Thursday, 31 January 2013

Field Study's Man in E17 is just another hole in the wall

I dragged ‘Field Study’s Man in E17’ down Walthamstow High Street. I was very keen to find out what he would make of a curious local cultural trace alerted to me by a photograph in the Walthamstow High Street exhibition at Vestry House Museum. I asked the field student if he had ever looked closely at the walls of our local cinemas, or rather, the walls of buildings that were cinemas, then (most likely) bingo halls, and now buildings that are quite likely to be closed down, boarded up and semi-derelict; such is the contemporary dissolution of high street culture and commerce. Well, have you? What did you notice? What could you have overlooked? Our destination was the Dominion Cinema (1930-1961), Buxton Rd, E17.

The field student told me he got a B+ in ‘George Perec Street Studies’ and qualified this (psycho school) report by adding confidently he is ‘pretty good at noticing things’ and if he has overlooked anything he has done so for the benefit of artists who need people to overlook things as a basis for their artistic practices. He whispered something in my ear about a Susan Hiller however the comment was obliterated by a “pound a bowl” yell entering my thoughts via the other ear.

I grew tired of dragging and carrying the field student. He seemed unusually heavy and so I asked if he would walk with me instead. He agreed and as we walked I noticed his pockets were bulging and tunefully jangling with small change.

“What’s with all the shrapnel, ‘Field Study’s Man’?” I asked with growing concern at his descending trousers.

“I’ve been saving up to buy each tin of tomatoes listed in the Archipelago of Truth’s 2013 tinned tomato price comparison,” he replied, showing no concern about his trousers.

“What! Why?”

“Price is all well and good but I think we will have to undertake an intensive Technomist tinned tomato taste comparison.”

Gross, I thought. The prospect of an exclusive diet of tinned tomatoes filled me with dyspeptic gloom and I warned the field student, “If you buy all those tins of tomatoes I’m going to have a lobotomy, mate!” The field student grumbled, uttering something about health benefits. I tried to make a mental note, to write to Archipelago of Truth, to ask for a Czeck/Polish/Euro beer price comparison, in the hope of inspiring a less salubrious (more nihilistic) fetish in the field student. I struggled to complete the note, so manic was the field student’s Perec inspired documenting of the banalities of the street.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘shrapnel’ is a word used informally to denote small change, while the formal meaning is of small metal fragments thrown out by the explosion of a bomb. ‘Shrapnel’ is derived from the name of British soldier, General Henry Shrapnel, on account of his invention of ‘Shrapnel Shells’. The shattering power of highly explosive ordnance has a grim resonance with the high street, in particular the tragic occasion of a flying bomb that hit the high street (the Hoe St end) in 1944, killing many and destroying a lot of property. There is a detailed map of the extent of the bomb damage (1939-1945) presented in, ‘The War Over Walthamstow’, (Ross Wyld) – the map presents an array of horrific black dots and square framed triangles imposed on a town street plan. I thought about many of the buildings featured in the VHM exhibition that were erased and absent from the area as a consequence of World War II and how some buildings (not in E17) retain the pock marks of WWII shrapnel/blast damage to this day; an example being the exterior wall of Tate Britain along Atterbury Street.

The field student and I discussed pre-1960s anti-war films and which one we would chose as the greatest. I opted for, All Quiet on the Western Front. He disagreed with, Paths of Glory. The corner of Buxton Road and High Street saw us in a sombre mood as we arrived to begin our examination of the cultural trace. Revealed below (photographically) is a spattering of holes carved with coins into the bricks of the cinema wall, mainly alongside Mission Grove, by the long lost queues of Dominion Cinema goers – a phenomenon I have not encountered elsewhere.

The Dominion Cinema (1930-1961), Buxton Rd/Mission Grove E17
26th January 2013

Our mood was temporarily lifted by the oddness of the spectacle. We had indeed overlooked the coin inscribed expression on the many occasions we had passed by along Mission Grove. The field student immersed himself in thoughts about the films that may have drawn round-the-block queues of cinephiles to the Dominion during its years as a cinema, 1930-1961. Which films were so eagerly anticipated, and such a must see, that folk might start queuing long before the opening? In what frames of mind were the film-goers that they would scratch and bore those neat convex holes into the bricks? We wondered; boredom and impatience? Tense excitement? Reveries inspired by the idols of the dream factories – every hole made in homage to the stars? Were some of the holes expressions of suppressed desires, the promise of illicit canoodles in the back rows? Could the holes have been a quirk, a local joke, a meme of minimalist abstract complexity specific to the Dominion goers? Did the Dominion Cinema carve out a cinematic niche for itself in the area as it was then well populated by cinemas? (See Jonathan Brind) Which genres – thrillers, westerns, war, musicals, and romantic comedy... would inspire this behaviour? The shuffling of feet, laughter and chatter, calling out names, coughs amidst plumes of fag smoke, sucking on boiled sweets, a testudo of umbrellas in resilient defence against the elements, the collective chinks of metal against masonry and mortar, the un-belonging of the street eating into the belonging and property of the cinema, a multi facetted ritual constituting some eternal bedrock of ‘being together’**. Just what sort of trade (as in trodden path) in feelings and ideas was made there by the holes? The last film I recall queuing round-the-block for was ‘Batman’ at a cinema in Crewe in 1989. Did we make holes in the wall?

I noticed that ‘Field Study’s Man in E17’ had started to map the holes, plotting them precisely on brick like gridded pages in his notebook. He turned to me with a crazed expression on his face and said, “This is a code!” Oh dear, it seemed as if the field student’s imagination had gotten the better of him again and that some sneaky left brain intervention was in order to bring him to his senses. I was interested to know what he would make of the wall but ‘code’ potentially meant a long night of waiting around. I suggested we see if any contemporary coins fitted the holes. “You are such a boring fart!” the field student scowled, and continued to decipher the cosmic inscriptions. I would have to give him a chance to get the code delusion out of his system.

I made a mental retreat to a book, Barry Norman’s, ‘100 Best Films of the Century’ (Orion, 1998), while the field student graphed the cinema wall. I supposed that most of the films watched in the Dominion Cinema were made in Hollywood, along with a lesser proportion made in Pinewood, Elstree and Ealing, and fewer still perhaps from continental studios? Norman’s introduction recounts some of the history of Hollywood film production. Hollywood was ravaged by television in the 1950s and towards the end of the 50s and into the 1960s it shifted its focus to financing European including British film. The influence of television on film in the 1950s also led ‘Hollywood’ to produce hugely expensive Technicolor epics. The films were so expensive and sometimes all most ruinous to the studios that it became cheaper, more viable and profitable to finance/dominate film making and consumption in Britain and elsewhere. The Dominion, closing down in 1961, did not see the full flowering of the ‘fool’s paradise’ of 1960s ‘British’ cinema – a challenging assertion to make as it could have been a period during which more compelling visions of British class identities and stories might have been projected by that cinema. The wall of the Dominion Cinema is an intriguing part of a complex story of transitions in the power of Hollywood as an influence on the collective psyche; a psyche that continues to change as radically or drastically with the influence of the internet on home enetertainment.

Barry Norman makes an interesting comment in terms of ‘Lost and Found in E17’ being a blog about ‘psychogeography’. He writes, ‘Hollywood is not so much a place as a state of mind.’  There is a link to be made here to another blog (The Psychogeographic Review) where I questioned an interpretation of Daniel Defoe’s, Journal of the Plague Year, as ‘plagueography’ rather than ‘psychogeography’. In some respects Barry Norman’s concise statement about Hollywood supports the ‘plagueography’ idea – the plague separating people from the physical environment perhaps akin (though less pathologically) to people being fully immersed or lost in a film. I struggle to get my head around (sic) such a schism or concept. The Dominion Cinema wall is a site that can be interpreted ‘psychogeographically’ rather than it being a ‘psychogeographic’ site. Cinemas, working or not, express a sort of charged relationship and that wall is for me a potent manifestation of a relationship between mind and place but they, as places, can be overlooked as just bricks and mortar. May be it was the bingo goers who made the holes?

Field Study’s Man in E17 yawned loudly at my middle brow ruminations and handed me ‘something much more exciting’, a map of the Dominion’s semi-spheres.

“Where are we going with this?”

“Nowhere off course.”

** - Michel Maffesoli - Walking in the Margins//2002 - from, The Everyday, Documents of Contemporary Art, edited by Stephen Johnstone. (Whitechapel/MIT Press)

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