For this expedition, we spent a night and a day on an uninhabited island in the River Medway, studded at one end with a derelict granite fort, which we made our home. Several hundred meters further along the Medway stands Darnet fort, on another island, a twin of the Hoo fort.
The fort was built in the late 19th Century, a circular structure made out of assembled granite blocks and vaulted brickwork and protected by a moat. It has two levels, a lower level, now flooded and an upper level of eleven alcoves, each having a window cut into a thick sheet of steel/iron and pointing out to the river. There are eleven radial arches that intersect the circular thoroughfare, each with a hearth, possibly for those who manned the guns trained out of each windows. These arches face the inner part of the fort, a central circular platform, now a wild garden of blackberry and hawthorn and the two are connected by eleven arched brick bridges over a deep void to the lower level.
We arrived at dusk and began to explore the site. When walking around the wide circulatory passage, with identical alcoves passing one after the other in the darkness, the feeling of disorientation was total, distances between one alcove and the other shrinking and extending without rule. This was perhaps exaggerated by the asymmetrical division of the space into eleven sections. We speculated this division may be related somehow to its defensive function or the count of men in a military unit. Even in the morning, in full daylight, the sensation remained equally deceptive.
The vaulted ceilings, rythmed by thick metal rings, added to the impression of interconnected spaces, and interwoven relations.
Views of the landscape around the fort, as compared to the highly geometric figure of the ground plan, remained confusing, only providing a fragmentary, patchy sense of the outside. The following afternoon, when calculating our return to land, we kept looking out of the windows to monitor the tide, waiting for the high tide to deliver the island from its isolating circle of mud, enhancing a feeling of confinement.
As a conclusion to our previous trips, we see the Hoo fort as a compass from which lines can be traced across the territory. We have taken the fort itself with its eleven gun apertures as a compass and radial datum for the sites that will follow in the coming posts. Drawing radiating trajectories from each of these windows, we trace the points of intersection with our other diverse itineraries along the Kent coast, in Scotland, in Essex and Suffolk, and across China.
Access and Dwelling
We prepared a chart of the tides, showing the times when the water would reach the fort, and the times when the island would be rendered inaccessible by a ring of mud. Two marinas were likely points of departure to get to the island, and we started our crossing from the Gillingham marina, the closest one to Hoo fort.
We have an inflatable kayak that we used for a previous expedition to the sound mirrors in Denge, Dungeness, and this time the Sea Eagle proved its adequacy again. In the evening of the 5th of October, we set off from the shore and headed to the island of Hoo, currently owned by the MOD.
We landed on a field partly constituted of dredged mud, an awkward rural setting for a piece of land with no ‘indigenous’ inhabitants. The land was soggy, with inclusions of sea water and a variety of grasses and birds.
Following the island’s contour, between concrete sea defences, wrecked ships and seaweed, we reached the fort, surrounded by thorny hawthorn bushes and a deep moat filled with water. Flocks of birds set off from the ditch as we approached it. A path, however, led to the edge of the moat. And, left by previous visitors, a long wooden ladder led to the upper level of the fort.
Getting in just when the sky turned dark, wet and dirty, we settled in the alcove in line with the ladder. Soon after, while exploring the ten other alcoves, we found a cleaned up concrete surface next to a hearth that had been used by previous occupants. Our predecessors had left a pile of dry, dense wood on its side, and we spent the night burning wood and drying our soaked feet and legs.
We are treating our sites as a temporary dwellings. This brings with it the question of how do we humanise uninhabited and abandoned sites that are cut off from everyday life? Apart from food and power, the only thing we brought with us to the fort, were 12 tarot cards that we had been using to build up a narrative, whilst driving to Gillingham.
During the night whilst at the fort we re-oriented these to align with the structure.
The next morning, we started attributing each card to one alcove, reserving the central and last card, the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ to the inner core of the fort. This exercise helped us humanise the fort, inhabiting it with figures which carried their load of references, traditions and interconnections. Moving into the fort with this bi-dimensional army, we felt like some narrative was then potentially happening. Identifying parts of the architecture with the figures enhanced our attentiveness to small details: we would track the figures’ attitude, attributes, background vegetation or ad hoc furniture in the existing setting of each alcove.
The exercise resulted in a process of turning the fort in an ‘Architecture of the Mind’, a mandala where passions, desires and fears would each find their niche and exert their influence. Adjacent or diametrically opposite figures would start dialogue, form groups or oppositions. As for ourselves, we would initiate discussions between us through the figures, rather than having a dialogue directly within our duo.
We have been using these combinatory systems, such as the Yi Jing and Tarot, as a way of thinking about the relationship between landscape, physical artefact/building and ourselves as collaborators. We treat these not as divinatory or mystical systems, but as a playful means of being attentive to both detail and interrelation, a close ‘reading’ of a triangular relationship between two collaborators and a series of sites and journeys. We use it then as a way to create stories out of encounter in precarious landscapes, making links between unconnected or disconnected moments, events, objects and cosmologies. In a sense it is an enactment, performance and record of how movement and dwelling pattern encounter, but also how this pattern is never fixed. It is always open to new combinatory forms, through memory and reinterpretation, not only an ever emerging future, but equally an ever emerging past.
Again, this addresses our understanding of heritage as a process animated by production rather than stasis, with its basis in lived experience, but drawing from multitudinous pasts and possible futures. Here we take this attitude to an extreme, wilfully abandoning discourse and becoming immersed in a creative process that makes impossible interconnections and dependencies between shells, stones, holes and apertures, stars and concrete and human identity, embodiment, desire, fear, motivations and the symbolism of the Yi Jing or Tarot.
The kind of process we undertook at Hoo can be seen in work done by others in art, philosophy and literature. Italo Calvino, when writing his ‘Manor of Crossing Destinies’ (Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati), used the tarot deck as a a basis for his narratives, letting each card speak and relate to the next one. His exercise resulted in a novel running on several parallel and interlacing lines, with no privileged narrator or thread, in other words, an open-ended story. Similarly, Alejandro Jodorowsky, apart from writing his inspired guide to tarot reading and interpretation, based his film writing on the tarot deck for the film ‘La Montagna Sagrada’. We may in the future propose a screening of the movie at the fort for the participants of Public Archaeology 2015.
Both authors use the tarot as a raw material for their narrative enterprise, but also as a guarantee that their stories would remain open-ended, really exploiting the combinatory potential of the game. Instead of providing a fixed interpretation, the game offers an ever-refreshing, and highly personalized tool for identification, embodiment and narration.
So, we use these cards as a way to bring a community of people with us, throwing up endlessly interconnected ideas, situations and desires and applying them to the site. In this way we populate the site with figures and immediately form a matrix through which to imagine this empty structure as a living structure, framing our relation to it and each other in our collaboration. Where there are no fixed points of reference, where one is a traveller with no clear datum to locate oneself, such combinatory systems become a natural way of patterning oneself with the landscape, site and others.
Pretty much like in the mandala, where deities are assigned positions from which they exert their influence, and where the meditator visualizes himself/the deity in a combination of space, colour and position, the Hoo fort turned into a map of mind for us. Artefacts that translate Buddhist deities into the Yi Jing were produced in early Chinese Buddhist art, when Daoist cosmological principles needed to find a correspondence in the symbols of a new, incoming religion. It is such a translating artefact, such a tool to interrelate radically different cosmologies, that we found in Hoo Fort.