I have been making a conscious effort to be more regular with my blog updates these past couple of months. In terms of photographs, quotes and interesting web-links this has been going quite well. In terms of words, however, it is still severely lacking.
I did write a fairly lengthy post several weeks ago but held back from publishing it as I wasn’t fully convinced that I wanted to draw too many lines between Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand – a tragic tale of drug-induced ‘time travel’ – and my own work. However, looking back on it now I realise that what I was trying to get at was not so much parallels between the two works but the importance of being open to inspiration; of recognising and learning from others’ approaches to similar themes. So, rather than starting a completely new train of thought, I’ve decided to return to that original post, re-frame it slightly and try to use it as a starting point for a more regular series of entries.
I have often found inspiration to be something of an elusive creature; in many ways not unlike an urban fox. I know it is there because I can hear it; even occasionally see it lurking in the shadows, but I rarely get a good look at it. Then, one night, usually when I least expect it, I hear a movement behind me and I turn and see it standing staring at me from under the glow of a streetlight. We stand and regard each other for a moment before it turns tail and disappears back into the shadows.
This is not to say that inspiration always strikes in this manner, but when I find an image or a story lurking in the back of my mind it is usually because there is something inspiring or thought-provoking that I didn’t quite recognise at first. This was precisely the case after I finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s 1969 The House on the Strand, a book which I must admit I was surprised to find still occupying my thoughts. I say this because, as I was reading the book, I didn’t feel that I was that deeply engaged in the story. Perhaps this was simply due to the fact that the style is quite different from what I’d expected based on du Maurier’s earlier and better known works; such as Julius (1933), Jamaica Inn (1936) and, of course, Rebecca (1938): still rooted in character and landscape, but slower paced and edging towards the realm of science-fiction.
The book centres on a man by the name of Dick, who agrees to help his friend, Professor Magnus Lane, test a new drug he has developed that seemingly allows the user to experience a form of time-travel. The drug, accompanied by wildly disorientating side effects, allows Dick to wander around the Cornish countryside around Magnus’s home – Kilmarth – and experience it as it was in the 14th Century. Always close to a footman named Roger, he is able to see and hear everything that went on in the past but is completely unable to intervene. The more Dick uses the drug, delving deeper and deeper into the past, the greater his addiction becomes and the more he begins to lose touch with the present; deepening an existing rift with his wife, Vita.
The overall plot is not the focus of this post, so I will not go in to further detail, except to state that it has may threads*: Dick’s addiction, his friendship with Magnus, his decaying relationship with Vita; and a 14th Century tale of betrayal to name but a few. There is only one thread on which I wish to pull: the idea, the desire even, to explore the landscape as it appeared in the past. Perhaps even, given Dick’s constant proximity to Roger, the idea of retracing someone’s footsteps. I admit that the link with my own work is somewhat tenuous and furthermore that I could cite many examples of stories that involve retracing the steps of someone from history; indeed I could say the same of another book I recently finished, The Lost City of Z , David Grann’s attempt to trace the lost expedition of Percy Fawcett. The House on the Strand, however, is distinct because, aside from being a work of fiction, Dick encounters the past directly – not through research but by tapping into something that’s ‘already there.’
It is implied that the drug allows Dick to tap into some kind of pre-existing ‘physic field,’ and through it access the past through the memories of those who lived it. This, according to the novel’s introduction, is apparently intended as a reference to Carl Jung’s notion of the ‘collective unconscious,’ but put me more in mind of the way Roy Ascott talks about the brain as an organ that taps into a pre-existing field of consciousness. That being said, if we were to substitute this ‘field of consciousness’ for the Internet; the Cloud and those ‘ancestral memories’ for the millions of geo-tagged photographs and status updates that can be found within it, then I think there might be a certain parallel between du Maurier’s ideas and those works which tap into data attached to place. Perhaps, we can think of the locative device – an iPhone for example – as that which allows us to tap into the past; to open a window onto the experience of those people who used to inhabit the place.
This may be a nice parallel but the question then becomes: what can we – can I – take from du Maurier’s story? What is it that is intriguing about the way she approaches a similar theme? What follows are only my initial thoughts and there are, undoubtedly, other factors at work in the story; factors which, if I read the book again, I’m sure I will see more clearly.
For me, one of the things that stands out when I think about the story is how Dick moves through time on his trips. He does not revisit the same time each trip and as far as events in the 14th century are concerned, the elapsed time since he was last there can be measured in days, months; even years. The nature of the events he witnesses, coupled with the insinuation that the drug allows him to tap into a ‘physic field,’ suggests that these are the events which form the most vivid memories: key turning points in a story spanning years. If we transpose this idea to the Cloud – to think about borrowing from the ‘already there’ – these vivid memories might be those times that saw the highest numbers of photographs or Tweets.
My work Composed under Electric Stars, specifically the iPhone application, in a sense encourages the viewer to explore the city as it did in the past, but it has not strong sense of events or particularly intense ‘memories.’ The images might allude to some historical event – the burning of the Crystal Palace for instance – but on the whole the images are singular, which in this case was a deliberate choice. Likewise, Sascha Pohflepp’s Buttons – a key reference of mine – draws from the ‘already there’ but in a very random way, with no sense of an effort to trap into significant memories or events. Furthermore, in both cases there is no sense that repeated visits to a site build on the previous ones, whereas Dick often visits the same sites and sees them differently each time.
I do not envisage my own work taking on a more consciously narrative tone – that is I do not imagine it telling a linear story – but I do wonder if I can take the notion of extending the work through time and use it to create a more sophisticated piece. Say I were to make another iPhone application along similar lines to Composed under Electric Stars. If I were to choose a few sites and visit them over a period of months and gather photographs that allow for a much more in-depth portrait of the site than the earlier work. Perhaps the sites are chosen specifically because they are a place of historical or local significance. Photographs from different seasons might give a greater sense of the passage of time. Concentrating photographs on a particular part of the site may grant that area added significance, a stronger sense that ‘something happened here.’ I might only reveal all the photographs after repeated visits to the site, or at different times to different viewers; creating a different perspective of the same site. I might incorporate other images and text pulled from the Cloud to supplement my own photographs, or invite the viewer to add their own; thus creating a sense of a collective vision, as opposed to my own personal viewpoint.
I realise that this has been a rather long-winded post, a meander through the thoughts that arose after reading du Maurier’s book. The reason that I started by talking about inspiration is that, had I not read the book at all, I doubt that I would have given the notions of narrative, time and collective memories as much thought as I have done. Bear in mind I originally wrote most of this post several weeks ago and my thoughts have continued to develop since. If I’m completely honest, I think some of these ideas were already lingering in the shadows, but sometimes it takes someone else’s work to bring them to the light so they can be seen clearly.
* There is a summary of The House on the Strand on Wikipedia for anyone who wants to know a bit more of the story.