TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 2, 19th March 2021
by Chiara Ambrosio
It’s been one year since the beginning of the pandemic, when the city I live in transformed into an entirely new territory.
Masked and alone, like a deep-sea diver, I’ve been covering vast distances on foot, slowly traversing its empty spaces that feel at once evacuated and freed: hollow buildings, boarded up shopfronts, roads clear of traffic giving way to new vistas, and the unearthly silence, twinned with the sound of roadworks and building sites, grinding on somewhere, always out of sight.
In the heart of the city, architecture looms like a heavy carcass, occasionally stirred by intimations of life; I look through the glass facades into empty office spaces and darkened retail floors, almost embarrassing in their glaring redundancy.
As I glide through the spoils of our unfocused, distracted civilisation, my gaze slowly slides away from the slippery surfaces, and tunes into another city. As in China Mieville’s dystopian literary creation “The City & The City”, this is a city that occupies the same physical space as the one that has temporarily receded, but one that we are usually trained to unsee, along with its other stories: the small, marginal lives often lost to the speed and the noise of a capitalist delirium, drowned as they are inside the uncaringly dense and fast tides of a system that doesn’t need them. Amidst this uncanny spectacle of urban desolation, they are now the only marks left visible on an otherwise blank canvas.
I weave my way through the silent streets: the homeless Londoners cruise beside me like fading ghosts, queuing outside soup kitchens, sleeping on deserted thresholds, showering in the mobile shower vans that occasionally appear in churchyards. They are the people who still need the city, perhaps the only ones able to find meaning and refuge in this emptied shell.
The streetlights switch on as the light recedes. Church bells toll, marking the passing of time even as the city leans further into timelessness- a broken clock, its mechanism jammed.
After the loud cacophony of birdsong that populated the first season of lockdown, summer gave way to a cold and silent winter, out of which we are only just emerging into a new spring. Searching for frequencies of life throughout the long winter months became as much an adventure as a condition for survival. I pushed my body further out, away from my neighbourhood, like an aerial scanning the streets for signals- coordinates, traces, a sense of direction and a new way of belonging.
In the disconcerting scenario of a stilled and silent metropolis there are moments of extreme poetry: the unmanned intertwining of nature and culture, the long late afternoon shadows trailing uninterrupted along empty pavements, the arresting silhouettes of buildings from different times huddled together on the skyline at dusk.
My wanderings led me away from my usual itineraries and drew me, almost by way of an incantation, towards the river, still flowing: a gravitational centre, at once an end point and an escape route.
The Thames is tidal, so I started consulting the tides tables; I became familiar with its rhythms- two low tides and two high tides every day, one in the hours of light and one at night.
At low tide the foreshore becomes accessible through stepladders or staircases, many of which are swallowed back completely into watery oblivion as soon as the tide rises again.
If you happened to only walk on the riverbank at high tide, you might never imagine that a whole other world existed below the surface of the murky water, and that you might become a part of it.
I climb down the rickety wooden staircase and descend onto the beach.
I look back at the city teetering over the edge of the green and slimy dock brick walls, old, weathered and foul-mouthed.
I’m at land’s end, below street level; the bridge arches above me like a metal rainbow, creating passage over this chasm that, from where I stand, feels more than just the river flowing, deceptively calm at low tide, hiding the forceful currents that churn under its surface.
The terrain is unstable: solid ground turns imperceptibly into sinking mud, and land exposed by the tide may disappear in a moment, impeding passage.
Time too is mercurial down here; the tidal waters deliver objects from London’s past onto the shore, strewn across the shingle or buried in the river mud: disposable clay pipes, broken shards of pottery, coins, soles of shoes, pilgrim badges, dress pins, bottles, gems, fossils, wig curlers, glass eyes, and the many, many bones.
They also expose prehistoric forests, stumps of trees that have been preserved because hidden away within the path of the rising tides. A wilderness inside.
Many of the objects can date all the way back to roman times: tokens from different ages converging here and now, by the generous shores of this old river, animating the city with its overlapping identities, stories and silent voices all at once.
A secret, polyphonic composition, scribbled in the sand, reconfiguring itself with every new tide.
There are people walking along the beach, scanning the surface or sprawling over it, their faces close to the ground, their bodies in the water. Birds look on unperturbed as the people rise and fall, trying to find a source, and reconnect.
They pluck tiny, almost invisible coins out of the shingle with their burly hands. They gaze in wonderment at the small garnets cradled between the lines in the palms of their hands, still drenched in mud- the blood of the river.
Two crows are feeding from the dismembered body of a pigeon in the water.
Further up, on the sand, a child plays with the rusty chain dangling from the dock wall on which a graffiti reads: LIVE FOREVER.
Bicycles, car tires, shopping carts and garden rakes are strewn across the shore, almost completely reclaimed by the mud, barely remembered.
I look down and find a piece of slag amidst the brick and the bones: it looks like fossilised bark, or the skin of an elephant, or a fragment form a meteorite.
The narrative becomes complicated down here.
In Victorian times, dark figures seen walking along the Thames’ foreshore were known as mudlarks; they were the most destitute of the city’s denizens, the outcast, who owned absolutely nothing and would go down to the river hunting for anything that they might be able to sell on in exchange for money or food. The tides granted them survival.
The mudlarks I meet haunting the shore these days have jobs, and a home, but the need to recontextualise one’s own story through the detection, discovery, salvage and homing of lost signals from another time remains a moving and resonant urban prerogative.
It is a marginal existence, here by the river, quite literally.
As with all marginal stories, it is, by definition, eccentric– out of the centre, and close to the edge, temporary and precarious.
A tidal no man’s land, only accessible for a few hours- once by day and once by night- that nevertheless offers infinite points of contact for the lost and the lonely.
This is a place of resistance and delivery, a place where stories can be made visible and whole again; it is a site of both desire and longing, a place of arrival and departure, a launching pad and a harbour, a lighthouse from which signals can be gathered and released, traveling in both directions together with the tides- in and away.
As the bells of St Paul’s toll, I go down to the river.
I go down to the river to pick up the pieces, and re-member a story.
I go down to the river to decipher the signals, insert myself into a narrative broader than my own fragile lifespan, and find a way back home.
I put on my gloves and kneel in the mud, locking my gaze on the quivering shore from which the water has barely receded. I scan across it carefully as though reading a music partition, while my hands move across the delicate surface.
Along with the body, it is the shore here that keeps the score, and I am waiting for this orchestra to resound, for the world to become animated and re-enchanted underneath my palms, for the mud and clay and bones to speak to me in a mysterious, new language.
As with my film work, it is a matter of commitment.
Nothing here comes easy, or fast, and surfaces are almost always portals, no matter how dense, or sealed. They require close-up, patient examination; often fingertips can see better than the eye, and know intuitively where to seek, what is there.
Sometimes what is there is hiding in plain sight; sometimes time has spirited it away under layers of accrued substance, thick crusts or stubborn rusty patinas that need to be slowly eased off.
I think of Gino, an Italian peasant who was one of the characters in my first feature film “The Ghost Frequency”, who would sometimes see shapes and faces in the broken roots that he found when he turned the earth for sowing: a fox, a dead eagle, the devil, Jesus.
He would take them home, clean and polish them, then hang them on his wall.
He held a few up to my camera one day and said: “You need to have eyes to see. If you don’t have eyes, then there is nothing here”.
Fathoming worlds out of twisted roots, his personal kind of cosmogony.
My practice by this riverbed emerges out of the necessity to act against erasure, against the erosion of complexity within the urban landscape and its many narratives.
I trade levels and plunge my body amidst the sediment: this is a training ground, where I can sharpen my ability to see what emerges from this kind of interruption, and what implications such emergencies have when thinking about the language through which we experience and relate to reality and to one another’s stories and physical presence.
Here I encounter the tender world of the human: the small, the humble, the broken, the dreamed of, the absurd, the impossible, the past, returning as evidence to haunt the fixed parameters of my present, transforming and illuminating it.
Here are endless fragments of clay pipes, once smoked then broken in half and thrown into the river sometime in the 16th or 17th century; here are metal tokens and tallies, the size of a fingertip, slipped through the fingers when boarding a riverboat; here is a silver ring with the words I live in hope inscribed on the inside, tossed into the river as a blessing- or maybe a curse; here is a terracotta tile, and on one side of it the impression of the thumb that made it.
I am returned- and re-tuned- to the dimension of the handmade, the talismanic, the alchemical, which helps me to translate an often overbearing city into the language of fable and myth; here I can forge new connections and pathways through a normality whose many layers are hidden, flattened or merged, but unravel once again once they are delivered on these shores.
Here we hold on to our compassionate practice of world-building, one that champions intense commitment to the immanent, material quality of the world, and to the power of the imagination in transforming this evidence into a poetic, magical gesture that makes collective hope possible.
As I brush the mud with the edge of my black coat, another mudlark offers me a piece of garnet he has just plucked from a water pool- a valentine’s token from the river- whilst someone else shows me a handful of medieval dress pins as thin as hair, almost invisible, gesturing towards the ground: “See? They’re everywhere!”. But what I see is a cacophony of shapes and times, all crowding into my field of vision; so I kneel down once more and get close to the ground, scrape the surface lightly, folding my gaze into the material of the shore until I, too, can see.
Chiara Ambrosio is a London-based filmmaker and visual artist, working with animation, documentary, photography, sound and printed matter to explore the ways in which we perceive, remember, articulate and preserve personal and collective histories and a sense of place. Her work includes collaborations with musicians, composers and anthropologists, and has been presented extensively both nationally and internationally at venues such as The Whitechapel Gallery, Anthology Film Archives and La Cinematheque Francaise. For the last decade she has been one of the custodians of books and their stories at Bookartbookshop, a small community artist bookstore in Shoreditch, as well as curating “The Light & Shadow Salon” at London’s cult venue The Horse Hospital. She produces “Raft”, a monthly radio show on London’s Resonance 104.4 fm radio station, where she embarks on walks across the city with other Londoners, reaping and sowing stories within its streets. Chiara is the publisher of a monthly photographic zine “As Far As The Eye Can Travel”. http://www.acuriousroom.com/