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Speaker spotlight: Dr James Riley and Yvonne Salmon

Dr James Riley is College Lecturer and Fellow in English at Girton College, Cambridge. He writes on modern and contemporary literature and blogs at www.residual-noise.blogspot.co.ukYvonne Salmon is an affiliated university lecturer with the Faculty of Law and Department of Land Economy, and is a member of Cambridge University English Faculty. She writes on law, literature and visual culture. They will both be speaking at the event The alchemical landscape on 24 October 2015.

An increasing number of writers, artists and filmmakers are re-investing the landscape with esoteric and mythic imagery. From the revival of ‘Folk Horror’ to the crossover between magical and artistic practice, this ‘enchanted’ representation of the countryside works as both a link to the past and an articulation of pressing contemporary concerns. Launched at the University of Cambridge in March 2015, The Alchemical Landscape is an ongoing research project that uses public events, publications and artworks to explore the implications of this ‘geographic turn’.

At this year’s Festival of Ideas the project directors Yvonne Salmon and James Riley will be presenting a talk – or rather ‘Field Guide’ – to this uncanny territory.   

CFI: What exactly is being ‘revived’ by the artists you study?

YS: In essence, a visionary – if not mystical – understanding of the environment. The link between landscape and magical thought is, of course, ancient: seasonal observances, ritual practices and any number of festive traditions work as points of mediation between human consciousness and ‘nature’ (broadly understood). We’re not claiming this connection as part of a ‘new’, hitherto unknown, cultural current. Rather, we’re interested in contemporary artists who draw on this resonant history in order to prioritise representations of the rural, where we might expect to find engagements with urban space and associated contexts of ‘modernity’. Examples would be Iain Sinclair who in his study of John Clare, Edge of the Orison (2005) turned his psychogeographic gaze from the density of London to the Essex flatlands. Patrick Keiller does something similar in his film Robinson in Ruins (2010). After interrogating urban and industrial spaces in London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) he has his title character disappear in the countryside in an attempt to commune with “non-human intelligences”.  Basically, The Alchemical Landscape begins where Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem (2009) ends. Keeping in mind ‘Rooster’ Byron’s extraordinary exhortation to the gods of the earth, the project looks for artists working in a similar mode and considers the effects – creative, aesthetic and political – of such an invocation.

JR: I see this trend as representing, in part, a revival of interest in the work of authors such as John Michell. His The View Over Atlantis (1969) did much to promote public interest in ley lines, sacred geometry and other ‘earth mysteries’. Michell’s work along with that of T.C Lethbridge and Nigel Pennick has its own extensive cultural history. My point of interest lies in the use made of these ideas by a pre and post millennial generation of writers and musicians. That’s to say, what’s going on when Julian Cope puts together a double album of psychedelic rock dedicated to Lethbridge, featuring Colin Wilson and which uses dowsing as a central theme?    

CFI: Why do you think there has been such a revival?

JR: Environmental change. Consciously or not, much of the material we’ve been thinking about deals with the close intersection between ecology and psychology. All the ghosts that appear in works such as Chris Lambert’s Tales from the Black Meadow (2013) seem to be the spectral residue of a lost pastoral space. Certainly, the closer we move to the conditions of John Barr’s Derelict Britain (1969), the more this type of work is produced.

YS: Home and habitation is another key theme. I don’t think it is any surprise that in this era of zombie properties, zero hour contracts and precariat economics there has been a significant investment in psychic spaces. The Haunted Shoreline project is a good example of this: an exploration of an imaginative and very personal locality

CFI: What is it about the British landscape that inspires artists to invest it with magic and the occult?

YS: You could say that the landscape needs little actual investment in this regard. Super- and supra-natural forces are deeply, deeply entwined into the fabric of the earth. Whether you interpret these ‘energies’ in folkloric terms or in terms of Keiller’s “non-human intelligences” both discourses speak of that which is occulted: systems and processes ‘hidden’ under the surface of a given landform or forest floor.

CFI: How has this revival influenced other creative forms?

JR: Delaine Le Bas’ multi-platform project Witch Hunt (2011) shows what can be achieved as a result of combining these ideas with film, installation and performance. It’s a brilliant multimedia essay on home, homelessness and Romany folklore.

YS: Probably because music is inherently haunting, you’ve got labels like Ghost Box and The Outer Church releasing records that tie directly into ideas of occult geography. There’s a line to be drawn here from English Psychedelia to rave culture and then to albums like Farmer’s Angle (2004) by Belbury Poly. 

CFI: Are there specific geographic areas in the UK where this is most prolific?

JR: The shadow of M.R. James looms large over the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts and the Devon and Cornwall border has given rise to some brilliant works such as Jon Akomfrah’s Tropikos (2014). Drew Mullholland has used several works to build up a dense and allusive soundscape of Glasgow.

YS: Each county and territory has its charged spaces, the points where lines converge, as it were. Some, like Glastonbury Tor are highly visible and well established in the public consciousness. Others, like the River Fleet are literally buried out of sight. Peter Underwood had the right idea with his Gazetteer of haunted houses and ghost sites across the country and I’m glad the tradition is continuing with the blog The Wyrd England Gazetteer. The UK is a group of extremely haunted islands. We should be trying to map this entire territory rather than surveying a single location.

CFI: Are we losing a sense of connection with the landscape as we lose our sense of mysticism and magic in this age of super-fast technological advancement? 

JR: Yes and no….                                                                              

YS: Many of the artists discussed create beautiful artefacts that seem to be specifically designed to stand in opposition to the virtual. However, I think much of this work has been made possible because of the digital economy.

JR: Most of the artists we’re dealing with are expert social networkers. If anything, this field is a product of the blogosphere.

CFI: Which book, film or piece of music best illustrates what you will be speaking about?

YS: The catalyst for the project was the success of a symposium I organised on Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013). I’d say that was an essential text. Also, you can see traces of Derek Jarman’s Super-8 film A Journey to Avebury (c.1971) in much of the material we’re going to be speaking about.

JR: On that note, you can’t forget the deeply unsettling serial Children of the Stones (1977). Shot in Avebury, It’s the weird, hauntological flipside to Jarman’s film and a touchstone for many of the artists on the Ghost Box label.