• Lucie McLaughlin

(ESSAY) Thirstiness, by Lucie McLaughlin

Lucie McLaughlin thirsts for the nostalgic trashiness of a previous World Wide Web, by way of the website and gallery space Seiren, entered through 'a collage of Windows 95 error messages'. Reflecting Seiren's navigating structure, the essay unravels its connections through a rhizomatic form, via Anne Carson, Gossip Girl, Otessa Moshfegh, Maria Fusco, Polly Pockets, Lisa Robertson, and more, merging visual artwork with words.

I have been having problems with my eyes for a while. Headaches that start in the lids and reach upwards, a thirstiness that the drops I bought only quench for ten minutes. Auras at the corners of my vision. Eyes are never really closed, but covered. A sudden awareness interrupts as I try to sleep, right where the two lids meet. I open them slightly and see from the window it’s the shine of a few fat stars in a soup of sky, pinpricked by lesser lights.

I come across this magazine which is really a website, or a gallery: Seiren. I enter the space by way of a welcome page, a collage of Windows 95 error messages skidding around my dirty laptop screen. There’s a map of the nine ‘rooms’ to peruse, if you want the easy way out. But I stick with the arrow keys, blindly stumbling into each new space, returning again through pages I’ve seen before.

This place is dripping in 90s inspired clothes and the full colour spectrum of a pack of play dough. I notice what looks like a CGI Nokia 3310 blasting music. There’s bird song where the sound materialises as the waves on a beach fade in, fade out, the volume’s rhythm pushed up and down by a program. I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at, and it hurts my eyes, but I like it. These are not new images, or aesthetic choices, but there’s something soothing and familiar in the paratext: colours and cartoon hearts, arrow keys that shift in iconography from one room to the next, long restful scrolls on fixed background images. Once I reach a piece with words to read, it feels like I should consider it philosophically because it’s taken a while to get here, or because it’s ‘grasped as a fragment.’ [1]

The method of reading created by the non-linear space allows me to dip in and then out of the different ‘rooms’. I tab lazily between poems and sound pieces, then Youtube where I try to pick a yoga video to match my mood; today, do I want to ‘Dedicate,’ or ‘Observe?’ ‘Nurture’ or ‘Stir? ’[2]. An instructional page, standing on the threshold of Seiren states to ‘slow down,’ an appeal that echoes the attention economy tugging at my hoody sleeves from other online interactions. Whilst I scroll vertically and horizontally, spend time with the large but not unlimited spaces, looking, reading, listening, a sadness curls under the edges, a wishing away and watching of time tick by, finding an occupation for that slowness of a long, depressed day. Hoping and waiting for the night to wipe clean the dark mood, like how the ends of two dominoes touching with the same number cancel each other out.

Moyra Davey writes in her book Index Cards about nostalgia, citing the two tendencies identified by Svetlana Boym for ‘restorative’ or ‘reflective’ nostalgia. The restorative is linked to home, the reflective ‘perpetually defers the homecoming itself.’ [3]

I have been visiting my mum’s house after living abroad for a time. I’ve found myself performing the clichéd reversion to childhood or adolescent behaviours, merely by being inside the same rooms I grew up in. Staring at the chip in the paint beside the bath for an inordinate swathe of the day seems like a perfectly reasonable use of my time.

The comatose tv watching enacted by the protagonist in the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh with used VHS tapes scattered around the living room, effects a nostalgia in the millennial reader who passed through the year 2000, when the book is set, as a child. In some ways, all the protagonist wants to do is watch tv, she gets comfort from the screen, ‘making it hard to see anything but what (she) expects to see.’ [4] The narrative doesn’t feel challenging, and instead represents the endless familiarity of the privileged white woman in a nice New York apartment, who has a proximity to art (in the case of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, through a gallery job). Perhaps both kinds of nostalgia identified by Svetlana Boym find footholds in the place of these settings, the ‘restorative’ home, populated with VHS tapes, kept at a ‘reflective’ distance, by the marble lobby and the other differences from there to here.

Recording onto a VHS from a movie on tv, you can carefully pause when the channel’s logo appears, marking the ad break, and pick up again once the ads finish. A child’s writing lists the film’s title on the tape, crossed out to squeeze in the next title, and the next, recorded over the top of one another, until the tape flails and breaks, when set to rewind.

Image from film All the Vermeers in New York (1990)—screenshot taken from Mubi

Seiren feels artistic, but also literary. Like stepping into someone else’s list, everything is manageable, if you don’t read it all, you don’t know what you’ve missed because you can’t find all the pages anyway. Something about this rhizomatic structure gives off a strange sense of stasis, between completion and incompletion. Things that start out of focus, in pencil whispers, and are barely there.

It seems that the mode of address in Seiren, and the way we meet the text, is possibly more important than the textual elements themselves. In the 'lo-fi’ room, the paratext includes windows from OpenOffice Writer programs, framing poems with multiple cursors sitting motionless amongst the words. Does siting the text inside this early computer aesthetic make the writing lighter or heavier, closer or further from art? The office assistant paperclip winks flatly from a sea of colour; matte floppy disk blue. ‘Click on the images to magnify say orange bubble letters in an early WordArt style font. When magnified, I can only sometimes scroll into other parts of the poems. The magnification cuts off whole stanzas, the latter half of lines. The edges of the words fizz.

Maria Fusco, in How Hard It Is To Die, Towards Artists’ Novels, talks about publishers ‘who are happy to work with writing as a “legitimate” form of the visual.' These art publishers are ‘familiar with the conceptual totality of the artist’s book.’ I wonder if the makers of Seiren are familiar with the early internet programs ingathered into the form of the writing as visual, and as gamification of the reading experience, or if a new kind of limiting mythologizing is taking place on the screen, and in my head, when writing this.

Screenshot from Seiren

I feel a strong urge to start watching Gossip Girl for the third time as an adult, and begin to worry about my mental health (there are six seasons). Each day I notice new things that remind me of the show: changes in weather, the fronts of magazines, takeaway coffee cups. I’ve never been to New York, where it’s set, and I’ve never had as little money as I do now, whilst the characters in the show spill champagne in limousines. The last time I watched it was after a serious assault, when I moved to another country. Searching: ‘does watching the same teen tv show over and over as an adult make you insane?’ ‘Why do I want to watch the same tv show again?’ ‘How to stop watching the same tv show that I know off by heart?’

At the same time I am reminded of a book I read as a girl, Let’s Get Lost, by Sarra Manning. The privileged and dull protagonist Isabel is unhappy, drinks too much and takes on the general air of an adult even though she’s a child. There’s something primitive about the negotiation of these states, adult and child, and existing in the in between, where you might be having sex but your mum still cooks most of your meals for you.

Isabel can be read as a princess in jeopardy in Let’s Get Lost, just like the protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation: a damsel in distress, albeit a quiet form of distress, sulking, depressed. Her fatalistic outlook means she drinks too much with her teenage mates in shitty local bars, until she meets an older, sadder boy, to project her feelings onto.

Back in Seiren, I find a poem by Kylie Martin, Polly Pocket’s friend is ‘floating face down in the limp, plastic vessel of tap water’ at her Splashin’ Fashion Pool Party 2002. I think, I was also there, at the bathroom sink on my tippy toes. Toys mean playing, here with a form and a space. The poem sits inside a bright pink rectangle that is too small for the lines. This time, reading needs an intermittent sideways scroll. I click the down arrow expecting more lines to appear but the pink just extends into blankness. Time stamping the poem’s title might not leave enough gaps for the reader to see through but I scroll on, find another fragment to meet the end of the last one.

Screenshot from Seiren

The ‘pool’ is one of my favourite rooms in the site. Objects like hairbrushes and tiny trees float on a gently moving background of turquoise water shot through with sunlight.

I use Seiren as a way to put off entering into my Gossip Girl binges. It has the same affective nostalgia in a way. It’s nice to drive with Bec Turner, ‘to see how the white foam and sand meets your feet.’ This poem seems to be about a colour, neon yellow. Like the packet of Tayto crisps that’s resting on my desk.

Sometimes reading online feels too impermanent, without an object to lift up, put down, grasp a texture of, each part read paints itself over the last one. Watching a raindrop appear and start to fade before the next one lands, on wet Manhattan pavements. Lisa Robertson says on the commodiousness of a book: ‘the object furnishes hospitable conditions for entering and tarrying.’ As a printed object, to share space with, the book might hover, stultifying, pages unopened, around the desk or bed for far longer than tabs begin to gather at the corners of vision, shaping space. Going back, up, down, left, right, the screen becomes a place to hang onto, the surface hard and slippery.

Our blink rate drastically reduces when looking at our phones, tvs and computers. ‘Our normal way of seeing the world without looking at it.’ [5]. The optometrist told me so, whilst we argued over the value of my universal credit voucher for the free eye test. She tells me to keep blinking, to spend time looking out the window or into the distance, before I’m pulled back to the flat surface of screens.


Works cited:

[1] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, 2013

[2] Yoga With Adriene

[3] Moyra Davey, Index Cards, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020

[4] Anne Carson, ‘Variations on the Right to Remain Silent’, A Public Space, Vol 7, 2008

[5] ibid


Text: Lucie McLaughlin

Published: 12/2/21