Laura Oldfield Ford. Savage Messiah. Verso, 2011.
HAMLET: Alas poor ghost! GHOST: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold
It isn’t just that the alternatives are written over, or out, it is that they return as their own simulacra.
Mark Fisher from the introduction to Savage Messiah
In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder (2005) the antihero narrator is traumatically injured by unspecified ‘Technology. Parts. Bits’1 that fall from the sky resulting in a compensation payout of eight million pounds. He uses his newfound wealth to restage fragments of memory in a skewed attempt to access a feeling of authenticity. He buys and decorates an entire block of flats in Brixton, installing actors to play roles from memory; to cook liver in the flat below so that the smell he remembers wafts up at exactly the right moment, to play the piano as he remembers hearing it from a lower flat. When the re-enactments work he experiences a tingling spasm of satisfaction. Of course, the more he repeats the actions the harder it becomes to experience the sensation, and so he begins to re-enact more and more violent scenes: the shooting of a young black man in Brixton and, finally, the high-jacking of a plane.
In Mark Fisher’s introduction to Laura Oldfield Ford’s collected Savage Messiah zines (2011) she is quoted as saying of her work’s post-punk aesthetic:
I think with the look of the zine I was trying to restore radical politics to an aesthetic that had been rendered anodyne by advertising campaigns, Shoreditch club nights etc . . . That anarcho-punk look was everywhere but totally emptied of its radical critique. It seemed important to go back to that moment of the late 70s and early 80s to a point where there was social upheaval, where there were riots and strikes, exciting cultural scenes and ruptures in the fabric of everyday life.2
Like McCarthy’s anti-hero then, Oldfield Ford wants to return to a period from which she draws a feeling of authenticity. When punks were real punks, when you could tell someone’s affiliation from their clothes, when politics was easily divided into binaries. She wants to take the empty sponge of anarcho-punk style and soak it once more in the vinegar of radical politics. This adolescent mannerism can be problematic.
Ford has been self-producing her zine since 2005. It consists of pen and ink line drawings augmented with spray paint, photocopied photographs, newspaper clippings, typed confessional text in various voices and quotes from theory and literature. Her own writing is a brand of lyricism that seeks to engraft lived experience onto architectural space, to tell the stories in the crack(s) and perform a hauntological interrogation of the city as text. The founding model here is Eliot’s mourning polyphonic phantasmagoria in “The Waste Land” where London is that spectral city of memory and desire.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.3
As with much so-called psychogeography, and particularly the work of Ian Sinclair, the tone of Savage Messiah wavers between doom-struck millenarianism and urban transcendence. Sometimes it’s mapping the pale dawn after the bacchanalian night before, where the dream of transcendence has evaporated in the red mist of a comedown, at others it is an attempt to tap into the anarchic and erotic energies of the city.
I walk the path of the Fleet as it runs through the city as a buried current. The repressed desires of the city flow through hidden pipes and conduits and become counter narratives, a described jouissance in a euphoric engagement with the city . . . The river perpetually threatens to break out of its confines in a volatile intoxicated state.4
There is a romantic longing in her prose fragments for a moment of cleansing violence born of the city’s haunted energies, calling up the spirits of Broadwater farm, Robin Hood Gardens, the Brixton riots. London is mapped in an act of necrophilia as Ford attempts to channel the disappointment and rage embedded in the very bricks of the city through her own eroticised excursions.
The fabric of the city is erotically charged, a multitude of red dot locations on a map. The tissue between desiring and acting disintegrates. Schizoid antics, a matrix of possibilities, those dangerous moments when promise is pushed forward and all the little fragments of desire scuttle across the face.5
There is certainly more Eros here than we might find in the patrician-like Sinclair these days,6 but he and Ford inhabit the same territory, both for example, are concerned with the notion of terra incognita, of liminal space, both write in an over-wrought gothic mode somewhere between prose and poetry.
Sinclair: Machen called this part of London a ‘Terra Incognita’; obscure alleyways with discreet, mysterious poster doors.7
Ford: Terra Incognita, this world hidden from view, dank corridors defying panoptican mapping.8
In her public pronouncements Ford has been keen to distance herself from the patriarchal recognition of first generation psychogeographers like Sinclair.9 Her determination to appear more like the ‘real thing’ is telling. In the introduction she says:
I think a lot of what is called psychogeography now is just middle class men acting like colonial explorers, showing us their discoveries and guarding their plot. I have spent the last twenty years walking around London and living here in a precarious fashion, I’ve had about fifty addresses.10>
Sinclair has lived in Hackney since 1963; if time is the measure of authenticity then she is trumped. Her methods are the same as those same white11 colonialists, she re-enacts the Situationists’ dérive, the politically activated urban drift, her tone is similar. The crux seems to be that she is different from them because she is more ‘authentic’, but what does that mean? From where does she derive this authenticity? Sinclair casually locates the elephant in the room in his Guardian review of the book: ‘The structure depends on a steady drip-feed of quotes from JG Ballard, Italo Calvino, Guy Debord, Walter Benjamin. White men all.’
The images in Savage Messiah are patchy collages that meld Sniffin’ Glue and Crass record sleeves with teenage folder doodles. Ghostly punkish girls and boys hover around brutalist housing projects; Ford herself is depicted standing amongst Ballardian no-zones screaming her post-punk claim to authenticity. These drawings are partly an attempt to bear witness, recording the wrecks of utopic architecture as they are pulled into the maw of neo-liberal regeneration.
Savage Messiah can be read as a scathing indictment of the Blairite/neo-liberal mode of social engineering following the crisis left by the displacement of manufacturing from the inner city: policies based on the condescending notion that, if you attract the middle classes to an area through cultural attractions, potential property investments etc, it pulls the local population up by their boot heals. The truth is that they are violently nudged out and their culture demolished in a barrage of Ikea style new builds, yuppie flats, gastro-pubs, organic grocers, galleries, studios for the creative industries and so on. ‘Regeneration attempts to stimulate gentrification through the establishment of quasi-state agencies, tax breaks, re-zoning, public subsidy of private development, the privatisation of local resources and the deployment of culture’12
Ford’s drawings of brutalist architecture are not just backdrops for her ghostly punks; they are symbols of mourning for the collapse and betrayal of utopian narratives.
What might be at work here is the common contemporary phenomenon of nostalgia for the future, a longing for the fragments of the half-hearted post war attempt at building a new society, an attempt that lay in ruins by . These remnants of social democracy can, at best, have the effect of critiquing the paucity of ambition and grotesque inequalities of the present.13
There is no denying the effectiveness of Ford’s work, it’s lyrical articulation of a mourning subjectivity, its excavation of the traces of the counterculture: rave, industrial, punk, post-punk and their attendant politics (or vice versa) works on the nerves, its nostalgia draws one in. The title Savage Messiah is taken from Ken Russell’s biographical film on the life of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, but it is also clearly a reference to Walter Benjamin’s Messianic view of history articulated in his “Theses on The Philosophy of History”; Ford’s séance for the defeated and downtrodden attempts to articulate Benjamin’s complex thought graphically.
The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.
Social democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than liberated grandchildren.14
At a more mundane level, however, the problem is that Ford’s zines are now collated in a slick edition by Verso that costs one penny short of twenty pounds. There is no avoiding the conclusion that her tattered, self-produced zine has itself been gentrified and priced out of the market for many whom it seeks to speak on behalf of. The bitter stench of irony is hard to fan away. Then there are the gallery shows in which her works are seen at full billboard scale, blown up for consumption, to be bled on the art market. Even painfully un-self-aware-first-name-only-liberal-dream critic Bidisha wrote in her blog: ‘How ironic it should be that the very yuppies — wealthy young City professionals buying up newbuild penthouses in edgy East London — should hang her work on their exposed brick walls.’ Rather than follow this line through, though, Bidisha reverts to type, but in doing so highlights the problem:
Given the mainstream acclaim Ford has received and deserves I almost think the ‘zine [belittles] the industry behind the images. It is clear that each one is the product of many hours’ closeted studio work by a creator who has developed her craft with great commitment and discipline. I want to see them up close, on great quality paper, framed, large scale, in the peace of a gallery, with all its institutional endorsement. And I would like to be sent a big one so that I can have it for myself. 15
The gallery work is ‘enmeshed in the circuits of commodification and spectacle it seeks to subvert’,16 co-opted by the very liberal elite of whom Ford sees herself a voracious critic; the authenticity needle begins to waver.
Then there is the flyposting. Ford and her cohorts in the WE ARE BAD collective flypost Savage Messiah-style images around East London. They contain slogans such as Oi Coe, You Smug Bastard, Your Project Will Fail. One begins to suspect that her project is all about failure. The slogan seems painfully adolescent and frail, lost amongst the other billposters and graffiti, like whispering the Internationale in the face of a tank. If her aim was to map ennui then it would succeed, but from what she has said she seems to believe in the power of this intervention
My work operates on a satirical level in the sense it might act as a totem speaking to yuppies saying, ‘no it’s not safe to come in’, because the flyposting I’ve done as part of the collective ‘We Are Bad’ has been very direct and uncompromising.17
By hanging on to and mourning old emancipatory narratives she misses the necessity to build new ones, by re-enacting old methods and co-opting old aesthetic strategies she creates a dangerous ironised space. As Simon Critchley has written:
Situationist détournement is replayed as obsessively planned reenactment. The category of reenactment has become hegemonic in contemporary art, specifically as a way of thinking the category between art and politics -– perhaps radical politics has also become reenactment . . . I suspect here what we might call a ‘mannerist Situationism,’ where the old problem of recuperation does not even apply because such art is completely co-opted by the socio-economic system . . . 18
It is difficult not to imagine that Ford’s re-enactment of such punk sloganeering will be co-opted like the stencil work of Banksy. Soon those very gastro-pubs she abhors will be covering her works in Plexiglas so as to raise the property value and cultural cache of their businesses. The Guardian has taken her on as a cause célèbre. The rise of her own cultural capital ensnares her in a dialectical bind. However, that is not to say that the work should not to be taken seriously, one must not let the virus of cynicism and irony that is l’esprit de l’age cloud judgement. This work is a ferocious articulation of disappointment and rage, it is simply that if that rage is to be channeled into anything more articulate than nihilism or pathos, her methods, it seems, need to change in order to be equal to the challenge of the times.
1 McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. Alma Books. 2006. Page 5.
2 Oldfield Ford, Laura. Savage Messiah. Verso. 2011. Introduction Pages 10 – 11.
3 Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems 1909 – 1962. Faber and Faber 1963. Page 65.
4 Savage Messiah Issue 5. Page number not given. My italics.
5 Ibid. Savage Messiah Issue 3. Page number not given.
6 Iain Sinclair’s name is so close to being an anagram of Sir Iain Blair it seems portentous, the sort of thing that would not be lost on him.
7 Sinclair, Iain. Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire. Penguin. 2009. Page 552.
8 SM Issue 3. Page number not given.
9 Sinclair wrote a largely favourable review of Ford’s book for the Guardian. See: <www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/22/savage-messiah-laura-oldfield-ford-review>.
10 SM. Introduction. Page 14.
11 And here it should be noted that L.O. Ford herself is white.
12 Berry Slater, Josephine and Iles, Anthony. No Room to Move: Radical Art and the Regenerate City. Mute Publishing. 2010. Page 13.
13 Hatherly, Owen. Militant Modernism. Zero Books. 2008. Page 8.
14 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Pimlico 1999. Pages 245 – 252. Italics authors own.
15 See: <bidisha-online.blogspot.com/2011/11/savage-messiah-by-laura-oldfield-ford.html>.
16 Critchley, Simon. The Faith of the Faithless. Verso. 2012. Page 147.
17 See: <www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/interview-laura-oldfield-ford>.
18 Critchley, Simon. The Faith of the Faithless. Verso. 2012. Pages 146 – 147.
John Douglas Millar