January 29, 2006

Fragments of a conversation with Julian House


I met Ghost Box's Julian House at the V and A last week, where, as part of the museum's February Friday Late event, he was part responsible for a display and demonstration by the 'Department of Pscyhological Navigation', a mock Government agency claiming to offer 'Creative Profiling and Unconscious Topography'. The DoPN was represented by a lovingly-produced booklet (recalling Observer books, Panini sticker albums, Ruritanian passports, Situationist pamphlets and, inevitably, HMSO information publications), a short film, and a number of official, even officious, personnel.

The booklet was executed with all the attention to detail we have come to expect from Ghost Box products. Its fonts, layout, and design were the typographical equivalent of Ghost Box sounds, conjuring another world (Britain of the sixties and seventies as imagined by Thomas Pynchon perhaps) where a socialist bureaucracy undertook a version of situationist psychogeography.

The booklet was full of activities, completion of which would supposedly yield a map of the participant's 'unconscious creative profile'. Participants were invited to read a series of evocative sentences (each one like the premise for an intriguing short story) before thinking of a number. The numbers were then to be plotted on a grid and the resultant 'mind plans' were to be matched to A roads. Participants were also invited to express emotions such as 'vague anger' or 'watchful jealousy' using a series of rubber stamps and to complete short 'stories' made solely out of images using a beautifully-prepared sheet of stickers ('remember,' the booklet warned, 'stories can be read on any axis and in any direction.') The results were then 'analysed' by an earnest-looking 1970s OU-lecturer-type in a suit who would portentously stamp the book with an apparently meaningful code.

The Department of Psychological Navigation seemed less like a transparent hoax than like a fictional organization that had forgotten it was fictional and stumbled out into what we are pleased to call the 'real world'. (Others were more credulous, seemingly happy to accept that the DoPN was fully authentic.) If Ghost Box LPs are like the incidental music for television programmes that have not yet been broadcast, or better, that have already been broadcast but in an alternative past, then the DoPN was like something that would have formed part of the fictional background in a television series, now detached from the series itself. Imagine UNIT without Dr Who. As with the Ghost Box tunes, you are invited to think: what context could this make sense in?

Some conversation topics

Julian and I agreed that one of the biggest problems with something like BBC1's Life on Mars is that has exactly the opposite emphasis: it is all foreground and no background. Life on Mars forces its 70s props into our face because behind then there is a fundamental emptiness. This is partly why, in Life on Mars nothing feels lived in.

British TV's problem, we agreed, is that is too in thrall to film. The classic serials of the seventies produced a world you felt a part of, a sense of inclusion to which 'wobbly sets' somehow contributed. The professionalism and glossiness of current TV, by contrast, locks you out, subordinates you to Spectacle. (I thought, later, of McLuhan's distinction between film - as a hot, spectacular medium - and TV - which he said was a 'cool', participative medium, whose picture literally has to be 'finished off' by the viewer.)

It occurs to me that Ghost Box is about a positive amateurism, where amateurism doesn't designate a failure to be professional so much as a deliberate deviation from how things are supposed to be done.

We discussed why Lovecraft is so singularly important. Lovecraft pioneered a fictional system or 'ritual literature' (Houllebecq) that was, by its nature, incomplete and participative. Incomplete, because each new contribution to the system, each new story, novel, character or creature, would produce new 'holes' which demanded to be filled (a process that is necessarily interminable), each component of the system, each collectable fragment, functions as a 'part-object' that can never be collated into a whole; and participative, because the system is genuinely a system, a collective product rather than the work of a single author. (It occurs to me, afterwards, that such 'participation' is the real alternative to the 'interpassivity' of so much digital culture.)

The notion of the derelict and the disused comes up. Julian raised the idea - via Gibson (in one of the later novels) - of disused cyberspace: the websites of companies that have ceased to trade, digital relics awaiting re-population.


More on hauntology - with even more promised - at Subject Barred.

Posted by mark at January 29, 2006 11:16 PM | TrackBack