So a week or so ago, we were fortunate to welcome Justin Hopper to The FuseBox to read from his new book, ‘The Old Weird Albion’, and then – as part of an open, round table conversation – talk about how its understanding of the past can help us look forward into the future.
Memories of Balsdean
Justin began by reading chapter VII of ‘The Old Weird Albion’ – ‘Ruins’. It charts a walk through Balsdean, a deserted, highly evocative, perhaps even lightly haunted space on the fringes of Brighton. It was a medieval village, then a Georgian hamlet, then a lunatic asylum, and now it’s empty.
It was a very appropriate place to start. Partially, because many of us know it – in fact, FuseBox Hub Manager Rosalie is a regular runner there, and talked about her own experiences of how eerily evocative it can be. It’s also a place that can take you by surprise. Running through it once, early one morning, she felt the ground shake beneath her, the earth moved by a deep, hard thumping.
Baffled and not a little spooked, she kept going – only to emerge into the final moments of an all-night rave, just as the new day was dispelling it. The last of the ravers cheered her as she ran through them, celebrating the site being handed back to its daytime visitors.
That story touched on much of what we’d talk about – the multiple uses of landscape, the radically different ways it can be experienced, the way that its history can break through and shape our responses to its present. And of course the way that technology can change how it’s experienced too; the ravers’ sound system one iteration of that, Justin’s headphones another.
He writes in detail about the experience of moving through the site while listening to ‘1 Inch: ½ Mile’, an album by local band Grasscut, made specifically to be played while walking through Balsdean. It struck me as he read that augmented reality is not a new thing; aurally at least, it’s been with us very successfully ever since the arrival of the Sony Walkman, and before that perhaps the wind-up gramophone.
The deep past of AR
Of course, reality’s been augmented for a lot longer than that. ‘The Old Weird Albion’ relies on a deep sense of history – some formal, some oral, some very genuine, some completely invented. Taken together, it becomes a map of knowledge held in Justin’s head, overlaid on the South Downs landscapes he moves through.
Here too is an augmented reality; human knowledge and experience, overlaid on place and giving it a deeply personal set of meanings and experiences. In a sense, each individual human being, each animal come to that, has always lived within AR. There’s nothing new about the technological overlay we’re now creating. It’s just a new expression of something we’ve always done.
(image from here)
And there are of course more mysterious overlays. Justin mentioned a friend of his who – walking in Balsdean – had seen ghostly Roman soldiers march across the hillside above it. Of course that’s a deeply spooky experience; but it’s also nothing more than the landscape’s memory expressing itself, chalk tapes replaying events that happened here a thousand years ago. Again, technology is mirroring that sense of haunting.
The world around us is getting better and better at remembering, individual objects becoming smarter and smarter. Everything around us contains far more of and makes more use of the past than it used to; but equally, the world has always contained that past, playing it back to us as traces, as hauntings, as ghosts. The deep mythology of the internet of things is already well established. The technology just needs to catch up with it.
Circular imagination engines
Then we moved on to talk about another kind of haunting – crop circles. They’re a fascinating phenomenon, at once absolutely real and physically present, and entirely liminal and deeply spooky. In the book, Justin tells the story of Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, the UK’s first recorded crop circle makers, and the wave of other circlers they inspired – in particular, the Circlemakers, whose philosophy fascinates him:
‘They considered their circles artworks, not merely because of the aesthetics of the formations, but because of the conversations and beliefs they catalysed among believers. The circle was just the beginning. The stories people told, the lights they saw in the sky and the experiences they had in the fields – those narratives were the artwork.’
That philosophy also drives them to remain anonymous – myths accretes differently and with less potency around artefacts known to be manmade. So, while they ‘freely admit that they make crop circles, they’ll never confirm which ones’.
That was in itself fascinating – the idea that myth is something that comes from the human imagination, but that needs a space beyond anything created by humanity within which to play. And of course myth is a product of the imagination, and one of the big questions we’ve been asking ourselves at the FuseBox is, ‘how do we get better at unleashing our collective imaginations?’
The Circlemakers’ philosophy hints at an interesting answer to that question. Rather than trying to find the right questions to answer or the right approaches to take, perhaps we should be looking for the right environments to work in. In particular, we need to find that aren’t directed or focussed, that have no particular designs on us. Then, our imaginations will be free to set their own terms, and play accordingly.
Back to the built-up
That leads on very naturally to the next part of the conversation. We moved on from the crop circles – by definition, a rural phenomenon – to discuss the difference between the city and the country.
‘The Old Weird Albion’ is very much a book of psychogeography, and psychogeography – as currently defined – is for the most part a city thing. Writers like Iain Sinclair, Emily Chappell, Nick Papadimitriou, Rachel Lichtenstein and many others have marked out and written about the psychogeography, the psychic geographies, the ways in which the landscape defines those who move through it, of mostly urban landscapes.
Justin commented very specifically on what this means. He sees urban landscapes as punishing, overwhelming spaces; spaces that in one way or another always have a design or set of designs on you, and are always pushing those designs hard. They’re spaces built by humans, dense with human iconography; it’s hard to escape the multiple, crosscutting, forceful human wills that define them.
Psychogeography – according to his definition – offers one way of doing that. It’s a set of tools for creating a personal reading of those overwhelming urban landscapes, of cutting through the designs they have on you to make the space you inhabit your own.
That’s very true of urban psychogeography. But what of Justin’s rural psychogeography, his dissection of East Sussex? Well, on one level he’s doing the same thing. For example, Justin very elegantly dissects the history of Peacehaven, explaining how it grew out of a scam and in some ways remains a fiction. Although applied to a small town rather than a big city, this is classic urban psychogeography, blazing a confident personal trail through an impersonal, untrustworthy environment. And of course, it’s a strategy that maps very easily onto our life online.
The virtual world is – like the urban one – almost entirely constructed by human activity, and most of it has very clear and very strong designs on us. Justin’s strategies of engagement – combining careful historical research, acute contextual awareness, a driving mythic imagination and a determination to privilege lived personal experience over all else – are just as helpful in the virtual cities we’ve spent the last couple of decades building for ourselves as in any real ones that Iain Sinclair and his peers move through.
Dropping shields to heal
But on another level, there’s something very different going on. For me, it comes to life when Justin visits the Druid Stone, a rock formation somewhere near Brighton. And it’s hinted at in the Circlemakers quote above too. Justin goes to sit on top of the stone, and is overwhelmed by the beauty of the countryside around him. Then he descends, and steps through another, archway shaped stone to enjoy a small pond and a view of the surrounding countryside. He writes:
‘I had seen all this from the top of the Druid Stone, felt its tidal pull. I had wanted to be subsumed, swallowed, by this landscape, and passing through the archway felt like giving into its maw. My earlier anxiety receded.’
An Iain Sinclair would react differently to this moment, reaching out for myth, for history, for circumstance, to wrap it all up in. But Sinclair’s an urban psychogeographer, and so he’s learned not to let his environment overwhelm him. Justin takes the opposite path, finding a deep peace in surrender to the landscape. Rather than going to work on it, he lets it go to work on him.
That’s a theme that resonates through the book, not least when he’s talking about the landscape as a healing force. And that was something that came up in our discussion too – the sense that to be healed by nature, one needs only be passive before it, to find a way of experiencing it that lets it in without imposing too much of our own will on it.
Rural Sussex as we experience it is on one level a built environment, created over millennia by human work. But on the other hand, it’s an environment built from things that don’t really care about us, that have no particular designs on us – that move and persist according to their own slow, enduring, immensely generative rhythms. And when we’re passive before those rhythms – well, they don’t advertise to us or try and control us. They regenerate us.
Opening the field
That leads to another interesting bit of psychogeographical theory. Psychogeography’s often seen as coming exclusively out of Parisian philosophical movement Situationalism, and in particular the thinking of Guy Debord. He wanted to break out of the spectacle, the urban razzmatazz that always surrounds us, that always has designs on us. He created many of the techniques that lie behind urban psychogeography to do that. But there’s something else that sits behind it all too – and it came from the United States.
Charles Olson was a major US postmodern poet (in fact, he claimed to have actually coined the phrase postmodernism). He saw himself as an heir to people like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and in his turn he had a huge influence American poets like Allen Ginsberg and British ones like – of course – Iain Sinclair. And there’s a particular idea of Olson’s that I’ve always suspected fed into Iain Sinclair’s understanding of the city – that of the Open Field.
Olson saw himself as writing Open Field Poetry. To massively summarise, in a way that barely does him justice, that means that he saw himself as writing poetry that remained incomplete. Each poem was a construction kit – and it was the reader’s job to put that construction kit together and find in it a personal and entirely unique meaning.
Of course, Olson set out the broad terms of that meaning. His writing about the small New England sea town of Gloucester couldn’t be interpreted (literally, at least) as being about Los Angeles. But it was the reader’s job to collapse into its final form, to (for example) reach their own personal understanding of Gloucester through his poetry, and then use that perhaps as a way of interpreting their own experience of LA (or wherever else they happened to be).
Here’s part 1 of a fascinating documentary about him:
Putting the puzzle together
In our conversation, the Open Field came to life in the idea of the jigsaw puzzle. Every landscape’s one; but the pieces are different shapes for everyone who looks at it. And so, every viewer engaging with every landscape gets their own personal puzzle to put together in their own personal way. That’s what Iain Sinclair does in London – with all his shields up to keep out the overwhelming rush of the city – and that’s what Justin does in Sussex – with all his shields down to let in the profoundly creative forces of nature.
That thought helped me understand the different kinds of virtual environments we’re creating for ourselves. My creative ideal, of course, is the generative environment; the one that doesn’t have specific designs on you, that like the crop circles helps your imagination fire up on its own terms; like the Open Field gives you the kit but not the instructions; like the jigsaw puzzle lets you put together your own image of the world in your own way. And that’s the kind of virtual environments I’d like to see come into being, balancing out the endless controlled messaging of the internet as it currently stands.
And of course, in many ways that’s already happening. I’ve been struck by the openness of some of the virtual worlds I’ve experienced while Writer-In-Residence at the FuseBox. Iona Scott’s Planktonworld is a great example. Plankton live, and you move through them. Nature happens and you watch and experience it. You can dig deeper if you want to – but you don’t have to.
(Image © Iona Scott)
And it’s something I’ve seen in the gaming world, too. I had a friend who was a Dragon Age obsessive. He used to go in there just to wander round in the woods, hunt a little, do some crafting, experience a little unreal nature. He found it a very rewarding, relaxing thing to do. I can see why; he was in an open environment that let him set his own goals and put the puzzle pieces together in his own way.
Building better unreal worlds
That, for me, was the really important thought that came out of Justin’s visit to the FuseBox. As a specifically rural psychogeographer, he takes the discipline’s urban tools and uses them in a more open, more accepting way. His South Downs is a place where darkness exists, but where resolution, progress, even healing is even possible. In fact, that sense of healing permeates the book – it’s emotional spine (which I’ve barely touched on here) is Justin’s quest to engage with and commemorate older, lost family members.
That healing is made possible by the landscape within which it happens. By mapping out his journey through that world, Justin’s also sketched out an image of the kinds of virtual landscapes that we could build to have similarly positive, creative, healing effects on all of us as we move through them – landscapes that are open jigsaws of myth and memory, of life, growth and independence, of structures that attract and inspire, rather than impose, personal meaning and experience.
And of course, we talked for an hour or more after Justin’s reading. That conversation itself was a wonderful collection of jigsaw pieces. I’ve assembled this from it, but it’s an entirely personal memory of it all. I’m sure there are very important ideas and insights I’ve left out – do add any of your own puzzle pieces in the comments below.