Phil Smith: The Quarry and the Reservoir

The Quarry and the Reservoir

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The quarry 

We were pausing, on a ledge above a drop that we’d wanted unsustainably to explore. I’d been there and backed off in the morning, but told Karen and she wanted to see it. But coming too late to travel across it, we’d stopped, alive again rather than dead, almost at the edge of its roof there. The space below was all filled up with air; its rock had been used up, re-housed, placed elsewhere, there is a face now where the slate was. So it’s predictable perhaps that the impulse that we seem, the two of us, incapable of explaining, comes and catches us aware, sufficiently visceral as to be extremely suspicious; this urgent and disingenuous wish to leap and yet not to fall. Strange that there’s nothing below something so intense; that this which can catch you in the places of desire and yet be the very last thing you really want to do, is a copy of something that you never felt; baseless, un-stratigraphic. There is a sort of blunt temptation, of course, and, yet, short of an accident, whatever it is lacks the strategic empathy to have you over, helpless to encourage an act with a death-consequence, and so we survive with a little effort every time, though I ask to hold your hand, not for comfort, but to be sure you won’t jump. This kind of wishfear can depredate respect. The problem of vertigo is, like the history of quarries, on the face it, metamorphic, flaky; the case of a missing original. Vertigo is a launch paddock of fears, taunting you to ride their mounts, despite their not even being there to hide from. However, although there is no base or birth, there is a journey to these points; a climb with an  angling of the body, dangling on gravity’s hook, that does something to the sense-hinterland of a human frame, so that when the two of us step (in my case, re-step) onto the ledge of the quarry, the eye fails to gaze out either romantically or horizontally (blotted by the landscapitous wall) but is sucked, gothically, down to the bowel and basin of its attraction where there’s always a prospect of something doing, something marked by muscle spent, where both vertigo and industrial heritage, in the last resort, shirk the truth to place and the will to a final absolving plunge of flesh, instead wiping clean the slate and starting again, in favour of the thrill of what has always been absent. A quarry is an anti-specificity and our vertigo is its aesthetics.

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The reservoir

The reservoir is the quarry rebooted, emptied out, turned upside down and full of fish. Where the quarry lacks genealogy, the reservoir is nothing but base and birth, and every quarter of a minute a slivery thing flips out of the water to bring an insect down; a memory that suddenly pops up from the archive and destroys a vulnerable new idea. There must be hundreds of them churning around down there; fears run by ineffective librarians waiting for their opportunity to leap upwards and take down a half-formed thought to dark stomach acids. Memory is that corporeal thing that Cartesian duality does not survive here. But the reservoir has just as big a problem with substance as the quarry, though of a different kind. On the wooden platform Karen and I discuss the disturbance in the reflections and I resort to showing her the images I took that morning on my camera in the still sun, when the mountain on the water was sharper than the mountain wedged up against the sky. The backdrop also features in the reflection; there is a battle for status on a plane. The turbine ticks away on the top of the hill as if it drives the stillness of other things. Karen is fascinated by the machinic spurts that fall down the wall of the reservoir. While we watched, one fish jumped and then another to the side of the first; initially the ripples bloomed independently, but then they crossed each other. This is technically ‘interference’, governed by the same physical principles as the crackle on a radio between stations. A single fish simply adds a brushstroke to the spectacle, but interference is somehow qualitatively different: it is briefly un-assimilated, a confused hope that appearance might never return and we can get over things and images to conspire directly with their vibrations. At the most banal level, this place with most evident depth and matter, a life supporting system with clear boundaries and surfaces, seems to hide some sort of operation; yet what is most striking is the light that cannot test its depth. Appearance is a rejection by the deep. This it is that makes the illusion, but its contradiction gets us no further (like banal forgetting and kicking over the memory pile, or becoming uselessly lost). Instead, it was when we threw our or others’ stones into the water (after Karen and I had decided that we shouldn’t make that offer), when numerous trajectories were in interference – too much, too complex, brief acts of collective potlatch, disposal, damage, re-consignment, the first piece of the slate and the last, the fusillade in the middle, the unseen effect beneath the spectacle – that what we could contemplate for a sustained few minutes (our subjectivity scrambling on the slippery surface of romantic gaze) we could not contemplate (the symphonic difficulty of multiple arcs and then sub-thing inter-vibrations) for long enough to move to inference.

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The quarry and the reservoir

Very early on in Jess’s walk we came out of the trees close to where Blake had his Memory Palace moment and we could see the quarry through the trees. Objectively, the leaves obscured most of the quarry (my photographs taken at this point show almost nothing of what I felt, which was much [that sickening desire again]), however it was here that I made the connection with the reservoir. I felt that they were possible taxonomic twins. That, taken together, as a rippling interference, they were super-useful elements in combination to add to a whirling and centreless orrery of spatio-metaphorical categories. Later in the walk we would pass a much smaller quarry, as up ahead the cottages to which the stone was taken hove into view. The big quarry, however, has no such localist specificity, its emptiness is a blank archive of commodity relations, of the fetish of labour that once over is gone, its successors left to choose between an equally inadequate silence and absence or the heritage theatricals of workers acting themselves, digging out the details from what they did rather than stuff they smashed and changed from out of everything around them. In this quarry there is a double inauthenticity (which is part of what makes this quarry so powerful as a category): not only is labour absent and silent, but so are the theatricals. All this remains fairly banal on its own – very susceptible to a simple miserablism that could quickly flip to nostalgia, loss, anger on behalf of someone else – but when the giant absence is combined, in an orrery, with the complex screen of the reservoir (with all its interferences and disruptions and zoological depths) then the twinned vibrations of the two banalities (vacuum and plane) are far more resistant to reconciliation and resignation. The two together are troubling – is it really OK to read a quarry as if it were as self-evident as reflection? Is it really OK to throw pieces of slate into dark waters as unseen as the quarry bottom? – and evocative – what happens to a plane in a vacuum, does it crumple? What happens if we throw the vista from the ledge? What happens if we let vertigo get the better of us on the wooden platform at the edge of the reservoir? What happens if we store the archive of the reservoir in the repertoire of the quarry?

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