- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
Artist and writer Laura Grace Ford says her regular zine Savage Messiah, “emerged from a counter-cultural milieu, a seam of militancy that runs under London like a subterranean current.” After more than a decade of publishing it retains its popularity, with Verso recently producing a new edition of its collected works.
Described as “an angry polemic against the marginalisation of the city’s working-class and an exploration of the cracks that open up in urban space,” the book reflects Savage Messiah’s beginnings as “a product of free art school education, social housing and intervals of uninterrupted time” and its intent to “gravitate towards the sites where repressed and partially erased voices might be heard, the soft points and thresholds, the interstitial and liminal zones.”
Tribune Culture Editor Owen Hatherley interviewed Laura Grace Ford about her work, the origins of Savage Messiah and the need to reclaim the psychic terrain.
When did Savage Messiah start? I remember picking up, I think issue three, with Paul Simonon on the cover in maybe 2006 or 07 in the Freedom Press bookshop. Has anything changed in your approach since – and what has changed for you between this second edition of the Savage Messiah book and the first issue – especially in terms of the financial crisis (which Savage Messiah always seemed to be predicting before it happened)?
The first one came out in 2005, the Isle of Dogs issue. I was living on an estate in Bethnal Green, there were loads of us on it, about fifty short life flats,it was like a labyrinthine squat. We were living in precarious precarious then, moving from estate to estate. That summer, 2005, I’d been drifting around with Asim Bhatt, Stewart Home and Fabian Thompsett. My friend John Wild was doing this thing called Anarchitecture week which was a disruptive counter event in London and he asked me to write something, it kind of came from that.
My approach hasn’t actually changed, I recognise the threads running through Savage Messiah in the current work, the obsession with brutalism, liminal zones and abandoned buildings, all that’s still there. Then there’s the idea of new social imaginaries and unrealised futures, dreams being realised in unexpected moments. So that idea of splintering time is still there, and the dérive, and reclaiming the city. I still use collage, physically cutting and pasting stuff. It works as a method because it lets me talk about occupying multiple temporalities in the city. And I like textual breaks, I like the idea of disrupting narratives to break open new ones. I’m doing that a lot in audio now too. And the fiction I’m writing now takes fragments in Savage Messiah as a point of departure, as if they’re samples from a future work.
When I started Savage Messiah there was still that coke fuelled Blairite swagger, you know, an arrogance leaching from the City that said there was no alternative to neoliberalism. I don’t think many people believe that now, it seems obvious that neoliberalism is over, that capitalism, in this incarnation at least, is on shaky ground. So in terms of the financial crisis, I was making the zine before and had this loyal following. I was doing this stuff about class and gentrification, I was referring a lot to Stewart Home and Crass and the Pop Group and mixtape culture and the kind of scenes I’d grown up with,like post-punk and rave. And then after the crash I think maybe it had resonance more broadly, people were getting the sense that the terrain was shifting, that we were moving into more uncertain times, and the illusion of late capital being something fixed and immutable was evaporating.
Savage Messiah first came out as a book by Verso the first time in 2011, the year of the UK uprisings and the Occupy movement. I think it was clear then that neoliberalism was over, that capitalism was going to have to mutate, become something else to survive. I thought, after the bank bail outs there’d be immediate anger on the street, I couldn’t understand why there was such a passive reaction to it, but of course, it comes out in other ways, at other times, when they least expect it. I think the riots were a manifestation of this anger, and the student protests obviously were, but sometimes it erupts in random phenomena, there’s always this vicious seam running through London, I remember that autumn about four years ago with killer clowns, and Anonymous, and skum tech parties and loads of surreal, cartoonish violence erupting all over the city. Then last Christmas, the drones at Gatwick, there’s some currency in that I think.
I’m always struck by how concepts which have usually become cliches like Hauntology and Psychogeography still feel lively and revolutionary in your work. In terms of hauntology in particular, I remember how in the early years Savage Messiah felt quite like a revenant, and then gradually realising that this was exactly how it was conceived. What do these ghosts of previous revolutionary cultural and political moments mean to you in the present?
Well, I’m interested in a process of walking and writing that encourages us to become vessels, to speak in new voices, to remake our subjectivity. We’re perpetually surrounded by these micro-commands, dumb platitudes coming from cereal packets and smoothie bottles and stuff, so we need to psychically de-clutter to make space for the spectral voices we might actually want.
I refer to Walter Benjamin obviously, where he talks about opposing ‘the modern propensity for amnesia’, to remember struggles that would be forgotten. I’m interested in developing a strategy to deflect or re-route the psychic affects of neoliberalism. I think this was something Mark (Fisher) was working towards in Acid Communism when he talks about ‘unforgetting.’ One of my recent projects was in Birmingham where I went to the ruins of Saltley Coking plant, I wanted to revive the memory of the Battle of Saltley Gate 1972, few people I met knew anything about the actual event. But in the pubs in the industrial estates round there it existed in this seam of resistance, I mean there was just a general sense of refusal to conform to neoliberal expectations, blokes were defying the smoking ban, there was a black market economy, a disgust for the regenerated city centre. Everyone was looking though this dark psychedelic lens, a combination of beta blockers and skunk.
I suppose my writing emerges from a reservoir of images, a spatial memory produced by walking. I make fractured maps using fragments and traces of graffiti, stories you hear when you’re out walking. It’s about returning to sites where repressed voices can be heard, the soft points, thresholds, and liminal zones. I think of walking as a process of channelling, a means of tuning into affective shifts, of unearthing the kernels of possibility residing in the terrain. My walks are always a search for that counter-cultural thread, to an undercurrent that lies temporarily dormant before re-emerging in another guise. From psychedelia and Afrofuturism, to punk and post-punk, dub sound systems and rave culture, it’s always there, a persistent strain operating under the skin of ‘official culture’.
I’m into this idea of hearing double, going into derelict buildings, reconnecting these sites of collective delirium–raves, protests, occupations–and so I’m trying to corral these spectral traces–places like the Westway, the spaces under it, where we used to have these parties, where our expectations were raised by involvement in those scenes.
Savage Messiah is one of the few things around that are identifiably in some sort of punk lineage that don’t now feel like baby boomer whining (am thinking here of all the films and memoirs by people involved about how terrible everything was until Thatcher came to power, John Lydon being a UKIP supporting LA property developer, statues of Tony Wilson in private squares in Manchester, etc). What is the importance of punk for you today?
Yeah, I often feel disappointed when I meet people who were around then, there’s often a sense that they are trapped in that time, like waxed or embalmed or something, it’s deeply dispiriting hearing punk icons discussing their property portfolios! Obviously there are exceptions. But for me the point about punk is that it was an efflorescence, a bursting to the surface of a force that we tap into sometimes, and punk mutated into post punk and Techno sound systems and the free party scene and rave and you keep getting these re-encounters with that energy, so I see punk as one manifestation of that, it isn’t fixed in one style or aesthetic but cloaks itself in different guises, in the UK in 1977 it looked like the Sex Pistols being banned on the radio, in 2019 it looks like MPs calling for Youtube to ban UK drill.
With Savage Messiah I think the spirit of punk and DIY culture came out at the launches, there’d always be flyposters goading the police about fictional ‘actions’ at places like the Eurostar terminal or the Olympic park, then we’d turn the the Foundry and Housmans into a kind of club space and go on drifts that veered into trespass and disorder.
One of the constants in your work is fragments of adverts for property development. Why are these so central in Savage Messiah, and what role does the built environment play in the zine?
Yeah those adverts are eerie. In the past decade or so, London has been possessed by these CGI hoardings, they’ve become so ubiquitous we barely notice them . Images of champagne swilling bankers looming above scenes of abject poverty have just become part of the urban fabric, internalised in the city’s dream grammar. I think they’re unsettling in the way they conjure an image of the future, a threat of something yet to come. When i pass these hoardings i feel harried, hounded out, they make me feel unwelcome in a city I’ve lived for twenty five years. I’ve often thought their potency lies in their deployment of haunting, the spectral figures, CGI’s of future inhabitants who are never us, who are almost always white and adorned in the trappings of wealth, even when the development is in a working class part of London.
Then there’s the promotional films they use to promote developments in Hong Kong and Malaysia. In one development in East London called City Island viewers are lulled into a set of dissociative tropes- floating through buildings, drifting through walls and windows, and there’s this anaesthetising soundtrack which has this intensely onieric affect, as if we are in an opiate induced dream. And I wonder about this, the idea of haunting and absence, because when people are ‘decanted’, or socially cleansed from inner London and you’re left with empty space, like the Heygate Estate was for a decade, there’s a sense that you can start to imagine the future, a different one, and i think these advertising hoardings are making a claim on that psychic space, they’re defining the terms of a new social imaginary, and perhaps that’s what we need to reclaim, not just the streets but the psychic terrain.
Yes I would love to do that. I have made a few audio tracks now and it seems an obvious extension of the writing, in his introduction to the Savage Messiah book Mark says that the work has more to do with mixtape culture than zine or comic culture, and he also said to me that the text in Savage Messiah operates like samples, indications of what’s to come.
The audio work incorporates fragments of sound, brings out my obsession with music, allows it to operate as portals, and I think sound helps create this dream space I was talking about before,a kind of oneiric-delirial space, it adds to the sonic terrain, a new space of the imagination. What I’m trying to with the sound work is make an affective portrait of the situation now. The most recent work responds to the psychic and emotional contours of Latimer Road, made from field recordings, spoken text and fragments of found music, the spectral sectors of the city are allowed to permeate this work, it’s a kind of psychic ventriloquy.
You grew up in Brighouse, and Savage Messiah flits often between London and West Yorkshire. There’s a lot of quite shallow talk today about a cosmopolitan ‘metropolitan elite’ in the capital being intrinsically opposed to the proper authentic racist northerners. What role does the north/south divide play in your work?
I’m glad you mentioned that, because Yorkshire haunts me. You asked about hauntology before and I think that place more than anywhere exists as a kind of shadow world, it’s always there. When I go away for long periods to Asia or the US I find myself dreaming about West Yorkshire not London, even though I have lived here longer now. West Yorkshire gives you a sombre palette, a tonal range which I think exists in my writing, but there’s a particular kind of humour which runs alongside. I got the obsession with brutalism in Yorkshire, the tower blocks in Leeds, I was obsessed with them, and also ruins, that came from the derelict mills in Huddersfield. The Yorkshire I grew up in was a ruin, there were shells of burnt out factories, and mass unemployment, and a strange sense of melancholy, of something ending.
So yeah, West Yorkshire is a haunting presence, an undercurrent. When I was growing up my dad was out of work, everyone had worked in the textile industry, but you could see the shells of working class culture being reconfigured by new scenes, so goth bands playing in working men’s clubs, anarchist social centres in factory buildings, and raves in the imprint of marshalling yards. For a while, after the industry had gone this residual collectivity stayed, and these counter-cultural scenes, which were formed of people from those communities, emerged from that. I think it was the early 90s, the Major years, that finally crushed it. It wasn’t enough to put everyone out of work, they wanted to usher in mandatory individualism too. There’s a strong relationship to UK dance music in my work. Savage Messiah laments the loss of collective spaces but at the same time it recognises that those emancipatory currents are live, that we might still connect with them.