index


1. Leaving Omelas

2. Hollow Mountain

3. 2 Birds, 1 Stone

4. Tiny Fragile Houses

5. I saw colours too





































1.


Alexandria was the great city of the Hellenistic world. A lot like Manhattan, it was a metropolitan island city, a confluence of trade routes, and a major seat of learning and culture. At a certain moment in the 4th century AD, people began to leave en masse. There was no flood or famine, no economic draw elsewhere; Instead, they left because the city no longer seemed fit for purpose. It was corrupt, criminal and sinful. They walked out to the desert, looking for something else. If the word “sin” is understood as it was in Ancient Greek: “to miss the mark”, then the deserters, early Christian mystics, relocated the mark in a connection to Love and God through radical practices towards emancipation from the body.


In Ursula LeGuinn’s parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), there exists a “shimmering city of unbelievable happiness and delight”. The city is utopian and egalitarian in every way except one. To perpetuate its existence, Omeals must keep one child in continual abject poverty, filth and misery. When each citizen comes of age, they are brought to see the child, and, though initially shocked and enraged, most settle down, accepting this small sacrifice in return for their prosperity. Some, however, do not return home and instead silently walk out of the city.


“Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. {...} But they know where they are going.”


Last night I talked to my grandfather, who is dying. I had resisted calling for some weeks. He said it was painful, but he should not complain, it was old age, and “what do you expect?”  There was a new quality to his voice; a preunderstanding of what was actually happening. And I could hear him silently wishing it to be otherwise. Appealing to me as if, together, we could stop time.  hold all these parts in our arms before they unravel to evaporate.  


Outside, the tapestry of nature loses its end-points. As do, often, our imposed object categories; the roots of a tree, the earth, the riverbank, the river, the falling leaves of the tree.

The duration of my grandfather’s biology is prescribed in his cells. What I hear, down the phone line, through the apparatus of his voice, is another mode of time, the time of consciousness that is a-linear and cannot ever truly comprehend the duration of biological time or its own co-dependency within it.  


The desire for emancipation from the body, is simultaneously a desire for life and rejection of it. The desire for the ultimate completion of one time, extricable from the other and a resistance to a calculus that binds them as the same, a want to live a life without its only guarantee. We fantasise of apocalypse and we also fantasise utopia, as they are one and the same.

























































2.


“Manhattan is a giant island-prison inhabited by humanity's dregs - murderers, terrorists, thieves, swindlers, perverts of all persuasions, petty criminals and people who are permanently disoriented. The place is a zoo without bars, but there's no way out. The bridges have been mined and walled off. The tunnels are sealed. The once great buildings are mostly shells.”
- Vincent Canby Movie Review of Escape From New York, New York Times: July 10, 1981


What do we hope for our children? I often wonder what my father would have wanted for me. Or what he would have thought of me, had we met. More than most, I am, in the minds of my family, an extension of his lifetime. His departure, my arrival, only three months apart.



In the medieval Utopia, Cockaigne, it rained cheese. The houses were made of barley sugar and cakes. The streets were paved with pastry and the shops supplied goods for nothing.


Roasted pigs wandered around with knives on their backs to make carving easy, grilled geese fly directly into your mouth, cooked fish jump out of the water and land at your feet. The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, everyone is eternally youthful.  


Throughout my life, I have had dreams where I meet the dead. My father in a valley garden, or a secret attic room. My grandfather at a warm kitchen table. My friend Luke on a low logging pass somewhere dusk in the Wicklow Pine Forest. These places where the dead inhabit, peaceful in a soft suspense. When I calculate my hopes, the results would feel like this too, and similarly my favourite moments of my past have been echos of this place.



In this way, we live with the dead. Our mythologies are the landscapes we inhabit beside the physical, and our minds hold both without clear distinction. As the dragon became the UFO in the age of mechanics, today our desires and fears are birthed from the context of the digital. Hyper-real warfare, climate-change, mass-migration. All over people are sublimating this vernacular lexicon into new exit routes towards their own micro-utopias. As internal subjects of capitalism, our dreams are born of capitalism.


The survivalist embodies an uneasy position between the player of a fantasy role game and the most sensible one amongst us. Quantifiable evidence of an impending civil and environmental catastrophe is as readily available in the academies as it is on the weather forecast. Thinking through the scenarios on prepper websites, I am reminded of how precarious and top heavy civil infrastructure is, especially for those who cannot buy their way out of a collapse.


Anton Edwards, a prominent figure in the New York Prepper community began giving disaster preparedness lessons as part of Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “Obviously,” Mr. Edwards said, “because of our history, black folks know that bad things happen.”


Simultaneously, the survivalist is a logical conclusion of a nation that consistently united its land-mass by imagining an enemy. According to its mythology, America has always been under siege and such long term psychological conditioning has consequences.


The survivalist demonstrates the traits of every other western subculture: meet-ups, potlucks, competitions, market-fairs, musical genres, slang and endless abbreviations. The 3.7million Americans classified as preppers form a billion dollar industry, a perverse celebration of meaning in a world conditioned by the very idea of its own annihilation.


Life reduced to its basest purpose, simple survival, negates the increased complications of the digital age and dreams of a place where the slate is wiped clean. Catastrophe as emancipation. Emancipation from work, from debt, from responsibility, from the clamour of personal micro-managed bureaucracy, towards the silence of a snowfall, towards a deliverance into quiet and the possibility for children not to grow up as subjects.








































3.


A 3D scan of the body of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, spins at a constant on the webpage of the Smithsonian Museum. At the ancient DNA lab at U.C. Santa Cruz, Ben Novak is attempting to bring her species back from extinction. He Draws DNA mostly from the soft pads between her toes and the feet of other passenger pigeons, such as her former mate George who kept her company at Cincinnati Zoo until 1910.


In the interplay of objects structuring the narratives of nature and evolution, we can also think of mind as an object. Understanding that “object” is a mental classification- as permeable, arbitrary and unnecessary to the Other as any symbol of human language. Then also, and to some extent obviously, the mind is a collision of forces, of objects and stratified geographies of time - an echo chamber of the world, reverberating a perceived ‘external’ through an internal biology. To think about the form of the hand, as it evolved to touch, to grasp, to protect, we must also think of the evolution of the forms touched, the plants, the tool, the body of your lover, and know that these things coaxed each other into form. So as the fruit made themselves edible, so too did we learn to taste the sweetness of fruit. As, more recently we formed user-interfaces ergonomically to hands and soon found our thumbs and forefingers were morphing to the controllers.


Up until the late 1800s, it was believed that crystals, rocks and metal grew under the surface of the soil like organic matter. Understanding of sediment compression came later. Now that humans are geological forces, we can be compared to the glacier that carved the valley and the volcano that birthed the mountain. In that logic, the symbiosis of natural forces, the screen is the evolutionary conclusion of the rock. Coltan from the Congo, glass made of sand, plastics from plankton. So what does that make the 3D form? The magical conjuring of data is not separable from the material. This text as I type it is copper, zinc, alloy, bedrock, rubber. It is palpable all the way through. The digital image has a past, present and future in the economy of minerals and molecules that undulate the earth. The 3D render, a momentary wave and break of planetary deep time.  


‘I think that the universe may have evolved a brain to see itself’ says Henry Markram, Neuroscientist and Professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. He is director of the Blue Brain project, a super computer network designed to remodel  the Human Brain in 3D. Scientists remain sceptical, yet the EU has just given him 1 billion euros to see the project through. He describes it as the 'Cern of neuroscience'. Where exist the memories that this brain will hold? Will it begin to accrue memory from the moment it starts? Could a human brain, divorced from a body into computer-time; geological deep-time experience time passing at all?















































4.


In the west of Ireland there is a vast landscape that looks like a patchwork of smooth flat stones, each one the size of a body. It is called the Burren. The cracks between the slabs run so deep that as children we were told if we fell down between them, we would be lost forever. I think of my great-great grandparents standing on those stones. Salty winds in wirey black hair. I wonder what their houses were like. Damp, probably, with the smell of peat fires and charred animal fat.


Tacky paintings of this landscape furnish rental properties, retirement homes and golf courses ubiquitously. Tourists take them back. Little stone walls and white thatched cottages. Those images are made and circulate for the same reason we take digital photos of the sunset, store them in our mobile phones; attempts to grasp a thing defiantly irreverent to us.


The Burren started as just one surface of rock that rolled up in a curve out of the Atlantic, into the hills of Clare and Galway, like a sheet over someone sleeping. The dark shadowy fissures that characterise it now, like lines in a face, are imprints from an eon of constant soft rain.


Sometimes I want to empty my head of everything I’ve learned; codes of conduct, semiotics of my form and my place. Over time patterns of assimilation calcify. But, in the centre of me there is a kernel of memory. It holds the trace of a time before I learned words of distance, habits of assembly. This is my home, held at the crosshair of my compass like a sacred jewel.


The first libraries contained rows of isolated cells where visitors would sit to read out loud. It took some time before humans internalised the voice. Even now, when our thoughts grow in volume, tiny bones in our ears vibrate as if the sound we hear comes from outside our bodies.


I am afraid that eventually there will be so much rain that the Burren itself will dissolve. Stones withdrawing into themselves, seeking dryness, huddling into grains of sand.


My friend Anna left her hometown of Orebro at 16. In a photo of her family she is 10 years old with burning red cheeks. Standing in a Swedish parking lot outside a restaurant. A blizzard of snow. She is holding her little sister, Lina. Anna’s mother, Anna’s father, Anna and Lina, all in vibrant traditional dress of Hang-Su province, China. Reds and yellows and greens. The sky is a dull white. The ground is white too. A Swedish woman with blonde hair in a grey jacket gives them a backwards glance. For the past 17 years, Anna has been moving from town to town, country to country. In all of her artwork she makes tiny fragile houses.


Lines we draw about us, emblems, governments and flags. Things to cross and not cross. The fallacy of fencing the tide. Take shelter. Take big sifting clods and stack them up against the billowing rain.














































5.


Baskets of photographs in a Spanish flea market. I look like the boy in front of the christmas tree; on the high chair surrounded by chubby aunts; held in the air by a grinning father on some suburban driveway. Mustard-yellow Volvo, patio furniture. Fractured sunlight dancing on a picnic blanket. What is that food they are eating? I imagine these are my memories.


Where is he now, that double of me? He lived my whole life decades before me. I am him at the moment of death, replaying his story. A basket of photos in a flea market.


When making love you said you saw colours. I saw colours too. And a whole cosmos was there revealed in the evaporation of our bodies. Like happening upon a backstage to the world, a river under the floorboards. When we talked about it, we thought it a constant. One hand holding, the other dipped in matter. I was inside you, all of me pressing against you and when I closed my eyes, I fell in that stream. When I opened them: your face, your collar-bones.


In that moment I had a desire to photograph you. Not as a trophy. There was nothing there to do with covet and lust. But, because I knew that this was real and I wanted to hold onto it. I wanted to fasten down that moment. Your lips, your mouth slightly open, your eyes shut tight. Those things are only then.


When I was a kid, my grandfather gave me a SLR camera and took me to the park and told me to photograph trees. I have those images somewhere, catalogued in a binder with notes on f stops and focal lengths, the name of the species of each tree.


The camera on my phone functions differently. I take hundreds of photographs, but rarely value the images. Usually blurry, grainy documents act as stamp marks in time. Notes to myself that something happened that felt worthy of a memory. With social media, some of them are “shared”. These have a certain code.


In, Ways of Seeing, Berger says:

“The means of reproduction are used politically and commercially to disguise or deny what their existence makes possible. But sometimes individuals use them differently.

Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living-rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums.”


I remember when my grandfather died, sitting in his empty apartment at the top of our house. It still smelled like him. It was always cold up there. There was the giant patterned carpet he had salvaged from my great-grandmother. It spread out over raw floorboards. Across the carpet, like a stage, his possessions: a pyramid of stacked boxes; his table and chairs; a  clothes rail with a tangled war of wire hangers; framed drawings; all of his cook books. On the mantelpiece were a codex of small objects; a porcelain bowl of trilobites; Little owl totems; chinese figurines; a tobacco tin containing a fragment of 35mm negative (men in woolen sweaters pulling a curragh onto shore). a a long narrow sea-shell; coins stacked in order; small pocket books of equations, shopping lists and notes to self. On one page I found he had written: “Milk, Fish-Sauce, Love Conquers Entropy.”


The room felt like it was holding its breath. Soon it will exhale and all these objects will disperse. Particles to ether. For then they held the form of my grandfather. They are part of the world of him. On the bed in the other room, a twisted blanket.


A short segment about his funeral was broadcast on national television. It was snowing and you can see us carrying the coffin out of the house. My cousin, Jonathan, crying. I’m there. My mother’s voice on top, cut off abruptly.  For several months after, I watched that clip over and over. It’s travelled with me, on external hard-drives, email attachments. My family made a website as a memorial to my grandfather and I posted it there. After a while the website was abandoned, almost purposefully. Something to do with a new stage of grief. Links on the site became broken, comments pages filled with spam, corrupted images and empty html frames, an echo, like the ruined shell of a house.


Ben Davis:

“Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.)”


A photograph offers irrefutable evidence that someone once existed. It arrests the flow of time. All photographs are the past, yet in them an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike the lived past, it can never lead to the present. Every photograph contains a shock of discontinuity. Between the moment recorded and the moment looking, there is an abyss. We are so used to that abyss, we never notice it. Unless, the image depicts someone or something we once loved that is now gone. Lovers know this. Sex and death are twins. Each photograph contains a grief of knowing you cannot hold anything.