The Dark Mountain Blog

The Crossing of Two Lines

The following essay was written as the introduction to The Crossing of Two Lines, a book which grew out of my friendship with Robert and Geska Brečević, who work together under the name of Performing Pictures. They are prolific, relentless artists and makers whose work shows up on stages, in museums, on streets and on the screens of mobile phones, as well as in galleries. Much of this work involves tiny films, built into objects, and from around 2008, more and more of these films and objects took the form of venerative artefacts: shrines, roadside chapels, depictions of the saints of folk Catholicism. The Crossing of Two Lines is a document of this work – most of the book is taken up with photographs of their collaborations in Mexico, Croatia and Sweden – and also an investigation into the discomfort that it seems to have caused among their art-world contemporaries.

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The walls of the house on the Antešić land at Rab were built in the last years of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but three generations would go by, and two wars, before it came to have a roof. They were a metre thick, those walls, made of local stone, the openings in places no architect would think to put them. It was the brothers Stjepan and Mile Antešić who began the building. On the island, the family grew olives and grapes, but what paid for the construction was the money Stjepan sent back from his work as a ship’s captain on the Danube.

War came and the building stopped. Stjepan joined the Partisans, fought against the occupying forces and the homebred Catholic fascism of the Ustaša, a stand that lived on in the lifelong anti-clericalism of his daughter, Dorica. It was her daughter, Milica, who married Alojz Brečević, a ship’s mechanic. They had met in Sweden, as migrant workers, and they started a family there, a family that would travel back each summer to help with the wine-making. Don’t get too used to this country, they told their son, each autumn: one of these years, we are going back for good.

That promise was severed by the new war of the 1990s and it was not until 1997 that Robert Brečević returned, alone, on a bus from Munich. Later, he and his wife, Geska, would come to visit the family land at Rab and — together with his stonemason cousin, Đani — take on the task of finishing what Stjepan and Mile had begun a lifetime earlier.

A black oak tree hides the stone house from the road. What can be seen is the small chapel, built the same year that the roof went on the house. In the evening, visitors come from around the island — families, old people, young couples out for a walk—to peek through the keyhole and, as if at a fairground peepshow, catch a glimpse of the moving figure of St Christopher carrying the child who will turn out to be Christ. The patron saint of the town of Rab, but also the protector of travellers, his presence is, among other things, a reminder of the journeys that went into the building of this house.

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‘So when did Robert convert?’

The question came from a mutual friend who had heard that I was writing about the turn in the work of Performing Pictures that led to the projects documented in this book. More often, such questions are left politely unspoken, but they hang in the gallery air when this work is shown.

We are used to art that employs the symbols of religion in ways seemingly intended to unsettle or provoke many of those to whom these symbols matter; yet to the consumers of contemporary art, those who actually visit galleries, it is more uncomfortable to be confronted with work in which such symbols are used without the frame of provocation. The viewer hesitates between two anxieties: is there something here that I am missing — an irony, a political message, a joke — or is this a piece of propaganda on behalf of the believers? (Whatever they may believe, the evening visitors to the chapel at Rab show no sign of such anxieties.)

The turn is striking, certainly. There is nothing in the work of Performing Pictures prior to 2009 that would lead the viewer to expect the saints and shrines and altars we find here. The story behind such a turn deserves exploration. Yet if we want to trace the routes that led to this work, I suggest that the question of personal belief will prove misleading: it will not bring us closer to an understanding of what took place, and it may lead us to overlook those clues that have been left along the way.

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Geska Helena Andersson was born into a family of small farmers in Skåne, the southernmost region of Sweden. Her parents’ life was anchored to the land — she was thirty before they had a holiday together — though the family had been migrant workers, too, in times when the farm alone could not support them. Her grandmother cycled half the length of Sweden, in those times, picking crops.

These family stories weave into the work of Performing Pictures. Indeed, the presence of the family, within the production process and the work itself, is one thread that connects the projects here to earlier works such as Kids On The Slide and Fathers and Sons, Verging. That young man standing on a Polish beach is Cesar, the boy who took his bucket and spade to the graveyard in Kids On The Slide; now, he and his father are ready to cycle to the Adriatic, installing roadside chapels along their route. Under a parasol on a Mexican hillside where the Virgin of Guadalupe is about to appear, you can make out Katja, four months old, in the arms of one of the women from the Zegache workshop. Đani Brečević, the stonemason, stares past the camera from under the brim of his hat, fixing the cross to the roof of the St Martin chapel in his home village; then there he is again, cigarette hanging from his mouth, looking hardly less at home as he lays bricks for the St Anne chapel in Zegache.

The presence of family is felt in other ways: not least, there is the image of St Anne, a mother teaching her daughter to read. Those placing votive candles before it in the Église Notre-Dame de Bon Secours do not know this, but the St Christopher of Movement no. 6: To Carry a Child is also a family portrait: the saint is played by David Cuartielles; the child, who weighs on his shoulders more heavily than if he carried the world, is his young daughter. On a ledge in the door of the shrine, where people might leave images or scribbled prayers, Robert has placed a photograph of his father as a young man on the deck of a ship.

There is a movement outwards from the earlier work, in which the children themselves were often the subject, to the community and the village. Yet it would be a mistake to see this as a move away from the family or from the domestic; rather, the implications of these themes now reach wider and deeper. The name of the village of Brečevići, site of the St Martin chapel, is only the most obvious clue to this.

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The sound of the mariachi trumpets goes up into the arches of the church and lingers there. When the service is over, the mourners follow the band through the streets of this dusty town. At the graveside, among the flowers, a video camera stands on a tripod. The band falls silent, the priest says a prayer, the coffin is lowered into the ground. Three of the dead man’s brothers are away, working in the United States, and it is for them that the burial is being filmed.

When John Berger and Jean Mohr made a book about the experience of a migrant worker in Europe, nearly forty years ago, they called it A Seventh Man: in Germany and in Britain, at that time, one in every seven manual workers was an immigrant. Today, one in every three Mexicans lives outside of Mexico, the great majority as migrant workers in the United States. This epic displacement forms the background to life in a village such as Santa Ana Zegache, where the painter Rodolfo Morales founded the community workshops in 1997 as a project to restore the Baroque church, but also to restore life to the local economy, training young women in the crafts required for the restoration of its eighteenth-century altarpieces. Robert and Geska came to visit the workshops in 2008, and it was during a conversation that day that the idea of putting the saints into motion first surfaced, almost as a joke, but a joke that caught everyone’s imagination. Here, in a place where most of the young men are far away, working the land north of the border, you find the point of departure of this work.

In 2011, A Seventh Man was published for the first time in a Mexican edition. Its account of the experience of Gastarbeiters in 1970’s Europe, men of Alojz Brečević’s generation, continues to make sense of the lives of migrant workers on whose labour the economies of the rich countries continue to depend. Berger returned to the subject of migration in a later book, and our faces, my heart, brief as photos. ‘Never before our time have so many people been uprooted,’ he writes. ‘The displacement, the homelessness, the abandonment lived by a migrant is the extreme form of a more general and widespread experience.’

To speak about such homelessness, to acknowledge the loss that it involves, it is necessary to speak about ‘home’, and this is made difficult by the ideological uses to which that word has been put. The language of home is used by those who would stir up hatred against the immigrant worker and also by those who would undo the ongoing transformation of possibilities experienced by women over the past half-century. These toxic associations can hardly go unacknowledged, yet it may be possible to reach behind them, and with this aim, Berger draws on the comparative studies of religion made by Mircea Eliade.

In traditional societies, Eliade observes, home is the place from which the world makes sense. This is possible because it stands at the crossing point of two axes: the vertical line, along which one is connected to the world of the gods and the world of the dead, and the horizontal line, which stands for all the journeys that might be made within this world. (If such a cosmology seems remote from our own experience, consider these axes to stand, among other things, for two sets of relations: to those who went before and may come after us, and to those of our own time.) Emigration may be prompted by hope as well as desperation, Berger recognises: it may represent an escape or a dream, but its price includes the dismantling of this centre of the world.

And yet, somehow, this loss is not the end of the matter: ‘the very sense of loss keeps alive an expectation.’ The substitute home which the migrant finds—and here, again, the migrant experience is an extreme version of the common experience of modernity — is no longer secured to a physical space. ‘The roof over the head, the four walls, have become, as it were, secular: independent from whatever is kept in the heart and is sacred.’

Nevertheless, by turning in circles the displaced preserve their identity and improvise a shelter. Built of what? Of habits, I think, of the raw material of repetition, turned into a shelter.

On that first visit to Mexico, what impressed Robert was people’s ‘way of making a home in something which is totally temporary.’ The images which go up on the wall, the figures, the habits and repetitions that go with them were familiar, not only from the Catholic prayer cards at his grandmother’s home in Brečevići, but also from the ornaments of the household in which he grew up, the little figurines, the flowers and images with lace around them. Misunderstood as kitsch, dismissed or ironically celebrated, these secular altars are also a means of making a home, another form of the ‘popular ingenuity’ by which the displaced continue to improvise meaning. Out of this recognition, the idea of working with shrines took hold.

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As a child in rural Sweden, Geska remembers, anything ‘shop-bought’ had an aura: shop-bought biscuits, shop-bought meatballs, these were the things you pleaded with your parents to have, and the very fact of coming from a shop gave them glamour. Later, living away from home for the first time, it struck her how upside-down that childhood perception had been. Yet the idea that the supermarket version of anything was special, rather than just taken for granted, hints at the tail-end of another world, a world that still centred on the home-made.

All creation stories involve a prising apart of the preexistent. The sky is lifted from the waters, light split out of dark, time from space, and the world as we know it roars into being. The industrial world, the social, economic, technological, political and material realities within which the unprecedented uprooting, the great gains and the seldom fully acknowledged losses of modernity have taken place, began with such a fission: the prising apart of production from consumption, which took concrete form in the new separation of work from home.

The history of the industrial revolution is a history of massive resistance on the part of ordinary people. This resistance fell into two phases: in the first, it was an attempt to defend a way of living; in the second, which began when this way of living had largely been destroyed, it became an attempt to negotiate better conditions within the new world made by the destroyers. What had been lost was a way of living in which most production took place on a domestic scale, interwoven with the lives of families and communities. Work was hard, but it varied with the seasons and required skill and judgement. Many of the basic needs of a household could be met by its own members or their immediate neighbours, not least through access to common land, so that people were not entirely exposed to the mercilessness of the market.

It is not necessary to romanticise the realities of pre-industrial society: the intensity and duration of the struggle which accompanied its passing are evidence enough. (In 1812, at one of the high-watermarks of this struggle, the British government deployed 12,000 troops against the Luddites in four counties of England, more than Wellington had under his command that year in the ongoing war against Napoleon.) The relationship between this first phase of resistance and the labour movement that would arise out of its defeat has most often been presented as a progressive development: the dawning of a new political consciousness, and with it new forms of organisation and effective action. Yet it was also an accommodation to what had previously been fought against: the new division of the world between the space of work, dedicated to the sole purpose of maximising production, and the domestic space, now dedicated to reproduction and consumption. The sentimental idealisation of the home as a woman’s sphere originates in this division, as established in Victorian England. Behind this advertising hoarding lay the real transformation of the home from a living centre of activity to a dormitory, a garage in which the worker is parked when not in use.

Yet even such a transformation, so elemental that we hardly perceive it, can never be the whole story. In the words of Eugenio Montale:

History isn’t
the devastating bulldozer they say it is.
It leaves underpasses, crypts, holes
and hiding places.

The memory of the seasonal return to help with the wine-making, the memory of the shininess of anything shop-bought, these are fragments that have survived the bulldozer, clues to another way of living. More widely, the older rhythms of working life survive in certain historical underpasses, as E. P. Thompson notes in his essay on ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’:

The pattern persists among some self-employed—artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students—today, and provokes the question whether it is not a “natural” human work-rhythm.

In this respect, the practice of Performing Pictures is hardly exceptional — how many artists could draw a line between work and life? — but certain elements, in particular the involvement of the whole family in the work, resonate strongly with the world whose memory remained alive in their own childhoods, a memory which still finds echoes in the places where this work was made.

Capillas

A priest is fetched to bless the chapel. He comes from two villages away. The proper words and gestures are performed. Yet it would be a mistake to assume that these stones were cut and carved, the door made, the animation shot or the screen rigged to the solar panel, either for or on behalf of the institution which he represents.

‘We have become fascinated,’ Robert writes, ‘by those rural chapels to be found outside of the control of the churches, the patrons and urban plans.’ A series of photographs shows small capillas at the corners of cactus-fenced yards in the lanes around Zegache. Improvised out of industrial materials, concrete and rusting corrugated iron, with shop-bought figures, a virgin studded with LEDs, a vase of drying flowers, these unofficial shrines are also expressions of popular ingenuity. Sometimes, nature adds its own contribution: a spider has caught Christ in a net that funnels into a silk vortex in the gap between body and cross, like an opening to another universe.

Looking through them, I remember another set of photographs, taken by the British artist Rachel Horne in the South Yorkshire coalfield where four generations of her family worked as miners. Many of the former colliery sites have been grassed over, the slag-heaps topped off with public artworks. In Horne’s photos, these sculptures seem to have landed from nowhere, unaware of the pride, the conflict and the loss that these sites represent. They are asking to be vandalised, and, in one case, this has already happened, the stone structure toppled like a children’s toy and a stencil sprayed onto an exposed face.

Modern public art has its beginnings in the assumption by the secular state of a symbolic power which had formerly been exercised by the church. Yet the contrast between those commissioned memorials and the improvised sites of devotion around Zegache suggests the limitations of official art. The capillas are cared for by small fraternities which take responsibility for their upkeep. The shrine as physical object is held within a web of mutuality which lends it a certain resilience, beyond the properties of the material itself. A similar principle applies to the chapels in this book.

‘As media artists,’ Geska points out, ‘you’re not invited to do public space installations, because it’s not something that’s stable, and there’s the electricity, and everyone knows that the technology is going to break within three years.’ The idea for the Chapel of St Anne grew out of the previous collaborations with artisans at the Zegache community workshops, although it required the support of the local mayor to go ahead. In Brečevići, it was a group of villagers who proposed the St Martin chapel and provided the materials. ‘If the screen breaks, there is someone who will make sure it’s mended.’

The thing that redeems this fragile work from being a future piece of junk is its embedding within a community of people to whom it matters. The tasks of maintenance that would have been a line to be cut in a public budget become, instead, part of the rhythm of life for those around the work; or, seen from another angle, this activity becomes part of the work, as in the Maintenance Art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles. The connection is significant: few artists have addressed so directly the schism between home and work. As Ukeles writes of her younger self, ‘She was looking to sew back together a great fabric that she saw rended, torn apart.’ Except that in this case, the context is not the museum — literally, ‘the shrine of the muses’, home to the cult of art — but the vernacular Catholicism of those for whom this work becomes part of their venerative practice.

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The discomfort with work that appears to be an expression of religious faith and the polite avoidance of putting the direct question about the artists’ beliefs are both symptoms of the modern doctrine that religion belongs to the private sphere. Within the boundaries of one’s own home, there is complete freedom of belief, but to bring one’s belief into the public sphere is to threaten the stability of the secular order which guarantees this freedom.

As Robert observes, today’s Sweden has become the kind of radically secular society that the ideologically atheist states of the former Eastern Bloc proclaimed without achieving. In such a society, religion becomes countercultural: to experience and express a religious faith as something stronger than a personal opinion is to put yourself at odds with the background assumptions of the world around you. The forms of religion that emerge in such a society reflect this: faith becomes a conscious foreground statement.

Yet in much of the world — in rural Oaxaca, and even in rural Croatia, despite a generation of official atheism, and despite the toxic entanglement of Catholicism and nationalism — religion remains part of the social background. If one person has more time for the church than another, this is a matter of inclination, rather than a charged personal dilemma. It was in this world that Performing Pictures began making venerative objects. The experience they reflect is not so dramatic as the language of conversion would suggest, neither as personal in its intensity nor as universal in its implications. More like the experience of coming home.

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When work began again on the house at Rab, its stone and timber construction must have seemed an anachronism; on neighbouring land, a German property speculator was building a set of holiday apartments. Yet it is these which now stand unfinished, ghosts of brick and concrete, abandoned by their owner, who no longer answers correspondence from the municipality. Perhaps, three generations from now, his descendants will return to finish what he began, but as the sun goes down over the Chapel of St Christopher, this seems to stretch our capacity for belief a little further than it will go tonight.

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The Crossing of Two Lines by Dougald Hine and Performing Pictures is available to order through the Dark Mountain shop.

Epilogue

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Jeppe Graugaard is a researcher and writer who explores the connections between cultural narratives, worldviews and social change. For his PhD on grassroots sustainability narratives he wrote an in-depth case study of the Dark Mountain Project. From 2011 through to 2014 he had a series of interactions, exchanges and conversations with different mountaineers as a researcher-participant. He has recently submitted his thesis, which you can find on http://www.refiguring.net/thesis.html. The following is an excerpt from his field notes written at the end of the research.

A year has passed since the Chaffinch flew into this text. Although the Chaffinch and the summerhouse now seem distant – the entire thesis and many life changes lie between then and now – those months were a medicine, a salve which I have kept with me as I travelled on. I am on a train again, travelling from my recent home in Berlin back to my childhood home in Holstebro. We zoom through bright yellow rape fields, pine tree plantations, desolate industrial landscapes and small German towns with their unruly allotments, red brick houses and parking lots. I like trains. They offer a time in between, journeying hours that are not structured by the normal rhythms and schemes of the everyday and which allow the mind to wander in backside views of the places we pass through. Crossing the river Eider on the Rensburger Hochbrücke, I get a magnificent view of the surrounding suburban landscape. Windy streets and open green spaces are dotted with trees and people which seem almost motionless from my window. Sitting here, squinting my eyes against the afternoon sunlight, I think of the journey with Dark Mountain. Or is it to Dark Mountain? Or across? It appears to me that the first metaphors I associated with my inquiry into what Dark Mountain is and means – finding home, settling and becoming rooted – all took as their premise that I was already away or uprooted. But in the last months the possibility of becoming rooted in the journey has revealed itself. And Dark Mountain is, after all, not a place to live one’s entire life but a viewpoint or a place of transformation where the boundaries that define the rest of life can be challenged and expanded. Rather than a home, I found a community of fellow journeyers, people who are experimenting with ways of living which can cope with the disappearance of the certainties and expectations of progress.

My journey began with a search for ways of coming to terms with the great sadness of seeing the social and ecological structures that support life as I know it disintegrate and perhaps fail altogether. This prospect undermined everything I had come to take for granted as a child growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. It is – with a term that my friend Tony Dias uses – an enormity: a circumstance which appears so horrific as to incapacitate or paralyse basic aspects of everyday life. As I began to speak with other mountaineers about this, I found not only support in dealing with this rupture of the future but also guidance in building my own practices to help me thrive. ‘We don’t want just to survive, we want also to flourish’, as Andrew Taggart put it in one of our conversations. And the many conversations, inquiries and collaborations I involved myself in became part of my personal practice. My position as a researcher allowed me to cultivate a practice, develop my perceptual skills and work with the ideas presented in this thesis in a fairly consistent and continual manner. While my engagement with Dark Mountain has in this way been unique, there are many parallels between my experience doing this research and those of other mountaineers. At its very broadest this can be described as a process of breaking out of a feeling of isolation and finding community or a place to retrieve a sense of unity within the lifeworld. This is a shift which locates community in the ongoing stream of life itself and which is expressed as a radical shift in the kind of relations one has with the natural world. A re-integration.

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Journeying with Dark Mountain has shown me that the shift towards re-imagining and embodying a different relationship with the world requires that many of the rationales which structure modern life are left behind. That changing worldview involves a deeper engagement with the beliefs, habits and assumptions that organise how one experiences the world. And that there are no blueprints or big solutions. This condition has been part of my own struggle in doing this research both because I have been encouraged to look for solutions as an academic and because it has been difficult to overcome my deep-rooted urge put right to wrong and try to fix my great sadness. But grief cannot be fixed like pollution cannot be washed away with dispersants. Accepting what feels like inadequacy and letting go of the hope that the enormity can be reversed has by far been the hardest part of my journey. Surrendering some of my deeply held convictions has been disagreeable and challenged my identity. Nonetheless, the great discovery for me has been the understanding that the feeling of isolation and fragmentation that follows in the slipstream of the enormity is the result of a worldview which denies the inherent ‘relationality’ of the world. Although I first sensed this years ago, I believe this is a truth which will keep deepening long into the future as it is a remedy for a lot of the unintended consequences we tend to think of as ‘externalities’ – whether they are social, psychological or ecological.

When our relations with each other, the places we live and the wider natural world are obscured, frayed or ripped we lose not just a connection to the world but a small part of ourselves. Indigenous research paradigms hold that a researcher is answerable to all her relations and one could restate this to say that a person is all her relations. When relationality is broken we become less than what we were before. This has become clear to me especially through my sister Naja’s research and our conversations about our identity as mixed-race Greenlandic-Danes. I was joined by her from time to time last year in the summerhouse when she was writing her Masters thesis on decolonising Inuit politics and identity in Greenland. She writes about the internal dissension that arises when a part of one’s identity becomes isolated and framed as conflicting with the rest of one’s person: “[t]he experiences within mixed-race lives articulate the destruction when our inherent “relationality” as living beings is suppressed”. It is interesting that she has found many parallels to what I have described as threshold or liminal states in her process of resolving this fragmentation. Letting go of certain ideas about oneself can seem like ‘dissolving into nothingness’ but, she finds, “we become more of who we are when we, upon dissolving, embrace our relations as a part of the becoming our expansive selves, our lineage [...] and our embodied memory”.

This possibility of becoming more of who we are seems to me to be a key to many of the problematics related to the sustainability challenge. For me, it has resolved a personal question which I set out with at the beginning of this research: how can I discontinue the relationships that have produced the enormity and where can I help build new kinds of relations? Many of the conflicts I have experienced surrounding this question faded away once I accepted that they were based on a false division between myself and the world: I do not need to act on behalf of “nature” or to “save the world” when I am answerable to all my relations. We constitute each other and in this way they are part of me as I am of them. While this may seem to make sustainability science and research less ambitious or heroic, it also makes sustainability less abstract and immediately relevant to local contexts because it implies something different depending on the personal and collective circumstances in which one inquires about what it means. As a question of meaning, it will be necessary to inquire about what a true or right relationship means and Dark Mountain has a lot to offer for this kind of inquiry because many participants are actively searching for and creating a new vocabulary which can hold the personal and collective quandaries that arise from living in an age characterised by overconsumption, climate change and species extinction.

The inquiries I have become involved with in my conversations with mountaineers have generated a compass of evolving perceptual and conceptual tools with which to navigate my own lifeworld. Some have proved invaluable while others in hindsight were less relevant. I think such creative mapping or indexing is invaluable for making sustain- ability an expression of right relationship – it is necessary for grounding the processes of re-imagining and embodying in the personal lifeworld. It is also required for ‘doing the hard work’ and avoiding simply generating abstract recipes which can be evangelised to other seekers. These vocabularies “must be the kind sketched in the dust with a stick, washed away by the next rain” as the Dark Mountain manifesto puts it. Held lightly and not pressed for answers, the poetics of inhumanism presents a space for the imagination where the otherness of all our relations can emerge and re-orient the settings, plots and vocabularies that guide the course of life.

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The familiar open, flat landscape of Jutland is now rushing past outside my train window. Spring has come later here and the green colours are lighter, almost translucent. I left this country when I was seventeen. Back then I dismissed this domesticated landscape as uninteresting and empty. It took me many years of coming back here to appreciate the finer shades it contains and I am still learning. Much of it is an agricultural wasteland, the ancient forest that once covered this peninsula all but gone. It was cleared for husbandry and used to build the fleet that made Denmark a major seafaring power until it was sacked and stolen by the English in 1807 during the Napoleonic wars. Generations of peasants worked to make the poor soils of Jutland yield, an effort which eventually paid off with the introduction of petrochemicals that made it profitable to grow the wheat, barley, rape and maize that now dominate the landscape. With each generation a small part of the past was forgotten as the changes they lived through became the new normal. It is easy to ignore that the landscape I grew up with is – ecologically speaking – an impoverished version of the past. I sometimes wonder what this country will look like in a hundred years. What will someone like me then see journeying across this land? Will there be trains to journey on? It is a thought which takes me on a tour of some of the things that trains imply: the industrial society that produces them, the places and people they connect, the ways of life they express and the modes of time they embody. Trains are one of the hallmark symbols of modernity. They represent the domestication and harnessing of the wild landscape, the co-ordination and subjugation of local time differences and the drive towards speed and efficiency which characterise industrialised societies. And still I would prefer not to be without them now that they are here.

Over the centuries-long formation of the meta-narrative of time and history as progress, linear storylines have become embedded in our institutions, our technologies and our ways of thinking. In the same way the invention of the steam engine, clockworks and linear schemata ushered in a revolution in means of production and the material world, it altered profoundly the way we think about and see the world. And it gradually led to an extreme de-valuing of the past in favour of the future and the forgetting of our connection with all our relations. It is a mistake to treat ‘environmental problems’ as primarily a material reality: they have deeper roots inside a worldview that leads us to reproduce the social patterns and material circumstances that created pollution, waste and other externalities in the first place. While shifting worldview requires patience and practice to overcome the acculturated blindness to the otherness of the world, my feeling is that in the long run this will be more effective than technical solutions in creating a desirable future. But changing worldview cannot happen in a flash, it is the slow process of working from the margins towards the centre. It is our longest journey and it begins by creating our own maps and tools with whatever we have at hand. I recall Dougie’s tongue-in-cheek question from last year when I was living in the summerhouse: what was it you did there? What will people say of this time and of Dark Mountain fifty years from now?

Here, approaching my destination, I remember hearing a choir of owls, foxes, whales, howler monkeys and (stinking) kippers in the forest and it appears to me that we have broken open our stories, our ways of telling and inter- preting. As a movement in the social imaginary – rather than of people trying to ‘change the world’ – Dark Mountain has opened a door for wildness and untamed otherness to slip back into the lifeworld, offered a way of being which makes it possible to flourish even in the shadow of the enormity. It allows us to embrace and align with our wider relations without requiring us to blow up civilisation in a battle that can never be won. By retreating to the mountains and reorienting our compass it has become possible to dispel the pull on attention which the enormity exercises on us, to decide to focus our awareness on the dark spots on our maps, on the absences wherefrom new things can grow. Journeying in this range shows that ‘civilisation’ is only one name among many for a pervasive logic which divides the world without anchoring complexity in the greater movement of which we all are part. At the edge, hearing the faint voices beneath the clamour of engines, it is possible to perceive the soundscape of a world which does not need us to do anything but to listen and to live our questions now.

Big Agnes Ascent

In the film studio the apparatus has penetrated so deeply into reality that a pure view of that reality, free of the foreign body of the apparatus, is the result of a technological procedure peculiar to it — namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the assembly of that shot with others of the same kind. The apparatus-free aspect of reality has become artifice, and the vision of unmediated reality the Blue Flower in the land of technology.
– Walter Benjamin, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936
It is not news that we spend more and more time with our devices, which are more and more capable of delivering high-resolution, hyperreal moving images to our eyes in a continuous, unending stream.

Most of these moving images show us an intensely artificial, constructed, manipulated reality, and though we pride ourselves on our sophistication in knowing what goes on ‘behind the scenes’, much of that very knowledge is provided in the same, controlled manner.

I am one of a number of experimental filmmakers around the world working with old photographic processes and primitive tools. This particular film, ‘Big Agnes Ascent’, was made with a hand-made, hand-cranking 16mm pinhole camera in the mountains of Colorado, developed in photo chemistry warmed by a fire, high on the mountain on a moonless night. Electricity didn’t come into the process until I had a digital scan of the footage made, so I could share it more broadly — it’s not that I’m anti-internet or anti-technology by any means.

My interest in these primitive techniques is not about kitsch or nostalgia — it’s a way to explore the nature of the moving image itself, how the eye constructs movement from distinct frames. How our brains fill in the gaps, smudges and scratches to make meaning out of indistinct, faint, flickering shapes and textures. This film is part of an ongoing effort to rediscover the fundamental illusion of motion and the basic alchemy of the captured image, as a way to reflect upon the very seamlessness of the media product we consume as part of our daily interaction with the modern world.

To see more of my work, visit www.videohaiku.com. If you’re interested in developing film on a mountainside by starlight, check out www.handmadefilm.org.

Reading the Ashes, part four

This is the fourth and final installment in a series of four blogs about Dark Mountain’s newly released compilation album, ‘Reading the Ashes‘.

Last week we released the album as a digital download only on bandcamp. In the first blog I described the reasons for another musical angle of the Dark Mountain Project. In this final installment, we celebrate the following three artists that feature on the compilation, Evi Vine, Joe Wilkes, and brazenly, myself, Marmaduke Dando. To download and listen to the full compilation album, please go here: Reading the Ashes

Marmaduke


Evi Vine

Evi Vine

Evi Vine

Evi Vine is a singer and songwriter from London inspired by a deep connection and love of the natural world. Together with Steven Hill her musical partner, they create a unique and uncompromising reverential atmosphere.

Their second album ‘GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE HAWKS’ has recently been released, which was co-produced with Richard Formby & mixed by Phill Brown. Hiding out in the woodlands of greater Berlin, reading Robinson Jeffers, Henry David Thoreau & The Dark Mountain Manifesto, they found the soul food for this album. Their track ‘My Hands Are Tied’ comes from this album.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to their music, Evi said:

“It can be overwhelming to see such terrible things happening in the world, with the knowledge comes a burden in the way a journalist will need to document accounts for us to read in the daily news, sometimes its beyond words so artists, musicians, writers come together and build a relationship with their audience, without alienating, but to pass on something vital thought provoking. The protest song has a history in these dark days and has been so necessary it has long inspired change and kept hope alive for those without a voice. Victor Jara for example, has always been a huge inspiration to me, the voice of one who spoke out, for so many. A message that has the power to travel in the form of song is forever.”

When asked about their song ‘My Hands Are Tied’ on the compilation, Evi said:

“[It] starts with the line ‘We all start with a pure heart’. The idea that we are all connected runs though much of my writing, but who would we be if our histories could be altered, changed in any way, who we become at the end and the struggles in between. The pursuit to find the light and the goodness in ourselves and in a day even when we feel we are failing.”

To find out more about Evi Vine visit her website here:

http://www.evivine.com

Joe Wilkes

Joe Wilkes, photographed by Victor Alonso

Joe Wilkes, photographed by Victor Alonso

Joe Wilkes has finger picked his way across much of Europe with his storytelling anarchist croon. Sweetly reminiscent of early Tom Waits, but with a more familiar tone, Joe is originally from Coventry but now resides in Deptford, London. Along the way Joe’s played with Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Dick Gaughan, Leon Rosselson as well as the poet / playwright Harold Pinter.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to his music, Joe said:

“It is natural for civilisations to come and go and we are perilously dishonest about this fact. Although I’m deeply sympathetic with that dishonesty, it seems a very good thing that an artistic project shine a light on this, much like it’s a good thing when a friend tells you, you are drinking too much especially in the morning. Reclaiming storytelling as something deeper than entertainment (or simply redefining entertainment) is also a relevant idea that I fully support in our late capitalist epoch.

“Today in our society collectively, culturally we have ceased to believe in the validity of the message in art or politics or indeed anything. It’s not that we have considered all Ideologies and dispensed with them wisely. We simply don’t believe in anything and we don’t believe in anything because of our ignorance not our experience. We don’t even really believe in corporate capitalism or only a tiny minority of us do. Any message in art that doesn’t address this is naive and naive messages particularly in pop music are part of what has encouraged disillusionment and apathy about meaning and rendered political pop songs or meaningful popular folk songs obsolete.

“In terms of having a meaning our society is a joke and often a sick one. It better serves the public for a songwriter to write good musical hedonistic songs devoid of meaning than to work on something which is ostensibly pro feminist, class conscious, anti war, awareness raising, whatever.
Failure to address the fact that we live in a society where a song, poem or film with an intended meaning will be co-opted and emasculated by current cultural and political values fails to look in the mirror, fails to live in the here and now as opposed to the 1930’s or the sixties. In other words the value of a message has little to do with the actual art and everything to do with the organisation of ordinary people, political praxis, direct action etc. The message and meaning are secondary, the context and time are primary.”

When asked about his song ‘Here on this Frontline’ on the compilation, Joe said:

“Here On This Frontline is a sort of collage of snippets as opposed to a story. Sometimes I remember the verses in the wrong order on stage and it still seems to work. The first verse is about the Spanish Revolution ‘In 1936 …etc’ The following verses name check subsequent revolutions such a Vietnam and preceding ones such as the French revolution as well as name checking French resistance leader Jean Moulin. There is no message per se or judgement about Ho Chi Minh or anything like that. It sounded cool for me to write about my interests in history. One reviewer wrote: ‘The great beauty of Here On This Frontline is encapsulated perfectly by the title track, which paints an exotic musical backdrop in front of which is played a poignant love song, born out of tragedy’ that sounds good, so I’ll go along with that. At the end of the song there is a reference to 9/11, which states that ‘the dust from your fall will rise higher than you ever did’, I guess this an end of empire sort of message. If there is one hidden in there. That might be my Dark Mountain moment.”

To find out more about Joe, please visit his website here:

http://www.joewilkes.co.uk

Marmaduke Dando

Marmaduke Dando

Marmaduke Dando

Brazen that I chose one of my own songs to feature on this compilation? Perhaps, but then again why not. After all, the Dark Mountain Project has been significant in my life for nurturing the quest for more truth. This is starkly reflected in the third album I’m currently working on, tipped to be titled, ‘Where the Wasteland Ends’, after the Theodore Roszak book of the same name.

Here’s a little description I use to introduce my music which may help if you’re not yet acquainted.

“Marmaduke Dando is the bard of disempire, a crooner of morose ballads and fiery diatribes, often eliciting references to The Bad Seeds, Roxy Music, and Scott Walker. He writes about the horrors of the modern world, and barks back at it in iniquitous dives with his 5 piece organ-fuelled band. Originally from Portsmouth and of genuine pirate ancestry, he is now based in London and living amongst the bargee community. Of his music, Steve Lamacq, BBC6 Music, has said it’s ‘…distinctively haunting…’, and Charlie Ashcroft, Artrocker, like ‘…poetry in motion…’. His songs have been set to films, woven into a seminal Secret Cinema event, and played in the Houses of Parliament.”

I’ve probably answered most of the questions I’ve posed the other artists, so let me just tell you about the song of mine I’ve included on the compilation.

Angles started off as a jam in the practice room with my band. I asked my drummer to start something off, anything that came into his head. He remembered a rhythm he heard a school boy on the bus tapping out a few days before that seemed to him as particularly uncommon. What you hear on the track is what he tried to recreate from memory. The rest of the band naturally fell on to E major…probably years of me conditioning them with songs in the key of E major! For a few years, we had no words to this piece of music. It was a hell of an exhilarating ride to play as it was, but we all thought it needed a voice for it to really make a mark. After dodging the bullet of actually having to write words to a piece of music I hadn’t strained out in my bedroom alone (the usual way), eventually I remembered a poem by Paul Kingsnorth out of his Kidland anthology. It had struck me when I’d first read it as a fiery sermon, a history lesson, the sort of thing that would scare the shit out of you had you had this bellowed at you in the run up to your GCSEs. And so, after a few tweaks, I bellowed it out over the jam and everything fell into place.

The original author may have a different take on the meaning of the words of course, but for me they seemed to chart so precisely the moves of enclosure over the last two millennia, in England as the example, but over the world in general. The half a century bit towards the end of the song hit the nail on the head. My interpretation of this is that despite the illusion of taming the forces of enclosure/civilisation/colonialism through education and democracy in recent history, all that has happened is that those forces have simply out maneuvered us by morphing into the institutions that deliver those hard fought wins. Leaving us essentially, in as much bondage as when the first king became king, despite a notion of progress. And so the song ends with the ring of incredulity, “You have bought the universities?!”.

If you’d like to find out more about my music, please visit my website here:
www.marmadukedando.com

My last album, ‘Sweet Dregs’, is available at the Dark Mountain shop.


As this blog brings us to the end of the series about the Reading the Ashes album, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in bringing it to fruition. Particularly to the musicians for donating their uncivilised music to this beautiful collection. I’d also like to thank Dougie Strang for lending his photograph of his tein eigin ritual to use for the artwork. And also to Andy Garside who added his sprinkling of magic to the artwork with his graphic design skills. Check Andy out here if you have the time, http://www.andygarside.com/

Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy Reading the Ashes.

Marmaduke Dando

Reading the Ashes, part three

This is the third instalment in a series of four blogs about Dark Mountain’s newly released compilation album, ‘Reading the Ashes‘.

Last week we released the album as a digital download only on bandcamp. In the first blog I described the reasons for another musical angle of the Dark Mountain Project. In this third instalment, we celebrate the following three artists that feature on the compilation, Young Hunter, Angela Faye Martin, and Billy Bottle and the Multiple.

To download and listen to the full compilation album, please go here: Reading the Ashes

Marmaduke


Young Hunter

Young Hunter

Young Hunter

Young Hunter is the doom metal stoner rock brain child of Benjamin Blake.
Originally from Tucson, Arizona, Benjamin started the band there in the desert. He has since moved to Portland, Oregon and started the band from scratch. The band’s e.p. ‘Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain’  is available on cassette in the Dark Mountain shop.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to their music,  Ben said:

“We try to channel primal energies through our music, both harsh intensity and alluring beauty. Our songs are about the land we live on – first when the band was based in Tucson, then now in the Pacific Northwest – and the relationship between humans and the earth, both our modern civilization and those who were here before. The myths of our culture put us at odds with the wild, with nature, and ultimately ourselves, and this self-imposed exile seems to be leading to a major collapse. We explore those underlying myths and potential futures, as well as the way that the earth is ever calling us back to itself, waiting for us to wake up, individually and collectively.”

When asked about their song ‘Dreamer’ on the compilation, Ben said:

“This song is on one hand about the inherent violence of existing in the physical world – in the sense that we are unable to escape the fact that by being alive, we necessarily will destroy other beings and forms, as part of the cycle of destruction and creation. On the other hand, this song is about how the current situation on planet Earth is taking that to an extreme – we are at the risk of wiping out ourselves and doing great damage to the web of life which has gifted us our lives. And it is also about the cognitive dissonance between humans and our larger actions, and the importance that we all wake up to the present moment. Like, right now.”

To find out more about Young Hunter visit their website here:

https://younghunter.bandcamp.com/

Angela Faye Martin

Angela Faye Martin

Angela Faye Martin

From deep in the mountains of North Carolina, Angela-Faye Martin has been recording her rare breed of alternative folk music. In 2012 she released the album Anniversary from where this track comes from. This follows her acclaimed 2009 album Pictures from Home, produced by the late Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse. Both of these albums are available in the Dark Mountain shop.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to their music,  Angela said:

“Years ago, I read an essay by Wendell Berry, in Harpers Magazine, that convinced me that art had much to contribute to the greatest problems of our species. The gist being that artists understand limits. The problem is that most of the decisions that affect the planet take place in boardrooms, one of the least likely places you’ll find a sculptor, poet, songwriter and so forth. But to me, Dark Mountain is a refugium where life and art intersect in ways that are relevant to those who grieve, grapple and perhaps reject mainstream paradigms and the way art is consumed. When I make a song, it becomes a cave painting of what I see in my rural landscape and at once puts me in touch with my most primitive self because I don’t approach it systematically. It’s similar to looking next to a star, so that you can see the star. Peripheral vision and peripheral geography are my modes, I’m finding. Dark Mountain allows me to feel at home without making the scene, where you typically encounter music. My scene is the periphery.”

When asked about her song ‘Ravens at Night’ on the compilation, Angela said:

“Ravens at Night scolds. It refers to a few simultaneous but congruous notions and events. A raven sighting is rare at my home but ravens at night are extremely rare and only in the event of extreme hunger, from what I understand. But I liked to think that this raven visitation was my late friend, Mark Linkous. Also, I’d just climbed the big mountain behind where he lived and had just watched the documentary film, Ghost Bird, which filled my heart with outrage for the destruction of Ivory Billed woodpecker habitat in my southern US, for the construction of sewing machine cabinets. Sewing machines are one of those loaded subconscious images that come up often for me. ”

To find out more about Angela, please visit her website here:

http://angelafaye.com/

Billy Bottle and the Multiple

Billy Bottle and The Multiple

Billy Bottle and The Multiple

Burrowing in the depths of Devon, England,  Billy Bottle ran away from the circus to work with Canterbury organ figurehead, Caravan’s Dave Sinclair. Pianist for Mike Westbrook’s Big Band, Billy blends a hint of Canterbury-scene with jazz and folk. His recent album with The Multiple is a Thoreau inspired epic that connotes nostalgia and whimsy, whilst pushing the experimental/free improvisational boundaries. In a strange twist of fate, Billy and Martine from the band have recently appeared on the reality television show, The Voice. Their Waldenesque album, ‘Unrecorded Beam’, is available at the Dark Mountain shop.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to their music,  Billy from the band said:

“Believing that people are live metaphor, music is a means to explore the natural narratives of the earth. Ancient and futuristic, the nature of alchemy is such that we can only dance this story together.”

When asked about their song ‘O Nature’ on the compilation, Billy said:

“O Nature was our collaboration with the dead poet, Thoreau. His ideas are still very much alive in the ecology movement but the intention of our chorus was to describe a yearning for the earth and a less andro-centric experience of reality. In a sense this is a call for humility but also grieves what was lost.”

Billy Bottle and The Multiple release their new single La Belle Époque today. To find out more about the band, please visit their website here:

http://www.billybottle.co.uk/

Reading the Ashes, part two

This is the second installment in a series of four blogs about Dark Mountain’s newly released compilation album, ‘Reading the Ashes‘. Out fresh just this Monday past, I described the reasons for another musical angle of the project on the first blog. In short, as a musician myself, it has seemed to me that music and song are often some of the most prominent forms of storytelling. And so it felt pressing to bring together a collection of musical artists and their songs, inspired in some way by Dark Mountain themes.

In this second installment, I bring to you the following three artists that feature on the compilation, Telling the Bees, Tom Maringer, and Dougie Strang.

To download and listen to the full compilation album, please go here: Reading the Ashes

Marmaduke


Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees

Taking their inspiration from folklore, landscape, psychedelia, paganism, and the politics of protest, Telling the Bees mix driving songs and tune-sets with haunting ballads. Intelligent lyrics, exotic rhythms and modes, and instruments as varied as fiddle, mandolin, cello, double bass, concertina, stomp box and English bagpipes are brought together in skilful arrangements, wild at times, gentle at others. They met in 2007 at Oxford’s legendary Catweazle Club, and have released two acclaimed albums, Untie the Wind and An English Arcanum. Their new album, Steer by the Stars, is due for release on may day 2015.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to their music,  Andy Letcher from the band said:

“I’ve been involved in green, alternative, festival, eco-protest movements all my adult life so it’s inevitable that that comes through in my music. And I’m instinctively drawn to the older, folk, drone-based musics of the world. Perhaps that reflects a yearning for something ancient, something that’s been lost.”

When asked about their song ‘Lyra’ on the compilation, Andy said:

“The Lyra of the title has nothing to do with Philip Pullman! I was noodling on a recorder, sat in the stairwell of the house where I was living in Frome, and I started thinking about the constellation Lyra and the ring nebula. The tune just popped out in that rather mysterious way that they do. The epic string arrangement belies its rather mundane origins!”

Find out more about Telling the Bees at their website here: http://tellingthebees.co.uk/

Tom Maringer

tom-maringer

Tom Maringer

Tom Maringer likes to call himself a comprehensivist in the style of Buckminster Fuller and after the writings of Robert Heinlein. He has degrees in geology and geography, has worked in mineral exploration, cartography, writing, teaching, music, media services, and currently owns a business dedicated to the production of fantasy coinage from fictional or mythical worlds. His novel, ‘A Superior State of Affairs’, deals with the social repercussions of an academic discovery of time-travel, with the fundamental problem of time lying at the root of most of his efforts. Tom was an avid climber and caver back in the day, though in his 60s now has a higher aversion to risk. He still likes to get out in the wilderness whenever possible.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to his music,  Tom said:

Art and fiction can bend the fabric and time and space to engage with might-have-beens and future possibilities such that we can immerse in those ideas and experience the emotional impact of them. It’s one thing to imagine the world descending into an environmental catastrophe and calculating numbers of dead… it is quite another to immerse in a story of an individual living through that catastrophe. Thje intellectual grasp of FACTS alone will not get people to change the business-as-usual manner of doing things. It will require the absorption of TRUTHS about the nature of time and space and perceivable reality. Only then can ideas be translated into actions.”

When asked about his song ‘Otterhead’ on the compilation, Tom said:

“It is not a song that I intended to write, and indeed I found myself fighting against it at first. I was like: No No! I can’t write that! I want to write a happy song! But the song wrote itself as it were. I woke up from a deep sleep on the eve of Dec 22, 2012… from a dream in which someone is singing this song in my face and demanding that I write it down and remember it. There is a subtext to the song… scenery and images that flicker behind it. I have come to interpret it as a message from the far future… a warning to us in this time… not to let things get too far out of balance. The melody is very simple… like a nursery rhyme, easy to remember and easy for children to sing. And the message is also very simple, if profound. It tells us that if the sea-otters are lost, then the catastrophe is irredeemable. The corrolary is that if we can keep the sea-otters, then whatever else is wrong can be fixed with time. I should tell you that, when I wrote this song I knew nothing about sea-otters… other than a few cutesy photos. I live a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. I’ve never even seen an otter! So this bizarre song erupting into my life caused me to start researching… and to find that the sea-otters are considered a keystone species of coastal ecosystems. That tended to encourage me that perhaps there was something to this thing… this message that I have been asked to pass along. To all who enjoy this, pass it on: “Aint no good if they all gone away, there’s gotta be otters bobbin’ in the bay”.

To find out more about Tom visit his website here: http://www.shirepost.com/wp/mint-master-tom/

Dougie Strang

Dougie Strang

Dougie Strang

Dougie Strang is a Scottish artist and performer drawn to making things that are mostly out of doors, collaborative and participative. Particularly interested in exploring the subtle and not so subtle gaps between human and animal, Dougie makes art that tries to bridge those gaps. Dougie has an MA in Scottish Ethnology from Edinburgh University, where he studied folklore, folk art, and traditional cosmology, all of which continues to inform his work.

The artwork for this album came from one of Dougie’s photographs, called tein eigin/need fire. Here he is explaining his work:

“The tein eigin or need fire was lit as part of a protective and restorative ritual, enacted during times of calamity or illness amongst people and/or livestock. It’s recorded as having still been in use in remote communities in the Scottish Highlands up until the end of the 19th century – almost within living memory – though evidence suggests its use was once widespread throughout Great Britain. It represents a continuity of ritual practice stretching back to the Mesolithic and to the peoples who first inhabited these isles. My instillation/performance is a gesture towards that continuity, though it also takes its own form: the tein eigin was specifically a fire ritual, whereas my piece, by including a burial, highlights its relationship to wider themes of death and regeneration. I’m learning, slowly, to simply make the thing that wants to be made.

“For the piece to have integrity, I knew I’d have to bury myself rather than use a sculpted figure or photo-shop the images. Any sense of artifice was quickly erased by the earth being shovelled on top of me. I struggled with claustrophobia and a growing panic – the need to push my way out – despite being covered by only a couple of inches of soil. Earlier, whilst excavating the burial hole in a randomly chosen clearing in a wood in Galloway, I found bones, old bones, laid deep – the skeletal remains of more than one animal – along with fragments of charcoal. My world-view, the one that comes as standard issue when born into a culture that insists on rationality and empiricism, is increasingly challenged by such ‘coincidences’.”

To find out more about Dougie visit his website here: https://dougiestrang.wordpress.com/

Reading the Ashes

“I WILL read ashes for you, if you ask me.
I will look in the fire and tell you from the gray lashes
And out of the red and black tongues and stripes,
I will tell how fire comes
And how fire runs far as the sea.”

Carl Sandburg, 1922

And so it comes again, the time for Dark Mountain to break out of the literary mould and give a platform to a different form of creative expression. For as long as I’ve been aware and involved with the Dark Mountain Project, with its aims to give little heard counter narratives a platform (an exquisite one at that), I’ve thought, “why should it stop at the printed page?”. And indeed, much of my involvement with the project over the years has been in bringing out the musical side of things, what with arranging the powered down music programme at the late Uncivilisation festivals and most recently producing the first Dark Mountain compilation record, From the Mourning of the World. That was released with much fanfare in 2013 and is still available on vinyl and to download.

With the Uncivilisation festival having been retired back in 2013, and given some time to reflect, it has seemed to me to be a shame that music hasn’t had much focus in the interim. However, with Dark Mountain’s growing following, more and more musicians are becoming aware of the project and finding resonance. Many have made contact to express their intrigue, gratitude, and or relief in finding such a refuge. Consequently, it seemed only right that Dark Mountain listen to these artist’s works and try to bring them to its audience and beyond if possible.

So I’ve put together a second Dark Mountain compilation record for your listening pleasure. This time however it will be a download only. Perhaps a little ironic that it gets released using digital means, something which is often the subject of ridicule and repulsion in those counter narratives. But there are many contradictions we are forced to accept if we are ever to do anything worthwhile, especially if it involves the general public. Though the last record we made is out on vinyl, the production costs of such a format are prohibitively huge. A fairly successful crowdfunding campaign helped bring the project to fruition, but that’s not something we feel we can repeat this time round. And so download only it is, and maybe that’s appropriate after all, depending on how you look at these things. Ethereal, virtual, intangible.

This record is called ‘Reading the Ashes’, inspired by the 1922 Carl Sandburg poem printed above. It features 10 songs from a rag tag of artists in different far flung corners of the globe. The artwork is by the artist Dougie Strang who buried himself in the forest for the tein eigin that was photographed. Over the next few blogs I will be introducing you to the artists that contributed to this new record, including more on the artwork. For now, I will leave you with this collection of songs to download and listen to, along with the first set of introductions.

To download and listen to the full compilation album, please go here: Reading the Ashes

I hope you enjoy these beauties.

Marmaduke


Mae Karthauser

Mae Karthauser

Mae Karthauser

Mae Karthauser from The Midnight Fairground writes sombre circus-esque songs that tell vivid stories of wayward characters both human and animal. Her eccentric humour and acrobatic voice combine to produce the sublime ‘Georgia and the Tiger’ that feature’s below. Mae currently resides near Totnes, in a caravan with her cats and friesian cattle on a hill-top farm.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to her music, Mae has said:

“Ive always identified with oddballs. With those characters on the periphery who so many are afraid of because their behaviour is challenging, their ideas are complex and their eccentricities clatter loudly behind them like tin cans on a line of string. I came from a family of these people and had the sense my whole childhood that other people wanted to tidy us up, make us more easily understandable or move us out of their way. In fact, that’s what I wanted most of all and it was no secret. Everyone wants to fit in when they are young. Everyone wants to go undetected.

“My songs often draw on these “inconvenient” and complex characters or groups which I observe everywhere, the secret alcoholic, that “Dr Jekyll, Dr Hyde”, the homeless, the gypsy. I want to know about the human and the story. To discover a perspective that may reveal the human behind the behaviour, and take some of the power away from the label which is so often where the enquiry stops. Through my music I seek to reveal the stories of those that we are afraid to ask questions about.”

When asked about her song ‘Georgia and the Tiger’ on the compilation:

“This song is based on an experience I had whilst working in a Special Educational Needs (SEN) School where I encountered a sweet eight year old girl who won my heart with her gentle grinning and giggling and chirpy chitter chatter, until the moment that something flipped; she lost all control, upturning a table whilst roaring with anger, throwing a box of colouring pens flying across the room like five hundred arrows into the faces of a dozen bewildered primary children. The alarm was raised. We all evacuated. She was restrained. I never knew what had happened.”

Find out more about Mae at her website here: http://www.themidnightfairground.co.uk

Slight Birching

slightbirching

Slight Birching

Slight Birching, also known as Sean Travis Ramsay, is a synth tinged lo-fi folk artist based in Vancouver Island, Canada. His last album, ‘Cultural Envelope’, addresses humanity’s obsession with complex systems and beliefs and how they tragically disconnect us from nature.

When asked how Dark Mountain relates to his music, Sean has said:

“My most recent projects have focused on the un-naturing of nature via human augmentation and interference and, more specifically, our innate desire to shield ourselves from nature’s effects through what Northrop Frye calls ‘cultural envelopes.’ But these types of acts are nothing new. Humans have been changing the earth to suit their needs since, well, for as long as there have been human beings, modern or otherwise. The Dark Mountain project relates to what I am doing with my music because my work strives to point out the intricate — and almost absurd — tightrope that we humans balance ourselves on as part of the biosphere in our quest for meaningful existences.”

When asked about his song ‘Knowledge Drifts’ on the compilation:

“Knowledge Drifts is about the ephemeral, seemingly pointless, endeavours we undertake to establish some sort of permanence on a planet that operates in cycles that give and take just as easily and coolly as you or I takes a breath. More specifically, it’s about an art deco staircase that leads into the ocean on Dallas Road in Victoria, BC, Canada.”

Find out more about Slight Birching at his website here:  http://strchives.bandcamp.com

Uncivilisation Republished

DMIt’s early in the morning and, in between the tasks that get the day started, I have been reading snatches of the news from Greece. Hopeful news, for once, though who can say how much of that hope will survive the collision with financial and political institutions that must follow? We’ll take whatever snatches of hope we can, these days.

The reading sets me thinking back, six years now, to the time when we were writing the Dark Mountain manifesto, the new edition of which is published today. The text came together over a period of six months between the summer of 2008 and the early weeks of 2009. It was the autumn Lehman Bros went under: the panic of powerful men was visible on the TV screens, even as they continued to insist that all of this was under control.

If the manifesto travelled further than Paul or I could have guessed when we wrote it, one reason is that it has helped people find their bearings in a world where the ongoing crisis is no longer a far-off consequence of systems in which we participate, but a visible unravelling of those systems that comes close to most of our homes. The crisis through which we are living – economic, social, political, ecological – plays out on a timescale that intersects only intermittently with the attention span of the news industry, the statistical representation of the economic cycle, or the day-to-day rhythms of getting on with life. People look for larger frames within which they might be able to make sense of what they see around them. This manifesto has offered one such frame.

It is not a political manifesto, a plan of action, a platform for government or for revolution. In the early days, when we were still working out how to explain what we were doing, someone asked me if Dark Mountain was a political project. ‘I think there may be times when it is necessary to withdraw from today’s politics,’ I wrote, ‘in order to do the thinking that could make it possible for there to be a politics the day after tomorrow.’ Not that any of us can sustain the detachment this suggests, not consistently. None of us spend all our time up on the mountain, but the perspective we get there may change what we do when we return to today’s tasks.

The manifesto was not a definitive statement, but a first attempt to articulate the perspective we had begun to find. What did that consist of? Here are some of the elements that I recognise now, as I reread it.

A sense of the precariousness of most of what we have grown up taking for granted. (Who is the “we”, here? The manifesto was written by two white men, both English, both ex-journalists, Oxford graduates, bookish and middle class. It continues to amaze me how many people with lives quite different to ours have recognised something of their own experience in what we wrote.)

A sense of the depth of the mess – social, economic, political, ecological – in which we find ourselves. (Here the “we” is broader.) Also, a sense that there is something powerful about naming this and looking hard at it, rather than trying to avoid it, or rushing immediately to the language of solutions, answers and action.

A suggestion that the depth of the mess in which we find ourselves has been obscured by the stories that we have been telling ourselves – about history, about the world and our place within it – and that these stories have played a greater role than is often acknowledged in how we got into this mess. The manifesto names two of these, in particular: the myth of progress and the myth of human separation from nature.

Another suggestion – that the power of myths cuts both ways. That humans live by stories, that the idea that we outgrew the need for myths is itself a myth, more dangerous for not knowing itself to be one. In this light, the problem with the myth of progress or the myth of human separation is not that they are myths, but that they are bad myths, or at least myths that are badly out of joint with the situation in which we find ourselves. They are maps that probably never fitted the territory as well as we thought, but that have now become actively dangerous.

Out of this grows a project, sketched only loosely in the manifesto, but based on the suggestion that culture has a role to play in this mess in which we find ourselves – a role that goes beyond the invitation to help get the message out, to enlist as a sophisticated extension of the communications department of campaigning organisations. How good or bad a job we make of living through the times ahead will have a lot to do with whether we find other myths by which to steer. These are unlikely to be found by any systematic process, but they are likely to come from the margins, from those who are already living with one foot in the unknown world ahead and from those who have kept alive the supposedly obsolete.

That is one route through the manifesto, not the only one that can be taken. To summarise it in this way is to be reminded that there is much here that had been said before, in other contexts. Even as we wrote, others were arriving at similar thoughts from different directions. What we did was to assemble it as it looked from where stood, during those months as 2008 rolled into 2009.

It is not common for a self-published twenty-page manifesto to be given a two-page lead review in the New Statesman, and rarer still for it to start a movement which the New York Times can introduce to its readers as “changing the environmental debate in Britain and the rest of Europe.” These are two of the more official markers of what happened next. The reactions were so intense and so contrasting that it feels now as though the lines of argument running through it are also the contours of a dark shape, an inkblot shape in which readers find reflections of their own fears and hopes.

The text of the manifesto has always been available on our website, but last year we sold out of the fourth edition of the hand-stitched pamphlet in which it was originally published. After some discussion with our friends at Bracketpress, we decided that rather than wear out their hands with a larger print run, it was time to republish it as a paperback. This also allowed room for a new essay, introducing the manifesto and reflecting on the process by which it came about.

Six years have passed, six years further into this unfinished crisis. If you were to ask either of us now whether we stand by what we wrote, what would be our answer? As I put it at the end of the new introduction:

We stand by it, not as a stockade to be defended, but as a first attempt to say something, to work out how to say something, the fuller significance of which we are still discovering in the company of a growing gang of friends and collaborators, most of whom would never have met if we hadn’t been brave enough, or foolish enough, to commit these words to print.

The new paperback edition of the Dark Mountain manifesto is available here.

The Eumenides

In the morning, flocks of children take to the air. They jostle, they elbow for position. Occasionally one throws another to the ground. Children stacked like sardines in the air, as dawn spreads forth its first tentative probes of pink. The sky is black with them.

Below, the Eumenides crunch across the frost on their way to work. They rub the sleep out of their eyes. Their breath condenses before them, and they pull on their gloves. The metal will be cold on their hands.

These four are the first shift. They take their places at the guns, and start to aim.

No ear protection. The Eumenides are deaf to all appeal. Suddenly the air shatters with a cacophony that will last the rest of the day, and from the air, the children start to fall.

Even miles away, on the Island, the Virgin could hear the guns. Like the baboons, she paid them no heed. She was too far away to see the falling bodies. She didn’t care about them.

How do you think she got to the Island in the first place? She was a fallen body too. She just happened to have lived.

baboons_swimmingThe Virgin played war games while the apes made origami. They roasted banana and fish on the beach. The sun was warm, the food was plentiful, and the sound of the guns was far away.

And then one day, the apes ran out of typing paper. A great wail went up from the island, and the animals cried real tears. There would be no more origami.

Weeks passed. Suddenly idle, the baboons had no idea what to do with themselves. They fought. They stole. Some smoothed out old pieces of origami, someone else’s origami, any scrap of paper they could find, tried to fold it anew, but inevitably another would be looking on, enviously.

Paper. They had a lust for paper.

More often than not, two apes would engage in a tug of war and each would be left with a shred.

The origami got smaller and smaller. Tinier and tinier shreds of paper.

And finally, not even shreds.

And then the first murder.

The Virgin did not do origami. She did not understand the passion for folding. But she knew that peace on the island was over.

Someone would have to get more typing paper.

*

The Island was a beautiful place. White sand beaches and palm fronds swaying in the breeze. Hot sun, blue sky and blue water. In the distance, where the sea met the sky, the horizon blurred. Water became air and air became water, and all was in consonance in the world. It was as though from the Island you could see Eternity.

It was nothing like the Mainland. It was nowhere near the Mainland.

And although she had left as a child, she still knew, the Mainland was the only place you could get something that had been manufactured, something that had been man‐made. How to get back?

The Virgin had arrived by air, so she tried to return by air. She tried a hop, a leap, a running jump. No way to launch; every time she went up she came straight back down. How long had it been? Had it been years? She had forgotten how to fly. She would have to find another way.

The journey to the Island had taken no time at all. It was an Icarus fall, over in seconds. But that was air. The journey by sea – she had no idea what she was getting into.

The water was cold and rough. She didn’t realise how far she would have to swim. It seemed to take years. It seemed to take years off her life.

By the time she washed ashore, almost dead, she was an old woman. She lay in the dark shivering and waited for the sun.

She had crossed an ocean, she had crossed latitudes, but the ground she found was not a beach. It was a northern shore, rocky and covered with seaweed. A tan froufrou of foamy pollution edged the water, kissing the mussels. About a quarter of a mile away, she could see oil tanks. Flanked by an embankment, a narrow ribbon of sand traced the coast. Above that loomed the highway. Even at dawn, cars whizzed by.

The Gunner had been up all night. He had drunk until there was no more money and no more booze. He was happy. He was walking home along the beach.

He didn’t see her until he tripped over her, then the ground slammed his cheek. ‘Ow,’ he said, in delay.

She opened her eyes but said nothing. He was a young man, handsome, wearing the uniform of the Eumenides.

She remembered from way back. Even children know about the Eumenides. She remembered them on the street, with their guns. Even as a child, she noticed their beauty. The Eumenides stand tall and straight and proud, like ideal men. And they kill.

‘What you doing there, naked lady,’ he said. ‘You’re a pretty lady.’

She surmised she didn’t look as old as she felt. ‘I’m cold,’ she said. He puked and passed out beside her.

The sun rose in the sky. She didn’t get up because she didn’t have the strength. She needed food. She needed rest and warmth.

He awoke fresh as an athlete in training. ‘Hey look, it’s a girl,’ he said, having forgotten the night before. He nudged her. ‘Hey, girl, are you OK?’ She shook her head. ‘Can you get up?’ Again, the shake. He got to his feet, bent over and threw her over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to take you home.’

Home was a basement apartment with Masonite clapboards and broken steps to the front door. Dirty, drafty windows. He laid her on a flowered couch of astonishing ugliness and covered her with a granny‐square afghan. Grateful, she fell asleep.

He woke her with a bowl of ramen noodles and a peanut butter sandwich. He wasn’t eating; he had a beer. She consumed the food as though she hadn’t eaten in weeks and asked him if he had anything more.

He said, ‘Yeah, it is funny that I don’t have a TV but the truth is I put my foot through it when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, so I just watch at the bar now.’

She asked him if he knew where she could find typing paper.

He said, ‘Yeah, the uniform. I work as a gunner for the Eumenides. My old man was a gunner too, he always was pushing me to do this. I hate this work, it sucks.’

That was when she remembered that the Eumenides are deaf.

‘My old man,’ he said, ‘He was big on manhood. He always said, “The Eumenides, now that’s a job. You thin out the herd, pick off the weak. The Eumenides, you gotta be a hard man to do it. You can’t feel mercy. You gotta be a man.” My old man was an asshole.’

She realised she would have to ask someone else.

He offered her a beer but she turned it down. She pretended to have her mouth all stuck up and made the motions of a joke: beer doesn’t go with peanut butter.

He laughed. ‘Everything goes with beer.’

The next day he went to work, and she put on some of his clothes and went for a walk. Every person she met, she asked them where she could find typing paper. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing. She walked and walked.

Bodies lay haphazardly on the street and on the sidewalk. Occasionally one fell from the sky; she had to keep her eyes open. Some of them were dead but most were still alive.

On the sidewalk, a young woman of extraordinary beauty lay, crying.

The Virgin helped her up and saw that half her face, the side on which she had been laying, had been shot off. The woman said to her, ‘Now no one will love me. Why couldn’t I die?’ The Virgin had no answer.

Once she encountered a Eumenides walking his beat. He came upon a body that was still alive, shouting for help. He shot it in the head. She gasped and put her hands over her mouth. He shrugged his shoulders and explained, ‘Mercy.’

Another day, she went into a 7‐11 and asked the clerk, ‘Why does no one stop the Eumenides?’

The clerk said, ‘Stop them from what?’

She tried a different tack. She said, ‘Is there any way to help these people, all these bodies in the street? Is there any medicine?’

He laughed and said, ‘Oh no one can heal them. They have to heal themselves. Look.’ He showed her two little bald spots, one on both sides of his head. ‘Bullet went in one side and out the other. And look at me! I picked myself up, I’m right as rain. Just because someone shoots you down, it doesn’t mean you have to stay there.’

She wondered, ‘Are you brain‐damaged, or are you right?’

*

On the fifth day, she stumbled into a Staples. The clerk told her no one typed anymore so no one made typing paper anymore, but you could buy printer paper if you had the money. It occurred to her, she had been on the Island a long time. She asked him what money was and he got sarcastic. She asked him how one went about getting money and he laughed at her. ‘What do you think I’m wasting my life here for? You get a fucking job!’

She applied for waitress work. She applied for secretarial work. She applied for metermaid and mail carrier and barmaid. No one would hire her.

One day she stumbled into a zoo. She saw the baboons pacing behind bars, and tears came to her eyes. She grabbed a guard and pointed to the apes. ‘They need an occupation,’ she said, ‘or they will go mad. Get them some ty – printing paper.’ The guard made her leave the zoo.

But she came back, day after day. The baboons knew when to expect her, and they brightened up at her arrival. When she asked the warden if she could have work feeding the baboons, he agreed. She had a job. And she had a troupe of new friends. ‘When I get some money together,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll bust you out.’ She winked, and the baboons winked back.

swimming_with_baboonWithin a couple of weeks, she had bought her own clothes. She could have left the Gunner, but she stayed because she liked him.

‘I can spot them a mile away,’ the Gunner said, ‘all the hopefuls.’ He was playing inside with a soccer ball. He tossed it up with his instep, hooked it with the curve of his arm, coursed it over his body as sinuously as a snake. He flowed around the ball, the ball flowed over him, like water around a rock. He and the ball in motion together was the most graceful sight she’d ever seen. While he played, while he kept the ball in motion, he talked.

‘The Eumenides, they picked me,’ he said, ‘because I almost made it. I was good. I was a star. I lived for the game. And I was just a kid, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. By the time I was eighteen I started to lose it. It was the booze. But hey, it’s part of the game. You play hard, you party hard. Only I partied a little harder, and soon I couldn’t stop it, and I wasn’t playing well anymore. That was when I got shot out of the sky. They didn’t leave me to die, they came and got me. I was a recruit.

‘Now I can see, when I’m at my guns, who are the ones with talent. I can smell them. Not just soccer. Baseball, football, anything. Who are the hopefuls. Who’s arrogant. Who thinks he’s invulnerable. Who needs to be brought down, taught what the ground feels like. I am a Fury. I am Fate.

‘They picked me because I can and will pick off the ones who fly too high. If you think you’ve got what it takes, you belong to me. I keep order in the universe. I keep everyone even.

‘And maybe I won’t kill them. Maybe I’ll just give them the opportunity to learn how to go on when they’ve lost everything. I show them what they’re really made of. Some of them never really heal, they just limp through life – most people just limp through life. Some of them don’t even pick themselves up. Sometimes what they’re made of isn’t much.

‘Course sometimes I miss. I mean, you drink as much as I do, sometimes you’re going to miss. Some get through. But most, I’m pretty efficient.’

*

The Virgin didn’t know she had a look of repulsed horror on her face. He noticed, and the ball stopped in mid‐flow. She opened her shirt and showed him her scar. Just under the clavicle, where she’d been shot.

‘Did I do that?’ he said. He folded her in his arms. ‘Maybe it was a stray bullet,’ he said. ‘Maybe it was one of my buddies. It had to have been an accident. I wouldn’t have shot you.’

She looked in his eyes to see if he was telling the truth, and he was.

She said, ‘If you’re so sad about not playing soccer anymore, why don’t you quit drinking and go back to it?’

Of all things for him to understand. He looked at her blankly, looked out the window, then threw the ball down hard, turned, and left.

The apartment was strange without him around. He didn’t come back that night, or the night after, or the night after. The Virgin was worried and went looking for him.

She went to the Anti‐Aircraft Control Station, where the gunners take their posts. He wasn’t there. One of the other gunners saw her and elbowed the one beside him. The other gunner looked, saw her, and the two laughed. She came up to them and asked if they had seen him. They didn’t even turn around. They just went on shooting. Oh yeah, deaf. Still, she knew they knew something. No one’s that deaf.

Then she thought of their laugh, and she really started to worry. What did they know?

He didn’t come home for a week. One night the doorbell rang. He leaned in the doorway, newly skinny. His face, his normally‐pressed uniform, his hands, everything was covered with filth. He looked sheepish.

She threw her arms around him as though she’d thought he was dead, which she had.

‘I lost my keys,’ he said.

She laughed, and tears streamed down her cheeks. She hugged him again.

‘And my wallet,’ he said. ‘I passed out and when I woke up, everything was gone.’

He flopped down on the bed, still in his filthy clothes, still in his shoes. ‘I lost my job,’ he said.

She crawled onto the bed with him, then leaned down and gave him a kiss. She smiled broadly. ‘Congratulations,’ she said. ‘You did it on purpose, didn’t you?’

‘Not me,’ he said.

She noticed that now they spoke the same language.

After that, they shared his bed. She held him at night.

‘You got a name?’he asked.

‘I don’t remember,’ she said.

‘You need a name.’ She wracked her head. The only names she remembered were the ones she had known as a child. Dick and Jane. She didn’t want to be Jane. She didn’t want to be Dick.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked him.

‘Typhus.’

‘Isn’t that a disease?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s cool. It’s brutal out there, you don’t want some pussy name. You want a name that’ll kill.’

‘Typhus sounds very masculine,’ she said. He nodded in the dark. She said, ‘I think I should be called Copralalia.’

‘What the fuck is Copralalia?’

‘It’s when you can’t stop cursing.” It seemed to her that if you got shot out of the sky, it would be perfectly right and normal not to be able to stop cursing.

‘That’s a stupid name,’ he said. ‘You can’t die of that.’

‘OK,’ she said, ‘then how about Pneumonia? If you hadn’t saved me, I would have gotten pneumonia.’

‘Pneumonia’s a very feminine name,’ he approved.

He didn’t quit drinking. He couldn’t. She didn’t make enough money to support him, and the amount of money he could spend on alcohol was bottomless.

Meanwhile, Pneumonia thought at night of the baboons back on the Island. Of how long she’d been gone. She wondered if they were still alive.

‘I’ve got to get on,’ she thought, but the problem was no longer just bring back a ream of typing paper. She would have to bring several reams of printer paper.

She would have to keep them dry in the passage. She would have to figure out how to make the passage and still survive. She would have to bring all her friends from the zoo. What had once been a difficult task was now insurmountable.

A boat, she would need a boat. She saved her money a little at a time. A dollar here, a dollar there.

Then sometimes it would all be gone. The Gunner needed it for booze. Didn’t matter where she hid it. He always found it.

Still. He was looking for work. It’s not like he wasn’t trying.

When they had sex, he would hold her tight with his arms all around her, cheek to cheek. She couldn’t see his face. He didn’t want her to see his face. When he came, he wailed, as though in anguish, as though he were trying to crawl all the way in, and the anguish was that he couldn’t.

When she was with him, her eyes leaked. When he was gone, she yearned for him.

‘I don’t know why you love me,’ he said.

‘I don’t either,’ she said, ‘but I do.’

‘I love you more,’ he said.

‘Let’s not get into that again,’ she said. ‘I have to get back to the Island.’

He looked away, then left the room.

At work, the baboons were losing patience. ‘You lied to us,’ they said. They began to hate her. When she came to work, the mandrills snarled, then showed her their blue butts. They narrowed their eyes. They thought about biting.

Every penny she saved, Typhus knew it was to get back to the Island. He drank it away.

‘It’s not going to work,’ she thought, and started taking long walks again. ‘I’m not going to be able to earn a way back.’ She wrestled with this problem night and day. She walked the streets. She walked the shore.

One day, about a hundred feet out, she saw a skiff, moored to an anchor marked by an empty bleach bottle. She worked it out in her head. Swim to the skiff. Row it to shore. Fill it with paper, and take off.

She would steal her boat.

Could she take anyone? Could she take a single baboon? Could she take Typhus?

Could she live without Typhus?

Pneumonia worked it out in her head. On the Island, there would be no booze. Typhus would go nuts, but he would quit. If he didn’t kill her. And then he would be OK, he would be healed, and they could be together, with the baboons. They would roast bananas and fish on the beach. They would sleep in each other’s arms.

The case of printer paper was too heavy to bring to the beach all at once. On her day off, she brought it, ream by ream, with the box to keep them all together. Assembled them, then went back for Typhus.

‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘I’m leaving.’

‘Then go,’ he said, opening a beer. ‘Fucking go.’

Pneumonia stood in the doorway, not knowing what to do, and then she turned and went.

A block away, she heard his feet pounding as he ran after her. Typhus ran with the grace of a born athlete. ‘Don’t go,’ he said.

‘Come with me,’ she said.

‘I can’t,’ he said.

Just then, she heard a shot. He was already dead before he hit the pavement. The Eumenides had got him.

The row back across the ocean was long and arduous, but far easier than the swim. As the air got warmer, as the sun got brighter, Pneumonia thought of her friends and the beautiful Island and couldn’t wait to be back. She hoped she had not been gone too long. In her mind’s eye, she saw a crowd of happy baboons, jumping up and down when they see the reams and reams of paper. She and they would run together, they would groom each other, they would swim in the blue lagoon.

When she made land, the devastation of the beach shocked her. It was littered with bones, and the bones were half‐covered with sand. She lay on the beach with the useless printer paper still in the boat, and cried and cried for her friends. For the baboons here, for the baboons there, for Typhus, for all the children shot out of the sky. She looked to the horizon, to Eternity, so cheerful, so blue, and felt the big universe. She had saved no one, and to Eternity, that was just fine.

Two days later, one baboon came to greet her. A tiny old male, who had hid during the murders. The baboon had pulled out all his hair, had hot spots all over his flanks. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. Nervous licking. The old baboon was mad.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked the baboon.

‘I don’t have a name,’ he said.

‘Can I call you Dick?’ He nodded. She changed her name to Jane.

They roasted bananas and fish on the beach.

Shelah Horvitz was originally trained as a writer (Wheeler School and Brown University) but turned to painting because her writing professors told her that at 19, her work was juvenile. She spent the next 30 years painting and exhibiting in galleries and museums, until she hit the limit of the complexity of ideas she can explore with painting. She is now working on her first novel. Shelah lives in Massachusetts, USA with her husband and dog.

Retrieval, resilience and wild planning

after sustThis is an edited extract from John Foster’s new book After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval, recently published by Earthscan from Routledge. Described as ‘philosophy on the edge’, the book is about thinking our way towards retrieving resilience in our heads, as a necessary precondition of whatever resilience we may be able to retrieve on the ground.

Resilience must be a central concept for retrieval – that is, for the capacity of communities to bring something humanly habitable out on the other side of the unpredictable stresses and dangers to which climate change will (now unavoidably) expose us.

Rob Hopkins in The Transition Handbook defines the idea of resilience more specifically thus:

‘…the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as still to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’.

He glosses it as referring ‘in the context of communities and settlements…to their ability not to collapse at first sight of oil or food shortages, and to their ability to respond with adaptability to disturbance’. Retrieving socio-economic resilience clearly means taking the ‘too big to fail’ tendency out of all our systems: food distribution, energy supply, transport, banks – the lot.

The components of resilience as Hopkins identifies them are diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks within a system. Respectively, these refer to the number and variety of system elements; the extent to which these elements are not vulnerable to a ‘domino effect’, but can self-reorganise to survive a shock which takes out of some of their number; and the ability of parts of the system to register and respond to impacts on other parts – that is, the capacity of the system as a whole to use internal information flows effectively in the process of self-reorganisation.

In its account of what will need to be done, locality by locality, to recreate these features in communities from which they have been progressively stripped over the past century by the centralising and alienating processes of an oil-based economy, Hopkins’ Handbook seems to me second to nothing of its kind which has recently been produced. Its leading themes for the transition which we must all now get ready to make are ‘energy descent’ (preparing to do with less centralised output, rather than relying on the implausible substitution of renewables for all fossil fuels at something near to current consumption levels); regenerating the local economy, in particular as regards food production (replacing ‘food miles’ with ‘food feet’, and similarly for much else of what we need); and rebuilding the networks and institutions of real human connectedness within which communities will have to operate to achieve and maintain these recovered local strengths as the globalised systems surrounding them start to unravel.

These have of course been familiar themes of green thinking for as long as there has been a green movement, but they have latterly been much overlaid by the mainstreaming of that movement as ‘sustainable development’. The coming coincidence of Peak Oil with intensifying climate change means the end of that fantasy of modulated progressivism, and Transition offers both a timely reassertion and a lively, congenial framing of what the green movement had kept in its heart all along.

For all that, it badly needs underpinning by the understanding and practice of what I have called existential resilience. This means the strength to accept (rather than resolutely denying, as progressivism so characteristically does) that the human condition is tragic. That involves recognising that good and evil are inextricably intertwined in our experience and cannot be weighed off against one another; that we can’t ever be sure of the future, and are never really in control; and so that there are never any guarantees that things will get better, nor even that they won’t get worse. And it means a welcoming openness to the fact that these conditions of human action require us to listen for and trust to our wildness, in order to go on living in anything deserving to be called hope.

The easiest way to see the practical need for resilience of this order is to flag up a fundamental problem with on-the-ground resilience as Transition envisages it. This is essentially a business of ‘preparing for the unexpected’: we need to be ready for anything, and in particular to be ready for what happens in any given case to turn out differently from what we had been anticipating would happen. But this can’t mean being ready for literally anything to happen, or all sense drains out of the idea of preparation. To be prepared for anything (even if such a state were psychologically imaginable) would be to be prepared for nothing. As a matter of logic, it would seem, expectation and preparation must involve at least some focussed anticipation.

But then: any focussed anticipation of what we judge likely to happen, equally as a matter of logic, must concentrate our attention on what is thereby prioritised as focal, and thus leave us to just that extent unprepared for anything different. So being ‘prepared for anything’ seems to mean: not being.

The process of building resilience is liable to be analogously exposed to paradox. The UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme, for instance, affirms robustly that ‘through good risk management, organisations can become more resilient’. The same expectations, and commitment to a concerted managerial response, inform the very recent Royal Society report on Resilience to extreme weather. And it is certainly true that accurate estimation of the likelihood of something’s happening can contribute to our developing the ability to respond to and hopefully survive that anticipated impact, if it does indeed materialise. But implicitly or explicitly quantifying risk in this way can also reduce resilience: it will focus anticipation and preparation in particular directions, and so generate increased path-dependent vulnerability to something unanticipated happening. This is all the more a danger, to the extent that we are moving in a domain of the unpredictable and in various ways indeterminate, as with environmental and climate futures we always are. Here the real risk is that the quantified prioritising done in ‘risk analysis’ will reflect what we want to think probable or possible, or (still more insidiously) it will tacitly frame out what we just don’t want to think about at all, with the chances of what actually materialises coming on us unexpectedly increased pari passu.

This matters hugely when we are confronting what might well be called billowing indeterminacy. Climate-change and environmental futures are not completely unspecifiable – what we must recognise to be coming isn’t just random. These futures do however involve very significant uncertainty over, in the first place, which among the range of possible impacts – on food, water and energy supplies, ecological support systems and human physical and psychological health – are to be anticipated. And then right across this spectrum, uncertainty also attaches to the scale of impact in each kind (from small shift to upheaval), their timing (from short-term to distant future, several centuries out), their multiple interconnections and their significance in terms of our reactions to them. All this amounts to effective indeterminacy across the whole arena of climate change consequences. To know what we know when we have stopped pretending – that is, that what is inescapably coming is going to be somewhere on the range between very severe and catastrophic – is to know, if we are honest, hardly anything about the combinations of factors in which those conditions are actually going to manifest themselves. Indeed, the extent of our inevitable sheer ignorance here is an important part of what we mean by ‘severe to catastrophic’.

Now building on-the-ground resilience must involve – otherwise we should never get started – building capacities to pursue pre-identified pathways through all the above. An example is Hopkins’ local Energy Descent Action Plans, each of which ‘sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, re-localised future and then backcasts, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there’. But creating genuine resilience also means designing into our systems options for shifting onto other plausible pathways, sometimes at short notice, and a review and revision function, to ensure that scenarios, options and plans are re-crafted ongoingly as necessary in response to emergent conditions. Moreover, making this function effective involves maintaining as far as possible not just alertness to the current plan (tracking milestones, indicators and measures) but the very best we can achieve by way of what might be called ‘full-spectrum alertness’, in order to inform this ongoing review function with earliest-possible awareness of all relevant unanticipated factors which may be emerging to affect scenario plausibility, option status, and therefore the need for new arrangements ad hoc.

The crucial thing in all this is that under ramifying uncertainties of the range, scale and volatility outlined above, ‘full-spectrum alertness’, the fourth requirement just noted, is going to be absolutely vital to genuine resilience – but it calls for a kind of non-directed attention which option- and scenario-based planning will inevitably tend to be channelling in particular already-identified directions instead. So there is a clear and potentially disabling tension between the first two and the second two requirements for building on-the-ground resilience. Given a broad spectrum of fairly open possibilities, organising for real action always involves taking a bet on reduced full-spectrum alertness.

The issue here, of course, is that of Donald Rumsfeldt’s notorious ‘unknown unknowns’ – the upcoming shocks which escape getting factored into risk quantification because they are off our risk-assessment radar altogether, so that we don’t even register that we don’t know their probability of happening. Building capacity to absorb disturbance and system shock involves anticipating likelihoods among potential sources of that shock, and in a situation of significant uncertainty this is likely to veil from us ‘left-field’ possibilities. The danger that shock will come from unknown unknowns is indeed increased in a situation where we think we have our bases covered in respect of the known unknowns, because our plans and preparations for building path-dependent resilience actually create unknown unknowns just insofar as they focus attention on the possibilities for which we know we have to condition.

How do we prepare for those shocks? The only possible appeal here is to a notion of responsiveness without control, or poised spontaneity, which we might call ‘wild planning’. This is preparation which is not under our control – an intuitive readying for whatever might come, corresponding to the intense non-specific sensitivity to its impinging environment which a wild creature must constantly deploy in order to survive. It is a matter not of identifying what is likely, but of living in and from the permanent possibility of the unidentified and indeed unidentifiable. In human beings, this must rest on a capacity and readiness to deploy alertnesses which we don’t know we have, in support of those of which we are aware.

‘How do you know what’s going to happen until it happens?’ That is usually a cogent challenge to over-confident prediction, but it is also plain that nothing capable of envisaging its own future, about which that question expressed the whole truth, could possibly have survived. Creatures which can register the world as including a dimension of futurity have to be able reliably to anticipate that future on at least the large majority of occasions – since consciousness of that kind brings with it also the capacity for self-delusion into a false sense of security, and unless a creature is able routinely to correct the associated tendencies, it will not be fit for any environment in which it finds itself.

Human beings are no exception. We ‘reliably anticipate’, and to a far greater extent than any other conscious creature, by reflexively conscious prediction, which ordinarily involves assigning probabilities, and in the standard case where some kind of action has to be based on the anticipation, we rely on this assignment in order to invest preparatory effort proportionately. I might judge, for instance, that it will quite probably rain, because those dark clouds to the West most likely mean rain and they will be driven in this direction unless the wind changes, which it shows no signs of doing: and I might therefore plan to do something requiring a significant time-commitment indoors, but not something which I absolutely couldn’t put on hold in case it doesn’t in the event rain and I can get out into the garden. Here my judgement of the probability of its raining expresses my degree of confidence in the way the evidence of the clouds and of the wind combines – the rain is only quite probable, because I could be wrong about either.

But now it might seem that a question should arise as to how probable it is that I have got my judgements of the evidential factors right. That would be to ask, for instance, how probable it is, and on what grounds, that the given darkness of the clouds does on this occasion portend rain – and if I take that to be highly probable on the grounds that all such clouds that I can recall have yielded rain, how probable it is that my memory isn’t playing me false here? Clearly a regress is in prospect, which I can only stop by taking some level of evidential grounding as non-probabilistically given. But I cannot do that on the basis of what I explicitly know about the coming rain, since that has already been summed up in my judging that rain is quite probable. Thus not everything I need to rely on as knowledge, about the future can be probabilistically warranted if I am to have probabilistic knowledge at all. We must always be in possession of more grounds for the assignment of an operational probability than are ever explicitly committed in that assignment.

In other words, all planning must be fundamentally ‘wild’, in the sense that it must tacitly rely at some level on our having more grounds than we can know ourselves to have about the probabilities in question, and so on our ceding authority, just so far, to a warrant which must shape our plans from the life in us which lies beyond our conscious awareness and cognitive control. The application of this to planning for resilience in face of serious climate jeopardy should be clear. The greater the uncertainty under which we are predicting and planning, and the more potentially destructive and even catastrophic the unknowns could prove, the greater our overt reliance on the element of wildness in all planning has to be.

A suggestive analogy, though perhaps an initially surprising one in this context, is that of battle-readiness. A soldier going into battle confronts an individually catastrophic possibility – his own sudden and violent death – under conditions of almost complete unpredictability. He cannot do this as an ego-self, since ‘my life is for me’ would be a paralysing awareness at that juncture and must be transcended for him to act. Armies have training and drilling methods to ensure that this happens, making disciplined submission to the goal-directed activity of the relevant collective – unit, platoon or other formation – a kind of second nature even under these conditions. The component corresponding to wildness here is the subsumption of individual awareness of dangers and opportunities into the multiple, diverse and de-centred awareness distributed across the collective entity of which the individual soldier feels himself an integral part. The soldier is able to go into battle resolutely because he goes not only with the multiple eyes and ears, but also with the common being and purpose and the (comparative) indestructibility of his unit, just as a wild creature can be protected not just by its own alertness but by a shared alertness distributed through the group or flock in which it belongs. Achieving goals under conditions of battlefield danger needs a collective form of survival knowledge-in-readiness, something in which each individual participates, and on which he relies for his chances of individual survival, but which he cannot know himself, as merely an ego-self, to have.

But then, how do we bring that kind of recognition to bear on our present case – on the News-from-Nowhere version of Transition, the chummy Garden-City and farmers’-market models of retrieval which are all we presently have to work with? Currently Transition protagonists, and more generally environmental activists, tend to come preponderantly from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum and are predisposed to disregard, where they are not actively hostile towards, the kinds of association in which wild preparedness could flourish. These intuitive communities of retrieval must be held together by local or patriotic feeling, flowing from beyond its members as individuals, in forms of unity which are not negotiated or conditional but borne on the currents of livingly coherent cultural tradition. For building real resilience, that kind of association is going to be indispensable. To confront dangerously unknown unknowns, we shall need to base our common action not in intellectual analysis and means-end rationality, but fundamentally in what the philosopher Roger Scruton has dubbed oikophilia. This is love of the household, or more broadly of home – meaning, wherever we can think of ourselves as unconditionally belonging, as the soldier in battle belongs, to an actual or imaginable object of one of the most basic forms of loyalty. For the kinds of reason which we have been considering here, recovered real localities and territorially-defensible nation-states towards which such loyalty is strong, or could feasibly be strengthened, offer by far the best prospects for retrieval in the conditions which are coming. That is why the strong movement towards such recovery presently visible right across Europe (for instance) is so vitally important, however much it presently manifests itself in blind and ecologically-ignorant forms of nationalism.

Retrieval, in other words, is going to involve some new and on past form politically quite uncomfortable alliances, for a green movement which takes it seriously. The need for them is a long way from being widely recognised as things stand. But the more we condition for retrieval and survival in acknowledgement of our tragic situation (including our inability to predict or control, which will only increase, and the associated absence of guarantees), the more we will be opening ourselves to a kind of attention which corresponds as closely as we can yet come to the relevant kind of ‘battle-readiness’ – to forms of community which inherently know more than we can know ourselves to know, and help us find in ourselves more active hope than we can rationally expect to be available.

John Foster is a freelance writer and philosophy teacher, and an associate in the department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, UK.