Insect Theatre Redux: dusty floor as post traumatic landscape

This is an alternate version of my jaunty and whimsical review posted today on the Occursus site.



have not realized that the

Sleeping Beauty would have awoken covered

in a thick layer of dust; nor have envisaged the sinister

spiders’ webs that would have been torn

apart the first movement

of her red


Georges Bataille  Dust (1929)


By some strange conjunction that you don’t dare question, the day I finished reading Nick Papadimitrou’s Scarp I heard I’d be getting Tim Edgar’s Insect Theatre to review for Occursus. As I savoured the closing stages of Scarp, I stumbled upon the following prescient paragraph in the appendix-like set of stream of consciousness journal notes that close that book:

“This isn’t some TV-series or drama-workshop universe. This is the real world, Sir: the realm of ants swarming on kerbstones and wasps tapping against the window at dawn. There are sandy mounds behind the brake-drum factory; a myriad of insects dying in drainage ditches or under wheels. They click in their death throes as they are torn by mandibles, stamped on by children, squashed under tyres by roadside verge. The world is a fiery storm roaring at the base of the hedge – flames spreading, invisible in the tussocks.”

Insect Theatre violently drags the spectator into the tussocks. In Edgar’s close up images of dead flies, the spindle trails of spent spider webs and the death-field detritus of broken wings, legs and other shrivelled insect matter we journey into an unrelentingly Hobbesian state of nature, a world of devastation and desiccation-into-dust.

Accompanied by four short essays by anthropologist Hugh Raffles, the book manages to achieve an even bleaker tone than Papadimitriou’s paragraph, and something even more sinister than Bataille’s meditation on dust. Here the air is chilled by Raffles opening depiction of the death throes of a fly as it surrenders “in muddled exhaustion”, stuck fast on a flypaper, and things get no warmer in the tone and staging of Edgar’s images, for even his colour images have a muted, decay ridden palette. The abject effect is also achieved by focussing exclusively upon dead insects – dead defeated insects. This book does not present a valedictory account of the heroic life of rampant creatures. The victors are not seen here. These scenes are aftermaths of insect wars, and only the victims are left on stage. This conjures a strange horror-absence effect , for the victorious protagonist is absent, the sensation of viewing these images is a bit like stumbling into a giant’s cave and its litter of strewn bones.

Will the giant return and trap you as you gaze on at the remains of his last meal?

Many of the images show conquering web, a shroud-like dirty gossamer tightly wrapping the trapped insect carcases. These death-bundles are attended by tendrils of filament striated across the frame, taught lines of ominous vibration-cord, still capable of signalling to the predator off-stage.

Careful where you tread next, you might awaken the monster beyond the page.

The viewer becomes uncomfortable partly because here is dirt as art, but also because of the scale effect of dragging the viewer into the scene. Edgar’s pictures shrink the viewer down to insect size. And strangely this is achieved through removal of human reference points. This isn’t a Honey I Shrunk the Kids world, where the insects are shown living in small corners of our world. No, the absence of such collateral renders this a more alien place, one that is terrifying (and perhaps beautiful in an odd way) in its own terms rather than through any clear association to a ‘background’ human world.

Tim Edgar (2013) Insect Theatre, Black Dog Publishing: London, £14.95

More info at Black Dog’s site.


“When surface is depth” – on method, collaboration and Scree



we enter the land,

sooner or later we pick up

the scent of our own histories,

and when we begin to travel vertically,

we end up following road maps in the marrow

of our bones and in the thump of our blood”

William Least Heat-Moon (1991) PrairyErth, page 273

Earlier this week I sat with Katja Hock and worked through her photoset so that we could work out the images for Scree and how to mix words and pictures in a way that treated both as equal-but-different. This has been the hallmark of our collaboration – that what we came up with would neither be a text augmented by interpretative pictures nor a collection of photos contextualized by some interpretative essays. No, what we wanted was something that treated both equally, and this essay is a reflection on how sticking to that plan affected what we came up with.

Spotting difference

Scree will end with a dialogue piece in which Katja and I talk about the process of collaboration. The following is an extract:

Luke:     “What has it been like working with me (as someone who is so word focused)?”

Katja:    “To be straight, I sometimes just had to block out the information as this then became too influential on my perception of the places we walked and explored. Walking has also something to do with getting lost, exploring not really knowing where one is or what one is looking at, the process of photographing is a process of getting to know, getting closer. I would regard it more like a weaving of different types of material, giving the work an interesting structure and patina. The one informs the other without it becoming an illustration of it, adding something different and new, another angle and point of view, visually or in written form.”

Katja:    “How was it for you to work with a person so focused, literally on the surfaces of things?”

Luke:     “I’d sensed that blocking out of information as we walked around the hillside. It wasn’t a problem, but it perhaps took us on parallel journeys as we walked. For me I walk the hillside, but I’m also walking the archives (whether in books, on-line or picking up information from looking and listening in). I’m trying to stitch together what I find and then frame the materiality of the hillside through that intangible stuff – all the context. I want to be able to surf a bit through time and domains of meaning by having this architecture underlying my meaning-making up on the hill.”

Parallel lines

I found that in putting this dialogue together (we each exchanged questions and then stitched the result together as an apparent conversation) we were putting into words something previously unspoken but acknowledged between us, for it was palpable during our walks upon the hillside. The aim of the project had been to see how our two backgrounds and practices would contrast in our attempts to each interrogate and depict ‘absence’ upon this barren hillside. What was felt during the walks, and finally said in our dialogue, was that we had each been travelling the hill in parallel because our methods and preoccupations demanded this. I’d sensed early on that my babbling on about the background and context that I’d discovered for portions of the hill or things remaining there was not helping Katja. I picked up subtle cues (bodily gestures and suchlike, not words) that encouraged me stop acting like a tour guide, and keep to myself most of the excavated  ‘stuff’ that I’d brought along – as so much interpretative equipment – to the hillside.

As Katja said, context was not needed for her engagement with the physical stuff of the hill, and “you can’t photograph something that’s not there”. Yes, that’s self evident: but somehow I still needed it pointed out to me. Then she explained the essence of her interest in absence-depiction: it’s the relationship between what is shown and what might only be suggested. Katja’s work explores how still and moving image, in its representation of architectural space and landscape, frames and refers both to human presence and to transience. People are absent in her work, with only traces remaining: often only the memory of activity. Her work uses apparent emptiness to prompt the viewer to reflect on their experiences with such sites, allowing space for the viewer’s imagination to enter the photographic field.

So, therefore me blabbing on about who’d stood on this hillside in the past, where the mine had been or how many generations of locals were interred in the cemetery were potentially undermining her attempts to find something generic and memory-provoking in her image-work.

The best way to characterise the difference between our approaches (our ways of depicting absence) is to describe hers as surficial and mine as archival. Words have to be chosen carefully here because (as Deleuze has shown) our culture is haunted by 3,000 years of lauding ‘depth’ as good and ‘shallow’ as bad. What I came to realise is how steeped in that dominant (vertical) approach I still am, and that in the Scree project I have instinctively equated productivity on my part with digging into the context, burrowing into the archive to find treasure, testimonies, anomalies. I then  offered that excavated stuff back to the hill – as a votive – in the hope that it would then reveal itself to me in an enhanced – ‘deeper’ – way.  Thus, I’d piled matter (and meaning) back onto the mountain. Meanwhile, Katja had worked quite differently – to an extent horizontally rather than vertically –  taking what was physically present and co-opting it as a spur to triggering ‘memory of activity’ in the mind of the future viewer of her images, activity which may well have no direct connection to this particular hillside.

Which absence?

The oddity is that our words and pictures – presented alongside each other – do still seem to capture the same sense of the hill. This is no great surprise, for both of our investigations of this hillside were setting out with the aim of foregrounding what was absent, and both of us were working within a broadly psychogeographical spirit. Both of us were concerned with matter/mind interplay and subjective response to the hillside. But we were working with different aspects of absence to the fore, mine was a preoccupation with absence of the past things, people, projections of meaning and activity, hers was the absent presence of the anticipated future viewer (or perhaps more particularly the remembrances of other absences carried by that viewer and through which the desolate images might chime).

The difference was only one of degree though. Katja is also seeking to work vertically, in the sense of summoning things that have passed and which can be excavated by attentiveness. But photographic practice requires something – some physical trace – to be present as a seed from which the image can arise and/or act as a prompt in the mind of the current or future viewer. Katja seeks to trigger meaning making via analogy, through provoking the viewer to reflect upon their own tangible experiences elsewhere in time and space in response to the hinted-at events and things in the photographs. In one of her questions in the dialogue Katja asked me “How do you see your practice related to aspects of time and place?” Here’s how I responded:

“Yes, I agree that places have the ability to act as prompts for trails of thought, for example I look at the bare black plastic of Cell 4’s liner and I find my mind mulling on the life (and lifeword) of my grandmother. One thought, image, sensation, artefact can lead to another. Usually such thoughts evaporate because they have no medium to be fixed in. Poets and fiction writers manage to get close, but in my disciplinary background (law, built environment and social science) such impressions have no place, and I’m interested in questioning that, playing with the genre conventions and juxtaposing facts and impressions in the hope that new angles can be glimpsed. I’m also fascinated by the link between materiality (in this case the matter on this hillside) and the intangible world of ideas, memories, projections onto this brute ‘stuff’. It has been fascinating reading through the Sheffield Forum posts, seeing the rich ways in which people’s recollections and mental images link themselves back, across time and space to this place (or previous incarnations of it).”

Then we discussed the dominance of the written word in interpretation and ‘authoritative’ engagement with the material world:

Katja:    “The use of the written word in this case of course is equally subjective, although being rather authoritative at the same time, but how do you experience these two sides of the coin?”

Luke:     “Yes, this is a major theme for me too. Professionally I’ve been trained to use words as a vehicle for either truth or persuasive, logic-driven, argumentation. So, stepping away from that is rather taboo. But working within the psychogeographic tradition and blending that with some contemporary drifts in cultural geography frees me to be a little more playful in both the way that I write and what I write about. It’s because I know that I’m not supposed to mix imagistic creative travel writing and technical analysis of legal or engineering concepts that makes me want to do it. I like the effects that that instability throws up. I guess its writing against the grain for me and experimenting in other genres has made me more aware of the power of rhetoric and other stylistic devices in writing of all types. For example, I’m more alert to the ingress of metaphor, visual and spatial imagery within court judgments about the management of places and material things. I like the way that Graham Harman and others in the object orientated ontology movement are offering up a ‘weird realism’, an approach that both acknowledges the gritty materiality of the world that we exist in, but also of the multi-coloured symbolic realm that we project onto brute matter in our attempts to make sense of and to master the stuff of the world. This means that I increasingly find myself using the word ‘ghosts’ to describe some of the things going on out there beyond us, but actually I’m intensely down to earth and pragmatic, I don’t believe in ghosts of the white sheet variety.”

Navigating bounds and butting

I’ve concentrated in the reflections above on what I learnt from contrasting Katja’s method and orientation with my own – and what I learnt about my own approach as I came to understand hers. Reading back through it perhaps sounds like I now think that my archival, vertical approach was flawed in some way. But I don’t think that and I’m very happy with what I’ve written, and could only have approached this project in the way that worked for me. Our images and text work well together. But what I’ve wanted to show (and to foreground) in this piece is why it’s been fascinating working with Katja on this collaboration – and important for my academic research into who people read derelict sites differently. Through the project I’ve directly experienced the ‘bounds’ that I’ve tried to depict above, the unspoken normative limits inherent in our particular ways of seeing, and what happens when two different ways of seeing butt up against each other and how the normative confusion gets resolved into something that broadly satisfies the two frames in play:

         now / then

                    word / image

                                    surface / depth

                                                    here / there

                                                             past / future

                                                                       known / unknown

                                                                                       familiar / unfamiliar

                                                                                                           representation / non-representation

About Scree

Scree is currently being compiled by Ben Dunmore at Article Magazine. It will be published via Occursus by Amanda Crawley Jackson in the Tract imprint later this year. It will then exist as a limited edition physical publication, and hopefully thereafter as a pdf somewhere on my site.