We move amongst ghosts
This is modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress, its skin talk, tongue touch, breath speech, hand laugh. This is the feel that no individual can stand, and no state abide. This is the feel we might call hapticality. Hapticality, the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come is here. Hapticality, the capacity to feel though others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you, this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem. 1
Savage Messiah emerged from a counter-cultural milieu, a seam of militancy that runs under London like a subterranean current. In many ways it was a collective venture, a product of free art school education, social housing and intervals of uninterrupted time. It tapped into the dreamings and social imaginaries of the city harnessing mixtape culture, samizdat publishing, anarcho-punk and the energy flash of rave.
The London mapped here is ensnared in a process of enclosure and the dérives that form Savage Messiah are imbued with a sense of truancy and escape. To return to incendiary moments–strikes, uprisings, occupations, free parties, is to reconnect with radically reconfigured architecture, dilated temporalties and the awakening of new possibilities. Drifting is a way of engaging with this subterranean current in order to experience a renewed sense of agency, a reconnection with the heightened moment. By conflating temporalities there is sense that we might reach the altered states we need to imagine spaces outside the finance-capital matrix.
Sometimes the reconnection with the buried current is spectral–a song from a car window, a fragment of old graffiti, the faded remnants of a flyposter–but sometimes it's live, emerging in a new guise, transcending the locked down 1 and 2 zones, landing in the sites of transience and becoming–Edmonton, Croydon, Barking, Tottenham–grime, broken beat, dubstep-–the splintering, crackling sounds of liminal London. In these moments the ghost becomes a poltergeist, throwing objects around, disturbing the physical order. It is no longer an afterglow but a conjuring of time in the present.
The British Empire has collapsed but London isn’t a relic, it's overheated, febrile, perpetually on the brink of tumult. This sense of derangement carries the pre-echoes of liberation, they are present in the little silver canisters thrown out of tinted windows, subwoofers shaking the ground.
In London we move amongst ghosts, they inhabit us, they speak through us. Neoliberalism creates atomised subjects, vessels straining with semiotic junk. As neoliberalism founders, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. Is it possible that spectral signatures and inscriptions of the city can be re-read, that signs can be deciphered and re-inscribed collectively, restored to legibility so that we might read the counter-histories hidden beneath the layers of gloating pomp?
Savage Messiah gravitates towards sites where repressed and partially erased voices might be heard, the soft points and thresholds, the interstitial and liminal zones. The idea of mapping a city's psychic infrastructure moves beyond the observations of the individual towards a collective mapping, a socio-geographic reading of the terrain. Fred Moten talks about hapitcality, the feelings you can tune into through others. Cedric Robinson said that the dispossesed created solvent objects that could erode attempts to fix the city in a colonial bind. There are always lanes, tracks and burrows branching out from the designated route, scrawls in the margins undermining the official text. Sometimes the edge of the city folds back in, the liminal emerges in the centre. It is in these gaps where political life emerges as a current, where excluded voices become audible. In the stickers, flyposters, scrawls and scratches the expression of a collective unconscious can be read.
When I arrived in London in the early 90s I stepped into a threshold city, a city fracturing under the ideological assault of a neoliberalism but still harbouring active currents of protest and resistance. Cataclysmic events like the Battle of the Beanfield, Broadwater Farm, the Miners' Strike, Hillsborough, Wapping Print Strike, the Poll Tax protests were in recent memory, Claremont Road, Twyford Down and the Criminal Justice Bill were about to happen. This period was underscored by a neoliberal drive to demolish all residual collectivity, a slamming in of compulsory individualism. But there remained autonomous zones- social centres, radical bookshops and a proliferating rave and free party scene. In Dalston, Brixton, Peckham, Hackney and Stamford Hill areas were demarcated by black flags, decommissioned military vehicles and Class War graffiti.
Four decades of deregulated capital has wrought a systematic attack on the commons. In the 1990s new forms of protest emerged in the UK that involved the upsetting and recoding of the street. RTS (Reclaim The Streets) protests enacted this idea by blocking roads, forcing a renewed appraisal of space, rerouting our perception, seeing other possibilities radiating from it. Instead of traffic there were beaches and sound systems, instead of useless toil there was hedonism. These protests transformed the terrain, forced us to see the familiar as if for the first time allowing for a collective reconnection with live circuits, the vivification of the Peasants Revolt at an Anti-Capitalist Protest for example or the re-embodiment of lost radical politics in rave culture.
Rave, the free party scene, had invigorated the UK. Abandoned factories and warehouses, squatted estates and crumbling rows of Edwardian housing became sites of collective intensity, crucibles of altered states. We would travel in convoy to parties on the edges of the city, places that, in their crepuscular state had become suffused with possibility. These peripheral sites offered temporary refuge from the increasing homogenisation and 'Americanisation' of the British landscape. Here you could avoid the snares of consumerism and advertising, find routes out of exurban developments and retail parks. These were largely unsurveilled places, ignored by ramblers and heritage obsessives. They were inhabited by a different kind of character, those who moved along the edges of society, the transient populations, the contemporary ragpickers.
Sometimes we encounter places that are simultaneously haunted by a pre- and post-capitalist time. When the ruins of factories sink under bindweed, ash and buddleia spaces open for foraging, grazing, merrymaking and drifting. In these sites of abandonment, before the developers move in, conditions arise that elicit an older relationship with the land and it is here that new possibilities emerge, where a neoliberal idea of leisure is eroded by glimpses of collective joy, where the germs of co-operative self sufficiency appear in time spent scavenging and drifting. This image holds the traces of post-capitalism, of fully automated luxury communism, a world without drudgery and pointless toil.
Scratches and markings emerge as communiqués from traveller sites and illegal gatherings. Graffiti here operates as a series of fluctuating currents, residing beyond the bland acceptability of 'street art'' and official historical text. These glyphs and sigils are the markers of territory, the expression of brash desires and militant demands. Savage Messiah oscillates with these signs, these covert marks. There is a substrata of refusal in the United Kingdom, a persistent vexing of neoliberal values, Savage Messiah is an aperture opening on to that.
Relics of the commons, social housing estates and experiments in Brutalist architecture should be considered 'objects and traces of the past that modern society threatens to destroy.' When fragments of stricken inner city zones are revealed to us now, in the midst of rampant development and gentrification they appear as apparitions, uncanny visitations from another social reality. One such place is Elephant and Castle in South London where, until relatively recently, abandoned brutalist housing estates became eerie wooded citadels. Poised between abandonment and speculation these were the spectral sectors of the city. You could view them as thresholds, where partially demolished buildings become reliquaries, places where repressed memories of the city were made fleetingly visible.
This notion of unforgetting as strategy, as a means to identify moments when the city becomes elevated, when futures previously imagined can be rekindled is challenging, we are engaged in a constant battle. As cities become subsumed in the rubric of regeneration, they are subject to exercises in re-branding, 'place making' and re-inscription, the narratives arising from place are rewritten, scrambled, sanitised and smoothed over.
Walking activates the currents beneath, the kernels of possibility residing in the walls. Walking collectively, critically, allows us not only to hear echoes of the Enclosure Act but to confront and challenge them as the drift veers into the realm of trespass.
In 2005, I mapped the psychic contours of Latimer Road in the Westway issue of Savage Messiah. Drifts through abandoned buildings, breakers yards and back rooms of pubs became the channelling of an incendiary pulse:
A dinted portakabin houses a pirate radio station, nocturnal Grime scene. A tantalising link with Grenfell tower, pink lights glowing in windows. 106.9, Laylow FM
Savage Messiah 2005
The work now appears as a lament, a retracing of steps, a map of warnings left unheeded. Post-Grenfell, narratives were imposed on the area and critical voices were excluded. The demand to occlude or eradicate brutalist structures has been a character of urban regeneration schemes and wider systematic assaults on the commons; the drive to clad tower blocks is an ideological one. The fire at Grenfell Tower was catastrophic because cheap, flammable cladding was used to hide its concrete structure–a neoliberal assault on the commons.
There are cataclysmic moments–the riot, the terrorist attack, the extreme weather event when places are made strange by radically altered conditions, it is then that we become 'aware' of prevailing conditions, we are able to 'see' it again as if for the first time. In those suspended times, these 'states of exception' where commerce is halted and the patterns of everyday life are put on hold, we are able to 'see' the social and physical fabric of the city, we gain insight into other forms of spatial organisation. Sometimes, in these moments, atomisation is disrupted, those held in isolated domestic spaces are brought into the collective.
If the corporate-speak of the finance-capital matrix becomes the official text of the city then perhaps it is the alleys, unmarked paths and towpaths that harbour our unformed thoughts, half-remembered dreams and repressed memories. These are the spaces of potential where the channelling of other voices is possible. If we re-tread these overgrown paths we might reactivate these currents, imbue them with flashes of hallucinogenic colour. These are places where we might encounter older dreams, reconnect with the galvanising energies of long forgotten experiences.
– Laura Grace Ford is an artist, well known for her politically active and poetic engagement with London as a site of social antagonism. She is the author of Savage Messiah – now out in an updated edition with new preface and fanzine.
The acclaimed art fanzine’s psychogeographic drifts through a ruined city.
Savage Messiah collects the entire set of Laura Oldfield Ford’s fanzine to date. Part graphic novel, part artwork, the book is both an angry polemic against the marginalisation of the city’s working class and an exploration of the cracks that open up in urban space.
This updated edition contains a new preface and fanzine.