Experiments in Living: a report of the Swedenborg Birthday Meeting, 2016

by Paul O’Kane

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Still from Last Acre. Image copyright: Nick Jordan and Jacob Cartwright

London is full, fuller than ever, full of people, cars, buildings, shops, pollution and, thankfully, exceptions. Living as an artist in London depends upon finding these exceptions, which, in turn, provide a kind of rescue, resuscitation and respite from the otherwise often brutal logic of the city in general.

The Swedenborg Society is one of these exceptions, founded in 1810 it is responsible for the preservation, proliferation, persistence and advancement of the thought of the visionary philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). The home of the Society occupies a site on the edge of Bloomsbury close to Holborn and Drury Lane. Stephen McNeilly, who has long held the post of Executive Director and Museum Director is responsible for an exceptional schedule of events there, which bring artists, thinkers, historians and writers in contact with each other; with the site; the building; and with Swedenborg and his thought.

To celebrate Swedenborg’s birthday an annual meeting launches the agenda and programme of events for the coming year. This year the theme is ‘Topography’ and on the afternoon of Saturday 23rd of January a panel of contributors aired and shared their thoughts on this theme as it relates to the thought and legacy of Swedenborg.

Once the chapel-like main hall of the Swedenborg Society was full (standing room only) the event got underway with a screening of Last Acre (2016) a short film by Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan. It documents the commonly witnessed (but less often considered) phenomenon of ramshackle dwellings thrown up intuitively by unskilled home builders and often found on Britain’s unkempt and otherwise unpopulated coasts and estuaries.

Romantic pioneers, alienated misfits or politically motivated enemies of the status quo make up these marginal, malformed communities, invoking ancient laws that permit a dwelling to be erected and inhabited on common land as long as certain basic criteria are met. The film—which might have reminded viewers of the work of Patrick Keiller—used a collage of revealing but unimposing views, enhanced by a poetic and informative voice-over, with music, to gently promote and celebrate a subculture of idiosyncratic responses to a capitalist society all-too rooted in generic needs and generic provisions, committed to increasing urban density, and in building, buying and selling homes as ‘properties’ or ‘investments’.

Following the film, the first speaker, Devin Zuber, heralding from Berkeley, California, regaled the attentive audience with tales of American Romanticism, starting with the Pilgrim Fathers and the legendary Johnny Appleseed to whom, Zuber showed, the influence of Swedenborg’s ideas and texts can be directly traced.

Now, those pioneers showing in the earlier film began to shine with their own Romantic light as the choice of guests and the composition of the event began to crystalize as something unusually considered and artful.

Ian Hunt spoke next, providing increasingly surprising and entertaining insights into examples of the work of the maverick architect E G Trobridge, another recipient of Swedenborgian influence. Trobridge, working in the inter-war years, nevertheless bucked the Le Corbusian trend towards top-down modernist density and ‘machines for living in’, preferring instead to ally himself with the alternative idealism of the Garden Cities movement, while perpetuating and extending the Arts & Crafts legacy. Trobridge proffered and promoted the use of wood, brick and thatch in the production of what now seem eccentric vernaculars admired by Hunt for their relatively ‘bottom-up’ and regionalist approach to the perennial ‘housing crisis’ that seems to go hand-in-hand with a modern, capitalist economy.

Final speaker, Ken Worpole, seemed to tie the afternoon’s various threads together with an inspiring call to augment today’s supposedly ‘common sense’ but no-less-ideological politics with some much needed ‘vision’, an important, if oblique and subtle invocation of the continuing importance of Swedenborg’s thought. E.g., the new leader of the Labour Party in Britain is often derided by his enemies as a naïve dreamer, but this may only be because he refuses to concede a long-sighted vision of a better society to the kind of over-familiar, short-term sense of compromise and resignation that results in dwindling voter numbers and lack of political participation. If the fundamental, emotive issue of housing cannot motivate a more engaged and interconnected society then perhaps nothing can.

Worpole introduced his latest research and publication into our best and worst architectural habits—New Jerusalem: the good city and the good society (London: Swedenborg Society, 2015)—as he called for a re-appraisal of ‘Utopian’ schemes (the term being consciously used to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book of that name), meanwhile stressing the importance of flexible, temporary, mobile and what he called ‘meanwhile’ housing and forms of community.

A colourful image of a large caravan on an estuary site shown by Worpole seemed to turn the session full circle, invoking the film that launched the afternoon’s event and giving the audience the satisfying sense of having received a rounded, substantial, informed and diverse range of perspectives alluding to the potential for interrelating Swedenborgian thought with topography, architecture and community.

Subsequent questions from the audience drew further consideration from the speakers on the under-represented place of women in these debates and histories, and on possible tensions between an individualistic, pioneering, Romantic, idiosyncratic spirit and the needs for collective cohesion, community and shared resources.

Ultimately the event provided an excellent start for this year’s theme and schedule, opening an imaginative, critical and constructive space for creative thought in which to address one of the most volatile and pressing issues of our time. Today, perhaps even more than in any of the many historical periods referred to by the speakers, we seem to need ‘visionary’ rather than merely ideological and economic responses to our social problems, and thus need to invoke the Swedenborgian concept of ‘correspondences’ (between, e.g., varying beliefs, epochs, cultures and nations, as well as between science and nature, economy and philosophy) in search of solutions to the fundamental human concern of what Martin Heidegger once called ‘living and dwelling’.


Paul O’Kane is an artist, writer and lecturer based in London. He completed a PhD in History on the theme of ‘Hesitation’ at Goldsmiths College, 2009. Paul O’Kane writes for Art Monthly, Third Text and numerous other journals and catalogues. He maintains a weekly Blog ‘750wordsaweek’ (https://750wordsaweek.wordpress.com/) and teaches fine art, critical studies and art history at Central St Martins, Chelsea, and SOAS.

 

Programme:

  • Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan. Last Acre (2016, 11 mins), is a documentary portrait centred on a remote settlement of self-built shed and cabin homes, located on the sand dunes of England’s north-west coastline, near Barrow-in-Furness. 
  • Devin Zuber. Swedenborg’s influence on ecological aesthetics. Devin is Assistant Professor of American Studies, Religion and Literature at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, where he is part of the Center for Swedenborgian Studies.
  • Ian Hunt. ‘E G Trobridge: Swedenborgian Architect’. Ian is a poet, critic and Lecturer in Fine Art, Critical Studies at Goldsmiths University.
  • Ken Worpole. ‘Experiments in Living: valuing the land as a basis for community’. Ken is an author and commentator on architecture, landscape and contemporary culture, and Emeritus Professor at London Metropolitan University.

 

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