and swims towards the far wall, pulls down a menu bar from the ceiling of the world. FILE – EDIT – VIEW – CHARACTER… He pulls down the character menu and flicks open the binaries: currently it is set to Fransziska/Jan.

Rayne Keller/Jan
Bilhelmina Carrow/Jan

Soma Jones/Jan
Double Denim/Jan
London Borough of Wassgotterspeck/Jan…


He scrolls back to Fransziska/Jan. From the Franszika/x axis of the menu, options list themselves up and down into a murky complexity of unrealised narrative combinations. Flicking a thumb over his name, a field of dip switches opens up: myriad tweaks that retain his Jan-ness but alter subtle parameters.

“What you looking at?” says Fransziska.
“Just wrinkles in the mirror.”
“I made you tea.”

Fransziska reaches over and with a few gestures opens up another set of menus. “I’m not sure that I like my desk at work.”
“I thought it was the guy from finance who you didn’t like?”
“No, I tweaked that. In three weeks time he comes into work with a face like raw steak. A fight at the tapas bar by the monorail.”

Jan takes the coffee. The mug has abraded black sans-serif along its flanks: World’s Greatest Grandad. He drinks the hot chocolate thoughtfully. They touch down on a diving board positioned at an axis point above the centre of the world. “It’s notional, of course.” Parenthesised shells of conditional landscapes bulge like clouds in an antique woodcut. And then they are something else. The shimmer of metaphor on one level behaves like a violent strobe, on another it is a soft modulation that is as close to magnolia-painted wallpaper as is possible in any world.

In a state prior to this Fransziska fixates upon the space between two printed characters on a page. At the periphery of vision she is aware of a full-stop that swarms with complexity on the upper surface of the pulp fibres. There is a musty odor to the volume, and the binding is coming apart in several places, although she is fully aware that this is a future state of the codex when it has been surrendered from her custody.

Jan is dressed in a pair of lavender Sta Prest action slacks with a shirt of something soft and turquoise without a collar. He inspects an unusually thick eyebrow hair in the mirror. To paint the Wassgotterspeck Viaduct is a job for life; by the time you reach the other end, the action of the elements will have eroded your labour, over and over. He checks both of his watches. There will be time. He presses down the plunger on the cafetière and pours a coffee. The carries it up to the bedroom. Fransziska is nowhere to be seen. Only a outline shell in the duvet: as nearly a panther as a lawnmower.

Report from the Exploration Team

To the west of the cooling towers there is a freight train that is so long that it might be considered as a solid wall. In front of the train line there is a partial wall. A passage of concrete, broken by wild grasses and littered with bleached wrappers and crushed aluminium cans from consumer goods, runs its length, and voices can be heard over the endless rattle of the train. The exact origin of the voices is indeterminate, but it is clear that they are to be avoided.

The empty lot between the moving wall and the cooling towers is host to all kinds of aggregates; grit and half-bricks, broken glass, mosses and more of the wild grasses. It is a complex eco-system in itself, and demarcated rectangular patterns indicate where older structures once stood. From the viewpoint of beetles and long-legged flies this continent reveals a complex topology for hunting and foraging.

The ground floor of the cooling towers is accessible from two places on the perimeter of the northern tower, and one place on the tower to the south. As with the practically solid wall of the freight train, the basement level might also be considered impassable; it is flooded. The perimeter corridor of the southern tower, tiled on walls and floors like a hospital, offers access to the administration offices. Desks have been over-turned or daubed with paint; long splatter patterns across telephones, keyboards and fans of forms and publicity materials. Deeper inside, between walls of bookcases and filing cabinets, tiled steps rise and fall a half-meter here and there making a complex maze of the space. Sofas and easy chairs covered with found patterned material, are inclined around surfaces piled with paperbacks, CDs and DVDs. Electricity and hot water still function in these strongholds of the exploration team; instant coffee and garibaldi biscuits are available from a central kitchen.

Reports have come in from the tower to the north that chambers full of rusting machinery have been discovered, overseen by graffiti murals that reach high into the darkness of the structure. It is also reported that a window from a third floor platform in one of these chambers provides a view into a state of the world in which the freight train has passed.

Contesting Attentions

A hard, gritty adventure story full of tough, competent, gritty characters, mostly male, who are engaged in some tough, dangerous expedition. Their leader, a man of undeniable experience, becomes increasingly terse and short with his team as the expedition proceeds, but not because the terrain has become more challenging than imagined, or through unforeseen assaults from unimagined foes, but because he keeps getting distracted by thoughts that have nothing to do with the rest of the story.

“Twenty metres to the right,” said Gnoll. “You see it? We won’t be able to take the ATVs through that ridge.”

Harshmann grunted. The second verse of the Flakey Bar advertisment, that he had seen when he was a child, wouldn’t come to him. It would need to end with a word that rhymed with luscious, and he wished to God that he’d packed a Thesaurus before he’d left Halifax Landing.

“We’re going to have to come up with something before nightfall.” said Gnoll. “We’ve got less than two hours.”

Harshmann nodded. He was having difficulty focussing on anything that Gnoll was saying. He shaded his eyes and gazed towards the gap in the ridge. Maybe he’d misremembered luscious. “Did you part your hair differently this morning?” he said.

Dak Harshmann’s inability to focus on the gritty, harsh realities of the expeditions must not be rationalised by some factor of local conditions or by a knowable personal flaw; it isn’t anything to do with the oxygen content of the territory or strange gravitational anomalies. Unusual phenomena may affect other members of the team, and flaws in their characters from predictable aspects of their past may lead the expedition into danger, but as far as Harshmann is concerned it’s simply that there is always something far more important for him to consider.

Raoul levelled his revolver at Harshmann. “Not even you are fast enough to reach your bootknife before I shoot you down. So don’t try it! I guess you probably knew all along that I’d killed Krueger back at the depot and swapped ID cards before you arrived. You didn’t say nothing but I could see that you knew something was wrong. It was just a matter of time, Dak, but now your time has run out!”

Harshmann’s face took on a sudden clarity. “She had a cilantro allergy! That was why she only picked at the food!”

“The hell?” said Raoul. It was all that he managed before Gnoll cracked his skull from behind with a monkey wrench.

Harshmann’s disconnection from his surroundings is a function of the shallowness of the world around him, but also that he is unwittingly a carrier of material that isn’t directly-related to the action at hand. If there is anything unusual about Harshmann’s plight, it is that he has found himself adrift in a trope that is impossible to take seriously, and that there is too little of him, other than a heroic-sounding name, to actively contest the masculine fictions that have somehow manifested around him.

His heroism lies in a form of right-attention to the manifold unrelated materials that drift through the space in the story that is named Dak Harshmann.