Coastal Returns

By Ellen Feiss, 19 March 2013

Ellen Feiss reviews Mark Fisher and Justin Barton's installation, On Vanishing Land, at the Showroom, London


I made two trips to the Showroom to see On Vanishing Land, and should really go again at least one, if not two, more times to be equipped to review this piece. This is partly because the work is indeedmagisterial,as noted in the gallery handout, certainly in its unrelenting demand for intense experiential concentration, and partly because of my own limitations with regard to becoming an aural learner. I am not, and additionally do not have enough knowledge of English literary modernism to be, fluent in the currency of this audio essay. What I gleaned, rather, are two questions about contemporary art: one, around the politics of expectation for ones audience, both in terms of prior knowledge and its myriad references, literal and popular, and also with regard to a viewers labour. And a second, about the mediums favoured by dematerialised practices, those both purposeful and unwieldyI use this term to section On Vanishing Land out of a discourse purely about sound and time-based media, and into the dangerously expanded field of thecontemporary, and something more akin to an installation.


There are distinct, material difficulties in accessing this work. The first time I went to the Showroom, I hadnt properly read the associated timetable and was too late to see the whole piecean image sequence followed by an audio sequence, which clocks in at a not casual hour and forty-five minutes. I was more deliberate the second time, and arrived a full two hours and fifteen minutes before the gallerys official closing, which meant I was just able to see the work in its entirety. There was certainly an intended labour herethe sequences were resolutely separated in a devout dedication to the work of sound, freed from the primacy of image. This was a particularly strong element of the work, as I was forced to reckon with my own sonic illiteracies. As I searched for elements that strung the two parts together, I was consistently confronted with the wholly aural specimen that had been created and its inability to be represented, or comprehended securely in any visual. Of course, the impossibility of representation is at the core of this work; specifically the trap of depicting social history and the modes of production and accumulation that structure it, embedded notions of progress in any telling near unavoidable. As a work originating in a walk along the Suffolk coastline, from the Felixstowe container port to Sutton Hoo, it encompasses both the model of the flâneur and also allusions to radical mapping, touchstones available to me as a member of a certain creative critical class currently active in this jurisdiction. The deconstructed narrative of late 19th through 21st century capitalism and its effect on the British coastline is reminiscent of Patrick Keiller's interpretive re-hanging of Tate Britains collection last year. Except that Keiller, in a gesture I thought irritating at the time, laid out all his tools (theoretical texts, I remember Latour) on a table towards the back of the gallery. On Vanishing Land assumes knowledge of these developments in artistic practice and their theoretical backbones, and by extension I think, a kind of consensusthe work asks you to sit through its entirety, largely in the dark both literally and figuratively, taking for granted that you appreciate the merits of such an exercise. Im not making an argument for a more accessible work, but rather noting the expectations I felt the piece had for me upon arrival.


All Images:

Documentation of production of On Vanishing Land (2013) by Mark Fisher and Justin Barton, photograph. Photo: Mark Fisher. © Mark Fisher. Courtesy the artists


Entering the Showroom on a sunny afternoon, the darkness of the audio sequence was blinding. Fumbling unsuccessfully for a chair, someone got up to help me, and as my eyes adjusted I watched as they sat back down and returned their head to their hands; a gesture of acute focus rather than thought or relaxation. The audio piece swerved between segments of relative ease, third person narrative and interviews with a recognisable shift in sound quality, like bits pre-recorded for a radio story, and vast sections of incomprehensibility, ambient noise and distorted field recordings between leaps in content that left one stranded, grasping for bearings. Later, I read about the artistsnotion ofeeriesound, a description cultivated from Jacques Derridas concept ofhauntology, and while the sonic seems a ripe material with which to explore the hovering ghosts of political history, in practice moments of admittedly frightening reverb jolted rather than resonated. The spectres within Derridas work, while all encompassing, are grounded in a specificity (a particular historical turn) that I didnt find (or didnt recognise) in On Vanishing Land. Im fairly certain, as with a very dense text, that I eventually would be able to shift through some of its meaning. But there arent bodily and circumstantial demands made by texts in the same way, and so instead, Im interested in the labour (physical and intellectual) being asked of viewers by On Vanishing Land.


On the one hand, the work rejects commodification in an admirably extreme manner; it cannot be photographed and it cannot, like many art works, be comprehended briskly. I assumed I would be able to summarise it after viewing it briefly, perhaps not seeing it in entirety, as is the practice with much gallery and museum going. However, while its mandate on single channel attention departs from the much-toutedmultitaskingof contemporary life and work, I think it maintained and isolated a key requirement of current practices increativelabour; the expectation of full dedication, body and mind, to an end that is implied but never actualised, which could be understood as monetary gain, or work/life fulfilment. It could also be described as thethanksafter an unpaid job, an end that is signalled in the absence of organic signifierspunching a clock at 5, retiring at 60, et al. I dont mean that the piece never reaches a conclusion, which of course it didnt and was never expected to, but rather that because it remained stubbornly opaque, buoyed by references for a specific demographic of people, its meaning was all implied and not specifically delivered. Another way to articulate this relationship is in the works assumption of its viewerstimeits not the assumed leisure time of a museum exhibition, but rather an expectation of thecritically responsibleto engage with the whole of the works demanding media.



The visual sequence (compelling stills of disused industrial architecture) featured an effect where each image slowly developed into view from white, like a dramatic IPhoto slideshow. I understood this choice to be in the interest of signalling the works refusal of representation through employing an image form (the slideshow) that is regarded as a method of information dissemination as well as a device of conceptual art. This choice, like the separation of sound and image, is a soundly considered one. The historical dimensions of the piece however, disrupt its intended usage as an autonomous form.



As a work originally undertaken in 2005, when I assume the walk and pictures were taken, its pre-Instagram pedigree (an era when a slideshow with a developing effect could potentially be read as something other than an affect of social media) becomes lost in the structuring of the image sequence; its seemingly unedited length cannot avoid the suggestion of the unbounded arsenal of images being flipped through on an endless loop, albeit slowed to the near halt of a slow internet connection. The celluloid quality of many of the images in their colour and ambience, yet digitally projected and spliced by pixelated scans of historical photographs, recalls the medley parade of a Google image search. Rather than a criticism, I point this out to highlight the works historically contingent foils and their exposure of the very recent past (2005). What is worthy of sharp questioning is what this work says about the use of theory, or particular signifiers of popular critical theory, in the creation of autonomous art. While in principle, the utilisation of key deconstructive concepts would seem beyond such an end or in critique of it, in practice its deployment often creates the conditions for art that is strictly confined not only to the gallery space but also a fixed set of viewers. On the other hand, I did have the uncanny experience of sincerely believing a seagulls cries, which occurred just outside the Showroom, were taking place within the sound piece. This strikes me as a success, or at least that there was some exchange occurring between the work and London, its silent addressee. One would think that land (if were thinking of the word as imbued with purity) was in fact returning to the coast, unburdened from activity as major British industry became concentrated in London and the nature of military force shifted from its classical mores. Not vanishing then, but displaced; permanently dislodged and left idle in the increasingly uneven keel of modern Britain. Such a comment is stifled by the works de facto exhibition in London, which is partly due to unavoidable logistics, and yet simultaneously succumbs to the forces it purports to examine.



On Vanishing Land, a new work by British sound artists and theorists Mark Fisher and Justin Barton is installed at the Showroom, London 6 February – 30 March 2013