In which I lay out a new research interest, to be followed in posts both big and small along the way.
TL;DR – over the next year I’ll be using this space to explore ideas of uncanny landscapes: be that my home in Dedham Vale, a landscape bound by law to appear as it once did in a painting, to encounters with AI and machine learning, to virtual- and alternate-reality, to animist and non-anthropocentric visions of our places.
Encounters with an Uncanny Landscape
They rose early to trek the field. I feel certain they did. Like my neighbour, a 60-year-old machinist, who hikes out at dawn dressed in a duster so Johnny Cash-black it shines against the morning mist. He and his ancient retriever walk the path that follows from our tiny cluster of homes through the fields and into the village. I see him out of my window some mornings and it’s as though I can see them, the path-walkers who first lived in our homes and first forged the trails. I know he loves heavy rock and would far rather cruise the path on a motorbike, one of his many, but I see him haunt black along the path and it’s them, from a time before either one. It’s them because none of it quite belongs. None of us, and not the path and not the field and certainly not me.
The path-walkers’ trail leads, eventually, to the old mill in a village on the Essex-Suffolk border. When the fields were enclosed 200 years back, the paths remained open to all, to serve the need for labour. I love the paths, and feel grateful for those stamping feet that forged them and those, like my neighbour’s, that keep them trampled. But they are not a ‘freedom’ – they are a conveyance and a convenience for industry; a border few can cross. They are part of the landscape in the way of a pylon.
The man who first required those mill workers, the employer for whom the paths were cut, was a wealthy agro-industrialist named Golding Constable. His son, John Constable, was a painter, who certainly passed by the site of my house while on his sketching rambles. For him, yes, the paths were a lark and a joy. And our path must have been on his route. It’s one you might take, for example, from Dedham Lock and Mill to The Glebe Farm. It’s halfway between The Hay Wain and Dedham from Langham.
Today, thanks to the way John Constable layered paint on canvas – often in London or Sussex or elsewhere, taking from his sketches and, as often, his memories of Dedham Vale, the place from which he sprang and of which he rendered – the place in which we live is locked in a kind of obstinate argument with the modern world.
An argument, it must be said, that Dedham Vale’s agrarian, Georgian veil is winning. The fields are still small and segmented, unlike more industrial farming that takes place just a quarter-mile away. The settings, picturesque: un-mended gates and angry old farmers seem to be dropped in by helicopter; even the bulls pronounce their vowels Suffolk-wide. And it’s this way, to some degree, by law. The entire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty stretching from west-of-Manningtree in Essex to east-of-Bures in Suffolk is decreed, by law, to be a Georgian and Victorian landscape-painting playground. The Area is beautiful, of this there is no doubt: Outstanding. But like all of southern England, there is little about it that is ‘Natural’ – if, by that, one means unaltered by human hands.
Instead, it’s uncanny.
Walk the paths and you might feel it: the ghost in the machine. It is a vision – Constable’s nostalgia for a perhaps-never-was way of life, painted 200 years ago and then recreated here. Them and their ilk. They who never were. Black against the mist. It is a flecked landscape, the clouds more perfect than the people. The picturesque version of Sebald’s photographs: a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy…
The end result is a place that feels hyper-real and, as is often the case with such things, not real at all. A place in which the detritus of landscape industrialisation – locks, mills, enclosure roads, ownership – become natural beauty. And they are. They’re natural, just as we are; just as our machines are, and they’re beautiful, because we project beauty onto them. It is so often imagined that such a landscape, of yawning postcard and choc-box scenes, is the opposite of the modern world. Perhaps it is the greatest triumph of the postmodern. The imposition of the English garden along mile after mile, with the inhabitants forgetting that they are part of the picture.
Living in such a landscape is a confusion, which is grand and right because that’s what landscape is – a confusion of multiple realities piled atop one another, vibrating at only slightly different frequencies such that I see one narrative and you another. The mongrel, uncanny vibrations of Dedham Vale, in which reality is a painting and vice-versa, have led me on to a new path – one of nature and aesthetics and machines and labour and of the place where they vibrate side-by-side.
A path towards uncanny landscapes of many kinds.
The way we teach artificial intelligence about our environment and our stories of place. The artists whose work replicates the ‘natural’ world with robotics and code. The post-natural and post-human worlds of our landscape adventures. The quite-natural occult responses to the crises in which we live. The less-anthropocentric view of our landscape, and the use of human privileges and powers to return a bit of what we’ve taken from the other.
Over the next 12 months I intend to explore these ideas and projects on this site, using the Uncanny Landscapes tag. My church of the uncanny is a broad one, my definitions obscene. The geography in which I’m interested is a deep one, far beyond these few OS maps; my time frame, my Now, is Long. Know this: these thoughts are forming, not formed. Let this research be its own end. I hope you will find something of interest in the weeks and months to come.