London, circa the turn of the second millennium AD.
A vast, tangled grid of concrete, human lives and economics; a post-industrial metropolis in a state of accelerated flux. London, the original unreal city, capital of Great Britain and grandmother of the Western empire; now affirming a renewed status as the global nexus of finance, influence and culture.
So how to explain what I’m doing, wandering through the streets with an SLR camera, a head full of electricity and a pair of earphones in my bag?
Well, the official explanation is that I’m training as a photojournalist and preparing to embark on a career in the media. Learning to use images to tell a story; and stepping into the role of communicating the events and pressing issues of our times. A worthy and essential mission, says the rhetoric, in service of a well-informed liberal society in the free world.
What’s behind the rhetoric? A young man with a love of photography, looking for a job and some kind of purpose; searching for expression and connection, perhaps even something like transcendence. Just another human being trying to be happy, really. For lack of anything else to do, chancing it at college; using a camera to try and work out who he is and why it sometimes feels like there’s something missing.
There’s another explanation, though, which can only really be expressed as a question; something along the lines of “What the fuck is going on?” The world seems to be on the verge of chaotic meltdown, overwhelmed by conflict, destruction and a seemingly exponential level of change. The power and sophistication of human civilisation are completely unprecedented, but its structures seem ill-equipped to deal with the challenges arising on all sides. Inequality and suffering are endemic. Environmental degradation threatens to destabilise the delicate ecological balance of the entire planet. Things are not looking good. How did we get here? What are the origins of this situation that is so mired in contradictions, shadows and multiple catastrophes?
The labyrinth of modern life seems to offer little in the way of answers. So basically I’m just trying out the A-Z and looking for signposts. Moving through postcodes and staring at the lines on pavements; trying to document the intensity and make pictures of our civilised condition, the mind wars and the ecosystems of power. Scribbling notes on the backs of postcards, wondering what a city is and how we came to this fierce, apparently terminal, climax of our evolution.
I guess I’m looking for alternatives. Other ways of doing things that could re-route us from the impending human and planetary apocalypse. Other ways of living and being human that could defuse these problems and bring greater substance to what we mean when we use the word freedom.
But ultimately, underneath all that… I had no choice. London called me, a long, long time ago. “Bear witness”, she said, “to the magnum opus of these buildings, streets and stories. Experience this unimaginably complex web of subtle synergy and structures, layered upon the land. Surrender to the vision of my chaos,” she said, “and listen for my buried rivers.”
‘The Unreal City’ is a slightly re-edited version of the first, introductory, postcard in the book. The title is a reference (or in DJ parlance, a sample) drawn from T.S. ELiot‘s poem ‘The Wasteland’