The dérive was invented by the Letterist International in the 1950s, so it is said, though its roots go back much further, to Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur and probably beyond. Pick an orientation, start walking; change direction on an impulse, an intuition, drawn by the name of a street, the shape of a traffic island, the forlornness of a tree. Be led by the city. This practice is central to Laura Oldfield Ford’s work as an artist, and the starting point of her new exhibition at Birmingham artist-run space Grand Union.
I had to look up the term ‘chthonic’ on Wiktionary: it means “dwelling within or under the earth”. It refers (in part) to a place Ford found herself in one day while out on a dérive through Birmingham, a place behind a gap in the metal sheeting underneath the Aston expressway, a place of broken glass and strange markings on the wall and sunlight pouring through gaps in wooden slats. This and other zones encountered on the dérive are described in a text the artist wrote and then recorded as a sound piece, a somewhat mythical journey towards what she calls “the psychic heart of the city”.
The sound piece plays through speakers dotted around the gallery space, which is divided by wooden boards and sitex, metal sheeting covered in holes that’s commonly used to board up abandoned buildings and disused factories. Onto these hoardings large posters are pasted, a Greek statue and a forlorn-looking tree, advertisements for coffee shops and interior design services, a Birmingham subway. Over some of these posters, words have been scrawled, as loose and as particular and as hallucinogenic as the words coming through the speakers, returning again and again to a list of dates: 1972, 1974, 1981, 1985, 2011. Dates that mark a series of psychic epicentres: the Battle of Saltely Gate, the Birmingham Pub Bombings, the Handsworth Riots, the Battle of Orgreave, the Tottenham Riots. Dots joined by political commitment, personal history, contingent circumstances.
Wandering through the city like a prophet through the wilderness, navigating not by map but by memory and starlight. No, not even that: by listening intently for the voices carried on the desert wind, billowing round the corner of a deserted litter-strewn street, voices crying out to be channelled, to be cried out in the wilderness. So this is the power of the dérive! It leaks like invisible smoke from cracks in the concrete. Another England. One that suddenly appears from what seems (to us above-grounders) like nowhere to picket a coke works, torch a car, vote in a referendum, and then — vanish?
“If it makes people feel safe, then we’re doing it wrong,” Ford asserts, “it” being art and “we” artists. Listen: how does Chthonic Reverb make you feel?
Chthonic Reverb is on at Grand Union until 5 August 2016. For those unable to get to Birmingham, the sound piece is available to listen to online.