Saturday, 26 October 2013

Some words to the Shard and to Crossbones Graveyard, as the day approaches when we honour the dead


not long ago my love and I took a walk south of the river on a sunny windy autumn day. We found ourselves in the crawling streets at your feet, in your shadow. Walking down to Borough High Street, there is no escaping you. You drew our gaze upwards. It is clear why people speak jokingly of the Dark Lord Sauron's blazing eye - squint, and I could almost see it suspended between the jagged spikes at your top. It does not take much imagination. But there is something else, something more subliminal, a suspicion felt in the gut. As we kept walking south, leaving the fine coffees and artisan breads of the new Borough Market to one side, we stopped and turned back towards you. And there one could hear it faintly, voices circling on the wind, a phrase that tried to surface in my consciousness since we came up from the underground station. You stood there, more than just tall. It is not that you are not beautiful. The autumn sun reflected from your glassy skin, highlighting the elegant angles of your symmetry. It is not you. Like Frankenstein's monster, you did not make yourself, but were formed by the imagination of your masters. But unlike  that tragic creature, yours is a terrible beauty, that does not wear the grotesque parts of your masters' souls on its very flesh - it hides them under a shiny, glittering facade. And still the words were circling, flying up suddenly with the fallen leaves from the ground, and the voices on the air finally spoke: You are lording it over us. 

Shard, I realised then that this is what you do. You are lording it over us. Your name an image, so blatant, so trivial that I'm reluctant to say it, but cannot not: the broken parts of the world reflected in your violent gesture that cuts the river air like a shard of glass. 
Yours is a booming voice, that broadcasts to us a message of our hubris as much as of our insignificance. Or more to the point, of our significance only as small cogs in the machine of our grand undertaking. Yours is a terrible beauty, clinical,  aloof, with no relationship to the living things around. I wanted to say that you are dead, but you don't radiate at all the messy, earthen, organic truth of actual death. What shines from you is the cold horror of non-aliveness, the majestic indifference that does not truly care about anything that lives. 

Eventually, our eyes found their way to the ground again, we turned our backs,  and we kept walking further south....

Crossbones Graveyard, 

we turned left beneath a railway bridge, no bustle here, no fine coffees or artisan breads, only a derelict yard, barbed wire, and then you. Your iron gate laden with ribbons, with photos, notes, toy animals, plastic jewellery, flowers, trinkets of any kind, a bicycle wheel, a vodka bottle, poetry, sadness, humour, laden with life and death. 
Behind the gate, trees, bushes, small spaces, small gestures of the heart. Standing here, we could hear the grief of mothers and fathers, the raucous laughter of the drunks, the pain  and the jokes of the prostitutes, the regret for bad decisions, the adventures and disappointments of the tearaways, the dreams, the dread, the violence, the shared lonlinesses, the loss, the missing, the fighters, the will to live. Some things old and wild, many things unspoken, many things unspeakable. 
You told us stories while we hung out with you and yours. We smiled and laughed, tears welled up in our eyes. We said "Look at this!" and "Come over here!" and "Have you seen this bit?!". We touched the ribbons, we felt the presence of the dead and of the living who insist on not forgetting them. Who consecrate over and over this unconsecrated ground to honour those whose trajectory was different, whose lives did not fit into the patterns marked on the hard ground, who may have had nobody weeping over them.

Crossbones Graveyard, yours is a small and messy beauty that draws our eyes to the ground, to the inside, to each other. You speak with many voices, some barely audible, some loud and angry, some an anguished scream. You have room for the painted and broken faces, the trampled dreams, the rebel spirit, the out of control, the desperate, the quiet, the beating, kicking, breathing life. Once a rotten slum, you are prime land now. One can almost feel the tentacles of the shiny buildings further north groping for you, their relentless desire hovering over you. You barely cling on to your patch, helped by some of the living who care and all the dead whose resting place you are, and those many others for whom they speak. Your right to be here is absolute. 

Crossbones Graveyard, next week when we walk in the street to honour the dead with dance and song and masquerade, 

it is your outcast dead I will remember,

your inalienable right to speak for them,
the things they tell us about the outcast living in this time,
and about the outcast parts of ourselves that we are asked to deaden to the world. 

With love and appreciation. 

Please go and visit Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Some Days

{this was one of them} 

Some days I don't understand any of this striving. The busy deeds. The whirring thoughts. The endless will to create, to be someone, to make a mark. As if an empty theatre was running a constant complicated show.

But I would be a blade of grass, dew sitting on me, alive in the intricacy of growing from the ground. A blade of grass, or a stone all heavy and eternal or a moth in my own moth-time destiny.

Some days I burn with envy for a creature alive in its own design. Nothing above, outside, tomorrow or beyond. Just its very being. Or so it seems to one who, though she loves them deeply, still knows so little of grass and stones and what moth-worlds really are. 

Some days, a feeling like a trickle of ice water starts running down my spine: that the rounds and rounds of desire and ambition, pure, dark, good natured or with cold exacting plan, are what make us human being, are the essence locked in our design. That all our doing and expressing, our wilful striving hearts, might be the joke with many endings, the cursed demand. The shadow of our own arising which brought us here. That we were made like this always, or that now truly, this is who we are: 
A strange animal with great longing. Of this world, yet forever reaching somewhere, not knowing how to be alive inside of it at all.

Photo by Daniela Othieno  (some rights reserved)

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Bones in Trees - some thoughts on perception and defining things

When the first anthropologists went out into what the profession calls “the field”, and in the pay of colonial administrations started systematically studying the cultures of those to be ruled, they came back with descriptions and theories. They would go and observe rituals, ceremonies and  everyday practices , they would interview people, take copious notes, make sketches of what they had seen. Then they would go home and painstakingly describe and interpret all the gathered data. Of course,  the vast majority of these early anthropologists would not have been able to see whatever they had seen in any other way than through the narrow lenses of their own cultural conditioning. When they saw people “worshipping” a figure, tree or animal, the conclusion was that they were indeed worshipping that figure, tree or animal, that the relationship was simple and straightforward, because after all that's what these people were like. The idea that their objects of study could have complex systems of meaning based on entirely different yet coherent premises, did hardly enter their minds. Their view that these people were inherently inferior, rather than just different, only reinforced this.
We  also know now that many of these people deliberately misinformed the anthropologists. In a tricksterish spirit, quite often they would feed them untruths or tell them what they thought they wanted to hear. And why would they just reveal the deepest secrets of their sense making systems when they themselves underwent complex and painful rites of passage to arrive at understanding and insight? Besides, some things cannot just be told in order to be known.  This was a notion that these colonial agents generally could not conceive of. They had been there, stood by, observed and noted down, and naturally this would enable them to name and interpret what they had seen.

Of course we have moved on since the days of colonial anthropology. We can laugh about the delusions of these agents of Empire, who would not have seen themselves as prisoners of their own conditioning at all. We know that there is no such thing as an objective observer. We have created whole new theoretical paradigms and academic discourses around this insight. And yet.

It was the image of the colonial anthropologist that came into my mind this week when I read some articles and reviews about the Dark Mountain Project and its Uncivilisation Festivals. I have been involved with Dark Mountain for a few years, first as a reader of the blog and books and a festival punter and gradually as a creative participant. Much like I imagine the subjects of many an anthropological study would struggle to recognise themselves or their world in the reports about them, I don't recognise in these accounts myself, or the festivals I've been to, the people I have shared them with and the impact all this has had in my life.
Dark Mountain has been called many things: survivalist, doom, cult, hippy, primitivist, all sorts, often by people who have never even engaged with it at all, most recently in the ever abundant comment section of a Guardian article. Last year, a largely positive review of the festival by Ed Lake appeared in Aeon magazine. This year, another largely positive review  by Tom Jeffreys appeared on the Wild Culture website. They were positive in a way, but something made me uneasy. The Aeon article, though ending on quite an open minded note, had an intrigued but slightly frightened tone, and Ed saw meanings and drew parallels everywhere that I didn't recognise: Heideggerian language, sinister undertones caused by bones hanging in trees, imagery evoking "far right bohemia". Then the description veered into more of a hippy connection, but I couldn't see myself in the probably well meaning description as "gentle and concerned" either. It painted a picture of men wearing "animal-tooth pendants" and women sporting "Peter Pan tunics". I'm not saying nobody at all wore such things, but these sweeping, defining statements annoyed me. (To be fair, some of this merely came across as slightly cliched journalism, but cliched journalism is actually a part of the bigger picture I'm looking at.)

My point is not so much about whether I agree or disagree with the reviewers and commenters. What Dark Mountain does will not work for everybody, there are many ways. I  can also appreciate that someone coming to an Uncivilisation festival for the first time could be bewildered and questioning. This is not even just about Dark Mountain. What I find fascinating in these reviews, articles and comments to varying degrees, are the ways of perceiving and how ready we can be to define something, even in a benign way, that has barely been encountered on a profound level. It's something that pervades our entire culture.

Dark Mountain is often described as a space for conversation, based around some basic premises that many (though maybe not even all) who are engaged with it share, and on a desire to create new stories or re-imagine old ones. It is therefore to a large degree an experimental space, a kind of cauldron of meaning-making that is still being concocted and stirred.
Something that I kept hearing at this year's festival, clearer than ever before, was that people came there and to Dark Mountain in general out of a longing for a new language, for the joy of finding a place to experiment with that, to hear people speak in it, to immerse themselves in it. This is language in more than the narrow sense of the word. We could say that they were there to take part in an experiment to make sense of this age, when the things that are meant to make sense of it don't cut it any longer.
But of course in this search for new ways of understanding, of expression, of relationships, we use reference points, imagery and forms that we have inherited and that are familiar to us at the start of this journey. So one might see people at Uncivilisation wear animal masks, hang bones in trees, recite poetry, tell weird stories, have strange rituals and feral theatre in the woods. But I would caution an observer against getting carried away with interpreting these forms and assuming that they are filled with the same content and meaning that we have been ascribing to them thus far.  In this experiment to find maybe not a completely new language so much as a language and a voice that is appropriate to our time, there will be an amalgamation of many things, as if the molecular structure of our sense making  is being dissolved and put back together in a slightly different pattern. Like alchemy. Some of it we may think we recognise, but on closer inspection its meaning may have shifted  ever so slightly, but ever so importantly.

Bones in trees, really, are just bones in trees. Instead of overlaying them straight away with a culturally conditioned significance, may it not be more interesting to look at them with new and slightly innocent eyes, to consider what they make us feel and think on a deeper level in this moment of our life, or the life of the world? Why has somebody chosen to walk around in a strange mask?  Maybe they are not a pagan, they don't worship at the altar of irrationality, maybe they have a wholly different and interesting reason for it.

Ironically, Tom who wrote the Wild Culture review says that the prevailing theme or mood of this year's festival seemed to be irrationality. I say ironically, because one of the big criticisms Dark Mountain and especially the festivals received in the early stages, was a heavy focus on intellectual and rational debate. Gradually, elements of other modes of perception and practice came into play, precisely from an understanding that experiments in making meaning cannot possibly come from the intellect alone. 
The same review also detects at the festival "an overly simplistic opposition between the conscious (Western civilisation, human control and domination, science, reason etc) and the unconscious (Uncivilisation, the unthinking behaviour of animals, instinct etc)" and quoted a festival participant as saying "nature does what it does". But I don't see how this statement and even the term "Uncivilisation" implies automatically that what nature does is in any way simple, unthinking, or machine-like? It's of course quite the opposite.What nature does and our entanglement in it is so complex that all our attempts to explain and understand it, science, religion, art, are just approximations, or a shining of light from different angles. Grappling in the dark to make sense of what nature – including us – just does. Dark Mountain is one space - I'm sure there are others - where I have found people grappling with this in seriousness, with sophistication, with imagination, passion and creativity. Oh, and fun.

Simplistic it is not, and the complexity is present at the festival as well as in the books. Festivals and gatherings have their special strength in affording us physical and sensual experiences of things. It's a different kind of complexity from that of theoretical argument and literary expression. I think that our culture is not well versed in perceiving the complexity that this kind of experience entails. It can easily be missed, maybe because we have a preconception that these things are simple, and as Tom puts it  "limited in terms of precision, nuance and the kind of depth into which the written word can delve". There is a whole other conversation to be had about the idea that an oral and more experiential culture could in fact be highly precise, nuanced and deep in its mode of perception and conceptualisation - just in a different way. One could consider what our written cultures may have lost by fixing things in so called precision. There are notions for example that the written word is deeply un-nuanced and shallow because it is fixed on a page and cannot move and fly. It may be good for understanding and expressing some things, but not for others. Frankly, I think I would have had an easier and more enjoyable time having a face to face conversation by the fire, than trying to fix all the nuances of what I want to say about this whole issue without being misunderstood on to this page/screen. I actually have a headache now. 

Engaging with a non-written, non-precise (in the Western rational sense) experience such as story-telling, singing, dance, embodiment through masquerade, ritual, and simply being with people in a more conscious than everyday way can be deeply insightful. It can also be exhilarating and painful in equal measure because it connects with more than our intellect. We are not safely disembodied behind a written page or a computer screen. What goes on cannot merely be told to be known, but has to be touched and felt and spoken. Most of us are not very practised in processing that kind of thing and could do with a lot more experimenting with it! On that note, this may not have been the last festival altogether, but just the last in its current form.

It would be nice  if we could open our minds to what actually may be going on in such experimental spaces, if we could rein in that urge to pigeonhole, define, critique and instead see whether the meaning we assume to perceive in the symbols and practices is really what is happening. Why take an experiment and imprison it in the language and the meanings of the age that we are slowly leaving behind? It does look to me like the language of Empire with its particular brand of rationality that has to encase everything in hard boundaried classifications. Why immediately cage the bird when it is just tentatively starting to fly? It speaks to me of a fear of the unknown, of an impulse to stand on the edge of the lake, survey, map and measure it, instead of touching the water, let alone dive in. But that is not the only way the world can be perceived and engaged with. In spaces where things are still fluid, still being cooked up, it may be a misguided approach to try and understand through dissecting and defining alone. This does not mean that there can be no critical voices and that there will be no conflict, far from it, but in order to criticise and make conflict worthwhile, surely one has to engage on quite a profound level first? 

I still think about the early anthropologists and how the faint shadow of their approach lies over the way we look at anything new that tries to emerge in our own culture. I don't mean to pick on these two reviews or the people who wrote them, I really don't. We all use this approach. It happened to Occupy too, and to many other initiatives that try something new or different. To a degree I can understand the impulse to define something unknown and unnerving quickly and to critique it in the paradigms we feel safe in. At the same time I'm wondering if it is just the machinations of Empire ingrained in our brains to such a degree that they feel natural. That fixing gaze, that cannot look at anything and let it be unfamiliar, unclear, disorienting, fluid or simply growing and emerging. My experience of academia was constantly being asked to dissect, analyse,define and criticise, all under the banner of "furthering knowledge", but it rarely felt creative in any real sense of the word. It rarely felt like I was spinning threads of existing ideas to weave something new. 

The defining, critical analysis of the detached observer - or in its more ignorant form, the flippant sarcasm of the comments sections - is such a big part not just of academia and journalism but of the cultural constructs of our age, and the way we relate with everything. Whole professions and industries are built on it, whole ways of being. Even among those of us who agree that things had better change. But I have long wondered what for? It feels like such a pointless expenditure of energy. How does it serve us in adapting and reacting to a changing world? How does it serve us in trying to change things and ourselves, even just a little bit? 

Skull in Tree, Uncivilisation 2012
Image by Bridget Mackenzie

Monday, 17 December 2012

Things in a circle at night

So it means to circle round again, wings flapping, struggling against the celestial torrent that is us. Or an image of us or an image of the world in the mirror that is us. Us is where it all seems to end . End, not arrive. End up, but not looking up. Looking down, or maybe sometimes looking inward, where we have looked too often in the wrong direction. But arriving is what we're searching for, and if it  is only arriving in a place that lets us rest and breathe. Then we can praise that riddle that is our earthly existence. Then we can come down from the mountain, up from the gutter, from then on. In dance the direction unfolds sometimes. As and when it happens we don't always know, until much later when there is another evening sky to be endured in all its glory, but separate, but alone. The tiredness of this golden light. Dusk or dawn, the same old face of the world woven into the deepest threads of our dream. That desires the one union. Communion. Community. Communication. Coming home.


And the pits of the oceans? The bulks of the waves are loaded with unanticipated forms. Nothing that we could ever plan for nor imagine. And yet we insist on planning and imagining a design. Meanwhile, what we really feel has its origin not in the chemical reactions in our brains, but elsewhere. In all those places that we sometimes feel clearly in our hearts but cannot fathom in our minds. Not even begin to express in any language that has ever been uttered in a circle nor written on a scroll nor typed into a machine. The fire is burning, but is it belief or knowledge, that shadowy reign from which we sometimes shriek back as if it was the very thing that held us down? The chains around the legs of the big bird are made from the same material, and we know this. But in the end, will they be broken by willpower or surrender? In the end, it all depends on going forward in concentration and not missing one turn of the spiral. Distraction is sometimes the enemy of wisdom, if not all the time.

The wild secretions of this city of gold always let us down in the end. Just when we think we have found the key to the steel gate, the gate chooses to slam shut in an immense and inconceivable scream. It's the time of the morning when window panes freeze over with ice and there are not enough ovens burning in the city to change how it feels.


But what happens to the inside parts where the templates of the story are being written in a continuous whisper? Have you heard the tiny buzzing feet running back and forth? Carrying bowls of splashing water from one room to the next while the stories are spun. Or maybe you have chosen to turn up the volume of your TV in the morning? Or the volume of those other voices in your head that tell you it's time to move on and get going but forgot to provide a map for the trip. Then it dawns on you that you are merely a child-like passenger, and that the wooden horses on their circular journey have more sense than you. Or at least that is what you fear. Whatever you say brother, the fallen ones will tell a different story. Have you heard their mutterings in front of the underground stations? Have you seen their abrupt turn on a violent heel, their wild and desperate stare? We tried our best to fit our lives into the lines and boxes provided. Not more than ten digits, tick here or choose Other. Needless to say, we always chose Other. But even the Other is always there facing us, whether in golden nightskies or in shopping centres.


But if you want it , the salt of the earth will laugh upon your eyelids. In tiny crystals, it will laugh like tinkling bells. When it happens, allow yourself to cry with all the tears necessary. When it happens and your heart hits the very matter you were made of, and the skies in your soul open to the possibilities that came into being with you, it requires a sense of focus. Focus and space, to let yourself be that unique thing among many others. That inbreath and that outbreath, just like everything else.


When my star was born      Copyright Vincent Oyenga 2012

Monday, 7 May 2012

Aspiration – a reflection, a remembering, a plea

1. strong desire, longing, or aim; ambition.
2. a goal or objective desired.
3. act of aspirating; breath.

The aspiration to lead a good life.

To do an honest day’s work that does not reap a profit from the imagined needs of others, or from their misery. That does not twist my brain into strange, unnatural shapes.

My breath, my eyes, my hands and feet, my beating heart. The devotion of my lover, and mine to him.

A place to live where I can’t be evicted , that does not claim me as its slave. Big enough to be creative and host my friends. Too small to amass things I don't need.

Space from where to see the sky, animals, a spider’s web, dew drops, something that grows, to touch the earth. Gratitude.

Friends and family that stand together like the different species in a forest, nurturing life and weathering the seasons and the storms that will surely come. Goodwill and patience.

A good fire to sit around. Stories, songs and wine. Food to sustain me. The ability to make a delicious feast from some potatoes and nettles.  To bake a decent loaf of bread.

Books and poetry. And time. Time and space to feel into the rhythm of life with body and spirit. A good, wild dance. A crazy laughter, a proper cry. Celebrations.

Time to think and people to mingle ideas with.

To create with words and things that others throw away, not for recognition, but for my heart’s content. To make something from nothing and enjoy it. To see something in everything there is.

The freedom to wander. Curiosity. My wits about me. To take things as they come.

All I want is a good life, and the wisdom to notice when it happens. The courage not to believe that I need anything else.

Aspiration. The act of aspirating. Breath.

Copyright 2010 Vincent Oyenga 

(Thanks to Kevin and a Beltane fire for the inspiration to think about aspirations.)