In the second of our Ten Things series, season 6 spamphleteer Ian Macartney reveals his unmissable choices in nightlife, games, albums and contemporary writers.
Kentucky Route Zero
Every time I want to write about this game, I flounder. I could say, in terms of genre, that it’s a mix between choose-your-own text adventure and point-and-click. I could also say, in terms of game-history, that it is a work so attuned to worlds of video-art, theatre and literature, while also having to be expressed as a video game, that it completely elevates its artform into what games must become – in that sense Kentucky Route Zero is a seminal work, in my mind, perhaps the most important video game of all time. In terms of history-history, meanwhile, I could say Kentucky Route Zero is a masterpiece which was released over seven years, 2013 - (January) 2020, and thus exists as a chronicle of the 10s, wherein the spectre of the 2008 financial crash pervaded every American cul-de-sac and landscape. In terms of content I could say you ‘play’ as Conway, an antique furniture dealer who is trying to reach a house accessible only via an underground road, the titular highway, but then again, as burntado6 points out, ‘there are no choices, you are simply telling the game who you are.’ [please please please wait until you’ve played the game before clicking on this video, it is my favourite moment in the entire thing and deserves special in-the-moment attention IMO!!!]
In terms of politics I could say the game is not horror, per se, but it is haunted; that the Kentucky it evokes is timeless, retro-but, but also a pertinent direct political response to the U.S.A., that hemispheric country’s breakdowns and violations. Yet also its counter-communities, which survive despite the coming flood – the community radio station, the steam-boaters, the failed architects in dismal office jobs. Ultimately what I will say is that now I have a Switch, I’m going to buy it for the third time, and become entirely entranced all over again.
Hal Hartley’s Amateur
I really seem to have a thing for strange white male artists, once indie-popular in the 1990s, now completely forgotten (sometimes for good reason, tbh). This being due to their impressive stoicism, unwavering commitment to their practice, and/or general eccentricity. More independent than ‘indie’ could ever allow: Phillip Ridley, Frank Kuppner, Momus…
Hal Hartley is one such fellow. He is the only director in which I have actively sought and watched every single film he has made, and have thoroughly enjoyed all but one (sorry, The Girl from Monday). Amateur was the first of his I encountered, in a North English cottage of all places; it held me still for the entire runtime. It’s now my go-to favourite film, when pushed to give an answer, for my favourite works of art like this are the ones that give me permission, implicitly, to do in my own work what I have always wanted to, but felt would lead to poor aesthetic decisions. Hartley’s dialogue may be mannerist, but it’s magical for it. Life-affirming. Nah, more than that – spiritual. Every film of his feels like a sermon to me. His work shows me the path for the kind of screenplays I want to conjure. I also highly recommend No Such Thing (Helen Mirren!!), Flirt, Simple Men, Surviving Desire, The Book of Life and Trust.
Liminal Space, King Street, Aberdeen, September 2018 (22nd)
Probably the best night of my life, wherein my dear friends Matt Gibb (Kinbote) and Samm Anga (core members of the Aberdeen-based arts collective I founded in Aberdeen, Re-Analogue) nabbed a sound-system from local nightclub staple Tunnels and put on a gig in their flat. The name was apt; they only had the lease for four months. Come January they were off to Copenhagen and Vienna, respectively, while I had just arrived in Dublin for my own European stint, so had to spend £[Too-Much] to come back, just for this. It was worth it - I was given the camera to film the headline show, the phenomenal Jennifer Walton, which is now forever aa blurry as I remember. See for yourself.
I had the privilege to live with this absolute icon, the electronic musician Pearling, for two years (along with the excellent writer and equally iconic Miriam Schlüter and singer Pauline Alkenäs) up in Aberdeen. After we graduated Pearling began to teach herself Ableton production, from scratch; within a year she received radio play from BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio One, and now has a conceptual project forthcoming from Werra Foxima. Her songs crackle like fallen snow under a twelve-inch boot, dissolving in the air like mist; when she performs live she sings like an angel – a real angel, Book of Ezekiel-style, warped and terrifying and ethereal and beautiful and shimmering like divine fire. She, the fairy with the bloodstained quartz fang, hiding in white frosted glassy grass… ‘Demiurge’ is an anthemic banger that invokes a Gnostic girlboss message every coolkid in Broadcast and Hug & Pint should learn. I heartily recommend ‘Snow-Trapped Angel’ and ‘Akoya II‘ too. Also shoutout to her other project with Stewart Lawson, the duo Syzygy Juice, which is like Magdalena Bay crossed with Sweet Trip, and super-fun!!!
Tom Byam Shaw’s ‘The Follies’
Tom and I initially bonded over our shared love of China Miéville, whose influence permeates through his entire catalogue of excellent speculative flash fiction – bewildering, dark vignettes spun with acidic humour and really sharp, lucid lyricism. His readings in the Aberdeen open-mic circuit were a triumph – tales of octopus-headed people in coitus, a narrator insisting he’s going to eat you, etcetera. An example of our mutual vibe: we once went to see a late-night screening of The Boss Baby in Vue, followed by a 12-hour odyssey through two separate anarchist flat parties (the police kicked us out of the first one), concluding at 7am. His work feels as absurd as that night. Restlessly present, too, though it’s a contemporaneity paired with twisted, occult ecology – his stories are responses to the present day which bring out overtures of deep time, to lay bare the nonsense (or futility, as per his apocalyptic wont) at the heart of whatever banality is today’s discourse, passing through our lives/Twitter feeds like anxious weather. In other words he pairs the drudge of politics, be it cultural or material, to something far more eternal, primordial, chthonic. ‘The Follies’ is one of my favourites of his, in which a tribe of seal people swim out to the eponymous structure – the ruins of North Sea windmills. One foot in the contemporary, as if in the past, with a tentative eye on the side of eternity or, at the very least, a life beyond this moment? Aye, I’d say that’s our mutual vibe. (He also did a great reading of the story for my interview series, Spoke in Mirrors!)
Shaw Worth’s Wednesday, Death Meditation
Back in February, way out in darkest Oxford, I had the honour to see a luminous offering from my dear friend Shaw Worth/Lovesong Productions, the play Wednesday, Death Meditation. Its obliquity is a glimmer, not diminishment – taking stylistic cues from Annie Baker, the play follows a yoga teacher as she attempts to lead a class of students distracted by their egos. Not that the teacher is above all that; in the second half she struggles to speaks to her ill husband .Which is Morbidly Lmao, since it’s the night before his throat gets removed for cancer reasons .The play ends with her talking to herself, on the mat, preparing for the next step.
During darkest lockdown, over six-hour Discord calls where we ambled and toiled away on a Minecraft server, soil-doodling in Creative Mode, I saw Shaw fall into the world of yoga. There was tentative post-irony, at first, and then it changed his life. Because Mr Worth, as per his L.A. birthplace, gravitates towards topics befitting an Instagram White GirlÔ (the French language, anime, bubble tea, Starbucks, Selling Sunset) but then applies such astonishing intellectual rigour – prodigal, really, if you’ll excuse my cringe – as to make the interest radically open, nascent, his curiosity coruscating, invigorating to witness. Like the play!
Nicola Barker’s Wide Open
If Kentucky Route Zero is my go-to answer for favourite video game, and Amateur for film, this is a strong contender for favourite novel. Set in the Thames Gateway’ Isle of Sheppey, it follows lost souls wandering between prison, marshland and caravan homes in search of, or in thrall to, a God that exists as ‘an enormous, infinite, all-consuming blankness’ (p. 277, for you cross-refencing nerds).
I’d say it’s about forgiveness – the violent necessity of that act, the melancholy of belief, and how the material world’s cause-and-effect conspires against such grace. But it’s quite hard to parse. I find that, in all my favourite artists, there is always some central frustration I have with them, times when their strengths sour into exhaustions. But such exhaustion being the dynamic which keeps me loving them, somehow adoring the work further, in knowing its limits. Barker gives me this in spades; even if her self-consciousness of self-consciousness can grate (having a tonal register of ‘Oi oi, what’s all this then?!?!?’ to one’s own absurd machinations can get a bit tired) it showcases a breathtaking dexterity of language. Her writing is an anarchic miracle when it wants to be, and elevated when it must. Like the novel could ever be a living twitching thing (to be fair, she has said in interviews before that she views the novel as a ‘digital beast’, as it exists for her solely on the screen, so in that sense it is…). H(A)PPY, too, might be her conceptual best, an apotheosis of her entire work which, if I Am Sovereign (her latest) is anything to go by, is an apotheosis she’s still trying to work through. Like some of the characters in Wide Open, she’s trying to process exactly what it is she has done (as am I, and her entire readership).
The Hotelier’s Goodness
O the albums that ‘save your life’ – though, I dunno, this one actually feels like it did. It hit me at 1am in my student halls room in the very first semester of my undergraduate, when I was really quite miserable. I had either just turned eighteen, or was still had to cross the threshold; the bad-orange-man portion of the century hadn’t quite arrived.
I think what gets me, with these songs, is not that they seek joy, per se, but rather stability – recovery in the peace without some groping senselessness. ‘The most authentic kind of hope is whatever can be salvaged, stripped of guarantees, from a general dissolution’, Terry Eagleton writes in Hope Without Optimism (p. 114). ‘It represents an irreducible residue that refuses to give way, plucking its resilience from an openness to the possibility of unmitigated disaster’. That was pretty revelatory to me, when I felt that idea in Hotelier’s music, six years before reading it. The relief to know desire cannot be fulfilled! To be filled with the restless fitful joy that is in a long-distance relationship with happiness, somehow working, despite the material obvious! Goodness is, without a doubt, spiritual (yes, again) for me. Really, it hits like that. Midwest emo-themed pamphlet anyone??????
Savannah Brown’s ‘wilhelm yawp’
Last summer the aforementioned Tom Byam Shaw and I co-edited an anthology together called World-dreem. It features writers from Scotland, Ireland, the U.S.A., Australia and the national slam champion of Pakistan (who I met through?? DeviantArt???? of all places?????? in 2014). Savannah’s poem ‘wilhelm yawp’ is one of the contributions, and as excellent as the rest – in some ways it acts as a nice parallel to my own pamphlet, ! / Object. Her poem appears as a prosaic block – which I think of as a glass of rum-and-coke, in my mind, considering (for me) it’s about nightclubbing, or within that pastime’s auspice, the blank spaces shards of ice &c. – like my fast-food double-hamper in the pamphlet’s middle, ‘Haikuburger’ and ‘The only taco bell in scotland’. Where Brown’s narrator talks about ‘purple pills’, so too the narrator of my opener ‘I want it all Even if it’s fake’. We both have the lozenge of the contemporary stuck in our (writing-)throats, I feel, but also appeals to a wider lineage, the pop-cultural ‘Wilhelm Scream’ mixed with an allusion to Whitman (hey, like a cocktail!) Brown is a really compelling writer who has honed her craft over the years into something quite exceptional. She’s within a really exciting transition right now, in terms of her creative practice, and I can’t wait for the world to get a glimpse into what new sparkling art she’s been working on.
Ewan McIntosh’s ‘nature drugs’
I’m fascinated with the space of ‘the Hometown’. I grew up in one, after all: fifteen minutes by foot to farmland, fifteen minutes by train to the capital. I see it in my mind’s eye, often, as how it was filmed by my dear friend and filmmaker Ewan McIntosh, before he moved to London. His videos would feature landscapes familiar to me, pulsing through a polished hypnagogic glare replete with pre-set lens flare, as per the YouTube trends back then. Thus, 2013, an amber-bronze hue upon the wheat fields on my walk home, perennially dusk! I think often of our first ‘adventure’ (being thirteen allows such words) at the height of one summer, when we wandered through a former mine, now reservoir with greenery, that, to me then, felt like a jungle – the other side of town, so I had never experienced it before, its full thorny bloom, the air itself buzzing and hot.
That kind of wonder and banter still pervades: ‘nature drugs’: it’s a YouTube video now unseeable to the public, as personal memory often is, but in essence it’s an irreverent tour of our high school we made after class-times, I acting Rawr XD-adjacent, Ewan surprisingly witty for our age, the epoch of. cringe. For things ascended to a new level of kinship when we began making things together, I primarily on screenplay, he on cinematics. Two shorts of ours, ‘Anhedonia’ and ‘Rubix’, did pretty well, in terms of that specific sphere. And still we collaborate, a decade on, that adolescent energy, amber-flecked and halcyon, still glowing! He, incandescent as film!
Ian's book ! / Object was published by SPAM Press in May 2022. You can pick up a copy here.
Text: Ian Macartney Image: Ian Macartney