Thursday, July 02, 2009

A Manifesto for Surrealist London

'The matter of our work is everywhere present', wrote the old alchemists, and that is the truth. All the wonders lie within a stone's throw of King's Cross Station.
~ Arthur Machen, Things Near and Far.

The SURREALIST LONDON ACTION GROUP (SLAG) is not simply a group of Surrealists who happen to live in or around the London area. SLAG is a group which celebrates the Surrealist city, and actively seeks the SURREALISATION of London and of the lives of all who live and work in it.

The Surrealist approach to London is psychogeographical first and foremost, but it is NOT the pseudo-poetic, romanticised, nostalgic, all-too-fashionable – and ultimately conservative – approach of, say, Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd. ‘Psychogeography’ in the commoditised form has become indistinguishable from tourism, and ‘secret London’ just another current in the constant stream of images which alienate us from each other, ourselves and our surroundings in the Society of the Spectacle: a vision infected with what André Breton in the Second Surrealist Manifesto called ‘a cancer of the mind which consists in thinking all too sadly that certain things "are,'' while others, which might well be, "are not".’

Under this regime of the Spectacle, with its tourist ‘experiences’ and its media image-fetishism, many people feel that they know what to expect of London, just as they feel they know what to expect of Surrealism. Superficial aspects of London have been turned into media images, just as the superficial (‘mannerist’) aspects of Surrealism have been adopted by the media and culture industries- this is ‘surrealism’ reduced to style (i.e. 'surrealism' with a small ‘s’), with little or nothing to do with Surrealism as a movement. Genuinely Surrealist London, like the Surrealist Movement itself, is in constant flux, just as reality itself shifts, mutates and so reveals its inconsistencies: ‘a world that some call reality but which is only an incessant discovery; a mystery reborn indefinitely’ (Pierre Mabille).

Surrealist psychogeography is in an altogether different vein. Our expeditions through space and place operate not at the level of the image, but at the level of the encounter, at once more fleeting and more visceral than the mythopoesis-lite of tourism and nostalgia. The city for us is not a passive background or external world to be mapped, recorded, classified, and ultimately rationalised in the spirit of Augustan taxonomy; something to serve us with the illusion of gaining control over the uncontainable, but an active subject, to be conjured as one might conjure an egregore and explored as one might explore a lover. Our encounters with London are not just with its physical locations but also with its dreams, desires, fears and loves, its premonitory horrors and revolutionary hopes: in short, with its SURREALITY.

In London we station ourselves on the periphery of the comprehensible and are taken to the realms of the improbable and beyond, to encounter Imagination grappling with Reason, or to be more precise, Imagination avenging itself upon Reason, joyfully and without mercy. In our 'elective places' - fixed points, multiple magnetic poles in the space-time continuum around which (r)evolve Surrealist place and Surrealist life: the secret roads, ancient subterranean rivers, plague pits, those tear-jerkingly poignant junk shops of the Holloway Road and stalls of Cheshire Street, the murky waters of the Serpentine, the reality-check architectural contrast between the Square Mile and Bethnal Green, the soon-to-be-defiled loveliness of the Lea Valley; and such street names as Bleeding Heart Yard (EC1), Cornflower Terrace (SE22), Black Lion Lane (W6), The Ring (W2), Crutched Friars (EC3), Gothic Road (Twickenham) and Candy Street (E3) - we embrace perpetual correspondences and submit to objective chance, conduct an archaeology of the present and future, discover points of departure into the infinite depths of London's erotic universe. We haunt the city and are haunted by it: we love its absurdity, its sublime kitsch, its artificiality, we delight in its playfulness, no less than its fevers and migraines, capricious cruelties and abominable debaucheries, tantrums and seizures. Marvellous phantoms haunt London: a stroll in the park can become an event of eternal significance, an unfolding of myth, marked by strange encounters, talismanic found objects and chance provocations.

Of course our methods are not confined to London. They can and should be copied and adapted to reproduce the encounter with Surreality in any environment, in any city, town, village or field, elsewhere, anywhere or (with the Surrealist atopos) nowhere. But the SLAG takes London as the centre of its Surrealist explorations and experiences. It is the place where we live Surrealist life. Marooned on the city’s rocks, we dive into the ‘mystery and melancholy of the streets’, and moving like a ‘blind swimmer’ (Max Ernst) we seek out the wonders, the signs and portents, concealed behind the surfaces of the everyday. Ever in pursuit of the ineffable, something that lies just over the horizon of the visible, the habitual, the predictable, the banal – something that endlessly mutates and proliferates, something that ultimately is not a ‘thing’ at all but is movement itself, analogical restlessness, the permanent revolution of metonymy –the Surrealist is like the hero of Georges Limbour’s Le Cheval de Venise, ‘never lost, for the path he takes is always towards what he does not know.’ The Hunting of the Surrealist Snark, the pursuit of Surreality, ought not to be undertaken in the shallow, tainted pools of art books, of paintings in galleries or objects in museums, but in the city streets, in the very heart of the demonic angel where desire is paramount and ‘dream’ and ‘reality’ are indistinguishable, become one. Here we may be privileged to observe the transfiguration of the ordinary into the fabulous.

French Surrealists have seen Paris as both a 'soluble city', and as a woman; the late, Leeds-based Surrealist Anthony Earnshaw saw his city as a slattern; we see our city as a multi-headed OVERLY-EMOTIONAL HERMAPHRODITE, with putrescent erogenous zones, vulvae gaping wide in tunnels and doorways, clitorises in the street furniture, arseholes in alleyways, dildos throbbing and phalloi bursting from the erectile-gherkin architecture. With its myriad snapping jaws and delirious mouths kissing itself with cannibal tongues, London is a city continually devouring itself, digesting itself in an unstoppable act of MAD LOVE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the spirited essay. Your concluding paragraphs brought to mind an old oneiric and psychogeographical experience of mine. At the end of a party I'd fallen asleep for a moment while sitting up, and a delirious vision of a map played across my inner scenery, accompanied by verbal comments. According to this, a certain road lead to a large field, and in this field was the town's clitoris. It was an area that I was fond of in waking life due to the layout of the land and the look of a nearby building. I made tentative maps of that small town after that, trying to find erogoneous power zones according to surrealist and situationist principles. Shibek