When walking the streets of London, its minor and major roads, its arteries and veins, begin to enmesh themselves with the walker’s brain. Over time they become an abstract map of the tendrils of frontal and parietal lobes, projected out over the landscape. Walking down main arterial roads, like Upper Street in Islington, is like traversing the well-trodden parts of the psyche, those parts explored on a daily basis. Exploring the minor roads — Essex Road for example, which forks off from Upper Street — feels as though one is exploring the more uncanny, unusual and interesting parts of the psyche. A sensation that was considerably heightened when on a night in December, I was walking down the strange psychological peripheral that came in the form of the Essex Road, a road of Roman origins and well-established by the Middle Ages. Around one quarter of the way up from Angel Station, amidst the desertion, a group of people were standing in cold silence staring at a shop front. A blue light reached out from its façade, saturated with noise it washed over the motionless faces of the audience and made them glow, flicker and pixelate in the darkness. At first it appeared to be a premonition of a future where window-shopping had become a collective and religious experience, or maybe a time further on and I was witnessing a silent vigil to capitalism.
Getting closer I realised the static observers were watching a film which moved through the same streets that surrounded them; they were still yet moving in a strange enactment or performance of how we usually experience our environment. We don’t give it our complete attention; instead we glance at our phones incessantly and take pictures to look at afterwards instead of observing the moment in real time. This phenomenon calls for a new word to replace those aging notions of the flâneur and the dérive, because instead, we ‘buffer’, like that moment when the red line on a YouTube video reaches the grey line and everything stops: the new content is loading but we are yet to experience it. This is how we experience the streets now, we amass details and pictures as we walk but we don’t let them play out in our heads as an immediate experience, instead we wait, we buffer, returning to them later when we post about our day on social media. It results in a stuttering delay in our experience of the space around us. But as the films continued to play, I soon realised that they didn’t encourage this but were instead a guide to counteract it.
Usually the domain of advertising, it was surreal to see the films emanating from a shop front window. The real world was once the world of offices and factories and the world of the imagination; one’s dreams, fears and ambitions existed inside one’s own head. That has almost reversed — reality is now a mass of competing fictions. We walk down streets that are lined with adverts trying to sell various fairy tales, for example, a yoghurt that will make your gut so clean and fresh that all your friends will envy you. That’s a piece of fiction.
By the same token, the one area we can rely on for some kind of fact is the space inside our heads. This perhaps, makes advertising space the ideal territory for the projection of such films, but in a way that uses the power of advertising not against us or to control us, but to change our imaginations.
I was now fully within the crowd, but also outside. I felt detached, as there was no interaction between its inhabitants, instead the screen transfixed them, in yet another physical embodiment of how we interact online. As I started to concentrate on the projection properly an elderly woman walked into the brightly lit gap between the screen and the observers. She was quite a contrast to the rest of the people in the scene, with her hunched backlit profile and tatty clothes. As she walked across the brightly lit rectangle of light on the pavement she began to merge with the action on the screen, but then stopped suddenly in the middle, a second passed and she turned her head slightly to look at the crowd. She looked intensely perplexed as the same light, which shone over the observers, began to pick out her facial features too. I wondered if she was part of the film or some kind of performance. It was like an alternate type of theatre that replaced acting with ambiguity. Its impact on me was like an evolution of the distancing effect in Brechtian theatre, but instead of altering the dynamic between actor and audience, it had made reality strange instead. She was not an actor or part of the film, she had just stumbled in front of the screen. What we were all seeing was what had always been in front of us, but in some queasy and ambiguous new perspective.
Films are usually projected in detached black rooms, annexed realities, but these films are activated and implicated by the streets. Film, advertising and media in general are usually obsessed with the spectacular, but by highlighting this simple act, someone simply walking down the street, by configuring the film and audience within the streetscape, it made a spectacle of the everyday and reconnected me with the environment using the same media which usually disconnects us all. By activating the streets and the territory at hand it acted as an immaterial regeneration, one that works with what is actually there instead of trying to average out the environment. Regeneration is a built and physical version of looking the other way, but this one moment, along with the other films now emerging in and out of the dark, made me want to look closer, and look closer still at the territory which surrounds me.
An astronaut appears on the screen, but one from elsewhere, not this world. In the film, by Xiaowen Zhu, people look confused and excited as the astronaut walks down the street – like the old lady, they become part of the film in a test of their acceptance of something usual. By adding this exotic visitor to the street, the surrounding environment and the people walking through it are cast in a new light. But it’s not only the astronaut that is exotic. In one of the scenes, we see the astronaut in the same window that we are watching the films projected on but at a different time of day, creating a bizarre disjunction of time. The next shot is from behind the window, seemingly from the same position that the films are projected from. The shot shows the area where we, the crowd, now stand, but we are not there. Everything is doubled up and reflected, making the viewers position in relation to the screen ambiguous and even completely erased. Making us the astronauts too, set adrift in an exotic world of reflections – outsiders in relation to our own bodies.
With a rapid dilation and contraction of the pupils another film comes glitching onto the screen entitled ‘Incantation to rid this place of cars, without the help of Elon Musk (Essex road dub)’ by Benedict Drew. The film is strewn with contrasting imaginary: a deconstructed witch’s cauldron of folk dances, growing organic matter, Mesoamerican pyramids, strange diagrams, rapid hand gestures, Neolithic earthworks, anachronistic psychedelic patterns and destroyed cars. The film is overlaid with the words ‘tarmac be gone’ to complete its technologically shamanic incantation ‘to rid this place of cars’. The film is a mesmerising call to arms, and is reminiscent of the slogan sprayed on Parisian walls amidst the barricades in 1968: ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’, but maybe the beach is always there if we look at the pavement in the right way.
The next film, by Paul Tarragó, almost eradicates people entirely and casts the commonplace rock pigeon as the main inhabitant of Essex Road. But even this characteristically English creature is shown as an exotic being. The sequence of stop frame animations cycles from circumnavigating a carved stone globe, to a typological catalogue of letterboxes – the gap through which we receive things from the outside world — and finally to another catalogue of postage stamps from all around the world which feature the pigeon. The pigeon then, that perennial symbol of London, is not really English or ‘home made’ after all. An interesting point when one thinks about the current dialogue regarding immigration and those that preach the bigoted and rose-tinted idea of a pure England that never really existed.
A blank black screen appears next; a work that is the antithesis of the other films as its just words without images. The words state that the filmmaker, Chloe Dewe Mathews, wanted to make a film about Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive photographic survey of Islington streets, but she can’t, because she doesn’t have permission to show the relevant materials. We are left instead to imagine —prompted by text— shopfronts, doorways, street corners, shots of streets at night, strange snapshots, fleeting moments, people drinking, couples kissing, waiters smoking and other people watching all these scenes, just like we are being prompted to do with our imaginations. The film is an unfilm that we have to make for ourselves, and by doing this, the unexceptional is made exceptional by being imagined instead of just shown— we have to reimagine the streets we probably already know so well. In a world glutted with imagery, taking it away can be incredibly powerful.
The streets can be rewired just like a brain I thought as I walked back to Angel station, and even though I had left the films behind, their presence in my memory reshaped the once familiar route ahead. They made me look more freely and closely, which then prompted me to take a different route down a small side street. Halfway down I felt the urge to turn back – like a signal that I wasn’t ready to explore that area of my mind just yet. But this made me think that streets are not just narratives as they were in the films and as I had used them before to map out parts of my psyche, but they are also cryptic messages. I then realised that they also took this form in the films, they all congealed into a signpost which tells you to look and look again at what’s around you. They didn’t try to alter the environment itself, but they altered my perception of that environment and provoked my imagination to see it differently. The films then fertilised the space around them, just like how the light that projected from the filmic façade seemed to enrich and energise the cracked pavement in front of it. It made me think about the waves of gentrifications that were sweeping all over London and disinfecting its most interesting places. Gentrification is often justified with some kind of utopian thinking, in making tomorrow a better place, but these things never really exist in reality anyway, instead they reside in our heads and we are the only ones that can create them. We can regenerate a place by revolutionising our perception of it, instead of altering the physical reality itself.
Essex Road IV – Featuring Edwina Ashton, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Benedict Drew, Judith Goddard, Matthew Noel-Tod, Paul Tarragó, Richard Wentworth, Xiaowen Zhu, 8 December – 13 January 2018
By Matthew Turner