Place and Truth

 by Isaac Mead - A still from the film London Orbital directed by Chris Petit 

After exploring psychogeography, ‘the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals,’ in a previous magazine article, recently my interest in it came to an intersection with Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation whilst writing about it for my A-Level art ‘Personal Study’. To sum up the key concept of Baudrillard’s book, a simulacrum is, in the most simple terms, ‘a copy without an original’. I found this notion interesting because following my reading of London Orbital by Iain Sinclair, my main takeaway was how he portrays the gentrification of place; as time moves on, places develop and shift (often gentrification underpins these changes), leaving memory to be the vessel for recollecting a place. This left me questioning what the most ‘truthful’ manner was to depict a place. 

I found elements of the descriptions of post-millennial London in Sinclair’s novel to parallel Baudrillard’s analogy of the ‘hyperreality’ we are living in from his seminal work Simulacra and Simulation. He presents a story, or as he puts it an ‘allegory of simulation,’ derived from a fable by Jorge Luis Borges of a map. The cartographers behind this map made it so detailed that it exactly depicts the territory it is capturing, however, as the Empire the map is modelled around falls, it is exemplified how the Real is displaced by representation. The map becomes a simulacrum, ‘a copy without an original’. Thus, our current society is buried deep within limitless layers of signification and representation generated by cultural shifts (e.g. the pandemic), that we can’t distinguish between what is real anymore, essentially the same as living in a ‘simulation’. 

Whilst not initially drawing a connection between this concept and London Orbital, after watching the film which accompanies the prose of Sinclair’s work, I began to draw connections as the multiplicity of place is conveyed. The film, directed by Chris Petit, namely uses several simultaneous videos to depict this plurality surrounding the idea of place and reality. It is hallucinatory, and to put it honestly, rather boring, but this is ultimately its purpose. The trance-like nature of it mirrors Sinclair’s prose to generate an ephemeral atmosphere, much like the idea of the dérive (drift) from psychogeography, something which Guy Debord defined as ‘a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences’. This concept revolves around subverting the set flows of urban environments to discover a more ‘truthful’ version of them, linking into Baudrillard’s questioning of reality. 

So, after drawing connections between Baudrillard’s text and London Orbital (specifically the film), I wanted to see how Iain Sinclair felt about it himself/whether I was stretching slightly too far. To do this I contacted Sinclair’s literary agent and subsequently was passed on to him, where he advised me that my questions would only be answered if they were good enough. As I was trying to be specific for my art ‘Personal Study’, I decided to focus specifically upon the rationale behind the film as well as whether Baudrillard had influenced Sinclair in the slightest. I will include my questions below, which Iain very kindly responded to, providing an insight into the thinking behind the film essay and whether Simulacra and Simulation bore any influence on him. 

When reading ‘London Orbital’ I picked up on an underlying notion of ‘hyperreality’ - was this something purposeful / even there at all?

I’d be keen to know how you feel about Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and whether the simulacra being a ‘Copy without an original’ applies to how places shift and change?

What was your main goal when transferring from the prose to the visual representation of it in the film?

What was the goal of the dual/hallucinatory style film imagery used to represent the book? 

Here is Sinclair’s entire response to the questions:

Dear Isaac,

Strange times, once again, on the Devil's Loop of the M25; now obviously a key site for the incubation of protest. (Tim Adams in The Observer a couple of weeks back saw the book as prophetic of the Insulation super-glue protests. Although I think the Kabul/Bluewater passage might be more pertinent. And disturbing. From Ballard's instruction on.) I should say, right off, that the experiences of the book and of the film were quite distinct. The book was slow-burn, 12 walks undertaken with Renchi Bicknell, long days, conversations, walks, over a year. Some of the filming happened at the same time. But the walks with Chris only reprised sections already covered, before he (or we) took to the road in a car (his comfort zone). The film was never a 'film of the book'. Some parts of the filming were used as research for the book. The filming 'excused' interviews: with protesters or Essex villains. And there were substantial fictional aspects.

I would say that your questions reflected more on film than book. I've skimmed Baudrillard, but he had no real influence on me. Chris, at various points, was quite engaged. There was an abiding microclimate of hyperreality about the filming, not about the book - which remained grounded in the grudging specifics of territory. Drives become reveries. The voice of Ballard whispering somewhere in the background. Radio On is a standard Petit theme. The difference being that his first feature film was a journey from London to Bristol, or from somewhere to nowhere, into the past. The orbital journey is endless - and the only way off into 19th-century speculative fictions, Dracula and War of the Worlds. There were too many originals behind the book - but with film they do tend to become copies. Original copies. Xerox reality. Manipulation. Excision. The actual becoming fictive.

The schizophrenic split with the film was between my encyclopaedic documentation (and digression), a form of slow-cinema in prose, and the frictionless drift of Chris's poeticised, meditative digital captures. The editing process took several months. Very much like writing a book. While we cut and shifted sequences. And wrote & delivered those voice-over passages. Almost like a new text.

I hope some of this is helpful.


Ultimately, Sinclair explains that whilst Simulacra and Simulation did not shape any of the writing of London Orbital, elements of it did influence Chris Petit’s production of the film, specifically the notion of hyperreality. He describes how the text and film almost became two completely separate entities as the creative processes diverged from one another, and goes on to explain how simulacra, or as he states, ‘original copies’, underpinned the process of the film. On a personal level, I was just very glad to have an insight from a rather influential ‘psychogeographer’ on how he views place and reality himself.