WHITECHAPEL 1936/1940/1973/1981/1990/2003/2011/2015/2019/2022

By Laura Grace Ford 


WhatsApp chats spiralling through Sylhet and Lahore, satellite channels broadcasting from Dawar stalls, splintering temporalities rendered in HD.

The city is a constellation of portals, flickering apertures. We drift through multiple selves, multiple zones:
the extended Khandan, money transfers, Lebara mobile.

But within these circuits, new blocs are mobilising, the territories are shifting.

London is possessed by CGI hoardings promoting private developments. Images of luxury lifestyles are so ubiquitous we barely notice them, champagne swilling bankers looming over scenes of abject poverty have become part of the urban fabric, internalised in the city’s dream grammar.

Perhaps their potency lies in their deployment of spectrality, CGI’s of future inhabitants who never arrive:

Promotional films corral us into a set of dissociative tropes, opiate induced dreams where we hover above buildings, drift through walls. This oneiric-delirial time evokes the idea of haunting and absence, a ‘decanted’ and socially cleansed inner London. When sites are depopulated we can imagine the future, new social imaginaries can be realised. The halo of films and hoardings around these developments make a claim on that psychic space, they define the terms of a new social imaginary.

* * *

The Rich are Boring
marker pen on glossy hoardings.

* * *

Things banked up outside my building, a broken fridge, Billy book shelves, an abandoned washing machine. The heap bears the cold dynamics of a hangover, the ossified traces of a comedown.

A wall of spidery black lines emanating from a flat screen TV. A malevolent toc toc unlocking memories of drug induced psychosis – the head unshackled from the body, the aftermath of a Shoreditch bender. Whitechapel is saturated by a keeling, tottering kind of intoxication, destructive forces engulf it.

Psychedelia opens a lens onto social conditions, it provides a multifaceted optic where the familiar becomes strange and prismatic. In Tower Hamlets poverty is apparent, it twitches and jerks beneath the gloating billboards for luxury apartments, but in their ubiquity these horrors become normalised, expected, we are persuaded of their inevitability. The hallucinogenic lens helps us re-weird, make strange that which has been naturalised, presented as normal.

I think of the men I worked with in the homeless hostels, negotiate the pharmacological terrain – film of sweat, a lurching gait, jittery re-issuing of speech.

Xenolithic fragments, warnings from another time.

The city is indelibly marked by moments of psychic intensity – what Mark Fisher called a ‘staining of place’. These moments manifest as biographical fault lines, a narrative web that underscores our life in the city; these are the mental maps, the psycho-topological terrain we carve in our everyday life. Sometimes they erupt collectively, elevating us in the form of raves, occupations and riots, assailing us in times of conflict and terror. Meshes of micro-narratives coalesce in these moments, stories weave and intersect. The dérive is a mapping of these traces, these micro-narratives, a way of restoring visibility to stories that would otherwise be erased in marketing and ‘place making’ strategies.

When Walter Benjamin talks about the need to oppose “the modern propensity for amnesia, to remember those whose struggles and sufferings in the past would otherwise be forgotten” he arms us with a key strategy required to deflect the deleterious psychic effects of neoliberalism.

In Mark Fisher’s interrupted project ‘Acid Communism’ he echoes Benjamin’s warnings when he writes: “The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments … so to recall these multiple forms of collectivity is less an act of remembering than of unforgetting”.

We can deploy this notion of unforgetting to identify moments, past and future, when the city becomes elevated, when futures previously imagined can be rekindled. Perhaps these summonings of ‘multiple forms of collectivity’ manifest as visions, something seen before they are realised. Or perhaps they are breaks in the mass hallucination of neoliberalism, moments of clarity that allow us to see beyond the web of false histories and fictions.

Luxury apartment blocks erupting, underfloor parking, private gardens.

We gauge the affective shifts – abjection, disgust, a persistent subcutaneous itch.

Memory is not a sanitised image, but a texture in the moment, something historical fizzing in the present. Memory brushes against us, it scuttles across our skin. Fred Moten talks about hapticality, what he calls “modernity’s insurgent feel, its inherited caress … the feel that no individual can stand, and no state abide. Hapticality, the touch of the undercommons, the interiority of sentiment, the feel that what is to come …”

To experience freedom and liberation, no matter how temporarily, is to have one’s expectations raised. Emancipatory moments haunt us, they persist as indelible marks, and despite efforts to naturalise the dominant order through the processes of recuperation and repression they are never fully erased. Like the palimpsest with layers of text written and overwritten there are moments when previous inscriptions are grasped with vivid clarity.

Glimpses of emancipatory futures might be seen in re-configured architectures, in re-routed technologies and radically re-imagined urban zones. When something is deemed defective, obsolete and broken we are closer to unlocking its potential, its entelechy, in the abandoned shopping precinct we might find the fulfilment of forgotten promises. The defective machine brings new ways of hearing, what Kodwo Eshun calls new ‘sonic fictions’. Objects brimming with potential demand a new relationship with time, time that allows for experimentation and drifting.

Marbled squirms of sound, psychoactive doubling, kaleidoscopic arrangements.

A political force latent in psychedelia.

Cities hold the kernels of possibility for a radical collective consciousness, moments when we emerge from decades of psychic pollution to a new plane of clarity and collectivity. From experiments in psychedelia and Afrofuturism, to the efflorescence of genres emanating from club music, it is always there, a persistent strain operating under the skin of ‘official culture’.
The point is to re-weird those aspects of culture presented as natural and common, to distort the hectoring commands of late capitalism and re-present them as strange.

To walk through stalled construction sites, empty factories and derelict mills is to experience time reactivated. In these spaces we find the re-enactment of rituals – foraging, burning, scavenging, grazing, collective intoxication – as if portals are opening on to a Pre-Capitalist England. With their provisional architecture, black market economies and co- operative means of self sufficiency these sites erode the smooth spaces of capitalism. The possibilities emerging in these sites also carry the seeds of a Post-Capitalism, an Acid Communism, a world without drudgery and pointless toil.


Laura Grace Ford is an artist and writer. A re-issue of her cult-classic Savage Messiah is now available (Verso).



If you enjoyed reading this article online, why not pick up a print copy? Your purchase will help us continue to produce anti-profit publishing – including distributing solidarity DOPE to prisoners and homeless people.